Justin Bray is an oral historian at the Church History Department in Salt Lake City, Utah. He is also an MA student at the University of Utah, where he studies American religious history. He has presented and published several papers on the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper among the Latter-day Saints.
I’ve always found objects meaningful tools to reconstruct the past.
When my great-grandfather passed away many years ago, my dad inherited an old baseball bat–probably because my brothers and I couldn’t stop watching The Sandlot, and throughout our childhood we collected an unhealthy number of baseball cards. I really didn’t know anything about my great-grandfather (at the time), let alone that he was a baseball player. But the more attention I paid to the bat, the more the bat became a kind of lens into my great-grandfather’s world.
Of course every baseball player has a bat, and at first glance baseball bats all look quite similar, but every nook and cranny spoke more about this specific player. For example, the most worn part of the bat’s handle was about an inch and a half above the knob, meaning he “choked up” on it considerably. From my background in baseball, I knew that players who choked up on the bat were generally shorter, faster, and “scrappier” players looking to just get on base, so that more powerful hitters could drive them home.
The kind wood the bat was made of, the fact that no pine tar was on it, and its length and weight continued to help piece together not only the kind of baseball player my great-grandfather may have been but also how far he played professionally and in what time period his career took place. A text, such as his obituary, may have said “he played baseball,” but studying a surviving object from is athletic career added elements to his narrative that evaded the written word.
This same approach can help historians study religion in America. Men, women, and children often use objects to express their faith, like a cross, phylactery, or CTR ring.
For some time now, I’ve looked at the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper as a way in which to study the devotional lives of the Latter-day Saints. When researching this sacred ritual, texts can only say so much: “The sacrament was administered today.” But when researching objects that were used to administer the sacrament, such as bread, water, wine, linens, cloths, plates, cups, trays, flagons, hats, gloves, and tables, the narrative expands.
Take the sacramental bread, for example. In nineteenth-century Utah, you didn’t just pick up a loaf of Wonder Bread on Saturday night, nor did you begin baking bread on Sunday morning. Preparing the sacramental emblems was a process that required at least daylong time and attention. It was often baked by sisters of the Relief Society and became a meaningful part of their devotional life.
Objects can open new channels of inquiry that words alone cannot. They can generate new questions to familiar narratives. But material culture also has its limits. Objects must be studied against texts to get good glimpse into religious worlds.
For those living in or near Salt Lake City, I’d like to give a plug for Kris Wright’s lecture tonight at the Assembly Hall on Temple Square. She’ll tell you better than I can how useful material culture is in studying the Latter-day Saints.