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Philip Barlow, a Harvard-trained professor of theology and American religious history, has been named the country's first full-time professor of Mormon studies at a secular university.
After a nationwide search, Utah State University chose Barlow for the Leonard J. Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture, a significant addition to the school's burgeoning department of religious studies.
Though a Utah native, Barlow has not lived in the state for decades. After graduating from Weber State College, he earned graduate degrees from Harvard in religion and American culture and the history of Christianity. For more than a decade, he has taught an introductory course in theology and suffering as well as upper-level courses in Christian history, American religion, and theological explorations of time, silence, and film at Hanover College in Indiana.
As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Barlow intended his graduate studies to focus on everything but Mormonism. His Harvard professors were intrigued, however, and he ended up exploring the place of the LDS Church in American religion for his dissertation. Since then, he has worked on a historical atlas of American religion and a look at religion and public life in the Midwest. He is currently the president of the Mormon History Association.
"I was something of a curiosity and a sensation when I first arrived at Hanover, which has Presbyterian roots," Barlow said in a phone interview. "I've been operating within theological studies, which I construe as a rigorous examination of theology. We see ourselves as thinking critically within a Christian context which has been broad enough to include me."
At USU, Barlow will not be discussing or promoting his faith.
"We are not teaching Mormon doctrine or theology . . . or testing the truth of it," said Norman L. Jones, history department chairman. "We are looking at what people do because they believe certain things."
USU's religious studies program, the first of its kind in the Intermountain West, looks at religion from three different angles: cultural, historical and artistic; social scientific aspects of anthropology, sociology and psychology; and philosophical.
About a dozen students enrolled in the program last fall, and the first one will graduate this spring, having completed all the requirements by putting together classes from several departments, Jones said.
Barlow joins Charles Prebish, an internationally known expert on Buddhism, who was hired last year as the Charles Redd Chair of Religious Studies. Eventually, the school hopes to add a chair on Islam and another one on Judaism.
"One of the things we believe strongly is that this is not just about the local situation; it's a global conversation," Jones said. "How on earth do you have peace in the world that's so religiously divided?
If the university doesn't step up and help students think about religion in the context of its practice, we've got a problem."
Barlow is optimistic about his new assignment.
"I hope to erode boundaries of all sorts with this study," he said. "I want to make USU a welcoming place for not only the outside world to recognize Mormonism as an important topic and for Latter-day Saints themselves to find a safe place where all questions are in-bounds."
Meanwhile, the Claremont Graduate University School of Religion in Southern California is also soliciting qualified applicants to fill the newly created Howard W. Hunter Chair in Mormon Studies. The school hopes to review applications later this month.
* Position: Utah State University's new Leonard J. Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture
* Education: Bachelor of arts Weber State College, master of theological studies and doctor of theology, Harvard University
* Previous position: Professor of theological studies, Hanover College