Previous #JMH50 posts:
Liz M. on Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Personal Essay
David Howlett on his own article on jobs and publishing in Mormon Studies
J. Stuart on William Russell’s “Shared RLDS/LDS Journey”
Brett D. on Jared Farmer’s “Crossroads of the West”
Ryan T. on Matthew Bowman’s “Toward a Catholic History of Mormonism”
Tona H on Richard Turley’s “Global History of the Church”
If Leonard Arrington was the dean of New Mormon History, Richard Bushman is the patriarch of Mormon studies. Bear with me for a moment while I get into some nerdy insider historiographical speak. The term “Mormon studies” gets thrown around a lot, sometimes to the point that it loses all usefulness. Does it just mean any “study” of “Mormonism”? Does it have to be academic? Does it include apologetics? Is it, *gasp*, “objective”? Does “Mormon” imply the institutional experience of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Answers to these questions vary depending on who you ask.
I won’t spend too much time on this, but in brief: In my personal view, Mormon studies is the academic examination of Mormon history, culture, theology, literature, society, etc., used for broader academic purposes. That is, to use Patrick Mason’s useful phrase in The Mormon Menace, Mormons become the “objects” of study rather than the “subjects.” (The subjects being broader cultural implications, larger historical narratives, more universal philosophical issues—you get the picture.) Just writing about Mormonism for Mormonism’s sake, speaking to strictly Mormon issues, and addressing a primarily Mormon audience, no matter how high an academic quality, is not what I would consider Mormon studies. That is, Mormon studies can include Mormon history, but far from all Mormon history qualifies as Mormon studies. In fact, I probably wouldn’t qualify most of the work that took place in New Mormon History as “Mormon studies,” because although they were the first generation to use academic tools and match professional rigor, the questions they asked and the frameworks they enambled were primarily situated within a Mormon context. When did the First Vision become important? How many wives did Joseph Smith have? What percentage of Utahns practiced polygamy? These were important questions, but mostly only important to those affiliated with the Mormon community in some way. (And there certainly were exceptions.) This isn’t to say that these subjects were flawed and bad—being included in my own description of “Mormon studies” is a neutral value outside of the realm of strictly (and narrowly) academic concerns like university hiring, advancement, and tenure, where these things matter quite a lot. I do not think all writers on Mormon history, or Mormonism in general, should embrace the methodologies or perspectives of Mormon studies; indeed, there would be severe problems if that were to happen, and I imagine that most work produced by independent Mormon publishers and presented at the Mormon History Association will not (and perhaps should not) fall under my Mormon studies characterization. But I do want to emphasize that there has been a historiographical trajectory that has seen a development of more and more quality work that does indeed fulfill that academic need.
As much as anything else, Bushman’s thoughtful essay is a case study in how this transformation happened, as seen through the eyes and demonstrated through the work of one individual. Bushman’s current book project (besides his book on farming in early America, which American historians are still eagerly waiting for) is a cultural history of the gold plates in the Mormon tradition. More than just the disputed 22 months in which Joseph Smith allegedly had the artifacts in his possession, the gold plates have had an important and dynamic afterlife that reveal much about American culture in general. And admittedly, though Bushman says he could have written about the gold plates during the 1980s or 1990s, it would have been a very different project. He confesses that he (and he implies that many in the field) “was still too much under the influence of the apologetic strain in Mormon historiography.” Bushman would have wanted “to defend the reality of the plates against their unbelieving critics” (65). This was part of a broader methodological impulse, driven by the New Social History of the 1970s, to focus on the facts, the organizational principles that influenced the everyday reality of people’s lives—Bushman calls this the “evidentary tradition” within Mormon culture (68). As a result of this, and as a result of the Mormon history community’s obsession with taking sides on difficult issues, a gold plates project would have looked much different back then. Although Bushman states that the revisions to his Book of Mormon chapter between Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism and Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling reflect a shift away from a more apologetic tone, he admits that his 2005 biography of Mormonism’s founder was indeed steeped in the tradition of New Mormon history, not so much Mormon studies.
The new imperative for Mormon studies, Bushman states, is to treat “Mormon themes but [change] the focus from Mormonism itself to American culture” (70). Seen in this light, the gold plates are no longer pigeon-holed into the sole debate about whether they existed or not; indeed, Bushman states that with this approach, “the question of the plates’ reality becomes irrelevant.” The new focus is to determine the cultural politics of the image of the plates, which has led Bushman to believe that “the plates are an evocative object on to which observers projet their own hopes and fears” (71-72). These are the questions that will excite scholars from a number of backgrounds, and fulfill many of the promises found in the exciting work of New Mormon History. This is not, I repeat, to say that debates over the plates should end, or that the historicity of the Book of Mormon is irrelevant to the Mormon tradition. Far from it—historicity remains an important Mormon marker, as I am well aware of in my own personal life. It’s just recognizing the intentional gap between religious and academic purposes; New Mormon History tried to be all things to all people, and as a result became too divisive for the ecclesiastical setting and too limited for the academy. Mormon studies, when done successfuly, demonstrates the necessity of giving unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and God what is God’s.
It should be noted how significant it is that someone of Richard Bushman’s status and position can both acknowledge and take part in this academic transition; retired octogenarians are usually not at the forefront of scholarly change. That he is not only able to identify but also help chart this new trajectory is a testament to both his great statesmanship as well as the vibrant field which he continues to help shape.
 Yeah, I know, titles like these are silly. Deal with it. Also, Jan Shipps’s Mormonism and, as I’ll argue at MHA this year, John Brooke’s Refiner’s Fire are probably the “first” books that fall under my category of “Mormon studies.”
 Most importantly, works that fall under my description of “Mormon studies,” while reaching a broader academic audience, are less relevant to the non-academic audience. The works of New Mormon History had enormous cultural capital because they addressed questions most pertinent to a broader array of Mormons. This is not as much the case with Mormon studies. I’ll talk more about this in an upcoming roundtable on Paul Reeve’s Religion of a Different Color.
 Most of the early chapters from the former book were lightly revised and inserted into the latter, except the chapter on the Book of Mormon which was completely re-written.
 I hope to see, at some point, a great cultural studies work on why historicity remains so important in the LDS faith.