Book Review: Thomas W. Simpson, American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism, 1867–1940 (UNC, 2016).

By September 27, 2016

This is a fantastic, convincing book. It was a real pleasure to read. I think it has a few problems but I want to start with Simpson’s cogent thesis and compelling story.

Simpson’s thesis, stated baldly, is that “modern Mormonism was born in the American university” (1–2). By American university he means the archipelago of research and graduate education institutions that emerged mainly between the upper Midwest and the Northeast after the Civil War. By modern Mormonism, he means a Mormonism with “a genuine, passionate sense of belonging in America” (2). In some important senses, Mormons moved from outsider to insider status between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and Simpson sees the American university as the most important facilitator of that transition. Between 1867 and 1940, university settings were uniquely irenic spaces where Mormons could “rehearse for American citizenship” and imagine themselves as both American and Mormon (2). So Simpson joins the significant historiographical minority—from Thomas O’Dea to Grant Underwood, Kathleen Flake, Steven Taysom, and recent graduates like Christopher Blythe—who have placed the makings of modern Mormonism long before and long after the 1890s. 

Here’s how Simpson’s story unfolds:

Between 1867 and 1877, Brigham Young cautiously sent a small number of men and women to schools in Philadelphia, Ann Arbor, and New York City for training in medicine, law, and engineering. His ironic goal was to gather non-Mormon knowledge to Utah in order to make the Mormon Zion more independent from non-Mormon doctors, lawyers, and educators. Between 1877 and 1896, more Mormon students went West and East—from Stanford to Michigan, Columbia, Harvard, and Johns Hopkins—and fell in love with non-Mormon higher education. Mormon women became doctors and published critiques of persistent Mormon “populism.” Mormon “anti-intellectualism” and investment in independence, on balance, decreased. Anxiety among Mormon leaders increased.

Between 1896 and 1920, more cohorts of higher-educated Mormons returned to Utah and made waves with their enthusiasm for non-Mormon knowledge production, including emergent history, philosophy, and social science disciplines. Mormon leaders and institutions were largely open to such enthusiasm for the first decade of the century, and largely closed to it for the next decade. A turning point came in 1911, when four BYU professors were fired or forced to leave for teaching evolution and higher criticism. Thereafter talented Mormon scholars struggled to place themselves among their fellow Mormons.

After some administrative shuffles, Mormon scholars and Mormon leaders got along better in the 1920s. Many Mormon scholars became Mormon leaders in the 1910s, 1920s, and into the 1930s. BYU hired a number of new PhDs in those latter two decades. Emerging “institutes” for Mormon students attached to various schools provided new impetus for graduate training in the study of religion. Accordingly, a new generation of Mormons studied religion with Protestant modernists at Chicago between 1926 and 1942. When they returned to Utah to ply their trade, another round of trial-runs, reconsiderations, retrenchments, and partial, halting reconciliations between Mormon leaders and Mormon scholars began.

The questions causing contention were whether and how non-Mormon knowledge production competed with ecclesiastical authority over Mormon knowledge production, identity formation, and communal ritualization. The last word seems to have gone to high-ranking hierarch J. Reuben Clark, whose address, “The Charted Course of the Church in Education,” Simpson describes as “imported fundamentalism” attacking “imported liberalism”—Mormons parroting their Protestant peers and Mormon reactionaries selling out their intellectually liberal prophetic predecessors (Joseph Smith and Brigham Young). In his final sentence, Simpson concludes that “genuine reconciliation between Mormons scholars and the Mormon hierarchy seems destined to elude the church until the millennium, indefinitely postponed, comes at last” (125).

The word genuine does quite a bit of work in that concluding sentence (and elsewhere: see definition of Modern Mormonism above). So does the tongue-in-cheek millennial teleology, which takes as natural, irresistibly rational, and ultimately desirable a very particular kind of reconciliation (more on that below). But, particularized, Simpson’s central thesis is still sound—and fascinating—and I think his high-praiseworthy archival research bears it out: for a large number of influential, visible Mormons, the American university facilitated a particular kind of belonging in America.

Here are a few lingering questions:

>>> What is pre-1867 Mormon populism? And what is pre-1867 Mormon liberalism? The first, Simpson names and defines, via Nathan Hatch, as a widespread Mormon distrust of professional academic knowledge production.  The second is what Simpson takes as Joseph Smith and Brigham Young’s encouragements to embrace all truth—presumably including knowledge produced by professional scholars. Simpson suggests that late nineteenth-century Mormons ambivalently—and twentieth-century Mormons ultimately—maintained the former and turned their backs on the latter.

My first problem with both formulations is that they leave unexplored the extent to which post-1867 Mormons were responding to a different animal. Modern research universities and the social scientific, political economic, medical, and legal professions did not exist, in most meaningful ways, before the Civil War. So to what extent were post-1867 Mormons juggling populist and liberal inheritances, as Simpson suggests, and to what extent were they really retooling in response to a substantively new regime of knowledge production?

My second problem with both formulations is that I’m not sure either one is accurate. In populist moments, did pre-1867 Mormons reject elite knowledge? Not if they didn’t perceive it as an existential threat to their Zion project (see, e.g., Joshua Seixas). In liberal moments, did pre-1867 Mormons embrace all truth? Cherry-pickers like the progressive Hugh Nibley and the conservative Terryl Givens say yes, but the millennialists Smith and Young always carefully “circumscribed” what constituted “truth.” So re: supposed Mormon populism I see more change than continuity, and re: supposed Mormon liberalism I see more continuity than change. Where Simpson sees both a persistence of a pre-1867 Mormon populism and a lamentable Fall from a perennially-prior Mormon liberalism, I see something more like an often unremarkable series of authoritative circumscriptions of saving truth. Simpson offers hints of the latter framing so I’m not sure he would entirely disagree.

>>> Did J. Reuben Clark and other administrators just need to relax? I assume we all wish they would have. But lamenting that they didn’t is probably not the most interesting scholarly move. Luckily it is not the only move Simpson makes. Clark and other administrators were undoubtedly reactive and regressive toward modern scholarship, but they weren’t wrong about the stakes, as Simpson notes with later nods to Peter Berger and Pierre Bourdieu (123). Clark was a clear-eyed combatant—not a paranoiac; he knew the difference between the sacred canopy and its critical study. Clark is an interesting reprieve from the naive, panting, liberal Protestant faith in the inexorable alliance of scientific and Christian authority that was often paralleled by some of his fellow Mormon leaders. But Clark’s retrenchment probably isn’t remarkable. And neither are its scholarly discontents and studious dissenters. What’s remarkable is that millions of Mormons in modern America sustained, with their lives, Clark’s authority to retrench. Simpson says such retrenchment is religion 101—authorities denouncing competing authorities, maintaining their own authority while (to quote Berger) “hid[ing] . . .  its constructed character” (123). Yes, sure, but why does this work so well in modern, educated, genuinely-belonging-in-America Mormonism?

>>> High five for the academy? The entity that basically evades critical scrutiny here is the modern American university. Simpson hopes his history “bears witness to the enduring promise of the American university as—at its best—a radically humanizing, democratic cultural space” (10). I think the Mormon case does say something significant about the humanizing potential of the modernizing American university between 1867 and 1940. But three generations of elite, passingly white, overwhelmingly male Mormon graduate students and scholars probably don’t illustrate the democratic potential of the correspondingly classed, raced, and gendered universities, sciences, and professions during that era.

>>> High five for liberalism? The American university here is a synecdoche of the secular, with the latter also evading critical scrutiny. Repeating the university’s claims that it was “neither sectarian nor secularist” simply declines analysis of the American university’s role in producing and managing distinctions between “sectarian” and “secular” (2). (Something like the production and management of these and related distinctions is what most critical secular studies posit as “the secular.”)[1] Simpson is doing history more than religious studies, so I understand why he is uninterested in analyzing #thesecular. But it makes a difference to his story. Insofar as an American secular, and its subsidiary, the American university, is taken as natural, neutral, and/or “quasi-sacred” [Simpson’s words] the American university and its aims become self-evident and Mormon “religion” and/or “culture” remain to be explained (1, 28). What’s left is less than half a story. Mormons willing to transpose their way of life into the emergent key of privatized, individualized “spirituality” do not need much explanation, nor do an American secular/university’s evolving demands that they do so (e.g., 36, 56). Mormons irrationally resistant to such transposition, on the other hand, invite analysis, explanation, lamentation. I don’t have a dog in this fight. (Not because I don’t care, but because I don’t yet know which particular formation of the inescapable secular I want to put my money on.) My point is just that the stakes on all sides were probably more interesting than what appears from repeating an American secular/university’s evasions of critique circa 1867 to 1940. In other words, why were university professors and administrators—like Harvard’s Charles Eliot and Stanford’s David Starr Jordan—so graciously willing to entertain Mormon expats? What was in it for the secular/university?

Nonetheless, talk about the secular points to what I think is the most important contribution Simpson’s book makes to Mormon historiography. For decades, a dominant strain of scholarship has told the Mormon story as one that unfolded between the mutual, hostile gazes of Mormons and American Protestants qua Protestants. Consequently, I think a shadow-boxing match with a nebulous American evangelicalism still haunts the historiography. Simpson, instead, tells a Mormon story at the intersection of Mormons and [Protestants, post-Protestants, and Pragmatists] qua secularists (even if incompletely). This, I think, is a really wonderful step toward understanding Mormonism’s lively, ongoing formations and re-formations under secular conditions. I think it’s a great book. And I’m grateful Thomas Simpson dedicated years of his attention, care, and remarkable talents to researching and writing it.

[1] For a few case studies and concise formulations, see Tisa Wenger, We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom (UNC, 2009); Jose Casanova, “The Secular and Secularisms,” Social Research 76, no. 4 (2009): 1049–1066; Kerry Mitchell, Spirituality and the State: Managing Nature and Experience in America’s National Parks (NYU, 2016).

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Fantastic review of a smart book, Bradley.

    Comment by Ben P — September 27, 2016 @ 2:56 pm

  2. Thanks for this, Bradley. I’m anxious to get to Tom’s book soon.

    Comment by Christopher — September 28, 2016 @ 6:10 am

  3. Thanks Ben and Christopher!

    Comment by B Kime — September 28, 2016 @ 6:38 am

  4. Very helpful and insightful. Thanks, Bradley.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — September 28, 2016 @ 8:28 am

  5. Very helpful, Bradley. I’m curious what you think about the role of gender, particularly in the later chapters.

    Comment by J Stuart — September 28, 2016 @ 9:33 am

  6. Nice review, Bradley. I can’t wait to read it! You mention that the university is in the realm of the secular: is there any sense of whether the university is also a Protestant space? I’m curious how Simpson places the university within narratives of dominant Protestantism and religious pluralism, which seem to be in tension in other places.

    Comment by Jeff T — September 28, 2016 @ 9:40 am

  7. great review

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — September 29, 2016 @ 10:51 am

  8. Thanks for the review. Looking forward to the read now.

    Comment by WVS — October 19, 2016 @ 1:32 am

  9. I’ve enjoyed what I read so far. Also, turns out I met Simpson at SBL back in 2007, a Teaching Mormonism section. He also came to the BYU reception.

    Comment by Ben S — October 19, 2016 @ 1:02 pm


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