[Part of the Many Images of Mormonism series.]
It has become a common refrain to refer to Mormonism as the “American religion.” Leo Tolstoy supposedly said it, Harold Bloom definitely said it, and religious historians often repeat it. It is meant to invoke the fact that Mormonism was born and raised on American soil, embodied many of the cultural elements found in its surrounding culture, and remains a focal point of America’s religious history. (For the most recent look at this idea you can look, ahem, here.) While this is all well and good, a new theme has also cropped up in recent historiography: the importance of anti-Mormonism in American religion.
While there were earlier precedents, it could be argued that Terryl Givens’s Viper on the Hearth (1997, but recently re-issued) started the systematic study of American (negative) perceptions of Mormonism; indeed, it was the first to invoke a sophisticated analysis in using anti-Mormonism as a case-study in the construction of heresy. A decade later, Givens was followed by three books that built on his work and appeared in quick succession: Megan Sanborn Jones’s Performing American Identity in Anti-Mormon Melodrama (2009), Patrick Mason’s The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South (2011), and Spencer Fluhman’s Peculiar People: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America (2012). Each of these books looked at perceivable the same topic through different prisms—theater, southern violence, and the nebulous concept of “religion”—but each shared a common assumption: that how Americans treated and understood Mormons reveals a significant lesson about the development of America’s religious history.
Rather than reviewing each book and engaging the differences between each, I’d like to briefly tease out a couple lessons they collaborative teach. First about American religion in general, and second about Mormon studies as a field.
First, these four books emonstrate the academy’s recent emphasis on the problems of pluralism and the ironies of disestablishment. The myth of America’s religious freedom (see here) has given way to acknowledging the complex reality of majoritarian rule in an age of intolerance. The free market of religion provided fertile soil in which new religious could grow, but many Americans were set on deciding which were the wheat and which were the tares. This led to a competetive, and often violent, setting in which intolerance was a realistic factor in everyday life. (See a collection of essays on this here, and a documentary history here.) This is especially true in the intellectual study of identity formation, which is a prime topic in both Fluhman’s and Jones’s books. The recent cultural turn in intellectual history has newly reemphasized the role of the “other” in constructing seemingly coherent identities, and Mormons often served as a useful opposing example to the self-embodied ideals many Americans trumpeted. This newly dominating strain in American religious historiography has shifted the way we view religious competition in early America, yet has only widened the disconnect between popular narratives (which make liberty the hallmark of the American religious experience) and scholarly discourse (which focuses on the tragic irnoies of those very narratives).
Second, that LDS scholars have taken advantage of, and participated in, this historiographical turn within the broader academy demonstrates how far Mormon studies as a field has come. If one of the overriding themes of today’s academic study of Mormonism is to use the LDS tradition as a case study for broader themes and issues, these approaches make that a necessary and dominant feature in their work. In Mason’s own terms, Mormons are the “objects” rather than the “subjects” in his study, and even the anti-Mormons portrayed in these books are only important inasmuch as they represent their environment and cultural shifts. Exhaustive research is still required, yes, but so is innovative framing, creating analysis, and broad historiographical (and, yes, theoretical) exposure. In a way, the study of what anti-Mormonism tells us about American religion is the perfect theme to dominate the new generation of Mormon studies, as it makes porous the methodological and topical borders that used to remain firm and transfixed. Put simply, Mormon scholars recognizing that more than just Mormonism—indeed, anti-Mormonism!—is useful, relevant, and complex has positioned the (sub)field on much stronger footing.
Luckily, there are still more books on the way that similarly engage this theme. JB Haws, Cristine HJ, and Paul Reeve—all of them are working on projects that examine the (often competing) intersection of Mormon and non-Mormon identities. And American religious history, not to mention Mormon history, is much richer as a result.