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A “Krakauer Problem?”

By July 14, 2015

Religion & Politics has allowed us to excerpt a section of my meditation on the enduring popularity–and the problems therein–of Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven. 

Thanks to my colleagues at JI and friends of JI for their input on this piece. And thanks to JI for allowing me to share it with you.

…This is what I call the ?Krakauer problem?: more than twelve years after it was first published, and after Romney?s presidential campaigns helped make Mormonism an acceptable American religion, Under the Banner of Heaven remains the definitive book on Mormon history in popular culture. Under the Banner of Heaven spent months on The New York Times bestseller list, and it is still ranked number one on Amazon?s bestsellers in the ?Mormonism? list. Its popularity is also reflected at social events?even social events with other scholars of religion. When historians of Mormon history like me explain what they study, most of those who have read one book on the faith will tell us that they?ve read Under the Banner of Heaven. And, as Krakauer himself intended, they will also tell us that they understand it to be not only an exposé of Mormon fundamentalism, but also a reliable history of the origins of the LDS Church, too. To be sure, this is a problem for the LDS Church and for its members. Mainstream Mormons don?t want to be called upon to answer for Jeffs anymore than ?mainstream? Muslims want to be called upon to answer for jihadists. Yet, this is also a problem for scholars of Mormonism, a problem that we?ve yet to solve. Scores of both scholarly and popular books on Mormonism have been published since Under the Banner of Heaven was first released in 2003. Yet none have come close to displacing it as the dominant portrayal of Mormon history in American culture.

THE QUESTION IS, WHY? What?s so compelling about Under the Banner of Heaven? That is, what makes it such a gripping and troubling read?…

Read the rest of the piece here.

I’d love to throw this out to the JI readership–What is your experience with Under the Banner of Heaven?


JMH Special Issue on Race: A Brief Introduction

By July 2, 2015

When I composed the introduction to the special edition of the Journal of Mormon History (July 2015), I described the study of race and Mormonism as a ?nice subject, historically obscure even within the Mormon studies world.? But boy have I been proven wrong, or at least behind the times!

Anyone attending last month?s Mormon History Association annual meeting in Provo, where many of the panels dealt with race (broadly conceived) and the restored church?not to mention the powerful Smith-Pettit plenary by Margaret Jacobs on the adoption of Native American Children by Mormon families as well as the Best Book Award going to Russell Stevenson?s documentary history on people of African descent and Mormonism?would recognize that race has become a major preoccupation for the corner of Mormon studies that MHA represents.

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Mormon Studies Goes to Cambridge: Harvard Divinity School Hires David F. Holland

By March 29, 2013

Okay, now that Harvard Divinity School made official the news that has been circulating for weeks, we at JI (and JI?s satellite branch in Cambridge) can pop the Martinelli’s. David Holland, currently an associate professor at UNLV, will be joining the HDS faculty starting this July as an associate professor of American religious history. (You can read the official HDS announcement here).

Holland-NewsUntil he came to Harvard for his job-talk and visit earlier this year, I only knew Prof. Holland through his groundbreaking work, Sacred Borders: Continuing Revelation and Canonical Restraint in Early America (OUP, 2011). JI?s own Christopher provided an in-depth review when the book was first published, which I encourage all to read again. For those American religious historians (this aspiring one included) who are returning to sacred scriptures as a starting place for our analysis of both church history as well as history of the volk (both institutional, intellectual, and ?lived?), Sacred Borders is model scholarship.

During his visit to HDS, Holland proved that he?s not only a writer. His dynamic and innovative presentation on his current on ?editing? sacred texts was simply dazzling.

His students at UNLV have attested that he is also a great mentor, and many students at HDS have already benefited from his generous, critical (in both senses of the word), but always amiable suggestions on their work.

Congrats to HDS on a great hire!

A New Header, A New Day?

By March 1, 2013

Note: Yesterday?s release of newly revised and edited volumes of LDS scriptures?including the unprecedented header to Official Declaration 2?has derailed a bit our planned wrap-up of the posts from JI?s Black History Month series.

On the last day of Black History Month 2012, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) released a statement, ?Race and the Church: All Are Alike Unto God.? The statement read in part, ?The Church unequivocally condemns racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church.?

This ?official statement? came only a day after racist comments from Randy Bott?one of BYU?s most celebrated professors?were printed in a Washington Post story on members of African descent within the Church. Bott rehearsed well-worn theological rationales to justify the ban on black men holding the priesthood, a ban lifted in 1978 after the leading members of the Church hierarchy received a direct revelation to do so. Due to blacks’ supposed descent from the divinely-cursed Cain and Canaan, Bott said the ban was not racist, but a ?blessing.? Blacks, he explained, had until 1978, not been spiritually mature enough to handle the authority of the priesthood. [i]

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JMH: Special Issue on Mormonism and Race

By February 28, 2013

Journal of Mormon History

Call for Articles

Special Issue on Mormonism and Race

To be published in the summer issue of 2014

Finished papers due July 31, 2013

Special Editors:

Max Perry Mueller:

Prof. Gina Colvin:

Goals of the Journal?s special issue on Mormonism and race:

This special issue of the Journal of Mormon History aims to broaden and deepen the conversation on Mormonism and race beyond the historical focus on the ban on black men from the Mormon priesthood, and its emphasis on the U.S. experience. In particular we aim to understand ?race? beyond the black-white (European-African) binary. We welcome articles ranging in historical focus from the Mormon movement?s founding to the present day. Articles exploring international encounters, race and gender, and race and politics, and race and class are of particular interest.


Papers should be original work. Wherever appropriate, concrete evaluation results should be included. Submissions will be judged on originality, technical strength, primary sources, significance, and interest to our readers. Papers should range from 6,000 to 8,000 words. Please submit manuscripts simultaneously to both of the Special Editors listed above. Include separately a brief CV or biography.

Bringing Jane Manning James into the 21st Century

By February 26, 2013

Note: It is a pleasure to have Margaret Blair Young contribute to JI’s monthlong series on issues of Race and Mormonism. Margaret Blair Young has written extensively on Blacks in the western USA and particilarly Black Latter-day Saints.  Much of her work has been co-authored with Darius Gray.  She authored I Am Jane.

The first staged reading of I Am Jane was on the Nelke theater stage at BYU.  It was the climax of a playwriting class, and met some deserved criticism.  It was, as I recall, about 120 pages.  Too many words.  The first draft I wrote used a clichéd convention: rebellious teenager dreams about/ learns about/ re-enacts the life of a heroic ancestor and gains self-respect and courage.  But such a play is more about the teen than the character whose life I wanted to explore.  And I was researching it even as I was scripting the play.

After I had chiseled away at the script, I thought it ready for its debut, which happened on March 5th, 2000.  The play was that month?s Genesis meeting.  There was no stage, so we threw a blanket over a trellis to suggest a covered wagon, used the sacrament table for Jane?s death bed, and the clerk?s table for other scenes.

I knew there was more sculpting to do, and revised several times before our performances in Springville?s Villa Theater.  During that two-week run, I played Lucy Mack Smith, who let Jane handle a bundle purportedly containing the Urim and Thummin. (This is according to Jane?s life story, which she dictated near the end of her life.)

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One Family? Race and Mormonism in John Turner’s “Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet”

By November 17, 2012

Today I?m flying west, from Boston to Chicago, for the American Academy of Religion?s annual conference. Depending on how the plane banks west, we might fly directly over Lowell, Massachusetts, the onetime home of Walker Lewis, a black Mormon whom Brigham Young once described as ?one of the [Mormons?] best Elders, an African.?

The timing of this indirect mention of the black Mormon convert?Spring of 1847?is important. Young and most of the leaders of the Latter-day Saints in exile and exodus?passing the winter of 1846-47 in Winter Quarters?were debating the place of black men, or at least a black man, in their community. William McCary, the ?Nigger Prophet,? as some of the Mormons leaders called him, was causing quite a stir in camp.

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Mormons and Politics at Columbia

By February 4, 2012

On the fifteenth floor in a Columbia University building overlooking a majestic New York City skyline, some of the most well known scholars of Mormonism (–and me–) gathered to present papers on the role of Mormonism and American politics during this so-called ?Mormon Moment.? Professors and students from Columbia and other NYC-area universities, a handful of LDS missionaries (including a JIer?s parents!) and reps from local and international news outlets, braved unreliable elevators to bring the large lecture hall to capacity on both days of the conference.

According to co-organizer, Jana Riess, Columbia?s Institute for Religion, Culture & Public Life had hoped to hold such an event for years. And with Romney?s train to the nomination in Tampa back on track?CNN just flashed that Romney won the Nevada Caucuses by twenty-three points?timing could not have been better. Dr. Riess, her co-organizer and former doctoral advisor, Randall Balmer, as well as the Institute?s staff, deserve heaps of praise for a smoothly run and stimulating event, the fruits of which will most certainly be enjoyed throughout this election season and beyond.

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Mormonism as hierarchical and democratic–requesting help with sources!

By September 13, 2010

In preparation for a dissertation prospectus on race in Mormon history, I’m working on a project that takes a look at a particular late-nineteenth century relief society. I’m hoping to study how members of this society access and practice power. My understanding of Mormonism’s power structures (and by “power structures” I intend both ecclesiastical power structures and more theoretical, Foucault-inspired understanding of the term) is that power is distributed mostly vertically (through the hierarchy) but also horizontally (through the “universal” priesthood). Thus, put overly simply there exists a tension (even a dialectic) between Mormonism as a democratic organization and a hierarchical one. A perfect example of this is the ritual sustaining of the new Church president, with each successive rung of the church hierarchy rising to stand as a symbol of their support for his elevation (from the Quorum of the Twelve all the way down to the entire Church community). Yes, ostensibly each member has a say but each vote is not equal.

This is obviously complicated for a women who do not have direct access to the power of the priesthood. My understanding so far of this particular relief society (and something that is common–at least this non-Mormon thinks it is–throughout Mormonism) is that these women derive their relative political standing in the women’s community through their husbands’  relative standing within the hierarchy (i.e. it’s easier for a bishop’s wife to become a local rs president). This precedent of course is set at the top with Emma Hale Smith being the first RS president and Eliza R. Snow, then Zina D. H. Young etc.

My questions for the JI community are:

1. Am I right about the Relief Society, that the wives of high ranking men have an easier time being set apart for leadership office? (This isn’t a uniquely Mormon thing of course…Hillary Clinton’s elevation was at least facilitated by her husband’s place in the White House). I’m more curious if you all know of this being true in the nineteenth century than more recently, and if so if you could point me to some research on this.

2. And more importantly, do we know of any good sources that take up this idea of the Church existing as both a hierarchy and democracy (Has anyone taken up the question of “sustaining” votes for the leadership at General Conference or in local communities as an example of practicing “democracy”? )? Any good theoretical work on Mormonism’s hierarchy in general?

Any thoughts would help!

Mormons and Mosques, and now Harry Reid

By August 17, 2010

After hearing this morning that Harry Reid has now entered into this vitriolic debate about the right to build a mosque (or the responsibility not to do so) where shadows of the Twin Towers once fell, my curiosity about how Mormons, both scholars and non, feel about this controversy, has bubbled over onto the virtual pages of JI.

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