By September 19, 2017
Eighteen months ago, Taysom was deep into work on a biography of Joseph F. Smith, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1901 to 1918. We interviewed him then about the project. Taysom recently finished work on the manuscript, and we decided to follow up to see how the project evolved over that period and what Taysom’s reflections in retrospect are.
By September 18, 2017
This review was written by Courtney Jensen Peacock, a PhD student in American Studies at Heidelberg University.
Book Review: Grow, Matthew and R. Eric Smith, eds. The Council of Fifty: What the Records Reveal about Mormon History. Religious Studies Center, BYU, Provo, UT: 2017.
The release of the Council of Fifty minutes by The Joseph Smith Papers project last year (Administrative Records: Council of Fifty, Minutes, March 1844–January 1846) is a fantastic example of the exciting new developments currently occurring in Mormon studies, as more sources are becoming available for the first time to both scholars and the public. The release of new primary sources is always cause for celebration, but the fact that the Council of Fifty minutes cover the late Nauvoo period make them especially valuable. Scholars working on the Nauvoo period have always struggled with a shortage of available contemporary sources, which has hindered a full understanding of this crucial time in the development of Mormonism’s distinct theology and culture. The publishing of the Council of Fifty minutes, along with other sources recently released by The Joseph Smith Papers or published elsewhere, has and will contribute to important and innovative analyses of the Nauvoo period and nineteenth-century Mormonism.[i]
By September 5, 2017
We are pleased that Patrick Mason, Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University, has responded to questions asked by JI bloggers about his plans for the Global Mormon Studies Center. You can find more about the Global Mormon Studies Center here.
- The Global Mormon Studies Center is the first research organization directly connected to Mormon Studies. Do you see the Center as a part of the program’s draw for students, or as a separate research center attached to CGU?
By August 28, 2017
In early June, Kris and I organized a “publication workshop” for graduate students and early-career scholars working on projects related to Mormon History and American Religious History. Thanks to the generosity of the John C. Danforth Center for Religion and Politics at Washington University at St. Louis, we were able to meet in a central location before the meetings of the Mormon History Association (lots of capital letters!). I thought that it would be useful to share what I learned at the event and also share what I view as the primary benefits of organizing writing workshops.
STATE OF THE FIELD
By August 8, 2017
I spent too much of coursework worrying about coursework. Of course, that’s easy to say now that I’m studying for comprehensive exams. Reading several hundred books has a way of putting things into perspective. You realize that there is a LOT of great work out there and that it is very difficult to publish a book. Nary has an acknowledgments section gone by without mentioning that the author reached a point where they nearly gave up or had to rely on their “people” for encouragement. However, something else struck me—very few of the books I’ve read mention anything about the project growing out of a paper written during coursework.
By August 7, 2017
I’m working my way through the production process for my first book, The Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology, and I thought it would be helpful to review some of the practical aspects of getting the book together. In this post, I address selecting artwork and acquiring permission to publish from the various repositories.
First is the issue of copyright
By August 3, 2017
Shinji Takagi, The Trek East: Mormonism Meets Japan, 1901-1968 (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2016)
Most Mormon history books fill the gaps within an overarching narrative that has already been told. Under rare and exciting circumstances, a few books take the chance to establish a broad narrative that provides a framework for future studies to debate, confirm, and clarify. The latter, in my opinion, is the case with The Trek East, winner of the Mormon History Association’s “Best Book on International Mormon History” award. Shinji Takagi, Professor Emeritus of Economics at Osaka University, presents an ambitious work that focuses on a “macro” and “analytical” approach to Mormonism’s historical presence in Japan from 1901 to 1968.
By July 30, 2017
This is the ninth entry in the Third Annual Summer Book Club at Juvenile Instructor. This year we are reading Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism (Knopf, 2017). Check back every Sunday for the week’s installment! Please follow the book club and JI on Facebook.
In the previous chapter, we followed Mormon pioneers on the trail west. In Chapter Nine, Ulrich uses the theme of women using their pens as weapons, often aimed at their spouses, other times employed as a kind of self-defense. For example, Augusta Cobb longed to be independent, but found herself needing to defer to both her husband and his plural wives and failing at both. Ulrich weaves together Augusta’s personal circumstances with a larger reflection on the tensions caused by plural marriage in Utah and beyond. Not one to bow down and suffer in silence, her writings to her husband, Brigham Young, reflect either her inability or unwillingness to play by the rules that got things done in Zion–not only did she not submit silently to her husband, but as Ulrich writes, by refusing to participate in the sister-wife system, she took herself out of the political and economic flow, leaving her with few resources and an increasing frustration over the paradoxes and hardships of female independence and existence in Zion.
By July 24, 2017
This is the eighth entry in the Third Annual Summer Book Club at Juvenile Instructor. This year we are reading Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism (Knopf, 2017). Check back every Sunday for the week’s installment! Please follow the book club and JI on Facebook.
It was purely serendipitous that my scheduled review of Chapter 8 happened to land on July 24, and very appropriately so. This is Pioneer Day, in the style of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, who treats the years of Mormon overland migration from 1847 to 1850 much in the same way that she approaches other common Mormon narratives. She takes a story that is relatively well-known to Mormon history audiences, at least on a surface level, and reconstructs it with the details, nuance, context and sharpness that deepens and enlivens those events. And she does it in a way that reminds you that you’ve never heard the story that way before, while also leaving with you with the feeling that you must have always heard it that way. And central to her telling are the experiences of Mormon women, told from the perspective of her reliable female diarists, Patty Sessions, Eliza R. Snow, Leonora Taylor, and Caroline Barnes Crosby, along with her roster of helpful and colorful male diarists, Wilford Woodruff, Hosea Stout, and Perregrine Sessions, among others.
Ulrich actually begins with the famed entrance of Brigham Young into the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847, when he “may well have said something” about the salty desert where Mormons would make their home. She then steps back from that one iconic and mythical moment, by weaving her usual web of characters surrounding and intersecting with that event. Samuel Brannan, for example, had sailed on the Brooklyn, landed in California, and encountered members of the Mormon Battalion during the same weeks that Mormons first entered Utah. Brigham himself returned immediately back to Winter Quarters in the Fall of 1847, not even participating in that first winter of building Salt Lake City. By the spring of 1848, twenty-two hundred saints left Winter Quarters for Utah, while Wilford and Phebe Woodruff were on their way to Boston to set up the the Church’s “headquarters” in the East. Famously, the first company of Saints into the Salt Lake Valley included three women (Harriet Decker Young, her daughter Clara, and Ellen Saunders, who was actually ‘Aagaat Yseinsdatter Bakka,’ one of Heber C. Kimball’s wives), it was not until 1848 and 1849 that Mormonism’s most famous early women came pioneering: Patty, Eliza, and Leonora, of course, but also Mary Isabella Horne, Zina D.H. Young, Bathsheba W. Smith, Margaret Smoot, and Mercy Thompson, among so many others.
Ulrich focuses on three main sub-narratives of women’s pioneering experiences. The first is telling the overland migration through women’s eyes, including descriptions of terrain, weather, and food preparation, to childbirth, interactions with Indian women, the selling of Indian children to Mormon families, spiritual experiences, and how women sometimes had to step up to fill in where male leaders fell short. Ulrich expands women’s “pioneering” into the actual building of Salt Lake City, in that women were central to the construction of the fort and log homes, the delivery of babies, planting of orchards and crops, and establishing or reestablishing in Salt Lake City the close female networks that had begun in Nauvoo and persisted in Winter Quarters.
The second sub-narrative surrounds the travels, family, and ministering of Wilford and Phebe Woodruff in their calling in Cambridge, Massachusetts, from 1848 to 1850, where Wilford was effectively overseeing branches of converts throughout New England and New York. As she does with so many male-centric Mormon stories, Ulrich seemlessly weaves Phebe’s more behind-the-scenes experiences into Wilford’s public leadership role. Ulrich covers Phebe’s crippling grief at the loss and burial of her children, hers and Wilford’s attempts to bring her family members into the fold of the Church, the caring for her widowed father, her sharing in Wilford’s ministering in New England, and their final return overland to Salt Lake City in 1850. Readers will find Phebe’s and Wilford’s saga imminently useful for understanding how the early polygamists of the 1840s were transitioning into the expectations and lived experiences of plural marriage. These are not the unabashed, proud polygamists of the 1860s through the 1880s; no, these are youthful rookies, proceeding cautiously and secretively (even in their diaries, as Wilford almost never mentions his second wife, Mary Ann Jackson, and their son, James), tiptoeing through the “principle” with fits and starts, and reluctance and caution along the way.
The third and final sub-narrative is the most compelling of this chapter, and the most feminist in scope. Early women pioneers, argues Ulrich, kept alive their female networking, socializing, and expressions of spiritual authority that had begun and Nauvoo and blossomed at Winter Quarters. This is not a new history of Mormon women, per se; rather, it is new in that Ulrich brings female authority to the front of the story, even during a period that lacked the formal skeleton of (re)constituted Relief Societies (yet). These started out as organized gatherings and parties. Indeed, even in mixed-gender settings in Salt Lake City, women exerted their feminine authority in unique ways that both supported male leadership as well as challenged it. Women often ‘presided’ at their own meetings, even when men were present, and a woman might ‘delegate’ her authority to other women in the presiding woman’s absence. Of course women also healed other women, in that they “anointed and layed hands.” (p. 196) But they also gave speeches in tongues and interpreted them, taking very literally Patty Sessions’s belief that “it was the sisters’ right to “claim for all that we bestow either spiritually & temporally.” (p. 195)
Ulrich finds completion where she began this story of pioneering, on July 24th itself, in the formal “Pioneer Day” celebrations, now iconic and ubiquitous throughout modern Mormonism. First inaugurated in 1849, Pioneer Day celebrations very quickly eclipsed July 4th in fanfare and attention for early Mormons. In fact, modern super-patriotic LDS might be surprised to note that July 4th in Utah usually passed without any notice at all. But, as Ulrich acclaims, “After their experiences in Missouri and Illinois, they had little reason to celebrate the Fourth of July.” The 24th was different, because, as Patty Sessions explained, “This is the beginning of a new era with us.” (p. 204)
Ulrich finds great gendered meaning in these new refined celebrations marking Mormons’ celebrations of their religious freedom in the West. In the very first parade, the “young men carried swords and copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Young women held a Bible in one hand and a Book of Mormon in the other. Apparently, men were defenders of liberty, women custodians of faith.” (p. 206) In this display, Mormons quite possibly held the “first public event that used both male and female participants in a symbolic performance.” (p. 206). But even more noteworthy was that these young people boasted the symbols of both their theology and their nation– their hopes of what might be possible in America. Ulrich sees no contradictions in the favoring of the 24th over the 4th, while still embracing American political symbolism. As she states, “the exiled Mormons declared their own independence, embracing the ideals of the American Revolution without acknowledging allegiance to the nation they believed had abandoned them.” (p. 204) In fact, they even carried banners “affirming the union of secular and religious authority in the person of their Prophet.” (p. 206) July 24th invited no pretense of false honor to American political authority; rather, Mormons unabashedly celebrated theocracy, and Brigham Young as “The Lion of the Lord” and “Hail to our Chief.” (p. 206)
Without any spoilers, I am excited for you to read how Laurel ends this chapter by linking her sub-narratives into one symbolic moment in July of 1851, with a newborn baby girl, a Pioneer Day parade, and a poem celebrating women’s eternal liberty. Indeed, she finds meaning in the intersection of seemingly unrelated historical moments, as only Laurel can. She also shows how Mormonism’s two July holidays emerged with very complicated and contradictory beginnings, thus allowing us today to continue to think about their very complex historical importance for a people who, even now, want to simultaneously celebrate their religious separateness and their nationalistic assimilation.
By July 13, 2017
Our readers will be interested to see what becomes of CGU’s plans for a Global Mormon Studies Center. You can learn more about the proposed Center in the video below!
By July 10, 2017
This is the sixth entry in the Third Annual Summer Book Club at Juvenile Instructor. This year we are reading Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism (Knopf, 2017). Check back every Sunday for the week’s installment! Please follow the book club and JI on Facebook.
Chapter Six of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A House Full of Females details the crossing of Iowa and depicts a people in motion, both physically and emotionally. While many histories detail the environmental and emotional challenges of the exodus from Nauvoo, Ulrich adds depth to the story of the Mormon migration and complicates our thinking about it. Like biblical sojourners, who understand that they stand at a turning point in their story, A House Full of Females describes how some diarists began new journals just before leaving the city, while other new diarists appear on the stage.
Ulrich notes that Mormon diaries share many similarities with other Oregon trail journals including records of weather and difficulties with animals. However, she also claims that the Mormon migration of 1846 was unique, highlighting the fact that Mormons leaving Nauvoo were refugees who “had a bit in common with the displaced Potawatomi and Omaha people, on whose lands they took temporary refuge once they reached the Missouri River.”(138). Chapter six fully describes the emotional and physical disorder of the Nauvoo exodus, which made it different from later waves of Mormon migration. Finally, Ulrich also points to the pressures of ideal sainthood that had mounted during the final weeks in Nauvoo, “how much they had to learn about pioneering, and how little they knew about the demands of establishing God’s kingdom.”(139). A House Full of Females paints a visceral picture of a people both moving forward and mired in mud. Men, women and children up to their waists in mud, snakes slithering out of the muck and wagons needing to be extricated from swamps all portray the challenges of a physical journey that dragged on and the need to face new emotional challenges as a radical new family structure took shape during extreme circumstances.
Ulrich deftly illustrates that the earliest Mormon migration should not be understood simply as a move west, an exodus or a displacement. It also needs to be understood as the site of changing domestic and marital identities. In the face of birth, death, disease, separation, and domestic contention, A House Full of Females tells the story of both creating and dissolving families and community. The reality of aging parents, the death of children, changing marital structure as well as conflicts about succession within the church, ubiquitous disease and the physical demands of the journey culminate in Ulrich’s conclusion of the chapter which pushes the reader beyond hagiographic depictions of the Nauvoo exodus noting that, “The Saints had struggled through the mud of Iowa only to reach a worse misery. In their would-be Zion, there was never enough of anything to go around, never enough food or shelter, never enough respect or love or charity. The harder they tried to live by the dictates of their religion, the more they exposed their own lack of perfection.”(155)
By July 2, 2017
The Nauvoo Temple Liturgy, the killings of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, the “succession crisis,” and the Nauvoo Temple. There are justifiably entire books and dissertations on each of these. And despite coming in at 26 lean pages, Ulrich still manages to surprise.
By July 1, 2017
“Women employed by the LDS Church may now wear pantsuits or slacks to work,” begins the Deseret News article that announced a number of new changes to the Church’s employment policies, including a six-week paid maternity leave, one week paid paternity leave, and new fitness space for employees in the Church Office Building. While all these changes are significant and deserve serious discussion, this post deals with what the Deseret News chose to announce first: pants.
My own encounter with the Church’s outdated “dress” code was in 2013, when I began work as an intern for the Church History Library. A few people had warned me that I might have to wear dresses and skirts only, but I simply could not believe them; after all, nothing in my contract mentioned this rule. I even bought a few new pairs of slacks to prepare for my job. I showed up on my first day of work wearing one of these new pairs of pants. I now quote from the blog I wrote the night after I began my job:
The survey I posted on my blog to crowd source protest ideas
The first thing that I noticed when I walked into my first (out of four) orientations that day is that not one of the women was wearing pants. Even all the other new female hires were in dresses and skirts. That’s when it started to sink in that truly, my workplace does not allow women to wear pants… Just to get something straight, I don’t hate skirts or dresses and I don’t mind wearing them to work. But the notion of women wearing pants is symbolic. In the late 19th Century women fought for the right to wear pants right along with the right to vote … Sometimes I complain about my church being stuck in the 60’s with how it deals with women’s issues. But in the 60’s both conservative women and feminists wore pants. I want to write a letter to the leaders of the church and tell this how humiliating this rule is, and that as a member of this church I feel embarrassed both for myself and my church. I want to write a letter to the Prophet about how crazy I think this rule is but I can’t quite seem to form an argument in my head that doesn’t sound totally ridiculous. “Dear Church, Why don’t you let women wear pants to work?” just doesn’t seem quite right to me.
I could not get over the strangeness of being forced to adopt a particular kind of outward femininity while I researched women’s history.
I desperately wanted to protest the Church dress code, but I also wanted to keep my job. In her book, Bodies That Matter, Judith Butler asks: “What would it mean to ‘cite’ the law to produce it differently?” She rejects the idea that agency comes from rejecting regulatory norms and instead focuses on the agency and creativity of re-iterating norms in a different way. In other words, she discusses the subversive potential in performing rules or gender norms in ways that are both recognizable and new. Luce Irigaray also discusses this purposeful performance in her concept of mimesis. To mimic is to intentionally occupy a feminine position. It is when a woman “resubmit[s] herself” to “particular to ideas about herself, that are elaborated in/by masculine logic, but so as to make ‘visible’, by an effect of playful repetition, what was supposed to remain invisible.”** If a woman employs mimesis to enact femininity in a way that simultaneously makes this masculine logic visible, she is enacting the exact process Butler referred to by appropriating the laws within a structure and repeating them in a playful way. I needed a form of protest that would enable me to simultaneously continue my employment and parody the rules.
I called my talented sister, Katie, who is a textile artist and loves collaboration. Together we formulated a plan to create a new kind of dress. I would still wear a dress to work, but the dress would be covered in the word “pants”. She designed a pants print for the dress, printed it on fabric, and I made it into a dress.
Close up of the pants print and me on my last day of work
Despite having a religious culture that disdains protest, the pants dress was an instant success among Mormons and non-Mormons alike. I mention this not to gloat, but instead to unpack why my dress was so loved. Why did the dress garner support but the “Wear Pants to Church Day” a few months earlier was a lightning rod for criticism? Perhaps it was because I was only one measly intern participating in this fight and my protest did not explicitly cite my concern with “gender equality in the LDS Church” like the other protest did. Is it that pants politics are low stakes? Or is this a useful example of Irigaray or Butler’s ideas of simultaneously inhabiting and exposing a rule? I would argue that my protest was more acceptable because, in Butler’s language, the dress conformed to the law (the restriction on what clothing I wore), but at the same time the pants print playfully exposed the flawed logic of the rule.
I do not know why the dress code changed or who changed it. Many of these institutional processes are invisible to outsiders. One year ago the Church bent the dress code for female missionaries in order to accommodate the women vulnerable to the Zika virus. Additionally, female blue-collar employees of the Church who do manual labor or use a ladder are required to wear pants. It is easy to see why the Church made exceptions for modesty or public health reasons, but the cause of this new change is less apparent (except for the fact that, of course, it is 2017 and about dang time).
Perhaps my favourite part of the pants dress was that for a brief moment it gave me a voice in an institutional church whose decisions often seem opaque to me. Why was it that the Church continued this dress code until now and did not end it earlier? What was special about June 2017? More importantly, how can people express disappointment and invoke change in a Church that frowns upon protest? I do not claim to know the answers to these questions. But I do know that I felt empowered as I cheekily wore the pants dress on my last day of work. I do not pretend that it had any sway whatsoever on the policy change, but it was part of the resistance. The fact that my next roommate had heard the pants dress story before she even met me meant that it must have made someone smile along the way.
*Admittedly, the analogy between my protest and Butler’s idea of performativity is not perfect. Butler specifically discusses gender as a regulatory norm. She argues that while no one can escape the construct of gender, people can perform gender differently. I could have escaped that set of rules by opting out of my employment or indeed the Church.
** Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, Trans Catherine Porter and Carolyn Burke, (Ithica, New York: Cornell University Press, 1985), 76.
By June 27, 2017
Among my very favorite parts of archival research is the small and unexpected glimpses into the lives of historical figures that have nothing directly to do with the research at hand.
I was reminded of this last week while going through some of Leonard Arrington’s correspondence to his family at the Arrington Papers at Utah State University. Stashed in between Arrington’s near-weekly typewritten letters to his children was a copy of his diary entry for June 24, 1978 describing a retreat “up the slopes of Ensign Peak” with “all of the persons in the History Division of the Historical Department,” minus the secretaries “and Glen Leonard, who was ill.” As part of the retreat, Maureen Ursenbach Beecher passed out a questionnaire, inviting those assembled “to participate in some self discovery” and “respond to fifteen questions.”
By June 18, 2017
Having set the stage of the nature of early Mormon sociality in the first two chapters, in chapter three Ulrich first broaches the topic of plural marriage. But as the title of the chapter suggests, “I now turn the key to you,” the focus of the chapter is the founding of the Relief Society.
With her imposed stricture of not to “merge” reminiscences with diaries, (xx) Ulrich sets up a number of challenges, most notably the fact that very few contemporary early Mormon journals mention it. The focus of the chapter, Eliza R. Snow, said nothing about it in her Nauvoo journal and Ulrich turns to Snow’s much later affidavit to determine that Snow married Smith on June 29, 1842. Ulrich states this fact on page 61, the book’s first mention of plural marriage after the introduction. On that date, Snow wrote, “This is a day of peculiar interest to my feelings” (71).
By June 12, 2017
Mormon History Association
Call for Papers – 2018 Annual Conference
“Homelands and Bordered Lands”
The fifty-third conference of the Mormon History Association will be held June 7 – 10, 2018, at the Boise Centre Convention Center and nearby Grove Hotel in Boise, Idaho. The 2018 conference theme “Homelands and Bordered Lands” raises questions about how borders both disrupt and generate ideas about individuals’ and communities’ “homes,” broadly construed. The theme highlights the ways in which the dynamic interactions between peoples, places, and identities have always been central to Mormon histories.
The conference theme “Homelands and Bordered Lands” connects the history of the Latter-day Saints to Idaho’s diverse past. Idaho is first and foremost a Native homeland. The first Mormon settlement in the Idaho was created near present-day Salmon, Idaho, at Fort Lemhi in 1855. Immigration by Mormons and other Euro-Americans caused conflict with Native communities and led to the depletion of natural resources as well as outbreaks of violence. On the other hand, there have also been many instances of cooperation and mutual respect between the various communities.
Idaho has also always been a place where the boundaries of Mormon identity have been negotiated. The state has been a refuge and highway for those seeking to practice plural marriage. Polygamy contributed to a pronounced strain of anti-Mormonism in Idaho politics and law in the late nineteenth century. Idaho also has a healthy tradition of Mormon education, intellectualism, and dissent. Ricks College, now BYU-Idaho, has been foundational in LDS higher education. Furthermore, Leonard Arrington was born in Twin Falls and graduated from the University of Idaho, Sonia Johnson was born in Malad, Maxine Hanks attended Ricks, and the blog Feminist Mormon Housewives was founded in Boise.
While Idaho provides a rich tableau for the study of Mormonism in the context of the state’s history as a multiracial, multi-ethic, and multireligious place, we also seek papers and panels that address the theme of “Homelands and Bordered Lands” from any vantage point in the Mormon past. In addition to papers and panels that address the conference theme, the program committee also welcomes proposals on any topic in Mormon history.
The Mormon History Association intentionally embraces both academic and amateur historians. The conference organizers encourage submissions that think outside of the traditional format for conference sessions. We encourage people to organize roundtables, “cafés” in which participants are arranged in small groups to discuss a topic, pre-circulated papers, and so forth. Additional ideas for alternative session formats can be found at: http://solveforinteresting.com/category/good-conference/event-sessions/
Please send 1) a 300-word abstract for each paper or presentation and 2) a brief 1-2 page CV for each presenter, including email contact information. Session proposals should also include the session title and a 300-word session abstract, along with a confirmed chair and/or commentator, if applicable.
Previously published papers are not eligible for presentation at MHA. An individual may only submit one proposal as a session presenter, although it is acceptable for a presenter in one session to be a chair or commentator in another. Limited financial assistance is available to some student presenters and presenters from less economically-developed nations. Those who wish to apply for funding should include estimated travel expenses with their proposals.
The deadline for proposals is November 15, 2017. Proposals should be sent to the program co-chairs at email@example.com. Notification of acceptance or rejection will be made by December 15, 2017.
Please mark if you are attending the 2018 MHA Conference on Facebook HERE.
By June 11, 2017
Emma Smith, The Elect Lady by Theodore S. Gorka
“Women’s voices trouble the old stories.”
The line lingered with me for weeks.
Then at the Mormon History Association’s annual conference LDS Church historian and recorder Elder Steven E. Snow emphasized the need for the troubling saying, “For too long Mormon women’s voices have been ignored. We, as a people, have suffered because of it.”
Chapter two of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A House Full of Females is a gorgeous example of how incorporating women’s accounts provides a more complete view of all of the colors and textures and corners of the tapestry of early LDS history, but also frays the neatly finished edges in troublesome ways. After the Missouri expulsion, dual male narratives act in concert–miraculous healing and distinct but likewise miraculous missionary work. Joseph Smith offered physical salvation through healing. Healing enabled male apostles to work to offer spiritual salvation to others. In a tidy reciprocal narrative structure, Latter-day Saints are provided with examples of both “what God can do for us and what we can do for God.” In both narratives, men endowed with priesthood power accomplished much.
By June 8, 2017
“Following the death of Joseph Smith the policy of the church was to exclude blacks from ordination to the priesthood and from Latter-day Saint temples. Although some black members of the church were given patriarchal blessings, declarations of lineage were omitted as a matter of policy. But guidelines were not consistent, and the question remained the subject of debate. In 1934 Patriarch James H. Wallis wrote in his journal, “I have always known that one of negro blood cannot receive the Priesthood nor the blessings of the Temple, and are also disqualified from receiving a patriarchal blessing . . . But I am sure there is no objection to giving them a blessing of encouragement and comfort, leaving out all reference to lineage and sealing.” Apostle John A. Widtsoe relayed President Heber J. Grant’s reply to Wallis’s request for a ruling. It stated, “It will be alright for Brother Wallis to bless them, but as to their status in the future, that their status in the future, that is . . . in the hands of the Lord.”[i]
In a previous post, I explored the ways in which racism has been espoused by LDS leaders and average Latter-day Saints alike, and how the vestiges of some of those teachings remain in modern Latter-day Saint doctrine. In today’s post, I’d like to explore the ways in which patriarchal blessings continue to identify Latter-day Saints by racial heritage, and, in some instances, place people of African descent as separate and inferior to “white” Mormons, through the LDS Church’s counsel not to declare an Israelite lineage to African-descended Mormons.
For those unfamiliar with the term, a “patriarchal blessing” is a blessing bestowed by an ordained patriarch (in the vein of Old Testament patriarchs like Abraham), which dispenses direction and advice to the receiver. The blessing also declares the blood lineage of the receiver in relation to his or her connection to the House of Israel.[ii] Smith’s own theology was generally universalist, meaning that he did not preclude any person from obtaining salvation, regardless of racial background. In the New Testament, John the Baptist preached to the Pharisees and Sadducees that their Abrahamic lineage did not elevate their relationship or access to God. Indeed, John the Baptist informed the Jews, “God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.”[iii] Joseph Smith similarly believed that Abrahamic lineage did not matter in relation to salvation or divine favor. God could raise up anyone, including Africans, as “children of Abraham,” so far as they converted to Mormonism and accepted its principles and ordinances.
By June 5, 2017
Occasionally it becomes prudent for scholars within a field to assess the state of that field and to define its pasts and futures. The Mormon History Association annual meeting provided such an opportunity for Mormon Studies. The panel, “Permanent Settlement or Pending Migration? Exploring the Frontier of Mormon Studies,” featured presentations from Gerrit van Dyk, Trevan C. Hatch, and J.B. Haws.
Each presentation assessed the field in a different way. Van Dyk and Hatch both conducted interviews with prominent professors and asked about definitions, methodology, publishing venues, and the nature and audience of scholarship. Both emphasized the issues of insularity, the roles of “academic”/apologetic/popular scholarship, and ties to institutions and journals of publication. One insight that van Dyk noted was that Mormon Studies has grown in graduate programs before undergraduate programs—in contrast to Catholic Studies and Jewish Studies programs. Hatch offered Jewish Studies as both an example and cautionary tale for Mormon Studies in its strict academic scholarship. Haws’ presentation highlighted the change in institutional attention and broader acceptance of Mormon Studies since the early 1990s. The panel, as a whole, was a pretty fair introduction to Mormon Studies as a field.
By May 29, 2017
Seth Perry, “The Many Bibles of Joseph Smith: Textual, Prophetic, and Scholarly Authority in Early-National Bible Culture,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 84, no. 3 (September 2016): 750–75.
One of the things I appreciate about our Article Review series, episodic as it may be, is that it enables bite-size engagement with some of the most important new scholarship as it comes into being. So much work is produced these days that we may not pay enough attention toward the notable arguments that do appear and a deserve a critical appraisal. And while books may be the gold standard, the genre of the article allows for us to engage at a more granular level, giving us a chance to sample and respond to important monographs in the making. My case in point here is Seth Perry’s JAAR article from September of last year: “The Many Bibles of Joseph Smith: Textual, Prophetic, and Scholarly Authority in Early-National Bible Culture.” This important article gives us a bite of Perry’s forthcoming book on the dynamics of early-national Bible culture. We also get a taste of how his arguments bear on the history of Mormonism and Mormon scripture.
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