A “constant process of reinvention”: Randall Balmer talks candidly about Mormon history

By November 30, 2009

Over at Religion in American History, Randall Stephens has posted a two part informal interview he conducted last week with Randall Balmer, noted historian of American religion and professor of American religious history at Barnard College, Columbia University. Part I and Part II are available on youtube. Among other things, Dr. Balmer talks candidly about his experience this semester teaching a course on Mormonism. He offers some interesting insight that I thought Juvenile Instructor readers might be interested in.

What follows is my transcription of the portion of the interview that focuses on Balmer’s discussion of his course on Mormonism. I’ve made every effort to transcribe accurately what is said. I’ve inserted ellipses (…) to indicate both natural breaks in speech and to gloss over other commentary in an effort to highlight only the portion of the conversation relevant to Mormonism. If you have a few minutes, I encourage you to listen to the entire interview. It’s quite insightful, I think.

Because of the informal nature of the interview, let me stress that Balmer’s comments should be taken for what they are—casual reflections on Mormon history. I am much less interested in debating whether, as he suggests at one point, the priesthood ban can be traced back to Joseph Smith, and much more interested in Balmer’s suggestion that Mormonism’s “quintessential American[ness]” is demonstrated not only in its American origins and the sacred significance Mormons attach to the American continent’s history but also in the religion’s ability to constantly “reinvent” itself. Anyway, enjoy.

Randall Stephens: Are there any classes right now ? that you?ve taught that ? are sort of new ideas where you?ve fused things together?

Randall Balmer: Well, I?m doing a new course on Mormonism. I did it at Dartmouth a couple of years ago, but it is the first time I?ve done it here as a lecture course. And that?s a lot of fun. That really grew out of [a] decades-long fascination with Mormonism, trying to figure it out, and I still don?t have it all figured out, but I find it endlessly fascinating. And the students seem to like that. ?

RS: Well, the [class on] Mormonism would be fun.

RB: Mormonism is a lot of fun. It really is. And I learn so much myself. ? I?ve learned more this semester [than when] I taught the course previously.

RS: Is there one gem like that that you have in mind of something that you?ve learned?

RB: About Mormonism?

RS: Yeah.

RB: Oh goodness, Mormonism. I?m always learning something about Mormonism. I guess, just to speak generally, what?s so striking to me about Mormonism is that it?s a quintessential American religion, in that, throughout its history ? it certainly has American roots, there?s no question about that. Well, I mean, even if you take the Book of Mormon at face value, you have the American genesis of the Book of Mormon. But also, [Mormonism is] very American in the sense that Mormons are always reinventing themselves, and refashioning themselves, so that they fit ? more effectively into the American context. The constant process of reinvention is fascinating. I mean, just one example?a fairly prominent example over the last several decades?is the revelation that comes to Spencer Kimball, the president of the church in 1978 to ordain men of color for the first time. Now that?s a ? radical departure from the beliefs that we can trace back to Joseph Smith. But it set in motion, this massive growth of Mormonism, not only here in this country, but more particularly in the rest of the world. And that?s just one example of adaptation to cultural circumstances. The Woodruff Manifesto in 1890 that comes suddenly that you know, does away with polygamy?well, that opens the way to statehood but also what was the way to a kind of legitimacy for the Mormons within American society, and in the eyes of the American government that has led to the situation today, more than a century later, where Mormonism is kind of synonymous with patriotism and everything that is all-American. Whereas in the nineteenth century, as you well know, Mormons were utterly persecuted by the government.

RS: Yeah, it does seem for Mormon historians it?s fascinating to recapture that adversarial, or ? the conflict in those early years.

RB: Yeah, that?s right. That?s right. ? I mean, to kind of drop all pretense of objectivity ? you look at Mormonism. You look at issues like the Book of Abraham, the Spalding Manuscript, and so forth, and you say, ?How in the world did they pull this off? But, just to look at how they pulled it off is just fascinating. A fascinating story.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Thanks, Chris. I wonder what he means by “drop[ping] all pretense of objectivity”?

    Comment by David G. — November 30, 2009 @ 8:44 pm

  2. Fascinating. Thanks, Chris.

    Comment by Ben — December 1, 2009 @ 3:50 am

  3. David, it seemed to me like he was saying, “let’s take off the scholarly hat for just one moment and candidly admit that this church has had some episodes that seriously challenge the authenticity of its scripture. But in spite of that all, they’ve managed to not only survive but grow.”

    Comment by Christopher — December 1, 2009 @ 8:18 am

  4. Heh, that’s how I read it too. But I wonder if that’s Balmer the skeptical scholar or Balmer the evangelical (or both) speaking?

    I also find it interesting that he seems to be placing the Spalding hypothesis and the Book of Abraham in the same category.

    Comment by David G. — December 1, 2009 @ 10:12 am

  5. To Balmer’s more interesting point, I think the “reinvention” framework works well to reconceptualize well-known historical problems. The idea is reminiscent of Moore’s Religious Outsiders, but is expressed differently that Moore did.

    Comment by David G. — December 1, 2009 @ 10:22 am

  6. Thanks for putting this up, Chris.

    Comment by Jared T — December 1, 2009 @ 12:16 pm


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