This is the second installment of the first annual JI Summer Book Club. This year we are reading Richard Bushman’s landmark biography of Mormonism founder, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005). JI bloggers will be covering several small chunks of the book (typically 2-3 chapters) in successive weeks through the summer. New posts will appear on Monday mornings.We invite anyone and everyone interested to join along. Please use the comment section on each post to post your own reflections and commentary on the chapters under consideration and ask questions. This week Steve Fleming takes a closer look at Chapters 3 (“Translation: 1827-30″) and 4 (“A New Bible: 1830″).
Previous installments in the series:
•Part I: Prologue, Chapters 1-2
3 Translation, 4 A New Bible (See part 1 here).
Bushman ends Chapter Two and begins Chapter Three by discussing how to make sense of the possible connections between the Smiths’ “magical” treasure-digging activities and Mormonism’s foundational events: receiving and translating the golden plates. Such similarities include seer stones, special treasure in the ground, and treasure guardians.
Bushman concedes that “Magic and religion melded in Smith family culture,” (51) but he argues that by 1827, the year he married Emma and received the plates, “magic had served its purpose in his life. In a sense, it was a preparatory gospel. Treasure-seeking lore may have made it easier for his father to believe his son’s fabulous story about an angel and gold plates” (54). Thus treasure digging played a “preparatory” role in the beginnings of Mormons, argues Bushman, and the treasure-digging elements in the events related to the golden plates played the purposed of Smith gaining his treasure-digging father’s support. (more…)
Meme satirizing the “I’m A Mormon” campaign in the wake of the LDS Church’s 2013 essay on Race and the Priesthood. In context here.
Whence the priesthood ban?
It’s a question that has been wrestled often over the last several decades. Beginning with Lester Bush’s seminal Dialogue article in 1973, historians, sociologists, and theologians have scrutinized the decisions made between Mormonism’s founding in 1830 and the solidification of the priesthood denial to Saints of African origin in the 1850s. JI permabloggers and friends have made our own humble contributions to the debates, as well, which continue in the wake of the LDS Church’s essay published 18 months ago on the historical priesthood ban.
Building on decades of scholarship, in chapters 4 and 5 of Religion of a Different Color Paul Reeve shows that Mormonism’s banning of blacks from holding the priesthood was less a black vs. white issue in Mormonism than it was a black vs. white issue in America that Mormonism’s universalist claims were forced to confront, and to which they ultimately gave way, in attempt to preserve Mormon aspirations for whiteness. (more…)
Helen Kimball as Joseph Smith’s 14-year-old wife understandably gets a lot of attention in discussions about Smith’s marital practices. In my dissertation, I argue that the story of Helen’s marriage to Smith sheds lights on larger issues so I’m posting those passages here. First, however, I’m posting a few paragraphs where I give a summary of my argument about Smith’s overall intent. It’s pages 371-74 of my dissertation.
The sexuality of Smith’s marriages has been much debated, but boiling Smith’s marital relationships down to sex misses the point. The point of the marriages, again, was best described by Mary Lightner, both in her description of the 1831 “sealing” and in the proposal to her by Smith: to be united with Smith so as to go with him into the Father’s kingdom. This was something that many early Mormons wanted. Oliver Huntington said that “soon after Dimick had given our sisters Zina & Prescinda to Joseph as wives for eternity,” Smith offered Dimick any reward he wanted. Dimick requested “that where you and your fathers family are, there I and my fathers family may also be.” Todd Compton argues that a number of polyandrous husbands may have known about the sealing, particularly Henry Jacobs and Windsor Lyon.… (more…)
Russell W. Stevenson, author of For the Cause of Righteousness: A Global History of Blacks and Mormonism, 1830-2013 has graciously agreed to answer a few questions about his work. The book was reviewed on JI a few weeks ago. Please add any other questions you may have in the comments!
When did you begin researching For the Cause of Righteousness?
Since this developed as an outgrowth of an earlier project—Black Mormon: The Story of Elijah Ables—one might say that I began researching as early as fall 2011. However, I began writing For the Cause in earnest in spring 2013. (more…)
One day several years ago, I was sitting in my office at the LDS Church History Library reading trial transcripts for the Mountain Meadows Massacre and it suddenly occurred to me that that language being used to describe the Mormons sounded a lot like late nineteenth century language to describe African Americans. The language was racial. This was not a group of early African American Mormon converts that were being described, but a group of Southern Utah settlers, mostly of English descent, whom I had never thought of as anything but white.
For many contemporary Americans the idea that race is a historical construct still seems foreign—race doesn’t change they might say, it just is. (If you fit in that category, perhaps start with this.) In the last twenty years, we have had a proliferation of studies of race built in mostly segregated histories: Indians, African Americans, and whiteness have been central. And while all of these studies have offered insightful arguments about how we construct race and how our perceptions change over time, few have offered intersections beyond oppositional definitions. Reeve’s brilliance is found in these intersections. Rather than starting with and emphasizing Mormon exceptionalism, Reeve broadly contextualizes the evolving concepts of race and the affect on Mormonism.
Reeve’s chapters 2 and 3 illuminate Elder Berry’s American Indian child concentrating on Mormons and Native Americans—“Red, White, and Mormon”—both the real and the perceived. In chapter 2 it is a Mormon and Indian alliance—“Ingratiating themselves with the Indians” and chapter 3 Mormons playing Indian in “White Indians” that center his analysis. (more…)
This post kicks off the first annual JI Summer Book Club. This year we are reading Richard Bushman’s landmark biography of Mormonism founder, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005). JI bloggers will be covering several small chunks of the book (typically 2-3 chapters) in successive weeks from now through the summer. New posts will appear on Monday mornings. We begin today with the Prologue, which sets the tone in several important respects for the rest of the book, and Chapters 1 (“The Joseph Smith Family: To 1816″) and 2 (“The First Visions: 1816-1827″). We invite anyone and everyone interested to join along. Please use the comment section on each post to post your own reflections and commentary on the chapters under consideration and ask questions.
I first read Rough Stone Rolling (RSR) when it was first released in 2005. I was an undergraduate history major at the time, a recently-returned Mormon missionary, and an avid if novice and somewhat naïve student of Mormon history. Bushman’s biography was not my introduction to the scholarly study of Joseph Smith or Mormon history, but it still threw me for something of a loop, challenging many of the assumptions of my faith-promoting worldview. Nevertheless, I pushed through and finished the book. I next read it three years later, in a reading seminar in BYU’s now-defunct MA program in history. My familiarity with both Mormon and American religious history more broadly was deeper by then, and reading the book alongside both an experienced historian and several budding young scholars made the book both more familiar and yet so foreign from my initial reading. That a book reads differently to the same individual at different stages in her life is a truism of nearly all books, but it is especially true in reading Rough Stone Rolling. (more…)
A few Mormon studies-related links from around the internet over the last (couple) week(s):
Seth Perry authored a provocative review essay of Terryl Givens’s Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Reflecting on the book’s “emphatically male framing,” Perry examines it against the backdrop of contemporary Mormon debates over sex roles:
Wrestling the Angel is a comprehensive synthesis of Mormon theology. It’s not specifically about the theological particulars that undergird the Church’s increasingly unpopular sexual politics. Right now, however, those particulars are what people are interested in, and Givens’s struggle with them is emblematic of his Church’s current predicament. In a different era, a cogent, explicitely Christian synthesis of Mormon theology such as this one would have performed an apologetic purpose, giving Mormon thought the dignity it deserves. Nowadays, though, Mormon thought largely has that dignity. What readers both inside and outside the Church wonder about now is why it is so closely associated with an understanding of sex and gender that many find backward. The theological answers presented here are haunted by political questions.
A recent episode of Backstory with the American History Guys on “island hopping” included some discussion of James Strang and Beaver Island. Elsewhere on the radio, Doug Fabrizio discussed age and leadership in the LDS Church with scholars Richard Bushman and Greg Prince. Bushman, along with his wife and fellow scholar Claudia, were interviewed over at Past is Present, the official blog of the American Antiquarian Society, where the Bushmans have spent the year as Distinguished Scholars in Residence. Two excerpts of interest:
Past is Present: Richard, same question for you. How do you first become interested in a project? You have two strains in your work, one on American life and culture more generally and one on Joseph Smith and Mormonism.
RB: It’s that double life that lies behind this project. I’m basically an early American historian, but from time to time I’ve been asked to do something on Mormonism, so I got involved in writing about Joseph Smith. As I was looking for a new project on the early American history side, I thought I ought to do something that would interact with the work I was doing on Joseph Smith. His family were farmers, so I thought, “Well, I’ll see what I can find out about farmers.” And it worked out well. The two halves fed into each other. I use the Joseph Smith example, his family, in the farm work and the other way around.
Past is Present: I guess one more question. If there’s one book that you could write that you haven’t written yet, what would it be? One topic that you would love to cover.
CB: Well, I have two projects. One is [an oral history project on Mormon women]. The other one is my autobiography. I’m doing this for lots of reasons, but one is that women don’t write their autobiographies and they always apologize for doing it. They say, “I wouldn’t have done this, but my children, my neighbors asked me.” Because that’s the way we feel. Women shouldn’t, we’re just not important enough to write about ourselves. So I decided that that would be one of my final women’s studies projects, that I would tell my own story, and I’m about halfway done with it, I guess. I have plenty more to do. Seeing as I was not apologizing for it, I would give it an in-your-face title. So the title is, I, Claudia. So you take yourself seriously, but not too seriously. Will anybody ever publish it? I don’t know. My family can publish it. See, now I’m already apologizing! That’s bad. We just don’t want to apologize for ourselves, because it’s so important to have women’s autobiographies. Those that we have we value so much. I don’t dare think of another project until I get those done.
Meanwhile, over at the Salt Lake Tribune, Peggy Fletcher Stack reported on a youth Sunday School teacher in Hawaii who was released after using the church’s recently-published essay on race and the priesthood in one of his lessons.
A CNN profile of Mormonism in Cambodia provided a fascinating look at the religious politics of temple work for the dead in a predominantly Buddhist country.
In academic conference news, the Mormon Pacific Historical Society released the CFP for its fall conference, to be held on the campus of BYU-Hawaii October 23-24.
We’ll wrap things up with a couple of bloggernacle links: First, a post over at By Common Consent by Steve Evans reflecting on the present and future of Mormon Studies, which sparked a lively conversation in the comments section and a lengthier response from Ardis Parshall over at Keepapitchinin on “Academia vs. Scholarship” (that’s the second link). Be sure and read both.
For the D&C class I taught at BYU, (see my previous post on teaching polygamy), when we got to Official Declaration 2, my objectives were to cover the difficult issues and present some possible frameworks by which to make sense of those issues.
The students had read the church’s essay, so they had some good background, but I wanted to get a little more specific on a few items. I began with a quiz where I just asked for thoughts and questions on the topic. They pretty much all had the same one: why did we do this? So I just started into my PowerPoint. (more…)
Paul Reeve‘s recent work, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness (Oxford University Press, 2015), was one of the few books that were highly anticipated yet exceeded expectations. To both celebrate and engage its arguments, we here at the JI have organized a roundtable that will take place over the next three weeks and offer a multivocal overview and analysis of what will certainly become one of the classics of the developing (sub)field of Mormon studies, not to mention the best book on the contested issue of the Mormon racial restriction’s origins to date. In this post, I will give a general overview and discussion of the work’s framework, and starting next week we will hear from Janiece J, Nate R, Joey S., and Amanda HK on the different sections of the book. In total, we hope to identify Religion of a Different Color‘s biggest strengths, historiographical contributions, and contested questions, as well as future avenues that scholarship on Mormonism and race can take in the next generation.
Religion of a Different Color uses Mormonism as a case study for understanding notions of “race” throughout the ninteenth century. We may assume that such a concept has always been clear, yet ideas of what constituted “white,” “black,” and a myriad of other racial qualifiers were constantly in flux in early America. More, even while these ideas were contested, their meaning was all the more important: being considered “white” gave access to the rights of citizenship and, far to often, the dignity of humanity. (In the 1850s, there was even a rise of the “Know Nothing Party,” a political base which centered around the principle of purely white citizenship.) This made the case of the Mormons all the more peculiar: by most estimations, they were clearly Angl0-Americans descended from the very ethnic lineages that were supposedly valid. Yet a combination of their actions and beliefs led Mormonism’s contemporaries to marginalize the sect any way they could, including through racial othering. Mormons were depicted as blending the racial lines between white and black, white and red, and eventually even white and yellow. In response, Mormons tried to prove their whiteness, and thus validate their rights of citizenship and civilization, by marginalizing the racial minorities within their own Church, most famously by instituting a restriction on black access to priesthood and temple activities. (more…)
The MHA Board has decided to extend reduced pre-registration fees for this year’s meeting of the Mormon History Association until May 8! The conference will be held June 4-7, 2015 in Provo, UT. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Association’s founding and the MHA Board and local arrangements committee have gone all out to ensure this is the best MHA conference ever held. Whether you are a graduate student, early-career scholar, an armchair historian or are just interested in Mormonism and its history, this is the conference for you. There is something for everyone. EVERYONE. [See program HERE]
As an added bonus this year, the following events are FREE to all registered attendees:
- Friday lunch
- Award presentations
- The Gold and Green Ball
A few weeks ago, I toured Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello with my parents. On the tour, the pleasant guide informed our group that Thomas Jefferson most likely fathered several children with his slave, Sally Hemmings. The tour guide than asked the group rhetorically, “How could the author of the Declaration of Independence also own slaves, much less father children that became his human property?” I admired her response to her own question, “There is no reconciling. He was wrong. We cannot excuse his behavior.”
The tour came in the midst of my reading of Russell W. Stevenson’s For the Cause of Righteousness: A Global History of Blacks and Mormonism. Like the tour guide, Stevenson offers valuable information in the midst of a larger narrative, the history of “blacks” in Mormonism.[i] His narrative offers readers a straightforward account of the priesthood and temple restriction for those of African descent in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He does so with a wealth of documents, including many that I had never before seen. Like the tour guide at Monticello, he does not attempt to excuse those that upheld the ban through action or apathy. Stevenson should be commended writing the best resource for Latter-day Saints to learn more about the experience of Mormon blacks in settings both American and international. Stevenson also does an admirable job demonstrating that lay Latter-day Saints largely upheld the priesthood and temple restriction—it was not merely the decree of church leaders. (more…)
In the last post we looked at ways Mormonism appeared in the trial of Charles Guiteau, assassin of President Garfield. Today we’ll look outside and after the trial. (more…)
One of the women in my family tree is Aidah Clements, a New York convert whose testimony is often cited as one of the sources for the idea that Emma Smith pushed Eliza R. Snow, one of her husband’s wives down the stairs. Aidah’s relationship to the Smith family has always fascinated me. Aidah participated in many important events in Mormon history. She was a part of Zion’s Camp, immigrated with some of the companies to travel to the Salt Lake Valley, and watched as her two daughters married the same man.
I was recently searching for more documents about Aidah Clements when I came across some documents in the Church History Library that provided some interesting information about her marital history. (more…)
Ten years ago, Richard Bushman published Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling with Knopf. Bushman’s biography of Mormonism’s founder garnered widespread praise and provoked a number of conversations within the Mormon Studies community. Jan Shipps argued in the Journal of American History that Bushman’s biography represented a new chapter in the study of Mormonism. She wrote that Rough Stone Rolling is “a work of new American history that forces readers to recognize that religion is as much of our past as anything else.”[i] Through doing so, she argued that Mormon history would soon function be used as a lens to understand broader topics in American history and American religion rather than for exclusively Mormon purposes to Mormon audiences.[ii]
Shipps’ review appears to have been, well, prophetic. The past decade has witnessed an explosion of scholarship on Mormonism that historians and religious studies scholars must take seriously. Books by Spencer Fluhman, Patrick Mason, John Turner, Christine Talbot, the Joseph Smith Papers Project Team, Paul Reeve, Jared Farmer, Steve Taysom, Sam Brown, as well as many journal authors, have produced work useable in university classrooms.[iii] (more…)
First, some very important new from this week comes from our friends at the Mormon History Association (from their Facebook page):
We regret to announce that Debra and David Marsh have resigned as executive directors of the Mormon History Association. We thank them for their service and wish them well in their future endeavors. MHA office assistance is in place. We are grateful to MHA’s program committee and local arrangements committee, who continue in their efforts to provide an outstanding 50th-Anniversary Conference this June.
Board of Directors, Mormon History Association
In 1 Nephi 13:5, the angel says to Nephi “Behold the formation of a church which is most abominable above all other churches, which slayeth the saints of God, yea, and tortureth them and bindeth them down, and yoketh them with a yoke of iron, and bringeth them down into captivity.” We used to stress this being the Catholics but have sort of backed off this in the last few decades to the point where I don’t hear much talk about the GAC anymore. And yet it’s quite important in these chapters in the Book of Mormon where Nephi lays out a kind of visionary history of the world from Christ to the coming of the Book of Mormon.
Both the discussion of the apostasy and restoration that the kids are having now in church coupled with my recent discovery of the movie Agora on Netflix (it’s R but a fairly light R, historical violence that isn’t too bad), put me in mind of the topic. (more…)
So I recently finished teaching the second half of the Doctrine and Covenants at BYU, which I enjoyed very much. When we got to some of the harder issues that are part of the curriculum, especially polygamy and blacks and the priesthood, I wanted to cover them in a way that was both direct and helpful. I applaud the church’s essays in these topics, assigned them, and wanted to cover these topics in the same spirit of openness. Yet these are tough and as 132 approached, I was trying to thing about how to go about it. To me it seemed like I had three options. 1) Dodge it. Again, I didn’t want to do that. 2) Tell the students information that I felt pretty sure was incorrect. As I mentioned in this previous post, I like the articles but think there are some mistakes, especially eternity only sealings. 3) Tell them what I believe is correct. Having tried this out on my own kids and feeling it went well, I decided to give my assertion about shared marriages a shot. So I got my powerpoint ready and headed to class. (more…)
Matt Grow’s contribution to the Journal of Mormon History 50th anniversary issue takes as its subject the place of biography in Mormon Studies. As the author (or co-author) of two significant biographies in the field, Grow is well positioned to assess the state of Mormon biographical writing.
In short, Grow believes that “the genre of Mormon biography has answered many of [the] rallying cries” of the New Mormon History’s call for “engage[ment] with larger historical themes” and “greater attention to women, race, ordinary Saints, the twentieth century, and international Mormons” (185), pointing to the spate of biographies produced in the last three decades on Mormon leaders (of both the Latter-day Saint and Latter Day Saint variety), dissenters, women, and racial and ethnic minorities. “There is much to celebrate in in the outpouring of scholarly biographies in the past few decades,” he concludes (196). Nevertheless, work remains to be done, and that work mirrors the shortcomings of Mormon history more generally: “More biographies of women, twentieth century, and international Mormons are particularly needed to advance the field” (196). (more…)
Previous installments here and here. Guiteau’s trial for the murder of President Garfield began on November 14, 1881, and ran about ten weeks to January 25, 1882.  Direct and indirect references to Mormonism were scattered throughout the trial. (more…)
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Today’s post comes from Bradley Kime, who will graduate this spring with a Masters in history rom Utah State University. Bradley has published in the Journal of Mormon History and is an editorial fellow at the Western Historical Quarterly. He will begin his PhD program in religious studies at the University of Virginia this fall (WAHOOWA!).
For the last few years, Stephen Webb has generously praised LDS Christo-centrism. Back in 2012, before the publication of his Mormon Christianity, he offered the First Things crowd a positive take on Mormonism’s eternally embodied Savior titled “Mormonism Obsessed with Christ.” When First Things recently posted the article on their Facebook feed, the 108 comments (and counting), almost entirely from creedal Christians across the Protestant-Catholic spectrum, were overwhelmingly negative. One comment summed up the general consensus: “You know who else was obsessed with Christ? Arius.” In other words, earnestness doesn’t equal orthodoxy, and calling a spade a spade is important. Almost as a chorus, First Things readers reaffirmed that the Mormon Christ was a heresy, notwithstanding Webb’s misguided generosity. (more…)
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