BYU religion professor says transparency about history can build faith

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BYU religion professor Jordan Watkins works in his office on campus. Watkins has been a professor of Church history and doctrine at BYU since 2018. (Megan Zaugg)

BYU religion professor Jordan Watkins teaches several classes about the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He encourages transparency in dialogue surrounding sensitive topics in Church history.

Watkins is no stranger to exploring such topics: He teaches foundations of the Restoration, the Doctrine and Covenants and pioneers and persecution. All of these classes provide students with the opportunity to learn about and understand the historical events surrounding the founding of the Church and their accompanying doctrinal principles.

BYU’s religious education webpage says the mission of religious education at BYU is “to assist individuals in their efforts to come unto Christ by teaching the scriptures, doctrine and history of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ through classroom instruction, gospel scholarship and outreach to the larger community.”

The BYU religion department features more than 100 faculty members, Watkins among them. The Utah native has been an assistant professor of Church history and doctrine at BYU since 2018 and he and his wife are expecting their first child.

“I think my favorite thing — this might sound a little bit strange — is exploring hard topics,” Watkins said. “Students appreciate transparency, sincerity and authenticity around this stuff.”

One of these “hard” and sensitive topics accompanying historical events and doctrine is race and the priesthood.

“Part of the idea is to cultivate the faith of students,” Watkins said. “That can definitely be a challenge when you’re talking about hard topics, but what I’ve discovered is that students want to be able to address these topics.”

Watkins teaches hundreds of students, inviting them to apply faith-building habits in their lives.

Max Haines, a BYU senior and one of Watkins’ former students, said Watkins helped him recognize ways to practice living what the Savior taught. One of the ways he did this was by asking students to discuss their experiences each week.

“I really just liked asking Professor Watkins his take on sensitive topics,” Haines said. “It was great learning from the research he had done.”

Watkins has worked on numerous projects on Church history, including Century of Black Mormons, a project dedicated to uncovering the stories of Black Latter-day Saints.

Brianna Moodie, a BYU sociology major, worked as a research assistant with Watkins on the project. She helped research the lives of Enoch and Q. Walker Lewis, two Black Latter-day Saints in the early Church.

“I would read a bunch of historical documents and try to find more primary sources about Enoch and Walker Lewis,” Moodie said. She said it is part of our faith tradition to learn and treasure the past and our ancestors.

“I really enjoyed this whole experience of getting to learn more about the saints,” Moodie. “I’ve been really inspired and touched and blessed by their stories. They really bolstered my faith.”

Brianna Moodie, BYU sociology major, discusses how learning about the lives and experiences of early Black pioneers strengthened her testimony.

Moodie said difficult topics in Church history can cause sorrow, but it is important to be aware of the history in order to be better.

“President Nelson has really made a call for us to root out racism, and that’s not a passive thing,” Moodie said, referring to the First Presidency’s call to “abandon attitudes” of racism. “He didn’t just say ‘try not to be racist’ or ‘avoid it.’ He’s asking us to reach out and root out these things.”

Watkins agreed recovering the stories of early Black members of the Church is an important part of this process.

“We have to take account of Black people who were members of the Church during this period and recognize their experience,” he said.

A love for learning

Watkins’ love of learning about history and theology began when he was a young child.

“I’ve always been interested in Latter-day Saint history and theology,” Watkins said. “I didn’t really think about a career in that when I was younger, but that interest was maintained throughout my youth.”

When Watkins arrived at BYU as an undergraduate, he declared himself a business major but later changed course. He earned his bachelor’s degree in history and received a master’s in history from Claremont Graduate University.

“My dad does business and I was like, ‘I guess that’s what I’ll do.’ But I also knew I had a passion for Church history and theology,” he said.

Watkins eventually pursued his doctorate at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He wrote his dissertation on biblical and constitutional debates over slavery in pre-Civil War America.

Encouraged by his dissertation research, Watkins wrote and published a book called “Slavery and Sacred Texts: The Bible, the Constitution, and Historical Consciousness in Antebellum America.”

BYU Professor Jordan Watkins’s book “Slavery and Sacred Tests: The Bible, the Constitution, and Historical Consciousness in Antebellum America” discusses historical consciousness in regards to debates over slavery in the U.S. The book was published in June 2021. (Megan Zaugg)

The book, published in 2021, explores how historical consciousness influenced people in history to think about the Bible and the U.S. Constitution. It also looks at how they came to understand their respective historical contexts, especially in accordance with the topic of slavery.

“The book actually starts with the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter,'” Watkins said. “The point I’m making there is to indicate that the debates that are going on in the 19th century are the lived realities of enslaved people and that it’s important to understand how these debates evolved over time.”

Watkins said it’s problematic to just say the past is the past and to move forward in regards to topics of slavery and racism in the U.S.

“We as a community are a product of our past,” Watkins said. “It’s important to understand the ways in which people lived in the 19th Century and issues such as slavery and race.”

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