Since Ardis Parshall said JI needed more posts like Jared’s…
Once when a member asked the typical question of what I wanted to study when I got home from my mission, my companion interjected, ?He?ll say he doesn?t know, but if you really press him, he?ll say he wants to be a historian.? We were together four months and he knew me quite well. My love of history probably started in the fourth grade when my family spent a year in Virginia. It was my teacher?s favorite subject and she dedicated significant time to projects, displays, and plays. After that I always fulfilled my reading quota by reading biographies of historical figures written for kids. It frustrated my fifth grade teacher, but reading fiction seemed intolerable to me at that age. They wouldn?t let me do that in junior high and high school but my love of history remained and I watched Ken Burns?s Civil War devoutly. Having spent most of my life in Utah, I was struck by religious pluralism when I got to my mission in Dallas. ?How did all this happen,? I wondered. I knew I wanted to study American religious history.
Update: I should add that my dad was always a history buff and this was probably my biggest influence (sometimes you forget the things closest to home).
But I had little or no interest in Mormon history. I can?t say why. I decided I ought to take a class when I got back to BYU in order to get the basics down. It was helpful in that respect and the teacher did a lot to help with controversial issues but the scholarly articles he had us read left me unenthused as models for what I wanted to do. What I wanted to do became clear from reading three books toward the end of my undergraduate career: Christopher Hill, The English Bible and the Seventeenth Century Revolution; Gordon Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution; and Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (in that order). I had the same feeling reading each one: the awesome sense of wonder in entering the metal world of past cultures. This was what I wanted to do with my life (I still think these are some the greatest books ever).
Yet Mormonism was always in the back of my mind. Hill and Thomas mentioned a number of movements with similarities to Mormons in seventeenth century England and Wood?s book suggested a lot of ways that the culture became amenable to Mormonism. I thought it would be very interesting to work on something related to that.
At that time, BYU was getting a lot of books from Ricks, which was about to become BYU Idaho. BYU had most of the books already so they had a shelf in the library where they sold the duplicates cheep: $2 hard back, $1 paper. I got a lot of good stuff (some of John Wesley?s works published in the 1820 and most of John Lock?s works published in the 1790s). One day in my frequent perusings of the shelf I saw a book entitled Transcriptions of Early Church Records of New Jersey: Colporteur Reports to the American Tract Society, 1841-1846. I picked it up and looked at it a bit but put it back. I had bought a lot of books already and we were broke and expecting our first soon. Then I went and sat on the couch and thought, maybe I should get that book (a good thought). Yet at that moment some bloke picked the book up and started looking through it. ?Put it down!? I thought, ?I want that book!? He did and I quickly purchased it. I can?t imagine how my life would have been different if I had not.
The book sat on my shelf a couple of months until I took my last class in history at BYU (490) where you have to write a big paper. I wanted to do American religious history so I thought I?d go home and look through some of the books I had bought for ideas, starting with the New Jersey one. On page 11, I ran smack dab into my destiny: reporting July 14, 1842, Presbyterian missionaries declared, ?Our efforts to benefit the Mormons who are quite numerous at Tom?s River seem to have proved fruitless. Their superstition appears to be so deeply rooted, and their self confidence so great, as effectually to shield them against the arrows of conviction.? I had suddenly become a Mormon historian.
The problem was that I had read almost none of the secondary literature and couldn?t in the space of that spring quarter in which I took the class. So I read a couple of articles that had references to Mormonism in New Jersey and plunged into the primary material (a goodly amount), which I loved. I finished the project, submitted it to BYU Studies, my wife had our baby and we were off to LA where we tried to be teachers and I applied to grad school (it kind of sounds funny when I put it that way). After no luck with that round of applications, I decided to try a master?s program with open enrolment and our little family was off to Turlock, California, for CSU Stanislaus. There I hoped to gain greater background in American religious history and planned to expand on my research on Mormonism in New Jersey.
My knowledge of Mormon historiography was still meager which led to an interesting moment I had while back visiting the family on vacation during the winter break. In Borders I discovered John Brooke?s Refiner?s Fire. 1644-1844. Tracing Mormonism to the English Civil War. My life?s work had already been done. So I bought it and started reading it and had the experience that a lot of Mormons had: ?This doesn?t sound like Mormonism to me.? Yet at that point I had an interesting spiritual experience. ?Wait, Steve,? the Spirit said, ?don?t write this book off. You have to understand a few things. What Brooke is talking about here are ?temple? or esoteric truths that are by nature difficult to verbalize. Such ideas have been passed through the ages from original pure sources and had thus become somewhat corrupted. These factors make what Brooke is talking about not so easily recognizable or understood. Furthermore, don?t pretend that you understand what the temple is about. So read the book with an open mind. You’re going to spend the rest of your life trying to figure this stuff out.? Or something like that.
So I?ve been a fan of Refiner?s Fire ever since (of course understanding that like all books, there are some problems). It became an important interpretative tool for my master?s thesis on Mormonism in the Philadelphia and when I submitted an article based on the thesis to Journal of the Early Republic (who turned it down), Brooke was one of my reviewers. He suggested I redo my charts so I contacted him for further details. He was extremely helpful and gave me a lot of advice and even agreed to write letters of recommendation for me. When I got into UC Santa Barbara, Catherine Albanese said that John?s letter was the most impressive thing in my application (in an application without a lot of impressive things).
So I hope this explains my affection for John Brooke, my intellectual interests, and why I?m still playing catch up in Mormon historiography.