“gigantic and sometimes polemical”: The Persistent Marginalization of Mormon History as an (Un)acceptable Field of Study

By December 15, 2008

I am making my way through Daniel Walker Howe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. I’ve skimmed through most of it before, but because it is the primary text to be used for a course I’m TAing next semester, I’m taking my time and more thoroughly analyzing the book. I began this weekend by reading the lengthy bibliographical essay (22 pages) provided as an appendix to better understand what secondary sources Howe utilized to both set his own argument up against and which sources he utilized and borrowed from to bolster his thesis. If you’re ever curious about any topic in U.S. History from 1815-1848, I’d recommend checking Howe’s essay for a full list of sources on the subject. From religion to economics, and from women’s rights to labor and immigration, it is all covered there.

I have mentioned previously that Howe discusses Mormonism (and religion in general) at greater length and more in-depth than do any of the historians who have previously treated this era of U.S. History at length. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Charles Sellers, and most recently, Sean Wilentz, have discussed religion to varying extents, but none as thoroughly as Howe. 

The bibliographic essay suggests that Howe has indeed digested the wide-ranging literature on religion in Jacksonian America. He not only addresses the larger studies on the topic (i.e. Hatch’s Democratization of American Christianity), but also engages specific subjects of American religious history (millennialism, reform, the racial and gendered aspects of religion, etc.), and most relevant to the discussion here, the histories of the many denominations that figure into his narrative.

Mormonism’s historiography receives an extended paragraph (nearly half a page) in his essay (more than any other specific denomination addressed there). What struck me about Howe’s mention of Mormonism in the bibliographical essay was not the amount of text devoted to the subject, but rather that he was careful to identify whether each of the historians of Mormonism he mentions are Latter-day Saints or not—something he does not do for any other group. Compare, for example, the following sentences afforded to Catholic and Methodist historiography to the paragraph on Mormons:

Catholicism (p. 866):

For American Catholics, see Jay Dolan, Catholic Revivalism (1978); Ann Taves, The Household of Faith (1986); Charles Morris, American Catholic (1997); and Jay Dolan, In Search of an American Catholicism (2002). For controversies within the Catholic Church, see Patrick Carey, People, Priests, and Prelates (1987) and Dale Light, Rome and the New Republic (1996). For a view of Catholic relations with the Protestant majority, see Lawrence Moore, Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans (1986), 48-79. Catholic attitudes toward slavery are explained (along with much else) in John McGreevy’s excellent Catholicism and American Freedom (2003); see also Thomas Bakenkotter, Concise History of the Catholic Church, rev. ed. (2004), 294-302.

Methodism (p. 865):

Works on particular kinds of Protestantism include David Hempton, Methodism (New Haven, 2005); Russell Richey, Early American Methodism (1991); John Wigger, Taking Heaven By Storm: Methodism and Popular Christianity (1998) . . .  

Mormonism (p. 868, emphasis added):

Historical literature on Mormonism is gigantic and sometimes polemical. Insightful presentations of the Mormon religion by outsiders includes Thomas O’Dea, The Mormons (1957); Jan Shipps, Mormonism (1985); and Paul Conkin, American Originals (1997), 162-225. The projected multivolume history by Dale Morgan was cut short by his death; what little we have appears in Dale Morgan on Early Mormonism, ed. John Philip Walker (1986). Quite a few fine historians are Latter-day Saints, and some of them write about Mormon history; see, for example, Leonard Arrington and David Bitton, The Mormon Experience (1979); Klaus Hansen, Mormonism and the American Experience (1981); Grant Underwood, The Millennarian World of Early Mormonism (1993); and Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (2005). Additional biographies of Joseph Smith, each with its own viewpoint, include Fawn Brodie, No Man Knows My History, rev. ed. (1973); Robert Remini, Joseph Smith (2002); and Dan Vogel, Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet (2004). Mormon and gentile historians collaborate in an anthology, The New Mormon History, ed. D. Michael Quinn (1992). On the cultural matrix of early Mormonism, see D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (1987); John Brooke, The Refiner’s Fire (1994); and Terryl Givens, The Viper on the Hearth (1997). Stephen LeSueur, The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri (1987) is judicious. The Mormon trek to Utah is portrayed in Leonard Arrington, Brigham Young: American Moses (1985); Klaus Hansen, Quest for Empire (1967); and Marvin Hill, Quest for Refuge (1989).

I am not interested in debating whether or not it is relevant and important to identify one’s religious affiliation and belief system (or any other aspect of one’s identity) when writing history. That has been discussed elsewhere at length. I am more interested in exploring the possible reasons behind Howe’s decision to highlight the insider-outsider paradigm of Mormon historiography. What is it about Mormon history that makes whether one if a member or not relevant?

But beyond that, I am curious as to the accuracy and potentially harmful results of using a simple believer vs. non-believer model in identifying one’s self (or, in this case, someone else) in relation to his or her historical writing. Is Klaus Hansen, for example, a Mormon in the same sense that Richard Bushman is? Perhaps, but are their individual religious identities not more complex than that? As the bloggernacle affirms every day, there are various types of Mormons, and even within the “believer” category, there is a range of issues that complicate such labels.  

Lastly, I wonder whether the continued construction of Mormon history as a field defined by the polemics of faithful versus faithless history only serves to further marginalize its status as a respectable field of study. I would argue that the field has (for the most part) indeed moved past its polemical past. History as a means of debating the truth claims of the LDS church is largely relegated to the realms of professional anti-Mormons, the missionaries they debate, and the (primarily non-academic) community of apologists that continues to find pleasure in bickering with the Ed Deckers of the world. 

Nevertheless, the categorization of Mormon history as a field concerned more with truth claims than intellectual engagement of larger issues persists. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, is seems to me that this construction allows the larger academic community to continue to dismiss Mormon history as a field of belief vs. unbelief instead of as a story that speaks to larger (and important) aspects of the American experience. This, in turn, discourages aspiring Latter-day Saint historians from studying their own faith tradition for fear of further limiting their chances in an already competitive and difficult job market. (“Stay away from Mormon history in graduate school,” one historian with a tenure-track position warned eager students at a session on the current state of Mormon studies at last year’s MHA). While this is probably prudent and wise advice, I am concerned that it only further demonstrates the marginalization of the field.

But I’m not sure what to do about it.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Very interesting post, Chris. I’m glad you pointed me toward Howe’s bibliographic essay. I’ve been poking around in his book recently, and I agree with several of your points. He does treat Mormonism more thoughtfully than the other “big book” historians you mention. Two thoughts:

    1. “Quite a few fine historians are Latter-day Saints, and some of them write about Mormon history.” That statement strikes me as incredibly condescending, as if it is surprising that believing Mormons could write good history.

    2. I agree with you that the historiography is far more complex than faithful vs. faithful. But in some ways this stereotypical view of the historiography still holds water. Just look at the most recent offerings on the Mountain Meadows Massacre, for starters (Bagley vs. Walker, et al.). In many ways, even taking your necessary nuance of individual faith, this seems to impact the field of Mormon history far more than it does the history of early American Methodism, for instance.

    Comment by John Turner — December 15, 2008 @ 9:50 am

  2. Great post, Chris. I actually thought the very same thing when I went through Howe’s book (and essay) earlier this fall. (Though I thought his treatment of Mormonism within the text was a little forced–but at least he dealt with it!) The phrase “gigantic and sometimes polemical” stuck around in my head for quite a while, pondering the implications, as it looks like it did for you.

    I agree that there will always be a segment of people who choose to continue the faithful vs. faithless argument, but I think we are getting increasingly more work that moves past that dichotomy, which is promising, especially as we get more and more scholars both inside (like Taysom, etc.) and outside (like Turner, etc.) the tradition who provide quality work specifically placing Mormonism within its historical context.

    The distant goal may be a ways off, but I at least think it is getting closer. (Though I am currently going through two books right now that though they present themselves as scholarly, they still focus on the old polemical debates–sigh.)

    Comment by Ben — December 15, 2008 @ 10:42 am

  3. Fascinating – thanks for posting on this after reading it so carefully. It’s on my list of things to read, but it’s not my century so I may not get to it for a while, and I really appreciate your thoughtful post. I feel annoyed by getting different treatment than from, say, Catholic historiography, but at the same time I do see why Howe would feel the need to make all these kinds of qualifiers. It continues to puzzle & frustrate me why the faith perspective of religious-historians-of-other-faiths is taken for granted, while ours is interrogated.

    Comment by tona — December 15, 2008 @ 11:18 am

  4. John,

    Interesting thoughts. Regarding the comment, “Quite a few fine historians are Latter-day Saints, and some of them write about Mormon history?: I actually read it differently. I saw Howe making the point on behalf of Mormons that there are a number of scholars who are members of the LDS Church, and many of them are interested in non-Mormon subjects of study (thus combating the stereotype that Mormons are only interested in studying themselves). My understanding is that Howe has a great deal of respect for Latter-day Saints. My own advisor studied under Howe at UCLA.

    But you might very well be right. Take it as a sign that you’re becoming comfortable in the Mormon community to the point that you are now sensitive to perceived persecution. 🙂

    You’re quite right that the believer/non-believer paradigm still holds water, though I wonder whether the example you cite has as much to do with the specific subject (MMM) as it does with the authors. Either way, your point stands. Do you think this is an inevitable byproduct of the institutional church (and its members) resting its truth claims largely on its historical narrative? Is there a way to move past this?

    The only religious group I can think of a somewhat legitimate parallel is modern-day evangelicals. It is often mentioned, for instance, that Mark Noll, George Marsden, etc. are believing Christians, and that an honest look at the Evangelical experience in America is full of difficult issues that can ruffle the feathers of rank-and-file Christians (I think, though I could be remembering wrong, that your own work had this effect to some degree). But Howe made no mention of any of this in his essay. What can Mormon History as a field and its historians learn from Evangelical historians on this point?

    Comment by Christopher — December 15, 2008 @ 12:21 pm

  5. Ben, thanks for your thoughts. Progress is indeed being made (or at least I hope so). What books are you reading right now that continue to entertain the old polemical debates?

    Tona, thanks for your comments. I think making a point of a Mormon historian’s personal faith is largely a result how Mormons approached history for a long time—that is, they (we) engaged in the polemics. Thus, the attention is somewhat deserved. How to move past it, however, is more difficult to answer.

    Comment by Christopher — December 15, 2008 @ 12:35 pm

  6. Could part of the issue be that both the Mormon church, and the evangelicals, are perceived as actively proselytizing for new members, and as such any work that is done by believers, scholars or not, may be more driven by belief than scholarship? After all, how many catholic or Jewish missionaries have knocked on your door recently?

    I’m partway through Howe’s book, and my reaction is that he has been very friendly to religious issues in general, and the Mormons and other groups are all treated as sincere in their efforts to build religious communities.

    Comment by kevinf — December 15, 2008 @ 1:07 pm

  7. History as a means of debating the truth claims of the LDS church is largely relegated to the realms of professional anti-Mormons, the missionaries they debate, and the (primarily non-academic) community of apologists that continues to find pleasure in bickering with the Ed Deckers of the world.

    The same goes for systematic theology and theology in general (as a means for discussing truth claims in Mormonism). I want to write more about this but finals are prohibitive for at least another week. I really want to interrogate the binary more, which I appreciate you pointing out. Binaries are only helpful to a certain point, I think. What do we get when we move beyond them, which is what you are asking.

    I don’t think we can move past the church “resting its truth claims largely on its historical narrative” (I don’t know if you’d agree). I think we need to move deeper into that history and deeper into our present historical moment, which is going to mean moving deeper into our theology as well–reading history in a more theological light and vice versa. How do history and theology converge and discourse with one another in our contemporary culture and how did they converge in the past? Aren’t those the big questions of Mormonism and of any religion?

    Comment by Elizabeth — December 15, 2008 @ 1:14 pm

  8. Good thoughts, Kevin. The missionary impulse and activity of Mormons (and evangelicals) certainly complicates the issue.

    Elizabeth, sorry I wasn’t clear. I have no serious problem with the institutional church resting its truth claims on its historical narrative, and do not think the church necessarily needs to move past that. I was asking, rather, whether the academic community of Mormon historians can move past the polemical debates that plague its past and its present categorization in spite of the institutional church’s interest and use of history. Or does that approach from the church necessarily mean that the polemics will continue?

    And thanks for bringing theology into the discussion. What I’ve said here about Mormon history is certainly applicable to the larger field of Mormon studies in its many manifestations (sociology, theology, philosophy, etc.). I’ll defer to you and other aspiring Mormon theologians to answer those questions. But please keep me updated on what answers/solutions you come up with.

    Comment by Christopher — December 15, 2008 @ 1:37 pm

  9. I concur that the binary reveals as much as it conceals, although I’m more than willing to cut Howe some slack, given his fair treatment of Mormonism throughout the book. I think that sympathy (or empathy, if you prefer) for Mormons transcends one’s belief status, as revealed by Shipps, Turner, Kerstetter, etc. on the one hand, and Quinn on the other.

    Comment by David G. — December 15, 2008 @ 1:51 pm

  10. What books are you reading right now that continue to entertain the old polemical debates?

    One is the new KTW volume on Mountain Meadows, though most of the polemics are relegated to the last section. The other in the new Nauvoo Polygamy book, which I am becoming increasingly frustrated with as it has tremendous research, yet the overall framework and argument is lacking in professional scholarship (that last statement screams “New Mormon History gone bad,” no?). It seems Smith’s book never made it to the twenty-first century.

    Matt B’s excellent response at last year’s MHA is also appropriate for this discussion on how to further Mormon studies.

    Comment by Ben — December 15, 2008 @ 1:54 pm

  11. Great post, Chris. Call me an optimist, but I don’t know that the best strategy is to avoid Mormon topics at the outset and then hope to come in through the back door later after getting tenure 🙂 I hope that as people who choose to include Mormonism in their research do so in a professional way, that those stigmas will give way.

    Comment by Jared T — December 15, 2008 @ 2:04 pm

  12. David, I certainly did not mean to come across as critical of Howe. His bit on Mormon historiography is certainly fair and to a degree, accurate. I was merely using Howe’s statements to introduce the larger issue. And good point about sympathy/empathy for one’s subject.

    Ben, your comment highlights an additional factor relevant to this conversation—the active involvement of historians in Mormon history who do not have graduate training in history and/or do not care about Mormonism’s relevance to larger issues and are interested instead in writing something controversial for its own sake. I am not criticizing this universally, and recognize and appreciate the many important contributions they have collectively made to the field. But it is significant that MHA always includes presentations by multiple amateur historians who are interested in Mormonism in an effort to better understand their own past instead of an effort to engage larger issues that the professional historical community is interested in.

    Comment by Christopher — December 15, 2008 @ 2:09 pm

  13. Chris, I think you were perfectly clear. Just poor reading on my part and an inability to respond without bringing my own argument into it. I’ll post what I come up with!

    Comment by Elizabeth — December 15, 2008 @ 2:12 pm

  14. Chris or others,

    Can you explain the warning to young Latter-day Saint historians against studying their own faith tradition? What’s the basis?

    It doesn’t make sense to me to highlight the field’s marginalization. Look at the way university presses continue to embrace the topic — and the success of faithful historians like Kathleen Flake and Paul Reeve (given my lack of familiarity, I hope I am categorizing people properly). There will be many more examples in the years to come. I’m not sure that most academic historians consider Mormonism to be something that does not speak “to larger (and important) aspects of the American experience.” At the very least, virtually everyone finds the subject fascinating, which is always a good headstart with search committees and publishers. [If anything, I think the entire field of American religious history remains marginal to the profession, not in terms of publishing but in terms of jobs. This, I think, has less to do with anything inherent to the field than the fact that not only Mormons but evangelicals and others often fail to elucidate the connections between their material and the broader American experience.

    Do you think non-LDS academics doubt the “ability” of faithful scholars to fairly approach the material or be sufficiently critical? Or do people presume that faithful scholars will be pressured by the church to craft overly sympathetic accounts? Do young historians shy away from controversial topics?

    Comment by John Turner — December 15, 2008 @ 10:59 pm

  15. Po*lem”ics\, n. The art or practice of disputation or controversy, especially on religious subjects; that branch of theological science which pertains to the history or conduct of ecclesiastical controversy.

    The definition of the term is important here. While I am not the academic that many of you are, I do see this in much of the Mormon history I have been exposed to. Much of the work I read that is complied by LDS authors seems to either be written to avoid sensitive or controversial material, or it goes out of it’s way to create a ‘buzz’. Here is the little talked about fact or the little piece of dirty laundry or a new list of explanations or excuses.

    American period history is fascinating and remarkable, when you add to that the challenges and trials that church membership added to the lives of those who experienced both you would think that factual, well written offerings would be easier to find. (and I might add here might appeal more to the non-academic history reader, which I would think might be a larger market.)

    I do think it would take a certain amount of courage to produce works like this, and it seems it would be a matter of having to play to the place the jobs are. If one strays too far from the ‘church approved’ line, it becomes even more difficult to keep that cushy job at BYU, and if the work doesn’t create enough of a following you’ll starve while you edit others work.

    I looks like a pretty tough gig to me. 🙂

    Comment by Jim B — December 16, 2008 @ 2:12 am

  16. John, I’ll take the first stab at answering your question, although I’m sure others will have their own opinions. I’ve heard the advice several times, “Don’t do a Mormon topic for your dissertation!” The reasons given are usually similar to the speculations you give. At MHA in 2005, Bushman addressed the Student Reception, and repeated the warning. As best as I can recall, he said that Mormon history has the tendency to act as a blackhole, sucking in young scholars with potential, and never letting them go. I think this goes to your point of not being able to see the connections between Mormon history and wider historical narratives. For Bushman, it’s a question of love for historical subjects, whether they’re Mormon or not. I got the sense he was saying that if we only love Mormons, then we’re not going to make it as historians. I also recall hearing that at the Yale conference a few years ago, one of the LDS students said that everyone needed to follow the “Bushman model,” by writing on non-Mormon topics so they could later, once tenured, write on Mormons. Bushman, who was present, rebuked the student, telling him that he (Bushman) didn’t try out some kind of “stealth” approach to trick the academy into respecting him, but rather that he became a historian of colonial America because he loved the subject.

    But at MHA Bushman also pointed to Kathleen Flake as an example of someone that did it right. With her, I think she started first with a problem that spoke to concerns in religious studies and religious history circles, and then used Mormonism to enlighten it. Too often young Mormon scholars (myself included) start with a problem from Mormon history, and then frantically try to make it fit into wider frameworks.

    Comment by David G. — December 16, 2008 @ 11:18 am

  17. John, David said it better than I can. I would simply add that for every Kathleen Flake and Paul Reeve, there is a handful of Mormon PhDs that are unable to find a job or a publisher.

    Comment by Christopher — December 16, 2008 @ 1:51 pm

  18. Interesting discussion, all. Thanks.

    Comment by BHodges — December 16, 2008 @ 4:49 pm

  19. I thought Howe’s book is pretty good and am citing it now as my standard reference for the period. (I did get bored with his long sections on war and politics, but that’s not his fault.)

    A few thoughts.
    1. the antebellum period doesn’t have that many jobs in history departments anyway. how many Oneida or Shaker historians are there right now in history departments?
    2. Mormonism is, I think, the only major 19th century sect that a) still exists as an active proselyting faith with political power, and b) has practitioners writing in the field of history and trying to claim equivalent status to Catholicism and American Protestantism (think Jehovah’s Witnesses or Seventh Day Adventists). Sects have a way of saying things that make outside readers skeptical of the validity of their inferences. The fact that “Mormon history” has such an astounding number of books, many of which are written from a sectarian perspective, would make one cautious to distinguish them. There are a heckuva lot more Bob Orsi’s in Catholicism than there are in Mormonism.
    3. Kathleen, a practicing Mormon, is the only historian of religion I know who has made her career out of Mormonism. She has spent a goodly amount of time in religious theory and criticism, and many of her essays engage Mormonism in the language of religious criticism and with a point that is interesting to religious scholars.
    4. Paul, another practicing Mormon, is a Western historian whose facility with the Native sources equals his facility with the Mormon sources and who does a great job of exploring Gilded Age politics and land exploitation. His book wouldn’t have been as good without that.
    5. I had heard from other sources that the Nauvoo Polygamy book was vintage 1990 grumbler material. That’s too bad; it’s a fascinating period.
    6. Omphalist historians (?omphalistorians?) can be pretty boring to read. That alone would be enough for me to say that the advice not to rush to write Mormon history could be sound. After I finish the Mormon death book, I am leaning toward a project on the metaphysics of intestinal pseudo-illnesses or something similar. Richard is writing about yeoman farmers, Paul is working on whiteness and the construction of the body, Terryl is exploring preexistence throughout the Western tradition. It’s not wrong to write all your books on Mormonism, but I think it’s good to have intellectual interests outside it.

    Comment by smb — December 18, 2008 @ 2:02 am

  20. Hey everyone,

    I agree with Christopher’s original post about how the perception of the field of Mormon history can sometimes lead to its marginalization in greater historical circles. I also agree that there are many good historians of Mormonism that do good work and have been accepted by the academy. At some level this might say something about the historical field more than those who practice Mormon history. Big books in the historical field today most often are either large in scope or theoretically and/or methodologically novel. Most works of Mormon history fit into neither category, but the ones that do make a splash. Historians of Mormonism must incorporate their studies within a larger framework because that is what the profession demands at this particular academic moment.

    The stakes associated with the claim to truth of the church will always inspire polemics. Even those who try to do “objective” history must make an internal decision about these claims. This will not matter if they make theoretically sophisticated and methodologically nuanced works that reach out to the rest of the profession.

    Comment by Joel — December 18, 2008 @ 1:25 pm

  21. Thanks for weighing in, Sam and Joel, and articulating many of my own thoughts so clearly.

    Comment by Christopher — December 19, 2008 @ 1:07 am

  22. Howe cannot be faulted for structuring his few sentences about Mormon historiography around the axis of insider-outsider history. This simply indicates that he is familiar with the literature rather than harboring some sort of bias or hang up about Mormons. Mormon history is obsessed with faithful v. critical historians or honest v. faith-promoting history. I thought that Matt Bowman’s remarks at MHA were right on. It is time to get beyond this NMH paradigm. (For my own thoughts along similar lines, albeit within my own little ghetto of legal history, check out this paper.)

    I think that very good work on Mormonism can be done. The question is whether or not the work has an argument about something other than Mormonism. Flake’s Smoot book is a virtuouso example, I think, of scholarship that is both an important contribution to our understanding of Mormonism and a shows that the Mormon story is a lens through which we can see some other, non-Mormon story in a new way. Paul Reeve does this, as does Sally Gordon. This means that to do Mormon studies well you need to be an expert in something other than Mormonism to which it can be related, and you are not going to become a credible expert in some other subject if you are not genuinely interested in it and making contributions to it independent of your work on Mormonism. While people should be professionally savvy about what they are doing, it would be a huge intellectual mistake to view Mormonism as some hidden and seperate intellectual interest that can be safely pursued only on weekends, after tenure, or at the MHA or Sunstone Symposiums. Such a path is likely to produce lower quality research on Mormonism and in some circumstances can even be intellectually dishonest.

    Comment by Nate Oman — December 19, 2008 @ 12:13 pm

  23. smb:

    “There are a heckuva lot more Bob Orsi?s in Catholicism than there are in Mormonism.”

    Please name a few.

    Comment by Deep Sea — December 21, 2008 @ 3:27 am

  24. Not even sure where to start, in part because most of the intellectual Catholics I know are like Bob and in part because I’m not a Catholic historian. Bob Orsi is paradigmatic, of course. Read his bibliographies for some additional sources. All the former Jesuits writing scholarship that I know or have read. Good heavens, even Thomas Merton as a devotional writer is closer to the models one could loosely associate with Orsi. Not sure what the question was about, though.

    I’m not certain who would be even a single equivalent within the Mormon tradition. I’m not saying this to be angry about it, just to note that the lack of sympathetic semi-insiders writing to scholars makes it more difficult to frame Mormon studies as a typical academic discipline.

    Comment by smb — December 21, 2008 @ 6:29 pm

  25. Interesting Post and Question –

    However I’m coming to believe that the advent of Wikipedia (and its variants) will dramatically transform the research and objectivity of these sensitive histories.

    Wikipedia opens the avenue to everyone – especially LDS to expound on written history. I have myself made major contributions there – both to general history, articles and to specific historical events.

    What has led me in this path was my genealogical research as I tried to explore some of my more distant roots.

    Another similar source/situation is the Genealogy Wiki at http://genealogy.wikia.com
    Here you can edit the profiles of great figures in history – and their religious background.

    Comment by Bold California — December 22, 2008 @ 12:45 am

  26. Bold California, thanks for advertising wikipedia. Unfortunately, it has very, very little to do with the academic histories and the professional historians who write them that I discuss in the post. Please take your Spam elsewhere.

    Comment by Christopher — December 23, 2008 @ 10:10 am

  27. Very thought-provoking post, Christopher, and an excellent discussion in the comments. On the cautious warning about focusing on Mormon studies in your graduate work, I think the point that university presses continue to publish in the field may not have much bearing on job prospects. I think there’s no doubt that a person will be able to publish any and all significant manuscripts in Mormon studies that they are able to produce. We have great university and independent presses who understand that there is a sufficient market for books. Teaching is more complex. My closest friend here in Ann Arbor is a professor of religious studies who focuses on Buddhism. Along with the bill-paying staples of Intro to World Religions, etc., he is able to teach a course on Buddhism each semester. But would that be true for a Mormon studies course? Would there be enough interest among students outside of the Mormon corridor to field a Mormon studies course each semester? I think that’s still a concern and a legitimate reason elders in the field have repeated this caution. The advice that if you make your name outside the field (like Richard Bushman) and return leads to success is very sound. If you don’t want that path, I’d suggest a serious comparitive study that is inclusive of other American movements (JWs, Seventh-Day Adventists, CofC Scientists).

    On the question of insider/outsider scholarship, I do think vestiges of the polemical camps that have made the field problematic remain. Nevertheless, I feel there has been a lot of progress and I think there are signs that the rising generation of young scholars — for example, the insiders on this site — will be able to transcend the old boundaries in their work.

    Comment by John Hamer — December 29, 2008 @ 1:05 am

  28. Thanks for weighing in, John. Good point about finding a publishing outlet for Mormon studies vs. finding a teaching position in the field. I think your suggestion/advice concerning comparitive studies that include Mormonism is especially sound.

    Comment by Christopher — December 29, 2008 @ 11:42 am

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  35. […] to continue working towards Mormon Studies being a field defined as something more than “gigantic and sometimes polemical“ (see the conversation, especially the comments, linked there for discussion on how to go […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » The Next Jan Shipps? — August 13, 2010 @ 9:01 am


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Mel Johnson on JWHA CFP 2020 (St.: “This JWHA will be outstanding, maybe the best ever. I encourage all Restoration historians and cultural studies people to attend along with their friends. The setting at…”

Gary Bergera on George F. Richards' journals: “I remember reading through the microfilms of the Richards's journals in the mid- to late-1970s. Nothing was redacted. They were amazing.”

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