Are Believing Historians at a Disadvantage?

By May 11, 2008

I spent way too much time on Saturday going through the Virginia Sorensen papers collection in BYU’s Special Collections. Sorensen was a novelist from the 1940’s, and a part of a movement now commonly known as Mormonism’s “Lost Generation.” While going through all of her correspondence before 1846, I came upon a couple of letters from Charles Kelly, a well-respected historian of his day but one who was not too friendly towards the Mormons. Best known in Mormon circles for his book Holy Murder, a work on Orrin Porter Rockwell, he was apparently not a fan of religion at all, feeling that the most common results of belief were negative extremes. To give a taste of his thoughts on Mormons, here is an excerpt from one of his letters to Sorensen.

I now have almost completed the complete story of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, containing much original material never previously prinited. When this is published it will make Holy Murder look like a Sunday School leaflet…I have no more grudge against the Mormons than against any other religion, but their history, which I can dig up at first hand, is a dramatic story, and furnishes an excuse to cut loose at all religion. And they are still doing business, while many of the others have been forgotten.[1]

While the collection does not contain Sorensen’s letters to Kelly, it appears that she was asking him advice on her upcoming novel, A Little Lower than The Angels.[2] While Kelly does give her some worth-while advice, he also gave what he saw as a needed warning:

I don’t want to discourage you in any way, but it seems to be a fact that one who has been under the influence of the Mormon religion has a great handicap to overcome in trying to write on that subject. There are very few who are willing to burn all their bridges, or could if they wished. I think Vardis Fisher’s “Children of God” is a very good example of what I am trying to say, even though it happens to be a best seller. In my opinion it is a piece of faith-promoting literature, containing all the old boloney about persecution that was instilled into him as a child. He is still a good Mormon at heart, even though he has a grudge against Heber Grant. I hope you don’t fall into the same rut…

I wish you success, and hope you do a better job than Vardis Fisher.[3]

There are interesting points that this letter brings up. First, it should be noted that Vardis Fisher’s book is not as “devotional” as Kelly seems to lead on. Children of God was the first major novel covering a large period of LDS history that was designed for a national audience. While he is sympathetic to Mormon leaders, he presents their history in a very humanistic way: Joseph’s angelic and supernatural experiences were brought on by staring at the sun until placed in a “trancelike state”; the gold plates were entirely made up in Joseph’s mind and he was left to develop a story to fool others; polygamy was a result of Mormon leaders’ carnal desires. Needless to say, the novel did not make a big splash among Mormon readers. But, on the other hand, regardless of these humanistic interpretations, it was still not able to appease this non-mormon historian.

Vardis Fisher himself seemed to be both aware and at ease with this tension created by these two contrasting interpretations. In the New York Times, he was quoted as saying,

I am fully aware that certain anti-Mormon writers today, as well as many others for whom Mormonism is an odious word, will find in this novel only another piece of Mormon propoganda. I am equally certain that most of the authorities of the mormon church today will find in it another damnable distoration of the truth. When a book falls between the two extremes of opinion, there the author should be content to leave it.[4]

This approach to history became a distinctive feature for the novelists of this generation, a movement including authors like Fisher, Sorensen, Maureen Whipple, among others. All of them wrote novels that were rejected by faithful mormons, embraced by the nation in general, yet still seen as a little to sympathetic to the Mormon cause.[5] Following this group of writers, and more likely a continuation on their same theme, came the historical works of Fawn Brodie and Juanita Brooks, though they were not seen as sympathetic as the novelists.

Writing in 1967, Samuel Taylor felt that these works just came too early to be appreciated by the Saints: “I recently re-read four book that caused an uproar 25 years ago [Fisher, Whipple, Brodie, and Sorensen] and I stand utterly amazed. I wondered if these books weren’t mainly the victims of bad timing.” He pondered “if they were published today…with a little luck they might find themselves upon the shelves at Deseret Book,” and even claimed that they read “like something the Improvement Era would love to serialize.”[6] While this may be a little bit of an overstatement, there is definitely some truth behind his sentiments.

However, there is still definitely some tension when trying to write for both an LDS and non-LDS audience. Here is a paragraph from Richard Bushman’s On the Road with Joseph Smith where he reflects on the reception of his biography on the Mormon prophet, a paragraph which is remarkably similar to Fisher’s statement quoted above.

Even though I wrote for a diverse audience, as the reviews came in I realized, that I had not kept everyone with me. As was probably inevitable, readers who came to the book with their own strong notions of Smith found my account wanting. Those on the mormon side thought I failed to describe his noble character and supernatural gifts; non-Mormons said I painted too rosy a picture and failed to acknowledge the obvious fraud. At both ends of the spectrum, I lost readers.[7]

As both a believing Mormon and one hoping to someday write for a national audience, I hope that there is a way to appeal to both sides. I don’t agree with Charles Kelly’s notion that LDS writers have a “handicap” when writing about their faith. I do agree with Bushman when he noted that as a practicing Mormon, “I believe enough to take Joseph Smith seriously.”[8] But, does my “believing” approach automatically lower my possibilities of reaching a non-Mormon audience? And, does my “academic” approach automatically lower my possibilities of reaching the belivieving-Mormon audience? Is the difficulty of bridging these two camps a result of the writer’s approach, or is it because of the state of the different audiences?

I am a newbie to this historical stuff; I feel I do not have enough experience to offer an educated response beyond mere idealistic optimism. So, I am asking all of you readers: Is there a way to reach both audiences?


[1] Charles Kelly to Virginia Sorensen, February 12 1940, Sorensen Collection, BYU Special Collections. After a brief search, I could not find any books on Mountain Meadows by him. Perhaps the work just never came to fruition.

[2] It seems that Sorensen asked advice from many different individuals on different aspects of Church history, ranging from Joseph Fielding Smith to Dale Morgan.

[3] Charles Kelly to Virginia Sorensen, February 4 1940, Sorensen collection. Apparently, Sorensen calmed Kelly’s fear, because his next letter, after thanking her for her “enlightening letter,” said that he has “more faith in the possibilities of your story now. Apparently you have not been so indoctrinated as Fisher, and possibly your contacts with the Mormon religion have been more acute.” Kelly to Sorensen, February 12 1940. However, I find Sorensen’s book much more sympathetic to the Church than Fisher’s, but that may just be me.

[4] New York Times, October 20 1839.

[5] One writer wrote that Sorensen’s books, almost singlehandedly, dispelled the nasty rumors of “the Mormon menace.” Nina Brown Baker, “Virginia Sorensen,” Wilson Library Bulletin (January 1950): 330.

[6] Samuel Taylor, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 2 (Summer 1967): 29-30.

[7] Richard Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith: An Author’s Diary, 127.

[8] Ibid, 125.

Article filed under Methodology, Academic Issues Reflective Posts


  1. I don’t have any good answer to your question, but I very much enjoyed your post, thanks.

    Comment by Jacob J — May 12, 2008 @ 12:53 am

  2. This is only my opinion, but I feel that you will always have a rather small audience. These will be those faithful Latter-day Saints who are somewhat intellectually oriented and/or aware that our history contains tension; plus those non-believers who are somewhat sympathetic. On the encouraging side, this group has grown quite a bit since the day of Brooks, etc. as evidenced by the reception of Rough Stone Rolling. Don’t let this deter you! Believing academic history is needed and appreciated, if not to “Harry Potter” proportions.

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — May 12, 2008 @ 1:45 am

  3. Ben,
    The good news is that believing scholars from many religious traditions have struggled in print with these issues for many, many years. The bad news is, no one has come up with a universal answer. Actually, that news isn’t so bad because it has allowed great minds to wrestle with the problem for decades–to our benefit. My point is that there is a library of thoughtful material written on this subject, and it might be helpful for you to work through some of the vast literature out there to get a sense of the possibilities and frustrations with which others have struggled.

    Comment by SC Taysom — May 12, 2008 @ 5:56 am

  4. Similar to SC’s comment: Believers from all traditions face this problem while writing for the academy. But heck, you don’t have to please everybody. Bushman’s quote suggested a tone of complaint or lament, but if he lost some readers at both ends of the spectrum, it probably meant he struck the right balance.

    Comment by John Turner — May 12, 2008 @ 6:01 am

  5. Did anyone here read the Spring 2008 issue of Dialogue?

    It has an article by John-Charles Duffy entitled: “Can Deconstruction Save the Day? ‘Faithful Scholarship’ and the Uses of Postmodernism.”

    It talks about the odd marriage of Mormon scholarship with postmodern justifications and the different phases Mormon scholarship has gone through since the 1950s. Interesting read.

    Comment by Seth R. — May 12, 2008 @ 11:01 am

  6. BiV: I agree with your optimism that the size of this desired audience is growing. Lets hope that it continues to do so.

    SCT: Amen to your thoughts on the benifits of wrestling over this issue. I have found it very rewarding myself, and hoped that engaging it on this thread with people much smarter than me would be very enlightening.

    JT: Agreed. I think Fisher’s statement above is much more settled with the issue than Bushman’s. While I do think the middle is a good position, I just wish it would encompass a bigger number of people.

    Seth: I personally have not read Duffy’s new article, though I have read a lot of his previous work, and I intend to read it when I get a chance. While he does bring up some good points, and his exploration is a worth-while exercise, I fear that he is at times too general and impatient in condemning those he doesnt think are as “progressive” as he would like them to be. While he tries to be objective in presenting the different approaches (always an impossible task, as he would probably admit), he often places what he sees as “faithful scholarship” in a rather cynical light. My two cents.

    Comment by Ben — May 12, 2008 @ 11:26 am

  7. Seth, anyone with a copy of that article they want to email me? (To save me a trip to the library) I’m pretty curious about what it is about given my affinity for Derrida and Heidegger.

    Comment by Clark — May 12, 2008 @ 11:45 am

  8. Ben, I think “faithful scholarship” gets a bit of a cynical treatment in this article too.

    Clark, alas, I only get the print version.

    Comment by Seth R. — May 12, 2008 @ 12:57 pm

  9. Regarding footnote 1, Kelly wrote an unpublished manuscript entitled Utah’s Black Friday: History of the Mountain Meadow Massacre of 1857.

    Comment by Justin — May 12, 2008 @ 1:29 pm

  10. Justin, as always, you da man.

    Is it his his papers collection somewhere?

    Comment by Ben — May 12, 2008 @ 2:10 pm

  11. Yes, I believe it’s available at the Univ. of Utah. Bagley cites it in his MMM book.

    Comment by Justin — May 12, 2008 @ 2:25 pm

  12. Is there a way to reach both audiences?

    You have to consider a few extra questions in order to really reach a conclusion on this initial one. First, do you want to reach “both audiences” (recognizing this “both” is something of a false dichotomy; though I realize your point in asking is not to imply that this is necessarily black and white)? What is your intent in writing? Is there a place for miracles, visions and revelations in the mainstream academic community? If so, where?

    I personally see no problem with including the accounts of people who speak of their revelations, etc. any more than including someone’s account of their job history. Let the people speak for themselves as much as you can, acknowledging that there is the issue of selectivity, but realize you can give different sides of the story and allow different parties to speak for themselves. Perhaps historians worry too much when dealing with subjects close to home; and no matter what, you, as a believing Mormon, will lose some readers at the outset either way you go.

    Can you reach both audiences? If they read your stuff and give you a hearing, you’ve reached them as much as you need to, in my opinion.

    Comment by BHodges — May 12, 2008 @ 4:09 pm

  13. If Bushman, who built his reputation as a historian doing work outside Mormon Studies, can’t get the nod as doing acceptable LDS history, then no believing LDS historian is going be acceptable. At least unless they adopt the conclusions favored by secular historians who dismiss all religious claims.

    Maybe the best way for a believing historian to proceed is to write about a different denomination. You may be better attuned to the rhythms of that faith than are secularists, but your work won’t automatically be pigeonholed as apologetic by secular historians. Look how well Jan Shipps’ work on Mormonism has been received!

    Comment by Dave — May 12, 2008 @ 6:29 pm

  14. There is another option. Some scholars of faith choose to write as if they are not believers. They accept as normative the basically secular model that undegirds the study of religion in the modern era when it comes to research, while accepting the supernatural in their personal religious lives. There is some debate about this, but the idea of “bracketing” is a common tactic among teachers of religious studies in state schools and other institutions without strong church affiliation, and more than a few pracitioners do the same when writing about religious traditions. It is not the most popular approach, but it deserves some mention in the debate. Ben’s post has got me thinking about the debates between phenomenologists and functionalists in religious studies in such a way that I may put a post up about Bruce Lincoln’s famous “Theses on Method.”

    Comment by SC Taysom — May 12, 2008 @ 6:47 pm

  15. # 14 is an option and on the flip side you can choose to write as if all the traditions are true. My thoughts are the need of consistency. They either all are not true, or all are.

    Comment by Gilgamesh — May 13, 2008 @ 7:33 am

  16. I think I’ll take Dave’s advice.

    The problems faced by believing Mormons are hardly unique, though perhaps heightened. Believing evangelical historians like my mentor George Marsden had to endure considerable skepticism and some derision from secular quarters. In those secular quarters, Mormons are simply considered one step further removed from reality. (Sorry) But it’s a relative difference, not a difference in kind. The only sort of acceptable religious belief in academia — at least in terms of Christianity, broadly construed — is a liberal / mainline religiosity that stays in the closet.

    Comment by John Turner — May 13, 2008 @ 10:08 pm


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