[We are thrilled to have yet another guest post from Jeff Turner, a PhD student at the University of Utah. See his previous offerings here, here, and here.]
“I actually learned something about Mormonism,” said my seat-neighbor at the Book of Mormon musical this past spring. Terrified, curious, and excited, I found myself wondering what he could have learned from the musical that he hadn’t known beforehand. So I asked. Surprisingly, his new piece of information had to do with the relationship between Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, namely that they knew each other in person, which made Young’s succession as the next church president more approachable to my seatmate (even though the succession was oversimplified in the musical). Well that’s not so bad, I thought, and I can see how he picked that up from the musical. We had a short chat about it afterward, and that was the end of it.
Having grown up near San Francisco, many of my friends, family, and acquaintances are atheist or agnostic, like my seat-neighbor during the musical. They know that I study Mormon history, and haven’t been shy asking me about it. So I respond as best as possible, making sure that they know I’m not the authority on it, although I’ve had the opportunity to read books and taken classes from those who are. In these conversations and without consciously deciding or meaning to, I found myself mediating Mormon history in a way that tried to temper weirdness. To a secular and liberal generation of millennials, golden plates, religious visions, ritual, theocratic isolation, and historical scripture (to name a few) are totally foreign and weird. It’s difficult not to run to absurdity. Many ask earnestly, how does someone believe in this? So, my conversations and introductions of Mormon history with this audience attempted to make that history imaginable from a secular (and largely religiously illiterate) San Franciscan present, which meant mitigating weirdness.
My experiences explaining my studies of Mormonism haven’t been monopolized by this group, though. I’ve talked with Latter-day Saints who shared an interest in church history and shared the books they’ve read and the things they found interesting. In these conversations, weirdness was less of an issue. Instead, comfortability and accuracy flavored the dialogue. Again, I emphasized that I wasn’t an authority on these things, and tried to foster a conversation on the relevant topics. Most of the Mormons I talked to, unlike the liberal atheists typified by my seatmate, held a providential view of history overall and especially in America around 1830. That is, since a Saint could find God’s hand explicitly from Joseph Smith to the present day, details mattered. For these people, obscure minutia clarified progression and offered new avenues of spiritual exploration and accuracy was paramount. Providence, though, is a two edged sword. These conversations also tried to make sense of uncomfortable topics for Mormons, where minutia obscured any kind of productive meaning-making. Surprising to me, the conversation valued accuracy even with uncomfortable topics. History here was about the authority of accuracy in a providential worldview.
I’ve been thinking about these moments for months. How did I mediate Mormonism differently to these different audiences? Did I effectively introduce Mormonism for my atheist pals, and did I help explain historical details to Mormon members? Should the conversations have been more academic or more personal? How might having a conversation measure up to reading a seminal book or good historical introduction?
I don’t have good answers. But I think that these interactions are representative of the current academy, and Mormon history. Good scholarship lies somewhere between dialogues with atheists and with Mormons. On the one hand, historians want to produce meaningful work by making the weirdness of the past approachable from the present. On the other hand, historians also want their work to be accurate, which means dealing with minutia regardless of whether they clarify or obscure the past. But how should we, as semi-professionals, translate good scholarship into these kinds of conversations?
I’d love to hear your thoughts, experiences, and strategies!