State of the Discipline

Thoughts on MHA: Mormon History, Succeeding Generations of Scholars, and the Need to Move Forward Together

By June 16, 2014

At the Mormon History Association’s meetings two weeks ago (was it only two weeks ago?!), I attended several excellent sessions and roundtables. Each of the sessions I attended was worth the price of the conference registration; it was my favorite MHA I’ve attended. As usual, meals, hall conversations, and the student reception provided an excellent arena for sharing ideas about the research being presented, but also about the new developments in Mormon history and American religious history.

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Mormon Studies in the Classroom: Patrick Mason, “Approaches to Mormonism”

By April 25, 2014

Another contributor in our Mormon Studies in the Classroom series, Patrick Mason is the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University.

mason?Approaches to Mormonism? is designed as a historiographical introduction to Mormonism and the field of Mormon studies (with a strong Mormon history component).  This is a graduate seminar for MA and PhD students that I have taught twice at Claremont Graduate University.  When I last taught it in Fall 2013 the seminar had about a dozen students, with a mix of LDS and non-LDS backgrounds.

Here is how I describe the course in the syllabus:  ?This course will introduce students to representative approaches used by scholars in the academic (non-polemical, non-apologetic) study of Mormonism. . . .  Students will read exemplary works representing various disciplinary and methodological approaches to the study of Mormonism, and in the process will be encouraged to consider ways that Mormon studies has been shaped by, and can potentially shape, other established academic fields and disciplines.  This course asks questions such as whether there exists a Mormon studies canon, where the gaps and blind spots are in the extant literature, and what the future of Mormon studies might hold?not to mention whether we can speak intelligibly about something called ?Mormon studies.??

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Building a Bibliography: The History of Mormon Practice

By March 7, 2014

Today’s the day here at JI when, in keeping with our theme this month, we compile a listing of scholarship on the history of Mormon practice. This is intended to be a collaboration, so we hope you’ll jump in and contribute. The list below ought to get us going, but many studies have surely been overlooked, and the categories are arbitrary, so additions and reconfigurations are more than welcome. What works and categories are we missing? What glaring lacunae do you see in the field? What piques your interest? What trends can you identify? How much praise can we heap upon the superstars here? Share your thoughts and insights as we build a comprehensive bibliography.

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The Mormon Experience in Perspective: A New Series from the U of U Press

By December 16, 2013

From the University of Utah Press:

University of Utah Press would like to announce a new series:

 The Mormon Experience in Perspective

The University of Utah Press is pleased to announce a new series in Mormon studies edited by Robert A. Goldberg and W. Paul Reeve. This series situates Mormonism?its culture, institutions, and people?in a broad perspective that reflects the views of religious studies, history, literature, theology, politics, and other disciplines. Titles published in this series will facilitate and enhance the scholarly exploration of the Mormon experience in ways that enrich our understanding of the role religion plays in shaping the human condition.

Robert A. Goldberg, as the director of the Tanner Humanities Center, organized and led the Mormon Studies initiative at the University of Utah, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America; Back to the Soil: The Jewish Farmers of Clarion, Utah, and Their World (University of Utah Press, 2011); Barry Goldwater; and other books. His courses at the University of Utah include one in American Social Movements.

W. Paul Reeve?s current book project, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness, is under contract at Oxford University Press. He is the author of Making Space on the Western Frontier: Mormons, Miners, and Southern Paiutes and coeditor of Mormonism: A Historical Encyclopedia. He teaches courses on Utah history, Mormon history, and the history of the U.S. West at University of Utah.

The University of Utah has been a center for scholarship in Mormon culture, religion, and history since its founding as the University of Deseret in 1850. The University of Utah Press has been contributing to this work by disseminating relevant scholarship for more than sixty years. Manuscript monographs in The Mormon Experience in Perspective series are eligible for competition inthe Press?s Juanita Brooks

Prize in Mormon Studies, a $10,000 biennial book publication prize.

Previewing 2014: Looking Ahead to Forthcoming Books in Mormon History

By December 10, 2013

Last week I highlighted noteworthy books and articles in Mormon history from 2013. But today, I’m not here to talk about the past. Continuing a tradition from last year, this post highlights forthcoming scholarship slated to appear in 2014.

This is not a comprehensive overview; for that, we can only hope that Jared T. continues his prestigious and exhaustive series at his blog. (I will include a link to his post if/when it shows up.) These are merely those works that I’m personally excited for, which obviously reflects my own interests. I encourage you to share your own additions in the comments below. And just like any year, some of these volumes may slip out of 2014 and appear the following year; but at least they are nearing arrival.

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The Re-Convergence of Mormon and Indian History

By November 7, 2013

This installment of the JI’s Mormons and Natives month comes from Matthew Garrett, associate professor of history at Bakersfield College in California. He received his Ph.D. in American History from Arizona State University in 2010. He is currently revising for publication his dissertation, “Mormons, Indians, and Lamanites: The Indian Student Placement Program, 1947-2000,”  which should prove to be the definitive history of the ISPP.

When David G. approached me to contribute to this month’s theme, I initially thought the notion of a “Mormons and Natives” field of study seemed a bit odd. I never viewed the two fields with much connectivity, other than a few mid-century works about Jacob Hamblin or Chief Wakara. As I sat down to draft out the separate evolutions of the two fields, the task proved far more complicated than expected, and the only way I could think to articulate it was to take the reader on a semi-biographical journey that follows my own intellectual awakening. I trust that the Juvenile Instructor’s readers will tolerate a little self-indulgence as I relate the divergence and re-convergence of Mormon and Indian history.

My interest in history blossomed on my LDS mission and during undergraduate studies at BYU as I read about pioneers and western heroes such as Porter Rockwell. Like most history buffs, I looked to explorers and battles more than indigenous cultures but I did not understand that my approach mirrored Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis. In 1893, Turner’s nationalistic narrative identified waves of civilizing conquest that ended in 1890 with the settlement of the region by whites. Though essentially silent on Native Americans and Mormons, this foundation served as the methodological origin of Western American history that eventually spawned those sub-fields.

By the mid-twentieth century, Turnerarian history had gained an impressive following of amateur and professional historians interested largely in nineteenth-century topics: mountain men, pioneers, and cowboys and Indians. A new wave of neo-Turnerians gradually focused on individual people and communities, as well as environmental topics; those individual case studies fragmented the monolithic and ethnocentric national narrative.[1] In 1961, the Western History Association organized and soon after began publishing the Western Historical Quarterly (WHQ). Professionally trained Western American historians proliferated over the following decades and other organizations spun off to create even more specific associations, such as the American Society for Ethnohistory (1966) and the Mormon History Association (1965).

Professionally trained scholars including Leonard Arrington, Davis Bitton, and Alfred Bush organized the MHA and laid the groundwork for the New Mormon history; their concern with critical questions and historical inquiry strengthened a field formerly characterized by faith building authors such as B.H. Roberts. Still, they cooperated closely with the Church and the larger Western history field, most evident by Arrington’s service as Church historian, president of the MHA, and president of the WHA.

By the 1970s, recent cultural shifts era had ushered in new academic interests. The New Western History fused social history with environmental history, and eventually redirected the field into twentieth-century topics and oft-ignored ethnic voices. Popular author Dee Brown drew attention to the overlooked victims of longstanding conquest-oriented history in his moving text, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970). Meanwhile, trained scholars including Arrell M. Gibson, Angie Debo, Tom Hagan and others paved the way for a new generation of scholars who inaugurated the New Indian History. This ethnographic approach stressed Native perspectives and tackled tribal histories and other Indian topics across time, including the long overlooked twentieth century. In 1972, the Newberry Library created the D’Arcy McNickle Center as academic institutions opened Native American studies programs and interdisciplinary journals, such as American Indian Culture and Research (1971+), American Indian Quarterly (1974+), and Wicazo Sa Review (1985+). Emerging young scholars fit neatly within the ranks of the equally progressive New Western History.

My introduction to the New Indian history came during graduate studies at the University of Nebraska where faculty mentors pointed me to a new world of Indian driven narratives that explored Native voices and perspectives. Still, I moved forward on an unimpressive thesis exploring colonial Kickapoo foreign policy from European records. The final product resembled an awkward and incomplete transition from the neo-Turnerarian framework that still structured my thoughts. I had come a long way from Turner’s omission of Native Americans, and went to the extent of a minor in anthropology that included four semesters of a Native language, but I still struggled to fully represent indigenous perspectives when dealing with a colonial era population that left no written record of their own.

After completing my degree at UNL, I enrolled in doctoral study at Arizona State to work with two leading figures in the New Indian history. One of the first students I met was two years ahead of me in the program. She was studying under another professor who advocated a radical new approach to Native American history: decolonization theory. I was uninitiated and probably in a bit over my head when this fellow graduate student took it upon herself to expose my inadequacies. She aggressively questioned me, particularly on twentieth-century Indian history where my readings were admittedly the weakest, and then she explained that a white man such as I had no business studying Indian history. In retrospect, she probably assumed my unfamiliarity with decolonization equated to an endorsement of ethnocentric Turnerian history. Nevertheless, her overt racism surprised me because it ran so contrary to my expectations of an open-minded academy. That was my first introduction to decolonization studies, and I would not be honest if I did not confess how much it tainted my view of those who practice that methodology.

In theory, decolonization is an interdisciplinary and deconstructionist approach to reveal the mechanisms of colonization and indigenous resistance by use of overlooked Native voices.[2] In practice, the exclusionary methodology often endows Native voices with extraordinary authority while dismissing traditional sources and scholarship as hopelessly corrupted by ethnocentrism. During the 1990s, many senior historians rejected decolonization-based scholarship in tenure evaluations, manuscript submissions, and conference presentations. The conflict came to a head when decolonization advocates publicly challenged senior scholars Patricia Limerick and Richard White at an academic conference, who then responded with critical roundtables, editorials, and even a T-shirt campaign.[3]

Over the past two decades, dejected decolonization activists turned to non-scholarly presses and produced new interdisciplinary journals to publish their work and assert themselves the authoritative voice.[4] Their following expanded and in 2007 a small group launched the Native Americans and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA). One year later at the annual WHA meeting, Dave Edmunds directed his presidential address to departing scholars. He offered clear examples of the association’s commitment to Indian history but also stood his ground as he criticized “some Native academics [who] have urged that scholarship conform to a new orthodoxy defined through the rhetoric of post-colonialism.” He continued, “We do not need a new cadre of self-appointed “gate keepers.’”[5] NAISA and the WHA continue to hold separate conferences each year attracting a very different type of scholar to each.

My feeling is that decolonization has much to offer. It brings long needed attention to Native perspectives through interdisciplinary inquiry and introduces post modern study of power structures. However, it cannot be permitted to eject non-native voices or impose a simplistic oppressor-resistor relationship on every historical interaction. While it may often apply, few theories have universal application.

These debates have gone largely unnoticed in Mormon studies because the New Mormon history’s attention to critical revision of longstanding nineteenth century topics like the early Church and polygamy, leaving little consideration for Native Americans in the modern era. Juanita Brooks well represented the sharp analysis of the New Mormon history as she addressed Indians, but even her pioneering work remained largely in the nineteenth century and focused on Mormons more than Native cultures they impacted. It lacked the ethnographic nature of New Indian history and certainly the Native voices championed by decolonization theory. Essentially, Mormon scholarship on Indians remains heavily neo-Turnerarian, while Indian scholarship moved through the New Indian history and now faces a challenge from decolonization.[6]

Despite an increasingly common interdisciplinary inclination among Mormon and Indian history scholars, they speak a different language depending upon their point of origin. While practitioners of the New Mormon history are no strangers to difficult questions, I suspect they will be disturbed by the tenor of decolonization advocates. Like any revisionist movement, it brings valuable new criticisms that can be taken to an extreme at the expense of the past.

In the coming years the LDS church’s twentieth-century Indian policy will surely serve as the battle ground between the new Mormon history and decolonization theory. Indeed, the 2013 meeting of the MHA featured what I believe was the association’s first overtly decolonization-driven interpretation of Mormon-Indian relations. My research tries to preempt much of this debate on what is sure to emerge as one of the focal points: the Indian Student Placement Program. This voluntary foster care program for Native American youths operated between 1947 and 2000. While many Latter-day Saints viewed it as a benevolent opportunity to educate deprived Indians, outsiders criticized Placement as simply another assimilation program. Tensions mounted in the 1970s and though external pressures subsided by the 1980s the correlation movement continued to erode the program until the Church prohibited the enrollment of any new students after 1992.

My approach to this topic is to examine the institutional rise of the program, building on the work of Michael Quinn and Armand Mauss but balanced with ethnographic focus on student experiences. Their thoughts are recorded in over one hundred interviews and other sources. While many participants surely resisted colonizing pressures, a great many others internalized the imposed Lamanite identity as their own. Placement students left reservations and spent years immersed among Mormon host families; they attended schools, church activities, and a barrage of Lamanite-specific activities including dances, leadership conferences, and cultural extravaganzas that promoted a hybrid identity. These students’ experiences demand a more nuanced approach than the sloppy imposition of a binary model of aggressive colonizers and resisting colonizees.

As the fields of Mormon and Native history/studies re-converge, interested readers must carefully evaluate scholarship to ensure the narrative is indeed an honest reflection of the past and not an intellectual exercise in bending it to meet theoretical expectations. Long ago the New Mormon history and Western history threw off their allegiances to a single ideological narrative, and to adopt yet another would constitute a methodological step backward. Decolonization theory does have a role to play and we should follow its council to incorporate marginalized voices; however, it cannot be the singularly authoritative approach that its advocates demand. There must be space for alternative forms of analysis and no singular approach can be complete. The greatest strength of the New Mormon history and especially Mormon studies is its aspiration to achieve intellectual independence, and I hope that characteristic remains the dominant attribute among those who study Mormons and Natives.


[1] Richard White, “Western history,” The New American History, Revised and Expanded Edition, ed. Eric Foner (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997), 205; Donald Worster, “New West, True West: Interpreting the Region’s History,” Western Historical Quarterly, vol 18 (April, 1987), 141-156. For an example of early environmental work see Walter Prescott Webb, The Great Plains (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1931).

[2] Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (New York: Zed Books, 2005), 3, 20. See also Angela Wilson and Michael Yellow Bird, For Indigenous Eyes Only: a Decolonization Handbook (Santa Fe: School of American Research, 2005); Devon Mihesuah, Natives and Academics: researching and writing about American Indians (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998); Devon Mihesuah and Angela Wilson, Indigenizing the academy: transforming scholarship and empowering communities (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004).

[3] William T. Hagan, “The New Indian History,” in Rethinking American Indian History, ed. Don Fixcio (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997), 30.

[4] The last ten years has also given rise to open source and other low tier interdisciplinary journals, such as: Canadian Journal of Native Studies (launched in 1981); AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples (2005); Te Kahoroa (2008); Rethinking Decolonization (2008); International Journal of Critical Indigenous Studies (2008); Indigenous Policy Journal (2009); Journal of Indigenous Research (2011); Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society (2012).

[5] R. David Edmunds, “Blazing New Trails or Burning Bridges: Native American History Comes of Age,” Western Historical Quarterly, vol. 39:1 (Spring 2008), 14.

[6] For example, over the past year, twentieth century topics constituted only 13% of Journal of Mormon History and 70% of Western Historical Quarterly articles. Likewise, ethnically marginalized individuals or groups were directly addressed in only 9% of JMH articles but in 64% of WHQ pieces. Of course, the JMH is by nature an ethnically specific journal so a broad survey of other ethnic groups is understandably beyond its mission. Nevertheless, their different foci are evident.

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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Gaining Credibility Within Mormon Studies

By December 6, 2012

This past weekend I read through Armand Mauss’s recent (and excellent) memoir, Shifting Borders and a Tattered Passport: Intellectual Journals of a Mormon Academic (SLC: UofU Press, 2012). There is lots to digest in it, and it should inspire several posts/discussions, but one thing stood out to me in the chapter that gave an overview of his career. I had no idea Mauss had such a circuitous route in academia before landing at Washington State University for three decades: he began as a high school teacher, moved on to a community college, and eventally landed university positions, first at Utah State University (where he somehow negotiated an Associate Professor position before finishing his dissertation!) and then at WSU in 1969, all the while working many odd jobs to support his family of eight children and finishing his schooling at night. Once at WSU, his career blossomed with many publications and increased respect.

It wasn’t until the 1980s, though, that he decided to turn his attention to Mormon studies. His dissertation dealt with Mormonism and race, though he had put that topic aside during his first decade plus as a faculty member. It wasn’t until he had “earned his dues” (his words) as a scholar and member of the sociology department, singling out his ability to bring in state and federal money for his academic projects, that he could do work on Mormonism full-time (26). Only then could he take the skills and talent he gained in other fields and use them to analyze his own faith tradition.

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Previewing 2013: A Look Forward to Exciting Books in Mormon History

By December 4, 2012

Yesterday I highlighted books and articles from the last year. But 2012 is nearly history now, so let’s look forward to the next year. What you’ll find below are the books I am most excited to appear in 2013 (or very early in 2014).

This list in no way attempts to be comprehensive. (For that, let’s all hope Jared T continues his legacy of fantastic and exhaustive “Recently Released and Forthcoming Books in Mormon History” at his new site.) Rather, this post just captures a number of titles I am really excited about–make sure to add to the list in the comments. And as is unfortunately common in the publishing world, there is a chance some of these titles may slip into the next calendar year, but at least we know they are not too far off.

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