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).
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. 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.
 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.