I am here responding to panel 6E of the 2008 Mormon History Association Annual Meeting: “Scientific Mormonism: evolution, monism, and Mormon thought,” featuring the following papers:
“Transmutational Theology: An Unofficial Authoritative View, Mormon Responses to Darwin, 1859-1933,” Jordan Watkins, Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, CA
“Marginal Dialogues: B. H. Roberts’s Reading of Science and Philosophy,” Stanley J. Thayne, Brigham Young University
“The Making of a ‘Mormon Modernity,’” John Dulin, Whittier, CA
An image: BH Roberts, hunched over a copy of William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, pencil in hand, brow furrowed, looking for new ideas, new images, new ways to express and understand exactly what it was that his Mormonism was telling him about the universe and humanity.
Ths panel is a generation or more removed from the heyday of the groundbreaking movement we call the New Mormon History – a historiographical reformation that, in the end, was primarily about nuts and bolts.The New Mormon historians aspired to respectable professionalism and polished technique; they joined the academy’s quest for disinterested objectivity.Leonard Arrington, the movement’s dean, urged Mormons to overcome the urge to put God’s hand in every footnote; to consider – and even prioritize – evidence, evidence empirical, human, and mundane; to bracket off the question of divine intervention in favor of the human stories of the Saints. These stories were, above all else, chronicles of detail and triumphs of research. The Mormons had discovered what historical method could reveal about their past, and they gloried in its exploration. The various texts of the first vision narrative, the hunt for revivals in the spring of 1820 in Palmyra New York, the average ages of polygamist brides in Manti, Utah, the contents of Joseph Smith’s boyhood library – the cluttered facts of Mormonism’s past were dissected and carefully reassembled.
For all of these reasons – its provenance, its practitioners, its practical bent – the New Mormon History’s primary strength lay in the evidence it dug up. And partly for this reason, for far, far too long it was engaged in domestic warfare over these facts were: what precisely was in the box at Cumorah? When did polygamy begin? Whose idea was the priesthood ban? Etc, etc. And of course these were more than historical issues; for so many of its practitioners, they were also questions of faith. That was why the work was done. That made such questions urgent, but also, ultimately, as Jan Shipps has argued, internal. One round on them was generally enough for non-Mormon scholars, for whom Mormonism is interesting less for the veracity of its truth claims than for what it implies about other stories. Political historians like Sean Wilentz are interested in the Mormon priesthood as a manifestation of American democratic culture; scholars fascinated with religion like Harold Bloom marvel as Joseph’s skill in religion-making; students of the American West like Patricia Limerick see the Mormons as paradigmic examples of settlement and community building.
It is, then, with this in mind that that panel – and the work that makes it possible – are so exciting. I want to suggest – like the Apostle Paul – that perhaps the gentiles are on to something. What we have, what we need, is, perhaps, a new new Mormon history.
There are two ways in which this might be so. History is perhaps simultaneously the most accessible and the most versatile of academic disciplines. For the first reason, it – rather than literary analysis, anthropology, or philosophy – has dominated Mormon scholarship for the past sixty years. But, at the same time, historians have never been shy about stealing these methods for our own. We like to think it’s a way of participating in some universal academic discourse; a way to fly closer to the sun and seek truth with a capital T. And, ominously, it’s only gotten easier. From the political, quantitative, organizational history of the 1960s and 1970s – that history in which many of the New Mormon Historians, like Arrington himself, were trained – we have in the past two decades entered an age of cultural history as interested in the ways people understand their world as in what they do in it. And anthropology, sociology, religious theory are proving valuable tools to get at this.
And here we have John Dulin – with his anthropological tools, his excitingly long words, his theoretical sophistication – joining the ranks of scholars like Kathleen Flake and Armand Mauss, whose work has just began to show us the potential that theory offers to not just Mormon history, but Mormon studies more broadly. The lines between religion and science, religion and philosophy, have always been blurred, and thinking about what Mormonism is across a variety of these spheres deepens our understanding of it.
But work like John’s implies and even demands a second methodology – comparative analysis. We Mormons are fascinated with ourselves; with what we believe to be our uniquenesses, our singular significance, our blazingly new ideas and practices. But, fascinatingly, Mormons were not the only nineteenth century religious sect who practiced a form of plural marriage; James E. Talmage was not the first theologian to argue that Jesus was the Jehovah of the Old Testament. Mormons were not the only persecuted religious minority of antebellum America, and Joseph Smith not the only prophet God spoke to in the heady years before the Civil War. The Book of Mormon is not even the only new work of scripture an American visionary has produced.
Scholars like Lawrence Foster have been telling us these things for a long time. So we, twenty-first century historians, are set, right? Though much more remains to be done, the backdrop behind Joseph and Emma and Parley and Eliza and the rest is brightening. But, strangely, we still don’t really know what these people thought of John Humphrey Noyes, who in the 1840s preached what he called ‘complex marriage.’ We don’t know enough about Joseph Smith’s familiarity with the natural theology of William Paley, or about what Brigham Young thought of contemporary utopian communities like Onieda, Brook Farm, or New Harmony. Far too little work has been done on Heber J. Grant’s understanding of the contemporary temperance movement. And it seems bizarre that we try to understand Joseph’s ideas about God, Brigham’s about the United Order, and Heber’s about the Word of Wisdom without paying attention to the cultural air they breathed.
In short, the comparative work we’ve done exists more on the page than in the past. We need a more integrative, contextual new new Mormon history; one that approaches Mormonism as a phenomenon fully in – if not of – its time and place; one that understands that Mormons looked not only up, but around them as they struggled to solve problems of theology, of organization, and of simply surviving in a vaguely hostile Protestant America. The Mormons shaped their times, but were also shaped by it. Stan Thayne and Jordan Watkins, fortunately, know this.
This panel approaches the issue from the perspective of intellectual history. To what extent were Mormon ideas, Mormon systems of thought, Mormon worldviews influenced by other thinkers? The late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the period all these papers deal in, is a valuable one here because it was a great age for master narratives, for totalizing theories that explained everything – Marx, Darwin, Herbert Spencer, geological catastophism, fundamentalist dispensationalism – And of course, that last’s ultimate nemesis: an infectious confidence in progress – an idea that spread through politics, through science, and into religion and transformed them all, making them over into various roads toward some kind of utopia. This was the age of Christian civilization, when American Protestants greeted every new development with the assumption that it could be assimilated into a grand teleology culminating in an American Protestant Zion. These were the men Jordan Watkins tells us of – the Asa Grays and John Fiskes who theologized the threat of Darwin into something called theistic evolution.
Mormons, as we have learned here today, were not immune to these processes – they faced the same problems: the challenges of secularism, of the frighteningly quick growth of an industrial economy, of new psychology, and of Darwin: all things that terribly complicated old assumptions about the place and role of human beings in the universe. And if these papers can teach us anything, it’s that the solutions they reached were not – totally – unique. They were distinctively Mormon, yes, but like everything else, Mormonism – and its ideologies, its doctrines, its culture – did not grow in a vacuum.
This given, we can see how these papers work better together than apart. John Widstoe, Sterling Talmage, BH Roberts – they all struggled with this same complicated network of ideas and events, and all participated in the cultural war that gave birth to the modern world.
That word ‘modern’ is a tricky one, and I’m not quite sure what John means by it. In his introduction, he follows the definitions of the time; to be ‘modern’ in 1900 was to subscribe to the mores and truths of Christian civilization, to have confidence in a narrative of cultural progress and in the ultimate beneficence of technology, to be forward looking. But as his paper develops, John hints at – though does not specifically argue for – a deeper notion of what modernity is, one described by sociologists like Peter Berger. Henry Ward Beecher, a New York Protestant preacher acclaimed in 1875 as the most famous man in America, once argued that “Natural laws are the constant expression of the divine thought and purpose,” That is, science was the way to discover the will and nature of a radically immanent God. For Berger, this was dangerous; it marked transition into modernity, that being a society which relies upon rational rather than religious ways of meaning and authority. And indeed, though in 1890 Beecher’s liberal Protestantism seemed to own the day, a hundred-ten years after his death Americans are abandoning it in droves for conservative churches who insist upon far less accommodating distinctions between God and man. John – and Fenella Cannell – seem to assert easily that Mormonism, like Beecher, was able to resist secular ideas by assimilating them. However, we might, as John does, question why Widstoe’s theology went into eclipse in Mormonism, in favor of the decidedly anti-modern theology of what has been called Mormon neo-orthodoxy – or whether it actually did. There is an interesting tension here: Widstoe’s “ontological monism” does not appear to be abandoned today, though few Mormons would be comfortable with the conclusions Widstoe believed naturally developed from it. Pushing this question a bit more might allow John to more fully explore what he means by “modern” and “secular.”
Certainly, Jordan Watkins has a much less sanguine view about how Mormonism entered the twentieth century. His story has a slightly elegiac air, because he’s fascinated with the wild variety of interesting ideas that, entirely unintentionally, spawned within Mormonism. And yet, alas, Jordan tells us we have spurned pre-Adamites and JF Gibbs’s celestial planets and ended up stuck with boring old creationism. The paper is particularly interesting, looking back from an America in which we often casually equate creationism with a somehow purer faith, we see an age in which the dance between religion and science was far more fluid, where theological speculation signaled an active faith, and where virtually everybody (until fundamentalism showed up) believed that evolution confirmed God. Watkins nicely contextualizes his Mormons, the somewhat unruly troops of Asa Gray, Darwin’s bulldog, who was determined to demonstrate that evolution proved that God was real and worked through – what else – progression. What could improve Watkins’s paper, I think, should be obvious by now – context, context, context. He has added to the store of facts scholars like Richard Sherlock have compiled, but I’d like to see him push their implications a bit more. Joseph Fielding Smith, for example, corresponded with fundamentalist thinkers, and borrowed many of their arguments. What does this mean for Mormon theology? To what extent did Jordan’s hero Sterling Talmage draw from men like Gray? But this itself is not enough: what we are interested in is how did they spin such borrowings in a particularly Mormon way? How did they correlate what they learned within their own worldviews? How did their ideas mesh? Theological arguments are just that – exchanges, reorientings, horsetradings, and reinterpretations. The great danger of intellectual history is that it isolates particular thinkers and pretends they speak and think in a fog. Jordan’s paper, then, would be improved if he could show how these ideas worked in dialogue – among all these thinkers, but also between them and non-theologians; your average Parley on the streets of Salt Lake. As with my final point on John’s paper, I wonder how decisively Jordan has proven that Mormonism as a whole accepted, in this case, the creationism of Joseph Fielding Smith.
Stan Thayne, on the other hand, offers us no shortage of dialogue. The paper is an interesting ramble through BH Roberts’s library, and, by extension, his mind; its great strength is that helps us to explore the inchoate swirling of ideas and inspiration that precedes the crystallization of works like Seventy’s Course in Theology and The Truth, the Way, the Life. This is strikingly worthwhile, for knowing how these men read is as valuable as knowing what they wrote. We’re catching Roberts here unguarded, glimpsing the presuppositions with which he sat down to write, and also the world in which he lived from day to day. Interestingly enough, Stan seems to have internalized this mood, for his survey is like a Catherine wheel, a kaleidoscope of Roberts’s reading, tossing off Roberts’s pungent comments and dancing around the themes he engaged with. It is less successful at systematically correlating these notes into a clear worldview of Roberts’s own, connecting Roberts’s marginal notes with his own writings, or showing how his scattershot commentary developed into a mature engagement with the work of Spencer or James or other thinkers of the day. For example, Stan casually offers us Roberts’s affirmation that the Lamanites were cursed with dark skin. For what it represents this seems to me a profoundly interesting point, and one certainly worth deeper integration with the rest of Roberts’s thought. It reveals a fact I’ve toyed with some in my own work – that Mormon thinkers of this time pursued a rational faith, a reconciliation of religion and science, an application of contemporary philosophy to Mormonism: and yet, at the same time, clung tighter than ever to the particular supernaturalisms of their own religious tradition. You see it in Talmage, in Widstoe, and certainly in Smith. This, certainly, is something Mormon thinkers like Roberts brought to the great and unsettling conversations of the early twentieth century.