Historian of religions Jonathan Z. Smith once quipped that “a comparison is a disciplined exaggeration in the service of knowledge” (Jonathan Z. Smith, Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity, p. 52). With this caveat in mind for what the comparative enterprise entails, at the invitation of the JI permabloggers, I’ve constructed a short typological overview of Community of Christ historians currently in the field. My schema is a bit artificial (there aren’t that many historians to classify in the first place), but I’ve done so simply to serve “a useful end.” This short essay looks at four categories of CofC historians and highlights one or two representatives from each type: the priests (historians who work for the church), the Isaiahs (the faithful iconoclasts), the Jonahs (the disillusioned historians), and the Pauls (the converts). This schema does not divide historians into any historical school of thought; it is more about the relationship that these historians hold to the Community of Christ as a faith community. I argue that , at least in the Community of Christ, the historian’s position on the imaginary ecclesiastical and professional fields of play shape their topics, production, and overall tone. Part one today takes on two of these categories—the “priests” and the “Jonahs” of the tradition.
The Priests: The Keepers of the Tradition
Historians working for the Community of Christ have always had institutional and structural constraints that have limited how and what they say about history (as all historians do). Even with some practical “pastoral” constraints, the leadership of the Community of Christ has been relatively supportive of the intellectual inquiry done by its employees, even if conservative members have been hostile towards their work. Dick Howard became church historian in 1965, around the same time as the late LDS church historian Leonard Arrington. Trained in a master’s program at UC Berkley, Howard completed graduate work at St. Paul School of Theology, a Methodist seminary in Kansas City. Taking source criticism from Biblical studies, he applied such methods to his 1969 work, Restoration Scriptures: A Study in Their Textual Development. This was a truly ground-breaking work as it showed development in canonical Latter Day Saint texts over time and tried to help members grapple with what this meant for people embracing them as Scripture. This work won MHA’s best book award. Howard also wrote a 1991 two-volume official church history for the Community of Christ that synthesized much of the New Mormon history in a pastoral way for average members. Mark Scherer became the CofC historian in 1995 and will be publishing a new church history titled Journey of a People: The Era of Restoration, 1820-1844. I’ve not read it yet, but it appears to be a synthesis of the New Mormon history of the last generation. Interestingly, Herald House, the official CofC press, will not be issuing it. The Community of Christ Seminary Press in cooperation with John Whitmer Books will be publishing it. Why? I think CofC leaders are nervous to put their official imprint on a work that will see the Book of Mormon as a 19th century text along with open admissions about Joseph Smith and polygamy. To deflect the potential fall-out over the volume, CofC Prophet Steve Veazey issued a statement on the uses of history. In an April 5 address to the church, Veazey emphasized, among other things, that our history is not simply bound to its first 14 years. Veazey’s statement on church history is an interesting read in itself. Personally, I found the statement an exciting affirmation of my work as a historian in the movement. Other significant current institutional historians include Ron Romig (archivist for the CofC, incoming MHA president, and expert on the early Missouri period), Lachlan Mackay (director of historic sites and early period specialist), and Barbara Walden (director of Kirtland Temple and specialist on material history and museum studies).
The Isaiahs: Prophets as Faithful Iconoclasts
A few historians have used their scholarship to critique the movement yet have remained within its institutional bounds their entire lives. The best representative of this type of historian is Bill Russell, former professor of history and American government at Graceland University (the CofC liberal arts college). Russell has used his scholarship to advocate for the rights of minority groups (advocating for tolerance of fundamentalists in his articles on schismatic RLDS groups and acceptance of homosexual CofC members, most recently published as Homosexual Saints: The Community of Christ Experience ). In each case, he has pushed people in directions that made everyone (the conservatives, the centrists, and the liberals) feel a bit uncomfortable. Russell has never been part of the hierarchy, but his intellectual presence has affected generations of CofC college students.
So…if you were to construct a typology for LDS historians working in the field, what schema would you construct? Questions about CofC folks are welcome, too.