Gaining Credibility Within Mormon Studies

By December 6, 2012

This past weekend I read through Armand Mauss’s recent (and excellent) memoir, Shifting Borders and a Tattered Passport: Intellectual Journals of a Mormon Academic (SLC: UofU Press, 2012). There is lots to digest in it, and it should inspire several posts/discussions, but one thing stood out to me in the chapter that gave an overview of his career. I had no idea Mauss had such a circuitous route in academia before landing at Washington State University for three decades: he began as a high school teacher, moved on to a community college, and eventally landed university positions, first at Utah State University (where he somehow negotiated an Associate Professor position before finishing his dissertation!) and then at WSU in 1969, all the while working many odd jobs to support his family of eight children and finishing his schooling at night. Once at WSU, his career blossomed with many publications and increased respect.

It wasn’t until the 1980s, though, that he decided to turn his attention to Mormon studies. His dissertation dealt with Mormonism and race, though he had put that topic aside during his first decade plus as a faculty member. It wasn’t until he had “earned his dues” (his words) as a scholar and member of the sociology department, singling out his ability to bring in state and federal money for his academic projects, that he could do work on Mormonism full-time (26). Only then could he take the skills and talent he gained in other fields and use them to analyze his own faith tradition.

This is a familiar refrain. Richard Bushman has spoken on how, after writing his undergraduate honor’s thesis on Mormonism, he didn’t return to Mormonism full-time until retirement. The one exception came when he was commissioned by Leonard Arrington to write a history of Joseph Smith’s life prior to 1830, which resulted in Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (1985). (Bushman tells a fascinating, if somewhat painful, story of how he was told, after being hired by a new, prestigious history department in the 1980s, that he was hired “despite” this side work on Joseph Smith.) Terryl Givens and Laurel Ulrich also provide examples of scholars who gain credibility in other fields before finally turning to Mormonism later in their career.

The general lesson, and a counsel I still hear today is that, if you are a Mormon, you must first establish yourself outside of Mormon history before returning to the field. Most Mormon scholars who have spent their careers focused on Mormon history have worked for a Church institution and thus not had to deal with satisfying outside hiring or tenure committees. (The case has been different for those who are not Mormon, as Jan Shipps and Sally Gordon have demonstrated–a topic worthy of its own post.) Grant Underwood once said that it was very clear to him while finishing his PhD at UCLA that his Mormon topic would not be enough to get him an academic job outside of the Mormon bubble, which is why he went into the CES (and later, BYU-H and BYU).

I think this reasoning was definitely necessary for these scholars, perhaps even up through those who did graduate school prior to 2000. But I wonder if it is still the case today. Specifically, I certainly hope it is not the case today, for a couple reasons.

Let’s leave the practicality of this to the side for the moment. First, this approach presumes that such a thing as “Mormon history” exists apart from broader fields of “American history” and “religious history.” While the parochial nature of Mormon history used to make that separation an unfortunate reality–and remained a serious issue with New Mormon History historiography–overturning this problem has been a serious thrust of the current generation of Mormon scholarship. As I’ve tried to articulate elsewhere, the goal of Mormon studies is now to illuminate broader contexts and questions, therefore making our work just as relevant to those outside the field as within.

Second, this type of approach may perpetuate the idea that Mormon scholarship is not the same quality as non-Mormon scholarship. While Mormon scholars themselves don’t see it as copping out and taking the easy road by turning their attention, after a fruitful career elsewhere, to Mormon studies, that is how many others may see it. Colleagues and faculties might start to wonder whether they are hiring a historian who, while presenting themselves as a historian of name-your-topic, is really biding their time until tenure so they can write on Mormonism. In a sense, the very act of saving one’s work in Mormon history until later in their career could be interpreted as a bash against the field.

If we can better solve these two issues, then I would hope that one could prove their credentials while doing Mormon history, rather than having to prove our credentials prior to doing Mormon history.

But there are, of course, practical concerns. Most especially, can a Mormon scholar, no matter how talented and capable at using Mormonism to illuminate broader issues, convince a faculty that their works is, first, hireable and, later, tenureable? There remains a suspicion in the academy, whether justified or not, that Mormons cannot do Mormon history in an objective-enough manner. Can Mormons be as critical of their faith as Protestants or Catholics can be of theirs? Are Mormons willing to rip off the supernatural coating of their own faith tradition and do the dirty work of the critical historian? I’d like to think academy has progressed enough to not worry about these  issues, but I’ve heard enough vignettes to know that my hope may be naive. And all it takes is one suspcious voice on a hiring or tenure committee to ruin one’s chances. To be candid, I followed the advice of several mentors to not do a dissertation on Mormonism because, in today’s market, I don’t need any unnecessary road blocks, and I know several others on JI have done the same.

Perhaps this is changing, though. Several young Mormon scholars–Paul Reeve, Spencer Fluhman, Steve Taysom, and Patrick Mason come to mind–may pave a new tradition for others to follow, and many others are trying to do likewise.

Thoughts? Can a Mormon historian gain tenure and achieve a respected career by primarily doing work in Mormon studies?


*My thanks to Amanda HK and Christopher Jones for helping me think through some of these ideas, and for letting me steal some of their own.

Article filed under State of the Discipline


  1. It looks to me like Bushman and Ulrich are more of the exceptions than the rule. Givens’s first book was on Mormonism, right? Like all of his other books. And Mauss wrote a dissertation on Mormonism. I do think “paying your dues” is important but I see the new trend you are talking about as starting with Barlow and Givens: writing on Mormonism in a way that is integrated with the larger field. It looks to me like that trend is well on its way and has been for some time, at least in terms of publication.

    The bigger question of how employable we all are (and by we, I’m particularly interested in me) remains to be seen.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 6, 2012 @ 12:41 pm

  2. Even as a non Mormon, I’m careful to increase my employability by teaching courses on things other than Mormonism or even religion in general. Although that’s also because I want to keep the possibility open of working in Europe (where jobs are even harder to find, it seems) and Mormonism as well as American Studies are two niche markets here.

    Comment by Saskia — December 6, 2012 @ 1:00 pm

  3. Steve: I disagree with a couple things, especially that Bushman and Ulrich are exceptions. Givens’s first book was on Mormonism, but he had already established himself at Richmond for over a decade. Mauss may have written his dissertation on Mormonism, but he is clear in his memoir that writing on Mormonism would not have gotten him tenure. Every other Mormon historian who has focused on Mormonism, except for Barlow (who is the exception to the rule), has worked within the Mormon belt.

    Comment by Ben P — December 6, 2012 @ 1:01 pm

  4. I’ve always seen being a Mormon or non-Mormon within the field. Mormons always have the option of being hired by the Church History Library or BYU — institutions that wouldn’t touch me with a ten-foot pole — while non-Mormons have more credibility with the academy as a whole. I’m sometimes jealous of Mormon historians. I wouldn’t mind working at BYU and having access to the extra fellowships and job opportunities would be great.

    Comment by Amanda — December 6, 2012 @ 1:06 pm

  5. And then there are those Mormon scholars who are under suspicion in academia because of their religion, and can’t get jobs at BYU because of their scholarship. Eugene England occupied just that kind of uncomfortable space for a time.

    Comment by D. Martin — December 6, 2012 @ 1:21 pm

  6. Great points, Amanda and Saskia.

    And D, you are, unfortunately, correct.

    Comment by Ben P — December 6, 2012 @ 1:32 pm

  7. It’s seems a bit more nuanced though. Especially since Givens did write all of his books on Mormonism and since Mauss did get the tenure track job despite have written a Mormon dissertation.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 6, 2012 @ 1:32 pm

  8. At my summer seminar, Terryl mentioned that he was the only scholar he knew that had begun by working on Mormonism. At the time, I pointed out that he had written a non-Mormon dissertation. I also wonder how well known they are outside of the field. Sarah Barringer Gordon’s work often gets mentioned to me as excellent work on Mormonism by non-Mormons and most of the questions that get asked at conferences about my work show the influence of her book. I also often get asked about Richard Bushman’s work. Mauss and Givens come up but less often. I’m not sure if that’s a disciplinary difference (I’m a historian), or if it represents an actual distinction in their popularity.

    Interestingly, whether or not a historian working on Mormonism can be taken seriously may depend on subfield. I have gotten the best responses to my work from people working on British colonialism and early republican America. I haven’t presented to scholars of the America West yet. People on 20th C America and people working on metropolitan Britain don’t seem that interested in my work.

    Comment by Amanda — December 6, 2012 @ 1:47 pm

  9. Sarah Barringer Gordon’s work often gets mentioned to me as excellent work on Mormonism by non-Mormons and most of the questions that get asked at conferences about my work show the influence of her book.

    That’s because her book is still the best produced in Mormon history 🙂

    Comment by Ben P — December 6, 2012 @ 1:54 pm

  10. If I ever do convert, it might be for the church history library.

    Comment by Saskia — December 7, 2012 @ 8:12 am

  11. Good thoughts, Ben. It’s probably worth noting that in the case of Bushman and Ulrich, it doesn’t appear that there was any calculated attempt on their part of put off Mormon history until it became professionally acceptable to write on it. Rather, their interests lay elsewhere (in colonial and early national history), and they each wrote (and continue to write) important and sophisticated books in that field.

    And while I don’t consider myself to be anywhere near the level of either of those distinguished scholars, my shift from writing on Mormonism to writing on earlier American religious history is much more the result of my research interests shifting than it was a calculated move to put off writing on early Mormonism. In fact, my advisor pushed me to do a Mormon topic for the dissertation, at least partly in an effort to make sure I was writing about Revolutionary-era religion for the right reasons.

    Comment by Christopher — December 7, 2012 @ 10:12 am

  12. There are wrong reasons to write about Revolutionary-era religion?

    Comment by Amanda — December 7, 2012 @ 10:26 am

  13. Ha. Sorry, I should’ve been more clear. He wanted to make sure I was choosing not to write about Mormonism for the right reasons (i.e. my actual interests were elsewhere and I wasn’t avoiding Mormonism just because I happen to be Mormon).

    Comment by Christopher — December 7, 2012 @ 10:49 am


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