Articles by

Brett D.

Mormonism and Western History: Jared Farmer, “Crossroads of the West,” JMH 50th Roundtable

By March 26, 2015


JMH50Characteristic of his other sterling contributions to the field of Mormon History, Jared Farmer’s historiographical essay entitled “Crossroads of the West,” provides us with an illuminating evaluation of the relationship between the history of Mormonism and that of the American West. As a native of Utah and a fixture in the field of Western history, Farmer is uniquely qualified to assess the ways that the writing of Western history has shaped and influenced the historiography of Utah Mormonism.

Surprisingly, Farmer is fairly critical of the close relationship between the historiographies of Mormonism and the American West, suggesting that this closeness has often limited and inhibited our narratives of Utah Mormonism. Farmer argues, “From a long-range point of view, the conflation of Mormons and the American West has not been good for historiography. It has distorted Utah history, making it less diverse than it rightfully should be. It has reinforced parochialism inside the Beehive State and reinforced prejudices outside” (Farmer, “Crossroads of the West,” 157). Farmer’s critique is, of course, primarily aimed at those whose brand of Western history is still dominated by heroic stories of pioneering, settlement, and struggles between cowboys and Indians, what has been termed the Old Western History. It is a reminder to such historians that this brand of history generally lacks both sophistication and nuance, reinforcing racial stereotypes than denigrate Utah’s Native groups. Such efforts, Farmer warns, become little more than “faith-promoting history with footnotes” (Farmer, “Crossroads of the West,” 162).  However well researched and written, such contributions are summarily disregarded by outsiders as historical fluff that adds little to the broader discussions of American History and the West.

Farmer’s critique of the parochialism of Mormon history is well founded. Despite the fact that European immigrants made up a significant percentage of those who participated in Mormonism’s westward migration, there are surprisingly few evaluations of the impact that this diversity had upon the development of Utah.  Such a gap leaves a whole in the historiography that begs to be filled.  Given the traditional challenges that immigrants have faced in the United States, the existence so many international communities in Utah offers intriguing opportunities for historical research.  Similarly, Farmer justly criticizes the rather woeful disregard for Native Americans within the historiographies of both Utah and Mormonism. Drawing upon Patricia Limerick’s call for continuity in the study of the American West, Farmer pleads for a fuller study of Mormon interactions with Native Americans that includes both the nineteenth and twentieth-century interactions.  Such historiographical shortcomings are hallmarks of the Old Western History, and demonstrate the significant problems created by plugging Utah Mormonism into Western History tropes.

Even the inclusion of Mormonism in the New Western History has been problematic in Farmer’s view. Whereas Farmer hoped that Patricia Limerick’s The Legacy of Conquest might have critiqued the Mormon historiography for its “excessively Turnerian” tone, Limerick’s focus cast Mormonism as a social and religious minority that evidenced the complexities of the West (Farmer, “Crossroads of the West,” 163). In other words, Farmer suggests that Limerick missed an opportunity to offer needed critiques to Mormon history because Mormonism suited her thesis better being cast as a minority than as an example of the kind of Old Western History that needed revision. Accordingly he offers a number of suggestions where Mormon history could be dramatically improved.

First, drawing upon his critique that Western history had made Mormon history less “less diverse than it rightfully should be” (Farmer, “Crossroads of the West,” 157), Farmer hopes that the future will yield more nuanced treatments of Native Americans, including what he hopes will be the definitive volume on the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Secondly, he hopes for a brighter future for the history of Mormon women; one that will move beyond the mere publication of biographies and documents and demonstrate the interactions between Mormon and non-Mormon women in Utah. Third, he hopes that future historians will make greater efforts to integrate environmental history into the history of Mormonism, addressing topics such as the MX Missile issue. Finally, he suggests that historians need to come to terms with the questions of violence in Utah, uncovering whether the territory was “more or less or simply differently violent than other western settlement zones and periods” (Farmer, “Crossroads of the West, 169). In Farmer’s eyes, such developments will not fully materialize unless and until a greater number of non-Mormon historians follow the example of John Turner and take up the task of researching and writing Mormon history.

On the whole, Farmer’s suggestions are invaluable to both Mormon and Western historians alike. His suggestions for future areas of research and writing provide historians with a number of potential topics that would allow Mormon history to transcend its parochial nature and take on a greater national and historiographical significance. Among the ideas he suggests are: 1) A detailed analysis that places Mormon history within the framework of a “Greater Reconstruction” laid out in Elliott West’s The Last Indian War, and 2) A study that examines the practice of Mormonism from the useful perspective of the differences that naturally arise between a center and its peripheries. Such studies would have the potential to make Mormon history a more enticing field to unaffiliated historians, who might then take advantage of Mormonism’s rich—if at times, daunting—archival holdings. By thus expanding the breadth of Mormon history, perhaps there are opportunities to make it more than a mere subtopic of Western history in the future.


The New Church History Library Catalog

By June 22, 2012


The last few years have witnessed a dramatic explosion in the accessibility of Mormon history.  Even five years ago, it was necessary to make expensive pilgrimages to Salt Lake City and other American archives to examine Mormonism’s founding documents—assuming that those documents were unrestricted and available for public consumption.  During the last few years, the Church has proceeded to make high definition scans of Joseph Smith materials available on the Joseph Smith Papers website, numerous materials, pamphlets, and magazines available at the Internet Archive, and the catalog of most of its archival holdings available on the internet.

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The Development of Mormon Patriotism and the Crafting of a New Mormon Narrative During the Progressive Era

By June 25, 2010


While doing some research in the John Mills Whitaker Collection at the University of Utah the other day, I discovered the following two letters, both of which seem to indicate some interesting things about Progressive Era Mormonism and its efforts to redefine itself as a profoundly American Religion.  Whitaker was the third seminary teacher in the Church and commanded a great deal of influence within the seminary system during its first two decades.  At the time that he received these letters, he was the principal of the Granite Seminary.

Adam S. Bennion to John M. Whitaker, 6 September 1921, John Mills Whitaker, Papers 1849-1963, MS 2, box 18, folder 4:

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Review: The History of the Mormons in Argentina

By February 4, 2010


Curbelo, Néstor.  The History of the Mormons in Argentina.  Translated by Erin Jennings.  Salt Lake City:  Greg Kofford Books.

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The Value of Mormon History Research Collections

By April 16, 2009


Over the past few years I have gone through a few large Mormon history research collections, including the Kenney Collection at BYU, the Stanley Ivins Collection at the Utah State Historical Society, and the D. Michael Quinn Collection at Yale.  All of these collections have yielded immense amounts of information that I probably would not have come across elsewhere.  The Kenney Collection contains boxes of notes from the First Presidency Papers, General Auxiliary Organization Board Minutes, and other materials that are restricted at the Church Archives.  While the Ivins Collection does not contain as much information from restricted collections at the Church Archives, it is an important collection of notes from diaries and books written by people who visited Utah during the nineteenth century, many of which are obscure.  And the Quinn Papers contain what is perhaps the gold mine of information from restricted Mormon archival materials, with notes from General Authority diaries, Quorum of the Twelve and Seventies Minutes, and notes from a vast number of other important Mormon sources.

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Gender Constructs and the Dissolution of the Religion Class Program

By January 2, 2009


A few months back, I wrote a general post about the little known Religion Class program which lasted from 1890 to 1929.[1] One of the responses to this post noted the role of gender in this male-led program’s dissolution in favor of the female-led Primary program. 

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Brigham Young and Misunderstood Mormon practices

By September 22, 2008


I recently spent some time going through nineteenth century newspaper accounts of the death of Brigham Young. One thing that I found shocking was that many of these eastern newspapers, in telling about Polygamy, wrote that Brigham had come up with the idea after he became the leader of the Church and had then attributed it to Joseph Smith.

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A short introduction to the little known Religion Class Program

By September 3, 2008


Through my work as a researcher for the Education in Zion Project at BYU, I have become acquainted with one of the lesser known auxiliaries of the Church called the Religion Class program. To date, the only substantial work on the classes was an article written by Michael Quinn for the Utah Historical Quarterly in 1975. Other authors like Thomas Alexander (Mormonism in Transition) and Scott Esplin (Education in Transition, Ph.D. Dissertation 2006) have briefly dealt with the classes, but their treatments of the subject have remained limited. Considering the fact that the Religion Classes were an important auxiliary of the Church for nearly 40 years (1890 to 1929), this whole in our history seems quite remarkable. In my research for BYU and my thesis research, I have found the classes to play an important role in transition era Mormonism and turn-of-the-century Utah. Hence, I thought I would provide you all with a brief overview of some of the important aspects of this interesting auxiliary.

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What do we do with the Revisionist Emma Smith?

By August 21, 2008


In recent years there has been a consistent effort on the part of Church members to provide a renewed influence on the efforts and contributions of Emma Smith. For my part, I have been encouraged to see the softening of the rhetoric which surrounded her and these efforts to understand the post-martyrdom Emma.

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The future of Mormon history

By August 15, 2008


About a year ago, I was talking with a friend about the state of Mormon history. He mentioned that he felt that one of the problems with Mormon history was that so many historians emphasized nineteenth century Mormonism, with a particular emphasis upon the Joseph Smith years. He then told me that he thought that the future of Mormon history would be in the field of twentieth century Mormon history.

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