By March 14, 2017
Welcome to the last installment of our Tuesdays with Orsi series, in which we collectively read Robert Orsi’s HISTORY AND PRESENCE (Harvard, 2016)! This post examines the epilogue and offers thoughts on the book as a whole. Previous installments can be found here: Intro, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, and chapter 7.
“It is a dreadful thing to be in relationship with the gods really present,” Orsi says at the beginning of this book. (5) Certainly, a reading of its seven chapters is enough to convince us of that. They show that the gods can be capricious and deceptive as often as they are redemptive and healing. His believers cling to bags of sacred soil, icons, and relics. They experience the presence of the divine in their lives. And yet Orsi is hardly telling Sunday school stories. The presence of the gods fails people, hurts them, and tears them up, emotionally and physically. And yet those people keep coming, pressing their foreheads against the tombs of the saints, because the gods save them, too.
By March 7, 2017
Welcome to the eighth installment of our Tuesdays with Orsi series! We’re taking a look at the seventh chapter of Robert Orsi’s History and Presence, and as Hannah introduced last week, today’s discussion will be on the meaning of abundant evil. Previous installments can be found here: Intro, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, and Chapter 6.
Where chapter six took on the idea of heaven, this chapter deals more with hell. What happens, Orsi asks, when the abundant event believers encounter is an evil one? He uses the stories of men and women who were sexually abused as children to tease out the question of presence and abundance in light of clerical sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
By February 21, 2017
Our Tuesdays with Orsi series continues today with a look at the fifth chapter. The series is a systematic engagement with Robert Orsi’s important and recently published book, History and Presence. Previous installments are the Intro, Chapter 1, Chapter 2 and Chapter 3, and Chapter 4.
Chapter 5 begins with a ghost story, or more properly, a story that probes the inextricable relationship–ongoing and mutually conscious–between living people and dead people in 20th century Catholicism. At the center of such relationships is the presence of a bloodied, tortured Christ, and all around the edges of this relationship are rituals of grieving, remembering, reconstituting, and “waking” the dead. Orsi’s haunting chapter narrative builds towards his own encounter with one family on the fringes of the “Catholic supernatural underground,” whose bedroom shrine for their deceased young child had become a portal to the world beyond for those who see(k) and served as a lay counseling center for people in search of connection with loved ones both living and dead.
By February 7, 2017
Our Tuesdays with Orsi series continues today with a look at the third chapter. The series is a systematic engagement with Robert Orsi’s important and recently published book, History and Presence. Previous installments are found here, here, and here.
The third chapter of Robert Orsi’s provocative and sophisticated book leaves behind the broad and sweeping trajectories of earlier chapters in order to focus on the mundane experiences of everyday life. Personal relics, individual relationship, holy encounters—this is where humans experience the gods. This is, of course, lived religion, a genre that Orsi has championed. But in this form it is focused on the personalized contexts in which “abundant events” are experienced. The chapter interweaves three different narratives–Chicago housewives in 1940s war-torn America who worried about their families overseas, a young Arizona girl who suffered sexual abuse at the hands of her step-father slightly later, and a social sciences grad student in the 1990s staring down her own leukemia–while meditating on the nature of gods’ presence in everyday life. Each of these three stories feature women facing insurmountable evil, yet finding refuge in a spiritual event, even if that moment of religious deliverance didn’t feature a headline-grabbing episode.
By January 31, 2017
Our Tuesdays with Orsi series continues today with a look at the second chapter. The series is a systematic engagement with Robert Orsi’s important and recently published book, History and Presence. See the first installment here and the second installment here.
As Ryan wrote last week, Orsi’s writing in the past dozen or so years has focused on the need to write about “presence” and “abundant events” in scholarship on religion. Following up on his first chapter arguing for an academic way of studying the presence of “the gods” as they appear and operate in the lives of individuals and religious groups, Orsi’s second chapter argues that scholars should take “abundant events” much more seriously. In doing so, Orsi seeks to help scholars overcome the methodological issues inherent to studying religion. As JI emeritus and scholar Steve Taysom puts it, “how [can] scholars of religion account for experiences that are simultaneously irrational and real?”[i] Orsi contends that the abundance of events surrounding when the “transcendent breaks into time” means that scholars must account for the “presence” of supernatural occurrences and beings in the lives of those they study.
By January 17, 2017
Come one, come all. Welcome to a new series that we’re hosting—Tuesdays with Orsi! The series will feature posts that highlight each chapter of Robert Orsi’s new and provocative History and Presence, and I have the honor of kicking it off.
Robert Orsi is the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies and Professor of Religion at Northwestern University. He is a prominent scholar of American religion and one of the foremost theorists/methodological innovators of the field. His scholarship has provoked us here at JI to think about what a Robert Orsi might look like for Mormon Studies, how “abundant events” might be used for Mormonism, and a highlight of a chat with Richard Bushman about abundant events. It’s no surprise that his newest work prompts us, yet again, to engage, digest, and grapple with truly provocative narrative and theory. The implications of the book are monumental. But enough gilding the lily. Let’s get to the introduction.
By December 6, 2016
Just some of the significant volumes from 2016. Also, my awesome bookends inherited from my grandparents.
Once again, this is my attempt to recap the historiography of Mormonism from the past twelve months. This is the eighth such post, and previous installments are found here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. I do not list every single book and article from 2016, but I do highlight those I found most interesting and relevent. Therefore, a strong bias is obviously involved, so I hope you’ll add more in the comments.
I think it’s safe to say it was another solid year for the field.
By September 21, 2016
Nicholas J. Frederick is an assistant professor of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University. He holds a Ph.D in the History of Christianity with an emphasis in Mormon Studies from Claremont Graduate University. Nick is the author of The Bible, Mormon Scripture, and the Rhetoric of Allusivity (FDU Press, 2016). He has agreed to participate in the JI’s semi-regular series, Scholarly Inquiry, by answering questions about his book.
What led you to write The Bible, Mormon Scripture, and the Rhetoric of Allusivity?
While working on my Ph.D at Claremont Graduate University, I started getting into Intertextuality, in particular the intertextuality between the New Testament and Mormon Scripture. I was fascinated by the questions that were raised when the Book of Mormon or the D&C would quote or allude to the writings of John or Paul or Matthew.
By September 1, 2016
It’s been a good year for top-notch journal articles on early Mormonism. Religion and American Culture added another one to the mix this past month: “Ordering Antinomy: An Analysis of Early Mormonism’s Priestly Offices, Councils, and Kinship” Religion and American Culture 26 (Winter 2016): 139–183, by Kathleen Flake, Bushman Chair of Mormon Studies at the University of Virginia. Flake’s article approaches a pair of perennial questions. Was early Mormonism populist? And to the extent that it was, how did its prophetic center hold?
By August 1, 2016
Martha Bradley-Evans, Glorious in Persecution: Joseph Smith, American Prophet, 1839-1844 (Salt Lake City: Smith-Pettit Foundation, 2016).
Martha Bradley-Evans is perhaps the most under-appreciated historian of Mormonism. Over the past few decades she has produced a number of significant books as well as mentored a number of young scholars. Several of her volumes were published with Signature Books, where she also serves on their editorial board, so it made sense for the Smith-Pettit Foundation to tab her to be one of three authors to produce an exhaustive trilogy on Joseph Smith’s life, which was originally scheduled for the year of his bicentennial in 2005. As it is with many scholarly projects, however, things took much longer. Finally, a couple months ago, Bradley-Evans’s volume, which was to be the third in the biographical series, was released. (The volume that covers Joseph Smith’s early life, authored by the late Richard S. Van Wagoner, will appear shortly.)
Even if this book is officially a solo volume, it still features the markings of its original intent, both in scope and context. First and foremost, it seeks to be an exhaustive overview of the final five years in Joseph Smith’s life, as all three “biographies” were meant to present 2000-odd pages devoted to every facet of Mormonism’s founding prophet—a must-have resource for any devoté, and a handy resource for anyone interested in the topic. And secondly, Bradley-Evans’s approach and content reflect more the period in which the project was originally conceived—over a decade ago—than the period in which it was finally published. But more on that later.
By July 14, 2016
Philip Lockley, ed., Protestant Communalism in the Trans-Atlantic World, 1650-1850 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).
A little more than five years ago, I posted some thoughts on Scott Rohrer’s chapter on Mormonism in his Wandering Souls: Protestant Migrations in America, 1630-1865 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010). I was particularly intrigued by his inclusion of Mormonism in a volume on Protestant migrations, and a lively conversation and debate over whether Mormonism is, was, or ever has been Protestant ensued in the comments.
By June 22, 2016
[We are pleased to post this book review from Hannah Jung. Hannah lives and works in Boston and will be starting her PhD in History in the fall.]
Eds. Kate Holbrook and Matthew Bowman, Women and Mormonism: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2016.
During my undergrad there was a mature student who seemed to be in all of my classes about women and religion. This woman had a particular word for whenever we studied examples of women who seemed to be furthering patriarchy. She called them brainwashed. At the time, it was hard for me to articulate why I did not like the label “brainwashed” for women who did not appear to be living life worthy of feminist praise. This task would be taken on by historians much more clever and experienced than I. Indeed, in 2011 Catherine Brekus rocked the Mormon Studies world with her Tanner Lecture “Mormon Women and the Problem of Historical Agency”, which she delivered at the Mormon History Association. Brekus observed that,
Although historians of male leaders had never felt compelled to argue that men’s agency was politically subversive or liberating … historians of overlooked groups – including women, Native Americans, African Americans, and Latina/os – were searching for a ‘usable past’ and so they looked for evidence of individual or collective resistance to a white male hegemony. (p.23)
By June 13, 2016
Welcome to week 2 of this Summer’s Book Club. We’re reading Mormon Enigma, and this week’s post focuses on four chapters: “Gathering in Ohio, 1830-1834,” “‘Seas of Tribulation,’ 1834-1838,” “Strife in Missouri, 1838-1839,” and “Sanctuary in a Swamp, 1839-1841.” For the first two chapters, see Robin’s helpful post for week 1.
The next four chapters of Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippett Avery’s Mormon Enigma focus on Emma Smith’s experience throughout the 1830s. Emma’s life during this time period was marked by transition: she trekked over one thousand miles, lived in at least seven different households (that’s after I started counting), birthed six children (and adopted three more), hosted countless “boarders” who passed through her homes, and earned money from home economics, to trade, to real estate. And she was faithfully married to a religious prophet who polarized nearly everyone he came into contact with. In spite of Emma Smith’s many accomplishments and fortitude, her inner life is hard to get to. Sources are simply scarce, and seeing Emma Smith the individual becomes murky through the refracted and power-laden narratives that constitute Joseph Smith’s history. I read these chapters with these thoughts in mind, and this post will survey and suggest some ways into Emma Smith’s life.
By June 3, 2016
Spencer W. McBride, “When Joseph Smith Met Martin Van Buren: Mormonism and the Politics of Religious Liberty in Nineteenth-Century America,” Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture 85, no. 1 (March 2016): 150-158.
As much as we love the Journal of Mormon History, it’s always encouraging to see work on Mormonism appear in mainstream historical or religious studies journals. So it was a pleasant discovery to find Spencer McBride’s short article in a recent issue of Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture, a venerable academic journal that has been publishing on the history of Christianity since 1932. Church History is the organ of the American Society of Church History, a group that has recently fallen on hard times. Or, perhaps more accurately, it has run into a perplexing situation. Recent shifts in scholarship have taken the study of American religion away from the traditional themes of “church history,” with its focus on denominations, institutions, and traditional social dynamics. Christopher wrote a few years ago in response to Laurie Maffly-Kipp’s important presidential address to the ASCH, “The Burden of Church History,” which proposed some revitalizing steps to be taken. One of these was further engagement with Catholicism and Mormonism, a suggestion that mirrors other scholars’ encouragement to move from a study of “American Christianity” to one that acknowledges “American Christianities.” 
By June 1, 2016
Kyle R. Walker, William B. Smith: In the Shadow of a Prophet. Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford, 2015. xiv, 639 pp. Photographs, two appendices, notes, sources, index; ISBN 978-58958-505-1.
Kyle Walker has further solidified his position as the leading expert on the Smith family with this extensive biography of Joseph Smith’s troubled younger brother, William. In meticulous detail, Walker describes William’s life as one full of conflict: with his brother Joseph and other church leaders during Joseph’s lifetime, with other claimants to leadership after Joseph death, with William’s own followers when William made his own claim, and with William’s numerous wives almost all of whom left him. As one-time follower Edmund Briggs declared, “Everybody that knew William Smith, and worked with him, rejected him” (409).
Walker begins the book with a description of uncle Jesse Smith, the cantankerous family member that threatened to get an ax if anyone said anything about the Book of Mormon. Walker wonders if there was an inherited family trait that would explain William short temper, his refusal to compromise or let things go, and his perpetual self-focus.
By May 30, 2016
This past semester, I taught the history major senior capstone research seminar on “Religion in America” [Aside: WHEN will I ever learn to choose appropriately NARROW topics for senior seminar??]. Students’ paper topics ranged from the Branch Davidians at Waco, to the religious geography of the early British colonies, to recovering Jefferson’s personal theology, to protections for religious observance in the 21st-century military, to anti-Semitism in immigration policy of the 1920s and 1930s — 16 papers with the rather dizzying variety you might expect from so open-ended a course. Most of the students, though advanced in the major, had little prior experience tackling religious subjects in history classes, so that added a dimension of danger complexity to the whole enterprise.
By February 17, 2016
One of my very first posts at the Juvenile Instructor (nearly nine years ago!) asked whether Mormon History was American History, surveying the inclusion of Mormonism in two of the most significant treatments of Jacksonian America—Charles Sellers’s The Market Revolution and Sean Wilentz’s The Rise of American Democracy. A year later, I took a closer look at Daniel Walker Howe’s handling of Mormonism in his (then) recently-published What Hath God Wrought.
Shortly after that, in 2009 German historian Jürgen Osterhammel published Die Verwandlung der Welt. Eine Geschichte des 19. Jahrhunderts, which was subsequently translated into English and published by Princeton University Press in 2012 as The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century. To call Osterhammel’s book ambitious is an understatement — it numbers nearly 1200 pages (over 250 more than Howe’s hefty tome) and is truly global in scope. The author describes it in the book’s preface as “a rich and detailed but structured, nontrivial, and nonschematic account of a crucial period in the history of humanity” (xiii). While many Mormons might consider Joseph Smith’s visions, the publication of the Book of Mormon, and the establishment of the Church of [Jesus] Christ [of Latter-day Saints] in 1830 as among the most important events of that crucial period, I was curious what mention (if any) Mormonism would receive in the book.
By January 6, 2016
A few weeks ago I highlighted the year of 2015 in Mormon historiography. But I’m not here to talk about the past. In this post, I highlight a number of books I’m especially excited to see published in 2016. This list is not comprehensive—it’s nigh impossible to keep track of everything in the Mormon publishing world—but I hope it captures a taste of what we have in store over the next twelve months.
Even beyond this next year, there is still a lot more to be excited about. Kathleen Flake’s book on gender, power, and Mormon polygamy and Laurel Ulrich’s book on polygamous women’s diaries are certainly going to shake the field, but they are not quite ready for release. (Word is Ulrich’s book is in the pipeline for a year from now, though, and should arrive by AHA 2017). And we all know the works-in-progress by stars like Spencer Fluhman, Quincy Newell, Steve Taysom, and others that we eagerly anticipate. But I think we have enough here to satiate our appetite.
Without further ado…
By December 9, 2015
Nikki Hunter’s beautiful “Sunday Morning” quilt (“The Pants Quilt”) adorns the cover of the new Oxford Press Publication Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings edited by Joanna Brooks, Rachel Hunt Steenblik, and Hannah Wheelwright. The quilt is accompanied by this note: “On December 16, 2012, Mormon feminists around the world took action to raise the visibility of feminist issues by wearing pants to local LDS Church Services….Although not officially prohibited, pants-wearing by women at Sunday services jarred with deeply held gendered dress customs in many Mormon communities around the globe.” (xi) Women who participated sent their trousers to Hunter, who created a material sign of their community. The front cover encourages us to begin to think about Mormon feminism in terms of female identity, activism, and the place of community on a global scale.
By November 4, 2015
Neil J. Young. We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.
This book might be described as an intellectual genealogy (in the Foucauldian sense) of the conservative religious coalition that has exerted so much gravitational pull in the last forty years of American history. Young argues, in a nutshell, that the electoral coalition often described as the Religious Right was no monolith: rather, it was the result of a thousand small give and takes among the three primary camps he explores: Roman Catholics, evangelical Protestants, and Mormons. Indeed, Young’s careful delineation of distinctions and disjunctures almost persuades me that there is no “Religious Right” at all, merely a series of shifting alliances pivoting, shifting, forming and reforming on issue after issue after issue.
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