The first-ever professor of Latter-day Saint studies at the University of Utah, award-winning author Paul Reeve, has been appointed chair of the Latter-day Saint Studies Steering Committee. According to the Tanner Humanities Center, the committee was initiated in 2010 to “encourage vibrant, intellectual exploration of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, its institutions, history, culture, and people on campus and in the wider community.”
He will begin this new role on July 1 when Dr. Robert Goldberg concludes his tenure as director of the Tanner Humanities Center. Reeve has spearheaded many aspects of contemporary Latter-day Saint scholarship, including his role as project manager of a digital database, Century of Black Mormons, which aims to identify “all known Black Mormons baptized into the faith between 1830 and 1930.”
Reeve, as a historian, is concerned with elucidating aspects of Latter-day Saint history that have been forgotten or misunderstood. Black membership of the early church fit that bill. Reeve seeks to “correct that perception and to recover the names and lives of black Mormons who have been erased from collective Mormon memory.”
As the Tanner Humanities Center transitions into new leadership, Reeve said they were looking for someone with “research experience who will continue the legacy that Dr. Goldberg has established with his LDS Studies initiative.” Reeve wants to seek out the best candidates and scholars for the Mormon Studies Graduate Fellowship. A $400,000 endowment fund has been secured to ensure funding for the fellowship. “We have attracted Ph.D. students who are in the dissertation phase of their Ph.D. from the best national and international schools,” he said. “They get to spend a year in Salt Lake City, which gives them proximity to local archives.”
Getting this proximity to the special archives is critical as these Ph.D. students have access to vast collections, many of which have not been digitized. For example, the missionary journals of Heber C. Kimball, one of the original 12 apostles, are only available at the BYU special collections library. Accessing these documents allows these top scholars to craft high-level dissertations that enhance the colorful tapestry of Latter-day Saint scholarship and dust off some of the forgotten histories in elements of the faith and polish them with a modern varnish.
Reeve’s vision for the committee includes more community engagement, including scholarly conferences and events on topical issues. These events include two conferences that deal with the Latter-day Saint faith and race, and an upcoming event hosted by the Tanner Center and Mormons Building Bridges, which will be focused around reaching out to the LGBTQ community to help fill the dialogic cavity between the two communities.
“It is important that Mormon studies has a vibrant home at the University of Utah and that includes community engagement,” Reeve said.
As a devout historian, Reeve stresses that Latter-day Saint Studies and the objectives of the programs are far more diverse than being merely theologically rooted. Of course, it’s based on a religion, but Latter-day Saint Studies is a smorgasbord of different disciplines such as literary analysis, philosophical inquiry, film study, gender, sociology and of course, history. It analyzes the faith in the context of many different domains. It is also more than a dead reckoning of the past. ٍReeve says what makes the Latter-day Saint Studies field at the U vibrant is how the idea is also to study the “contemporary manifestations of culture and theology.” It is an active oscillation of sorts, translating history into the language of today. Reeve teaches the Mormonism and the American Experience class, where “a central theme is the ebb and flow over time of tension between Mormonism and broader American society.”
Reeve discusses the American context in terms of studying the faith as a “case-study in what it looks like to form a religious tradition in America.” He talks about the “phenomenal recordkeeping” of the Latter-day Saints and how having those sources is so fundamental to enhancing the burgeoning field of Latter-day Saint Studies.
Reeve touched on the tension between the faith and the broader American society in the context of Protestantism in the landscape of early Latter-day Saint faith and the implications of the United States as a heavily Protestant nation. Reeves says due to that paradigm, “there were Protestants that essentially tried to decide what qualified as a religion, and Mormonism was one way in which they attempted to figure that out. For religious studies scholars, Mormonism helps to answer that question, what was it like to be a church founded in America.”
The most recent initiative by the committee is to raise funds for a fellowship that “will host prominent scholars with expertise in Mormon Studies or renowned artists who explore the relationship between faith and art in their work.”
This article is part of the Poynter College Media Project. Click here for more stories and information on the topic “Are U Mormon?”
This article has been corrected to clarify that Mormons Building Bridges is an independent organization that works to improve relationships between the LGBTQ and Latter-day Saint communities. We regret the error.