In defense of Mormon history

By September 23, 2009

What follows are some thoughts I’ve been tossing around for awhile now, but are offered pretty much off-the-cuff this evening. The subject of those thoughts is well-worn and exceedingly vague—Mormon studies.

Discussion and debate over the past, present, and future state of the field of “Mormon Studies” has been dealt with extensively around the bloggernacle, including a handful of posts here at the JI. I really don’t want to rehash all of those old issues, but am afraid I may do that anyway. There are two related issues that I want to address here. In the sincere hope of not misrepresenting the general views of those I seek to engage here, I quote selections from two comments that generally represent each those views as I understand them.

The first quote comes from Richard Sherlock’s “manifesto” for the future of Mormon studies published in the first issue of SquareTwo last year. While acknowledging the quality work done in the field of Mormon history the last thirty or so years, Sherlock calls for a more expansive understanding and approach to understanding the Mormon experience—one that prominently includes philosophical and theological studies of Mormonism. It so happens that I share Sherlock’s advocacy of such an approach. But I depart from him when he shifts gears from voicing such proposals to summarizing the state of the field of Mormon history. While he acknowledges (or perhaps notes to establish credibility) that he himself has been “a very modest contributor to the historical study of Mormonism” and that as such, he can “certainly appreciate the importance of sociological and historical study to a broader understanding of Mormonism,” Sherlock seemingly cannot resist dismissing the historical study of Mormonism as a thing of the past. The relevant paragraph from his manifesto is quoted below:

It is important to know the about the life of the founder, the truth of Mountain Meadows, the way in which Mormonism influences individual lives and the way in which Mormon families respond to the contemporary pressures leading to family breakdown. Still, however important these studies have been and to some extent remain, they represent the past of Mormon studies: they represent the past of the intellectual engagement with Mormonism, not its future. Most of the important historical data is in the public domain.  Most of the crucial narrative has been charted. Though some important biographies, e.g. those of Reed Smoot, Joseph F. Smith and Elbert Thomas, remain to be written, most of the future of historical and sociological study will be rearranging the furniture in the narrative box that has been mapped out, not thinking outside the box.  At their most expansive, these studies might alter the length or width of the box. They do not, I think, ask whether there is a box, a cone, a sphere or a pyramid to name only four of a vast number of possibilities.

Such an argument seems innocently naive at best, and downright insulting at worst. To reduce the historical study of Mormonism to biographies of church leaders and constructing accurate accounts of controversial and sad episodes in Mormonism’s past grossly distorts what Mormon historians have accomplished. To claim that historians cannot (or will not) “think outside the box” because they are somehow limited to existing narratives ignores the many new approaches young scholars are utilizing in their studies—approaches that, I would argue, do indeed rethink the very nature of the Mormon experience (or “shape,” to borrow Sherlock’s metaphor).[1]

But Sherlock’s comments seem to be, deep down, concerned with legitimizing his own field of study. I am not entirely sure why, though. Why does the field of Mormon historical studies have to take a back seat in order for Mormon philosophy and theology to thrive?

This brings to me my second point—a point that I think is directly related to the first. This view was recently articulated by Blake Ostler in a comment here last week. The point I want to address is this:

I am a strong advocate of wrenching Mormon Studies out of the monopoly of historical studies and especially keeping expression of Mormon theology and philosophy away from historians who — in my view — often fail to understand the underlying issues and who often (tho not always) poorly articulate the theological ramifications that are at issue.

I’ve heard this repeatedly over the past couple of years, and have to admit that I am continually confused by such sentiments. Let me see what I can make of it by addressing each of Ostler’s points.

I am a strong advocate of wrenching Mormon Studies out of the monopoly of historical studies …

This seems to suggest a comparable view to that articulated by Sherlock. Not content with merely joining in the conversation of Mormon studies that historians have long dominated, proponents of this view appear advocate “wrenching” Mormon studies out of the tight grasp of historians reluctant to yield such control. Such notions leave me bewildered, as I don’t know a single active participant in the emerging field of Mormon studies who wants to limit the field to historical studies.

… especially keeping expression of Mormon theology and philosophy away from historians who — in my view — often fail to understand the underlying issues and who often (tho not always) poorly articulate the theological ramifications that are at issue.

Examples of historians who fail to understand the theological issues at stake would be helpful here. I wonder, though, if such historians (if indeed guilty of such ignorance) are failing to understand such “ramifications” or whether they are simply asking different questions of the sources being studied. Historians, if I understand the craft they practice, don’t have an obligation to be theologians or philosophers. If they engage religious thought in their historical studies, they do have a responsibility to properly contextualize theologies within their historical setting. I fail, though, to see how such contextualization is threatening to those more interested in “the theological ramifications that are at issue.”

There is also another issue at play here that I find a bit ironic. The research of Mormon history, for better or worse, has long been a joint-effort between professional, academically-trained historians and amateurs of varying levels of expertise and interest.[2] It seems to me that the emerging fields of Mormon theology and philosophy will likewise include research by those without academic training in the field (including of course, Ostler himself). This will most likely include some historians who maintain a peripheral interest in those subjects, especially in how they relate to history. Inasmuch as this is true (that Mormon studies in various disciplines will be a joint venture to varying degrees), it might be wise to be more measured in making blanket statements and accusations regarding the contributions of historians interested in participating in those fields.

Charges that historians don’t do good theology or philosophy, even if true, could be turned around just as easily, with historians coming down hard on amateur participants in the field who don’t understand the issues at stake in studying the Mormon past, including many theologians and philosophers who too-often ignore historical context of their sources in attempts to articulate a coherent Mormon theology or offer a philosophical Mormon worldview.

I do not know what the future holds for the field of Mormon studies collectively. But I do feel confident in asserting that the historical study of Mormonism is not a “thing of the past” and that historians are not going anywhere. Advocates and practitioners of other disciplinary approaches to the study of Mormonism would do well, I think, to not criticize Mormon history and its historians, not only because they aren’t going anywhere, but also because they have, in large part, made possible the very notion of a more expansive and multi-disciplinary field of Mormon studies.


[1] One need look no further than the discussion in the most recent issue of the Journal of Mormon History for a glimpse of the numerous possibilities of post-New Mormon History.

[2] I don’t want to rehash the plusses and minuses of this debate here. Let me simply suggest that while I certainly don’t think that a lawyer or teacher or retired businessman researching and writing history is the equivalent of a historian or homebuilder or elementary school principal attempting to study chemical engineering or perform heart surgery, I do firmly hold to a belief that academic training in the field of history has more worth than merely qualifying one to teach the subject at a university or college. If you do not have graduate training in the field, it seems awfully presumptuous to suggest to those who do the relative worth of such training.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Excellent post, Chris; you articulate several things that I’ve been struggling through myself.

    As someone who has a keen interest in both the historical and philosophical disciplines, I am frankly aghast to see this either/or dichotomy expressed in Sherlock and Ostler’s comments. Perhaps it’s the idealist in me, but I don’t see why one must be downplayed–or relegated to the past–in order for the rise of the other. I fully agree that many historians have butchered early Mormon theology–but only as much as philosophers have butchered the context of early Mormon thinkers. Indeed, some of the most anti-historical works I have seen come from Mormon philosophers attempting to prove that Joseph believed this-or-that (mostly relating to the nature of God, I’m afraid).

    There is one key difference between the fields, though, which you rightly point out. It is not the nature of the historian to make judgement calls or determining rationality of past thinkers like philosophers do. As an intellectual historian, my only concern is to reproduce the historical and mental construct from which these ideas sprang–philosophers and theologians can make whatever analysis they wish at that point.

    Personally, I see the future of Mormon studies as more of these fields working closer together, not the relegation of one above the other.

    Comment by Ben — September 23, 2009 @ 4:34 am

  2. Why, also, this view that historians are primarily reciters, chroniclers, “just the facts” narrators? This strikes me as an antiquated and, in this context, self-serving caricature of the modern historian’s job description. I dare say that most of the historians working in the academy today are far more interested, both in the classroom and in their published work, in interpretation than recitation, and that endeavor is a good deal more significant than Sherlock suggests with his “re-arranging the furnitire” analogy.

    Comment by SC Taysom — September 23, 2009 @ 6:17 am

  3. I posted this last year when DMI Dave introduced Square Two and quoted the Sherlock article:

    This should be interesting to see if this lasts. There are already journals that look primarily at theological and public policy issues, so it’s not like there’s a huge hole that needs to be filled. I do find Sherlock’s framework to be more than a bit distasteful. We haven’t reached “the end of history” and the philosophy of history is far more complex than Sherlock acknowledges. Sorry, but we’re not simply rearranging the furniture. Taking potshots at other scholars, especially ones that, ahem, currently comprise the majority of those working in academic Mormon studies, is not a good way to start.

    Comment by David G. — September 23, 2009 @ 8:40 am

  4. Chris: I agree with you regarding the on-going value of doing Mormon history. I do think, however, that you understate the problems that have been created by the dominance of history in the study of Mormonism. This is not, I think, a matter of historians behaving badly or imperialistically. Indeed, I think that the dominance of history is primarily a result of historical accident, the sociology of the academy, and perhaps (this is a distant third in my book) the structure of Mormon religious beliefs and practices. Nevertheless, regardless of the reason, history was the first academic discipline to produce a mature literature on Mormonism. Accordingly, this literature is often of necessity the starting place for intellectual discussions of Mormonism. The result has been a set of deeply entrenched mental habits that those doing anything other than history must struggle against.

    To give one concrete example, I once had an exchange with Craig Harline about the Mormon theology of history. My question was how we go about reading the Mormon past in order to make theological claims. I understand that this is NOT what professional historians do. On the other hand, theologians and philosophers from Augustine to Hegel have been engaged in debates over the theology of history. Harline’s response was that the project of theologically reading history was essentially a mistake because that is not what good historians do. Indeed, he went farther, implicitly giving a kind of whiggish reading of Mormon historiography in which the professional historians had heroically labored to redeem the study of the Mormon past from hagiography, and in which any attempt to ask theological questions about that past risked destroying the progress made by the New Mormon History. Put another way, he refused to acknowledge the presence of a third way of thinking beyond the dichotomy of pre-critical hagiography and post-critical professional history.

    That said, I agree with you regarding the straw-man claim that historians are bent on some kind of nefarious intellectual domination. I likewise agree with you regarding the value of graduate training. I do think, however, that those wishing to do something other than straight history in Mormon Studies face intellectual and institutional challenges that those doing history do not face. This isn’t some how the historians “fault” but it is, I believe, a reality.

    A final point: I think that much of the intellectual appeal of the New Mormon History came from the discovery of new sources and narratives. It was less effective at connecting those new sources and narratives to any broader historical story, although obviously many historians in the NMH mold did do this. Still, in some ways the New Mormon History was defined largely in terms of what it was not, namely it was not pre-critical hagiography. I think that we have largely reached the point of diminishing marginal returns for this kind of scholarship. In that sense, Sherlock is right to claim that Mormon history, at least as it was largely practiced from say 1950 to 1985 or so has dead-ended. What he doesn’t adequately acknowledge is the enormous work that remains to be done in terms of interpreting what we now know about the Mormon past in light of something other than the need to differentiate our understanding from pre-critical hagiography.

    Or so says this ignorant lawyer interloper…

    Comment by Nate Oman — September 23, 2009 @ 8:58 am

  5. You can write manifestos for me anytime, Christopher.

    I remember how off-putting that attitude was in Square Two a year ago, which is why I didn’t bother to go back when the next issue was announced. It’s not like Mormon Studies is a zero-sum game where one scholar in one field has to quit before another one in another field can make a contribution. “Come help the good work move along, put your shoulder to the wheel!” and all that.

    The same welcome that academically trained historians extend to competent people without that training (at least to the extent of their competence) is what compels you to welcome other disciplines into Mormon studies. Maybe (guessing here, not stating as fact) those other disciplines haven’t had the same experience or success working with people outside their formal networks, and so cannot imagine how fruitful it can be.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 23, 2009 @ 9:08 am

  6. Couldn’t agree more.

    Dr. G. Wesley Johnson has performed some utterly fascinating research on the sociocultural dynamic of the 20th-century Mormon diaspora. He argues that the “mission field” (as the old Mormon stock called the non-Intermountain West) actually became more of an incubator for budding leadership of the Church and served as a mainstreaming mechanism in the creation of a national and ultimately, a global faith. Over the course of the 20th-century, budding entrepeneurs, yuppies, and other adventurers began the process of doing with the rest of the United States what they did to Utah–only on the rest of AMerica’s terms. They could not colonize the geographic or even cultural land as they did in Utah. Rather, the new colonization required engaging in what the historian Richard White calls “The Middle Ground.” Mormons had to come to terms with a secular America–they had to all be Joseph’s in Potiphars court as they convinced non-believing individuals of their ability to contribute to both public and private sectors.

    I’m convinced that the sooner Mormon scholarship enters the 20th-century, the sooner it will receive a new breath of life.

    Comment by Russell — September 23, 2009 @ 9:34 am

  7. Thanks, everyone, for your responses.

    Ben and Steve, thanks.

    David, your brief comment at DMI says much more succinctly what I tried to articulate here. Thanks.

    Nate, your more nuanced approach to the issues at hand seem fair and even-handed, and I generally agree with you. Historians (myself included) would/will certainly be more inclined to engage such critiques if they’re presented in the thoughtful manner you offer here, as opposed to the approach of Sherlock, et al.

    Ardis, thanks. You (and Nate, that “ignorant lawyer interloper” 🙂 ) are both perfect examples of those without formal academic training in the discipline being able to not only participate, but actively contribute to Mormon history.

    Russell, thanks. Your point about the possibilities of historical studies of 20th century Mormonism is well-taken and is just one of many approaches demonstrating that Mormon history is far from complete.

    Comment by Christopher — September 23, 2009 @ 9:57 am

  8. Amen, Christopher.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 23, 2009 @ 10:07 am

  9. Chris, well put, thank you! I would just echo some of what’s already been said. I hadn’t gotten around to reading Sherlock until now and I was pretty surprised at how he characterizes what historians do. It was nothing like what I know is being undertaken by historians today.

    But I had similar thoughts to Ben’s and what you articulate that these different fields deal with different sets of questions and approaches which can learn from one another not presume to render the other obsolete. TO so so would be short sighted at best and in no way the future of Mormon intellectual inquiry.

    Comment by Jared T — September 23, 2009 @ 11:24 am

  10. Chris, well said.

    Comment by Steve Evans — September 23, 2009 @ 12:09 pm

  11. Let me be a bit more succint: I reject that history is our theology. I don’t reject history or even a valid place for history of ideas. What I reject is reducing theology to mere history. Reducing theology to history misunderstands the role that theology has played in both church history and the role it plays in articulating what Mormons believe. It also confuses, in my view, two very disciplines.

    I an reluctant to give concrete examples of simply bad contextualizing and outright misunderstanding of historical ideas where the underlying theological issues were just not grasped and were poorly articulated because the folks who do this kind of thing are my friends and I’m really not interested in dissing anyone. However, prominent examples include assertions about the development of the Mormon concept of God from modalism, to binitarianism and then to something like sheer polytheism. Those who have written on these ideas seem to have scant grasp of any of these views or their relation to the existing theological options. Other have to do with attributing dependence of cosmology and ideas of pre-existence on Thomas Dick & Thomas Chalmers.

    I agree with Nate that failing to distinguish the theology of history from history is a category mistake. (At least I think that is what Nate is saying). I also agree that history is often necessary before theology can even begin its work because it often works with the historical repository of ideas and texts as a starting point.

    I am not advocating that historians have intentionally tried to monopolize academic study of Mormonism. It is an historical accident that historians and historical studies have dominated Mormon studies. I am against such domination to the extent funds and grants for Mormon studies exclude philosophy, theology and biblical/scriptural studies. Theology cannot be reduced to history. There are philosophers who argue that narrative history is the only reliable theology. I disagree with that assessment and believe that theology deals much more with logical constructs and the way ideas fit together and arise from each other than such a view admits.

    Comment by Blake — September 23, 2009 @ 12:21 pm

  12. The last sentence of the 1st paragraph should say: “It also confuses, in my view, two very different and distinct disciplines.”

    Comment by Blake — September 23, 2009 @ 12:22 pm

  13. Blake, thank you for the clarification and for not reading this as an attack on you or your scholarship. I think we can agree that history is not theology and should not be confused for it or inserted in its place, and I share your hope that funds and grants for research in the field of Mormon studies includes multiple disciplines.

    Comment by Christopher — September 23, 2009 @ 12:37 pm

  14. Good points Blake, but the problem you note could be described as much as a history problem as a theological one. As Ben explained, historians need to do the work to contextualize what they are saying and that includes understanding various modes of thought. That is, history is always an ongoing conversation, historians often get things wrong, and are critiqued by other historians. We find it frustrating when someone outside the field finds some flaw and says that the whole discipline needs to be scrapped.

    Nate, if I understand you, I’m quite interested in the meta narrative work you describe. However, such narratives by necessity have to be conversations only among Mormons, as the broader field would not accept the theological concepts on which such narratives would be based. Historians in general feel uneasy about conversations wholly outside their discipline. Perhaps the bloggernacle could facilitate such conversations though.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 23, 2009 @ 1:07 pm

  15. Steve: I disagree with you. Theologies of history would make historians uncomfortable, but I suspect that they could be of potential interest to theologians and philosophers. Indeed, to put the point in stronger terms, the fact that you think such discussions MUST be limited to intra-Mormon conversations and cannot be part of a broader, outwardly directed conversation is an example of precisely the kind of unfortunate mental habits the that the ascendancy of history has bred among Mormon intellectuals.

    Comment by Nate Oman — September 23, 2009 @ 1:13 pm

  16. “If you do not have graduate training in the field, it seems awfully presumptuous to suggest to those who do the relative worth of such training.”

    Spoken like a true novitiate of the guild!

    Comment by Nate Oman — September 23, 2009 @ 1:16 pm

  17. Steve: We find it frustrating when someone outside the field finds some flaw and says that the whole discipline needs to be scrapped.

    Yeah, I agree, except that I expressly denied that the entire discipline needs to be scrapped. What is needed is balance. I often engage in what might be called the history of ideas. My articles on the ideas of pre-existnece and grace in Mormon thought are examples. It requires a grasp of the philosophical nuances and who took what position when to address the issues.

    I also agree with Nate that the theological discussion is very much something that ought to transcend the Mormon community. I have such discussions very seriously with the broader philosophical community and those, like me, who dabble at philosophy and the history of ideas.

    Comment by Blake — September 23, 2009 @ 1:19 pm

  18. Help me out then Nate. Who will be talking to whom and about what? Do philosophers still do this? My sense was that not long after Hegel, professional historians (von Ranke) took over. What do you envision?

    Blake, I didn’t mean to imply that you said that, but Chris makes it sound like Richard had. I’ve heard it from some people trained in political science.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 23, 2009 @ 1:31 pm

  19. Steve: There is an entire movement within theology known as narrative theology, for example. I don’t see why reflection on the construction of Mormon narratives about the theological significance of their history couldn’t be brought into dialogue with this literature. Likewise, to the extent that Mormon theologies of history develop a particular constellation of ideas about the nature of divine providence or the interaction of God with the world, I suspect that they could be of interest to those working in the analytic philosophy of religion, etc.

    To give another example — and one where, unlike narrative theology, I actually might know something — there is a prominent legal theorist named Robert Cover who proposed what he called a jurispathetic theory of law which centered on the way that the stories told by their communities about the legal past interacted with formal legal rules. In his article he used the example of Latter-day Saints and the battles over polygamy. As it happens, I think that he probably gets the Mormon story wrong in some important ways. On the other hand, the article — “Nomos and Narrative” — is one of the more widely cited and discussed pieces of legal scholarship in the last thirty years.

    To be honest with you, I don’t know if any of these are ultimately fruitful research agendas. I just think that it is way too simple to assume that the only discussions of Mormon history that could be made accessible and interesting to non-Mormons are those conducted in the mode of professional history. Finally, in the end I think that the theology of history is simply an example of a broader set of intellectual assumptions that tend to privilege historical modes of inquiry over other modes of inquiry. For example, one might look at the ideas of justice implicit in nineteenth-century Zion building as an object for intellectual history. One might just as easily, however, look at them as claims about the nature of justice and then examine those claims in light of competing theories of justice independent of the particular location in which they are embedded.

    It’s a big wide intellectual world out there, and people talk about religion’s not their own all the time in terms other than those of history…

    Comment by Nate Oman — September 23, 2009 @ 1:45 pm

  20. I think Nate is right on many things here. I also think, like Steve implies in 14, that historians are not necessarily uninterested in having such meta-conversations that interweave history with theology. Off the top of my head, Robert Orsi, David Bebbington, and George Marsden have all written on this issue, particularly in terms of what writing “religious history” means. Many of these historians are familiar with theology (There is an entire academic organization, the Conference on Faith and History, at which historians (particularly of Protestantism) explore such issues.

    I think the distinction between historical theology – the history of Christian thought – and philosophical theology is a good one to make here: most historians interested in this sort of thing are quite familiar with the history of Protestant theology, with notions of Providential history handed down from Catholic thinkers like Augustine and explored by figures like Jonathan Edwards, the great Puritan thinkers, and major nineteenth century figures, like evangelicals and the Catholics Newman and Loisy. A lot of the folks doing Mormon theology today don’t think of it in these contexts, but rather in terms of twentieth century Continental philosophy: that is, they take a philosophical rather than a historical approach. Jim Faulconer’s shadow hangs low here. (Not to imply anything detrimental about Jim, who is a scholar and a gentleman.)

    Comment by matt b — September 23, 2009 @ 2:00 pm

  21. “Jim Faulconer’s shadow hangs low here. (Not to imply anything detrimental about Jim, who is a scholar and a gentleman.)”

    He is, however, a short scholar and gentleman, which may explain the lowness of his shadow…

    Comment by Nate Oman — September 23, 2009 @ 2:03 pm

  22. Thanks, Nate, excuse my ignorance. But going back to the point Chris made, I don’t see how what we do here interferes with those potential conversation. We all take turns saying what Mormon scholars ought to be doing, but ultimately we pursue our own interests and it’s up to the individual scholar to make their agendas happen.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 23, 2009 @ 2:06 pm

  23. I think Mormons would want to reject the old Protestant meta narratives of providential history as it relates to the US since such narratives generally declared Mormonism an aberration to the narrative.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 23, 2009 @ 2:10 pm

  24. Steve: I don’t think that any thing that you do “interferes” with anything. Rather, I think that the issue arises in some manner like this: Person A is interested in the intellectual study of Mormonism broadly construed. He goes looking for serious, academic work. Constructing a bibliography, he notes that the vast majority of these works are done in the mode of histories of nineteenth century America. He reads all of these books. As a result, he acquires certain habitual ways of thinking about Mormonism. If we wants to pursue Mormonism from some other angle it will be more difficult for two reasons. First, he will not have a particularly rich academic literature on which to draw. Second, he will have to do a lot more intellectual work to get his discussion going because there won’t be an on-going dialogue in which to fit it.

    This isn’t because of something nefarious that the historians are doing. It is simply the result of a set of institutional and historical accidents that resulted in history being the first academic discipline to turn its attention seriously to Mormonism. The good news for the people who want to do non-historical work on Mormonism is that unlike in many areas of Mormon history there is a lot of low hanging fruit. It just takes a bit more imagination and non-Mormon-related bibliography to see it.

    Comment by Nate Oman — September 23, 2009 @ 2:11 pm

  25. My sympathies if this was your experience. Mine was different. Ultimately I’ve found that scholars vote with their feet in that they pick the topics and approaches that interest them. Mormons do have a lot of interest in their history.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 23, 2009 @ 3:02 pm

  26. Steve: This is actually was not my experience, although I do think that it describes the experience of some. I’ll accept the sympathy, however, as I am sure that I’m pathetic in other ways instead…

    Comment by Nate Oman — September 23, 2009 @ 4:07 pm

  27. Steve – but the concept that history-writing may be in some sense a theological act is certainly a game Mormons might want to get into, yes?

    Comment by matt b — September 23, 2009 @ 4:09 pm

  28. Steve (#23), why couldn’t Mormons just say the Protestant approach was right but their analysis wrong? I mean I find the old 19th century Protestant histories hilarious. (My favorite was a prominent history book from the end of the 19th century that said the British won the French/English wars because the French were papists) But surely the problem isn’t how such histories viewed Mormons.

    Personally I think histories that acknowledge the hand of the divine in history to be appropriate, even if they don’t fit in an academic setting. But I think figuring out what the hand of the divine is doing is pretty tricky business. So a lot of humility is in order.

    If theology and history overlap in both directions though then I think that approach to history is somewhat inescapable even if some look down their nose on it.

    Matt B (#20) I think one can mix history and philosophy in a more complex way than you suggest. And indeed that’s pretty common in Continental thought. (Think both Nietzsche and Foucalt) Admittedly the figures more popular figures among most Mormons I know aren’t historical in quite that way. (Derrida, Heidegger, Badiou, etc.) But I think the kind of history found in Continental thought can be relevant as well as more traditional history of philosophy. (Say to consider the influence of idealism on early Mormon thought)

    Blake (#11). Like you I’m skeptical of the way history is put in opposition to theology. I think the two are intertwined in significant ways. While I don’t necessarily agree with the way someone like Alan Goff critiques “positivism” in history, I do think that to reject the theological questions is to do theology of a certain sort.

    Comment by Clark — September 23, 2009 @ 4:12 pm

  29. Nate: I’d be curious to hear about other people’s experiences relative to what you said.

    True Matt, I’m just not sure what models to use. I also think of my “training” that made it clear that such narratives were unacceptable. I’m still wondering where we have these theological historical conversations (do we have to become philosophers to do so?)

    Clark, I’m not sure that I understand you. I argued in a paper that Mormonism got better treatment in academia when such narratives were rejected. Do you see those narratives as useful? Like you, I see (or want to) the hand of God, but I don’t talk about it in my academic papers. I did write one paper on the topic after we read Hegel for a seminar, the class militant atheist didn’t like it.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 23, 2009 @ 6:28 pm

  30. Well said Christopher, a great blog post and discussion of the issues at hand. And the lively debate that has followed has been an intriguing read as well. As always, thanks again Christopher. Zach Jones

    Comment by Zach Jones — September 23, 2009 @ 7:09 pm

  31. I guess what I’m suggesting Steve is that we ought have two academic audiences. One which is the “public” (i.e. non-Mormon) audience and one which is more for believers. We ought be academic in both, but the kinds of discussions we can have in that second will be different. That is, the theological considerations will be different.

    I actually see FARMS doing this. One can debate how well or consistently they do this. But I really like the basic stance they take and am sad that so many reject it on a fundamental methodological basis.

    Will Mormonism get better treatment if we reject such narratives? Of course. Are such narratives misleading? Of course.

    But maybe I’m misreading you. (i.e. wasn’t entirely sure which part of my post you were referring to by “those narratives” – did you mean theologically informed narratives or Continental philosophy informed?)

    Comment by Clark — September 23, 2009 @ 10:56 pm

  32. It’s a shame that some philosophers have to use such language to stake a claim in Mormon Studies. Most historians I’ve met tend to be quite accommodating of philosophical approaches.

    Personally I think the “what is the field of Mormon Studies” discussions are best served by dialogue with the “is Religious Studies a discipline” discussions.

    While some challenge the notion of RS as a unique discipline, most at least accept it as a field of interdisciplinary (and comparative) study. The issue in these conversations then becomes one of what “interdisciplinary” means. One productive outcome of this situation has been bringing philosophers, historians, anthropologists, etc. together to discuss the boundaries of their disciplines and question whether there is something shared that constitutes “religious studies”. I’m thinking here of something like Frank Reynolds and David Tracy’s edited volume _Discourse and Practice_, which brings together a variety of scholars coming from different disciplines and different areas of study to reconsider the relationship between theory and practice. (Reynolds does Buddhist Studies and Tracy is a Catholic Theologian.)

    IMO, what Mormon Studies needs is more of this kind of interaction–a broader disciplinary base and more conversations with those who study things beyond Mormonism (and IMO the further from Mormonism the better).

    Comment by smallaxe — September 24, 2009 @ 9:53 am

  33. Clark, I agree with you. Two audiences is how I’ve proceeded with my scholarship. I’ve written two papers (here and here) that were written entirely to Mormon audiences that deal with historical issues with the assumption that Mormonism is true. The article I wrote for Church History is sort of the secular version.

    The Religious Educator, put out by the religion department, allows such approaches, but it might be nice to have some other venue that allowed for wider speculation.

    By “those narratives” I meant nineteenth-century Protestant one. This article lays out how it was good for Mormonism for those narratives to go away. But I’m not rejecting the notion of providence, I just see the two audience method you mentioned as the way to address the issue.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 24, 2009 @ 11:01 am

  34. Smallaxe, I tend to agree that the “debate” is much ado about little. I think the problem crops up when some invoke philosophical issues uncritically. But then problems crop up when philosophers and theologians don’t approach the history critically. I think this is ultimately Nate’s point he’s been beating for years: we need multidisciplinary investigations. But I doubt there’s anyone here who disagrees with Nate on this.

    Comment by Clark — September 24, 2009 @ 11:28 am

  35. Nice, Chris. Thanks for this. Typically aligning myself with the less historically inclined tribe, if there are indeed tribes here, I appreciate the way you debunk some oversimplifications in the debate. I think your post cries for some sort of constructive project or scholarly experiment (here). What do a group of historians, philosophers, and theologians have to bring to a specific Mormon issue or historical event and could this counterpoint reveal intstructive harmonies or disharmonies among the disciplines and within Mormon Studies? At some point, creative action rather than debate whets my whistle.

    Comment by Elizabeth — September 24, 2009 @ 12:12 pm

  36. I think this is ultimately Nate’s point he’s been beating for years: we need multidisciplinary investigations. But I doubt there’s anyone here who disagrees with Nate on this.

    Right. That’s why I suggest that the conversation move toward identifying productive multidisciplinary investigations, which IMO does (occasionally) happen in religious studies.

    I suppose it would also be helpful to identify possible avenues for this to occur in regards to Mormon Studies. Does the MHA crowd, for instance, ever associate with the SMPT crowd? Is the Mormon Scholars in the Humanities (I believe that’s what it’s called) conference a better venue? There’s also of course the SBL crowd, which, from what I can tell, doesn’t really associate with either the MHA-ers or the SMPT-ers. IMO, the growing presence of Mormonism at the AAR conference is perhaps the best sign of a more interdisciplinary approach, and if the SBL re-combines with AAR it will provide an opportunity for even more interaction and exposure.

    Of course all of this need not happen solely through these organizations.

    Comment by smallaxe — September 24, 2009 @ 12:12 pm

  37. smallaxe: I have presented at SMPT, MSH, and MHA. (I haven’t made to AAR yet, but it is on the ever lengthening list of things to do once I get tenure. I can’t imagine that SBL would ever really be my cup of tea.) My impression is that there is some overlap but not much.

    Comment by Nate Oman — September 24, 2009 @ 12:49 pm

  38. “At some point, creative action rather than debate whets my whistle.”

    I agree. Debates about disciplinary boundaries and methodology are fun from time to time but they are often a distraction at best and at worst lead people to take positions on what is or not legitimate work that are more extreme than they would take in the absence of such debates. Much better to simply go out, do stuff, and hope that someone finds it useful and interesting. Ninety percent of everything that is ever done by anyone on anything is crap, so if we want to get good stuff it may be that the very best thing we can do is simply encourage volume.

    Comment by Nate Oman — September 24, 2009 @ 12:53 pm

  39. I have a suggestion – I don’t think there can be any legitimate complaint against historians doing Mormon history, but when religious history moves beyond factual documentation to interpretive matters of theological significance, the theological and philosophical precursors for centuries to millennia prior rise to a level of enormous importance.

    So it seems to be that to be an effective interpretive historian of episodes of fundamental theological significance, one needs to understand the theology of the participants and the theology of their historical predecessors the *way* (not necessarily to the degree) those persons themselves did. In short, one cannot really do theological history without a serious acquaintance with theological history.

    The sociological history or grand sweeping narratives of the period will not do. If I have any observation, it is because it seems so often that people try to draw theological conclusions from arguments that draw on purely sociological factors, or history as sociology, without really going down to the history of theological ideas, and the turn by turn intellectual account of how those theological precepts turned out the way they did.

    Comment by Mark D. — September 24, 2009 @ 12:54 pm

  40. Ninety percent of everything that is ever done by anyone on anything is crap

    This is the third time I’ve heard this from you in the last couple of weeks, Nate. Is the plan to keep repeating it until it is generally accepted as fact? 🙂

    Comment by Christopher — September 24, 2009 @ 12:57 pm

  41. I have presented at SMPT, MSH, and MHA…

    Which of those do you think is the most productive venue for creating a legitimate field of Mormon Studies?

    Comment by smallaxe — September 24, 2009 @ 1:40 pm

  42. I suppose it would also be helpful to identify possible avenues for this to occur in regards to Mormon Studies. Does the MHA crowd, for instance, ever associate with the SMPT crowd?

    I think there’s a bit of crossover, but not as much as would be helpful. Of course I also think that better utilization of the internet helps as well. I’d note that we at SMPT have put up podcasts of all the presentations for SMPT members. Maybe someone could suggest this happening with MHA and other organizations?

    One big problem I find is that there is a lot of thought going into these issues but not sufficient transmission of the work. Getting more people into the conversation is key.

    I’d like to think blogs like this help, but I sometimes wonder how many outside of the core blogging community read. There’s also the issue of time. Obviously I’ve been swamped the past couple of years and haven’t been able to finish several papers I’ve been working on.

    Comment by Clark — September 24, 2009 @ 2:30 pm

  43. I’d note that we at SMPT have put up podcasts of all the presentations for SMPT members. Maybe someone could suggest this happening with MHA and other organizations?

    It’s been suggested. And then suggested again. And again. There is some generational disconnect between the old guard and the young scholars who participate in MHA on issues like this. As I understand it, Sunstone used to audio record each session at MHA and then make the MP3’s available for sale/download, but they didn’t sell well and so there was little motivation to continue. But I’m hopeful that podcasts (or at least audio recording) of sessions will be made available again soon.

    I’d like to think blogs like this help, but I sometimes wonder how many outside of the core blogging community read.

    More than you might think.

    Comment by Christopher — September 24, 2009 @ 2:59 pm

  44. The problem was that Sunstone charged ridiculous prices. It’s no wonder no one bought them. They thought it was like the crowd who used to buy tapes back in the 70’s and 80’s but the market has changed.

    Comment by Clark — September 24, 2009 @ 3:25 pm

  45. “Which of those do you think is the most productive venue for creating a legitimate field of Mormon Studies?”

    I don’t know. I have only been to one session of MSH, but I have been to MHA a couple of times and have attended or listened to all of the SMPT conferences. I think that the average quality of presentations of SMPT was probably highest, but it was not especially interdisciplinary. MHA is clearly the largest and best established. For MSH I really didn’t know if the purpose of the meeting was to have an intellectual exchange about Mormonism, professional networking, or some sort of pseudo-therapeutic session for Mormon English professors, e.g. “Hi. My name is John. I am an English professor and no one in my ward seems to think this is as cool as they should. But I am here to say that it is just fine to be a Mormon and an English professor by golly…” That said, I have only been to one MSH conference, and I heard good things about the one this year that I did not attend.

    As for which is the best, I don’t know. Both MHA and SMPT are defined in terms of disciplinary specialization, which means that neither is a great vehicle for interdisciplinary work. On the other hand, I am hoping that SMPT in particular will act as a catalyst for the production of a body of literature the same way that MHA acted as a catalyst for the creation of the New Mormon History.

    Comment by Nate Oman — September 25, 2009 @ 9:34 am

  46. “This is the third time I’ve heard this from you in the last couple of weeks, Nate. Is the plan to keep repeating it until it is generally accepted as fact?”

    No. I keep repeating it because regardless of its general acceptance it is a fact ;->.

    Comment by Nate Oman — September 25, 2009 @ 9:36 am

  47. Oman speaks the chilling truth.

    Comment by smb — September 25, 2009 @ 10:15 am

  48. […] does this have to do with Mormonism—and Joseph Smith—you ask? Plenty. As has been demonstrated recently, there has often been a divide between theological/philosophical and historical views of past […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Considering Biography and Thought in Joseph Smith — November 3, 2009 @ 7:46 pm


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