I’d like to offer some thoughts I’ve had on Jehu J. Hanciles’ Tanner Lecture at the 2014 meeting of the Mormon History Association. During his lecture, Professor Hanciles, a Professor of Global Christianity at Emory University, shared his research on the growth of Mormonism in Africa.
Hanciles’ address largely spoke to the advantages and disadvantages within Mormonism in regards to performing missionary work in Africa. As far as aspects conducive to missionary work are concerned, Mormon beliefs regarding food storage, prophetic gifts, gifts of the spirit, and the celebration of family and kinship networks mesh well with many African cultures. On the other hand, Mormonism does a poor job of adapting to local circumstances through requiring local congregations to adapt to the American church. He gave examples of this trend, including insistence on using American hymnbooks, not offering leeway on church dress to jive with local dress and tradition, and church services which allow for more participation from the congregation.
He also spoke about the need for more people of color/international folks to be involved in MHA and the study of Mormonism.** He called out the tiny numbers of articles in major Mormon publications on non-white, non-western Mormon history and the deplorable fact that so few were written by people of color. While Hanciles did not offer his methodology for what history was written by non-whites, I believe that whatever framework he used is probably correct. This lecture came after Professor Ignacio Garcia’s comment that he hoped one day MHA would be able to invite an expert on Mexican Mormonism to speak at MHA, rather than “just” a Mexican Mormon. Needless to say, academic guilt and white guilt felt palpable during the lecture and the Q&A period. Both Hanciles’ and Garcia’s comments, in my mind, were damning. We can do better. We must do better.
At the lunch following the lecture, several of us discussed the means by which MHA could involve more topics on non-western, non-white history and involve a more diverse membership. Our little group had several suggestions (listed below), but we largely have not followed up on our desire to “repent” and find ways to involve diverse audiences and scholars in the study of Mormon History. With that in mind, I hope that in the two weeks before paper proposals are due for MHA 2015 we can encourage more participants in MHA, particularly paper proposals on diverse themes and topics. MHA won’t become more diverse overnight, or in one year. But I think that a concrete plan can and should be carried out to ensure that MHA not only thrives in the next fifty years, but has membership that reflects the racial diversity of Mormonism and those who are interested in Mormon History.
IDEAS FOR DEVELOPING MORE DIVERSE SCHOLARS IN MORMONISM
1. Provide travel funds specifically for scholars of color.
2. Work with schools with faculty studying Mormonism to hire research assistants of color.
3. Work with schools with faculty studying Mormonism to mentor students of color and encourage all research related to non-white, non-Mormon topics.
4. Work with Utah based schools to fund the attendance of MHA by more students. 2015 and 2016 present an opportunity for students at BYU, UVU, the University of Utah, Utah State University, SLCC, Westminster, LDS Business College, and other schools to attend MHA. If students are anything like me, after one MHA meeting you’ll be hooked. Attending MHA (and other academic conferences) makes a person a better scholar if they participate. Also if they’re anything like me, attending MHA will want them to attend again and again.
Any thoughts, readers? Any takeaways from Professor Hanciles’ lecture or how to build a more diverse population of Mormon scholars? Or how to incentivize the study of non-white, non-American topics?
**He also noted that many issues of race regarding MHA and Mormon History could be said of other academic subfields and the academy in general.