Internationally respected historian Dr. Richard L. Bushman is being honored by the University of Virginia for his pioneering work in the academic discipline of Mormon studies.
University officials have announced the establishment of the Richard Lyman Bushman Chair of Mormon Studies in its Department of Religious Studies.
"Three years ago, the department identified Mormon studies as an emerging field that merited serious academic study in the context of other important world religions," said Kevin Hart, past department chairman, who was actively involved in the establishment of the Bushman Chair. "We have seen growing interest on the part of both faculty and students from a wide variety of academic specialties."
The current department chairman, Kurtis R. Schaeffer, called the Bushman Chair "a major addition" to the department program.
"We are especially pleased that the Bushman Chair is named in honor of one of the most important scholars of American religious history of the last half-century," Schaeffer said. "There can be no more fitting namesake to inspire the best scholarship we are capable of."
Bushman said he doesn't see the new chair as a personal honor as much as he sees it as an acknowledgment of "the emerging interest in Mormon studies from multiple disciplines, including American history, philosophy, sociology and literature."
"U.Va.'s commitment underscores the value of studying this tenacious American-born religious movement and its now-global impact," he added.
Bushman is the Gouverneur Morris Professor of History Emeritus at Columbia University and was the Howard W. Hunter Visiting Professor of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif., the first graduate program of its kind.
"When I accepted the position at Claremont, I knew we were experiencing a fundamental shift in the academic community's interest in the Mormon experience and perspective," Bushman said. "That interest has grown exponentially, especially among those not affiliated with the Mormon church.
"Now we will have a center for study here in the East, where the Mormon movement had its genesis," he continued. "It's an exciting time for those of us who care deeply about researching the sources of human behavior, motivation, commitment, relationships and expression."
Among those who care deeply about research in Mormon studies is Laurie Maffly-Kipp, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina.
"I became interested in the Mormon experience from studies on the history of religion in the American West," she said. "In 1999, I decided to teach a seminar on Mormonism. Many UNC students were primarily interested because they were raised to believe that the religion was a cult, but their experience with Mormon friends and colleagues was not consistent with that stereotype. Their curiosity led them to my class, where we explored the history and cultural context of the movement.
"Over the years," she continued, "interest has only increased; graduate students also have become intrigued and are doing serious research — working comparatively and weaving a wider, more interrelated intellectual tapestry."
The Bushman Chair is being established with a $3 million endowment from anonymous donors.