By March 19, 2018
As Joan Scott said, “Those who would codify the meaning of words fight a losing battle, for words, like the ideas and things they are meant to signify, have a history.”  Jonathan Stapley’s important new book, Power of Godliness: Mormon Liturgy and Cosmology explores the history of priesthood, one of Mormonism’s most fractious and fertile ideas, a word that contains worlds of complex meaning and diversity of lived practice about sacred authority and divine power. His work does so primarily by cleaving elements of Mormon priesthood into two general categories, which have too often become conflated in contemporary Mormon discourse and history: cosmology and ecclesiology . Both deserve closer examination if we are to understand just what makes this book so significant and refreshing.
By December 4, 2017
Once again, this is my attempt to recap the historiography of Mormonism from the past twelve months. This is the eighth such post, and previous installments are found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. I do not list every single book and article from 2016, but I do highlight those I found most interesting and relevant. Therefore, a strong bias is obviously involved, so I hope you’ll add more in the comments.
The Instant Classic
Readers of this blog should already be familiar with Ulrich’s new book. (And hopefully everyone has already read our summer book club devoted to the masterpiece.) If you’re interested in my take, my review is found in Dialogue. In short: it’s perhaps the most significant book in Mormon studies since Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling, and perhaps surpasses even that. Make sure to read the roundtable devoted to Ulrich in the most recent issue of Mormon Studies Review; and while you’re there, make sure to subscribe to the field’s best review journal.
By May 25, 2016
Taysom is presently working on a biography of Joseph F. Smith, to be published with the University of Utah Press. He’s graciously agreed to an interview.
Your previous book was a theoretical study of boundary maintenance among nineteenth century Mormons and Shakers. What led you to next write a biography of Joseph F. Smith?
By January 6, 2016
A few weeks ago I highlighted the year of 2015 in Mormon historiography. But I’m not here to talk about the past. In this post, I highlight a number of books I’m especially excited to see published in 2016. This list is not comprehensive—it’s nigh impossible to keep track of everything in the Mormon publishing world—but I hope it captures a taste of what we have in store over the next twelve months.
Even beyond this next year, there is still a lot more to be excited about. Kathleen Flake’s book on gender, power, and Mormon polygamy and Laurel Ulrich’s book on polygamous women’s diaries are certainly going to shake the field, but they are not quite ready for release. (Word is Ulrich’s book is in the pipeline for a year from now, though, and should arrive by AHA 2017). And we all know the works-in-progress by stars like Spencer Fluhman, Quincy Newell, Steve Taysom, and others that we eagerly anticipate. But I think we have enough here to satiate our appetite.
Without further ado…
By March 26, 2015
In 1991, the iconoclastic historian Jon Butler brought forth one of the greatest of his many “historiographical heresies.” Well known for being an ardent revisionist, Butler had called the previous year in his important book Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (1990) for narratives that paid more attention to the enduring and even escalating power of religious institutions in nineteenth-century America. Institutional power, he suggested, had been unduly marginalized in the pursuit of other interests. In 1991, however, Butler took this logic all the way and proposed an entirely new model for American religious history, one that was sure to astound many of his colleagues. In the heyday of the new scholarship on American evangelicalism and during the very apotheosis of Nathan Hatch’s Democratization of American Christianity, Butler insisted that—of all groups—Roman Catholics could serve as a productive baseline for American religious history. Catholicism in America, he argued, more than the hurly burly of American evangelicalism, could help historians account for hidden aspects of the religious past. 
By October 8, 2013
Kenneth L. Alford, ed. Civil War Saints. Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center (BYU), 2012. xxxiii + 569 pp. Hardcover $31.99. ISBN 978-0-8425-2816-0.
I have contributed here a thorough and lengthy discussion of this book; if you would like just the highlights, please read my first and last paragraphs below. –NRR
As America continues its commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, it is fitting that at least one new book should come out examining the connections between Latter-day Saints and the war. Kenneth Alford aims in this edited volume to update and add to the small body of literature surrounding Mormons, the Utah Territory, and the Civil War. While he falls short of creating a one-volume comprehensive treatment of the subject, he and his co-contributors have explored important, previously-uncharted territory that make this book an important addition to any Mormon or Civil War History enthusiast’s library.
By July 26, 2013
There’s a naval and mercantile metaphor in there somewhere, even if my post title doesn’t quite capture it. This is a short post just to call attention to the squall on today’s horizon about open access, digital dissertation publishing, and the tough choices facing history grad students navigating the internet’s rough seas. A perfunctory glance at my Twitter feed this morning shows that although the AHA issued a policy statement way back on the 22nd against timely open access digital publication of dissertations, today was the day it surfaced big-time. Breached the waters, you might say. It’s perhaps a tempest in a disciplinary teapot, but still: young scholars, best to take note.
By April 17, 2013
Desperate times (the expected dearth of posts at the end of the semester) call for desperate measures (narcissistically posting about our own scholarship).
Parley Pratt, whose theology was as rugged as his looks.
In summer 2009, I participated in the Mormon Scholars Summer Seminar, that year led by Terryl Givens and Matt Grow, where I had the opportunity to study the writings of the Pratt brothers. While my seminar paper was on Parley Pratt’s theology of embodiment, which soon evolved into a larger article on early Mormon theologies of embodiment in general, the topic with which I became particularly transfixed was how Joseph Smith’s teachings were adapted and appropriated during the first few years after his death. At first, I was interested in the very parochial nature of the issue—the specifics of theological development, who said what and when, and what ideas were forgotten, emphasized, or even created anew. But I then became even more interested in broader questions: how were Smith’s ideas interpreted in the first place within a specific cultural environment, and how did Smith’s successors utilize that environment when molding their own theology? And further, what does that process tell us about the development of religious traditions in general, and the progression of religion in antebellum America in particular?
By April 4, 2013
The Mormon Women’s History Initiative Team (here) is pleased to announce an Evening with the Editors and Authors of Women of Faith in the Latter Days, Volume 2, on Tuesday, April 9, 2013, at 7:00 p.m., at the 10th Ward Building in Salt Lake City.
Please join us for a thoughtful discussion of Mormon women’s biography, featuring editors Brittany Chapman and Rick Turley, a few featured authors of the biographies (to be announced), a brief program, refreshments, and opportunities to meet, mingle, and purchase books. For an excellent review of Women of Faith, Volume 2, see Tona’s post here, and for a discussion of the complications of using biography in Mormon women’s history, you may reread Janiece’s excellent post here.
Also, look for biographies in Volume 2 by J.I.’s own Jenny R. and Andrea R-M. Come and celebrate this excellent series!
Hope to see you there.
By October 22, 2012
In March of this year, the newly rebranded BYU Studies Quarterly published an article I wrote entitled “Mormonism in the Methodist Marketplace: James Covel and the Historical Background of Doctrine and Covenants 39–40.” The article, which began as a short and poorly-written blog post here at JI a few years earlier, represented the culmination of a year in the archives pouring through manuscript sources and rolls and rolls of microfilmed newspapers and church records from three different Methodist churches (assisted by the indefatigable staff at the United Methodist Archives and History Center in Madison, New Jersey), piecing together the life and preaching career of a man I initially knew next to nothing about. It also represented the culmination—or so I thought at the time—of my research on connections between Methodism and early Mormonism. I’d moved on to what I imagined at the time as an entirely unrelated project: my dissertation, which examines the growth and development of Methodism in North America and the Caribbean from 1760 to 1815.
By July 16, 2012
The last few years have been a coronation of sorts for Richard Bushman–and rightfully so. After a prolific and prestigious career, the American Historical Association devoted a session to his work, the Mormon History Association distinguished him with their Leonard Arrington Award, and a group of former students held a conference in his honor. (I wrote my reflections of the conference here.) The most recent issue of Journal of Mormon History includes many of the papers presented at that last conference, including several JIers. I just finished the entire issue last weekend, and concluded it was probably the strongest JMH issue in years, as nearly every article was at an exceptionally high level of academic standards.
(It should be noted, however, that the issue as a whole was strong in a few very, very narrow fields: Joseph Smith’s thought, Mormonism and political thought, and historical thought in general. See a pattern? Now this is primarily the result of the participants’ building off of Richard Bushman’s own work–a commemorative issue in honor of Jill Derr would probably look much different, for instance–so the lack of engagement with the 20th century, material culture, lived religion, or, gasp, women’s history can, at least partially, be overlooked. But since these themes tend to dominate Mormon history in general, I maintain the “partially” qualifier.)
By May 29, 2012
Mormonism has a complicated relationship with Protestantism. It also has a complicated relationship with the United States of America. If Mitt Romney’s impending nomination as the Republican candidate for President has done nothing else, it has reinforced in my mind that complexity. It was with sincere appreciation, then, that I read Ben Park’s timely article in the latest issue of Dialogue. No, Ben’s essay does not address Mitt Romney. But it does examine Mormonism’s historical relationship with both the American nation and its Protestant establishment.
By May 23, 2012
Anyone familiar with fellow JIer Christopher Jones knows two things: 1) he’s brilliant, and 2) he knows early Mormonism’s connection with Methodism as well as, if not better than, anyone else doing Mormon history. His dissertation, “‘We Latter-day Saints are Methodists’: The Influence on Methodism on Early Mormon Religiosity” is a wonderful introduction to the topic, and can be accessed here. He turned one of his dissertation chapters into an insightful article that was published last year in Journal of Mormon History on Joseph Smith’s First Vision and its relation to Methodist conversion narratives. (JMH subscribers can access it here.) He’s also mused on the relationship at a recent conference. Thus, if you have any question concerning the historic relationship between these two religious movements, he’s the guy to ask.
By May 1, 2012
If you are a fan of the combustible blend of religion and politics that has played a large role in American history, then today is your Christmas. Religion & Politics, an online journal run by the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, was launched this morning with a plethora of fascinating and sophisticated content. General information about the journal can be found here, and you can see that it boasts an impressive and wide-ranging staff and board. Our own Max Mueller serves as the associate editor, so we at JI like to claim a personal connection with the project.
By April 30, 2012
In the most recent issue of Journal of Mormon History, JI friend Rachel Cope put together a wonderful roundtable titled, “New Ways In: Writing Interdisciplinary Mormon History” (JMH 38, no. 2 [Spring 2012]: 99-144). “The writing of Mormon history,” she opined, “has undergone a series of transitions” (99). The most recent transition has been taking place in the past decade or so, as new interdisciplinary approaches have been introduced into the field of Mormon studies. The prior transition, what is typically called New Mormon History and whose shoulders we all stand upon, brought the academic study of Mormonism to new levels and will always deserve deep appreciation. But it was also, for the most part, dominated by the tools common during the New Social History that swept the historical profession in the 1960s and 1970s (when most New Mormon History practitioners experienced graduate training). While such an approach will remain critical to the field, new complimentary avenues are now being invoked, especially from the growing–if still nascent–field of religious studies. This roundtable, Cope explains, hopes to highlight more questions and possibilities by “asking several young scholars to explain how their particular disciplinary lens enriches approaches to and the evolution of Mormon historiography” (100). As with all thought-provoking and cutting-edge roundtables, this series brought a familiar feeling: conviction. I felt convicted in overlooking important questions and ashamed that I often maintain problematic and dated views of history, as I’ll explain below. But in that conviction, I am also enthused to thoroughly repent and correct my ways.
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.
By July 6, 2011
There has been a lot of books and articles on the First Vision. But the recent article by our own Steve Taysom, which appeared in the newest issue of Sunstone, may be the first that references Mircea Eliade, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Stephen King. Indeed, Steve’s article is a fresh perspective in a debate that grows old quickly, and he demonstrates how theory—and, more generally, tools borrowed from the interdisciplinary nature of religious studies—can give us important insights on traditional narratives. Part of Sunstone’s “Mapping Mormon Issues” series, where they sponsor a researcher to examine and explain controversial aspects in Mormon history, “Approaching the First Vision Saga” attempts to do three things: first, detail the famous accounts and circumstances surrounding Smith’s 1820 theophany; second, outline how past historians, scholars, and amateurs have approached the topic; and third, hint to what a possibly more insightful framework might be.
By February 13, 2011
Hitting shelves this April is this long-awaited collection of essays edited by Paul Reeve and Michael S. Van Wagenen and which features the work of two JIers: Matt and Stan. The book’s webpage states that,
Mormons gave distinctive meanings to supernatural legends and events, but their narratives incorporated motifs found in many cultures. Many such historical legends and beliefs found adherents down to the present. This collection employs folklore to illuminate the cultural and religious history of a people.
By January 27, 2011
MHA put up its quarterly newspaper this week, and there are a few items worth noting.
By January 18, 2011
Jacob Baker and I discovered the Latter Day Church of Jesus Christ while Bushman summer fellows in 2007. We spent a lot of time kicking back and forth analysis of this most interesting schism group, and organized an MHA panel around them in 2008. And, today, the turgid pace of academic publishing has finally reached consummation, and the paper I wrote that summer has been published in the current issue of Nova Religio 14:3 (February 2011) 42-63.
The Latter Day Church is fascinating in part because of how skillfully Matthew Philip Gill engages in prophetic mimesis, replicating the experiences and language of Joseph Smith to create himself as Smith’s heir, calling to repentance the failed church of Salt Lake City and promising a re-invigorated version of Mormon spirituality – one which both invokes Joseph Smith’s charisma anew, but which also rewrites the sacred history of Mormonism in ways that follow the cultural accommodations the LDS church has made. Gill’s movement is neither sectarian – which seeks to heighten tension with Western culture – nor a church movement – one which seeks to lessen that tension. Rather, scholars like Armand Mauss and Thomas O’Dea have observed that the LDS Church itself seems to combine both of these impulses, oscillating back and forth along a spectrum of resistance, tension, and accommodation. Just so, the Latter Day Church of Christ itself seeks to heighten both resistance and accommodation – rejecting, for instance, evidence that Joseph Smith ever practiced polygamy and embracing whole-heartedly the LDS church’s sentimental emphasis upon the family, but also heightening the sort of radical spiritual claims which have become routinized in American Mormonism. Gill, after all, has had visionary experiences of all the figures Joseph Smith claimed to have encountered, adding a resurrected Joseph himself into the bargain. As his father (and first counselor) asks derisively of the LDS Church, “We have again an era of prophets. Proper prophets. Not people who are just put into position and over time get to be a prophet . . . Where’s the revelation in that?” And such is a new church born.