Highlights from Mormon Studies Review, Volume 5

By December 11, 2017

The Mormon Studies Review is the best annual over view of the Mormon Studies (sub)field available anywhere. Produced by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, the journal is produced by a remarkable editorial team. You can subscribe for $10 (and you get the Maxwell Institute’s other publications, too!). I’ll highlight each contribution, and pull a sentence or two from each article to give a taste of the writing and rigor involved in each contribution. As much as the summaries, I hope that you’ll appreciate with me the myriad of approaches that could be used in Mormon History or Mormon Studies. The field, as they say, is white and ready to harvest.

First, a review panel comprised of Ann Little (a renowned women’s history specialist and microhistorian), Paul Reeve (the Simmons Professor of Mormon Studies at the University of Utah), and Sarah Carter (a historian of plural marriage outside of Mormonism) examines Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A House Full of Females.[i]  An excerpt from Little’s response sums up the book well:

Ulrich’s instinct to hew to the daily realities of mid-nineteenth-century missionary life and westward imperial expansion serves her well. The Mormons she portrays lead complicated lives, emotionally and sexually messy as well as frequently (literally) clogged with mud, dirt, and dysentery from their various removes and migrations. She focuses on the details of early Mormon life as they were revealed in diaries rather than retrospective memoirs, which brings the immediacy of their experimentation to life.

Next, Benjamin and John Durham Peters introduce a forum on “Mormonism as Media.” Both stress the ways in which Mormon Studies and Media Studies can benefit from one another:

We argue that Mormonism can provoke new perspectives among media scholars for the same reasons that media theory can rethink basic questions in religious thought, culture, and history. Media, in our view, need not have words, images, sounds, tubes, or screens. They need not have large audiences or be mass in any way.

Samuel M. Brown kicks off the forum with an examination of “Minds, Bodies, and Objects” through the work of Charles Taylor and Robert Orsi.[ii] After attending Brown’s lecture at the Maxwell Institute on translation, my curiosity was piqued with this line:

Strict materialism as a worldview is spectacularly obtuse and ultimately unfeasible, as we see when we train its blinkered eyes on the relationships that matter most to us.

Sharon Harris and Peter McMurray “sound off” on Sound Studies and Mormon Studies. I’m not familiar with sound studies, beyond definitions, but their brief essay gave me a lot to think about in regards to the lived religious traditions of Mormonism. Also, I won’t share it here, but the Helen Keller story they relate is amazing.

In this brief essay, we introduce a handful of sound objects and practices that chart an obviously incomplete course through Mormon history. Our argument is a rather simple one: these objects do not merely sound; rather, through their sounding they shape what Mormonism as a medium and as an accretion of audiovisual mediums and techniques has been and may yet become. While some of these objects will be familiar to most readers, whether coming from the discipline of Mormon studies or media studies, this brief excavation of Mormonism and its cultural acoustics traces out important new terrain for both disciplines.

Mason Allred suggests ways that Mormon Studies can better incorporate media studies, something that has been done in isolated articles and books, but most books on Mormonism and media tend to not engage media studies theory.

The Mormon religion is particularly ripe for media archaeology, as it offers a robust history of inspired material. Strata of past Mormon mediation are numerous: from seer stones, Oliver Cowdery’s divining rod, metal plates, papyrus, and paintings to Philo Farnsworth’s image dissector, cassette tapes, and code. With a new focus on how these objects mediated between body and spirit, we might more precisely exhume the materiality behind the concepts of early Mormonism that could mistakenly be understood to defy perceptibility, such as revelation, spirit, and translation.

Kate Holbrook’s chapter on food studies and Jell-O is a must-read. Seriously. Get a copy of the MSR and read it now.

[Speaking of a 2002 Olympics pin with green Jell-O]: Not only did bare green squares of Jell-O on the pin suggest that Mormon Jell-O was plain, the squares also represented Jell-O as easy to prepare. Jell-O in plain square form was what you met in hospitals and grade school cafeterias, but Mormon Jell-O preparations were not so straightforward.

Rosemary Avance speaks to the ways in which the medium *is* the institution of Mormonism, as she reflection in her essay on ethnography, Mormonism, and media:

“[A]s societies move from oral to print cultures, they tend to become more fixed, hierarchical, bureaucratic, authoritative, and depersonalized. But Mormonism from its founding was standardized in book form. Its twentieth-century correlation passed down a one-size-fits-all faith that could not maintain its shape upon confronting the digital era. Truly, the medium is the message; Mormonism as a nineteenth-century alternative narrative developed into a bureaucratic institution that reorganized religious power, standardized the faith, and disseminated it broadly: the same aspects of print culture prominently noted by historian Elizabeth Eisenstein that fueled the Protestant Reformation two centuries prior.

Gavin Feller engages internet studies through examining the ways that LDS leadership came to embrace the internet “before the Bloggernacle”:

“The creation of FamilySearch.org in 1999 brought a sea change in how LDS leaders perceived the internet. Instead of pornography, pedophilia, and a counterculture ethos, leaders gradually began seeing technologies capable of fulfilling Joseph Smith’s cosmological visions of an interconnected human family extending to back to the biblical Adam and forward into eternity. The church began moving forward precisely by looking backward. If pornography stained the internet for church administrators, it was online genealogy that slowly sanitized it.”

Last, but certainly not least, Amy Harris articulates the ways in which Mormon Studies and Genealogy Studies can benefit from one another. I thought this thought was particularly salient for those wishing to embark on a genealogically-centered Mormon Studies topic:

Scholarship about genealogy explicitly connects with Mormonism once it covers the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Recently Morgan has argued that early Mormonism’s genealogical impulses were informed by a democratic and universalist approach that other American genealogists did not adopt for several decades.13 Alternatively, while Morgan detects genealogy’s nineteenth- and twentieth-century democratic flavor, Philip Barlow has argued that it was precisely democracy’s ability to “fracture” families that made Joseph Smith’s revelatory conceptions of eternal, expansive kinship so appealing.

In addition to this stimulating forum, there are eleven book reviews written by luminaries within and without Mormon Studies. You can subscribe here!


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[i] You can read more about each chapter of the book as a part of our summer book club, here.

[ii] You can read our chapter-by-chapter review of Orsi beginning here.

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