Over at the Religion in the American West blog, Laurie Maffly-Kipp has offered her thoughts to the above question. The whole post is worth reading—and it’d be great to generate some discussion on the topic over there—but I wanted to highlight a couple of points I found especially important.
Mormonism, like Methodism and Catholicism, was a transnational movement from the beginning. Mormons were no more or less “American,” and no more or less “western.” Indeed, the church was international almost from its beginnings, and at times members abroad outnumbered the members in the U.S.
Yes, yes, yes. I don’t think this can be emphasized enough and regrettably early Mormonism’s transnational history has been woefully understudied (though a handful of insightful studies on the subject exist). My own sense is that closer attention to British converts, their interaction with missionaries from America, subsequent conversions, and migrations to North America will yield a more diverse portrait of early Mormonism, one we don’t fully understand quite yet.
Nonetheless, one might still persist, something important happened in the American West. Brigham Young and subsequent LDS leaders shaped a Great Basin Zion that was, for several decades, a theocratic kingdom unto itself. Their patterns of living, economic systems, and family arrangements were unique and distinctively adapted to the material environment of the West. They achieved a remarkable level of interdependence and collective independence in their new home.While this narrative of origins is true, it also reflects the romanticized and hopeful account of LDS believers, and avoids the splintering of the Mormon movement that gave rise to alternate, much less “western” tales of development. One-third of the Mormons living in the vicinity of Nauvoo at the time of Joseph Smith, Jr.’s murder in 1844 did not venture to the far west. They set up shop in Iowa, in Michigan, in Ohio, and eventually even Texas. Some went home to Pennsylvania or New York, and reorganized there. Many Mormons considered themselves diasporic, waiting for the day when a return to the Zion of Missouri was possible. It’s not that the Utah story is not true; it just isn’t the whole story, and it is a tale told by the larger, ultimately more successful branch of the family tree.
Others have stated the same before, and the John Whitmer Historical Association’s annual conferences and publications—continues to attract a number of insightful studies on “midwestern Mormons” and “prairie Saints,” but it bears repeating again and again. In a survey of the state of American religious historiography published in JAAR a couple of years ago (highlighted here) Paul Harvey and Kevin Schultz conclude with the following reflection on denominational studies:
What is missing from the recent historiography? There is plenty but here we will mention only a few omissions and underdeveloped areas worthy of future invetigation. … We need more books to explain, for example, the lineage of Presbyterianism, or the divisions within Methodism. … Only when these kinds of studies emerge will it be possible to envision a history of what people call “Maineline American Protestantism.” What is that? Is it a movement? A collection of denominations?
I would argue similarly that in order to fully understand Mormonism and what it is—a new world religion? a radical Protestant sect? something else altogether?—we need to pay closer attention to its historical lineage and the divisions within Mormonism (or Latter Day Saintism, if you prefer). And as Maffly-Kipp points out in her blog post, such an approach also forces us to ask important questions about Mormonism’s regional and religious identities:
Rather than taking an up or down vote (western or not? American or not?), perhaps we can turn the questions around. What is at stake for various parties (LDS, non-LDS, scholars of religion, scholars of the West, etc.) in using the label “western”? What does it stand in for? Why does it persist in the face of countervailing trends or descriptions?