[We are pleased to share another Scholarly Inquiry, this time with Thomas Simpson, an instructor at Philips Exeter Academy. We have highlighted his scholarship here at JI twice before. His long awaited book, American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism, 1867-1940, is forthcoming from University of North Carolina Press. Make sure to pre-order his book from this site and use discount code 01DAH40 to get 40% off.]
1) How did you become interested in this topic?
Partly through deep and close family connections to Latter-day Saints, including many who have gone to BYU and earned graduate degrees from universities outside the Intermountain West. But I didn’t get seriously interested in the academic study of Mormonism until I was in graduate school at the University of Virginia. I was preparing for doctoral examinations, and intending to write a dissertation on the Social Gospel, when I became consumed by the question of Mormonism’s evolution from a small, persecuted sect into a vibrant, global faith. Shortly after I passed my exams (hallelujah!) my adviser, Heather Warren, gave me the green light to develop a proposal for a dissertation in Mormon history. I started searching through Davis Bitton’s Guide to Mormon Diaries & Autobiographies – initially looking for evidence of Mormon reactions to the Woodruff Manifesto – and I noticed something peculiar: a pattern of Mormons migrating to elite universities, as early as the 1870s. It didn’t make any sense to me, and I wanted to know more.
2) How did the project evolve from a dissertation into a book manuscript?
Only very gradually. William Germano’s From Dissertation to Book was a godsend. (I like to joke with my students that it took me 13 years and a team of editors and marketers at UNC Press just to get rid of the colon in the title!) I look at my dissertation now much the same way I look at my teenage self, with a mixture of affection and embarrassment. It just needed to sit in the slow cooker for a long time, so that the strongest argument and narrative structure could emerge. And getting some real distance from the project helped me get out of the rabbit hole of specialization. I became a parent, fell in love with Bosnia, and started teaching and coaching at a boarding school. So now I spend almost all of my time with wonderful, bright people who aren’t versed in Mormon history. That made me start thinking a lot harder about how I might craft a book that interests them while making a substantial contribution to Mormon and religious studies.
3) What do you believe will be your biggest contribution to the fields of Mormon and religious studies?
I’m hoping to renew real debate about Mormon modernization and Americanization. I’m arguing that in the American university Mormon separatism died and a new, modern Mormonism was born: a Mormonism at home in the United States but at odds with itself. I expect people to challenge that thesis, and I will defend it strenuously, but even those who are not fully persuaded by the argument can find in this book a fascinating intellectual and cultural genealogy (as it were) of Mormonism. There are so many stories, and so many people, in the book that deserve deeper and wider appreciation. I want the book to be profoundly humanizing in that way, especially with regard to the history of Mormon women and the long history of Mormon engagement with the best religious, historical, and scientific scholarship. In short, I want this book to change the way that Mormons and non-Mormons think and talk about Mormon history, and in the field of religious studies I want it to provide a model for thinking and talking about religious history, identity, and difference. (The book also lies squarely in a third field, the history of “outsiders” in U.S. higher education, and I hope it will generate spirited discussion about the purpose and the future of American universities.)
4) What have been some of the surprises, positive or negative, during your sojourn into the world of Mormon history?
I started traveling to Utah for archival research way back in 2002, and there have been so many moments of sheer delight. I think about staying and reconnecting with relatives I love dearly, I think about the incredibly helpful staff members in the various archives, and I think about the long days I spent writing in Toasters, a hip little Bosnian-owned café on 200 South in Salt Lake. There were definitely some days when I wanted to quit. I sometimes ran into frustrating obstacles at the Church archives (back before my good friend Reid Neilson took the helm), and when I was on the job market, search committees — even those blessed ones that offered a job! — often didn’t know what to make of me as a non-Mormon specializing in Mormon history.
5) How has your research in Mormon history prepared you to be an instructor at Phillips Exeter?
In some really important ways, I’d say, even though Phillips Exeter expects and needs me to be a generalist when it comes to teaching religion and philosophy. But when I teach courses on religious diversity in the U.S., religion and gender, or human rights, I have my historical research at the forefront of my mind. It shapes how I think and teach about religion more broadly, especially in terms of helping students resist reductive thinking about religious identity and history.
6) Do you currently have any plans for your next project?
I would love to do more research and write about Mormon understandings of race, gender, and sexuality after World War II. In the meantime, I’m working with a dear friend, the Bosnian writer Goran Simi?, on assembling a collection of my literary essays about postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina.