Community of Christ Historians (Part Two)

By May 9, 2009

This post continues a typology of Community of Christ historians currently working in the field. Continuing with the Biblical theme, this post considers historians running in different directions?the Jonahs running away from the tradition and the Pauls who have had their road to Damascus experience and changed allegiances.
The Jonahs: Disillusioned Prophets

 These historians have typically been members born into the movement but have become burned out on the CofC for personal and professional reasons. Their scholarship on CofC history typically wanes with their inactivity, though, like the prophet in the Old Testament, they may end up doing more work even as they run away. Robert Bruce Flanders, author of the pathbreaking 1965 Nauvoo: Kingdom on the Mississippi left the movement in the 1970s and stopped publishing in the area of Mormon history until recently (2001 and beyond) giving some retrospective articles and talks about his journey as a scholar. Roger Launius has been the most visible national Community of Christ historian, and by far the most productive. He is also the best current representative of a ?disillusioned historian.? The number of articles and books he has written is staggering?and in fields as diverse as Mormon history, space history (his day job as curator of the National Air and Space Museum), and baseball history. Launius was once called affectionately by Louis Midgley as ?the only real historian the RLDS have.? (Gotta love Midgley!) While working on his PhD at LSU, Launius directed the RLDS summer guide program in Kirtland and was a guide at both Nauvoo and Kirtland as a student himself. Launius wrote the standard work on Joseph Smith III, co-edited two books on Nauvoo (Kingdom on the Mississippi Revisited and Cultures in Conflict: A Documentary History of the Mormon War in Illinois), and a volume on Mormon dissenters, all of which I regularly use in teaching or scholarship. Launius displays an RLDS tendency to be far more critical of Joseph Smith, Jr. than many LDS authors, and he has no bones about showing the disastrous, nightmarish side of Nauvoo. Some LDS scholars that I know think he even strikes an anti-Mormon tone in his Cultures in Conflict. Personally, I see Launius?s tone as simply arising from a different set of faith presuppositions and commitments. It is totally fine for a CofC scholar to pitch all Nauvoo theology out the door without blinking while it would be disastrous for an active LDS scholar who must ultimately walk very carefully around some very controversial practices (for instance, see Bushman?s treatment of polygamy in Rough Stone Rolling). As I have read Launius, though, I am convinced that he has tried to fit in a bit of redemption in the Nauvoo story through his narration of Joseph Smith III?s life. In Launius?s rendering, Joseph III is a person that any Community of Christ member can be proud of as a prophet. If there is a general late twentieth-century CofC historiographical approach to early Latter Day Saint church history, it is a story of blessing in Kirtland, followed by confusion and disaster in late Kirtland and Missouri, finished by doctrinal confusion and corruption in Nauvoo. The restoration of the movement to a fuller Christianity happens in the man of Joseph Smith III. (Yup?I know what that sounds like to LDS folks.) After the mid 1990s, Launius himself became a critic of general direction of the CofC?s programs (see his 1996 article ?The Reorganized Church, the Decade of Decision, and the Abeliene Paradox? in Dialogue ) and largely became inactive. His work in Mormon history has largely abated as he has moved on to other subjects. Personally, I wish he would return! I love reading his stuff. Perhaps those of us living in Nineveh will hear his voice again.

Pauls, not Sauls: Converts to the Tradition

 Another group of CofC historians are those who are converts to the movement. Many are former LDS members (some are returned missionaries). These scholars usually carry with them a strong grounding in ?classical? Restoration history themes (Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, etc.), and may venture into territory that few ?natural-born? CofC historians would be interested in (such as Western history or Orson Pratt?s scientific musings). (Sorry, but that stuff does not get me up in the morning!) Convert scholars include Steven Shields (author of Divergent Paths of the Restoration), Seth Bryant (a newly accepted PhD student at Vanderbilt), and the French scholar, Chrystal Vanel (PhD student in religious studies at the Sorbonne). There is a group of admirers who are practically CofC (they may even attend CofC congregations on more than a casual basis), but I don?t think it is appropriate for me to call them out if they have not publicly identified as such. (Imagine the rumors that could be spread?a kind of reverse Mormon urban legend of who is a ?member of the church.?) A relatively unnoticed, but important Community of Christ scholar is Graham St. John Stott, chair of the Department of Modern Language at the Arab American University, Jenin in the West Bank. An LDS convert in England and a BYU PhD in English and American literature, he converted to the CofC in 1978 as he finished his dissertation. For most of his career, he has worked at universities or in corporations located in North Africa or the Middle East. Stott has published, in my opinion, some of the most innovative and creative work on the Book of Mormon of any current scholar anywhere. His little noted “The Seer Stone Controversy: Writing the Book of Mormon,” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 19, no. 3 (1986): 36-53, is a fantastic account of how we can conceptualize the act of creating the Book of Mormon. Those interested in perusing his work should see his latest essay, ?Sacred Spaces, Imagined Geographies, Invisible Cities? in the latest Restoration Studies X. In this essay, Stott asks what good is it to have a sacred space like the Book of Mormon?s Land of Bountiful when we cannot identify an actual physical place to it. His answer is that imagined spaces can be just as powerful as physical ones (the two are, obviously, related). The reader of a text like the Book of Mormon, is invited to “build” Bountiful–a place where Jesus visits–in their present world, opening up the possibility for personal transformation by aid of a text. Okay?so there was a lot more to his argument than this. He is certainly not a light-weight scholar. Stott is currently working on a book on ?how the theology of the Book of Mormon would most probably have been understood in 1830,? according to his bio blurb in Restoration Studies. Personally, I can?t wait to see it.

In these posts, I have highlighted a few CofC scholars doing some significant work in the field of Mormon history that may or may not be familiar with many of you. Who do you think are some equivalent LDS scholars working in the field that are often overlooked at the moment?

On a different note, I have been really curious lately (okay, meaning I checked out one book) on how professional communities shape the values of their members and how this might be a factor in explaining some of the changes that occurred in the late twentieth-century Community of Christ (and LDS church for that matter). How does who we see as our peers shape what we write about? How does it affect our church activity rates and the chages we seek within our churches? Okay, so those are huge, untheorized, imprecise questions. Have a go at anything here.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. David,

    Thanks for the write-up. This is a very enlightening way of positioning CofChrist historians and has given me much to think about.

    It’s too bad we Mormon historians don’t pay more attention to the fabulous work the historians across the Mormon aisle provide. I can’t imagine what the field of Mormon studies would be like without Flanders, Launius, Romig, Howard, and Russell, but there is so much more if one would dig deeper. I certainly look forward to the continued work from these folks and I’m excited to see that there is a capable generation of CofChrist historians following in their footsteps.

    Comment by Robin Jensen — May 9, 2009 @ 10:52 pm

  2. I talked with Graham a while at EMSA last year (he gave a very interesting paper on the Book of Mormon) and he mentioned that he was unsure where he could get his book on the Book of Mormon published. He felt that he’d have a hard time selling it to an LDS audience. Does ability to publish due to audience size affect CofC scholars and if so is that a frustration?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 10, 2009 @ 9:40 am

  3. #2–Steve,
    Yes, it is somewhat frustrating. I have read an awesome 1995 dissertation by a CofC cultural geographer, Richard Waugh, on changing CofC concepts of Zion (from JS, Jr. to the present), but it has never been published. I suspect that its subject matter had something to do with it. (Of course, not all good dissertations are published.) John Whitmer Books has helped widen the publishing venues for CofC scholars lately, but it is still a fairly new press. Few libraries would have their books. Still, if CofC scholars can somehow tie our subject to some wider Mormon context, we have a possibility for publishing where books or articles on similarly sized denominations would not have such an opportunity.

    Comment by David Howlett — May 10, 2009 @ 2:31 pm

  4. Does anyone have a PDF of St. John Stott’s Mosiac essay? I’d be interested to read it. Thanks for this series of posts.

    Comment by smb — May 10, 2009 @ 8:56 pm

  5. #4 SMB–I had to get it through interlibrary loan since my library did not have it. Unfortunately, I have misplaced my copy and can not get my hands on it.

    Comment by David Howlett — May 11, 2009 @ 3:35 pm

  6. Fascinating post. I’d never heard of my fellow Englishman Graham St. John Stott. As an agnostic for many years (who remains a member of the LDS Church largely because, for all its faults, I still love my Church)I am interested in the question of how ‘open’ CofC members can be about their ‘disbelief’. I suspect it is not easy, even these days, but I wouldn’t mind betting it is a lot less problematic to be agnostic, and even to openly express doubt within the cultural context of the CofC than is the case within LDS culture.

    Over the years, I’ve attended a few RLDS services (prior to the name change) in the UK and in Australia and found the members to be very hospitable and thoughtful. My first visit to an RLDS congregation was in Enfield, London circa 1975. In stark contrast to the LDS branch in southern England I had been been baptized into, most of those in attendance (about thiry hardy souls)were lifelong members. I admired their loyalty to their faith (at that time it seemed clear to me that most of those in attendance were still’true believers’ in the Reorganized version of the restoration, particularly the elderly members).

    Thanks again David, for your efforts here. I have a B.A. in Religion and History from a reasonably well-regarded university which helps explain my continuing interest in the CofC.

    Comment by Jonathan M. — May 12, 2009 @ 9:50 am

  7. BTW, a little-known fact (at least I think I’m correct here) is that membership of the RLDS Church in Australia (where I’ve lived for many years) reached one thousand persons approximately twelve years before the LDS Church achieved that milestone.

    Comment by Jonathan M. — May 12, 2009 @ 10:08 am

  8. David,

    These two posts on CofC historians have really been interesting to read. Thanks for contributing them here.

    I do have one question that falls just outside the scope of this essay. How invested are other Restorationist groups in their history? Are there any current graduate students or professional historians, for example, from the Restoration Branches? What about the Strangites, Bickertonites, etc?

    Comment by Christopher — May 12, 2009 @ 10:20 am

  9. And please forgive my use of the “-ites” labels to identify those groups. I, of course, do not mean it pejoratively at all.

    Comment by Christopher — May 12, 2009 @ 10:21 am

  10. smb and David,

    Since our library here has an amazing collection of periodicals, I decided to check to see if we had a hard copy of the Mosaic article–we do. I also checked our library’s electronic holdings and the article is available online in the Periodicals Content Index. If your schools don’t subscribe to these databases, just write an email to someone here at JI that they can forward to me, and I will download a pdf copy and send it to you.

    Comment by Joel — May 12, 2009 @ 12:21 pm

  11. #6–Jonathan M.–Yes, people with serious doubts find it somewhat easier to be in the movement. There is, of course, great variation among CofC members. Some are close to being Baptist fundamentalists and some are practicing Unitarians. Most are somewhere in the middle–centrist Christians with some social justice proclivities. Australia and England still have mainly life-long members who go back several generations, but immigration is beginning to change the face of the CofC in both places to a limited extent. Personally, I would love to do some research on “diasporic” international CofC congregations, like in Switzerland or Canada, made up of Haitian members. So many research subjects, so little time.

    Comment by David Howlett — May 12, 2009 @ 3:26 pm

  12. #8 Chris–Yes, I am aware of one professionally trained historian, Ben Madison, in the Restoration Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. I know very little about this group other than they are small and were one of the groups that emerged after the mid-1980s split in the RLDS church. Ben Madison has a master’s in history from Marquette and has written some excellent articles that have appeared in the JWHA Journal on the RLDS church in East Germany and Poland during the Cold War. Beyond Ben, I do not know of any historians who have masters level or above training. There are plenty of high school history teachers, though, in any group.

    Comment by David Howlett — May 12, 2009 @ 3:31 pm

  13. #8–Oh, there is Bill Shepherd in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Strang) who, though not possessing a graduate degree in history, certainly has made important contributions to the field of Mormon history on succession issues and apostles who did not go West, etc.

    Comment by David Howlett — May 12, 2009 @ 3:33 pm

  14. Joel #10,

    I would love a pdf copy. My email address is rbssman “at” gmail “dot” com.


    I concur about Bill Shepherd. He is a very good historian with excellent research skills. His work on the Hodge brothers is a great example.

    Comment by Joe Geisner — May 13, 2009 @ 1:21 pm

  15. Christopher — I’m actually here in Voree, Wisconsin, spending a week interviewing the Strangites and pouring through their rich archives. It’s been absolutely incredible. They have a deep Mormon tradition of record-keeping and thus their records are mountainous. But these are primarily chronicles. We have events, conference minutes, periodicals, diaries, letters, corporate records/tithing records, etc. But it’s definitely vernacular history. They haven’t had any members with college and graduate training in history yet. They’re still awaiting that. But when that person emerges, they will be heir to a treasure trove.

    Meanwhile, as Dave & Joe point out, they’ve been blessed with a wonderful self-trained researchers like Bill Shepard. Even though Bill has focused primarily on early church history, he’s done wonders organizing the church’s archives and library for the benefit of future researchers.

    Beyond Bill, the Strangites in general have a deep interest in their history. As focused as people accuse LDS Mormons of being on history, the Strangites are all that and moreso. They know their stuff. You can have endless discussions with the folks here. I’m really looking forward to church this Saturday.

    Comment by John Hamer — May 15, 2009 @ 12:10 am

  16. David, Joe, and John,

    Thank you each for your answers. I actually thought of Bill Shepherd right after I posted my comment. I agree with you all about his abilities and contributions as a historian.

    David, thanks for the heads up on Ben Madison.

    John, I’ve heard from others similar reports of the Strangites’ archives. I also gathered from visiting their website their deep investment in their history. On a random side note, do they prefer the monicker “Strangite”? If so, are they the only Latter Day Saint group that positively self-identifies with an “-ite” nickname?

    Comment by Christopher — May 15, 2009 @ 1:26 am

  17. Great posts, David. I would just add that Ben Madison is now with the Remnant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, unless there has been a recent change.

    Comment by Jason R. Smith — May 25, 2009 @ 10:01 pm

  18. On a random side note, do they prefer the monicker ?Strangite?? If so, are they the only Latter Day Saint group that positively self-identifies with an ?-ite? nickname?

    Christopher, it has been experience that many groups do not mind the -ite designation – it adds a distinction from the history and teachings of the “Brighamite” church. I’m thinking especially of the Church of Christ (Temple Lot) a/k/a Hedrickites, the Church of Jesus Christ (Cutlerite), and the Church of Jesus Christ (Monongahela, PA) a/k/a Bickertonites. Other groups do mind the added moniker, however.


    Comment by Jason R. Smith — May 25, 2009 @ 10:13 pm

  19. Thanks, Jason. That’s helpful.

    Comment by Christopher — May 26, 2009 @ 1:01 am

  20. All the Strangites consistently and unconsciously use the word Mormon to refer to themselves and their religion. They also use all the “-ite” designations, including referring to themselves as Strangites for clarity. Brighamite is a word regularly used by regular members of the Strangite church — i.e., it’s not just for scholars of schism.

    Comment by John Hamer — May 26, 2009 @ 7:46 am

  21. Thanks John.

    Comment by Christopher — May 26, 2009 @ 9:56 am

  22. Excellent discussion thread, guys (using the term advisedly, I see). I think that Paul Edwards and Bill Russell have been elements of inclusiveness in the RLDS/Community of Christ tradition, beginning in the 1960s and carrying forward. Paul’s interest was primarily theological /philosophical, and I think there just wasn’t enough of a base to support a sustained interest, especially when the Community of Christ emphasis was morphing so rapidly. Also, he basically stopped participating in terms of papers/articles after he retired. Bill has kept going strong, however, and has focused his efforts on topics with a strong historical component. He’ll be presenting at Sunstone in SLC this summer on his schism research and the manuscript is also supposed to be ready for editing(wahoo!) this summer. Then he’s planning to pick up his Lund research again.

    Comment by Lavina Fielding Anderson — May 26, 2009 @ 3:39 pm

  23. Hello David,

    Thanks for the article.

    You write : “Personally, I would love to do some research on ?diasporic? international CofC congregations, like in Switzerland or Canada, made up of Haitian members”

    Me too !!! I’m doing research on the RLDS/CofC in Haiti. That include Haitians diaspora in Europe and Canada… Hope to publish it.

    Comment by Chrystal Vanel — May 31, 2009 @ 9:54 am


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