Like baseball games and rock concerts, Patrick Mason counts the archives as one of his few “happy places.”
That was certainly evident last week, as the new Leonard J. Arrington Endowed Chair of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University looked over papers in the school’s Special Collections and Archives office.
The documents included a diary entry by Arrington explaining how he met former Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints President Joseph Fielding Smith; a draft with markups by Arrington of the constitution of the Mormon History Association, which he founded; and a manuscript of one of his most beloved books, “Great Basin Kingdom,” with the working title “Building The Kingdom.”
Mason's first day as an endowed professor at USU was July 1. He arrived at the university after several years serving as the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University in California. That chair and the one Mason occupies now are two of only three Mormon studies endowed professorships in the country.
Mason spoke extensively with The Herald Journal about the rising interest in Mormon studies chairs and their importance, as well as his priorities in this position which bears the name of Arrington — and what he would say to the scholar if he were still alive.
Herald Journal: Why is it important to have these endowed professorships in Mormon studies and why do you think more schools are thinking about having one?
Patrick Mason: Those are great questions. Some of your readers probably won’t even know the difference, but what’s an endowed chair versus a professor? Basically, the difference is most professors are just paid from the regular operating budget. An endowed professorship is coming from special funds that have been given from donors — either one or several — to advance a particular field of study. It could be anything.
Usually, there’s some kind of agreement between the university and this single donor, or group of donors, that the donors are willing to commit resources and the university is willing to commit to this position in perpetuity. That’s the promise of an endowed chair.
HJ: On the second part of the question, though: Why do you think more schools are considering this kind of professorship?
PM: A lot of it comes back to Leonard Arrington.
Obviously, Mormonism is a relatively young religion; it’s not even 200 years old yet. For more than a century, when people talked about the church … you were either pro-Mormon or anti-Mormon and there was not much in the middle in terms of people taking objective, dispassionate analysis of the religion.
Leonard Arrington came along … and his writings really constituted some of the first — not the very first — kind of objective, historical analysis of the religion, its culture, its people, in which he said, “As historians, we’re not here to either legitimate or delegitimate a religion, its truth claims. We’re here to understand what happened … the good, the bad, the ugly. … Whatever the archives reveal.” He helped create a whole new field of scholarship we call Mormon history.
It took a little while for that to catch on … By the time you got to the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, the church leadership was at a place where they were a little more open to the world … there was kind of a new spirit in the air … it was the scholars in the generation before me that built the foundation for the possibility of Mormon studies chairs.
HJ: In your assessment, have these endowed professorships been worthwhile and served their purpose?
PM: I have a biased view! (Laughs.) Individually, they guarantee that Mormon studies or Mormon history will be a feature of the curriculum at each of these individual universities — Utah State, Claremont, (University of) Virginia — but collectively, these are sort of stakes in a tent that provides a kind of anchoring and grounding for the field of Mormon studies.
The effect of these chairs gets multiplied because of the conferences that we do, the lectures that we host or give, the students that we teach. So it’s not just the single professor. There’s a ripple effect in terms of the influence and impact that these chairs have.
HJ: Between all of these endowed professorships, have you guys unearthed anything new about Mormonism?
PM: Have we discovered some great new fact? No. So, you know, the basic story of Mormonism remains intact, but what scholarship is doing is pushing it in lots of new directions.
My work, recently, I’ve focused a lot on 20th century and global Mormonism. The vast majority of Latter-day Saints lived in the second half of the 20th century and 21st century and now the majority of Latter-day Saints live outside the United States. Scholars have only barely begun to study those things. So I’ve been really pushing and many of my other colleagues have been saying we need to do more.
HJ: What do you want to do in this position?
PM: A lot of different things. Of course, the main thing that any of us do as professors is teach. So I’ll be teaching courses in Mormon history, the history of Christianity, American religious history, also in religion, violence and peace — I’ll be teaching a new general education course in that.
But I’m also interested in community outreach. I’m fairly active in working with the media. I’m pretty active in terms of the lecture circuit. I don’t believe in the ivory tower model of the university. I believe that the university is here to reflect, advance but also serve the interest of the community.
HJ: You’re an endowed chair of Mormon studies, but that doesn’t mean The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is telling you what to do or pulling the strings, right?
PM: The situation is unique at USU. This made news a couple of years ago, the church did make a significant donation. I think it was a big deal at the time. The church was very clear and the university was very clear in receiving the donation that there would be no strings attached. The church has no impact — they don’t tell me what to research, what to teach. I have complete academic freedom.
I have great relationships with (church officials); I care about what they think. On the other hand, I know that I occasionally write or say things that people in the church headquarters maybe don’t like. I don’t work for them. I’m here as a scholar to call it as I see it. I think sometimes scholars have to say hard things. I’m not going to say difficult things for the sake of it, but if that’s where my scholarship leads me, that’s what I have to say. It’s very much in the spirit of Leonard Arrington.
HJ: If Leonard Arrington were still alive today, what would you say to him?
PM: The first thing I’d do is say thank you — really, sincerely. Every single one of us in this field of Mormon history stands on his shoulders and the foundation that he laid.
He was a member of the church and a scholar of Mormonism. I’m the same. So I’d want to talk to him about how he found that balance between what it’s like to go to church on Sunday and what it’s like to go to work on Monday.
HJ: How do you find that balance?
PM: Over time, I think I've come to a pretty good balance in my life — partly because I think they're not so separate. I will say that probably the kind of language I use in church is a little different than the language that I use in the classroom or in my scholarship. I don't see that as inauthentic; we're all multilingual. … So, for me, I've worked out my thoughts and views on all kinds of things in a way that I'm perfectly comfortable.