Mormonism and Western History: Jared Farmer, “Crossroads of the West,” JMH 50th Roundtable

By March 26, 2015

JMH50Characteristic of his other sterling contributions to the field of Mormon History, Jared Farmer’s historiographical essay entitled “Crossroads of the West,” provides us with an illuminating evaluation of the relationship between the history of Mormonism and that of the American West. As a native of Utah and a fixture in the field of Western history, Farmer is uniquely qualified to assess the ways that the writing of Western history has shaped and influenced the historiography of Utah Mormonism.

Surprisingly, Farmer is fairly critical of the close relationship between the historiographies of Mormonism and the American West, suggesting that this closeness has often limited and inhibited our narratives of Utah Mormonism. Farmer argues, “From a long-range point of view, the conflation of Mormons and the American West has not been good for historiography. It has distorted Utah history, making it less diverse than it rightfully should be. It has reinforced parochialism inside the Beehive State and reinforced prejudices outside” (Farmer, “Crossroads of the West,” 157). Farmer’s critique is, of course, primarily aimed at those whose brand of Western history is still dominated by heroic stories of pioneering, settlement, and struggles between cowboys and Indians, what has been termed the Old Western History. It is a reminder to such historians that this brand of history generally lacks both sophistication and nuance, reinforcing racial stereotypes than denigrate Utah’s Native groups. Such efforts, Farmer warns, become little more than “faith-promoting history with footnotes” (Farmer, “Crossroads of the West,” 162).  However well researched and written, such contributions are summarily disregarded by outsiders as historical fluff that adds little to the broader discussions of American History and the West.

Farmer’s critique of the parochialism of Mormon history is well founded. Despite the fact that European immigrants made up a significant percentage of those who participated in Mormonism’s westward migration, there are surprisingly few evaluations of the impact that this diversity had upon the development of Utah.  Such a gap leaves a whole in the historiography that begs to be filled.  Given the traditional challenges that immigrants have faced in the United States, the existence so many international communities in Utah offers intriguing opportunities for historical research.  Similarly, Farmer justly criticizes the rather woeful disregard for Native Americans within the historiographies of both Utah and Mormonism. Drawing upon Patricia Limerick’s call for continuity in the study of the American West, Farmer pleads for a fuller study of Mormon interactions with Native Americans that includes both the nineteenth and twentieth-century interactions.  Such historiographical shortcomings are hallmarks of the Old Western History, and demonstrate the significant problems created by plugging Utah Mormonism into Western History tropes.

Even the inclusion of Mormonism in the New Western History has been problematic in Farmer’s view. Whereas Farmer hoped that Patricia Limerick’s The Legacy of Conquest might have critiqued the Mormon historiography for its “excessively Turnerian” tone, Limerick’s focus cast Mormonism as a social and religious minority that evidenced the complexities of the West (Farmer, “Crossroads of the West,” 163). In other words, Farmer suggests that Limerick missed an opportunity to offer needed critiques to Mormon history because Mormonism suited her thesis better being cast as a minority than as an example of the kind of Old Western History that needed revision. Accordingly he offers a number of suggestions where Mormon history could be dramatically improved.

First, drawing upon his critique that Western history had made Mormon history less “less diverse than it rightfully should be” (Farmer, “Crossroads of the West,” 157), Farmer hopes that the future will yield more nuanced treatments of Native Americans, including what he hopes will be the definitive volume on the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Secondly, he hopes for a brighter future for the history of Mormon women; one that will move beyond the mere publication of biographies and documents and demonstrate the interactions between Mormon and non-Mormon women in Utah. Third, he hopes that future historians will make greater efforts to integrate environmental history into the history of Mormonism, addressing topics such as the MX Missile issue. Finally, he suggests that historians need to come to terms with the questions of violence in Utah, uncovering whether the territory was “more or less or simply differently violent than other western settlement zones and periods” (Farmer, “Crossroads of the West, 169). In Farmer’s eyes, such developments will not fully materialize unless and until a greater number of non-Mormon historians follow the example of John Turner and take up the task of researching and writing Mormon history.

On the whole, Farmer’s suggestions are invaluable to both Mormon and Western historians alike. His suggestions for future areas of research and writing provide historians with a number of potential topics that would allow Mormon history to transcend its parochial nature and take on a greater national and historiographical significance. Among the ideas he suggests are: 1) A detailed analysis that places Mormon history within the framework of a “Greater Reconstruction” laid out in Elliott West’s The Last Indian War, and 2) A study that examines the practice of Mormonism from the useful perspective of the differences that naturally arise between a center and its peripheries. Such studies would have the potential to make Mormon history a more enticing field to unaffiliated historians, who might then take advantage of Mormonism’s rich—if at times, daunting—archival holdings. By thus expanding the breadth of Mormon history, perhaps there are opportunities to make it more than a mere subtopic of Western history in the future.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. I really liked Farmer’s essay, Brett, and found it especially helpful to someone like me who has fallen behind in the historiography of the American West over the last several years. Thanks for this helpful overview.

    Comment by Christopher — March 26, 2015 @ 8:53 am

  2. I was particularly surprised by his opening statement about the need to separate Mormon history from Western history. I think he could have been more clear on how to separate the two from each other, but as a Western historian the idea was both shocking and illuminating to consider.

    Comment by Brett D. — March 26, 2015 @ 8:57 am

  3. I enjoyed the essay, Brett. I’m glad you took the time to really dive into it. Thanks!

    Comment by J Stuart — March 26, 2015 @ 10:29 am

  4. Thanks, Brett!

    Comment by Saskia — March 26, 2015 @ 11:13 am

  5. Thanks, Brett. I too enjoyed the essay and this was a nice summation of it. I think Howlett’s point about the scarcity American religious history jobs is germane here, since the market for Western historians has had it’s own problems. That has made it that much harder to young scholars who study Mormonism in the context of the American West to get jobs where they can produce the kind of scholarship that Farmer calls for.

    Comment by David G. — March 26, 2015 @ 12:41 pm

  6. David, what do you make of Farmer’s call for Mormon history to distance itself from Western History? Obviously I think what he is hinting at is that Mormon history needs to incorporate more than just the American West and more than just American history into its analysis of events, but I’m not necessarily sure that I completely agree that Western History is bad for Mormon history. I think Farmer is trying to single out the Old Western History, but I don’t know that it would be helpful to remove the New Western History topics from the study of Mormonism where they are applicable.

    Comment by Brett D. — March 26, 2015 @ 4:28 pm

  7. I read Farmer as primarily critiquing the entrenched narrative of Mormon pioneering, settling, and “winning the West.” This fit to some degree with Turner and the “Old Western History.” Although it remains popular, it is out of step with the New Western History paradigm of race, class, gender, colonialism, etc. I think Farmer’s own work shows how Utah/Mormonism can illuminate the latter approach. I also think that Farmer is arguing that regionalism has its limitations, and that hitching Mormonism to the history of the West runs the risk of marginalizing Mormon history within national (and now, international) frameworks.

    Comment by David G. — March 27, 2015 @ 6:44 am

  8. […] 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 […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » #JMH50 Roundtable: Richard Bushman’s “Reading the Gold Plates” — April 13, 2015 @ 4:40 am


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