Articles by

Ryan T.

Journal Overview: BYU Studies Quarterly 52:4 (Winter 2013-14)

By January 24, 2014

If you subscribe to BYU Studies Quartely like I do, you’ll know that the latest issue is no longer hot off the press. Not even warm, really. Mine has been lying around for a while, clamoring for recognition, languishing for want of care. Without further neglect, then, the JI brings you another content overview for BYUSQ 52:4. Three historical articles in the issue may be of interest to JI’s readers:

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Journal Overview: BYU Studies Quarterly 52:3 (Fall 2013)

By October 11, 2013

52.3coverThe Fall 2013 issue of BYU Studies Quarterly recently hit the web and print subscribers’ mailboxes, which means that it’s time for another quick journal content overview for JI’s readers. All the usual caveats apply—that is, these summaries are meant to whet your appetite, but for the full effect you’ll want to visit the pieces and their arguments in their totality. In this issue of BYUSQ, four original articles and other tidbits are on offer.

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Bricks in Nauvoo; or, A Sleepover at Willard Richards’ House

By September 21, 2013


The Ubiquitious Nauvoo Brick Souvenir

By necessity, early Mormons were builders. It’s easy to forget, retrospectively, how much sheer labor went into the communities that early Latter-day Saints, time and again, built from the ground up. Temple building is one of the more conspicuous form of construction activity, but with each relocation Latter-day Saints also faced anew the more mundane labors of improving land, building homes, outbuildings, ditches and canals, fences, roads—in other words, of generating a basic domestic and civic infrastructure. Not unlike many other roving families in early America, Mormons continually reconstructed their material world from the ground up.

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Mormon Studies Weekly Roundup (09.15.2013)

By September 15, 2013

Welcome to this installment of Mormon Studies Weekly Roundup!

To the news:

This week brings formal tidings from the University of Virginia of Kathleen Flake’s appointment as the inaugural Richard Lyman Bushman Chair of Mormon Studies in UVA’s Department of Religious Studies, a development that we celebrated and discussed with her a week ago. The news must have piqued some broader interest as well, because the appointment also was noted in the New York Times.

Some items of interfaith and ecumenical interest. At the Washington Times, Mark Kellner highlighted the recent work of Stephen H. Webb, until recently a professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College. Webb’s new book Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn From the Latter-day Saints, which is now available from Oxford University Press, professes to take “Mormon theology seriously from an outsider’s perspective, arguing persuasively that Mormons are a part of the Christian family tree, and that their doctrine offers valuable insights and alternatives to traditional Christianity.” It’ll be interesting to see whether the book is a bombshell in the Christian community. Meanwhile, the Deseret News drew attention this week to comments of Rt. Rev. Scott B. Hayashi, Episcopal Bishop of Utah, condemning “anti-Mormon humor.”

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Journal Overview: BYU Studies Quarterly 52:2 (Summer 2013)

By August 24, 2013

52.2coverNot long ago BYU Studies Quarterly rolled out its summer issue, and it’s time for a quick overview of the historical articles there. For those unfamiliar with the journal, BYUSQ has been running under the auspices of BYU since 1959, long enough to claim to be “the original Mormon Studies journal.” (Until April 2012, the journal ran under the title of BYU Studies.) Currently under the editorship of Jack W. Welch, the journal is interdisciplinary and its purposes run parallel to those of BYU: the journal aims to be “faithful and scholarly throughout, harmonizing wherever possible the intellectual and the spiritual on subjects of interest to Latter-day Saints and to scholars studying the Latter-day Saint experience.”

The Summer 2013 issue offers several articles that will interest JI’s readers. In the leadoff article, Richard Bennett offers a sequel to his earlier piece “‘Line Upon Line, Precept Upon Precept’: Reflections on the 1877 Commencement of the Performance of the Endowments and Sealings for the Dead,” BYU Studies 44, no. 3 (2005): 38-77. In that article, Bennett emphasized the completion of the St. George Temple as a “watershed moment in the history of the development of modern Mormon temple work.” The article outlined the expansion of certain forms of temple work as the temple was completed, and characterized the period as highly formative for Mormon religious thought and practice.

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“Free Toleration and Equal Privileges in this City”: Religious Freedom in Mormon Nauvoo

By July 31, 2013

Several years ago I reviewed David Sehat’s then-new book, The Myth of American Religious Freedom. Published in 2011, the book was intended as a corrective to what Sehat characterized as the conventional idea that Americans celebrate an unbroken and unblemished tradition of religious liberty.  Demonstrating that America’s record of toleration and freedom isn’t flawless, Sehat chronicled many episodes of religious discrimination during the nineteenth century Although, as many revisionist texts do, Sehat’s book may have overcorrected, he introduced an important new awareness of the historical reality of not only religious persecution, but subtler forms of establishment coercion that existed in the land of the free during the nineteenth century. Mormons were, quite naturally, a constituency of Sehat’s work, though most of his focus was elsewhere. I expressed in that post my opinion that Mormonism presents a natural point of entry for the study of religious freedom in America. Because of their controversial practice of polygamy and their broad assumption of political autonomy, Mormons were at the center of much national debate over the boundaries of religious freedom in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and this something that scholars like Kathleen Flake, Sarah Barringer Gordon, and now Leigh Eric Schmidt have worked on in various ways. [1] Relatively less has been said, though, about how early Mormons themselves conceived and understood religious liberty. How did this eminently democratic idea, resting on a premise of ideological pluralism, square with Mormon political theology?

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John Wesley Jones’s Pantoscope of California, Nebraska, Utah, and the Mormons (1852)

By May 30, 2013


Jones’s Great Pantoscope of California. Broadside, ca. 1852 from Martha A. Sandweiss, Print the Legend: Photography and the American West (Yale UP, 2002), 50.

Another post in the Mormonism’s Many Images series.

In late 1852 and 1853, a new and dazzling show debuted on the stages of Boston and New York. Playing to eager audiences, including the “elite and intellectual,” John Wesley Jones’s Pantoscope of California. Nebraska, Utah, and the Mormons became something of a sensation, running briskly for more than a year and garnering almost uniform praise from critics. It was, an advertisement boasted, the “LARGEST PAINTING IN THE WORLD,” produced at the astronomical cost of $40,000. Audiences were thrilled by its stunning reproductive detail of the landscape; indeed, Jones claimed that his work was empirical, it was based on 1,500 newfangled daguerreotype images of the American West he and a crew had taken exclusively for that purpose. [1]

Jones’s Pantoscope belonged to the passing nineteenth-century genre of the “panorama,” and to an age of experimentation with audiovisual entertainment. The absorbing experiences of radio and film were still decades away and popular entertainment remained confined to the stage theater. Panoramas took a variety of forms, but they often constituted “moving pictures” in the most literal sense. Enormous canvas paintings produced by teams of artists—some reportedly miles long and covering hundreds of thousands of square feet—were rolled across the stage, moving across the audience’s line of sight from one giant spool to another. Accompanied by music and narration, these exhibitions simulated the experience of travel: they were “designed to convey a sense of movement across space and time” in a uncommonly realistic visual world. For contemporary audiences, this was a new and delightful vicarious experience. Like the telegraph and the steamboat, the panorama was, some proclaimed, a “wonderful invention for annihilating time and space.” [2]

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Religion and American Culture Forum: “Contemporary Mormonism: America’s Most Successful ‘New Religion'”

By March 21, 2013

RACGood news for scholars and students of contemporary Mormonism! The Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at IUPUI continues its emphasis on the study of modern Mormon culture with the latest issue of its journal. Back in September of last year, the Center convened a forum in Indianapolis with scholars Jan Shipps, Phil Barlow, Jana Reiss and former US Senator Bob Bennett to address “Mormonism in the 21st Century.” Now, the latest “Forum” discussion in the Winter 2013 issue of Religion and American Culture features a heavyweight panel comprised of Terryl Givens, Kathryn Lofton, Laurie Maffly-Kipp, and Patrick Mason, who speak to different aspects of the theme “Contemporary Mormonism: America’s Most Successful ‘New Religion’.” The Forum piece offers sophisticated reflections on many of crucial pressure points of Mormonism today: gender, homosexuality, family, politics, perceptions, popular culture.

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Review: Exhibiting Mormonism

By August 24, 2012

Neilson, Reid L. Exhibiting Mormonism: The Latter-day Saints and the Chicago World’s Fair.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 207 pp. + index.

Today the Chicago’s World Fair of 1893, also known as the Columbian Exposition, is largely lost from America’s collective memory. Despite the once-dazzling spectacle of its extraordinary landscape and architecture, all that lingers for most people now—if anything—is George Ferris’ great Wheel, the risky engineering triumph that became the icon of the Fair. In its time, however, the Fair was perceived as the greatest American happening since the Civil War. It drew about 27 million visitors at a time when the national population stood at only about 65 million. The event galvanized the country in myriad ways, and profoundly dignified the city of Chicago.

Scholars often depict the Fair as a catalyst in American history. It had significant effects, for instance on the development of technology and architecture. Historians of American religion characterize the Fair and its Parliament of World Religions as a moment of growing self-consciousness for American Christians, a first encounter with previously unknown world faiths. It was the beginning, historians say, of a growing sense of religious pluralism. Together with the new scientific forces coming to bear on religion, this new awareness transformed American religious sensibilities in the latter half of the 19th century.

Reid Neilson’s Exhibiting Mormonism: Latter-day Saints and the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, published at the end of last year by Oxford, brings the argument of the Chicago Fair as pivotal moment home to Mormon history, plotting the Fair as a critical juncture in the story of Mormons’ relationship with the rest of America. As Richard Bushman’s jacket blurb notes, Chicago was the Mormons’ national “coming out party,” and in this slender volume, Neilson shows how the Fair and other such events transformed Mormons’ ways of introducing themselves to the rest of the nation.

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Kindred Spirits: The 19th Century Origins of Mormon Posthumous Celebrity Baptism

By March 1, 2012

Given the ongoing public discussion of the Mormon practice of baptism for the dead, and particularly how this ritual been conducted by Latter-day Saints in behalf of notable public, “celebrity” figures, it seemed appropriate to post a piece of my ongoing research into this singular religious concept. Specifically, here I note the emergence of the doctrine and practice of baptism for the dead and how it initially came to be performed on behalf of celebrity figures. Of course, the development of baptism for the dead fits into a number of larger contexts, including currents of developing Mormon theology in Nauvoo (as Sam Brown’s new book shows), and into a broader culture where Christian baptism was a common but diversely understood and valued practice. So this post doesn’t explain how baptism for the dead came into being, but it does describe how, once the practice was established, it first came to be a way for Mormons of claiming those whom they saw as the deserving dead beyond their family and personal friends.

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Grub Street History: Peggy Fletcher Stack and The Polygamies of Joseph Smith and Warren Jeffs

By August 26, 2011

I’ve been just waiting for someone to get gutsy and rash enough, in the wake of Warren Jeff’s sexual assault convictions, to try a side-by-side, cross-historical comparison of Jeff’s polygamy with that Joseph Smith. Given the state of the public mind – inebriated as ever with the subject of polygamy and whetted by Big Love, Sister Wives, and now the salacious Jeff’s trial – it was only a matter of time. In his rather pitiable defense, Jeffs gave a rehearsal of Mormon religious persecution, ran through a sort of FLDS catechism, and made gestures toward Joseph Smith.

Peggy Fletcher Stack’s article this week comparing Jeffs and Joseph Smith (“Comparing Mormon founder, FLDS leader on polygamy,” Salt Lake Tribune, 08.19) was perfectly suited to the public appetite. The piece, headed by the provocative artwork below, pits the revulsion that many feel toward Jeffs’ foul crimes against the deep admiration that many Latter-day Saints feel for the Prophet Joseph Smith. It deftly exploits, as good journalists know to do, some of the strongest currents in the cultural atmosphere, and the effect is a visceral one. Stack unabashedly sits Joseph Smith and Warren Jeffs side by side in a parity that will make most Mormons flinch.

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Contemporary Politics, Mormonism, and Sehat’s Myth of American Religious Freedom

By February 7, 2011

Sehat, David. The Myth of American Religious Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Once again, the issues of religious freedom and freedom of conscience have surfaced in public discussion and popular awareness, both in the United States and abroad. Though often invisible in modern democratic life, these major issues have continued to rise to prominence episodically in American history, and it appears that we may be in or coming into one of those episodes. Between the debates over the building of Islamic mosques in various parts of the United States, the emerging conflict of the prosecution of gay rights with religiously-informed resistance, and the likely prospect of another religiously-informed presidential election – the matter of religious freedom is increasingly at issue in the United States. This is, of course, to say nothing of other global developments like the recent persecution of Coptic Christians, the Pope’s consequent advocacy of religious freedom, and other religious freedom issues around the world.

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Nebuchadnezzar and The Mormon Social Imaginary

By December 21, 2010

My presentation at the last MHA conference revolved around some ideas I’d been working with related to Mormon collective identity. A while ago I became fascinated with the way that Charles Taylor has been using the concept of “social imaginaries” in his work in social philosophy. To him, a “social imaginary” is basically the perceived social world of an individual, and Taylor’s work shows how these perceptions are critical for understanding how societies function. [1] This is an idea similar to the basic premise that Benedict Anderson introduced in Imagined Communities. Anderson focused on the phenomenon of the nation, and he described how the shared perceptions of citizens of were truly the element that made a nation possible. [2] In my view, both of these ideas – “social imaginaries” and “imagined communities” have an important connection to the question of group or collective identity.

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Book Review: The Missouri Mormon Experience

By December 15, 2010

Spencer, Thomas M, ed. The Missouri Mormon Experience. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2010. x + 187 pp. Illustrations, maps, endnotes, index. Hardback: $34.95; ISBN 978-0-82-621887-2

Back in September of 2006, historians of Missouri and of Mormonism met in Jefferson City, MO for a somewhat unusual conference co-sponsored by two local organizations: The Missouri State Archives and the Columbia Missouri Stake of the LDS Church. As its title suggests, “The Missouri Mormon Experience: A Conference of History and Commemoration” was intended to be simultaneously a historical venture and a social act – intended to “understand the troubles of the 1830s as well as to promote understanding between Mormons and non-Mormons in the state today.” It commemorated the 25th anniversary of the rescindment of Lilburn Boggs’ Extermination Order by Gov. Kit Bond (1976).

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A Modern Divinity School?

By April 5, 2010

Part III in the JI’s ongoing series on secularism and religious education

In sifting through the thoughts that might be relevant to bring to this conversation, it quickly became clear that I wouldn’t be able to form any kind of comprehensive, useful model, or to get the satisfaction that comes with being able to see something as a whole. The differences that Matt articulated in the last post of the series run deep, and seem to impose considerable gulfs between all kinds of people that might try to talk about religion: we occupy largely different worlds. I also came to realize that the blog post is not terribly well suited to interdisciplinary analysis! All I can do here, I think, is try to illuminate a point of contact between the three broad categories we have been discussing – secularism, religion, and education.

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“The new landscape of the religion blogosphere”

By March 2, 2010

Editors of the SSRC (Social Science Research Council) blog The Immanent Frame have produced a report on the blogosphere and religion. It is presented with this introduction:

Blogs have given occasion to a whole new set of conversations about religion in public life. They represent a tremendous opportunity for publication, discussion, cross-fertilization, and critique of a kind never seen before. In principle, at least, the Internet offers an opportunity to break down old barriers and engender new communities. While the promise is vast, the actuality is only what those taking part happen to make of it.

This report surveys nearly 100 of the most influential blogs that contribute to an online discussion about religion in the public sphere and the academy. It places this religion blogosphere in the context of the blogosphere as a whole, maps out its contours, and presents the voices of some of the bloggers themselves.

Alas, by some oversight the Juvenile Instructor was not among the 100 “most influential blogs” surveyed, but what might the survey imply for the presence of Mormonism in online presentation and dialogue? How does the digital engagement of Mormonism and Mormon history line up with that of that other aspects of religion, from Catholic gossip to church-state activism? Interested parties can investigate here.

Mormons’ History, Sacred and Profane

By January 18, 2010

One of the fresh insights provided by Jan Shipps’ Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition when published in 1985 was its argument that Mormon history was “not ordinary history.” Shipps explored the tensions surrounding interlocked, opposing construals of Mormonism. She also demonstrated how accounts of Mormon history and origins were the animating force behind the formation of Mormonism, which she characterized as a new, independent religious tradition. A self-supporting worldview, this tradition carried its own ways of understanding place, time, and human purpose.

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Christian Common Sense and the Shape of Mormonism

By January 4, 2010

This is an attempt to think about Mormonism and Christian ideology in the course of American history. By Christian ideology here I think I mean assumptions or understandings so predominant at a given time that they can actually go unrecognized. In other words, I’m thinking about a silent (yet influential) common or shared sense. Although common sense might be pretty uniform at a given time, it turns out that it isn’t held in common over time. Hence, this is an effort to see how these conditions evolve over time and to demonstrate how, in the long run, that evolution can reveal the influence of the invisible.  We find that predominant convictions turn over slowly, and they leave a wide trail behind them. It seems to me that Mormonism contains a number of interesting remainders as a result of being codified in a particular historical moment and amongst beliefs and convictions that just went without saying.

Part of the impetus for this informal post was a conversation I had with my grandfather – Douglas Tobler, retired professor of European History – a few months ago, not long after the passing of Bob Matthews. He reminded me then that he and Bob used to carpool from Lindon to work together at BYU. He related a conversation that they once had during their commute about Mormon conceptions of grace, and the reasons why grace has seen so little  emphasis (especially in comparison with, say, born-again evangelicalism).

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Mormon Racism in Modern American Historiography

By October 20, 2009

As one of the assigned texts for my course this quarter in “Christianity and Slavery in America, 1619-1865”, I’ve engaged David Brion Davis’ latest work on American slavery, Inhuman Bondage. [1] Davis, for those unacquainted with the scholarship on American slavery, has held a prominent place in groundbreaking discussion in the field for many years. This latest work presents something of synthesis of the most recent relevant scholarship in a sweeping effort to see American slavery as part of a global practice and, most especially, to articulate its transatlantic contexts.

A small part of Davis’ purpose (and a central component of the course in general) is to understand how the practice and ideology of slavery became integrated to Christianity, and to understand the way it influenced both the development of Christian theology and the course of Christian practice. Although Davis’ work does not have a particularly religious orientation (he seems, here at least, to focus on the secular social), his work is comprehensive enough to give a summary overview of slavery in Christian thought.

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Perspectives on Parley Pratt’s Autobiography: The Literary Impulse

By July 26, 2009

Ben’s previous post was an effort to highlight the “personal agenda” behind Parley Pratt’s writing of his Autobiography. He outlined two chief forces behind its production: Parley’s desires (conscious or not) to relive and revive his preeminent influence in the Church, and to give a revisionist account of its history more favorable and forgiving to himself. To those two well-reasoned general motives, I would like to add a third fundamental impetus – one that was relatively unique to Parley as an individual.

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Tona H on From the Archives: Mormonism: “I find the lateness of dedicating the island for Mormon proselyting work simply astounding, given its close proximity to the US and the Church's long…”

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