I am making my way through Daniel Walker Howe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. I’ve skimmed through most of it before, but because it is the primary text to be used for a course I’m TAing next semester, I’m taking my time and more thoroughly analyzing the book. I began this weekend by reading the lengthy bibliographical essay (22 pages) provided as an appendix to better understand what secondary sources Howe utilized to both set his own argument up against and which sources he utilized and borrowed from to bolster his thesis. If you’re ever curious about any topic in U.S. History from 1815-1848, I’d recommend checking Howe’s essay for a full list of sources on the subject. From religion to economics, and from women’s rights to labor and immigration, it is all covered there.
I have mentioned previously that Howe discusses Mormonism (and religion in general) at greater length and more in-depth than do any of the historians who have previously treated this era of U.S. History at length. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Charles Sellers, and most recently, Sean Wilentz, have discussed religion to varying extents, but none as thoroughly as Howe.
The bibliographic essay suggests that Howe has indeed digested the wide-ranging literature on religion in Jacksonian America. He not only addresses the larger studies on the topic (i.e. Hatch’s Democratization of American Christianity), but also engages specific subjects of American religious history (millennialism, reform, the racial and gendered aspects of religion, etc.), and most relevant to the discussion here, the histories of the many denominations that figure into his narrative.
Mormonism’s historiography receives an extended paragraph (nearly half a page) in his essay (more than any other specific denomination addressed there). What struck me about Howe’s mention of Mormonism in the bibliographical essay was not the amount of text devoted to the subject, but rather that he was careful to identify whether each of the historians of Mormonism he mentions are Latter-day Saints or not—something he does not do for any other group. Compare, for example, the following sentences afforded to Catholic and Methodist historiography to the paragraph on Mormons:
Catholicism (p. 866):
For American Catholics, see Jay Dolan, Catholic Revivalism (1978); Ann Taves, The Household of Faith (1986); Charles Morris, American Catholic (1997); and Jay Dolan, In Search of an American Catholicism (2002). For controversies within the Catholic Church, see Patrick Carey, People, Priests, and Prelates (1987) and Dale Light, Rome and the New Republic (1996). For a view of Catholic relations with the Protestant majority, see Lawrence Moore, Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans (1986), 48-79. Catholic attitudes toward slavery are explained (along with much else) in John McGreevy’s excellent Catholicism and American Freedom (2003); see also Thomas Bakenkotter, Concise History of the Catholic Church, rev. ed. (2004), 294-302.
Methodism (p. 865):
Works on particular kinds of Protestantism include David Hempton, Methodism (New Haven, 2005); Russell Richey, Early American Methodism (1991); John Wigger, Taking Heaven By Storm: Methodism and Popular Christianity (1998) . . .
Mormonism (p. 868, emphasis added):
Historical literature on Mormonism is gigantic and sometimes polemical. Insightful presentations of the Mormon religion by outsiders includes Thomas O’Dea, The Mormons (1957); Jan Shipps, Mormonism (1985); and Paul Conkin, American Originals (1997), 162-225. The projected multivolume history by Dale Morgan was cut short by his death; what little we have appears in Dale Morgan on Early Mormonism, ed. John Philip Walker (1986). Quite a few fine historians are Latter-day Saints, and some of them write about Mormon history; see, for example, Leonard Arrington and David Bitton, The Mormon Experience (1979); Klaus Hansen, Mormonism and the American Experience (1981); Grant Underwood, The Millennarian World of Early Mormonism (1993); and Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (2005). Additional biographies of Joseph Smith, each with its own viewpoint, include Fawn Brodie, No Man Knows My History, rev. ed. (1973); Robert Remini, Joseph Smith (2002); and Dan Vogel, Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet (2004). Mormon and gentile historians collaborate in an anthology, The New Mormon History, ed. D. Michael Quinn (1992). On the cultural matrix of early Mormonism, see D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (1987); John Brooke, The Refiner’s Fire (1994); and Terryl Givens, The Viper on the Hearth (1997). Stephen LeSueur, The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri (1987) is judicious. The Mormon trek to Utah is portrayed in Leonard Arrington, Brigham Young: American Moses (1985); Klaus Hansen, Quest for Empire (1967); and Marvin Hill, Quest for Refuge (1989).
I am not interested in debating whether or not it is relevant and important to identify one’s religious affiliation and belief system (or any other aspect of one’s identity) when writing history. That has been discussed elsewhere at length. I am more interested in exploring the possible reasons behind Howe’s decision to highlight the insider-outsider paradigm of Mormon historiography. What is it about Mormon history that makes whether one if a member or not relevant?
But beyond that, I am curious as to the accuracy and potentially harmful results of using a simple believer vs. non-believer model in identifying one’s self (or, in this case, someone else) in relation to his or her historical writing. Is Klaus Hansen, for example, a Mormon in the same sense that Richard Bushman is? Perhaps, but are their individual religious identities not more complex than that? As the bloggernacle affirms every day, there are various types of Mormons, and even within the “believer” category, there is a range of issues that complicate such labels.
Lastly, I wonder whether the continued construction of Mormon history as a field defined by the polemics of faithful versus faithless history only serves to further marginalize its status as a respectable field of study. I would argue that the field has (for the most part) indeed moved past its polemical past. History as a means of debating the truth claims of the LDS church is largely relegated to the realms of professional anti-Mormons, the missionaries they debate, and the (primarily non-academic) community of apologists that continues to find pleasure in bickering with the Ed Deckers of the world.
Nevertheless, the categorization of Mormon history as a field concerned more with truth claims than intellectual engagement of larger issues persists. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, is seems to me that this construction allows the larger academic community to continue to dismiss Mormon history as a field of belief vs. unbelief instead of as a story that speaks to larger (and important) aspects of the American experience. This, in turn, discourages aspiring Latter-day Saint historians from studying their own faith tradition for fear of further limiting their chances in an already competitive and difficult job market. (“Stay away from Mormon history in graduate school,” one historian with a tenure-track position warned eager students at a session on the current state of Mormon studies at last year’s MHA). While this is probably prudent and wise advice, I am concerned that it only further demonstrates the marginalization of the field.
But I’m not sure what to do about it.