Interpreting Early Mormon Thought

By February 24, 2009

In case you haven’t noticed by the majority of my posts (excluding the recent series on Wilford Woodruff), I am mostly interested in intellectual history—that is, the history of human thought. When I study history, I want to know what people were thinking, how they formulated their ideas, and how they presented their mind. Perhaps I am just an Emersonian at heart, but I believe all actions begin with the mind. I can stay up all night reading the great works of great thinkers, whether it be John Stuart Mill, Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Ellery Channing, Max Muller, or many others.[1] Beyond learning what happened in history, I want to know why and what thoughts led them to that action. I also hope to see the breaking down of the artificial boundaries between religious and cultural thought, a new direction finally coming to fruition in our generation.

As I’ve mentioned before, and as Matt B. pointed out at last year’s MHA, intellectual history is a growing trend in Mormon studies; indeed, many of the posts on this site are examples of that approach, and several of my fellow bloggers demonstrate much better the interpretations I wish to employ. A movement among Mormon studies is focusing on placing Mormonism within its historical context–exploring the extant the early Church and Church thinkers were aware and even influenced by those around them. However, it would be an understatement to say that more work still needs to be done.

I recently sat down with a respected up and coming Mormon scholar who is mentoring me on a research project. We were going over important primary and secondary sources pertaining to early Mormon thought—particularly the Nauvoo-era—and soon realized that all the relevant secondary literature are not works explicitly on Mormonism but rather books that dealt with Mormonism indirectly while dealing the wider culture and environment; in short, there has been no work that has fully focused on the development of Mormon thought. Sure, there are several books and articles that touch on it (Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling, Alexander’s article on the development of Mormon theology, maybe a few others), but no large-scale—or even small-scale—treatment devoted entirely to LDS intellectual history.[2]

Sadly, it seems that those who try to focus on early Mormon thought are based on polemics, trying to prove Brigham Young believed that Adam was God, that Orson Pratt taught many “kooky” things, or that Joseph Smith progressed from some form of “modalism” to an eventual “pantheistic” view of Gods.[3] Indeed, most works on Mormon thought seem more demonstrative, showing that the early Saints believed a certain thing, rather than interpretive, trying to engage what that belief actually meant and how it fits into the larger historical milieu. Works like Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic World View might have attempted this type of approach, but in reality are quite shallow in their framework.

So, why is this the case? Why is work on Mormon thought so scarce and underdeveloped? To me, it seems a combination of several reasons. First is our inability to completely forget our conception of modern Mormon thought when viewing the past; perhaps subconsciously, many of us (particularly believing members) would like to hold some continuity from Joseph Smith to Thomas Monson. (We may also feel pressure from our Church and culture to reinforce this sense of continuity.) Second, connected to the first point and mentioned already above, the interpretation of early Mormon thought often gets stuck in polemics trying to prove or disprove that continuity, sensing that this issue is at the center of the LDS truth claims. And third, comparing Mormonism with its contemprary thought and environment runs the risk of losing its uniqueness–as well as, in some minds, its claim that all truth comes from revelation above.

Enough of my rambling. There are several questions I would like to see discussed:

Why do you think there has not been great work on Mormon intellectual history?

How do you feel we can escape this glaring gap in Mormon historiography?

In your opinion, what books transcend this problem? I know there are several books/articles/dissertations that do a decent job at dealing with early Mormon thought—which ones are the best?

[1] By this selection I made on the fly, you can see my bias for nineteenth century transatlantic thinkers.

[2] One exception I should point out is Grant Underwoods Millinarian World of Early Mormonism. This is, in my opinion, one of the only successful works dealing explicitly with Mormon thought, though it only explores one theme. Perhaps Phil Barlow’s Mormons and the Bible may also count in this regard.

[3] George Smith’s recent book is a great example of someone attempting a history of Mormon thought, yet failing to escape the snares of polemics and agenda.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Cultural History Intellectual History


  1. Great post, Ben. I think you’re right that it’s a complicated issue, and there is no simple answer as to why Mormon scholars aren’t more attracted to intellectual history. I think more than anything, it’s a problem associated with the amatuerish nature of much of what passes as Mormon history. Simply put, there are only a few scholars actively engaged in Mormon studies (Underwood, Barlow, Givens) who have a solid enough grasp of wider cultural and intellectual issues to really contextualize Mormon thought right. So we’re left with very insular studies of controversial topics.

    There is another problem. Intellectual history itself as a subfield has often been marginalized in favor of social, economic, and the new cultural history. Focusing on “great thinkers” doesn’t get us very close to understanding Mormon history through prevalent historical frameworks that privilege class, race, and gender. I’m not saying that intellectual history isn’t a worthwhile pursuit (I’d loosely categorize my MA work within that subfield), but it certainly has its limitations.

    Comment by David G. — February 24, 2009 @ 2:10 pm

  2. One main reason I think this study hasn’t been taken much in the past by historians is due to the pressures of defining orthodoxy in the present. Historians aren’t necessarily theologians and tracking the impact of various ideas is quite difficult. I think a fruitful way to approach the issue would be describing the various schools of thought within Mormonism at different times. A comparative approach would likely avoid polemics as well as it would appear to be above them. I noticed that Blake Ostler did this in his first volume when discussing various schools of thought regarding the attributes of God held by various GA’s, though he was not giving a historical narrative at the time, but rather engaging the ideas directly.

    Comment by Kent (MC) — February 24, 2009 @ 2:18 pm

  3. David: I think you are correct concerning lack of expertise in intellectual circles. Your note concering its limitations is also well taken, and I sometimes find myself having to justify my interest in what can sometimes be “elitist” history. It is difficult to avoid focusing on “great thinkers” because, well, sources are not as largely available. Of course there are ways to interpret thought concerning the frameworks you mention, it is more difficult and hence more often avoided.

    Kent: agreed.

    Comment by Ben — February 24, 2009 @ 2:27 pm

  4. Good post, Ben (you have really been cranking them out lately).

    I wonder how wide the divide needs to be between intellectual and social/cultural history. David, it seems your own MA goes in the direction of bridging this gap to some degree (and I think mine does, too, at least in part) by exploring the ideas and attitudes of rank and file Latter-day Saints and how those ideas played out within the Mormon community.

    Comment by Christopher — February 24, 2009 @ 2:48 pm

  5. I like your point about the motivation to prove a continuity or discontinuity hampering good interpretive history of Mormon thought. I’m hopeful that 30 years from now we’ll have lots of works to point to that fill this gap substantially.

    Comment by Jacob J — February 24, 2009 @ 2:48 pm

  6. I wonder how wide the divide needs to be between intellectual and social/cultural history.

    I could not agree any stronger, Chris; in fact, I think a better understanding of Mormon thought will lead to more helpful frameworks in those other fields. As I said in the first paragraph, I hope to see the articifical boundaries torn down between the two approaches.

    you have really been cranking them out lately

    I need something to do while trying to stay awake in my cognitive poetics class 😉

    I’m hopeful that 30 years from now we’ll have lots of works to point to that fill this gap substantially.

    As do I, Jacob, though I sincerely hope it can come sooner.

    Comment by Ben — February 24, 2009 @ 2:59 pm

  7. As an aside to 4: David’s thesis is now available online through BYU’s Digital Collections:

    Comment by Edje — February 24, 2009 @ 3:02 pm

  8. One of the things I remember Bushman saying was that Mormonism has a very rich intellectual (and cultural) history with much that the modern church can draw on in times of change. What that comment highlighted to me was the ways that we look at theology are mainly pragmatic. It is an approach where I like to have my cake and eat it too, even when ideas contradict each other because “someone prominent in the church held this idea at some point and now it is useful to believe as he did based on this circumstance.” I don’t have to decide that anyone is right or wrong, just who is most useful at present. On that front I think the difficulty is to evaluate the survival and the enshrinement of specific ideas due to environmental issues without conceding that the environment produced Mormon thought exclusively.

    I have long seen Mormonism defining itself first as a “peoplehood” (God’s chosen people with whom he acts in history to bring about his purposes) then defining its doctrine primary by what it isn’t rather than by what it is. We aren’t “saved by gracers” or “infant baptizers”, but you don’t hear to much about our opposition to the “weak” deification of the Eastern Orthodox because we have barely started to engage them as neighbors. If anything, we use the Eastern Orthodox to buttress our claims against the Christians who assail us. Reacting against anti-Mormon claims (and the world-views those individuals hold) have probably contributed more towards our intellectual history than most may guess.

    Comment by Kent (MC) — February 24, 2009 @ 3:14 pm

  9. Interesting post, Ben.

    I think your two explanations for why there is no tour de force intellectual history of Mormonism ring true.

    I also think, however, that the historiographical gap you allude to may have something to do with audience. I’m not sure Mormon history has a wide enough readership, beyond Mormons themselves, for such a study to seem “important.” If, out of marketing necessity, most of what is being produced in Mormon studies is targeted to a Mormon audience that is perfectly comfortable with expository (or to use your word, demonstrative) history, then what need, perceived or otherwise, is there for an approach that shades more toward the interpretive or analytical?

    Sure, we can say that non-Mormon scholars should be more interested in Mormon intellectual history, but how do you convince them of that need?

    Comment by Brandon — February 24, 2009 @ 3:29 pm

  10. Great point, Brandon, but I think the reason we don’t have a wider readership is because we often don’t deal with issues the wider scholarly world is interested in. I think there are plenty of scholars out there interested in Mormon intellectual history, as shown in recent work by Brooks Holifield, Daniel Walker Howe, Catherine Albanese, John Turner, etc.

    I think a great example would be Terryl Givens: three of his books on Mormonism deal with what I could call intellectual history (Viper on the Hearth, By the Hand of Mormon, People of Paradox), and all of them were published by Oxford and quickly embraced by religious scholars as important.

    Comment by Ben — February 24, 2009 @ 3:35 pm

  11. Christopher (#4): Although my thesis (and yours as well) could roughly be considered intellectual history, I think they both fall within the boundaries of what is sometimes referred to as the “New Intellectual History.” This “new history” has more in common with cultural history, post-structuralism, and social theory than the intellectual history that I read Ben talking about. In this subfield, the voices of both ordinary people and elites are valued, and is therefore more open to issues of race, class, and gender than more traditional forms of intellectual history. That said, I think that there can be intellectual histories of the type Ben is pointing to that illuminate the thought of elites on race, class, and gender, and in that sense the gulf need not be too wide.

    Comment by David G. — February 24, 2009 @ 3:44 pm

  12. Thanks for explaining the differences you see in the two schools of intellectual history, David; I definitely see where you are coming from on that.

    I meant to include this in the post, but I think another reason it is difficult to write on early Mormon thought is, well, early Mormon thinkers weren’t as systematic as we’d like. JS, though he definitely had major themes that are found throughout his teachings, was not always the most consistent theologian, if you could call him a theologian.

    Comment by Ben — February 24, 2009 @ 4:09 pm

  13. I personally try to practice something like the new intellectual history or the intellectual historical side of cultural history. One reason we don’t have any “great thinkers” work is that to be honest most of our treasured thinkers are fairly derivative when placed alongside the traditional greats of intellectual history. In my own life, I am more drawn to Niebuhr than BH Roberts and for pure nutty awesomeness to Swedenborg more than Orson Pratt.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love the LDS of prior generations and am fascinated to understand their idea worlds, but more in the sense of people coming to terms with the world in their wonderfully plural imaginativeness than in the sense of reading a modern Bernard of Clairvaux or a Ralph Waldo Emerson.

    A related problem is that proposing a Mormon intellectual history of the sort Ben describes is coming at men with ideas because of their denominational affiliation rather than because of their ideas or distinctive capacity as thinkers, and such an endeavor has a high likelihood of devolving into confessional history.

    Comment by smb — February 24, 2009 @ 4:19 pm

  14. Thanks for weighing in, smb. I echo your fear about confessional history, though I may hold some LDS thinkers in higher regard than you seem to do (but, of course, that is just personal preference).

    Comment by Ben — February 24, 2009 @ 4:25 pm

  15. Excuse the intrusion of my trumpet blast. You might find my dissertation useful– On Becoming a People: The Beliefs and Practices of the Early Mormons (1997). I’ve lost all interest in preparing it for publication, but I hope someone will pick up on my argument and go with it. I think the contributions that many men and women made to the religious life of the early Mormons have been lost in the primary focus on the elites.

    Comment by Janet Ellingson — February 24, 2009 @ 5:07 pm

  16. Janet: I have downloaded your dissertation and hope to get to it soon. Thanks for chiming in.

    Comment by Ben — February 24, 2009 @ 6:29 pm

  17. I really wish Janet (or someone) would do something with her dissertation. It really is a significant contribution.

    Comment by David G. — February 24, 2009 @ 6:33 pm

  18. Good point, David (#11).

    Janet, I’ve spent the last hour going through your dissertation. I’m with David—I really hope something can be done to make it available to a wider audience.

    Comment by Christopher — February 24, 2009 @ 8:04 pm

  19. Awfully good comment, Sam (#13). While everyone has at least one original thought sometime along the way, I believe strongly that in LDS culture, we go way overboard in attributing many ideas to our thinkers which were in fact highly derivative.

    Comment by Rick Grunder — February 24, 2009 @ 10:43 pm

  20. I skimmed Janet’s dissy a year or so ago and remember enjoying it. Thanks for the reminder. Though I doubt I’ll ever have time for it, I’ve thought that a “lived religion” history of Nauvoo would be great fun to read or write.

    Ben, I don’t mean to be rude to anyone. I just don’t ever find myself grabbing any stuff by Mormons when I want a fix of big intellect. I love and honor our thinkers as women and men of God and am delighted to be a part of a shared tradition and to learn from them spiritually. I also love to try to get inside their heads, to span the distance between us and them, but aside from JSJ, whom I admire on many levels, I have a hard time feeling intellectually challenged or stimulated by the people that are generally proposed as the subjects of old-school intellectual history within our tradition.

    I did just think of an exception, and I’m sure there are others. I have really enjoyed what little I have read by the Mormon communications professor who was interviewed in Dialogue a couple years ago. I am embarrassed that I’m having trouble recovering his name right now. I think he’s in Iowa, and a D figures prominently in his name.

    I’d be interested whom others would propose as the subjects of an old-school intellectual history.

    Comment by smb — February 25, 2009 @ 12:40 am

  21. Ben (#10)-

    I think I see your point, but I’m not still not convinced that there is a great audience, academic or public, for Mormon history outside of the traditional Mormon readership base.

    You cite Holifield, Howe, Albanese, and Turner as examples of non-LDS scholars interested in Mormon intellectual history, but having read their work I’d describe their interest in Mormonism as tangential. They’re interested in Mormon history only as it relates to the larger picture of American culture and ideas. Certainly not a bad thing, but I think for them Mormonism becomes something to add to their work so as to seem more comprehensive. I don’t think their interest in the Mormon past is abiding, and I couldn’t see any of them taking on Mormonism as a discrete research topic. With the exception of maybe Jan Shipps and John Brooke, no non-Mormon has really taken the bull by the horns and examined Mormonism in-depth, from a cultural, social, or intellectual perspective.

    Then there is the issue of marketing. How many non-Mormons are really interested in reading about Mormon history? Yes, Bushman and Givens have sold well, and Givens’s book received solid scholarly reviews (reception to Bushman’s books was more mixed), but I would wager that LDS folks make up the large majority of buyers for this kind of work. When a publisher is considering putting a book out there, they have to think about audience. And, unfortunately, few Mormons are willing to read a book about their faith by someone other than another Mormon. Plainly, I think they’re too scared.

    I guess what I am saying is that while you’re right that scholars interested in Mormon topics should be more interested in less provincial topics, the market will work against that trend. And I don’t see the same sort of long range enthusiasm for Mormon history from non-Mormon authors or readers that you do.

    Comment by Brandon — February 25, 2009 @ 12:37 pm

  22. This was an interesting post with even better comments. From my perspective as a military historian I think there is a shortage of qualified historians outside of the generic and less than impressive internal market.

    I am currently writing a few pieces on Book of Mormon warfare, and outside of a few polemic implications most LDS people don’t seem that interested, LDS scholars seem to favor their own narrow discipline, and outside scholars I have talked to view it as a quant but useless adventure.

    Thus every potential market(general LDS, LDS scholar, non LDS scholar) has its own pitfalls, limitations, and demands. And there are not enough scholars in each discipline or sub discipline to obtain the neccesary back and forth to meet each of them in a satisfactory way.

    I think the situtation is getting much better however. We have a multitude of blogs that invite discussion, an increasing number of scholarly groups, a growing number of journals dedicated to Mormon studies (like the BCC E Journal), and a growing number of scholars writing quality material that can fit the demands of all three audiences. This post was a good historiographic overview that drew similar conclusions to my discipline. Thanks for the post.

    Comment by Morgan Deane — February 26, 2009 @ 10:50 am

  23. Brandon: I definitely sympathize with your point, but I still believe there is more interest in Mormon studies than you think. We’ll just have to see how the next few decades work out 🙂

    (A minor quibble: John Turner is hardly dealing with Mormonism tangentially; he is currently working on a biography of Brigham Young.)

    Morgan: Thanks for your thoughts.

    Comment by Ben — February 26, 2009 @ 12:37 pm

  24. Ben-

    I certainly could be wrong–and I hope I am. Time, as you pointed out, will tell.

    Thanks for letting me know about the Brigham Young bio. I think I had my wires crossed. I was thinking of James Turner (Without God, Without Creed). Is the John Turner that you’re talking the one who wrote about Bill Bright and the Campus Crusade for Christ?

    Comment by Brandon — February 26, 2009 @ 1:07 pm

  25. The same one, Brandon. His BY bio is under contract with Harvard University Press. John also comments from time to time here at the JI.

    Comment by Christopher — February 26, 2009 @ 1:11 pm

  26. The same. John blogs at Religion and American History and comments here frequently.

    Comment by David G. — February 26, 2009 @ 1:13 pm

  27. Sally Gordon probably deserves mention as another scholar with an abiding interest in Mormon history.

    Comment by Christopher — February 26, 2009 @ 1:15 pm

  28. #21: “I’m not still not convinced that there is a great audience, academic or public, for Mormon history outside of the traditional Mormon readership base.”
    I guess it depends on defining “Mormon History”. IF you include something like ” Under the Banner…”, then there is a market.
    I think Brodie and Thomas O’Dea also sold well in their day.

    Comment by Bob — February 26, 2009 @ 2:21 pm

  29. Alan Taylor’s article “The Early Republic’s Supernatural Economy: Treasure Seeking in the American Northeast” Am Quart 38 (Spring 1986) and John Brooke’s The Refiner’s Fire are good examples of what is needed if histories of the Mormons are going to get a wider readership. The thesis must engage questions of interest to historians of American Religion, the Early Republic and the West. A major problem with most history written by Mormon historians is that the questions are very narrow in scope and of little interest to anyone outside the Mormon faith. Both my advisors during the 1990s at the University of Utah, Richard White and Paul Johnson, saw tremendous potential in the stuff of Mormon history. What was lacking were historians willing to engage the particulars with the wider arguments of interest to non-Mormon historians. This requires those who want to do Mormon history to fully immerse themselves in the historiography of American history. Nothing is more boring than another biography of a Mormon leader. I find the idea of an analysis of B of M military activities to be fascinating, for example, but it should be done in a way the answers questions about 19th century military history so that it would be of interest to non-Mormon historians. That’s my two cents on a very important subject.

    Comment by Janet Ellingson — February 26, 2009 @ 4:18 pm

  30. #29: I think there is always an issue “narrow in scope” in formal histories. But to ” get a wider readership..”, for a Mormon writer, is something else. I feel means being ready to take some heat from the Church. Being ready to take on it’s folklore. Understanding many will be very unhappy with you.
    All of the popular writers will tell you this is so. Being the Mormon Stephen Ambrose, or writing the Mormon Da Vinci Code, will make you popular to many, but also a lot of enemies.

    Comment by Bob — February 26, 2009 @ 6:25 pm


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