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NEH funds six-week seminar at BYU on early Latter-day Saint history

First-ever event at BYU will bring 15 university scholars to campus

In a set of firsts for Brigham Young University and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the National Endowment for Humanities announced it will fund an intensive six-week seminar in the summer of 2005 on the early history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Grant Underwood and Richard Lyman Bushman from BYU's Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History will co-direct "Joseph Smith and the Origins of Mormonism: Bicentennial Perspectives" from June 20 to July 30 for 15 selected college professors from around the nation.

"This NEH grant means that the premier humanities sponsor in the United States has decided that BYU faculty can be trusted to conduct with objectivity a seminar on the life and thought of the Church's founding prophet. This represents no small recognition for BYU," says Underwood.

Although BYU faculty professors have previously received grants to conduct NEH seminars for secondary education teachers, this is the first time a BYU-hosted seminar for university professors has been funded. This is also the first time a seminar of any kind on LDS history has been funded by the NEH.

NEH Chairman Bruce Cole, in a letter to BYU, said the seminar has been designated part of the NEH's "We the People" initiative.

"The goal of the 'We the People' initiative is to encourage and strengthen the teaching, study and understanding of American history and culture through the support of projects that explore significant events and themes in our nation's history and culture and that advance knowledge of the principles that define America," Cole said. "I anticipate that this project will contribute significantly to this effort."

Underwood says that the "We the People" designation suggests that interest in Mormonism as an important part of American heritage is continuing to move from the margins to the mainstream.

"It shows that rather than being a kind of cultural quirk in American history, the Mormon experience is considered a significant strand in the tapestry that makes up American culture," Underwood notes.

The National Endowment for Humanities has an extensive review process for its summer seminars program, which includes peer review and specialist review along with deliberation by the National Council on the Humanities and the Office of the Chairman. Outside reviewers represent a variety of cultural, regional, institutional and disciplinary backgrounds.

Underwood says the seminar will not be a covert proselytizing effort; rather, the seminar will provide professors from diverse academic and religious backgrounds with a setting for scholarly study and research that strives to be free from undue ideological bias.

"Over the years, dedicated scholars from BYU and other universities, the LDS Historical Department and Church Educational System, the Community of Christ Church and other Restoration traditions, as well as a number of independent researchers, all have dedicated a portion of their lives to researching and writing the history of Joseph Smith and the origins of Mormonism," Underwood says. "Without their contribution, the quantity, quality and credibility of Mormon historical scholarship would be such that an NEH seminar would not be feasible."

Writer: Devin Knighton

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