[Based on the success of previous themed months (February as Black History Month, and March as Women’s History Month), as well as the month-long series of posts on John Turner’s Brigham Young biography last October and November, we at the JI have decided to run a thematic series of posts every month. There will, of course, always be posts not related to that month’s theme, but this approach allows a more efficient stream of content and excuse to invite more guest posts. Future months include themes like “International Mormonism,” “Mormonism and Politics,” “Mormonism Post-WWII,” and even “Mormonism and Childhood.” Each month is directed by two JIers and includes most other permabloggers as well as a slew of guests. This month’s theme, led by Cristine Hutchison-Jones and yours truly, focuses on images of Mormonism both at home and abroad.]
Did someone say something about a “Mormon Moment”?
Long before Mitt Romney’s presidential run, and likely for long after his defeat, Mormonism has served as a lightning rod for discussion, a peculiarity for observation, and a tool for numerous agendas. Just shortly after its founding in 1830, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints initiated a storm of print responses that caricatured, denounced, and, at least sometimes, factually reported what was taking place; to many, the rise of a prophet-led church that claimed modern revelation, a new bible, and, eventually, the practice of polygamy was shocking and unsettling—especially on American soil! Even during the twentieth century, when the cultural barriers between America and Mormonism became increasingly porous, Mormons remained center stage—sometimes, quite literally—for the nation’s consciousness. And now that Mormonism is growing more internationally, the cultural contests between competing cultures renew these same debates, only in new and novel settings.
The story of how others have viewed Mormons is important for more reasons than merely the history of Mormonism. In the process of identity formation—whether religious, political, or cultural—the notion of an “other” is especially useful; indeed, an “archetype” cannot be constructed without an “antitype.” For many, especially those who found the LDS movement repugnant or dangerous, Mormons served as a significant touchstone for many debates in what religion should—and, importantly, should not—be. And these representations need not even be accurate: as Catherine Brekus recently argued in her important book on Sarah Osborne, “perception can be as important as reality in shaping historical events” (21). These “perceptions” of Mormonism, then, become, become historical relics and keys to a lost age and forgotten milieu. In the context of America, the study of how people viewed Mormonism is, well, a microcosm, or at least an important subtopic, of the study of America.
Since historical narratives written by Mormons for over the first century of the church’s existence were devotional, apologetic, and dogmatic, an “us” vs. “them” framework dominated the field. Those outside the faith were often depicted as demonic, demotic, and, at times, demented. For narratives written outside the church, non-Mormons were often depicted as heroes, valiant in their quest to harness the spread of a dangerous cult. It wasn’t until the New Mormon History movement that nuance was added to both sides of the historiographical debate. Once those historical actors who wrote within and about Mormonism resembled less the spawn of Satan and more the embodiments of an energetic and dynamic religious culture, new lessons were discovered.
Even more recently, this approach to the American religious path, through the lens of observing Mormons, has nearly created its own sub-subfield within the subfield of Mormon history: Terryl Givens perhaps laid the groundwork in his foundational Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy (Oxford UP, 1997, recently out in a new paperback, revised edition); Kathleen Flake used the Reed Smoot trials to examine religious identity in the progressive era in her The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle (UNC Press, 2003); Megan Sanborn-Jones explored how this tension played out on stage in Performing American Identity in Anti-Mormon Melodrama (Routledge, 2009); Patrick Mason examined Southern manhood in The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Post-Bellum South (Oxford UP, 2011); in the midst of the Mormon Moment, Jared Farmer compiled an especially helpful collection of American images of Mormonism (which we featured here at JI in both a review and interview); and most recently, Spencer Fluhman engaged the evolving notion of “religion” in his Peculiar People: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America (UNC Press, 2012). Later this year, we will get JB Haws’s The Mormon Image in the American Mind: Fifty Years of Public Perception (Oxford UP, October 2013, link). And our own Cristine Hutchison Jones is currently working on a manuscript with the tentative title, “Reviling and Revering the Mormons: Defining American Values, 1890-2013.”
This month at JI, we will revisit and review the above-mentioned books, explore related themes, consider relevant methodologies, and assess the state of the “Mormon Image” in historiography. Where does the field go from here? What questions still need to be asked (and answered)? How do treatments of Mormonism relate to other minorities? This is an especially rife field of inquiry within the burgeoning field of Mormon studies, because it forces the scholar to interact with cultures outside the parochial confines of Mormonism.
Buckle your seat belts, and enjoy the ride!