By September 24, 2015
This semester I am teaching both halves of American history at a small liberal arts college. As a historian of American Religion, I tend to look for religion in whatever I am teaching at the moment. But then there is the nagging question of “because it is my specialty, do I always look for it?” and “Is it relevant?” Well, of course, it is. The same thing could be said for gender, race, class, ethnicity, etc. Religion (or if we want to call it a belief-system, meaning-making, what have you) is everywhere.
By September 21, 2015
Most of us (of a certain age) have a very specific memory of where we were that day in 2001. I was sitting on my couch watching the Today Show as the plane hit the second tower. I set down my laptop and didn’t pick it back up that day.
At the time, it didn’t occur to me at the time that this was not the first time something horrific happened on September 11th. My abandoned laptop held evidence of another harrowing day in September almost a century and a half earlier—I had been reading newspaper articles about the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Only later would I learn that 11 September was also the date of the Chilean coup in which elected President Salvador Allende was ousted (with help from the US) that led to the 15-year military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.
By August 5, 2015
The release of the photos of Joseph Smith’s seer stone as well as the pouch made by Emma Smith that protected it, illustrates the sheer viscerality of material religion. It demonstrates the power that objects can have in the lives of religious believers and is a great example of how religion is not just something that is believed or felt abstractly or read through a text. Objects and bodies mediate religious experience.
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 March 26, 2015
In 1991, the iconoclastic historian Jon Butler brought forth one of the greatest of his many “historiographical heresies.” Well known for being an ardent revisionist, Butler had called the previous year in his important book Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (1990) for narratives that paid more attention to the enduring and even escalating power of religious institutions in nineteenth-century America. Institutional power, he suggested, had been unduly marginalized in the pursuit of other interests. In 1991, however, Butler took this logic all the way and proposed an entirely new model for American religious history, one that was sure to astound many of his colleagues. In the heyday of the new scholarship on American evangelicalism and during the very apotheosis of Nathan Hatch’s Democratization of American Christianity, Butler insisted that—of all groups—Roman Catholics could serve as a productive baseline for American religious history. Catholicism in America, he argued, more than the hurly burly of American evangelicalism, could help historians account for hidden aspects of the religious past. 
By March 23, 2015
Today’s contribution to JI’s Roundtable on the Journal of Mormon History’s 50th anniversary issue comes from longtime friend of (and occasional guest contributor to) JI, David Howlett. David is currently visiting assistant professor at Skidmore College and author of The Kirtland Temple: The Biography of a Shared Mormon Sacred Space (University of Illinois Press, 2014). Here he previews his own article published in JMH50, entitled “Ripe Fields, Plentiful Laborers, Few Jobs: The Prospects and Challenges for Early-Career Mormon Studies Scholars.”
Early career scholars (new PhDs and graduate students) across the country are studying Mormonism in greater numbers than ever before. At venerable institutions like the University of Virginia and Claremont Graduate University, MA and PhD students may even study with experts whose job descriptions include the field of Mormon studies. However, these same early career scholars and their post-PhD comrades face a strange paradox: never before have there been so many opportunities to do original research on Mormonism for so many people who compete for so few paying jobs.
My article in the most recent Journal of Mormon History focused on three “fields” in which an early-career Mormon studies scholar finds herself positioned: the field of publishing, the field of employment, and the new fields of study in Mormon history itself. For this brief abstraction of my relatively short article, I will only address two of these social fields: publishing and employment.
By December 27, 2014
Solstice was this week (which is also my birthday), a day which to me always represents a fresh start, the year’s pivot point back towards the light. This dawning feels especially significant, as the start of an unfamiliar new phase: I’ve just begun a sabbatical.
By December 11, 2014
Last week, Ben highlighted the latest issue of the Mormon Studies Review. This week the Maxwell Institute gave Mormon Studies geeks even more goodness with the release of the first issue of the newly-revamped Studies in the Bible and Antiquity. You can read Carl Griffin’s overview of the entire issue here, but I wanted to take the time to highlight two of the articles included in particular. While much of what Studies in the Bible and Antiquity falls outside of the more narrow interests of JI bloggers, this issue includes a roundtable review of the BYU New Testament Commentary (BYUNTC) that features two prominent historians of Mormonism: Philip Barlow, Leonard J. Arrington Professor of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University, and Grant Underwood, Professor of History at Brigham Young University and coeditor of the Documents series of the Joseph Smith Papers Project.
Barlow opens the roundtable with some reflections on the aims of the BYUNTC, highlighting five particular questions that the undertaking raised for him, as a believing Mormon and a scholar of Mormonism and the Bible:
By November 17, 2014
And now for something completely different…
A few weeks ago, I introduced my first-year students to the Internet Archive, and we played a bit with the Wayback Machine, which has archived portions of the web since its beginning so we can know what digital environments looked like and how they’ve changed over time.
I also had occasion recently to pull out the files I collected while pursuing my undergraduate thesis on Mormon Indian Placement. I conducted that research between 1990 and 1992, which included some library research trips and a month of field research and collecting oral interviews. It was an interesting in-between time to engage in this kind of study. Research began at the literal card catalog in each library. I had access to computers, yes, but laptops were clunky and large, and could not wirelessly connect to anything. So I bought an electric typewriter on which to make my field notes. I carried a cassette tape recorder for interviews, and after I collected them all, I got some funding to rent a transcription machine with a foot pedal stop/start to help me transcribe them and save them on our home desktop. I backed up everything on 3.5″ disks (called floppies, for you millennials). Thinking I might need to present my research at some point, I brought a camera loaded with 35mm film and took a couple rolls of slides. Now all those things are stored in two very heavy cardboard boxes in my attic. I.e. accessible to no one, barely even me.
Tucked among my papers I found this small brochure from the BYU Harold B. Lee Library, listing ALL of its available computer research databases, most of which were installed on the library’s terminals (i.e. not accessed real-time via internet yet) and some of which required the user to switch out numbered CD-ROM disks manually. I thought it such a quaint artifact of early electronic academic resources that I took the liberty of uploading it to the Internet Archive, where it now lives. I’ve also Flipsnack’d it below (sorry it’s sideways, they don’t do landscape orientation apparently). The brochure was published in 1990, which I guess depending on your age seems like either a lifetime ago, or not very long ago at all.
By October 14, 2014
Earlier this year, Tona wrote an excellent post about the fragility of digital archives following up on Max Mueller’s AHA paper that explored both the possibilities and pitfalls of the “I’m A Mormon” campaign as a primary source. Tona noted that, “What is available to historians relies largely upon on goodwill, technology upgrades, and the market.”
Within this context, it is fascinating to observe, in real-time, the debate over whether or not the General Women’s Meeting is a session of General Conference. This controversy includes the editing of a video of a conference session as well as conflicting (and possibly changing) interpretations about the status of the Women’s Meeting from LDS Public Affairs, the Deseret News website as well as lds.org. While the debate about the status of the Women’s Meeting has been largely framed as a feminist issue, it also raises questions for researchers in tracing changes to historical documents and other sources as well as how ideas get lodged in the imaginations of religious believers. As Tona states,
Things come, go, vanish, launch, in a constant state of (often unannounced) change that nonetheless presents itself as final, unchanging and authoritative… it is a historian’s worst nightmare. If you cannot see the “manuscript edits” so to speak, how do you know what changed, when, how and why? And if the old just vanishes from the online environment without a trace, what happens to the possibilities for historical research? Most of what we are all busily creating in this decade has simply been written in the equivalent of vanishing ink.
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 September 15, 2014
I’d like to offer some thoughts I’ve had on Jehu J. Hanciles’ Tanner Lecture at the 2014 meeting of the Mormon History Association. During his lecture, Professor Hanciles, a Professor of Global Christianity at Emory University, shared his research on the growth of Mormonism in Africa.
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 May 8, 2014
As a professor of history at a predominantly Mormon university, lately I have been a magnet for students with questions about the changes for Mormon women, especially considering the recent public attention to the roles of women in our traditional religious culture.
By April 28, 2014
As my contribution to the Juvenile Instructor’s series on Mormon Studies in the Classroom, I thought I’d discuss the place of Mormonism in the Utah Studies course, which is a required class for all 7th graders in the state’s public schools. The structure, sources, and activities for such a class are necessarily tailored to a younger audience than those of the other courses that will make up this series, but I think it’s important to consider how less-seasoned—and more often than not, less-willing—students interact with Mormon studies.
I’m only in my second year teaching the Utah Studies Course, but have been given a lot of latitude by my school (which is a charter school that employs the Core Knowledge Sequence for its main curriculum). So I’ve put a lot of thought into what I’d like my course to look like, where I think Mormonism should fit, and what I want my adolescent audience to take away from the course.
The Utah Core Curriculum introduction to the Utah Studies Course says this:
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!
By November 25, 2013
We are pleased to have this guest post by Professor Matthew Kester who is the author of Remembering Iosepa: History, Place, and Religion in the American West (Oxford University Press, 2013), the university archivist, and an assistant professor of history at Brigham Young University Hawaii.
My training as an historian of Oceania and the American West in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and my role as the custodian of archival collections on Mormonism in Oceania, led me to write on interactions between Mormons and Kanaka Maoli, the indigenous people of Hawai’i. Both Oceania and the American West are regions where indigenous people experienced massive, disruptive political, social, and economic change, and Mormon missionaries and settlers played an important role in that change. I want to use this opportunity to reflect on what I feel are some of the more important themes in the study of Mormonism and indigenous people, and suggest some ways that they might be responsibly put to use. Important, because exploring these themes will increase our understanding of these interactions and the communities they created. Responsible, because they do so in a way that represents indigenous people as full historical subjects, and as active historical agents who negotiated (and continue to negotiate) disruptive periods in their history on their own terms, at least within the confines of the larger power structures imposed by colonization, settlement, and in many cases, the erosion or loss of political sovereignty and self-determination.
By November 18, 2013
Many Farms Lake
’Asdzáánsání (elderly woman)
Diné Bizaad (Navajo language)
Before reading this post, please note that we faced technological issues with using Navajo diacritical marks on the blog so some of the Navajo here does not directly represent the revised transcript of the oral history. The two symbols that would not appear on this blog were the slashed l and nasal marks. I italicize the l (l) to represent the slashed l and italicize vowels that should include a nasal mark (a, o, and e especially). Different literature often does not follow a standard written Navajo form with consistent use of diacritical marks for terms.
| Older Posts