From the (Historiographical) Archives: Mormon Historians “are still too much merely Sunday Christians”

By February 18, 2013

Screen Shot 2013-02-18 at 13.11.20After the battles over New Mormon History in the 1980s and early 90s, Mormon historians (and I mean historians who are Mormon, not just historians who study Mormons) have been hesitant to discuss the relationship between faith and history. Or so I argue in a paper I’m presenting this weekend at the Conference on Faith & Knowledge (schedule here). In preparation for my paper, I’ve revisited a number of classic historigraphical texts from decades ago, and have been surprised by two things: 1) the amount of attention this thorny issue was given by earlier scholars in the field, and 2) the lack of engagement to a similar degree by today’s generation. There are, I think, several reasons for this, which I attempt to outline in the paper. But in this post I merely want to present a couple quotations from Richard Bushman’s classic essay “Faithful History” (pdf here), published almost five decades ago, and invite discussion.

After outlining the basic post-structuralist critique of history that lambasts objectivity and acknowledges that “history is made by historians” (13), Bushman wrote this:

It seems to me that given these premises, the Mormon historian, if he is given to philosophising about his work, must ask himself what values govern his scholarship. What determines his views of causation, his sense of significance, and his moral concern? One might think that his religious convictions, his deepest personal commitments would pervade his writing. But in my own experience, religious faith has little influence on Mormon historians for an obvious reason: we are not simply Mormons but also middle class American intellectuals trained for the most part in secular institutions…

The secular, liberal, establishmentarian, status-seeking, decent, tolerant values of the university govern us at the typewriter, however devoted we may be as home teachers. Indeed, this viewpoint probably controls our thinking far more than our faith. The secular, liberal outlook is the one we instinctively think of as objective, obvious, and natural, even though when we stop to think about it we know it is as much a set of biases as any other outlook…

Now that we have abandoned the naive hope that we can write objective history, I think Mormon historians should at least ask how we might replace our conventional, secular American presuppositions with the more penetrating insights of our faith. (16)

And then included this in his conclusion:

There is a paradox in the very discussion of the subject of Mormons writing history. On the one hand, I wish to encourage Mormon historians, like Mormon psychologists and Mormon physicians, to think about the relationship of their faith and their professional practice. We are still too much merely Sunday Christians. On the other hand, I do not wish my categories [24] to be thought of as prescriptive…

The trouble with wishing to write history as a Mormon is that you cannot improve as a historian without improving as a man. The enlargement of moral insight, spiritual commitment, and critical intelligence are all bound together. A man gains knowledge no fast than he is saved. (24-25)

A few thoughts and questions to get a discussion going:

  • If you haven’t done so, read Stuart Parker’s brilliant essay on Bushman’s “hermeneutics of generosity,” which is the best look at his historical methodology. (If you subscribe to JMH, which all of you should, you can download it here.)
  • Do you feel Bushman followed this own approach in his scholarship?
  • Do you think this is a fruitful approach to historical interpretation?
  • And if you’d like to write my paper for me, then: why do you think today’s generation of Mormon studies scholars seem a bit less interested in taking such an approach?

Article filed under From the Archives Historiography Methodology, Academic Issues


  1. During prelims, an advisor of mine said something to me that might be useful here. After discussing a review of Bushman’s book she had written, she said (and I am paraphrasing), “I could only find one instance where Bushman wrote something that a non-Mormon historian wouldn’t have. If there was only one time that I could pinpoint, I have to ask what difference did Mormonness make, if at all, to ‘Rough Stone Rolling?'”

    I think that the newer generation of Christian historians in general are less anxious about the relationship between their faith and their scholarship. In the generation when Bushman came of age, the rise of Marxist history meant that many, many people saw religious faith and hope as nothing more than a “chiliasm of despair” to quote E.P. Thompson. With the passing of Marxism (and to some degree Freudian-based feminist analyses), more people are interested in religion and willing to take its practitioners seriously. I will never forget the day that a women’s studies prof I had made a disparaging comment about religion, only to be jumped on by 3 out of the 4 students in the class because we were all people of faith.

    Comment by Amanda — February 18, 2013 @ 1:40 pm

  2. Just this morning I wrote an e-mail to my friend Rachel Cope in which I said that the first (modern) generation of Mormon scholars were all about defending the faith, the second generation was about being seen as “professional” but was not sure about this generation. I simply cannot define them. I’m not a scholar of Mormonism, but I think I understand because I was a scholar that came out of the Chicano Movement and my intellectual foundations were based on my experiences as a Mormon intellectual within a radical Chicanismo. I sought to be a good historian, to be fair (not objective), to tell the truth as I saw it, and to have my work move along the progress of my people. Given that approach I have always wondered why Mormon historians of this generation do not, for the most part, do the same. After all, most scholars do exactly just that in promoting their agendas, even as they criticize others for doing the same thing. As historians we say we don’t believe in objectivity and yet Mormon scholars of this generation (who are not any more objective) write as if they were trying to be so. Be fair, tell things as they are and not how you want them to be, and don’t hide your perspective. I try to do that. I usually start my books by telling people where I am coming from and indirectly ask them to trust me even as they critically assess me.

    On another point, I must agree with Amanda’s advisor because that was my reaction after reading Bushman’s very fine book on Joseph. But I am not as positive as she is that Mormon scholars will be any different from those Bushman’s describes once the “Mormon moment” fully passes. We will see. I must admit, though, that this is a very talented group. Where much is given…

    Comment by Ignacio M. Garcia — February 18, 2013 @ 4:49 pm


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