This post is about a remarkable man who I have been fortunate to have as my friend. Philip Barlow is a Mormon and a scholar of American religion; he earned his B.A. in History from Weber State College in 1975, his M.T.S. from Harvard in 1980, and his Th.D. from Harvard Divinity School in 1988. He taught Religion at Hanover College — a Presbyterian School — until 2007, when he was appointed the Leonard J. Arrington Professor of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University.
Last summer I reread Phil’s book, Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-day Saints in American Religion, published in 1991, by Oxford University Press. This is a book that deserves the many accolades it has received; it is an honest and thoughtful discussion of scriptural interpretation and religious belief in Mormonism. One reason that this discussion is important for non-Mormons is that it concerns the early stages — more accessible than in mainstream Christianity or Judaism — in the development of a religious tradition. The recent appearance of Mormonism, and its extensive documentation, comprise a valuable resource for understanding how religions in general evolve. Especially interesting to me is the unique relation of Mormon scriptural exegesis to secular philosophy and changing standards in textual criticism.
In reviewing Jan Shipps’ Sojourner in the Promised Land: Forty Years among the Mormons, Phil summarizes the current state of Mormon studies, observing that:
From the vantage of American and western culture, Mormonism’s half-familiar, half-exotic nature and history render it a magnetic case study on issues besetting contemporary scholars. The movement is sufficiently alien for comparative interpretation to be necessary, sufficiently familiar for comparative interpretation to be possible, and sufficiently complex to challenge the most able historical minds. Indeed, if we sustain Shipps’s contention that, like Christianity or Islam, Mormonism constitutes a new religious tradition, it becomes a rarely accessible laboratory. The Saints are record-setting record keepers, lush almost without precedent, given their short history, in primary materials. Moreover, the movement is present and growing in the nation as a whole and especially in the American West, where The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is among the three largest “denominations” in two-thirds of all U.S. counties west of a vertical line running from Canada, through Denver, to Mexico. Beyond this, Sydney Ahlstrom’s argument that scrutiny of Joseph Smith and his heirs “yields innumerable clues to the religious and social consciousness of the American people” requires augmentation in light of the dramatic internationalization of the church, which is affecting its nature and entwines diffusely with the spread of American influence abroad. Africa will soon harbor more Latter-day Saints than Europe; South and Central America will presently have more than the United States. Mormon history is uncommonly colorful, difficult, controversial, impacting, and unfolding. It no longer seems strange that scholars of all stripes, in trying to come to terms with America’s distinctive religious legacy, find Mormon faith and culture tough to ignore. 
In less formal remarks in 2009, Studying Mormanism in the Academy, Phil provides a justification for including religious studies in a liberal arts education. He characterizes the underlying point of the liberal arts by a series of questions:
What does it mean to be human? How have diverse societies gone about it across time? How shall we? What is the nature of the physical and biological universe in which we are making our way?
He claims that the study of religion is an obvious component of the project to address these questions,
One would think it self-evident that the study of religion fits easily within this project. Religion, it might be argued, is the most obvious of laboratories for our consideration, where individuals and organizations pursue what it means to be human in distilled, compressed, and intentional ways. Religion is either the most powerfully motivating and directional force on the planet, or it shares that honor with money and other forms of power. . . . .
In a more disciplinary sense, Religious Studies may be construed as going beyond comparison and contrast to concern with a different sort of inquiry. The focus is on matters of religion and identity and culture, and on how religion “works.” In particular, the inquiry asks after the relationship between belief and behavior, and between a religious community and the surrounding culture. . . . .
Religious Studies in the context of the liberal arts may ask such questions as: How does a new religion get “birthed” and, once here, how does it find traction in the world, establishing its new vision of the world and its new values and ritual and community? How do successful religious traditions survive their infancy and transcend the culture in which their formation occurred, so as to become world religions? Once established, religions either change or die; how does a religion navigate profound change without losing its identity? What portions of a tradition’s literature become sanctified as scripture, and why and how?
Phil seems to understand both his scholarship and his faith as being informed by the spirit of science and reason. In an early essay he explains that this is an assumption, and says: “I think it is a mistake to attempt to elevate religion by disparaging reason. I believe my mind to be more a friend than a foe to my spirit, and that God gave me my intellect in the same sense that He gave me my soul.” In my opinion, Phil’s scholarship shows a level of integrity and transparency that one could only wish were commonplace among scientists.
Phil is the co-author, with Edwin Scott Gaustad, of the New Historical Atlas of Religion in America, named by the American Association of Publishers the Best Single-volume Reference Book in the Humanities in 2001. He is also the co-editor, with Mark Silk, of Religion and Public Life in the Midwest: America’s Common Denominator?, published in 2004, and he has books in progress with Jan Shipps (Columbia University Press) and with Terryl Givens (Oxford University Press).Notes:
- Massimo Introvigne suggests an apparent ‘inversion’ in Mormonism, whereby liberal theological thought is more closely identified with modernism and conservative thought with postmodernism. See “The Book of Mormon Wars: A Non-Mormon Perspective“, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 5, no. 2 (1966), 1-25. I do not know what Phil thinks of this — although similar intriguing ideas are suggested by his own work. One of the advantages of studying a culture which is “strange yet familiar”, it seems to me, is that it enables us to discover the contingency of intellectual connections that we otherwise just assume. [↩]
- Philip Barlow, “Jan Shipps and the Mainstreaming of Mormon Studies”, Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture 73, no. 2, (June, 2004) 424-425. Jan Shipps’ own story is worth reading and is partially related on-line in “An ‘Inside-Outsider’ in Zion”, Dialogue: A Journal in Mormon Thought, 15, no. 1 (Spring, 1982), 138-161. [↩]
- Philip Barlow, A Thoughtful Faith: Essays on Belief by Mormon Scholars (Centerville, UT: Canon Press, 1986), 238-239. [↩]