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LDS Church gifts $1 million to Mormon studies at USU just as professor moves to BYU for a year

People hang out on the quad in front of the Agricultural Sciences building at Utah State University in Logan on Wednesday, April 20, 2016.
People hang out on the quad in front of the Agricultural Sciences building at Utah State University in Logan on Wednesday, April 20, 2016.
Kristin Murphy

LOGAN — Guess what it would take to keep Utah State's only full-time Mormon studies professor. Would you believe $1 million? How about $3 million?

For a decade, Philip Barlow, 66, has cultivated USU's Leonard J. Arrington Professorship of Mormon History and Culture. He has no plans to surrender that chair any time soon, but he also knows he won't hold the position forever.

So Barlow, a respected senior contributor to the expanding field of Mormon studies, felt joy, relief and validation for his life's work when the LDS Church donated $1 million this fall to USU. In addition to the LDS Church's gift, an anonymous donor has pledged to match other donations up to $500,000.

"Those two gifts together give me confidence the program will endure after I'm gone," Barlow said.

The donation puts a nice, round figure on the value the LDS Church places on Mormon studies. It's also a windfall for the first Utah university to offer a Mormon studies major. USU is raising a $3 million endowment to fund the program and the Arrington chair in perpetuity.

Meanwhile, beginning in January, USU will get a sense of what post-Barlow Mormon studies in Logan might look like. Barlow will spend 2017 as a fellow at BYU's Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, where he will work on two books about the premortal War in Heaven — one academic, the other fiction.

Another bright light in Mormon studies, Terryl Givens, will join Barlow as a fellow at the institute for the summer.

"In terms of Mormon history, Dr. Barlow has done it all," said J. Spencer Fluhman, the Maxwell Institute's executive director.

No strings

The LDS Church donation will provide funds to pay for guest speakers, symposia and fellowships for students.

"The church donation was a vote of confidence that the study of Mormonism would be handled fairly, honestly and with balance," Barlow said. No strings are attached, he added.

Mormon studies programs do not promote or denigrate Mormonism. Instead, they bring methods of academic scholarship and inquiry to the interdisciplinary study of Latter-day Saint traditions.

Barlow said the long-term viability of USU's program was at risk after the 2008 economic downturn. The endowment is an effort to provide perpetual stability.

"The donation speaks loudly to the church’s commitment to quality independent scholarship in Mormon studies," said Brian Birch, director of the Religious Studies Program at UVU. "The church has previously communicated its support for 'deeper and broader' examinations into Mormon history, theology and culture, and its donation to USU is a welcome form of encouragement."

Birch has spent the fall on sabbatical at the University of Utah, teaching a course on the intellectual life of Mormonism as the first Marlin K. Jensen Mormon studies Scholar-in-Residence.

"The donation," he added, "also communicates a continued change of course from a generation ago in which scholarship surrounding Mormonism was fraught with misunderstanding and mutual suspicion. Recent activities indicate that the church would like to be more productively involved academic conversations. By contributing to credible forms of research and inquiry, they not only assist in the overall pursuit of knowledge, they also help to correct inaccuracies and stereotypes."

Making meaning

Mormon studies programs now can be found at the University of Virginia and the University of Wyoming, and from Utah (USU, UVU and the U.) to California (Claremont Graduate University and USC). They help explain important pieces of what it means to be human, Barlow said.

"I'm giving my professional life over to the idea that the study of religions is crucial to our world and understanding it. No field pays richer dividends to understanding the meaning-making beings we are."

That's why Barlow looks forward to spending the next year on an academic book about the Jewish and Christian traditions of a pre-earthly War in Heaven and its historical and philosophical underpinnings, from "Paradise Lost" to Dostoevsky.

The Mormon version is that Lucifer offered unborn spirits the choice of exchanging free will for "salvation, security and comfort," Barlow said. Lucifer’s offer was rejected by those beings who sought their freedom. "Joseph Smith elaborated an interpretation of the cause and meaning of this war beyond what is found in most of Christianity."

He also will begin an experiment with narrative fiction, trying his hand at a novel about the conflict that he sees as "a verbal painting that explores the nature of evil, freedom and God's purposes on earth."

While at BYU, Barlow will continue to help the Arrington chair council foster support for USU's program and work with its seniors. Meanwhile, he will bring an intellectually fresh perspective to the Maxwell Institute, which wants fresh perspectives.

Birch said Barlow was a good resource to tap as part of the Maxwell Institute's evolution.

"Phil Barlow has played a critical role in the development of contemporary Mormon Studies," Birch said. "His presence at BYU will greatly enhance the Maxwell’s Institute’s effort to advance quality scholarship and assist students and young scholars in navigating this exciting field of study."

The Maxwell Institute's Fluhman said Barlow crosses intellectual borders as a historian with a doctoral degree in theology from the Harvard Divinity School.

"We’re an institutional bridge between the academic audiences interested in Mormonism and the practicing community of Mormons," Fluhman said in a news release. "So we try to translate both ways — the LDS experience for scholars and the scholarly world for Latter-day Saints. Dr. Barlow will definitely be part of that transition to scholarly audiences."