By October 30, 2017
The deadline for the Mormon History Association’s annual conference in Boise, ID is coming up in about two weeks on Wednesday November 15th. The deadline is significantly later than usual so I trust that most of you are prepared and have already submitted. If not, no worries! There is still time.
The call for papers says:
While Idaho provides a rich tableau for the study of Mormonism in the context of the state’s history as a multiracial, multi-ethic, and multireligious place, we also seek papers and panels that address the theme of “Homelands and Bordered Lands” from any vantage point in the Mormon past. In addition to papers and panels that address the conference theme, the program committee also welcomes proposals on any topic in Mormon history.
In other words, Idaho is a fascinating place to explore the evocative theme of “Homelands and Bordered Lands” BUT the conference organizers will also welcome proposals on any area in Mormon history.
At MHA, as with other conferences, proposals for panels (consisting of a chair, three presenters, and a commentator) are much likelier to be accepted than individual papers. The first reason for this is that the program committee is made up of volunteers and shuffling all the papers to fit into cohesive panels would takes a lot of work. Secondly, unified panels enable both the audience and commentator to draw thematic threads throughout the presentations. Individual papers will still be considered but organizing a panel will significantly improve your chances.
I also want to draw your attention to the following part of the call for papers: “We encourage people to organize roundtables, “cafés” in which participants are arranged in small groups to discuss a topic, pre-circulated papers, and so forth.” In other words, a good panel proposal does not have to consist of a chair, three presenters, and a commentator. You could propose a roundtable on professional development issue or under-explored methodology that is relevant to Mormon History. For other ideas look here.
What does a compelling abstract look like? A few years ago JI contributor Ben wrote a post where he summarized what conference organizers look for in a proposal. Y’all should read the whole post, but let me liberally quote some of the most important points.
- When providing a description of your proposed paper, be as specific as you can about your topic, your approach, and your potential findings. It is not reasonable for you to have your entire paper written at this time—heaven knows we all submit paper proposals as a way to jump-start future research—but it is pretty obvious when a proposal is written without much thought. As a program committee, we want to know that you have given the topic serious thought, that you are familiar with the sources you will consult, and that this is something that will turn out to be a fine finished product. Put simply, your paper proposal should not be something you write on a whim an hour before you submit it, perhaps with a bit of academic jargon thrown in, but should rather be a reflection of your engagement with, knowledge of, and excitement for your topic.
- …Both the paper and panel proposal should cover what makes your submission relevant. What will be new in these presentations? What stories are you telling that have previously been ignored? How are they filling a space in the field previously overlooked? We sometimes like to cover the same stories, arguments, and theories again and again, so it is crucial to show what is going to be novel and important in these new presentations.
- In putting together your panels, try your best to be as diverse as possible. This diversity includes not only demographic background, though that is always important, but also institutional or occupational backgrounds. For example, a panel on a particular person or event could include papers from an academic professor, a public history employee, as well as an interested observer. And it is always to crucial to ask if your panel could benefit from a different gender or racial perspective, a sensitivity that MHA has recently tried to address more frequently.
In an effort to help you through the difficult task of organizing a panel we want you to use the comment section of this post to network and find fellow panelists. Please summarize your idea for your paper. If others have similar ideas they can get in touch via the JI moderators.
Happy writing everyone!
By September 4, 2017
This is the fourteenth entry in the Third Annual Summer Book Club at Juvenile Instructor. This year we are reading Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism (Knopf, 2017). Check back every Sunday for the week’s installment! Please follow the book club and JI on Facebook
Salt Lake City Fourteenth Ward album quilt. Image taken from https://www.churchhistorianspress.org/the-first-fifty-years-of-relief-society/part-2/2-3
Ulrich frames chapter fourteen through her close analysis of a quilt made by different women from the Fourteenth Ward’s Relief society in Salt Lake City. Quilts such as this were commonly made in the mid nineteenth century. Nevertheless, Ulrich shows that the quilt’s intricately sewed flowers and aphorisms become significant when understood in light of the contemporary writings of the women who made it and the tumultuous social backdrop of 1857 when it was produced. Life on the frontier was arduous and uncertain for these women; two immigrant pioneer companies barely survived their passage to Utah and the settlers already there struggled with implementing plural marriage and surviving near famine. Additionally, outside pressures continued to bear down on the saints: Mormon leader Parley P. Pratt died after being shot by a former husband of one of his plural wives, and now a threatening federal army was heading to Utah. Part of what makes the quilt striking is the gentility it projects despite the challenges that faced the women that made it.
The visual language of the quilt becomes increasingly interesting as Ulrich explores the process and context through which it was made. Ulrich examines several of the individually crafted squares and draws out interesting themes such as the women’s commitment to flowers despite the fact that they worked against drought conditions to cultivate their crops. She also focuses on the women’s assertion of defiant patriotism – displayed in Aura Annette Cumming’s folk adaption of the Great Seal of the United States and the eagle in English-born Keziah Pratt’s square – despite the looming conflict with the federal army. In sum, Ulrich highlights the importance of performing respectability for the Fourteenth Ward Relief Society despite the widely held American judgment that these women’s religious and marital practices were considered anything but respectable.
In this chapter Ulrich shows off a skill she uses throughout the book and more generally in her work as a scholar; she takes texts, often ones that have been overlooked by others, and shows us the complex world of women behind the names on a page or signatures on a quilt. In the previous chapter, Ulrich used Caroline Crosby’s diary to reveal a remarkably intimate view of the domestic life of San Bernardino. The steady flow of names in Crosby’s diary, as Andrea R-M discussed in her post yesterday, shows us how San Bernardino became a key part of the migratory route for Mormons and non-Mormons alike. It is this same analytical skill that has earned Ulrich acclaim with A Midwives Tale when she used the diary of Martha Ballard to discuss the economy of women’s labor in medicine and textiles in colonial New England. In the case of Chapter 14, one of the things we see is that despite the diverse backgrounds of its makers, the unified textile emphasizes their new collective identity as refined women of Zion. Ulrich takes women’s names, mentioned in a diary or on the margin of a quilt, and uses them to illustrate women’s social landscapes.
The title of Chapter 14, “The house was full of females” reflects the title of the book itself. The phrase comes from Wilford’s diary where he was describing his attendance of the Fourteenth Ward Relief Society. Ulrich argues Wilford’s interesting phrasing had less to do with the number of women at the meeting. Instead, “This was apparently the first time he had participated in a meeting where women not only filled the benches but presided.” (336) This observation helps give the reader insight not only to the origin of the title but also to what she means by her subtitle “Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism.” Women’s religious authority in the early history of the Latter-day Saints led to their ability to quickly mobilize and establish themselves politically. One early reviewer has negatively reviewed Ulrich’s book based on the assumption that a book that advertises itself as being about women’s rights should feature less “well-behaved” women. Instead, he wished that Ulrich would become a “badly behaved historian calling out fraudulent iniquities faced by female Saints.” Yet Alex Beam’s critique completely ignores the complex ways in which Ulrich shows Mormon women empowering themselves both through negotiating the every day life of the frontier and of their religion. Ulrich’s book shows readers a pre-history of women’s rights that paralleled the traditional narrative of women’s rights in the northeastern United States in the development of women’s charitable organizations and even the bloomer costume. But in other ways, Mormon women gained their empowerment through developing systems of women’s social and religious organizations unique to Mormonism. Ulrich shows how Mormon women developed their own unique brand of women’s rights through their varied experiences of plural marriage, ecstatic religion, and building Zion in their everyday lives.
By August 13, 2017
This is the eleventh entry in the Third Annual Summer Book Club at Juvenile Instructor. This year we are reading Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism (Knopf, 2017). Check back every Sunday for the week’s installment! Please follow the book club and JI on Facebook.
The central idea of Chapter 11 (“Synopsis of My Labors”) is what can be learned about Wilford Woodruff’s home life from what he does and does not include in his synopses of his labors. These end-of-year tallies are part of what makes Wilford’s journal such a pleasure to read. He writes, for example, that in 1853 he traveled 100 miles, attended 650 meetings at the tabernacle, wrote 38 letters, and so on. Despite this impressively detailed list, Ulrich points out three main events that he did not include: his wife Phebe’s birth, his marriages to Sarah Brown and Emma Smith, and his divorce from Mary Jackson. The chapter is divided into four parts, each dealing with something on Laurel’s list of omitted family events. The Woodruffs (Wilford and the numerous types of marital relationships he had) act as a case study for what marriage, fertility, sex, and divorce meant in early Utah.
Ulrich starts with a discussion of Phebe’s reproductive pattern over her sixteen years of marriage with Wilford. It is no coincidence that Ulrich conducts a deep analysis of fertility and marriage in this chapter: its title advertises a discussion of labor. Ulrich writes, “Phebe’s labors were more difficult to summarize on their own.” (273) Ulrich’s discussion, whether through economics or fertility, forces the reader to consider women’s labor alongside Wilford’s more easily recognized (and countable) tasks.
Ulrich then discusses Wilford’s marriages to Emma Smith (age fifteen) and Sarah Brown (age nineteen). Emma bore her first child nearly four years after her marriage (at age nineteen). Both Sarah and Emma represent a different type of class of wives than Phebe Woodruff, who monogamously married her husband at age thirty. Instead of being Wilford’s peers, these new young wives were integrated into an already functioning household economy as dependents.
Ulrich’s discussion of Mary Ann Jackson’s divorce from Wilford approaches dependency in marriage from a different angle. Ulrich notes how divorce in Utah, as opposed to in other states, was relatively easy to obtain. In fact, she informs us that Brigham Young authorized a shocking 1,645 divorces in Utah. (280) Despite the existence of no-fault divorces, Ulrich shows that the needs of their young son James made Mary Ann and Wilford’s separation messy. The archived letters Wilford sent to Mary Ann gives us a (one-sided) view of the conflict they continued to have even after their marriage formally ended. Their relationship was fraught as they negotiated their economic obligations to their son and one another.
The last segment discusses Wilford’s earlier marriage with Mary Webster in 1852, a woman who was still technically married to her first husband. Her marriage with Wilford only lasted a few months because Mary died in October of 1852. Mary Webster’s story fits into a larger theme throughout the book of women who prioritize their new adopted religious family over their existing marital and family ties. Ulrich compares the letters written by Webster’s husband with the letters the Henry Jacobs writes to Zina years after their separation. Both sets of letters reveal an uncomfortable aspect of Mormonism as they show the raw feelings of the men left behind by these Mormon women. The section also brilliantly shows the fickle nature of the dynamic religious world of Mormon families; some informal divorces were accepted, while other remarriages were considered unlawful and worthy of church discipline. The discussion in this section is expanded in Ulrich’s fascinating article “Runaway Wives 1830-1860.”
Throughout the chapter Ulrich’s writing has an authoritative academic voice, yet she consistently prioritizes her narrative over a systematic analysis of her claims. For example, in the beginning of the chapter Ulrich contrasts Phebe’s birth rate (about one child every 1.7 years) with Parley P. Pratt’s six childbearing wives, who averaged a child every three years per wife. She uses this comparison to suggest that “polygamy increases the number of children per father, it decreases the number of children per mother.” (271) This interesting claim is easy to miss in Ulrich’s unrelenting narrative and deserves more discussion. How does this claim work, for example, with less economically affluent families or religious leaders lower in religious hierarchy than the Woodruffs and the Pratts? Did men who were often away on church missions have fewer offspring than men that stayed local? Was there a potential divide between urban and agricultural polygamists? Even within her qualitative framework there is much more to say. She could have, for example, added information about some of the other families that the readers follow throughout the book, such as the households of Peregrine Sessions, George Smith, Heber Kimball, or the George Taylor.
Using the Woodruff household as a case study, Laurel gives us a macro view of the complexity of the Mormon polygamous household. Throughout the book Ulrich points to gaps in Wilford’s journal pertaining to his children and recently contracted plural marriages. This chapter, then, represents a full-length discussion of what those gaps in his journal could say.
By July 14, 2017
Carol Cornwall Madsen, Emmeline B. Wells; An Intimate Biography (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2017).
Emmeline B. Wells; An Intimate Biography is the second installment of Carol Cornwall Madsen’s two-part biography of Emmeline’s life as a Mormon writer and women’s rights activist. Emmeline lived a long, productive, and well-documented life. This meant that Madsen, unlike many other historians of women’s history, faced an overwhelming amount of historical sources to parse and make sense of Emmeline’s life. The 500 page book reflects its vast source base. Despite the daunting physical presence of the book, its prose and short chapter structure makes it accessible for a broad audience. Overall, the book is the culmination of decades of time Madsen dedicated to researching Emmeline’s writing and represents an enormous resource for future scholars of Mormon history.
Madsen’s first installment of the biography, titled An Advocate for Women, discusses Emmeline’s public life as an editor of the Woman’s Exponent publication, suffragist, political organizer, and Relief Society leader. This book is an exploration of Emmeline’s “interior landscape.” I cannot help but wish that she spent more space theorizing about what it means to split someone’s life in this way, especially in the context of the nineteenth century where women are primarily thought of as occupying the private sphere. While it is easier to think of the two biographies as respectively covering her public and private life, I am not convinced this is the best way to understand Madsen’s extensive biographical project.
Instead, I find it more useful to distinguish the biographies by the genres of Emmeline’s writings and records from which the biographies principally drew. The two biographies also differ significantly from one another in form; the chapters in An Advocate for Women are loosely chronological and thematic treatments of Emmeline’s public life, whereas An Intimate Biography is much more of a traditional chronological narrative of Emmeline’s entire life. An Advocate for Women draws from Emmeline’s political writings as editor of the Woman’s Exponent and focuses on her activity as a political organizer who mediated between local and nationwide women’s organizations. An Intimate Biography draws significantly from Emmeline’s forty-seven diaries and correspondence to paint a picture of Emmeline’s inner thoughts about her both private relationships and her public life. Madsen not only uses Emmeline’s abundant personal writings but also uses her poetry, fiction, and editorials to understand Emmeline’s inner life. This creative analysis (see especially chapter 11) shows the ways Emmeline used different genres of writing to make sense of her relationships and the respective joys and sorrows that they brought.
The first hundred pages of the book are particularly context-heavy as Madsen explains the forced migration of the Saints to Illinois and then to Utah. Emmeline’s story, whether she explicitly wrote about it or not, is therefore fundamentally connected with the broader historical narrative. Madsen is at her best when she analyzes the nuances of Emmeline’s poetry and fiction. Several times throughout the book Madsen reflects on the role of diary keeping in Emmeline’s life. Emmeline’s diary, Madsen argues, “Is almost an alter ego, the self she does not display to others.” (287) Despite this analysis of Emmeline’s different genres’s of writing, I do wish that Madsen, had more explicitly engaged with Emmeline’s memoirs as memory during her narration of Emmeline’s early life.
One of the most interesting parts of the book is the detail in which readers learn about Emmeline’s three unusual marriages. Emmeline married when she was fifteen and was abandoned by her husband when he left Nauvoo to find work. Just two weeks before her seventeenth birthday, Brigham Young performed a marriage for Emmeline and Newel K. Whitney. Although she went on to have two children with Whitney, Madsen suggests that the nature of the sealing was not immediately clear to young Emmeline. In fact, even after the marriage to Whitney, Emmeline recorded in her diary her dreams of her first husband returning to Nauvoo. Madsen also reproduces an invaluable letter Emmeline wrote after Whitney’s death where she subtly proposes marriage to Daniel H. Wells. The biography sheds light on the depth of Emmeline’s longing for Wells, who only reciprocated these feelings late in his life. In an era when so much angst surrounding the negotiation of polygamous families went unspoken, Emmeline’s writing provides readers with a glimpse of not only the outward arrangements of the marriages but also the feelings of love, abandonment, and attachment that went with polygamy.
The recent volume (which Madsen also edited) has laid important groundwork for historians of Mormon women to understand the early Relief Society but there remains much to be researched about the developments in Relief Society after 1892. Madsen’s An Intimate Biography continues this important work by discussing the intergenerational conflict in the Relief Society Board in the early twentieth century. During this period Emmeline often served as the institutional memory of the organization and conflicted with younger women who desired to steer relief society in new directions. Madsen chronicles Emmeline’s chagrin at the lack of appreciation she feels from younger members, but this is often counterbalanced by the well-attended celebrations in her honor. Madsen’s narrative of Emmeline’s tenure in the General Relief Society shows another side of the tension filled story elucidated. Part of the benefit of this research is showing the depth and politics of the female relationships in this area of the Church. Madsen particularly highlights Emmeline’s relationship with Susa Young Gates, which ranged from being supportive to dysfunctional and everything in between. Future research from scholars such as Lisa Tait Olsen and Andrea Radke-Moss promise to shed further light on these important intergenerational relationships and this general period of change in Relief Society history.
Madsen notes throughout the book Emmeline’s dramatic reactions and ruminations to events in her life. Yet Madsen also does not take these sensational expressions as a sign of Emmeline’s permanent disposition. She writes that Emmeline’s “obsessive embrace of sorrow was almost pathological, but it was not debilitating like symptoms of depression, and she continued to draw on the animating spirit that drove her to be deserving of the accolades heaped upon her.” (475) The intimate history is important because it recognizes the multiple ways we can know this a woman who is famous for her remarkable public achievements. Readers not only see someone who writes, leads, and organizes. We see someone who feels.
By July 1, 2017
“Women employed by the LDS Church may now wear pantsuits or slacks to work,” begins the Deseret News article that announced a number of new changes to the Church’s employment policies, including a six-week paid maternity leave, one week paid paternity leave, and new fitness space for employees in the Church Office Building. While all these changes are significant and deserve serious discussion, this post deals with what the Deseret News chose to announce first: pants.
My own encounter with the Church’s outdated “dress” code was in 2013, when I began work as an intern for the Church History Library. A few people had warned me that I might have to wear dresses and skirts only, but I simply could not believe them; after all, nothing in my contract mentioned this rule. I even bought a few new pairs of slacks to prepare for my job. I showed up on my first day of work wearing one of these new pairs of pants. I now quote from the blog I wrote the night after I began my job:
The survey I posted on my blog to crowd source protest ideas
The first thing that I noticed when I walked into my first (out of four) orientations that day is that not one of the women was wearing pants. Even all the other new female hires were in dresses and skirts. That’s when it started to sink in that truly, my workplace does not allow women to wear pants… Just to get something straight, I don’t hate skirts or dresses and I don’t mind wearing them to work. But the notion of women wearing pants is symbolic. In the late 19th Century women fought for the right to wear pants right along with the right to vote … Sometimes I complain about my church being stuck in the 60’s with how it deals with women’s issues. But in the 60’s both conservative women and feminists wore pants. I want to write a letter to the leaders of the church and tell this how humiliating this rule is, and that as a member of this church I feel embarrassed both for myself and my church. I want to write a letter to the Prophet about how crazy I think this rule is but I can’t quite seem to form an argument in my head that doesn’t sound totally ridiculous. “Dear Church, Why don’t you let women wear pants to work?” just doesn’t seem quite right to me.
I could not get over the strangeness of being forced to adopt a particular kind of outward femininity while I researched women’s history.
I desperately wanted to protest the Church dress code, but I also wanted to keep my job. In her book, Bodies That Matter, Judith Butler asks: “What would it mean to ‘cite’ the law to produce it differently?” She rejects the idea that agency comes from rejecting regulatory norms and instead focuses on the agency and creativity of re-iterating norms in a different way. In other words, she discusses the subversive potential in performing rules or gender norms in ways that are both recognizable and new. Luce Irigaray also discusses this purposeful performance in her concept of mimesis. To mimic is to intentionally occupy a feminine position. It is when a woman “resubmit[s] herself” to “particular to ideas about herself, that are elaborated in/by masculine logic, but so as to make ‘visible’, by an effect of playful repetition, what was supposed to remain invisible.”** If a woman employs mimesis to enact femininity in a way that simultaneously makes this masculine logic visible, she is enacting the exact process Butler referred to by appropriating the laws within a structure and repeating them in a playful way. I needed a form of protest that would enable me to simultaneously continue my employment and parody the rules.
I called my talented sister, Katie, who is a textile artist and loves collaboration. Together we formulated a plan to create a new kind of dress. I would still wear a dress to work, but the dress would be covered in the word “pants”. She designed a pants print for the dress, printed it on fabric, and I made it into a dress.
Close up of the pants print and me on my last day of work
Despite having a religious culture that disdains protest, the pants dress was an instant success among Mormons and non-Mormons alike. I mention this not to gloat, but instead to unpack why my dress was so loved. Why did the dress garner support but the “Wear Pants to Church Day” a few months earlier was a lightning rod for criticism? Perhaps it was because I was only one measly intern participating in this fight and my protest did not explicitly cite my concern with “gender equality in the LDS Church” like the other protest did. Is it that pants politics are low stakes? Or is this a useful example of Irigaray or Butler’s ideas of simultaneously inhabiting and exposing a rule? I would argue that my protest was more acceptable because, in Butler’s language, the dress conformed to the law (the restriction on what clothing I wore), but at the same time the pants print playfully exposed the flawed logic of the rule.
I do not know why the dress code changed or who changed it. Many of these institutional processes are invisible to outsiders. One year ago the Church bent the dress code for female missionaries in order to accommodate the women vulnerable to the Zika virus. Additionally, female blue-collar employees of the Church who do manual labor or use a ladder are required to wear pants. It is easy to see why the Church made exceptions for modesty or public health reasons, but the cause of this new change is less apparent (except for the fact that, of course, it is 2017 and about dang time).
Perhaps my favourite part of the pants dress was that for a brief moment it gave me a voice in an institutional church whose decisions often seem opaque to me. Why was it that the Church continued this dress code until now and did not end it earlier? What was special about June 2017? More importantly, how can people express disappointment and invoke change in a Church that frowns upon protest? I do not claim to know the answers to these questions. But I do know that I felt empowered as I cheekily wore the pants dress on my last day of work. I do not pretend that it had any sway whatsoever on the policy change, but it was part of the resistance. The fact that my next roommate had heard the pants dress story before she even met me meant that it must have made someone smile along the way.
*Admittedly, the analogy between my protest and Butler’s idea of performativity is not perfect. Butler specifically discusses gender as a regulatory norm. She argues that while no one can escape the construct of gender, people can perform gender differently. I could have escaped that set of rules by opting out of my employment or indeed the Church.
** Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, Trans Catherine Porter and Carolyn Burke, (Ithica, New York: Cornell University Press, 1985), 76.
By June 13, 2017
Charlotte Cannon Johnston, Living the Principle: My Progenitors and Polygamy (Self-published, 2016)
Charlotte Cannon Johnston’s Living the Principle: My Progenitors and Polygamy takes seriously the idea that polygamy is fundamentally connected to the history both of Mormonism as a whole and of families ancestrally tied to plural marriage. She writes that “our past is our present” and argues for the need for Mormons to re-evaluate their relationship to their ancestors’ polygamous past. Many of the stories of early Mormon women, especially in the Church curriculum, are either sanitized or erased because of discomfort around Mormon polygamy. Johnston seeks to discover the history of polygamy through the ways that plural marriage was practiced in her own family. The idea for the book emerged when she wanted to record her own story. She soon realized that before she could make sense of her own story, “I first needed to tell the stories of my ancestors” who are “inextricably linked to the history of Mormon polygamy.” (xi) The reader, therefore, is consistently aware of the relationship between Johnston and her historical subjects. Her subjectivity as author, researcher, and descendant is never too far from the surface of her writing.
Throughout the book, Johnston revisits A Mormon Mother, a memoir in which Annie Clark Tanner discusses her painful and lonely polygamous marriage to and separation from Joseph Marion Tanner, a prominent Mormon educator. Johnston reviewed this book for the famous Pink Issue of Dialogue in 1971 and at that time called the book a representation of an “articulate minority report of a difficult era.” (Appendix A, 225) As Johnston continued to research the experiences of her own family, however, she increasingly recognized the nuance in the written records on polygamy. The book therefore represents a conversation between the viewpoint in Annie Clark Tanner’s memoir and Johnston’s own relatives’ history.
The reader follows Johnston as she takes them on a tour of her polygamous history. The first two chapters are about the lives and personal records of Leonora Cannon Taylor and Elizabeth Hoagland Cannon respectively. Subsequent chapters discuss Johnston’s later polygamous ancestors. As she switches from ancestors whom she knows only through archival records to people she knows from family stories and personal relationships, the tenor of her writing also changes; later in the book, it is harder for readers to keep up with all of the family names and she references. Additionally, it is difficult for readers to disentangle the increasingly complicated family relationships that included marriages “for time,” marriages “for eternity,” and Levirate marriages. Some of this might have been dealt with more clearly, but Johnston’s narrative also points to the basic challenge of representing complicated family relationships. What happens when plural marriage warps family into shapes that no longer resemble trees? How can we visually represent the different kinds of marriages and parental relationships that emerged in polygamy?
Much of the value of this book is the way that Johnston lays bare her assumptions and the process through which her research unfolded. It has more introductory material and appendices than I have ever seen. The book will no doubt be a resource to her family as well as to those interested in the process of making and documenting family history. Johnston is scrupulous, almost to a fault, about conveying her process and how she makes sense of her history. Finally, not only does the book map out familial relationships of the dead, but it also shows the ways in which Johnston’s living family helped her scan and research archival materials as well as edit and format her manuscript. In content and form, the book fulfills the Mormon call to “turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the heart of the children to their fathers.” (Malachi 4:6)
By February 28, 2017
Our Tuesdays with Orsi series continues today with a look at the sixth chapter. The series is a systematic engagement with Robert Orsi’s important and recently published book, History and Presence. Previous instalments are the Intro, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, and Chapter 5.
Heaven, like death, grounds us in the temporal world by enabling us to imagine a spiritual world. Imagining heaven enables “our short lives [to] acquire not only purpose but also grandeur and drama when they are set against the horizon of sacred history.” (204) Hope for heaven gives us moral purpose and embeds our everyday lives with meaning. Heaven is a reward for the righteous. Yet, despite the hope and virtue that heaven invokes in us, the idea of heaven has also been used to justify terrible things. Orsi’s chapter captures how heaven manifests itself in both our sacred cosmology and everyday activities. It represents our highest aspirations, our fundamental worldview, and also the most mundane parts of our existence. Orsi’s vignettes throughout the chapter reflect this: he tells stories end of life and childhood stories. He speaks about his respites from the playground bullies, interviews where men told him of their childhood understandings of heaven, and his parent’s relationship as his mother died of cancer.
The next chapter of the book is about evil, which is where he most fully discusses his fieldwork among people who have been abused by priests. Orsi draws out the ways that “predator priests” used sacred presence as an element of their sexual abuse. These horrible and shocking stories are easily framed within the chapter title “Events of Abundant Evil”. However, Orsi seems more reticent to talk directly of the “Happiness of Heaven” in chapter six. While the stories in the chapter on abundant evil reflect horror and trauma, the stories in the chapter on happiness and heaven reflect hope, disappointment, and ambivalence. “Heaven is the dullest and most obvious of religious imaginings,” he writes (204). This may be the most ambivalent statement I have ever heard about heaven, which may account for why the chapter is by far the shortest and most fragmented of the whole book.
Orsi draws upon a 1944 children’s catechism book that helps children memorize statement about heaven and help them make heaven applicable to their everyday lives. He summarizes, “In this way, heaven is brought close to everyday activities on earth and becomes less dull; or perhaps, brought close to everyday activities, heaven becomes duller.” (205) What does it mean to say that heaven is the dullest of religious imaginations? Consider chapter four’s discussion of printed presence, which is full of observations of the mundane ways that presence enters into believer’s lives through print. Clearly, Orsi does not think that the presence imbued in daily material culture or actions is uninteresting. Perhaps the happiness of heaven is not easily studied as a topic in and of itself; instead people’s hopes and fears about heaven continually emerge throughout all the chapters of the book.
Speaking of his late mother’s dying conversations with his father, Orsi goes beyond his initial definition of heaven: it is not (always) a sacred order, or a “banal” arbiter of moral authority. Instead, heaven is “the limit of knowing and an invitation to conversation, recognition, and accompaniment at the extremity of life.” (213) Presence is something that is not experienced in the abstract; people experience the presence of heaven through encounters with others. In other words, heaven can be understood as a justifying power for actions or aspiration for happiness, however Orsi finds these lenses of analysis banal and uninteresting. “The happiness of heaven” is unknowable and the only way we approach it is through meaningful relationships and dialogue.
By February 17, 2017
Imagine this setting: you are a Mormon attending a talk titled “Sacred Spaces, Holy Work: Perspectives on Mormon Temple Worship,” given at Harvard Divinity School by Juvenile Instructor’s own Tona Hangen, who is a professor of history and also a practicing Mormon. The talk is about temple worship, a topic on which Mormons famously do not love to offer details. The event is advertised both at Harvard and in my Sacrament program on Sunday. It is a public event and the room is full of people from diverse backgrounds. Scanning the room, I noticed people from the Divinity School who knew very little about Mormonism, Mormon professors and students from Harvard, three stake presidents (one whose wife brought treats), and people from my ward.
My point is not so much to belatedly highlight Tona’s awesome talk of a few months ago. Indeed, these situations happen all the time. Instead I want to bring attention to the complicated interplay of expectations of what one should say and how one’s audience expects you to say it. The experience of attending Tona’s talk, as well as subsequent experiences, has led me to think about the ways in which our audience (including believing Mormons and people with extensive or little knowledge of Mormonism) and our pedagogical spaces (such as classrooms, academic lectures, and sacrament talks) structure the ways in which we talk about our subject.
As an academically trained lifelong Mormon, I have learned several ways to engage with Mormonism. However, so far my experiences in discussing Mormonism have mostly been in homogenous groups and spaces. In Canada, where I grew up, there was little opportunity for mixed audiences because there were neither many Mormons nor people academically interested in Mormonism. Therefore, when I presented on Mormonism, I grew accustomed to being able to control who my audiences would be and how I would engage with them. Additionally, I could also manage how I presented my own subjectivity to the audience. Tona’s talk interested me because of the hybridity of the audience and subsequent messiness of expectations. Her audience understood Mormon temples in a variety of different ways: some non-Mormons had never heard of Mormon temples, others had participated in the sacred rituals in temples (and had different ideas of what should be secretive about those experiences), and the stake presidents in the room had the power to grant and bar access to temples.
So, as a speaker, writer, or teacher, how do you stay accountable to your hybrid audiences? How do you manage discourses of criticism and sympathy toward Mormonism? How do you frame your discussions in recognizable terms for mixed audiences? How do you manage different pedagogical spaces, such as BYU religion classes, in which learning expectations are both academic and devotional? How does your complicated relationship with the Mormon faith – whether you are a believing Mormon, Ex-Mormon, non-Mormon, or anything in between – enter into your academic discourse?
Please share your thoughts below in the comments.
By January 1, 2017
Happy New Year everyone!
Over my holiday I read On the Road With Joseph Smith: An Author’s Diary, which offers readers a keen insight into Richard Bushman’s post-publication thought as Mormon and scholarly audiences reviewed Rough Stone Rolling. Likely many readers of the book will enjoy Bushman’s reflections on his negotiation of the roles of scholar and believer. My favorite part, however, is the window that the book gives into the daily scholarly practices in which Bushman engages, including refining ideas and engaging in dialogue with the public about his book. Luckily for me, Bushman’s book is not the only place to receive such insights: the JI does a great job showing process, sharing resources, and exploring and refining ideas. Here are some of my favorite posts from 2016 that did just that: