Desperate times (the expected dearth of posts at the end of the semester) call for desperate measures (narcissistically posting about our own scholarship).
In summer 2009, I participated in the Mormon Scholars Summer Seminar, that year led by Terryl Givens and Matt Grow, where I had the opportunity to study the writings of the Pratt brothers. While my seminar paper was on Parley Pratt’s theology of embodiment, which soon evolved into a larger article on early Mormon theologies of embodiment in general, the topic with which I became particularly transfixed was how Joseph Smith’s teachings were adapted and appropriated during the first few years after his death. At first, I was interested in the very parochial nature of the issue—the specifics of theological development, who said what and when, and what ideas were forgotten, emphasized, or even created anew. But I then became even more interested in broader questions: how were Smith’s ideas interpreted in the first place within a specific cultural environment, and how did Smith’s successors utilize that environment when molding their own theology? And further, what does that process tell us about the development of religious traditions in general, and the progression of religion in antebellum America in particular?
What resulted was a behemoth of a paper that pushed 20,000 words and exceeded the limits of any respectable journal word count. At the advice of several friends who kindly reviewed the paper, as well as a very helpful roundtable with the Church History Department in Salt Lake City, I realized I was trying to make two big arguments in the paper: one theoretical (the nuts and bolts behind how a religion progresses after the death of its innaugural prophet) and one cultural (how Jacksonian America both shaped and was shaped by the same types of tensions demonstrated by 1840s Mormonism). As a result, I split the paper into two separate articles. The first, “(Re)Interpreting Early Mormon Thought: Synthesizing Joseph Smith’s Theology and the Process of Religious Formation,” was published in last year’s summer issue of Dialogue (pdf, summary here). It was by far the most theory-driven paper I’ve ever written, though I think I might be able to claim the privilege of the first Mormon scholar to quote both Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Michel Foucault in the same paper. But I remain proud of my major arguments, especially the insistance to move our focus away from Joseph Smith and toward his interpreters in order to better guage the intersections of religious ideas and cultural influences.
The second article took a lot more time to massage and develop. My central thesis was fairly clear early on in the project. In short, I argue that the framework in which Joseph Smith’s successors placed situated Mormon theology in the mid-1840s embodied the larger tentions of antebellum America’s backlash against the democratization of religion and authority. This enabled me to push back against the work of scholars like Nathan Hatch and Marvin Hill: the former over-emphas
ized the extent to which Americans, and especially Mormons, embraced the democratic nature of the early republic; the latter perpetuated a distinct divide between an American religious culture that embraced democracy and Mormonism’s unique flee from the resulting pluralism. Rather, I argue for a more porous relationship between an American society that wasn’t sold on democracy’s virtues, and Mormonism’s ability to tap into that cultural angst. In brief, then, I see Mormonism as representative of a broader strain of an American social discontent toward the excesses of democratic culture, and that by engaging the paradoxes of Mormonism’s engagement with its broader environment we get a better sense of the ironies of America’s religious tradition.
But I was still missing an overall theme that tied the entire paper together. It wasn’t until some astute and incisive comments from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, whose current project has her looking at similar themes, that I realized the central component of patriarchy upon which the evolving sense of Mormon familial and social views were based in the mid-1840s. More than just a grounding for polygamy, I realized, the patriarchal worldview touched on Mormonism’s conceptions of authority, revelation, race, and gender. The topic also stood to capitalize on the ironies of gendered and societal reforms then taking place in antebellum culture.
The resulting paper, “Early Mormon Patriarchy and the Paradoxes of Democratic Religiosity in Jacksonian America,” was finally published this month by American Nineteenth Century History as the lead article for their summer issue. If your library has a subscription, you can download the article here. Below is the abstract:
Following the death of Joseph Smith, leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints appropriated elements from their surrounding democratic culture, especially tensions of hierarchy and exclusion, in an attempt to consolidate the fledgling Mormon movement through a vibrant patriarchal structure. In doing so, they echoed a powerful strain in antebellum society that feared the cultural changes taking place and worried that unfettered democracy led to societal instability and religious anarchy. This paper examines how early Mormon patriarchy directly engaged several of the central tensions in American antebellum culture: the democratization of religion, the empowerment of common people, the extension of racial rights, and the progression of female power. Combined, these debates emphasize how the notion of the “Kingdom of God” paradoxically dominated the Mormon image in the age of “the voice of the people,” and represent a part of a multivocal conversation about the meaning and extent of American democracy in the postrevolutionary era.
My thanks to the many readers who gave substantive critiques, as well as the JI audience who allowed me to bounce off various ideas related to this project over the years!