We welcome this guest post by friends of the JI Jedediah S. Rogers, one of the editors of the Utah Historical Quarterly, and Matthew C. Godfrey, Managing Historian and one of the General Editors of the Joseph Smith Papers.
In 2012 the renowned environmental historian Mark Fiege published The Republic of Nature: An Environmental History of the United States. In that book, Fiege took well-known events in American history and examined them through the lens of environmental history. This approach generated fresh and fascinating insights into subjects ranging from the construction of the transcontinental railroad to the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. As William Cronon noted in the Foreword, “No book before it has so compellingly demonstrated the value of applying environmental perspectives to historical events that at first glance may seem to have little to do with ‘nature’ or ‘the environment.’”
Inspired by Fiege’s innovative approach, we started discussing the need for more historians to use the environmental lens to explore events in Mormon history—a subfield it seemed to us that did not self-consciously much swim in environmental history waters. As colleagues at Historical Research Associates, Inc., we had worked on projects for a variety of clients that presented us with opportunities to explore environmental history using a number of analytical approaches. This, in addition to our training and publications in both environmental and Mormon history, gave us confidence that we had something to say on the subject. Both of us recognized that a handful of scholars and writers—Richard Jackson, Terry Tempest Williams, Tom Alexander, George Handley, and Jared Farmer, to name a few—had examined the interactions of Saints with nature, but we believed this was largely an underutilized approach in Mormon history.
To try to highlight the insights that environmental history could bring to Mormon studies, we decided to organize a panel for the Mormon History Association’s 2013 annual conference in Layton, Utah, titled “Applying the Lens of Environmental History to Mormonism.” Based on the interest that this panel had, and spurred on by the encouragement of John Alley at University of Utah Press, we began exploring the possibility of publishing an anthology of essays on Mormon environmental history.
A first step was to compile a list of potential contributors and to curate what a compilation might look like. A central question was whether this volume would be primarily Mormon history that either drew on the methods of environmental history or addressed environmental themes, or if it was firstly a work of environmental history that used as a case study the history of an American religion. This difference, however subtle, would have major ramifications, dictating the kind of scholars and topics we planned to tap for the volume. It would also inform the most central question of all: just what is Mormon environmental history? Any number of Mormon histories tease out environmental topics—but this is quite different than histories utilizing the tools and methods of environmental history, an established subfield of the discipline. Furthermore, given that environmental history is place-based it may be tempting to identify the core essence of Mormon environmental history as the Mormon cultural region—the intermountain West—and yet we didn’t want to limit our history as only a western American one. We ultimately settled on a hybrid approach, bringing on-board scholars trained in environmental history but primarily featuring the perspectives of scholars working in the field of Mormon studies.
Another step, after lining up volume contributors, was to do more than cyber collaboration. We had in mind a seminar-type experience that would enable authors to share their research face-to-face. Each of us had previously participated in a seminar hosted and sponsored by the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies at Brigham Young University and thought a similar experience would benefit the volume. Thankfully, then-Redd Center director Brian Cannon agreed, generously agreeing to host the gathering and cover the cost of travel for out-of-staters. The seminar convened in November 2015, kicked off with a dinner and lecture by Richard Francaviglia, one of the contributors to the volume, followed by a full day of collaborative work. In small groups we dove deeply into individual essays with the intent of providing substantive feedback for subsequent revisions. We also had a group discussion on environmental and Mormon history—on the definition and scope of the field, general themes, promising future scholarship—and logistics of the volume deadlines and publication.. Throughout the day, John Alley meet individually with authors to discuss proposed revisions. By the end of the seminar, we believed we had solid essays exploring exciting and innovative topics.
After the seminar, we worked closely with the contributors
and with University of Utah Press to revise and edit the essays. We also
explored the possibility of including in the volume a lecture Elder Marcus B.
Nash of the First Quorum of the Seventy gave on April 12, 2013, at the
University of Utah’s 18th Annual Wallace Stegner Center Symposium on
Latter-day Saint beliefs about the environment. Fortunately, Elder Nash was
enthusiastic about including his essay. We originally were going to have the
text of his lecture be its own chapter in the volume, but realizing that its
devotional nature made it different from the scholarly essays, we decided to
include it as an appendix. As one of the few statements from a General
Authority specifically about Latter-day Saint doctrines on the environment, we
consider it to be an important addition to the book.
We are very pleased to see the book in its
published form. Not only are the essays themselves excellent pieces of
scholarship, but we think they will help more scholars understand the benefits
of using the tools of environmental history to explore Mormon history topics.
The field certainly has a bright future.
 William Cronon, “Foreword: Environmental History Comes of Age,” in Mark Fiege, The Republic of Nature: An Environmental History of the United States (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012), ix.