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Reflective Posts

Bricks in Nauvoo; or, A Sleepover at Willard Richards’ House

By September 21, 2013


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The Ubiquitious Nauvoo Brick Souvenir

By necessity, early Mormons were builders. It’s easy to forget, retrospectively, how much sheer labor went into the communities that early Latter-day Saints, time and again, built from the ground up. Temple building is one of the more conspicuous form of construction activity, but with each relocation Latter-day Saints also faced anew the more mundane labors of improving land, building homes, outbuildings, ditches and canals, fences, roads—in other words, of generating a basic domestic and civic infrastructure. Not unlike many other roving families in early America, Mormons continually reconstructed their material world from the ground up.

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Brigham Young, Karl Maeser, and Mormon Idealization at BYU

By September 19, 2013


This post may be construed as too idealizing of BYU, especially during “Rivalry Week” with the University of Utah. It is not meant to idealize, but rather to try and interpret what is idealized by the LDS Church broadly and BYU specifically.

In my first few weeks at the University of Virginia, I am beginning to both love and roll my eyes at the constant mention of Thomas Jefferson in student conversations, on posters on campus, or at any opportunity in class to bring him up. This affection for Mr. Jefferson reminded me of two statues on the campus of BYU, and what the likenesses of the two men portrayed mean in relation to BYU’s Honor Code, and what that means for Church culture generally.

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Scholarly Inquiry: A Q&A with John Fea

By September 3, 2013


We’re thrilled to present the following Q&A with historian John Fea. Dr. Fea is Associate Professor of History and  Chair of the History Department at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. He is the author and editor of several books, including The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2011), and Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation (University of Notre Dame Press, 2010), which he co-edited with Jay Green and Eric Miller. His latest book, Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past (Baker Academic, 2013) is scheduled to be released in two weeks. Dr. Fea is currently at work on two book projects—a religious history of the American Revolution and one on history and memory in the town of Greenwich, NJ. In addition to his scholarly output, John is a prodigious blogger, a tireless traveler and dynamic speaker (check out that list—chances are he’ll be in your general neck of the woods at some point), Bruce Springsteen devotee, avid sports fan, and 2010 inductee to the Montville High School (NJ) Hall of Fame. By nearly all accounts, he is also an incredibly nice guy.

Please join us in welcoming Dr. Fea!

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Guest Post: Greg Prince on Hans Mattson & Inoculation of Church History

By August 6, 2013


[The Juvenile Instructor is pleased to have Greg Prince guest post on  what has been termed “inoculating” in Mormon History. He received doctorate degrees (DDS, PhD) at UCLA in 1973 and 1975, and spent his career in biomedical research. He has authored two books on Mormonism, Power from on High: The Development of Mormon Priesthood and David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism.]

In the early 1950s teachers in the Church Educational System met in Provo to write curricula for the Seminaries.  The committee assigned to address church history quickly became divided into two factions.  The “alpha” members of the two factions, both of whom became General Authorities a decade later, argued for opposing philosophies of how to portray our history.  One later observed:

“We were writing a Church history unit, and he didn’t want anybody to know that coffee was part of the overland trek.  I said, ‘What if the kid finds out five years after Seminary?  What are you going to do?  You’ve got a bigger problem then than if you just tell him the first time.  And you can tell them why, that the Word of Wisdom didn’t really get sanctioned until 1918.  So quit worrying about it.’  ‘I know, but we’ve got to protect their faith.’”

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Guest Post: Erin Anderson, “In and Out”

By May 29, 2013


Today, as part of our continuing series on Mormonism’s Many Images, we are pleased to welcome Erin Anderson as a guest blogger. Erin left the LDS Church in her early teens, along with her parents and siblings; her extended family is still active. She holds degrees in religious studies from New York University and Boston University, and works as an administrator at Harvard.

The last time I set foot in an LDS building, more than a decade ago, I spent the entire day in the foyer. It was an ideal location. Like the rest of my immediate family, I had come to welcome these in-between settings: close enough to see friends and relatives, but removed from problematic religious spaces. My uncle’s wedding at the temple? We’ll volunteer to watch the kids outside. Visiting grandparents? Let’s fly in on Sunday afternoon, to spare them from asking us to church. We kept the peace by finding comfortable gray areas, neither embracing nor rejecting our heritage.

My parents, sisters, and I had withdrawn from a tight-knit congregation two years earlier, resulting in this “betwixt and between” strategy. Even in Massachusetts’ progressive Mormon community—surrounded by the lovely women of Exponent II—it had simply become too difficult for my mom and dad to raise three liberal, feminist daughters. And so I twiddled my thumbs that Sunday outside the chapel doors, already a veteran of living between two cultures at fourteen.

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Where Do I Come From? What Am I? Where Am I Going?: Exploring Representations of Mormonism to Understand American Religious History

By May 13, 2013


In my years in Boston, I have been a frequent visitor at the city’s wonderful Museum of Fine Arts. While I couldn’t name a single favorite object, one piece that I return to again and again is Paul Gauguin’s epic masterpiece, “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” While there is much to be said about the painting, I’m most concerned in this post with its title. Students and scholars tend to be a self-critical bunch, and I think most of us regularly ask these questions of ourselves and try to have ready answers for our colleagues. But when you’re a non-Mormon in the world of Mormon Studies, I’ve found that those questions take on a special shape and urgency. Who am I? What’s my real interest in Mormonism? What exactly am I going to do with my scholarly explorations of Mormonism in American culture? What’s a non-Mormon doing studying the Latter-day Saints? Am I anti-? Is it a fetish? Am I on the road to conversion? All of these questions are regularly leveled at me by Mormons and non-Mormons alike, and regularly with a degree of suspicion bordering on accusation.

So, where do I come from? I was raised in rural America, in a family that I only realized as I got older was noteworthy for our relative religious diversity – and our general acceptance of it. We counted members of a variety of Christian denominations in the extended clan, including a number of very heterodox members of different denominations (a Methodist grandmother who argued with people in church that the Trinity wasn’t biblical, anyone?), as well as nonbelievers of several different stripes. There was disagreement, but in general we accepted that we were all doing our best and, really, none of us could be sure we had the corner on the meaning of life. It wasn’t until I was in my teens that I realized that many of the people around me – most of whom were generally decent people – were not as comfortable with religious difference as much of my family seemed to be. (As I got older, I also began to see that my family members were much more tolerant of Christian diversity than they were of non-Christian religions.) Unfortunately, I witnessed some respected adults in my life making very ugly comments – which they often used their professed Christianity to justify – about other people and their religions. In my teenaged brain, this gave rise to two questions: Isn’t Christianity supposed to be about loving your neighbor? Isn’t the United States supposed to be about separation of church and state and thus acceptance of religious diversity?

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“A Pink Life Raft in a Blue Ocean”: Feminist Studies of Mormonism– An Interview with Maxine Hanks, Part I

By April 5, 2013


This is Part One of my interview with Maxine Hanks,Maxine-Hanks who edited and published her well-known feminist anthology, Women and Authority: Re-Emerging Mormon Feminism, with Signature Books in 1992 here.

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Black History Month at the JI: An Abortive Campaign Against the Folklore (Mauss)

By February 21, 2013


By Armand Mauss

Note: The following is an excerpt from Prof. Mauss’ recent memoir, Shifting Borders and a Tattered Passport: Intellectual Journeys of a Mormon Academic (UofU Press, 2012), which Prof. Mauss kindly shared with the Juvenile Instructor for inclusion in our Black History Month series. The memoir (which everyone should buy and read!) has received some attention in the ‘nacle here and here.

All during this post-1978 period, I remained in periodic personal contact with many black LDS friends, especially those in the Genesis Group.27 As conversations with my black LDS friends made clear, the circulation of this repackaged folklore greatly hindered the conversion and retention of new black members. I became well acquainted personally with one case, in particular, which produced a major national news story in 1998. This was the case of a middle-aged black couple named Jackson, who lived in Orange County, California. Betty Jackson happened to be a coworker with one of my sons at the Mazda Corporation, and through friendly conversation, each discovered that the other was a member of the LDS Church. The Jacksons had only very recently been converted along with one or two of their children. Having learned of the traditional LDS racial teachings and policies only after joining the Church, the Jacksons were having considerable trouble in accommodating the new information. My son gave Betty a copy of the Bush & Mauss Neither White nor Black in hopes that it might help them understand and deal with the matter, which it did to some extent.

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Joan in Armor, Zone Leaders in Skirts, and Mormon Women in Pants

By December 14, 2012


“Mark what I say:  the woman who quarrels with her clothes, and puts on the dress of a man, is like the man who throws off his fur gown and dresses like John the Baptist: they are followed, as surely as the night follows the day, by bands of wild women and men who refuse to wear any clothes at all.”  — The Inquisitor, St. Joan (Penguin Books, 1982).  

George Bernard Shaw’s interpretation of the life of Joan of Arc reminds us of an element of Joan’s influence– her straining of a woman’s role by dressing like a man–  that caused such discomfort for her contemporaries and partly led to her excommunication and execution in 1431. The zealous reactions to Joan’s gendered nonconformity in the 1400s allow us to think about similar ways that modern faith communities are also stretched by challenges to their gender expectations.

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2012 in Retrospect: An Overview of Noteworthy Articles and Books in Mormon History

By December 3, 2012


Continuing a tradition from the past three years, here is my overview of what I found to be the most noteworthy books and articles from the last twelve months. I like this format because it not only allows discussion of different media of publication, but it also encourages us to contemplate broader themes that are currently “hot” in Mormon historiography. (Also make sure to check out Stapley’s always-helpful Christmas book list.)

As with previous years, I am posting this in early December and will thus miss those books published later this month. Further, the selection process was purely subjective and represent my own interests; please add your own suggestions in the comments.

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O Canada!

By July 10, 2012


In keeping with a family tradition that we began last year in St. George, Utah, we turned MHA (the Mormon History Association annual meeting), which was held in Calgary this year, into an excuse for a very big (9,000+-mile) family road trip this year. In preparation for our border-crossing, I read a short story by author and English professor Thomas King titled “Borders” (if you haven’t read it, check it out). It is a story about a Blackfoot woman and her son (told from the perspective of the adolescent son) who get stranded at the U.S.-Canadian border–in Blackfoot Territory–when the mother insists that her nationality is Blackfoot and refuses to specify whether she is from the Canadian or American side: she is from the Blackfoot side. The two are on their way to Salt Lake City to visit the woman’s daughter who had previously moved there, convinced by a friend that it is the greatest place on earth, which the daughter reiterates in her postcards and travel brochures sent home (though, upon their arrival, she admits that she is thinking of returning home). Though never directly or explicitly so, the story is an excellent study in the complex mingling of Canadian-American-Blackfoot-Mormon identities that combine and comingle for several individuals in the area often referred to, among others things, as southern Alberta.

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The Sacred Parking Garage Effect

By June 5, 2012


I get dibs on this clunky coining, but I wanted to articulate something that I’ve noticed in the way many non-academy-trained Mormons approach history. You probably have recognized the same phenomenon under a different name (and I’d love to know what you call it).

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Revisiting the Impossible Question – Part II

By April 6, 2012


And…the objections :

Firstly, her claim that gender is nothing but a construct based on a discourse of power, and sex is but a mysterious part of our eternal identity, leaves nothing clearly meaningful in the concepts of maleness and femaleness. This approach seems to elide differences, as others from the Mexican nun Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, to Mary Wollstonecraft, have attempted to do. To me, it is clear that Mormon doctrine is fully committed to the concept of differentiation, and the idea that being male or female is an eternal part of our identity (or in other words, that sex and gender are inextricably linked, if not the same thing). Our doctrine of Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father, the temple narrative that is so grounded in the crowning union of male and female and the creation-wide participation in procreation and regeneration*, the creation narrative steeped in organizing matter and creating order by separation, differentiation, opposition, and the underlying narrative of the plan of salvation that begins and ends with a family of male and female parents—not to mention the explicit Proclamation on the Family—confirm this binary. But if, as Flake and others say, gender is constructed, and sexual differentiation is evolutionary, what is the binary on which creation, exaltation, and eternal marriage are constructed, and which persists through the eternities as an element in our identity? With such a paradigm, are we left with anything at all?

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Revisiting the Impossible Question- Part I

By April 6, 2012


Last post, I offered some musings about the supposedly “impossible question” I posed to Kathleen Flake at the Methodist-Mormon conference back in February, regarding the definition of femininity and masculinity. At the time, neither the question nor the answer seemed to satisfy either of us, so Dr. Flake kindly offered to follow up with me later to continue the conversation. It was a thought-provoking conversation, and after giving it more thought, I’ve come back to the drawing board with more questions and ideas.

By way of quick summary, I had asked Kathleen Flake to define masculinity and femininity in a way that

a) did not reduce them to mere sexual characteristics or biological difference (which, on its own, seems void of real significance, and furthermore, seems difficult to untangle from temporal causes like evolutionary strategies, which don’t seem to be necessary in a pre or post mortal existence)

b) did not reduce them to character attributes (which seem to boil down to characteristics that should ultimately be universally shunned [coarseness, aggression, emotional neediness, etc.], or universally cultivated [compassion, gentleness, creativity, reason])

c) explains the necessary synthesis of a male and female counterpart for the state of exaltation (as prescribed by doctrines regarding the necessity of temple marriage sealings as we now understand them: monogamous, male-female spousal units)

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Repudiating Racism: A Black Latter-day Saint’s Response

By March 2, 2012


This week’s events have produced some of the most succinct, thoughtful and probing essays on the history and implications of race and Mormonism perhaps yet written: here, here, here, and here.  Indeed, I love that we indignant white folks have raised our voices against the doggedly persistent and  painfully antiquated racial ideologies within our religion. Truly, I do.  I love that we’ve circled the wagons, that we’ve stormed the castle walls (pardon all of my martial metaphors, but they seem appropriate considering the climate.)  Our esprit de corps is admirable and convincing.  The problem is that some of our intellectualizing has perhaps had the counter-effect of privileging the white voices in our community over others who need to be heard from just as much, or moreso.  To that end, I present for your consideration the story and words of a a former student of mine, an African-American convert to the Church and a returned missionary– I’ll call her “Kris” . . . . well, because that’s actually her name.  Four years ago,  as a recent graduate in history, she took an internship in a neighboring state and attended the local singles’ ward.  One Sunday . . . . indeed, let’s give privilege to Kris’s voice, in a letter that she penned to her stake president following a disturbing incident in her ward.

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Guest Post: Professor Bott, Elijah Abel, and a Plea from the Past

By March 1, 2012


Paul Reeve is an associate professor in history at the University of Utah.  He is the author of the award winning Making Space on the Western Frontier: Mormons, Miners, and Southern Paiutes (2007), co-editor with Ardis Parshall of Mormonism: A Historical Encyclopedia  (2010), and co-editor with Michael Van Wagenen of Between Pulpit and Pew: The Supernatural World in Mormon History and Folklore (2011). He is the co-editor with Jared T. of H-Mormon, an H-Net group set to launch in the next few weeks. His current book, Religion of a Different Color explores the racialization of Mormons and is under contract with Oxford University Press. Please join us in giving Paul a warm welcome!

There have already been a number of excellent responses to Professor Bott’s racist remarks to the Washington Post.  I write not in an effort to dog pile on Professor Bott, but in the hope of honoring what I believe was the intent of an unknown writer of an important document in Mormon racial history, Elijah Abel’s obituary (Deseret News, vol. 33, no. 50 (31 December 1884), 800). 

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Teaching Official Declaration 2

By February 29, 2012


This is a guest post from Rachel Cope, professor of religion at Brigham Young University.

As a Mormon, I believe, first and foremost, in the atoning sacrifice of the Savior, and I recognize my need to submit to his grace. I also believe that Joseph Smith—a prophetic figure—had visions, restored gospel truths, and translated a sacred text by the power of God. Consequently, doctrine seeps into my understanding of history, and history is intertwined throughout my doctrinal perspectives. Reverence and trust, rather than skepticism and doubt, dominate my view of the past. How history is written and interpreted, then, is important to me as a woman of faith who also happens to be a Professor of Religion at Brigham Young University.

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Lucy Emily Woodruff Smith’s 1893-94 Diary: What it Reveals about Lucy, her Husband, and Ourselves, Part I

By February 28, 2012


With the increased attention to George Albert Smith since his turn in the line-up of Prophets for the 2012 Relief Society and Priesthood curriculum, President Smith has captured the imagination of LDS members for his vulnerability, his personal struggles with chronic mental and physical illness, and his perceptibly gentle and compassionate nature.  Indeed, his very flawed humanness has made him recently a kind of accessible hero-prophet—one with whom some Mormons feel a more intense kinship.  With that keen interest, it’s timely to talk about his wife, Lucy.

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Thoughts on Gender in Mormon Theology – stemming from Mormon and Protestant Encounters

By February 27, 2012


Rachael has a BA in history from Brigham Young University, is currently slaving away working in a law office in Washington DC, and is waiting to hear back about graduate schools this Fall. This post ushers in her guest-posting stint with JI.

“Gender is a modern invention,” Kathleen Flake declared yesterday at the Crossroads conference. Any logical discussion of the question of gender in Mormon theology was therefore declared “impossible.” At least that’s how I and dozens of others understood her response that wasn’t a response to my query on the subject.

Today at Stake Conference, Elder Scott spoke of the sanctity of womanhood, and the need for men to appreciate and affirm women who “magnify” the divine endowment of feminine traits they have been given.

Clearly, the theological place and meaning of gender is a massively tangled bramble bush of an issue, and this post is in no way meant to resolve the question I posed to Kathleen Flake yesterday as to what exactly constitutes “femininity” and “masculinity” in our eternal identity, and what implications these notions can have beyond the mortal realm and particularly in exaltation. This matter, of course, also has direct bearing on the controversy surrounding traditional and same-sex marriage, and I firmly believe that the Church needs a clear explanation of what gender is and why the particular synthesis of one man and one woman is the divinely ordained model, in order to offer more compelling defenses (theologically, at least) for traditional marriage. (I won’t countenance polygamy in this discussion as a potential arrangement in the afterlife. We can argue about that premise in another post).

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“Mormon” Dissent: Gestures to the Past and my own Mormon Story

By February 22, 2012


Update on “The Mormon Body Project:”  I found skinny jeans.  Anyone who wants pictures can visit: http://scholaristas.wordpress.com/2012/02/22/the-skinny-on-the-hunt-for-skinny-jeans/

Last week, I attended a presentation at Benchmark Books by Will Bagley, Polly Aird, and Jeff Nichols on their new book Playing with Shadows: Voices of Dissent in the Mormon West.  They regaled the audience with stories of Ann Godge, a wife of John D. Lee who claimed that the Danites lived on top of caves and were willing to kill their own sons for infractions, Brigham Young Hampton, who tried to entrap several of Utah’s Gentile government officials in a prostitution ring and was instead arrested for running a brothel, and Charles Derry who could not bear the Mormon Reformation and was marginalized within his community.

As they were speaking I began to reflect on the stakes might be in labeling such people as Mormon dissenters.  Although these men and women had all once belonged to the Mormon faith, many of them had renounced Mormonism and considered themselves to exist in opposition to the church.  On the one hand, classifying them as Mormon dissidents seems to be a political statement that forces historians of the Mormon religious tradition to take voices of dissent seriously and to recognize them as belonging to the same history as men like Brigham Young and Joseph Fielding Smith.  One of the claims that Bagley, Aird, and Nichols made that night was that historians need to recognize the difficulties that everyday Mormons encountered as they tried to apply the principles of their faith to their lives.  While some people struggled through and remained within the faith, others decided to leave or to become figures of opposition.  Bagley, Aird, and Nichols want us to recognize that both options were valid.  On the other hand, to call someone like Godge Mormon does violence to the way that she saw herself.  Godge would have rejected the description and vehemently denied that it remained a part of her identity even after she had denounced the faith.  As historians, we need to think about the implications and politics of choosing certain descriptors for the people whose lives we are choosing to tell.

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