Envisioning a Robert Orsi for Mormon Studies

By November 28, 2016

madonnaThis past semester I taught both an undergraduate course and a graduate seminar in American Religious History. These types of courses are great for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that they give you an excuse to read books you’ve indefensibly managed to avoid up to this point. This was especially the case for me, given my ignorance of twentieth century history. Most prominently, I’ve been, for a long time, embarrassed to admit that I haven’t read Robert Orsi‘s books. It was far past time to rectify that problem, so I assigned his Madonna of 115th Street for my undergrad class and Thank You, Saint Jude for my grad seminar. Both were phenomenal: not only did they spark discussion with my students, but I was amazed at the new methodological possibilities presented in his work. They lived up to their reputation. I may not be a scholar of lived religion, but I can certainly see its merits. 

But reading and discussing the books raised a question in my mind: could there be a Robert Orsi for Mormon studies? Or, put another way, could there be a history of Mormonism written in the style of Orsi’s books on Catholicism? There are a few reasons why I hope for the possibility.

(Note: this is far from the first time JI is engaging Orsi’s work. Christopher Jones reviewed Madonna of the 115th Street seven years ago, which turned into an excellent essay in the Mormon Review. Christopher also overviewed a discussion between Orsi and Richard Bushman that took place in Dialogue, and I summarized Steve Taysom’s responding article. Like I said: I’m late to the party.)

First, I’ll give a criminally brief overview of the books and their merits for those who haven’t read them. (But seriously: repent and overcome that sin by reading them over Christmas break. Then come back and comment on this post and tell me I’m right.) Madonna of 115th Street covers a fifty-year history of the Italian Catholic community in Progressive-era Manhattan. Focused around their annual worship rituals (called feste), Orsi traces the tensions between family, community, generations, and inter-cultural clashes. (The Irish dominated the Catholic scene, and the Italians, whose beliefs and practices were substantially different, were often marginalized.) How do immigrant communities fresh in a new land both adapt to the modern world while maintaining some sense of tradition and stability? In Thank You, St. Jude, Orsi moves westward in geography (Chicago) and forward in chronology (post-World War II-era). In one chapel—ironically, in a heavily Hispanic community—European Catholic immigrants found a hero in Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes. Catholic women especially turned to Jude as a sounding board and reflection of their deepest concerns: depression, poverty, sickness, war, you name it. What role does such a pious act play in a modern, enlightened, and Protestant nation? In both books, Orsi focuses on the common worshippers through methodologies of lived religion—a craft that he helped perfect.

judeWhat elements can be transferred into the world of Mormon studies? What would a Robert Orsi look like at MHA?

One of the best parts about Orsi’s books is that they disrupt our traditionally Protestant trajectories of American religious history. Catholicism became America’s largest denomination around 1850, yet the dominance of Protestantism in our national imagination has shaped how we frame concepts like liberty, family, community, and worship. The latter element is especially pertinent for our purposes, as Mormon sacramentalism and ordinances have made the tradition an odd fit for our Protestant narratives. (Orsi’s most recent book on “presence,” which challenges traditional trajectories of enlightenment and modernity, might provide a better framework.) Matt Bowman has highlighted how we need a more Catholic perspective of Mormonism (see an overview here), and his article should be required reading for young scholars who wish to offer fresh takes on the faith. 

Second, Orsi’s work has probed the boundaries of ethnicity and community in ways that should seem appropriate for Mormon history. Especially in the last generation, scholars of Mormonism have interrogated the boundaries of race, but the more nebulous category of ethnic belonging remains largely untouched. Most immigrants to Utah in the nineteenth century may have fought for the rights of “whiteness,” but their varying countries of origins (Danish, Swedish, British, etc.) introduced competing forms of cultural baggage for the melting pot of Deseret. How did these cultures blend and cooperate in the arid desert? We catch glimpses of some of these ethnic communities, like the Scandinavian enclave in Sanpete County, but we have yet to receive a more sustained study focused on ethnicity as a governing principle. 

And finally, the lived religion components of Orsi’s work are his most famous contributions yet still drastically understudied in the Mormon context. For instance, Orsi could delineate the spiritual significance of the cards of St Jude that Chicago Catholics carrie around in their car as a transient form of worship that transforms their vehicles into quasi-sacred space. Could the same type of work be done with the portable vials of consecrated oil that Mormon men carry around? Some of the best analysis of this scholarship include our own Kris Wright’s work on sacrament bread and sewing machines, or Justin Bray on the Mormon sacrament. We need more of that. Orsi, for instance, doesn’t really care what leaders, elites, or institutions implemented over the course of his study—that was all of secondary importance. What really mattered was how things were received and experienced at the local level. That’s a mindset we need. 

So when will we see a Robert Orsi of Mormon studies? I hope soon. For example, here’s a dissertation idea for some earnest PhD student: look at the Welsh communities that immigrated to Salt Lake City in the late nineteenth century. Where did they settle? Did they have their own wards? Their own leadership? Was the second generation fully integrated into the broader Mormon community, or was it the third? Did they transport practices and beliefs from their homeland to their new contexts? How did Mormonism serve as a stabilizing force in their world of change, and how did it serve as a disruption? Or how about a more recent topic: I’m currently writing this post on my phone in an LDS foyer while listening to a Hispanic ward sing “Choose the Right”—how do Spanish-speaking wards fit within the Modern LDS environment? How do the backgrounds and communities of Hispanic wards in areas like Houston intersect with larger trajectories of contemporary Mormonism? Those are studies I’d love to see. 

Here’s a promise: if you write the book as well as Orsi’s, I’ll assign it in my grad seminar in the future.

Article filed under Historiography Methodology, Academic Issues


  1. I would be extremely interested to read some good studies regarding Spanish-speaking units within the U.S. and Canada. I served in one for a couple years (until this summer) and the challenges were totally unique to any unit I?ve been in. Very different than English Speaking wards or Spanish speaking units within their home countries.

    Comment by Noah Read — November 28, 2016 @ 9:55 am

  2. Smart post, Ben. I think the points that you’ve made parallel a gap in history of the 20th century for Mormonism. While lived religion, ethnicity, and non-Protestant methodology can all help understand 19th century Mormonism, the broader historiographies (at least, lived religion and ethnicity) are important for the 20th century, which Mormon historians (I think) haven’t tapped into because of such a heavy 19th-century focus. Maybe, along with envisioning a Robert Orsi for Mormon Studies, we might also envision a John McGreevy for Mormon History.

    I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts about Orsi’s new History and Presence, and how to use the book/theory in our context.

    Comment by Jeff T — November 28, 2016 @ 10:19 am

  3. I love Robert Orsi’s work, and I think you are right that Mormonism needs more discussion from the perspective of presence. A place of particular interest may be the recent “faith crisis.” Observing it from the point of view of Orsi, Mormonism straddles the divide between presence and absence. On the one hand, it places material objects and angelic visitations as central to its theological foundation. Early church history is full of presence at every turn. On the other hand, it expands into an international church within a very Protestant framework of symbols. Every time a Mormon church argues that you don’t need to have a “Joseph Smith experience” when you pray, Mormonism inches closer to a church lacking any real presence.

    This presence/absence idea helps identify a significant component of the faith crisis. Mormons who wish for greater presence appear to be exiting the church in greater numbers. They find what they are looking for in the writings of people like John Pontius and Denver Snuffer. Whereas Mormons who wish for a more traditionally Protestant framework of symbols and absence appear to be more supportive of remaining within the church. Of course, it is more complicate than this, but I do see Robert Orsi’s work as a fascinating way of examining Mormon culture in the past and the present.

    Comment by Alan J Clark — November 28, 2016 @ 10:33 am

  4. I echo Jeff’s call for not only an Orsi, but a McGreevy and a McDannell. These three are cultural/material historians and historians of race/gender who are also well-versed in religious studies. I don’t think Mormon Studies will have an Orsi/McGreevy/McDannell until we have someone who is equipped to write to both fields.

    I would also add that no one is Robert Orsi. There are relatively few historians who do lived religion well and even fewer that can combine those skills with his mastery of narrative. Protestantism could use an Orsi, too.

    Jeff, I think that Orsi’s new book would be useful to Mormon history because of its assumption that Catholics (and LDS I would argue) see modernity in a different light than Catholics. I’d love to see Jim Falconer, Joe Spencer, Adam Miller, etc. take on the idea of a Mormon modernity. It could also be a great fit for Jim’s wonderful seminar at the Wheatley Institute.

    Comment by J Stuart — November 28, 2016 @ 11:51 am

  5. Ditto what Joey said. But I have a special place in my scholar’s heart for Orsi’s work, it was tremendously influential in my own work (see? because I read it when one was SUPPOSED to, as a grad student in the early 1990s, Ben) and he’s a gracious and generous human being, to boot. Hear, hear for histories that weave together ethnicity, identity and larger religious cultural narratives, while never losing sight of the microcosm’s wonder and beauty.

    Comment by Tona H — November 28, 2016 @ 12:04 pm

  6. I agree that Orsi’s work carries with it all sorts of application for Mormons. One thought specifically in reply to Jeff, I find Orsi’s History and Presence particularly useful in thinking about current discussions about the Mormon “faith crisis.” Mormonism seems to straddle the presence/absence divide. Church history is filled with examples of real presence, from the Gold plates and the First Vision, to the healing power of objects. Yet culturally it seems to be adopting much of the Protestant culture of symbols. It is unclear if Mormon rituals are intended to be anything more than symbolic of something absent in that moment.

    As it relates to the faith crisis, people have trouble with both ends of the spectrum. On the one hand, those who seek greater presence find it in the writings of John Pontius or Denver Snuffer. This desire for more spirituality pushes them away from the organization of the LDS Church. On the other hand, those uncomfortable with presence have difficulty squaring their faith with the church’s past. Mormon origins are not modern enough, which also pushes them away from the organization.

    Orsi offers so much to consider as it pertains to spirituality and religious experience.

    Comment by Alan J Clark — November 28, 2016 @ 9:19 pm

  7. I love Orsi’s writing. I think Kris Wright has this well in hand. I’d be inclined to just sit back and wait for her dissertation.

    Comment by smb — November 29, 2016 @ 10:22 am

  8. I completely agree, SMB.

    Comment by J Stuart — November 29, 2016 @ 1:22 pm

  9. Insightful comment, Alan. It’d be interesting to use presence as a tool to analyze schism, assimilation, retrenchment, and dis/affiliation.

    Comment by Jeff T — December 6, 2016 @ 11:19 am


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