In the most recent issue of Journal of Mormon History, JI friend Rachel Cope put together a wonderful roundtable titled, “New Ways In: Writing Interdisciplinary Mormon History” (JMH 38, no. 2 [Spring 2012]: 99-144). “The writing of Mormon history,” she opined, “has undergone a series of transitions” (99). The most recent transition has been taking place in the past decade or so, as new interdisciplinary approaches have been introduced into the field of Mormon studies. The prior transition, what is typically called New Mormon History and whose shoulders we all stand upon, brought the academic study of Mormonism to new levels and will always deserve deep appreciation. But it was also, for the most part, dominated by the tools common during the New Social History that swept the historical profession in the 1960s and 1970s (when most New Mormon History practitioners experienced graduate training). While such an approach will remain critical to the field, new complimentary avenues are now being invoked, especially from the growing–if still nascent–field of religious studies. This roundtable, Cope explains, hopes to highlight more questions and possibilities by “asking several young scholars to explain how their particular disciplinary lens enriches approaches to and the evolution of Mormon historiography” (100). As with all thought-provoking and cutting-edge roundtables, this series brought a familiar feeling: conviction. I felt convicted in overlooking important questions and ashamed that I often maintain problematic and dated views of history, as I’ll explain below. But in that conviction, I am also enthused to thoroughly repent and correct my ways.
I love these types of discussions, so I thought it worthwhile to share my thoughts on each contribution and then open it up to other reactions. Due to space, I can only offer one paragraph for each essay–a pitfall that certainly means their sophisticated and nuanced arguments will be shortened and perhaps even caricatured. Oh, well.
No contribution convicted me more than Cope’s essay on Mormon women’s history (“Shifting the Plot: Possibilities in Mormon Women’s History). After giving a cogent overview of how women’s religious history has gone from the peripheries of religious history to near the center—though there is still further to go—Cope rightly notes how women’s history still maintains a sphere separate from Mormon history proper. “We must be asking what difference it would make,” she asks, “if we included women in narratives of Mormon history? What did women’s participation mean to the movement as a whole?” (103) When Mormon women are mentioned at all, they are typically understood in the same “separate-spheres ideology” that is finally (and thankfully) being dismantled in the academy. “As it stands,” Cope declares, “the story of Mormonism continues to focus on male leadership, as well as other…male-dominated spheres” (106). And instead of just kindly condemning JMH’s audience, Cope offers several helpful and practice steps to do better in the future, including turning our attention to the home and its influence, moving past the emphasis on women “victimhood,” and better utilizing the lessons Catherine Brekus offered last year in her brilliant discussion on female agency.
Second up to bat is our own Matthew Bowman (“History Through Liturgy: What Worship Remembers”). Besides an explicit demonstration of how the study of worship can illuminate Mormon history, the implicit and more important lesson is the necessity of understanding religiosity–the first of several appeals for “lived religion.” Because of a previous focus on social history, Bowman argues, “the history of Mormon religiosity has generally been neglected.” Things like how and when Mormons read scriptures, how they pray, how they experience ordinances and rituals, and, most importantly, “what these things said about how they imagined their community and their identities” (111). Central to this is a paradigm shift in how we understand historical Mormons. We must recognize that “religion is not, in fact, a set of ideas, because human beings are not simply thinking machines.” We have to better grasp traits that are harder to categorize: we are creatures who want, and love, and desire, and hate, and do all sorts of things for reasons that are never really clearly articulated in our minds but which, rather, emerge from the unconscious realm of ourselves that we don’t really control” (112). Such things are difficult to place in our neat organizational structures. We must better recognize religious action just as much as religious thought, because “it is in religious behavior that we really get at the ways religion governs what historical actors do; it is through religious behavior that the ripples of belief’s influence on the past are manifest.” (113)
In the next contribution, English scholar Amy Easton-Flake offers the merits of a literary approach (“A Shared Historicist Enterprise: Mormon History Through a Literary Lens”). “Approaching historical documents from a literary perspective,” she writes, “will open up a range of new questions with which to interrogate a text, particularly about its literary dimension” (115). Historians of Mormonism should pay closer attention to “how a text is constructed,” because the form uses offers an important insight into the views contained therein. A more sophisticated literary understanding of Mormonism’s rich texts, in sum, provide an important glimpse into how “the print culture that accompanied the Mormon Church almost from its inception played a crucial role in constructing and maintaining Mormon identity and community” (116). This should mean a closer look at things like novels, short stories, and other literary forms that often go neglected by historians, for they are crucial in reconstructing the worldview of past saints.
The second JIer in the collection, Ryan Tobler (Mormon History and ‘Lived Religion’), explains the general background and possibilities that lived religion offers. A dynamic and nearly open-ended field, Tobler gives the three main spheres of lived religion, each of which offer an important framework for Mormonism: “(1) the social and communal dynamics in conversation with religion, (2) cultural and symbolic systems that overlap with religion or (help) constitute it, and (3) the material dimensions of religious practice and performance” (121). Tobler then focuses on each sphere in turn, showing how they both shed light on Mormon history as well as how Mormon history provides an important example for each sphere. Importantly, while he notes that “a deep theoretical knowledge” may be required for this type of approach—something that has never been too popular in the MHA community—a more important lesson is “simple openness and appreciation for the capacity of disciplines like the social sciences to grant deeper or different insights into the religious lives of our historical subjects” (124). Well said.
In perhaps the most provocative essay, Rebecca de Schweinitz (“‘Where Nothing is Long Ago’: Childhood and Youth in Mormon History”) introduces JMH‘s readers to the woefully neglected field of New Children’s History. While she notes that the Mormon history community has paid some attention to youth and children, de Schwinitz rightly claims that, with few exceptions, “it has not encompassed the main paradigmatic organizing principles that currently drive the field” (128). She then offers three of those guiding principles: that childhood and youth are social constructions, that childhood analysis is best understood in reference to other forms of social analysis like race, class, and gender, and that children should be seen as active agents throughout their own lives, the lives around them, and the institutions in which they participate. This is likely brand-new stuff to most readers of JMH, and it should cause reflection not only in how we choose historical figures to focus on, but also how we understand their development, context, and ideas.
The final essay is the new Specialist in Women’s History for the LDS Church History Department, Kate Holbrook (“Religion in a Recipe”). More an example of this new provocative interdisciplinary approach than an argument for a specific methodology, Holbrook demonstrates the insights one can gleam from merely focusing on the recipes that religionists use. Building off of the lessons learned from Bowman and Tobler, this essay examines how religiosity is manifest in something as seemingly mundane as how one cooks. It is also is a wonderful example of what Rachel Cope called for: a reorientation of what we look at in order to include more historic participants and historical lessons. For instance, when comparing Mormon recipe books to other similar religions, Holbrook determines that “an emphasis on celebration and flavor distinguishes Mormons from some of these groups”—a revealing vantage point for religious comparative studies (142). “Recipes shed light on theologizing processes because they reveal specific decisions that an individual has made regarding the body in a larger cultural and religious context,” Holbrook writes (143). Plus, she includes what looks like a delightful recipe for a Rhubarb Ice Cocktail!
In her conclusion, Cope offers a summary point: “We argue that it is essential to focus on the personal and collective pilgrimages of the Mormon people and to consider how they viewed their relationships with God and others as they embraced their quests for salvation” (144). Indeed.
Now, there’s your summary. But please, please go read the original essays, because they are all tremendous and much better than my overview details. Now, the discussion: what stands out to you? What possibilities do you see with these approaches? Pitfalls? Are there other approaches that deserve similar attention?