Return to Elkton

By November 6, 2014

This post comes out of my experiences this fall teaching a senior seminar on “Writing Recent History” (which my students are finding especially challenging), and thinking about what that might mean in the Mormon context. And it’s also prompted by something that Laurel Thatcher Ulrich said about Claudia Bushman at the Exponent II 40th celebration last month that caught my ear and which I’ve been thinking about ever since. Laurel said that one of the motivations for starting the journal was Claudia’s desire to “contain our anger by coming up with a project.”

This impulse reminded me of the audacious Elkton Ward project the Bushmans undertook in the early 1980s, portions of which were published by Susan Buhler Taber as Mormon Lives: A Year in the Elkton Ward (University of Illinois, 1993). They and their fellow ward members set out to capture as complete a snapshot of their ward as possible for an entire year (1984-1985) including handouts and newsletters, lessons, Sacrament meeting talks, activities and events, oral histories, photographs, ward records, and confidential bishop’s correspondence (Richard Bushman was serving as its bishop at the time). There was a yearlong self-study committee. There was funding from a Lilly Endowment research grant. The collected materials were eventually deposited in BYU Perry Special Collections. Although most of it is still closed to researchers (with some materials marked “Confidential” to remain sealed until 2039), some portions are open, with others (e.g. those marked “Personal”) slated to be available for study in 2014. Taber’s modest monograph is (to my knowledge) the only publication based on the Elkton Year so far, but I think the Elkton project has a lot to recommend it, both as an extant archive and as a potential model for the present and the future.

The Bushmans had been thinking about such a project for a while; in 1977 they wrote a letter to Leonard Arrington sketching out the possibilities for a study. “Our sense of the importance of such an undertaking,” they wrote, “comes from our often frustrated efforts to reconstruct life in the 18th and 19th centuries from thin and spotty records. We think we should do all we can now to help coming generations to understand in fine detail the life of Latter-day Saints today. No one ward is typical, of course, but without a study of some place a great deal of history will be lost forever.” [1]

Their models came from the flowering of community studies that marked post-Annales school scholarship in history and sociology of that decade: Blythe, Akenfield; Hareven and Langenbach, Amoskeag; Puritan town studies by Lockeridge, Greven, and Demos; and also hearkening back to Coles’ multi-volume Children of Crisis and even further back, to Robert and Helen Lynd’s close study of Muncie Indiana, aka Middletown. But also – interestingly – the Elkton project drew inspiration from Mormon scripture, especially the chronicle of Nephi and his family and the embedded community portraits found in the Book of Mormon (Alma 4, Ether 9-10).

The goal was part documentary, and part (implicitly) as a reality-check counterpoint to official Mormondom’s sanitized self-presentation. From a handout at the start of the project: “This complete collection of records will be deposited in the Church Archives in Salt Lake City as a way of telling future generations what the Gospel meant to us in the mid-1980s. In addition, drawing on these records we will compile a book about our ward and its people which we hope will describe Mormon life as it as actually lived today.” [2] And from one of the grant proposal documents: “The emphasis throughout will be on candor. We believe that the struggles and difficulties members have with themselves, with their belief, and with their Church duties will more accurately and effectively present Latter-day Saint life than an account that only depicts the positive aspects. Our aim is to make a record of life as we actually experience it.” [3]

As Claudia explained in a 1988 talk for a BYU Family History Conference reflecting back on the project, “we did not expect to learn a great deal about the church from our study. Seeking new information was not the purpose. As active Latter-day Saints, we probably know as much about the practices, procedures, and inner workings of the church as we ever will. Our purpose was to collect and document the things we already knew.” [4] Would that congregations, stakes, committees, and missions were simply doing the same now. Or maybe they are? I hope so. There has been a recent reinvigoration of the role of stake & ward historian, mercifully unaccompanied by specific instructions and policies on what to save and how to document. I guess that’s either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your perspective – freedom to make it locally meaningful, but probably with the end result of little standardization in form or content.

Gentle readers, do you know of any projects as ambitious or expansive as this one, going on now? What would you wish for the documentarians of today? And if we were to go back in and study this particular collection (as future historians hopefully will), what kinds of new questions would you apply; what would you look for among the Elkton records and hope to find out?

As a parting thought, I think one of my favorite bits from the collection comes from one of the minutes of the Ward Study Committee, just an ordinary planning meeting. The last item in the minutes: “It was agreed that we should carry on.” [5] A motto for the ages, actually. Lovers of Mormon history: carry on. The 21st century deserves to be well documented.






[1] Letter CB and RLB to Leonard Arrington, Church Historical Dept 10 July 1977. BYU Perry Special Collections, Elkton Ward Collection Notes A1989-567 (hereafter EWC), Box 30, Folder 2.

[2] “A Record Year, The Elkton Ward/ September 1, 1984 to August 31, 1985” handout. EWC, Box 20, Folder 2.

[3] “A Proposal for a Community Study of Contemporary Latter-day Saint Life.” EWC, Box 20, Folder 2.

[4] Claudia Bushman, presentation at BYU Family History Conference, 18 June 1988. EWC, Box 21, Folder 7.

[5] Ward Study Committee Minutes, 7 Oct 1984. EWC, Box 20, Folder 4.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Cultural History From the Archives Memory


Comments

  1. Thanks for this, Tona. I feel (somewhat strongly) that Mormon Lives is one of the most unappreciated contributions to Mormon studies, a fascinating ethnography of rank and file Mormons and their religious lives that few (no?) other books have been able to match. I’m very glad to see it get some attention here.* I didn’t realize that some of the materials from that project were set to open this year to researchers — that’s an exciting development.

    As to your questions: I’m not aware of anything even remotely on this scale in any ward or stake, though I’d be thrilled to hear of it. That the Elkton Ward received financial support via the Lilly Grant, and guidance and support from Bishop Bushman, who was willing to preserve, document, and collect even confidential matters most bishops would sooner destroy (and which they and their clerks are instructed to do) makes me think anything this thorough was a one-time gig.

    But perhaps the folks at the CHL could be convinced that a similar project–ideally examining multiple congregations throughout the world–would be an important contribution to Mormon history and figure out a way to help support such an initiative.

    ______________

    *As a brief and somewhat sad footnote, Susan Buhler Taber passed away in 2010. She is survived by, among others, her son Rob–an infant when Mormon Lives was written who receives a mention or two in the book. He is now completing an important dissertation at the University of Florida on race and class in 18th century Saint Domingue. I have it on good authority that he is a JI reader.

    Comment by Christopher — November 6, 2014 @ 7:36 am

  2. Mind = blown

    I feel I need to be taken out to the shed and whipped for not being aware of the Elkton Ward Project. This is phenomenal.

    Comment by Ben P — November 6, 2014 @ 8:17 am

  3. Go cut a switch, Ben. J/K, I cut you early Americanists some slack … but one of the things I think is especially important about the Elkton project is its explicit methodological connection to early American community studies.

    Christopher – fascinating personal note, there! Agreed, this was one of those alignment-of-the-planets projects, but such things could happen again, at least if I prefer to live in the world of the possible.

    Comment by Tona H — November 6, 2014 @ 9:49 am

  4. I have to go find that book now. This sounds fascinating. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

    Comment by Saskia — November 6, 2014 @ 10:20 am

  5. I had no idea this happened. Thanks for pointing this out!

    I am also not aware of any sort of any projects like this. I’m not even sure who our ward historian is or where any sort of ward history is kept.

    Comment by J Stuart — November 6, 2014 @ 1:09 pm


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