By October 2, 2019
An excerpt from an interview with Christopher Blythe, a Research Associate at BYU’s Maxwell Institute working on a book about the cultural history of Book of Mormon geography. Blythe received his PhD in American Religious History in 2015 and has worked on the Joseph Smith Papers. He is also the associate editor for the Journal of Mormon History. For the full interview, head over to Kurt Manwaring’s site, From the Desk.
How did your understanding of Joseph Smith change during your time as a documentary editor for the Joseph Smith Papers?
My thoughts on Joseph Smith as a prophet and visionary are much the same as they have been from when I first read Joseph Fielding Smith’s Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith and Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon Cook’s Words of Joseph Smith as a teenager. I’m enthralled and moved by Joseph’s vision for mankind and his theology of the divine.
As a documentary editor for the Joseph Smith Papers, I became acquainted with Joseph not only as a prophetic figure but as a political leader and businessman as well.
I was surprised to learn just how involved he was in real estate, local politics, and business. This can be disorienting for someone who is only aware of Joseph Smith’s prophetic ministry, but, for Joseph, this was all wrapped up in his vision of building the Kingdom of God on earth.
What are a few of the most pressing issues in American Religious History today?
I think matters of race have moved to the center of conversations on religious studies in the United States. There is also extensive work being done on the role of scripture in American churches, what is termed “scripturalization” – how texts or ideas become sacralized within a community. Since the 1990s, and at the center of my own research, is an ongoing effort to bring out the lived experience of ordinary believers. Religious intolerance remains a crucial discussion in American religious history as well. Increasingly we have Latter-day Saint scholars and Latter-day Saint subjects integrated into these wider studies, whether it be race, scripture, or religious prejudice.
What are two or three breathtaking documents you have personally handled in the Church History Library archives?
As a historian on the Joseph Smith Papers, we would check typescripts against the original manuscript, so I have had the opportunity to work with many documents that were handled by Joseph Smith and other early church leaders. I have a special place in my heart for a little booklet from 1840 that Wilford Woodruff used to record Joseph Smith’s teachings. He included revelations that weren’t yet canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants and in a few instances, notes about more private interactions with the prophet. The document was re-discovered in the past several years in the Church’s holdings and was made available digitally about two years ago. It includes esoteric beliefs—speculative ideas—that Joseph would never discuss publicly, but which he felt comfortable discussing with his closest friends.
By September 24, 2019
Kurt Manwaring published an interview with Richard Bennett at his site, From the Desk, discussing Bennett’s most recent book Temples Rising: A Heritage of Sacrifice (2019, Deseret Book).
By July 31, 2019
Military chaplains are tasked with leading worship, teaching the faithful, and burying the dead, among other things. In her book, Ronit Stahl lays out a broad narrative that argues that the military chaplaincy was responsible for much more than the souls of soldiers; chaplains may have a distinct mandate of spiritual care, but the chaplaincy itself was involved in a much bigger project: that of reflecting and shaping modern American responses to religious pluralism, issues of race and gender, and the separation of church and state. As America changed and the hegemony of Protestantism waned, the chaplaincy underwent changes too. In eight chapters and an epilogue, Stahl demonstrates the shift in demographics and public life that took the chaplaincy from a generically Protestant institution to a tri-faith model accommodating Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, to the situation today where 221 faiths are recognized in one form or another.
By January 29, 2019
On January 18, Matt B. posted a review of Harvard Heath’s book Confidence Amid Change: The Presidential Diaries of David O. McKay, 1951-1970. Kurt Manwaring has published an interview with Heath over on his site, From the Desk. An excerpt is posted below; click over to From the Desk to read the rest!
What is the most breathtaking manuscript you have personally handled at the Harold B. Lee Library at BYU?
There have been literally hundreds. If I had to select just one collection, it would probably be manuscripts from the Whitney collection containing some of the original revelations of Joseph Smith.
What is the backstory for how “Confidence Amid Change” came to be and what has been the availability history of the diaries?
The McKay diaries have a long history with me. They were, among many collections, restricted for research at the Church Archives in the early 1970s. We had sought through channels to receive access as part of the BYU centennial project research but were denied. Through some serendipitous circumstances, conditions changed and access was approved. During this period, the “Age of Camelot” was dawning and the assumption was that others would see them during this new era. I went through the diaries quickly looking for BYU related material, assuming I would come back at a later date and give them closer scrutiny. That day never came as the “Ice Age” set in at the Church Archives thereafter.
My interest in them never waned but prospects looked hopeless until a set of fortuitous circumstances occurred with Greg Prince’s administrative history of President David O. McKay. He had been given access to a copy of the diaries by the nephew of Clare Middlemiss, the late Wm. Robert Wright. They combined to publish David O. McKay and The Rise of Modern Mormonism. I was allowed to use them for my project and later, working with Greg Thompson of the University of Utah Special Collections, persuaded the Wrights to donate the diaries and other papers to the University of Utah to augment their current McKay holdings. They are currently available for research there.
By January 24, 2019
At the beginning of chapter 9 of her book Sister Saints, Colleen McDannell incorporates a particular quote by Aileen H. Clyde. Clyde was a counselor in the Relief Society General Presidency when the Proclamation on the Family was released. As McDannell explains, the Proclamation was presented as a fait accompli to Clyde, her fellow counselor Chieko Okazaki, and President Elaine L. Jack. Their input was not sought, despite the gendered subject matter and the arguably important role Mormon women play in shaping Mormon families. In a 2011 interview, Clyde characterized women’s domains within the church as a “playpen,” saying, “[male leaders] don’t care what we do over here in our playpen as long as we stay in our playpen and are good to each other” (qtd. in McDannell 154).
This was a telling quote, and an unusually candid one, that highlighted the infantilization of women in the LDS Church. Much has written about power structures in the LDS Church, men’s and women’s spheres, the hierarchy inherent in a male priesthood, and the like. McDannell adds to this academic discourse with an in-depth discussion of the Proclamation on the Family. As McDannell writes, the Proclamation on the Family has an almost canonical status in LDS culture. It reflects and drives Mormon discourse about gender and sexuality and helps define what a divinely ordained family looks like. It can be found framed in so many Mormon homes and its ubiquity is a material marker of Mormonism as real as garments or visible adherence to the Word of Wisdom.
A strength of this chapter is the care McDannell takes to flesh out the role that a binary, dualistic, and essentalist idea of gender plays in Mormonism. She contrasts that with the ideas found in conservative and fundamentalist Protestantism, pointing out that Latter-day Saint ideas about gender largely align with those found in the ideology of complementarianism in conservative Christianity. However, where complementarians speak of ‘headship,’ of a fundamental and God-given “asymmetry in power relationships in the home” in which wives submit to their husbands, Latter-day Saints consider Mormon men and women to be ‘equal partners’ at home (160). McDannell is right to point out this difference, as it has real effects, both on a theological level and a practical level. Latter-day Saint gender relations, then, are their own thing and can’t be mapped neatly onto those of other groups.
McDannell organizes her discussion of the Proclamation around the idea of a “theology of silence.” That is, the Proclamation displays “ambiguity, restraint, and brevity” (155) and “speaks louder in what it does not say than what it does” (165, italics original). The Proclamation doesn’t contain anti-gay rhetoric, rather, it celebrates the heterosexual family. More than that, McDannell argues that the silence extends to the gendering of men and women themselves: “[h]ow a father presides and a mother nurtures is not laid out” (165). This is particularly noteworthy given the “elaborate, and typically conservative, reflections of prominent church leaders” such as Boyd K. Packer and others who reach back to an imagined and nostalgic American past.
There is a lot going on in this chapter that deserves further thought, but today I want to briefly touch on this idea of a theology of silence, of the institutional forgetting of the rhetoric that came before. McDannell is right that this leaves room for (heterosexual) families to define for themselves what it means to nurture or to provide, for example. This also explains how the Proclamation can resonate with all kinds of (again, heterosexual) families and be found proudly displayed in the homes of stay at home moms as well as career-driven women. However, I would argue that while absent in the Proclamation, these messages and the larger discourse surrounding gender roles in the church is present in so many other avenues that members know how to read it into the text—particularly in the American church and even more so in the ‘Book of Mormon belt.’ Ultimately, the messages do not have to be spoken in this specific text for them to be heard. That the Proclamation speaks of ‘equal partners,’ yet fathers are to ‘preside,’ is telling language which speaks volumes here, and I would have liked to see that dissonant note teased out a little more.
The Proclamation on the Family allows for diversity to exist: as McDannell writes, “It did not encourage […] multiplicity, but it did recognize—via its theology of silence—the complexity of Mormon lives” (170). I would argue that it’s significant that this is not affirmation, but tolerance. The theology of silence in the Proclamation allows diversity in families to exist in that space (or perhaps, better said, does not deny or condemn the existence of diversity), but I would again argue that this same silence is drowned out by official discourse. Towards the end of the chapter, McDannell writes that the Proclamation paved the way for other institutional efforts to celebrate diversity, like the Meet the Mormons movie or the larger I’m a Mormon ad campaign. This is a very apt characterization, as the careful watcher of the 2014 movie will see diversity in skin color, nationality, and circumstances, yes, but also notice that this is a diversity very narrowly defined and very carefully curated. In that sense, I am interested in seeing what happens when a younger generation—increasingly comfortable with and affirming of LGBTQ people, for example—comes of age. Will the Proclamation continue to resonate so powerfully with members—will a theology of silence be enough?
By September 5, 2018
Kurt Manwaring published an interview with friend-of-the-blog Barbara Jones Brown about her work as Mormon History Association’s Executive Director at his blog, From the Desk. I can’t wait to see where Barbara takes MHA in her tenure as ED!
By August 30, 2018
Over the past nine weeks, we have made our way through Jared Farmer’s On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape (Harvard UP, 2008). In On Zion’s Mount, as we have learned, Farmer discusses the way Native and Mormon groups imagined and reimagined the geographical spaces among which they lived. Today we discuss chapter nine, “Performing a Remembered Past”; next week, watch this space for Jared Farmer’s response to our efforts here.
(Previous posts in the series: introduction; chapter one, chapter two, chapter three, chapter four, chapter five, chapter six, chapter seven, chapter eight.)
By June 6, 2018
MHA is one of my favorite conferences. People are friendly and approachable, there are always a wide variety of panels, and it’s a great place to catch up on what’s happening in Mormon Studies. That said, MHA is also a very Mormon space. Here are four tips for getting through MHA with your Gentile-ness intact.
By April 17, 2018
I’d like to draw your attention to two recent interviews that may be of interest to Mormon history enthusiasts. Kurt Manwaring interviewed Patrick Mason, Howard H. Hunter chair of the Mormon Studies program at Claremont Graduate University–it’s worth reading for Mason’s thoughts on what Mormon Studies is, what Mormons don’t necessary talk about (but should!), and the question Mason would ask Ezra Taft Benson if he could! (It begs the question: if you could ask a historical figure one question, who would it be and what would you want to know?)
Then, Kurt also interviewed Sara Martin, editor of the John Adams Papers, who talks about her work, archives and technology, Abigail Adams–and the Joseph Smith papers project. Head here to find out more.
By February 27, 2018
Friend of the blog Kurt Manwaring has published an interview with the historians Matt Grow and Eric Smith about their work on the Council of Fifty minutes. The interview in its entirety can be found here; selected snippets are published below. Enjoy, then hop on over to read all ten questions!