This post continues a typology of Community of Christ historians currently working in the field. Continuing with the Biblical theme, this post considers historians running in different directions—the Jonahs running away from the tradition and the Pauls who have had their road to Damascus experience and changed allegiances.
The Jonahs: Disillusioned Prophets
These historians have typically been members born into the movement but have become burned out on the CofC for personal and professional reasons. Their scholarship on CofC history typically wanes with their inactivity, though, like the prophet in the Old Testament, they may end up doing more work even as they run away. Robert Bruce Flanders, author of the pathbreaking 1965 Nauvoo: Kingdom on the Mississippi left the movement in the 1970s and stopped publishing in the area of Mormon history until recently (2001 and beyond) giving some retrospective articles and talks about his journey as a scholar. Roger Launius has been the most visible national Community of Christ historian, and by far the most productive. He is also the best current representative of a “disillusioned historian.” The number of articles and books he has written is staggering—and in fields as diverse as Mormon history, space history (his day job as curator of the National Air and Space Museum), and baseball history. Launius was once called affectionately by Louis Midgley as “the only real historian the RLDS have.” (Gotta love Midgley!) While working on his PhD at LSU, Launius directed the RLDS summer guide program in Kirtland and was a guide at both Nauvoo and Kirtland as a student himself. Launius wrote the standard work on Joseph Smith III, co-edited two books on Nauvoo (Kingdom on the Mississippi Revisited and Cultures in Conflict: A Documentary History of the Mormon War in Illinois), and a volume on Mormon dissenters, all of which I regularly use in teaching or scholarship. Launius displays an RLDS tendency to be far more critical of Joseph Smith, Jr. than many LDS authors, and he has no bones about showing the disastrous, nightmarish side of Nauvoo. Some LDS scholars that I know think he even strikes an anti-Mormon tone in his Cultures in Conflict. Personally, I see Launius’s tone as simply arising from a different set of faith presuppositions and commitments. It is totally fine for a CofC scholar to pitch all Nauvoo theology out the door without blinking while it would be disastrous for an active LDS scholar who must ultimately walk very carefully around some very controversial practices (for instance, see Bushman’s treatment of polygamy in Rough Stone Rolling). As I have read Launius, though, I am convinced that he has tried to fit in a bit of redemption in the Nauvoo story through his narration of Joseph Smith III’s life. In Launius’s rendering, Joseph III is a person that any Community of Christ member can be proud of as a prophet. If there is a general late twentieth-century CofC historiographical approach to early Latter Day Saint church history, it is a story of blessing in Kirtland, followed by confusion and disaster in late Kirtland and Missouri, finished by doctrinal confusion and corruption in Nauvoo. The restoration of the movement to a fuller Christianity happens in the man of Joseph Smith III. (Yup—I know what that sounds like to LDS folks.) After the mid 1990s, Launius himself became a critic of general direction of the CofC’s programs (see his 1996 article “The Reorganized Church, the Decade of Decision, and the Abeliene Paradox” in Dialogue ) and largely became inactive. His work in Mormon history has largely abated as he has moved on to other subjects. Personally, I wish he would return! I love reading his stuff. Perhaps those of us living in Nineveh will hear his voice again.
Pauls, not Sauls: Converts to the Tradition
Another group of CofC historians are those who are converts to the movement. Many are former LDS members (some are returned missionaries). These scholars usually carry with them a strong grounding in “classical” Restoration history themes (Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, etc.), and may venture into territory that few “natural-born” CofC historians would be interested in (such as Western history or Orson Pratt’s scientific musings). (Sorry, but that stuff does not get me up in the morning!) Convert scholars include Steven Shields (author of Divergent Paths of the Restoration), Seth Bryant (a newly accepted PhD student at Vanderbilt), and the French scholar, Chrystal Vanel (PhD student in religious studies at the Sorbonne). There is a group of admirers who are practically CofC (they may even attend CofC congregations on more than a casual basis), but I don’t think it is appropriate for me to call them out if they have not publicly identified as such. (Imagine the rumors that could be spread—a kind of reverse Mormon urban legend of who is a “member of the church.”) A relatively unnoticed, but important Community of Christ scholar is Graham St. John Stott, chair of the Department of Modern Language at the Arab American University, Jenin in the West Bank. An LDS convert in England and a BYU PhD in English and American literature, he converted to the CofC in 1978 as he finished his dissertation. For most of his career, he has worked at universities or in corporations located in North Africa or the Middle East. Stott has published, in my opinion, some of the most innovative and creative work on the Book of Mormon of any current scholar anywhere. His little noted “The Seer Stone Controversy: Writing the Book of Mormon,” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 19, no. 3 (1986): 36-53, is a fantastic account of how we can conceptualize the act of creating the Book of Mormon. Those interested in perusing his work should see his latest essay, “Sacred Spaces, Imagined Geographies, Invisible Cities” in the latest Restoration Studies X. In this essay, Stott asks what good is it to have a sacred space like the Book of Mormon’s Land of Bountiful when we cannot identify an actual physical place to it. His answer is that imagined spaces can be just as powerful as physical ones (the two are, obviously, related). The reader of a text like the Book of Mormon, is invited to “build” Bountiful–a place where Jesus visits–in their present world, opening up the possibility for personal transformation by aid of a text. Okay…so there was a lot more to his argument than this. He is certainly not a light-weight scholar. Stott is currently working on a book on “how the theology of the Book of Mormon would most probably have been understood in 1830,” according to his bio blurb in Restoration Studies. Personally, I can’t wait to see it.
In these posts, I have highlighted a few CofC scholars doing some significant work in the field of Mormon history that may or may not be familiar with many of you. Who do you think are some equivalent LDS scholars working in the field that are often overlooked at the moment?
On a different note, I have been really curious lately (okay, meaning I checked out one book) on how professional communities shape the values of their members and how this might be a factor in explaining some of the changes that occurred in the late twentieth-century Community of Christ (and LDS church for that matter). How does who we see as our peers shape what we write about? How does it affect our church activity rates and the chages we seek within our churches? Okay, so those are huge, untheorized, imprecise questions. Have a go at anything here.