The new committee concentrates on 'a study in humanity'.

By Shauna Stephenson

CHEYENNE - Did you know about one in seven Wyoming residents are Mormon?

That equals about 14 percent of the population, or about 71,000 people.

That statistic is just one of many factors behind the creation of the Mormon Studies Initiative, a committee formed out of the Religion Department at the University of Wyoming.

Paul Flesher, director of the Religious Studies Program at the University of Wyoming, said the department has taken an active interest in learning about the major religions that play a role in the state.

"Part of (the university's) goal is to serve the people of the state," he said. "That means we need to understand something about the religions practiced in Wyoming by large numbers of its population."

He said he hopes to make Mormon studies part of the curriculum at the University of Wyoming.

"Misunderstanding comes from lack of knowledge. We would like to improve knowledge," he said.

Flesher said this is all part of a bigger goal to create a center for the study of religion in the American West.

"In the future, we hope to be able to explore all the other religions that have influenced this development," he said.

Kevin Larsen, adjunct professor of religious studies and co-chair of the Mormon Studies Initiative, said the committee is not about proselytism.

"It's just to build these bridges of understanding and tolerance and not only tolerance for Mormons, but tolerance by Mormons," he said.

Larsen said history has shown what happens when there is misunderstanding and intolerance for certain a religion.

"There's been a lot of unhappiness in world history that someone was so convinced they were right that they had to make everyone else convinced of it too."

He called it a study in humanity.

"It's like studying literature and music. It's a human phenomenon," he said. "You don't have to be an adherent to any particular doctrine to want, or to need to know, what makes people who they are."

The Mormon faith has had a long history in the state of Wyoming. About 150 years ago, Mormon pioneers traveled through the state on their way to Utah. The trek brought on some horrific events that took place at Martin's Cove, where hundreds in the party died from exposure to severe weather and famine.

After establishing themselves in Utah, some moved back east to Wyoming, where they settled in places like the Star and Bridger valleys. Today there are many leaders who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including legislators, city leaders and business owners.

As part of the initiative, the department is bringing in a number of speakers including retired Columbia University professor Richard Bushman, who recently wrote the book "Joseph Smith's Place in History."

Bushman said Smith, the founder of the Mormon religion, was an "immensely controversial character."

He said most Mormons see him as the prophet who restored the gospel. But others don't feel that way.

"Other people think he was some kind of a fraud," he said.

He said he thinks many people still view Mormons as somewhat alien to the other mainstream Christian religions.

"I think Mormons are still thought of as kind of a people apart," he said. "From the outside, Mormons seem clannish. Mormons themselves think they're open and friendly to everyone … The very fact that their community is so tight - it raises barriers."

Bushman is a member of the Mormon church. He said his history with the organization sparked his interest in Joseph Smith, but he approached his research like a historian.

"I just plowed through all source material and wrote what I saw there."

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