This past semester I taught both an undergraduate course and a graduate seminar in American Religious History. These types of courses are great for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that they give you an excuse to read books you’ve indefensibly managed to avoid up to this point. This was especially the case for me, given my ignorance of twentieth century history. Most prominently, I’ve been, for a long time, embarrassed to admit that I haven’t read Robert Orsi‘s books. It was far past time to rectify that problem, so I assigned his Madonna of 115th Street for my undergrad class and Thank You, Saint Jude for my grad seminar. Both were phenomenal: not only did they spark discussion with my students, but I was amazed at the new methodological possibilities presented in his work. They lived up to their reputation. I may not be a scholar of lived religion, but I can certainly see its merits.
But reading and discussing the books raised a question in my mind: could there be a Robert Orsi for Mormon studies? Or, put another way, could there be a history of Mormonism written in the style of Orsi’s books on Catholicism? There are a few reasons why I hope for the possibility.
(Note: this is far from the first time JI is engaging Orsi’s work. Christopher Jones reviewed Madonna of the 115th Street seven years ago, which turned into an excellent essay in the Mormon Review. Christopher also overviewed a discussion between Orsi and Richard Bushman that took place in Dialogue, and I summarized Steve Taysom’s responding article. Like I said: I’m late to the party.)
First, I’ll give a criminally brief overview of the books and their merits for those who haven’t read them. (But seriously: repent and overcome that sin by reading them over Christmas break. Then come back and comment on this post and tell me I’m right.) Madonna of 115th Street covers a fifty-year history of the Italian Catholic community in Progressive-era Manhattan. Focused around their annual worship rituals (called feste), Orsi traces the tensions between family, community, generations, and inter-cultural clashes. (The Irish dominated the Catholic scene, and the Italians, whose beliefs and practices were substantially different, were often marginalized.) How do immigrant communities fresh in a new land both adapt to the modern world while maintaining some sense of tradition and stability? In Thank You, St. Jude, Orsi moves westward in geography (Chicago) and forward in chronology (post-World War II-era). In one chapel—ironically, in a heavily Hispanic community—European Catholic immigrants found a hero in Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes. Catholic women especially turned to Jude as a sounding board and reflection of their deepest concerns: depression, poverty, sickness, war, you name it. What role does such a pious act play in a modern, enlightened, and Protestant nation? In both books, Orsi focuses on the common worshippers through methodologies of lived religion—a craft that he helped perfect.
What elements can be transferred into the world of Mormon studies? What would a Robert Orsi look like at MHA?
One of the best parts about Orsi’s books is that they disrupt our traditionally Protestant trajectories of American religious history. Catholicism became America’s largest denomination around 1850, yet the dominance of Protestantism in our national imagination has shaped how we frame concepts like liberty, family, community, and worship. The latter element is especially pertinent for our purposes, as Mormon sacramentalism and ordinances have made the tradition an odd fit for our Protestant narratives. (Orsi’s most recent book on “presence,” which challenges traditional trajectories of enlightenment and modernity, might provide a better framework.) Matt Bowman has highlighted how we need a more Catholic perspective of Mormonism (see an overview here), and his article should be required reading for young scholars who wish to offer fresh takes on the faith.
Second, Orsi’s work has probed the boundaries of ethnicity and community in ways that should seem appropriate for Mormon history. Especially in the last generation, scholars of Mormonism have interrogated the boundaries of race, but the more nebulous category of ethnic belonging remains largely untouched. Most immigrants to Utah in the nineteenth century may have fought for the rights of “whiteness,” but their varying countries of origins (Danish, Swedish, British, etc.) introduced competing forms of cultural baggage for the melting pot of Deseret. How did these cultures blend and cooperate in the arid desert? We catch glimpses of some of these ethnic communities, like the Scandinavian enclave in Sanpete County, but we have yet to receive a more sustained study focused on ethnicity as a governing principle.
And finally, the lived religion components of Orsi’s work are his most famous contributions yet still drastically understudied in the Mormon context. For instance, Orsi could delineate the spiritual significance of the cards of St Jude that Chicago Catholics carrie around in their car as a transient form of worship that transforms their vehicles into quasi-sacred space. Could the same type of work be done with the portable vials of consecrated oil that Mormon men carry around? Some of the best analysis of this scholarship include our own Kris Wright’s work on sacrament bread and sewing machines, or Justin Bray on the Mormon sacrament. We need more of that. Orsi, for instance, doesn’t really care what leaders, elites, or institutions implemented over the course of his study—that was all of secondary importance. What really mattered was how things were received and experienced at the local level. That’s a mindset we need.
So when will we see a Robert Orsi of Mormon studies? I hope soon. For example, here’s a dissertation idea for some earnest PhD student: look at the Welsh communities that immigrated to Salt Lake City in the late nineteenth century. Where did they settle? Did they have their own wards? Their own leadership? Was the second generation fully integrated into the broader Mormon community, or was it the third? Did they transport practices and beliefs from their homeland to their new contexts? How did Mormonism serve as a stabilizing force in their world of change, and how did it serve as a disruption? Or how about a more recent topic: I’m currently writing this post on my phone in an LDS foyer while listening to a Hispanic ward sing “Choose the Right”—how do Spanish-speaking wards fit within the Modern LDS environment? How do the backgrounds and communities of Hispanic wards in areas like Houston intersect with larger trajectories of contemporary Mormonism? Those are studies I’d love to see.
Here’s a promise: if you write the book as well as Orsi’s, I’ll assign it in my grad seminar in the future.