Review: Out of Obscurity: Mormonism since 1945.

By January 2, 2017

Mason, Patrick Q. and John G. Turner. Out of Obscurity: Mormonism since 1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Book Cover

Book Cover

 

Studies of nineteenth-century Mormonism have long dominated the Mormon History Association’s Best Book Awards. The move to study Mormonism in the context of religious studies has, in a similar manner, addressed the history of Mormonism from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries at the expense of later events. Patrick Mason and John Turner have sought to expand academic conversations about Mormonism with their edited collection, Out of Obscurity: Mormonism since 1945, which examines the history of the LDS Church after World War II. As Mason writes in his introduction to the volume, his and Turner’s purpose in organizing the collection is to add to the “insightful but rare” studies of Mormonism in the postwar period by shining “a brighter light on Mormonism’s modern period” (4, 7). Another goal was to feature some of the “brightest emerging scholars” in the study of Mormonism, leavened by more seasoned scholars. Mason and Turner meet both their goals in splendid fashion. In this review, rather than address each chapter in depth, I’ll offer a thought or two on each chapter in Out of Obscurity’s four sections—internationalization, political culture, gender, and religious culture. While I recognize the clunkiness of this style of review, I hope that the short summaries will help readers find specific chapters they may want to read while engaging the entirety of the book.

Nathan Oman’s and Taunalyn Rutherford’s chapters make up the smallest section (internationalization), but address topics that deserve further scholarly attention. Rutherford dives into the question of whether Mormonism is a “world religion,” taking up decades-old arguments about Mormonism’s growth and definitions. Her work on Mormons in India, both in her chapter and her dissertation, are much-needed. Oman’s chapter examines the way that the LDS Church has spread across the globe and asks scholars to consider what moves religions must be willing to make in order to attain legal protections around the world. Both chapters also ask scholars to examine the ways that Mormonism has retained its Americanism, adopted non-American practices, and combined the two strategies over the past seventy-five years.

In the section on political culture, each of the five authors provide insight into how Mormonism became more politically conservative after World War II and how issues like free speech have created spectacles centered in Mormon sacred spaces. Mason’s chapter on Ezra Taft Benson’s use of the Book of Mormon as a political text will surely be invaluable to historians studying Mormonism’s contribution to the Religious Right after World War II (and ought to be emulated in looking at how Protestant and Catholic politicians read the bible). J.B. Haws’ and James Dennis Lorusso’s contributions on Mormon media will help readers understand the role of public relations and media as contributors to LDS growth in the second half of the twentieth century. Max Mueller’s article on protests in and around Temple Square shows the value of using Mormonism as a case study in religious studies contexts, and how scholars can overcome the scarcity of documents available to researchers on the time period. Neil Young’s article on Mormons and Same-Sex Marriage is a well-researched and important article on the formation of the LDS hierarchy’s attitudes towards same-sex marriage among its other political concerns in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Histories of religious opposition to same-sex marriage will have to rely on Young’s article (and book!) when disentangling the roles of religion and politics after World War II.

Four articles make up the section on gender. Amanda Hendrix-Komoto’s article on race and sexuality in the Pacific represents the type of intersectional methodologies that scholars of race in Mormonism (and American religious history) ought to emulate. Indeed, I expect Hendrix-Komoto’s work (especially her future book, which uses both race and gender as analytical lenses) to shape the ways that historians of Mormonism address race and gender beyond the LDS African priesthood and temple restrictions in future. Kate Holbrook examines divergent definitions of religious feminism among the Latter-day Saints through writings of LDS women. Caroline Kline offers provocative thoughts on the changing roles of masculinity in Mormon gender dynamics. Closing the section is Kristine Haglund’s exploration of intrareligious definitions of gender and religious orthodoxy in online writings by Mormon women bloggers. Each of the four chapters does an excellent job of showing the diverse constructions of gender views within the LDS Church. The nuanced analysis and unpacking of contested meanings within Mormonism should be used in more studies of Mormon history—not only when studying gender. Mormons are not a monolith!

The final section brings together four scholars’ work on religious culture among Mormons. Matthew Bowman’s article addresses the evangelical countercult movement and how it shaped Mormonism’s political participation in the 1970s and 1980s. Bowman deserves praise for complicating a story about religion and politics that is too often flattened in relation to Mormons (or omits them entirely).[i] Rebecca de Schweinitz employs her expertise in childhood studies to explain how Mormonism fought to keep its youth within its religious fold—and shows the benefit of employing newer historical methodologies to Mormonism. Sara Patterson’s explores how the LDS Church’s celebration of its sesquicentennial offered Mormons across the globe a way in which to tie themselves to the LDS Church’s historical past. In the final chapter, John Turner compares the debate over biblical scholarship in evangelical communities to Mormon conflicts over its history. This fascinating parallel demonstrates the value of placing Mormonism in comparative contexts—whether before or after 1945.

Mason and Turner deserve praise for their work in soliciting papers that address such a wide array of topics in Mormon history after 1945. Projects like these are important to building the fields of Mormon history and Mormonism within religious studies. In addition to shedding further light on the history of Mormonism after World War II, the authors in Out of Obscurity have brought certain methodologies “out of obscurity” and into the mainstream of Mormon studies. The authors’ use of gender, comparative race, politics, and religious studies frameworks demonstrates the brightness of Mormon studies’ future. Will more scholars begin to move beyond the frameworks of the New Mormon History? This book seems to suggest that it will—although it also appears these methodological jumps will be a generational movement. Mason’s and Turner’s recruitment of female scholars to the book should also be praised. I would be willing to bet a Diet Coke at MHA that this edited collection has more women than any edited collection on Mormon History that is not specifically on women or gender. Seven of the fifteen authors are women, which displays the editors’ commitment to gender representation in the study of Mormonism.

The qualms I have with the overall construction and conception of the book are few. Despite the inclusion of female authors, four of the seven female authors are clumped together in the section on gender.  Second, I would have liked to have seen more attention paid to race. While it’s understandable that scholars would devote attention to topics that have received less notice from historians of Mormonism, this would have been an excellent opportunity to include more work on Mormons of color that are not of African descent.[ii] Still, all in all, Out of Obscurity is a book that those interested in Mormonism should not miss. I believe its work will act as a springboard for future engagements of Mormon history after World War II and the employment of newer historiographical methodologies in all academic work on Mormonism.

 

[i] For an excellent book that bucks this trend, see Neil J. Young, We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[ii] Rutherford’s chapter does address Mormonism in India and Hendrix-Komoto’s chapter addresses Polynesian Mormons.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. So glad to see more recent Mormon history getting its due, with a great collection of scholarly voices and perspectives. Looking forward to reading this one!

    Comment by Tona H — January 2, 2017 @ 1:58 pm

  2. Thanks for the review! I can’t wait to dig into this

    Comment by Jeff T — January 8, 2017 @ 2:05 pm


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