By October 14, 2015
Christine Talbot is the author of A Foreign Kingdom: Mormons and Polygamy in American Political Culture, 1852-1890 (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2013). We are delighted that she agreed to an interview with the JI about this important new book. Christine is Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the Gender Studies Program at the University of Northern Colorado.
Yours is the latest entry in a number of books on polygamy in the Utah territory. What makes yours distinct from, say, Sarah Barringer Gordon’s, or Kathryn Daynes’s?
I think my work builds on the previous work of Sarah Barringer Gordon, Kathryn Daynes, Terryl Givens, and others by bringing in a cultural perspective, especially in terms of anti-Mormon rhetoric. Cultural history led me to different conclusions about the nature of the Mormon question. A cultural history allows us to see what I think is one of the central roots of the Mormon question, issues of American national identity and citizenship. These issues were profoundly gendered in nineteenth century America; citizenship was built on the idea of a masculine public sphere where citizenship was enacted, juxtaposed to a feminine private sphere in the home where future citizens were trained. (However, married women’s property acts and the woman suffrage movement provided ample ammunition to contest the masculinity of citizenship). My book shows that the practice of polygamy upset the historical distinction between public and private in ways that many Americans found troubling precisely because it is a distinction that never held in the first place. Plural marriage denaturalized and deconstructed the distinction between public and private that upheld American ideals of citizenship. That, I think, is one of the things about plural marriage that so upset other Americans.
Having spent so much time with polygamy, what do you think are remaining areas that are worth exploring in relation to it?
By July 13, 2015
This is the ninth installment of the first annual JI Summer Book Club. This year we are reading Richard Bushman’s landmark biography of Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005). JI bloggers will be covering small chunks of the book in successive weeks through the summer, with new posts appearing Monday mornings. We invite anyone and everyone interested to read along and to use the comment sections on each post to share your own reflections and questions. There are discussion questions below.
- Part 1: Prologue, Chapters 1-2
- Part 2: Chapters 3-4
- Part 3: Chapters 5-6
- Part 4: Chapters 7-9
- Part 5: Chapters 10-12
- Part 6: Chapters 13-15
- Part 7: Chapters 16-18
- Part 8: Chapters 19-21
- Next Week: Chapters 25-27
Richard Bushman begins Chapter 23 by saying, “Eighteen Forty may have been the happiest year of Joseph Smith’s life” (403). This was because it was basically a honeymoon period between the tragedy of Missouri and the rising tensions in Illinois. In these three chapters we meet a triumphant Joseph Smith—a Joseph Smith who pled his case to the President of the United States, earned the respect of intellectual observers, built a bustling city, and flirted with Christian heresies—and is notably couched in a triumphalist narrative. You could feel that it was in these years, 1839-1841, that Joseph Smith became a national figure worthy of more than mere parochial attention. Bushman compares the pro- and anti-Mormon literature of the previous few years that rarely mentioned Smith to the growth of pamphlets that now identified, engaged, denounced, and praised the Prophet. “Joseph Smith was at last given a name and a role in print as the searching youth to whom God and angels appeared,” he explains (402). Smith was finally a figure with which to be reckoned.
By July 6, 2015
This is the eighth installment of the first annual JI Summer Book Club. This year we are reading Richard Bushman’s landmark biography of Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005). JI bloggers will be covering small chunks of the book in successive weeks through the summer, with new posts appearing Monday mornings. We invite anyone and everyone interested to read along and to use the comment sections on each post to share your own reflections and questions. There are discussion questions below.
- Part 1: Prologue, Chapters 1-2
- Part 2: Chapters 3-4
- Part 3: Chapters 5-6
- Part 4: Chapters 7-9
- Part 5: Chapters 10-12
- Part 6: Chapters 13-15
- Part 7: Chapters 16-18
- Next week (Part 9): Chapters 22-24
In the previous installment of the summer book club, Tona brought us through early January 1838, when, acting on a revelation, Joseph Smith (JS) fled Kirtland, Ohio, and reestablished the church’s headquarters in Far West, Caldwell County, Missouri. As chapter 19 begins, Bushman lays out JS’s vision of the burgeoning Mormon settlement in northwestern Missouri and the palpable optimism that the Saints felt regarding Far West’s prospects. However, as 1838 progressed, that optimism would fade in the face of internal dissension and external opposition, ultimately resulting in the violent deaths of perhaps forty church members, the government-sanctioned expulsion of the Latter-day Saints from the state, and JS himself incarcerated on charges of treason and other crimes. Sifting through an uneven historical record, Bushman seeks to evaluate JS’s role and responsibility in these difficulties.
The internal dissent that had plagued JS and the church in Kirtland in 1837 followed him to Missouri. In February 1838, church members voted to remove David Whitmer, W. W. Phelps, and John Whitmer as the presidency of the Missouri church, based on charges of mishandling church funds and properties. In March and April, church courts excommunicated the Whitmers, Phelps, and Oliver Cowdery, another church leader. These men had been among JS’s earliest and staunchest supporters, but by 1838 they had become estranged from the prophet. Cowdery had objected to what he saw as un-republican ecclesiastical interference in personal affairs. Bushman uses Cowdery’s trial as “a reminder of the complex ideological environment of Mormons in the 1830s. Most of the time they spoke Kingdom of God language, using words like ‘faith,’ ‘righteousness,’ ‘Zion,[’] ‘gathering,’ ‘priesthood,’ and ‘temple.’ At the same time, as American citizens, they knew the political language of rights and freedom” (348). Although JS himself used republican language when declaring that the Mormons would not submit to mob violence, he was less enthusiastic when his followers used it to undermine Latter-day Saint beliefs in consecration and unity.
By May 11, 2015
This post kicks off the first annual JI Summer Book Club. This year we are reading Richard Bushman’s landmark biography of Mormonism founder, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005). JI bloggers will be covering several small chunks of the book (typically 2-3 chapters) in successive weeks from now through the summer. New posts will appear on Monday mornings. We begin today with the Prologue, which sets the tone in several important respects for the rest of the book, and Chapters 1 (“The Joseph Smith Family: To 1816”) and 2 (“The First Visions: 1816-1827”). We invite anyone and everyone interested to join along. Please use the comment section on each post to post your own reflections and commentary on the chapters under consideration and ask questions.
I first read Rough Stone Rolling (RSR) when it was first released in 2005. I was an undergraduate history major at the time, a recently-returned Mormon missionary, and an avid if novice and somewhat naïve student of Mormon history. Bushman’s biography was not my introduction to the scholarly study of Joseph Smith or Mormon history, but it still threw me for something of a loop, challenging many of the assumptions of my faith-promoting worldview. Nevertheless, I pushed through and finished the book. I next read it three years later, in a reading seminar in BYU’s now-defunct MA program in history. My familiarity with both Mormon and American religious history more broadly was deeper by then, and reading the book alongside both an experienced historian and several budding young scholars made the book both more familiar and yet so foreign from my initial reading. That a book reads differently to the same individual at different stages in her life is a truism of nearly all books, but it is especially true in reading Rough Stone Rolling.
By April 22, 2015
Matt Grow’s contribution to the Journal of Mormon History 50th anniversary issue takes as its subject the place of biography in Mormon Studies. As the author (or co-author) of two significant biographies in the field, Grow is well positioned to assess the state of Mormon biographical writing.
In short, Grow believes that “the genre of Mormon biography has answered many of [the] rallying cries” of the New Mormon History’s call for “engage[ment] with larger historical themes” and “greater attention to women, race, ordinary Saints, the twentieth century, and international Mormons” (185), pointing to the spate of biographies produced in the last three decades on Mormon leaders (of both the Latter-day Saint and Latter Day Saint variety), dissenters, women, and racial and ethnic minorities. “There is much to celebrate in in the outpouring of scholarly biographies in the past few decades,” he concludes (196). Nevertheless, work remains to be done, and that work mirrors the shortcomings of Mormon history more generally: “More biographies of women, twentieth century, and international Mormons are particularly needed to advance the field” (196).
By April 20, 2015
Today’s post comes from Bradley Kime, who will graduate this spring with a Masters in history rom Utah State University. Bradley has published in the Journal of Mormon History and is an editorial fellow at the Western Historical Quarterly. He will begin his PhD program in religious studies at the University of Virginia this fall (WAHOOWA!).
For the last few years, Stephen Webb has generously praised LDS Christo-centrism. Back in 2012, before the publication of his Mormon Christianity, he offered the First Things crowd a positive take on Mormonism’s eternally embodied Savior titled “Mormonism Obsessed with Christ.” When First Things recently posted the article on their Facebook feed, the 108 comments (and counting), almost entirely from creedal Christians across the Protestant-Catholic spectrum, were overwhelmingly negative. One comment summed up the general consensus: “You know who else was obsessed with Christ? Arius.” In other words, earnestness doesn’t equal orthodoxy, and calling a spade a spade is important. Almost as a chorus, First Things readers reaffirmed that the Mormon Christ was a heresy, notwithstanding Webb’s misguided generosity.
By December 29, 2014
Jedediah S. Rogers, ed., The Council of Fifty: A Documentary History (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2014).
Secret ecclesiastical organizations usually draw a lot of attention, yet few secret ecclesiastical organizations have garnered as much speculation and mythologization as the Council of Fifty. Anyone with even a cursory interest in Mormon history has heard of the council, often wrapped up with rumors of kingly coronations, clandestine governments, and power struggles. Academic engagement with the organization has ranged from the ambitious (and as it turns out, overstated) Quest for Empire: The Political Kingdom of God and the Council of Fifty in Mormon History (Michigan State University Press, 1967) by Klaus Hansen to the more nuanced articles by Michael Quinn and Andrew Ehat. Recently, the LDS Church has announced plans to publish the long-secluded minutes from the original Nauvoo council as part of the Joseph Smith Papers Project. But the council left a larger printed impact than what is found in that minute book; further, the council lasted much longer than merely Nauvoo. To help chart the development and relevance of this quixotic council, Jedidiah S. Rogers has edited The Council of Fifty: A Documentary History, which compiles a large number of documents that shed light on the secretive organization from its formation in 1844 through John Taylor’s resuscitation of the council in the 1880s. There are a lot of things that could be highlighted from the volume for discussion, but as a historian of American religious and political culture, I’d like to point out two themes that stood out to me.
By December 15, 2014
Just a few books from this last year that should be found on your bookshelves.
It’s that time of year again.
This is the sixth annual installment of my “Restrospect” series, which attempts to overview what I thought were important books and articles from the last 12 months. (Previous installments are found here, here, here, here, and here.) Every year, I wonder if I want to do this post again; every year, I decide it is once again worth it. (Though no promises for next year.) Mostly, it is an excuse to catch up on what has been published and to chart historiographical trends–something that really is only possible when you look at articles as well. I’ll also continue my tradition of offering my selections for MHA’s awards.
The usual caveat: my selections represent my own interests, and I admit I likely have many blindspots. So please fill in the gaps with your comments.
Of course, if you want more substantive engagement with recent scholarship in Mormon studies, you’d read the recent issue of Mormon Studies Review, especially since digital subscriptions are only $10. But you already knew that.
By October 21, 2014
I have a post up over at The Junto this morning reflecting on my audiobook listening habits. I note there, among other things, that “audiobooks … have become a means of helping me keep up with scholarship outside of early America (including periods and subjects I will likely need to teach at some future point), introducing myself to historical subjects in which I am peripherally interested (including the history of sport, the history of food), and of listening to popular and academic histories that fit under the broad umbrella of ‘early American history’ that I might not find time to read in the immediate future.” While writing that post, my thoughts turned to the relative dearth of quality audiobooks on subjects that fall under the large umbrella of Mormon Studies.
My reasons for wanting to listen to Mormon Studies audiobooks largely mirror the reasons cited in the first paragraph — it would be a convenient way to keep up with a field I remain committed to and interested in but one in which my current research does not fall. Given the general success of books in the subfield published by major university and trade presses over the last few years, I am a little surprised that more have not been recorded as audiobooks. Looking back through the library of audiobooks I’ve purchased, downloaded, and listened to over the last three or four years (a library of 50+ volumes), I realized that it included only one Mormon title — our very own Matt Bowman’s excellent survey of Mormon history. A quick search for “Mormon,” “LDS,” and “Latter-day Saints” in Audible.com’s library turns up an odd mix of ex-Mormon narratives, nineteenth-century faith promoting titles, a couple of volumes either for or against Mitt Romney, and only a small handful of Mormon Studies titles (including, most promisingly, Terryl Givens’s The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction and Spencer Fluhman’s A Peculiar People). The only biography of Joseph Smith available is Alex Beam’s American Crucifixion [edit: I somehow missed Robert Remini’s short and accessible biography of JS.]. The offerings at University Press Audiobooks are even slimmer.
By September 25, 2014
Several years ago–perhaps 2009 or 2010–I first heard about a paper slated to be published in a major literary journal that radically reinterpreted the Book of Mormon as an Amerindian apocalypse. Whispers of both its imminent publication and its brilliance continued, and at some point, I was forwarded a prepublication draft of the paper. This isn’t altogether unusual in Mormon Studies–unpublished papers and theses, typescripts of difficult-to-access manuscript sources, and PDFs of out-of-print books passed from person to person have a long, storied, and sometime litigious history in the often insular world of Mormon scholarship. But unlike other instances I’m aware of, the importance of this paper was not in its access to otherwise unavailable primary source material or its controversial content, but rather in its interpretive significance.
By September 24, 2014
Michael W. Homer, Joseph’s Temples: The Dynamic Relationship Between Freemasonry and Mormonism (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2014).
There are few topics in Mormon history more fraught than the relationship between Mormonism and masonry. From the Mormon apologetic folklore that Joseph Smith only attended three masonic meetings to the anti-Mormon accusation that the temple rituals were merely plagiarized masonic rites, this is a topic that enlivens discussion in academic classrooms and missionary companionship study alike. Michael Homer’s Joseph’s Temples is the most recent contribution to this discussion, as it is a vastly expanded version of his previous work on the topic. And though it may not be up to addressing the deeper and more complex issues involved with the topic that are demanded by today’s Mormon studies field, it is the culmination of four decades of Mormon scholarship on the religion’s contested history with the contested fraternity.
Unlike most work on Mormonism and masonry, this book is not dedicated to the two years between Joseph Smith’s introduction of temple endowments, which came months after his induction to the Nauvoo Lodge, and his death in Carthage Jail, when his last words were the masonic call for distress. Rather, this book has a very broad chronological and geographic sweep, detailing freemasonry’s development in Renaissance Europe to masonry’s demise and resurgence in Utah. Half of the book does, though, detail with the Nauvoo period, which chapters dedicated to race, gender, ritual, and succession. Though this framework for chapters made it somewhat redundant at times—and certainly did not help with the book’s length—it did add to the book’s exhaustive nature, which is indeed its best strength.
By June 16, 2014
At the Mormon History Association’s meetings two weeks ago (was it only two weeks ago?!), I attended several excellent sessions and roundtables. Each of the sessions I attended was worth the price of the conference registration—it was my favorite MHA I’ve attended so far. As usual, meals, hall conversations, and the student reception provided an excellent arena for sharing ideas about the research being presented, but also about the new developments in Mormon history and American religious history.
By June 9, 2014
No, the title of this post is not the opening for one of those “…walk into a bar…” jokes, although it does provide good potential.
NOTE: This post doesn’t aim to make a particular argument, or perhaps to say much new, but merely to express some issues that have been circling my mind for a while, and conclude one of those historical nerd tangential interests that we all know so well.
Apparently not satisfied with merely enraging Mormon historians, Brodie later tried to do the same to Jeffersonian scholars.
A few months ago, in a conversation on the H-SHEAR list (an email group focused on the history of the early American republic), someone made a reference to Fawn Brodie’s biography of Thomas Jefferson. Then, as an aside, the writer added, “Incidentally, Fawn Brodie is in my view the Rosalind Franklin of American history. There are many Watsons and Cricks in the historical profession who owe her a posthumous apology.” Franklin, for those of you (like me) who aren’t encyclopedias of this type of knowledge, was a biophysicist who studied DNA in the early 1950s. Watson and Crick, who were dismissive and rude toward Franklin in public and private throughout her life, accessed her data without her knowledge, much less permission, and used that data to make the critical leap in insight that elucidated the structure of DNA. They published with no mention of Franklin’s contribution and went on to great fame and a Nobel Prize a decade later.
While Brodie is mostly known in Mormon circles for her controversial biography of Joseph Smith, she is more widely known in the American historical community for her innovative use of psychohistory, especially in her biographies of Thomas Jefferson and, less successfully, Richard Nixon. Indeed, No Man Knows My History was merely her entrance into the historical profession, where afterward she became one of the foremost practitioners of psychohistory American political biography, and was even one of the first tenured female professors at UCLA. Most especially, her Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate Life (W. W. Norton, 1974) was a national bestseller and instigator of much debate in the academic community. In the book, Brodie focused on Jefferson’s private life, and was one of the first to strongly argue that there was a relationship between the president and his slave, Sally Hemings. The book was a commercial success, but was panned by many historians, especially Jeffersonian scholars, who rejected the thesis that Jefferson would procreate with a slave. Many historians rejected Browdie’s interpretation of Jefferson, just as Mormon historians rejected her interpretation of Joseph Smith.
Several decades later, however, Brodie’s argument was vindicated.
By May 21, 2014
This image, from British Chartist George Cruikshank in 1840, raises a provocative question: when tracing the origins of Mormon symbology, why not look at the British political debates over class–an atmosphere most of the Q12 experienced in formative years?
For a historiographical tradition birthed from the New Social History movement, New Mormon History has certainly lacked attention toward the potent topic of class. Sure, it pops up every once and a while—most expectedly from the economic work of Leonard Arrinton, and perhaps least expectedly in Terryl Givens and Matthew Grow’s biography of Parley Pratt—but historians of Mormonism in general have neglected class tensions as the dominant lens through which to view the LDS tradition. There are probably a number of reasons for this, including the lack of theoretical sophistication in most works on Mormon history, the assumption that Mormonism’s emphasis on communalism has shaped our understanding of distinct social classes, the LDS tradition’s emphasis on the equality of the gospel, most participants’ adherence to economic free markets, and perhaps the expectation that few Mormon historians would employ the tools of Marxist criticism. This lack of focus should give us pause, because of at least three general points. First, Mormonism’s message had significant consequences for the temporal realities of its converts. Second, the LDS Church’s constant migration forced particants to create anew social networks and circumstances in several new contexts. And third, as confirmed through political debates year in and year out, notions of class and societal power have a real impact on how individuals live, work, and socialize, a phenomenon that is especially acute for communities that place religious significance on their cultural surroundings. Religious historiography of recent decades has digested these facts, and it is left for historians of Mormonism to catch up.
By April 25, 2014
Another contributor in our Mormon Studies in the Classroom series, Patrick Mason is the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University.
“Approaches to Mormonism” is designed as a historiographical introduction to Mormonism and the field of Mormon studies (with a strong Mormon history component). This is a graduate seminar for MA and PhD students that I have taught twice at Claremont Graduate University. When I last taught it in Fall 2013 the seminar had about a dozen students, with a mix of LDS and non-LDS backgrounds.
Here is how I describe the course in the syllabus: “This course will introduce students to representative approaches used by scholars in the academic (non-polemical, non-apologetic) study of Mormonism. . . . Students will read exemplary works representing various disciplinary and methodological approaches to the study of Mormonism, and in the process will be encouraged to consider ways that Mormon studies has been shaped by, and can potentially shape, other established academic fields and disciplines. This course asks questions such as whether there exists a Mormon studies canon, where the gaps and blind spots are in the extant literature, and what the future of Mormon studies might hold—not to mention whether we can speak intelligibly about something called ‘Mormon studies.’”
By April 10, 2014
Over three years ago, I posted my first attempt at a Mormon History Canon. Since a few years have past, a few new books have shaken the field, and I am bored post-dissertation, I thought it was time to do an update. I’ve also refined the type of list this is, which is discussed below.
The goal of the list was to name 25—and the number had to stick to 25—books that every student of Mormon history should read. It is designed as a template for a grad student’s theoretical comprehensive exam list (though I should again emphasize that I’d think it’d be a stupid idea for a grad student to dedicate a portion of a comprehensive exam merely to Mormonism). Thus, books need to cover a broad swath of topics, chronologies, and approaches in order to be inclusive, but they should also match a particular level of quality. I’m also shying away from (most) biographies, edited collections, and documentary sources; those can have separate lists.
By February 27, 2014
The other day I was reading two articles published in BYU Studies for the Mormonism class I’m taking here at the U, both by Chad M. Orton. The one deals with Francis Webster, a member of the Martin handcart company, the other with the Sweetwater River rescue. As I read them, I was constantly struck how they were almost devotional in nature, something that didn’t make sense to me as a scholar until I took a step back.
By January 27, 2014
Susanna Morrill is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. She is the author of White Roses on the Floor of Heaven: Nature and Flower Imagery in Latter-day Saints Women’s Literature, 1880-1920 and several excellent articles. She has previously guest blogged for JI here and here.
In the latest issue of the Journal of Mormon History, Boyd J. Petersen effectively and succinctly describes Mormon women’s dialogic literary conversations about Eve in the Woman’s Exponent: “The speaking of many voices created a carnivalesque atmosphere where language was at once serious and subversive.”  This is a really great description of what was going on in Emmeline B. Wells’ Exponent. This periodical gave Mormon women a distinct, authoritative bandwidth within the community to express their views, views that as Petersen notes sometimes “subvert[ed] and sometimes co-opt[ed] the patriarchal gaze that watched over the publication.”  Petersen adds much to our understanding of how the present-day understanding of Eve developed as he meticulously chronicles the diversity of interpretations of Eve that appeared on the pages of the Exponent: she was alternately a hero, a goddess, “the hapless and unintentional instigator of the Fall.” 
By December 10, 2013
Last week I highlighted noteworthy books and articles in Mormon history from 2013. But today, I’m not here to talk about the past. Continuing a tradition from last year, this post highlights forthcoming scholarship slated to appear in 2014.
This is not a comprehensive overview; for that, we can only hope that Jared T. continues his prestigious and exhaustive series at his blog. (I will include a link to his post if/when it shows up.) These are merely those works that I’m personally excited for, which obviously reflects my own interests. I encourage you to share your own additions in the comments below. And just like any year, some of these volumes may slip out of 2014 and appear the following year; but at least they are nearing arrival.
By December 2, 2013
The last few years have been good for Mormon history.
This is the fifth annual installment of my “Retrospect” series here at JI, in which I offer an overview of scholarship in the field from the last twelve months. (For previous installments, see, in reverse chronological order, here, here, here, and here.) I always enjoy these posts, as it not only allows me to keep track of everything that has been done, but also see broader trends in the field. And to better accomplish that latter goal, I include articles from the last twelve months as well, since that gives a broader understanding of the current historiographical interests and movements.
As always, while I aim to be broad and liberal in scope, I am still human with my own interests and biases. Thus, it is very likely I overlooked some important books and articles, so it is your job to fill in my gaps in the comments. And just like last year, at the end of the post I will offer my own picks for MHA’s awards, and encourage you to do the same.
Also, remember that you can find the best and most in-depth tracing of Mormon studies at the recently launched Mormon Studies Review!
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