The study of American religion ain’t what it used to be. Not so many decades ago, most scholars had a rather, shall we say, circumscribed view of what it meant to do religious history. Most were preoccupied with the development of religious institutions (in other words, white Protestant churches), with the elite leaders who led those institutions, and sometimes with the formal theological agendas that those leaders articulated. All of those conventions, however, have been overturned more or less recently, and scholarship today is much more inclusive, more democratic, and more attuned to dimensions of the human experience. Much of the old model, as we now can clearly see, rested on Protestant notions about the nature of what constituted “religion” to begin with, and so the process of revision has entailed coming to grips with these subtending assumptions.
For many scholars, for example, “religion” was essentially about right belief, about the acquisition of faith, and about an interior connection to the divine—in retrospect, clearly understandings conditioned by Protestantism. Time, however, has brought a new consciousness of the embodied, external, purposive behavior of religious actors. In other words, the study not only of religious belief but of religious “practice” has become vitally important for scholars of American religion. It has become clear that what people do as part of their religious lives matters vitally as a component of their lived experience, and furthermore that the physical activity of historical actors can illuminate the religious culture that surrounds them. This has long been a staple of religious studies of other parts of the “colonial” world. Now the paradigm has now been turned back on American history.
There’s a long and rather complicated theoretical genealogy behind this shift. Regardless of what literary scholars will tell you, history is, in truth, deeply informed by critical theory, and American religious history has been influenced by methodologies and theories on many fronts. One influence enabling the new interest in practice has been the so-called cultural turn and theories of cultural anthropology that have flourished among historians since the eighties. Clifford Geertz and others demonstrated how a human practice or ritual could be read for insight to largely cultural structures, and his way of approaching religious behavior as culture, as a manifestation of a symbolic “cultural system,” has resonated with many American historians.
The turn to practice also rests, however, on the development and spread of new, portable theories of human social behavior. French social thinkers Michel de Certeau and Pierre Bordieu have offered compelling ways to understand the logic of practice in human life. Others have theorized about ritual—which might be thought of as a particular category or subset of practice. These include Victor Turner, Mary Douglas, Jonathan Z. Smith, and Catherine Bell. Still other thinkers have developed theoretical literatures around related phenomena, such as the concept of “performance.”
All this provides the backdrop for many of this month’s discussions at the Juvenile Instructor, which will revolve around the theme of religious “practice” in Mormon history. We’ve solicited contributions from those among our ranks with a particular interest in this approach, as well as other guests who’ve kindly agreed to participate with us. We look forward to hearing from a number of JI regulars, including J. Stapley and myself, who’ll head up this initiative, as well as Steve Fleming, Steve Taysom, Kris Wright, Matt Bowman, and guests Megan Sanborn Jones, Walter van Beek, Jennifer Brinkerhoff Platt, Dan Belnap, Susanna Morrill, and hopefully a few more.
That cast of characters indicates that the study of religious practice has already made some significant inroads into Mormon Studies. I think’s it’s fair to say, even, that we’re off to a good start when it comes to this methodology. Over the past decade, we’ve seen the early flourishing of scholarship on Mormon practices, especially in the early periods. More than anyone else, the redoutable team of JIers J. Stapley and Kris Wright have modeled the virtues of this kind of analysis with their extensive work on practices of healing among early Latter-day Saints, particularly baptism for health and the healing rituals practiced by Mormon women.
Practices related to death and dying have also gotten attention. JI friend Susanna Morrill has written perceptively on birth and death rituals among early Mormon women; Samuel Brown has investigated the relationship between many of Mormonism’s distinctive practices and its confrontation with death in nineteenth-century America; and my own work has attempted to probe the origins and significance of baptism for the dead. Meanwhile, we’ve also tasted of the fruits of analyzing religious practices beyond the world of more formal ritual; Jenny Reeder, for one, has delved into Mormon women’s production of “hair wreaths, quilts, buildings, posters, and hand-painted poetry books” as part of their endeavor to develop a “usable past.” Still others have explored the ways that Mormons have blessed, cursed, shouted, and communed.
Taken together, these inquiries give us some sense of the potential of “practice” to expand our understandings. And this is only a sampling. Join us later this week as we work to compile a fuller bibliography of work on Mormon practices in the past decade and construct a fuller picture of where things stand.
This month, we welcome your insights and questions on the meaning and role of religious practices within Mormonism. How should we conceptualize and interpret them? Is there anything distinctive about how Mormons have practiced their religion? What might it teach us about broader patterns of religious behavior? To what extent and in what ways does studying the history of LDS liturgy, ritual, or other practices expand our understanding of the Mormon past? Disclose the experience of historical subjects? What does it mean that religious practices emerge and evolve over time? We hope you’ll join us throughout March in grappling with these questions and in meditating on the acts of faith that Mormons have performed throughout their history, and why they merit our attention and study.