United Brethren has retired.

Mormon history in English schools

The recent MHA conference included a discussion of how Mormon history is treated in English schools.

It came as a surprise to me that Mormonism gets anything more than a cursory look-in. Interestingly, the topic is covered under the purview of history and not religious studies. Many 16-year olds in England who take history as an examination subject study the "American West." As well as the usual cowboys-and-Indians stuff there are sections on Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.

Here is one question that is often asked on the exam:

Did the leadership of Joseph Smith help or harm the Mormons more?

Here's a sample answer:

Evidence to suggest Smith’s leadership was beneficial to the Mormons includes his determination, energy and skill at public speaking and organisation that allowed him to create a mass movement of 35 000 in a matter of just 10 years. Under Smith’s leadership, the Mormons moved from place to place until they built not just a town at Nauvoo, but a community with its own rules and a distinctive way of life that was a model for the movement’s permanent home in Salt Lake City. Most importantly, though, without Smith’s religious writings and preaching, there would have been no Mormon Church at all!

Evidence to suggest that Smith’s leadership caused damage comes from after he had successfully established the Mormon Church (although throughout his career, many non-Mormons suspected him of being little more than a fraudster who exploited the religious beliefs of others to obtain wealth and power). In particular, his decisions actively to encourage polygamy (1844) and to run for President (1845) outraged non-Mormons. At the same time, Smith also became intolerant of other Mormons who criticised his leadership. For example, he shut down a newspaper that disagreed with polygamy and claimed he was a false prophet. This intolerance caused some to accuse him of becoming a dictator and led others to believe he was indeed just a fraudster. As a result, he was arrested and imprisoned. Not only did Smith suffer for his actions (in June 1845, while in prison, he was killed by a mob of non-Mormons), so did his followers. Mobs attacked other Mormon families and the decision was taken to abandon Nauvoo, even though it had a defence force of 4000 well-armed men (the Nauvoo Legion).

Most historians would probably argue that Smith’s leadership was crucial to establishing Mormonism and turning it into a mass movement capable of surviving in a society that was initially very hostile. However, they would probably go on to argue that towards the end of his life Smith began to make mistakes that proved fatal to himself and damaging to his fellow Mormons.

Fair (from a secular school-level historical point of view)??

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Anonymous Anonymous said ... (June 04, 2005 6:43 PM) 

I suppose it's fair in the sense that Jesus also fits the definitions in that last paragraph:

Most historians would probably argue that (Jesus') leadership was crucial to establishing (Christianity) and turning it into a mass movement capable of surviving in a society that was initially very hostile. However, they would probably go on to argue that towards the end of his life (Jesus) began to make mistakes that proved fatal to himself and damaging to his fellow (Christians). 

Obviously Jesus is in a diiferent category than Joseph, but insert Peter, Paul or other prophet-martyrs and all would be a pretty good fit there. Of course false prophets might fit that paragraph too. So yes it is fair as long as one recognizes that these questions are not unique to Joseph Smith. 

Posted by Geoff J


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (June 04, 2005 9:24 PM) 

Before getting to the fairness of it, both the question and the depth of the model answer seem incredible to me. If this level of writing and fact mastery is expected of 16 year old Limeys, why do their university grads generally come off as so soft headed to me? Was it an open book exam? The only UK peer I’ve worked with that I felt wrote well was an Oxford guy, and my degrees are in chemistry (BYU and Michigan). I say that because USA grads with humanities type degrees are usually better read and write and communicate more effectively than I do.

That said, the model answer seems incredibly fair and balanced. Are you sure this is an authentic model answer for the exam, or something an LDS person drafted? 

Posted by Steve (FSF)


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (June 05, 2005 1:10 AM) 


Posted by J. Stapley


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (June 05, 2005 2:02 AM) 

Moreso because it doesn't answer the question. 

Posted by Steve H


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (June 05, 2005 4:45 AM) 

Steve (FSF):
I think that English schooling demands higher standards, but that by the end of university, things level out between the UK and the US. If anything, I think the US higher education system produces better graduates (that's me speaking as a Brit who went to school in England and is now a grad student in the US). My A-levels (18 year-old exams) were harder than my BA.

The model answer was provided by the BBC schools website.

It's fair-ish, I suppose, from a historical point of view, but bear in mind that these short essays are designed to produce cute little snags. Whether or not said snags could really be defended isn't the point: the student is showing a level of critical thinking. It's not supposed to be a dissertation.


Posted by Ronan


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (June 05, 2005 1:34 PM) 


Thanks for explaining the UK education system. But that leads to a follow-up question. For about a decade my employment took me to Newcastle about 4-6 times a year. On almost any evening of the week, I'd see a lot of high school age boys falling down drunk in the streets, and an equal or greater number of girls the same age would be out boy chasing big time, wearing hooker looking beach type attire even in winter! What happens to kids like that who can't possibly be passing exams as difficult as the one you cite above? How do they even get into a trade school so they can earn a living? 

Posted by Steve (FSF)


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (June 11, 2005 5:27 PM) 

they usally end up having kids at 14 a bit like the usa. the ones you see stagering about drunk are the ones who will leave school at 16 with no exams and get a minimum wage job. but this is usally a recuring pattern from parent to child etc.they end up in run down council housing on benifit. 

Posted by paul


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (June 13, 2005 3:48 PM) 

You've got it about right there. 

Posted by Ronan


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