A Retrospective on John Brooke, “The Refiner’s Fire”: #MHA50 Session Preview

By June 2, 2015

Refiner's FireAnniversary conferences are a wonderful time to have retrospective panels that aim to chart the field’s development and future. Therefore, for MHA’s 50th anniversary, I thought it would be worthwhile to put together a panel that looks back on Mormon history’s most successful (in terms of academic awards) and most divisive (in terms of praise/rejection) book in the last few decades: John Brooke’s The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844 (Cambridge UP, 1994). A recipient of both Columbia University’s Bancroft Prize and the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic’s Best Book Prize, most Mormon historians denounced the book as methodologically flawed and, in some corners, as anti-Mormon. This led to a bifurcated legacy: on the one hand, most religious historians’ only exposure to Mormonism is through the book, given its wide academic popularity, while most Mormon historians have tended to dismiss it and pretend it never happened.

Two decades later, it is time for a fresh look of both the book and its reception. What does Refiner’s Fire tell us about Mormonism’s place in the academy in the 1990s? What does its reception tell us about New Mormon History’s relationship to the broader historical community? How have the two fields developed in the past twenty years?

This panel originated as a roundable for the Journal of Mormon History, and all the papers will appear in the Fall 2015 issue. But we thought it was a perfect fit for #MHA50 as well, and thus we are grateful to be one of the 50th Anniversary Sessions that will be recorded. Below are the participants and their papers. We hope a lot of you will show up—I promise it will be worth the trip!

  • Benjamin Park, University of Missouri, chair*
  • Stephen Fleming, Orem, UT, “Refiner’s Fire and the Yates Thesis: Hermeticism, Esotericism, and the History of Christianity”**
  • Susanna Morrill, Lewis and Clark College, “The Refiner’s Fire: Rites of Scholarly Passage”
  • David Holland, Harvard Divinity School, “Narrative Arcs and Scholarly Nerve: A Reflection on John Brooke’s Accomplishment”
  • Neil Kamil, University of Texas-Austin, “The Refiner’s Fire‘s Atlantic”
  • John Brooke, Ohio State University, “The Refiner’s Fire: In Retrospect”

*Note: we had to cut my paper for time restrictions. The print version of this roundtable, however, will include my paper, titled, “Camelot?s Crucible: The Historiographic Context for Refiner?s Fire.”

**Second Note: the print version of Stephen Fleming’s paper was co-authored with Anne Taves and Egil Asprem.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Really looking forward to this, Ben. Kudos on putting together such an important panel and impressive lineup of participants.

    Comment by Christopher — June 2, 2015 @ 10:58 am

  2. Wow, wish I could go. I’m very curious if anyone thinks Brooke’s interpretation of the Kirkland Banking Crisis in terms of hermeticism makes any sense. I always found Brooke interesting in the big picture but that in the small picture it seemed like other causes swamped his points.

    Comment by Clark — June 2, 2015 @ 12:42 pm

  3. BTW – when judging the reaction to Brooke at that time, it’s important to recognize there were a lot of similar books or papers coming out. The majority were anything but rigorous but were the worst sort of parallelitus – akin to apologetics at their worst with about the same degree of strength.

    I ran the Morm-Ant and a few related mailing lists at the time. (Sadly my archives were largely lost in a hard drive crash a decade ago) There was a lot of discussion and most of those who were the most critical were actually pretty sympathetic to the approach and big picture. They just felt like the arguments were extremely weak. However what came off was that they opposed the ideas. That didn’t seem accurate from my memory. Brooke perhaps was treated a little unfairly due to the context of Lance Owen’s Kabbalistic theory or some of Quinn’s more egregious presentations.

    I think we’ve moved on since then to more sophisticated and careful treatments.

    Comment by Clark — June 2, 2015 @ 12:46 pm

  4. I know we’ve been over all this quite a bit, Clark, but as you note, the praise of Brooke is unrelated to the Kirtland Bank. I doubt anyone is going to address the point (I don’t). And I argue that Quinn and Owens were actually quite good.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — June 2, 2015 @ 1:59 pm

  5. Just to be clear Steve, my problem with Quinn and Owens wasn’t primarily the positions but the arguments for those positions. Their arguments were just plain bad. Oddly in the discussions way back in the early 90’s I ended up making arguments for them much better than what they offered. (Most of the people in the debate from that time were on the list and debating – although Brooke wasn’t)

    The fact no one wants to take up Brooke’s claims about banking kind of illustrate just how problematic that section was. Rather justifying the critiques made at the time.

    So I think we have to separate what are plausible and perhaps even correct positions from the arguments for those positions. That’s pretty typical in say academic philosophy but I don’t think it really was part of the culture of Mormon writing of that era. To attack the argument was to be seen as attacking the position. Again to be clear, most of the FARMS people (who were also on the list and engaged in that debate) were sympathetic to aspects of the positions but felt like the argument was horrible.

    Not to go down a Quinn tangent, but I think most agree he had a rather nebulous and unhelpful sense of “magic.” Further he lumped anything vaguely related to esotericism in that rubric. The he tended to divorce structures with some parallel to aspects of Joseph’s thought from their original content. The criticisms people were making at the time really weren’t that different from the post-structuralist critiques of the classic structuralists like Campbell who did the same sort of thing. Effectively Owen and Quinn were appropriating ideas that had fallen out of favor decades earlier and embracing their flaws.

    Now again, to reemphasize. I think better more careful cases can and have been made. For instance you tend to be much more careful of considering neoPlatonism in a neoPlatonic context. I think there’s a still a lot more than can be written. (Especially on masonic influences in the early Utah period)

    Comment by Clark — June 2, 2015 @ 3:09 pm

  6. I will miss the panel, but I’m relieved the papers will be published. I found my copy of Brook’s book and it was covered with Post Its, so I’m sure I read it although I don’t remember much. I look forward to reading your paper and in the meantime, will make time to reread the book. Thanks for reminding us.

    Comment by Susan W H — June 2, 2015 @ 6:45 pm

  7. […] Susan W H: A Retrospective on John […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » JI Authors at #MHA50: A Preview featuring Abstracts — June 3, 2015 @ 5:01 am

  8. To add, in case that comment gave an unintended connotation, I rather liked Brooke’s book. Despite its flaws I think it was a very important development and parts of it are fantastic. Even Quinn’s, which I think had many more flaws, was valuable and my copy is well read. I just wish there was a single large fairly comprehensive text dealing with all this and balancing the evidence in an evenhanded way.

    Comment by Clark — June 4, 2015 @ 12:46 pm

  9. I take a stab at that in my dissertation.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — June 4, 2015 @ 2:08 pm


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