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Scholarly Inquiry

Scholarly Inquiry: Dan Belnap on Ritual, Pt. 2

By July 10, 2014


The stirring conclusion of our conversation with Dan Belnap on ritual in Mormon Studies. For those new to the conversation, refer to Part 1.

One of the challenges faced by theorists of practice and ritual is defining precisely what these categories are and what they encompass. Do you have any opinions on the scope of Mormon ritual studies or, for that matter, on the boundaries of Mormon liturgy?

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Scholarly Inquiry: Dan Belnap on Ritual, Pt. 1

By July 3, 2014


This post belongs to our occasional “Scholarly Inquiry” series which facilitates conversations with important scholars in Mormon history and studies. Today we reprise our focus on religious practice and ritual from a few months ago and hear from Dan Belnap, professor in the Department of Ancient Scripture at BYU. Belnap, who has a particular interest in ritual in both ancient and contemporary contexts, is the editor of a book entitled By Our Rites of Worship: Latter-day Saint Views on Ritual in History, Scripture, and Practice, and published by the Religious Studies Center at BYU and Deseret Book last year. (And it features, one must add, a stellar chapter from our very own J. Stapley on the development of Mormon ritual!) We appreciate Professor Belnap’s responses and invite your thoughtful engagement. Also, stay tuned for Part 2.

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Scholarly Q&A on the Succession: Christine and Christopher Blythe

By September 9, 2013


(The following is a give-and-take with Christopher and Christine Blythe, graduate students in American religious history who specialize in the many divergent forms of Mormonism. Christopher attends Florida State University, where he is nearing completion of his PhD, and Christine recently started a master’s program at Memorial University of Newfoundland. A couple weeks ago, I highlighted two of their recent articles; today, they answer a few questions presented to them by the JI cabal. The Blythes have a documentary history of the succession period due to be published by Kofford Books next year.)

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Scholarly Inquiry: A Q&A with John Fea

By September 3, 2013


We’re thrilled to present the following Q&A with historian John Fea. Dr. Fea is Associate Professor of History and  Chair of the History Department at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. He is the author and editor of several books, including The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2011), and Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation (University of Notre Dame Press, 2010), which he co-edited with Jay Green and Eric Miller. His latest book, Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past (Baker Academic, 2013) is scheduled to be released in two weeks. Dr. Fea is currently at work on two book projects—a religious history of the American Revolution and one on history and memory in the town of Greenwich, NJ. In addition to his scholarly output, John is a prodigious blogger, a tireless traveler and dynamic speaker (check out that list—chances are he’ll be in your general neck of the woods at some point), Bruce Springsteen devotee, avid sports fan, and 2010 inductee to the Montville High School (NJ) Hall of Fame. By nearly all accounts, he is also an incredibly nice guy.

Please join us in welcoming Dr. Fea!

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Troubling the AHA’s Embargo Waters

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.

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Scholarly Inquiry: Spencer Fluhman answers your questions

By October 15, 2012


J. Spencer Fluhman is assistant professor of History at Brigham Young University. He graduated summa cum laude from BYU with a degree in Near Eastern Studies (1998) and attended graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he was awarded a MA (2000) and PhD (2006) in History. He is the author of the recently-released A Peculiar People: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America (University of North Carolina Press, 2012), and the editor (with Andrew H. Hedges and Alonzo L. Gaskill) of  The Doctrine & Covenants: Revelations in Context (Religious Studies Center, BYU, and Deseret Book, 2008). He also guest edited (with Steven Harper and Jed Woodworth) the , ?Mormonism in Cultural Context.? Dr. Fluhman is also a dynamic lecturer and popular teacher at BYU. He personally mentored several of the bloggers at Juvenile Instructor, and remains a close friend and trusted mentor to the current generation of Mormon graduate students. Below he answers your questions about his recent book, broader researcher, and Mormon history more generally.

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Scholarly Inquiry: Jared Farmer

By September 21, 2012


We recently invited Jared Farmer, associate professor of history at Stony Brook University and author of On Zion’s Mount, to answer some questions about his latest project, Mormons in the Media, 1830-2012.

What was the genesis of this (e-book) project? Did it start as a casual interest that only later became a serious project? Was it an outgrowth of teaching?

All of the above. The past couple of years I spent a lot of time creating a personal archive of historic images for use in my lecture courses. In the process I got quite good at finding images online–using familiar search engines (e.g., Google Images, Flickr), as well as some obscure sites, and many educational databases that are inaccessible to non-academics because of paywalls. This past spring, once Romney cinched the GOP nomination, I decided it would be worthwhile–and fun–to put my image-finding skills to public use. What began as a diversion from my book manuscript (Trees in Paradise: A California History, due out next year) became a minor obsession; what was supposed to be a little online illustrated essay on portrayals of Mormon facial hair became Mormons in the Media. I ended up spending far more time than I budgeted, and I used up my professorial tithing on eBay buying LDS ephemera.

What led you to publish electronically rather than in a more traditional format?

Three reasons: 1) I wanted to get it out in time for the election season; and e-publishing, whatever else you may think of it, has a fast turnaround. 2) I wanted to reach a non-academic audience, including journalists. 3) It would be a violation of copyright law to commercially publish most of the twentieth-century material, and it would be a nightmare to track down permissions for print publication (and prohibitively expensive to pay use fees).

In the preface, you indicate that you will consider outsider-generated images of Mormons, as well as images promoted by Latter-day Saints themselves. To what extent were these coherent categories?

Today, Mormons are much more in control of their image than a century ago. There were, of course, Mormon painters, illustrators, and photographers in the pioneer period, but most of their work was created for home consumption, and there were precious few Latter-day Saints in positions of media power outside of Utah. For heuristic purposes, I would propose this rough periodization of Mormon image-making in the U.S. public sphere: 1) From Joseph Smith, Jr., to Joseph F. Smith, when outsiders largely defined the (overwhelmingly negative) visual image of Mormons. 2) From Joseph F. Smith to David O. McKay, when the LDS Church reacted defensively to continued anti-Mormon visual stereotypes, including cinematic images, and set up a rudimentary PR program. 3) From President McKay and the television until President Hinckley and the Internet, when the brethren in Salt Lake presided over a permanent, professionalized, proactive PR program. 4) The current era, dominated by the Web, in which images generated by Mormons, ex-Mormons, non-Mormons, and anti-Mormons swirl together, often making reference to one another; and in which lay members at their internet-connected devices do as much work as the expanded corps of media relations officers in the Church Office Building to shape the image of Mormons and Mormonism (sometimes at the invitation of the brethren, sometimes to their chagrin).

Who do you envision using this collection (the media? teachers? students? scholars?) and how?

I’m hoping that during the election season, my e-book will find its way into the hand” slaps” of many journalists assigned to the Romney beat and/or the religion beat. Although there are many new and noteworthy LDS-themed books out there–Joanna Brooks, Matthew Bowman, Spencer Fluhman, and John Turner being the most prominent authors–I think my work fills a niche: it’s illustrated, it’s in color, and it’s free.

At some point after the election, I plan to take down the website, and work on a final, revised version of Mormons in the Media that includes events up to Election Day. I also want to obtain higher-resolution scans of some of the older material. Next year I plan to create a personal website where I will permanently host the revised e-book.

Speaking of revisions: I rushed this out in time for the GOP convention. When I go back for a new round of editing, I anticipate that I will find more than a few errors and typos. If any of your readers spot mistakes, they should let me know. I also welcome ideas for additions.

After this “Mormon Moment” ends (I can sense the impending fatigue), my e-book will primarily be useful as a resource for undergraduate courses on U.S. western history and U.S. religious history. I would be delighted if professors devised primary source assignments around the collection, or simply projected some of the images in their lecture halls.

Also, perhaps a few graduate students and independent scholars will find seeds of research projects in this collection;or  “image dump,” if you want to be critical. For this audience–including readers of the Juvenile Instructor–I wanted to provide a fresh (if admittedly rough) update to the classic (but now dated and out-of-date) The Mormon Graphic Image, 1834-1914 by Bunker and Bitton.

It’s a bit puzzling, given the current prominence of media studies and mass communication studies in academia, that scholars haven’t done more with LDS visual and material cultures as manifestations of American pop culture. For Mormon cultural apologetics, you can consult Terryl Givens’s excellent People of Paradox, but that’s not exactly what I’m looking for. I’m unmoved by the perennial question, “Where are the great Mormon artists?” (I think the answer remains “nowhere”–though I have a soft spot for Minerva Teichert). More fertile questions might include: Thinking historically and sociologically, what is the function of the “Mormon middlebrow”–the aesthetic behind almost all LDS art, architecture, and visual culture? What explains its endurance? What is the historical relationship between Joseph Smith’s fantastic religious imagination and the uninspired realism of twentieth-century visual imaginings of the pre-life, the afterlife, and the Book of Mormon? Why does the interior decoration of contemporary Mormon temples so closely resemble the faux-aristocratic styling on display in the steroidal mansions of the nouveau riche? How would one write the history of Mormon fashion?including outerwear, garments, and hair? What is the relationship of Latter-day Saints, past and present, to images of religious violence? How do anti-Mormon visual portrayals of temple violence relate to the much older anti-Semitic iconographic tradition of blood libel? And so on.

Your readers probably don’t need this advice, but I’ll give it anyway: For umpteen images of seldom-seen Mormoniana with expert historical commentary, you must follow Ardis Parshall at Keepapitchinin. Her blog is a box of treasures.

Do you see yourself, in part, as a “Mormon historian,” given that you wrote your first two books on Utah/Mormon-related topics and have now issued this e-book on Mormons in the media? Do you have future plans to write on Mormons/Mormonism?

Actually, I’ve never considered myself a Mormon historian. I wear two main hats: environmental historian and historian of the American West. As a subset of the latter, I proudly think of myself as a historian of Utah (and will be contributing the first chapter to a forthcoming textbook on that subject). My discomfort with the label “Mormon historian” is not primarily political. It’s more about being aware of my limitations as a scholar. I have expertise in the peoples and landscapes of Utah, the Great Basin, and the Colorado Plateau. But when it comes to the history of Mormonism, there is such a high standard of scholarship! When I compare myself to the leading researchers in the field, past and present, I can really only claim to be an expert on Mormonism of the 1850s, and perhaps Mormon-Indian relations across the nineteenth century. My command of Church history is competent but hardly extraordinary.

Because I am an insider-outsider (in contradistinction to Jan Shipps, an outsider-insider), I enjoy a sideways view of Mormonism. Because I know enough–but not too much–about LDS history, I probably see certain things and make certain connections more easily than most insiders and outsiders. I enjoy being an interloper.

In addition to my two main fields (environmental, western), I aspire to be a cultural critic with a broad purview, including religion. For example, I recently wrote an essay on yoga for Reviews in American History. Earlier I wrote a review of The Book of Mormon (the musical) for Religion Dispatches. Mormons in the Media falls in this category of cultural criticism.

After the upcoming revision of my e-book, I don’t anticipate doing another Mormon (or even western) project in the foreseeable future. My next couple of book projects will take me toward the global history of science and technology. But who knows: maybe someday, in my “senior years” as a scholar, I’ll come back home, as they say.


Scholarly Inquiry: Spencer Fluhman takes your questions

By September 3, 2012


Scholarly Inquiry is an ongoing series at the Juvenile Instructor. It aims to introduce recent scholarship in Mormon studies to a wider audience and to involve a larger community of scholars in attempts to situate the Mormon experience in wider contexts and new and innovative ways. Visiting scholars will include both Mormons and those from other faith traditions, as well as historians of Mormonism and those whose primary research interests focus on other subjects. Previous participants include Mark Ashhurst-McGee (here and here), Mark Staker (here and here), Stephen Taysom (here and here), Patrick Mason (here and here), and Paul Gutjahr (here and here). 

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Scholarly Inquiry: Paul Gutjahr Answers Your Questions

By May 25, 2012


Paul Gutjahr is professor of English at Indiana University. His book The Book of Mormon: A Biography was recently published by Princeton University Press. See an excerpt here, the table of contents and prologue here, and the first chapter here. In the hustle and bustle of the semester, I neglected getting your questions to Dr. Gutjahr until this week, but fortunately for us he provided these excellent responses quite promptly. We at the JI would like to thank Dr. Gutjahr for taking the time to participate in this series. Note: Grant Hardy provided these thoughts on the book and you can see Blair’s review here

Q. While your research interests seemingly lend themselves to this project particularly well, I?m interested in hearing more about the genesis of this book. What motivated you to write it? What, if anything, did you find especially interesting and/or surprising? What other potential research projects dealing with the Book of Mormon do you see as promising/important?

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Scholarly Inquiry: Soliciting Questions for Paul Gutjahr, Author of The Book of Mormon: A Biography

By March 5, 2012


Paul Gutjahr, professor of English at Indiana University, Bloomington has a new book forthcoming in about a month with Princeton University Press. The book is The Book of Mormon: A Biography. See an excerpt here, the table of contents and prologue here, and the first chapter here.

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