In yesterday’s Inside Higher Ed, Kevin Schultz and Paul Harvey explore what they see as the paradox of the current state of American religious history. On the one hand, more historians appear to be engaging religious history than in past years. They note, for example, that according to a recent AHA report, “religion now tops the list of interests that historians claim to have as their specialty” and point to a number of stellar offerings recently published in the field.Yet in spite of the increase in both quantity and quality of religious scholarship over the last several years, “within mainstream historiography [religion] has been basically left behind.” On this point, the authors point to (among other things) Jon Butler’s 2004 survey of American history textbooks, which found that religion is granted much attention in early American history (pre-Civil War), but only scant attention in more recent history. “In a sense,” they summarize, “religion is everywhere in modern American history, but nowhere in modern American historiography.”
The article is well worth the read, but it is only a summary of their larger analysis published in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. In that fuller treatment, Schultz and Harvey spend some time discussing Mormon history and historiography. They explain that “examinations of America’s religious pluralism have paved the way for increased focus on two outsider religions, Judaism and Mormonism, our second historiographical trend.” I think their analysis is fair, both in its recognition of important developments in recent Mormon historiography (they rightfully, if a bit too generally, credit Bushman with demonstrating “how scholars who happen to have ‘Mormon DNA’ can speak to a larger audience of historians and the general public”) as well as in its nuanced critiques (they suggest that Mormon historiography has only “moved partially away from provinciality” in the recent past (emphasis mine)).
I thought JI readers would be interested in what they had to say, though, so I am including the relevant portion below. I’ll add my own reaction that the very recognition of the state of Mormon historiography by scholars from outside the tradition who do not research Mormon history is both significant and (for those of us with a vested interested in the matter) encouraging.
These examinations of America’s religious pluralism have paved the way for increased focus on two outsider religions, Judaism and Mormonism, our second historiographical trend. In recent work, Mormon historiography has moved partially away from provinciality, focusing instead on placing Mormonism within the boundaries of mainstream culture. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is, after all, the fourth largest church in the country today. But there is a reason for the provinciality of some Mormon history: Mormons have emerged only recently from the confines of the Rocky Mountains to play a significant role in the life of twentieth-century American politics and culture. Nevertheless, stellar works of Mormon history, notably Richard Lyman Bushman’s new biography of Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (2005), show how scholars who happen to have “Mormon DNA” can speak to a larger audience of historians and the general public. A recent dialogue in the Journal of American History between Bushman and Jan Shipps, the foremost non-Mormon interpreter of LDS history, gives further evidence of Mormon history’s (and historians’) movement out of the margins, even if not quite to the mainstream. In this case, religion (by definition) is everywhere, and the serious scholarly engagement with it (largely thanks to Bushman and other talented Mormon historians) has become central to historiographical dialogue. This work not only illuminates the period of Mormonism’s founding, but it also shows how Mormonism was both a foil for mainstream Protestantism (in, say, forcing it to define its boundaries on plural marriage) and, recently, as a key player in the Religious Right, helping to fund such causes as the anti-gay marriage movement in California.