An open letter to political theorists who presume to lecture historians on how to be historians

By July 20, 2012

To whom it may concern:

I’m thrilled that you’ve taken an interest in Mormon studies. I think that there is much interdisciplinary work to be done in this emerging (sub)field and welcome the perspectives you bring from your own discipline. There seems to be some confusion on your end, though, about what historians do. Let me try and assuage your concerns by assuring you of two things:

1) Professionally-trained historians are very aware and appreciative of the contributions made by previous generations of scholars. Those historians you accuse us of dismissing in favor of the latest cutting-edge scholarship have, in fact, been our mentors, advisors, and our friends. We have learned from their careful and thoughtful scholarship and their patient and proactive mentoring and seek to incorporate their findings into our own research and to consider their own hermeneutics very carefully when thinking about our own. Dare I say that as historians—as persons trained to interpret the past—we are particularly and peculiarly aware of past scholarship?

2) We have read Derrida. And Foucault. We’re intimately familiar with Hayden White’s argument, as well as the arguments of many other theorists. Your field is not the only one that reads and incorporates theory into your scholarship. I’m unaware of a single graduate program in history that ignores theory or pretends like it does not exist.  In fact, I’m unaware of a single undergraduate program in history does so. This is perhaps even more true of religious studies programs. Just because we don’t rehash ad nauseam “bracketing” truth claims when studying religious history does not mean we are unaware of the issues at stake in such discussions (nor does it means we think such discussions pointless or not worthy of our time. Several of the most insightful and thoughtful discussions I’ve read on the subject of bracketing come, appropriately, from historians). You are, as one of my colleagues recently put it so well, “tilting against a flimsy and weatherbeaten cardboard cutout of Leopold von Ranke.”

If you want to engage in these discussions, that’s wonderful. Please familiarize yourself with the scholarship and scholars you dismiss before doing so, though. Consider this an invitation to read (apparently for the first time) all of the excellent scholarship that has recently been written by historians and others studying Mormonism. If you need suggestions, just ask. We’re all too eager to catch you up to speed, just as we are anxious to learn from you and your unique disciplinary perspectives.


A Historian

Article filed under Methodology, Academic Issues Miscellaneous State of the Discipline


  1. Too Awesome!

    Comment by Joseph Smidt — July 20, 2012 @ 5:45 pm

  2. I’m clearly missing some back story here.

    Comment by the narrator — July 20, 2012 @ 6:18 pm

  3. the narrator: See here.

    Comment by Tona H — July 20, 2012 @ 6:20 pm

  4. Amen.

    Narrator: also see many reviews in the last few decades of FARMS.

    Comment by Ben P — July 20, 2012 @ 6:27 pm

  5. Shoot, I’m just a humble history grad and it was reading R.G. Collingsworth — who had a lot of interesting thoughts about bracketing and historiography when he wrote half a century ago — that got me interested in the discipline before I even took classes in it. Interestingly, it was Political Science that I switched from, precisely because that discipline seems so content to misuse history (not that I’d accuse all PS-geeks of doing so…just a lot of the :p )

    Comment by Casey — July 20, 2012 @ 7:16 pm

  6. LIKE!!

    Comment by Paul Harvey — July 20, 2012 @ 7:57 pm

  7. Seems like this battle was fought a generation ago, after which the historians just kept on writing history as they always had. Disciplines are always resistant to critiques from outsiders. But the very existence and success of the New Mormon History supports Novick’s observation that history split into a hundred different mini-fields corresponding to that many perspectives on the field. If history is a function of perspective, then there is substance to the critique that historians are creating narratives, not revealing perspective-independent facts and cause-effect chains. So I wouldn’t be so smug about dismissing the criticism.

    Comment by Dave — July 20, 2012 @ 8:08 pm

  8. Dave,

    If you think I’ve dismissed any postmodern critiques of historical methodology as being entirely void of substance, you’ve misunderstood entirely. In fact, your comment is an excellent example of exactly what I’m talking about. You seem to assume that I’ve never considered Novick’s observation or the substance of the critique that historians are creating narratives. Let me try and reiterate this for you: I, and every other professionally-trained historian, has spent countless hours considering these issues, in seminars, in one-on-one conversations with advisors, in coffee shops with other graduate students, while in the archives pouring over manuscript sources, and in the solitude of thesis and dissertation research. My issue here is not with this debate itself, but rather with individuals (in this case, political theorists) who seem to believe historians are all naive positivists completely unaware. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    Comment by Christopher — July 20, 2012 @ 8:40 pm

  9. Typo in my comment: the author was Novick. The title was That Noble Dream.

    [edit: fixed]

    Comment by Dave — July 20, 2012 @ 9:30 pm

  10. Heck, even non-professionally-trained historians know Novick. I remember about 15 years ago when Lou M. broke into the old LDSBookshelf elist and tried to school us on Novick, as if we had claimed objectivity and as if it were news to us that objectivity might be an illusion. He was laughed off the list for, among other things, announcing what to him seemed to be a new discovery but to us was very old and well understood.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 20, 2012 @ 9:38 pm

  11. Broadcast journalists are terrrrriiiiibbbbllleee at this also. (I’d know, I used to be one. We might be worse than the poli sci folks) When people do a little light reading, they suddenly think they are more expert than the experts. it has to be very frustrating for you guys.

    Comment by jasonb — July 20, 2012 @ 9:52 pm

  12. Bravo, Chris.

    Ardis, nice to know that 15 years later, we are still getting the chance for a laugh.

    Comment by Jared T — July 20, 2012 @ 9:58 pm

  13. Dave: like others have said, we all know Novick. Also, if you think historians are writing the same now as they were several generations ago, then you aren’t following the field very well.

    Comment by Ben P — July 20, 2012 @ 10:54 pm

  14. Amateurs! Try being a plant geneticist and having a college dropout stay-at-home mom tell you she knows more than you do about GMOs, because she’s a mom and she JUST KNOWS what’s good for her kids.

    (girl, please; I’m a mom too but that didn’t excuse me from having to read some books to become an expert on something.)

    Comment by xenawarriorscientist — July 20, 2012 @ 11:32 pm

  15. Ardis,
    Was LDSBookshelf, perchance, hosting a fondue party with George Smith and the Tanners at the time?

    Comment by John C. — July 21, 2012 @ 3:52 am

  16. I think you’re missing the point. A purely secular approach to history can never properly contextualize Joseph Smith’s truth claims. So don’t get all bent out of shape when someone expresses their concern that going the secular route (as some of the new up and coming-ers seem to be pushing for) is likely to miss the mark.

    Comment by Jack — July 21, 2012 @ 9:32 am

  17. Was LDSBookshelf, perchance, hosting a fondue party with George Smith and the Tanners at the time?


    But seriously, no field finds outside critics worthwhile, all critics find themselves valuable, and every field is both hidebound and trend driven; built on substantial knowledge and oeuvre.

    Which is which in any instance is all the fun.

    Comment by Stephen R. Marsh — July 21, 2012 @ 10:07 am

  18. But as Christopher mentioned, historians are well aware of these critiques (it’s the first thing we get taught in grad school). There are active healthy debates on these issues of which these “outside” critics seem wholly unaware. Such people seem to be critiquing something they simply do not understand.

    So rather than pleading for historians to write in a way that they would approve, we invite these critics to jump into the field and try to write good history (which isn’t so easy). That’s what we are trying to do here.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 21, 2012 @ 10:51 am

  19. Excellent post! With one suggested addendum: there are a very few scholars, a few lay and a few professional, who uncritically believe they adhere to an outdated and unsustainable rubric of objectivity, and who criticize many present historians writing on Mormonism for being tangled up in what they see as silly, newfangled theories. (One example among others starts with W and ends with ill Bagley.)

    Comment by Quickmere Graham — July 21, 2012 @ 10:57 am

  20. Thanks, all, for the lively discussion.

    Jack, no, you’ve missed the point. Nobody here has advocated a purely secular approach to Mormonism’s past and that is entirely beside the point of this post. You, like Dave, assume for some unknown reason that historians of Mormonism haven’t considered these issues before and were just waiting for some brilliant political theorist or random, drive by blog commenter to explain the importance of theory to us and caution against secular history (whatever that even means). Again, let me assure you: we’ve spent more time than most considering how best to contextualize JS’s religious experiences and the truth claims they represent.

    Comment by Christopher — July 21, 2012 @ 6:11 pm

  21. There are times when transgression of disciplinary boundaries is fruitful, and there are times when it’s embarrassing. I think Christopher has correctly de[s]cried the latter in this instance.

    Comment by smb — July 21, 2012 @ 9:56 pm

  22. In the spirit of a few apologists and of non sequitirs in general, I would like to make three comments about Ralph Hancock’s post that was alluded to by Tona H.

    1. Many of his paragrphs would be a great entry for the Bulwer-Lytton contest. Just stick “It was a dark and stormy night” in front and add a Hero (himself) or a villian (his favorite being Joanna Brooks) and you would have a sure winner.

    2. He always seems to play a version of a teen age bragging game. Specifically “my thesaurus is bigger than yours.”

    3. He seems to have Marcel Proust envy. Drop a few periods and substitue a semi colon or two in one of his paragraphs and you have a Proustian gem. Granted, Hancock would not equal the French writer’s 958 word sentence, but it would be within the spirit of it.

    The point of this ad hominem attack is not that Hancock’s arguments are wrong, but by engaging in his “egocentric fustian diatribes seemingly coming from a neo-theocentric sturm und drang perspective,” he diminishes the power and effect of what he has to say.

    If you have never read Neil Postman’s presentation to the National Council of the Teachers of English enititled “Bullshit and the Art of Crap Detection” please do so, it is on the net (sorry for the less than cultured words). Yes, I know I violated the Pomposity standard and probably a few others, but it was for a reason.

    Comment by Stan Beale — July 22, 2012 @ 5:20 am

  23. “If you want to engage in these discussions, that?s wonderful. Please familiarize yourself with the scholarship and scholars you dismiss before doing so, though.”


    I want to believe that, despite the tone (patronizing, from my vantage point) of your critique, you were sincere in your invitation to Hancock. That said, you assume he is ignorant of much that–to my knowledge–he has actually spent a great deal of time and effort studying. Unfortunately, I don’t see him taking the time to respond to this particular post, but hopefully Part II (to be posted at T&S) will be less offensive to you (and other true historian readers). For my part, I tend to find Hancock’s posts particularly thought-provoking and enlightening, but I recognize I am probably in the minority here, as Stan Beale (comment #22) and others have shown.

    Comment by European Saint — July 22, 2012 @ 7:32 am

  24. Christopher,

    I’m not making those assumptions — I really don’t know enough about this stuff to even formulate them. But I do know enough about the gospel to intuit that a secular society can’t have an informed opinion about such things without being deeply empathetic — nigh unto conversion. So, I wouldn’t begrudge some guy going a little over the top in expressing his concern that certain trends might have a way of closing the door on the living truth.

    Comment by Jack — July 22, 2012 @ 1:55 pm

  25. Jack, that issue is beside the point here. My immediate concern is with non historians (and just to be clear, this post is directed at much more than a recent post at another blog) assuming historians have never considered these issues at all.

    ES, of course I’m sincere. If any political theorist or anyone else wants to critique historical scholarship, they’re more than welcome to. I just expect them to critique what is actually being produced, not some positivist figment of their imagination.

    Comment by Christopher — July 22, 2012 @ 2:11 pm

  26. European Saint: pay close attention to the way Hancock framed his post: the way he draws up a “new” versus “old” school of academics, one evidently trying to curry the favor of “secular” folk (see Jack’s comment above) while the other is epitomized by particular people formerly of FARMS, etc. who bravely declared their truths. His post entirely fails to provide an accurate framework of what “Mormon studies” might presently consist of. His post also fails to accurately trace the shifts in Mormon studies over time. These two failures, in my view, are inter-related.

    Comment by BHodges — July 23, 2012 @ 11:46 am

  27. Christopher’s critique could not be more on-target. The issue of secular vs. faith is not only out-dated and mis-directed, it’s a red herring.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — July 23, 2012 @ 2:42 pm

  28. Nah, Gary, I think it’s worth discussing, analyzing, considering, wrestling with, even though it fundamentally rests on something of a false dichotomy. But that’s part of why it deserves discussion.

    What I don’t like to see is caricature dressed up as straight talk about the way things used to be and the way things are becoming now, which is what I believe Ralph is doing.

    Comment by BHodges — July 23, 2012 @ 6:13 pm

  29. A puzzling aspect of Hancock’s piece seems to be not only that there is a shortcoming in terms of providing an accurate framework for the bread and butter of Mormon studies, but that the article seems to have a schizophrenic awareness of its audience. On one hand, it addresses the historical community, and on he other, appears to do so without speaking in the language of the community. I think that damages the strength of his argument while prepping readers to be either confused or annoyed before even reading the first word of the forthcoming second article.

    Perspectives are also put forth that I would view as being inaccurate. Furthermore, there is a tone, which, intended or not, comes across at times as condescending. I have to think anyone with his level of education almost surely understands similar rigorous standards of research and interdisciplinary awareness are par for the course in even the softest and/or newest sciences (I’m not referring to the historical discipline here).

    Coming from a political background myself I always enjoy (well, sometimes at least), some fascinating discoveries that come to bear when politics and religion meet. Add in historical revelations and the new insights become even more captivatingly diverse and challenging.

    My understanding of Hancock’s educational background is that he could provide an additional viewpoint to the question at hand which scholars of all disciplines, including history, could appreciate for the raw beauty of an academic contribution from perhaps an unexpected discipline. Yet rather than provide just such a contribution (and one I would like to read and chew on a bit), the article seems to frustrate the historian by making use of questionable historical claims or perspectives (stemming most likely from a lack of due diligence), while concurrently utilizing a tone that may be perhaps bizarre at best and condescending at worst.

    I would love to read Hancock’s thoughts on this subject in a post with (1) a less schizophrenic awareness of the audience and (2) a tone more likely solicit conversation and contribution than one that results in such ubiquitous criticism and confusion. I think he could contribute quite a bit in speaking of trying to define, understand, and work within “Mormon studies.” Unfortunately, this first posting seems to have fallen below the standards for such a proposition while at the same time arguably failing (thus far) to actually make the proposition.

    This is not Hancock’s best work, but I would love to see a revised or brand new piece that begins and ends with a consistent understanding of the topic, the goals of the article, and a more fine-tuned understanding of the audience.

    That said, I suggest the ad hominem attacks toward Hancock (in this case) as found in Comment #22 are inappropriate for the kind of discussion desired by Christopher – or even Hancock, or other writers who appear to slight the competence of historians while not only dealing with historical topics, but doing so (by request) on the historian’s turf. And beyond that, they are certainly below the dignity of the posts I have read here at Juvenile Instructor. These comments were made “in the spirit of a few apologists and of non sequitirs [sp] in general,” but I would have preferred they not have been made at all.

    I am relatively new to the scene here, but it seems as if there are other sites more conducive to throwing mud (i.e., Comment #22) at an imperfect author dealing with his audience and topic in a less than perfect way than Juvenile Instructor.

    Comment by Kurt — July 24, 2012 @ 3:50 am

  30. Christopher,

    I think I understand the indignation a bit.

    Still, I have a hard time reading this other than as a rather condescending reply. More or less tit for tat, I guess. Though I am not sure how much he was directing his post at JI.

    Comment by g.wesley — July 24, 2012 @ 11:38 am

  31. Here are a couple of resources that some might find useful for the next chapter of this debate. First, a 2009 post by Ardis at Keepa titled “Telling the Truth About the Past,” in which she summarizes a few of the professional standards for historians as stated by the American Historical Association:

    Second, the full text of those professional standards at the AHA website:

    Here is one paragraph from those standards:

    Among the core principles of the historical profession that can seem counterintuitive to non-historians is the conviction, very widely if not universally shared among historians since the nineteenth century, that practicing history with integrity does not mean being neutral or having no point of view. Every work of history articulates a particular, limited perspective on the past. Historians hold this view not because they believe that all interpretations are equally valid, or that nothing can ever be known about the past, or that facts do not matter. Quite the contrary. History would be pointless if such claims were true, since its most basic premise is that within certain limits we can indeed know and make sense of past worlds and former times that now exist only as remembered traces in the present. But the very nature of our discipline means that historians also understand that all knowledge is situated in time and place, that all interpretations express a point of view, and that no mortal mind can ever aspire to omniscience. Because the record of the past is so fragmentary, absolute historical knowledge is denied us.

    That statement seems to incorporate some of criticisms that prompted Christopher’s post. Whether this professional standard simply announces a norm or ideal (that historians may or may not apply in their research and writing) or whether it is, in fact, a description of how most or all historians actually approach their work is a separate question. One thing I have noticed in history books written in the last couple of decades is that authors now generally make an effort to disclose their biases in the preface or introduction. That alone is helpful for readers unfamiliar with the qualifications to “objective history” stated in the quotation above.

    Comment by Dave — July 25, 2012 @ 3:17 pm

  32. Great comment, Dave. Thank you.

    Comment by European Saint — July 29, 2012 @ 2:06 pm


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