Richard Bushman, Robert Orsi, and Mormonism’s “Abundant History”

By June 6, 2011

(cross-posted at Religion in American History)

Over at Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought‘s website, the editors have posted a discussion (moderated by Susanna Morrill, associate professor of religious studies at Lewis and Clark College) between noted historians and scholars of religion Richard Lyman Bushman and Robert Orsi. Bushman and Orsi reflect on the potential Orsi’s approach to “supernatural presence” and “abundant events” in modern Catholicism holds for scholars of Mormonism.

The conversation between these two seasoned scholars, which touches on the relationship between the scholar and her subjects, how to make sense of revelatory visions and the writing of the Book of Mormon, and the vocabulary used to describe such occurrences, deserves to be read in its entirety, but I’m including a brief excerpt below:

Richard: You also speak of the routes of influence radiating from such events. That’s a nice way of putting it; the word “routes” suggests an approach to what happens in consequence. Where do the abundant events lead? But it occurs to me that some of the responses of the Marian groups, which taken together could be thought of as a morphology of an abundant event, take a different form in the case of Joseph Smith. Rather than the abundant event dissolving the boundaries of subjectivity and establishing intimacies, in Joseph Smith’s case it leads to structure and organization. The people who are converted take on priesthood offices and go on missions; they have council meetings. As the influence radiates still further, you get minutes of the meetings and letters and all the paraphernalia of organization. I thought it would be interesting to talk about how events that are so similar at the core lead in different directions in the aftermath.

Robert: I appreciate the difference. I was thinking about that concept as I read the very powerful final chapter of Rough Stone Rolling, in which the people left behind at Nauvoo after Joseph’s murder continued to work on building the temple, though they knew they weren’t going to be using it after it was done because they would be leaving Nauvoo. It seemed to me that we needed some word to get at what happens between Max Weber’s idea of initial charismatic leadership of a new religion and its eventual institutionalization. It seems as if something else is going on there, almost as if the stones themselves were charismatic–the stones of this sacred building that would otherwise signify the routinization of Mormonism. So I take your point. It does lead in different directions, which might have to do with the specific peculiarities of modern Catholicism and modern Mormonism. I was struck by–as you want to put it–the radiation outwards of Joseph’s spirit and his vision through the organization.

Go here to read the rest of the interview.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. It’s great. Does anyone have a convenient PDF of Orsi’s article they discuss? I’ve very much enjoyed his prior work.

    Comment by smb — June 6, 2011 @ 4:24 pm

  2. Sam – I link to it at the Dialogue site.

    Comment by matt b — June 6, 2011 @ 4:52 pm

  3. My favorite line: “People will sometimes pour corn oil into the earth of the saint’s grave as a way of establishing connection, or they’ll drink some of it after the bottle has been touched to the saint’s grave. Again, it’s this desire to be in touch with the real in a particularly intimate way. I tell my students that if it doesn’t offer you the opportunity to taste something, lick something, kiss something or put something in your mouth, it’s not a religion.”

    Love me some discussion of consecrated oil.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 6, 2011 @ 5:14 pm

  4. I also like the bit about the oil. However, I find the following problematic:

    I tell my students that if it doesn’t offer you the opportunity to taste something, lick something, kiss something or put something in your mouth, it’s not a religion.”

    Orally fixate much? I get his point, but I think it is in-artfully rendered here. Orsi holds that being in touch with “the real” [ignoring the alarm bells going off in my head over that word] requires sensory experience. Ok, but the options for that are wide indeed.

    Comment by SC Taysom — June 6, 2011 @ 7:44 pm

  5. SC, yes, but any digs at Protestantism as normative religion will get cheers from me.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — June 6, 2011 @ 8:17 pm

  6. No argument on that Steve. None. At. All.

    Comment by SC Taysom — June 7, 2011 @ 1:46 pm

  7. Orsi’s methodology is rich. Would love to see it light up Mormon studies.

    Comment by Ryan T — June 7, 2011 @ 10:16 pm


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