This post inaugurates a new series at the Juvenile Instructor, featuring brief conversations reassessing the significance of major works of Mormon history.
In this post, matt b and Christopher discuss Thomas G. Alexander’s 1986 book Mormonism in Transition: a history of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930.
matt b: In the first paragraph of Mormonism in Transition, Alexander recalls two problems that he confronted when he began work on the book. One was the torrent of sources – magazines, diaries, minutes, letters, and the like the period 1890 to 1930 presented him with. The second problem was less practical, and therefore, for our purposes, more interesting. Alexander notes that “there was no narrative base from which to began.” (ix) He credits Allen and Leonard’s The Story of the Latter-day Saints with providing “some additional detail,” but, overall, concludes that the sheer “scope” of the period lacked conceptual clarity until he found some threads with which to pull it tight. And those threads are rationalization, organization, clarification, explication. This was the period, according to Alexander, in which the Church was standardized. Note, for instance, that the title of his chapter on doctrine includes the words “definition and explication;” the sense here is of finality, that the “transition” in question was from chaos to the order of today.
The first question I’d like to kick around, then, is about periodization. It seems to me that thanks to Alexander and more recently Greg Prince’s McKay biography, we generally chop Mormon history into four quadrants: Joseph Smith, the territorial Utah period, and finally a transition period that begins in the 1890s and at some point around World War II, turns the church into “international” or “global” Mormonism. Is that your sense? Is “transition” a good way to describe this period? While certainly there were changes going on at the time, the very word “transition” seems to describe a period betwen two more important points – namely, I guess, the polygamist theocracy and our own time. And I wonder what things this highlights and what it downplays. Work in other disciplines – for instance, Mauss’s The Angel and the Beehive – suggests other ways to think about dividing up Latter-day Saint history.
Another thing that strikes me about the schema is how closely it parallels larger narratives of American history. Alexander’s book is one of the great monuments of the New Mormon History, itself a product of the social history of the 1960s and 1970s, and it reads like it – the work orbits around organization, institution, policy, and economics; there’s not much of a hint of the cultural history that was becoming popular even as Alexander was writing. His monograph resembles no other work of history so much as Robert Wiebe’s 1966 The Search for Order, which describes the American progressive era as the work of a burgeoning middle class interested in replacing Victorian gentility with “continuity and regularity, functionality and rationality, administration and management.” (146) Thusly did Americans born in a rural world of small towns and face-to-face communities based around familial connections create a modern technocratic society; thus did Mormons leave their agrarian theocracy behind for integration into this professionalized nation.
And, of course, as we are as much the products of our own period as Alexander is of his own, we see the gaps that we have been trained so see. Just as historians have largely moved past Weibe’s work in favor of interpretations of progressivism that emphasize cultural transformation, so do we want Alexander to provide deeper color in his meticulous and detailed accounts of policy and governance. On page 296, for instance, Alexander credits the decline of Pentecostal spirituality in the Church to the rationalizing effects of policy reform and doctrinal clarification. This strikes me as more or less a good argument, but I’m interested in other questions as well – did local Saints shrink meekly before First Presidency letters? How widespread was the doctrine that Talmage and Widstoe proposed – which Alexander suggests downplayed “supernaturalism” – accepted? Indeed, the deep success that the decidedly supernatural, “neo-orthodox” doctrine of the next generation’s leaders Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie achieved suggests that perhaps the “rationalization” Alexander proposes was not as deeply effective as, say, the cultural notion of respectability, a concept that has recently gained greater traction in cultural accounts of the progressive era.
Now, to be clear, we owe Alexander a great debt; this book is seminal and will not be going away any time in the future. I am, though, interested, as Alexander himself was, in how we might use the work he’s done for us to reconceptualize an era.
Christopher: Great thoughts, Matt. I think your observation that Alexander’s work fits squarely within the tradition of the social history of the 60s and 70s is key to understanding it (and the New Mormon History in general), and helps make sense of the framework which Alexander utilizes to make sense of progressive-era Mormonism. The parallels to Wiebe’s work are especially revealing on this point. Your point about periodization is also apt. Critiques of such an approach to the Mormon past have been leveled before (and as early as 1986). Grant Underwood published a piece in the Pacific Historical Review at the same time Mormonism in Transition was going to print that pointed out some flaws of the way we narrate Mormon history by distinct periods. I summarized Underwood’s arguments and some of its implications in a blog post in 2007 (see here). Much like Underwood’s article, though, my post fell on deaf (or uninterested) ears and received virtually no response. In another post more recently, David G. discussed some further implications of such a framework (namely, that it has led historians of Mormonism to ignore 20th-century history).
I’m curious as to the reasons why such a framework persists in reconstructing the Mormon experience. It’s worth noting that Mormonism in Transition came in third in the recent JI poll of the “Top Books in Mormon History/Studies.” Is it because Mormon historians (most of whom are Mormon) find that such an approach helps make sense of Mormonism today? Since you critiqued the use of the word “transition” to describe the period, let me offer my own thoughts on the potential inaccuracy of the word Mormonism in Alexander’s title. Don’t get me wrong; the people and events described by Alexander are clearly a significant part of the Mormon story. But Alexander’s book is focused almost exclusively on Mormonism in Utah and Utah Mormons. It ignores, for instance, the experience of the 10,000 Latter-day Saints in the U.S. South in the first decade of the 20th century, who did not directly experience the effects of “administrative modernization” and “new directions in church administration” that Alexander describes. All of this relates, I think, to the questions you pose regarding how local Saints received letters from the FP, how long supernaturalism persisted, and how significant (or effective) the rationalization of Mormon doctrine Alexander describes actually was. Saints in even the peripheral regions were perhaps even more immune to and unaware of such changes. As I recently argued at MHA, worship among Mormons in the South during this era maintained a continuity with Mormonism from the 1830s and 40s and such patterns did not change until at least the mid-twentieth century. In what sense, then, can we accurately describe Mormonism (collectively) during this era as being in a state of transition? It seems that further research into the lived religion of rank-and-file Saints living in both the ecclesiastical center and peripheral regions needs to occur to more fully flesh out some of these questions.