In case you haven’t noticed by the majority of my posts (excluding the recent series on Wilford Woodruff), I am mostly interested in intellectual history—that is, the history of human thought. When I study history, I want to know what people were thinking, how they formulated their ideas, and how they presented their mind. Perhaps I am just an Emersonian at heart, but I believe all actions begin with the mind. I can stay up all night reading the great works of great thinkers, whether it be John Stuart Mill, Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Ellery Channing, Max Muller, or many others. Beyond learning what happened in history, I want to know why and what thoughts led them to that action. I also hope to see the breaking down of the artificial boundaries between religious and cultural thought, a new direction finally coming to fruition in our generation.
As I’ve mentioned before, and as Matt B. pointed out at last year’s MHA, intellectual history is a growing trend in Mormon studies; indeed, many of the posts on this site are examples of that approach, and several of my fellow bloggers demonstrate much better the interpretations I wish to employ. A movement among Mormon studies is focusing on placing Mormonism within its historical context–exploring the extant the early Church and Church thinkers were aware and even influenced by those around them. However, it would be an understatement to say that more work still needs to be done.
I recently sat down with a respected up and coming Mormon scholar who is mentoring me on a research project. We were going over important primary and secondary sources pertaining to early Mormon thought—particularly the Nauvoo-era—and soon realized that all the relevant secondary literature are not works explicitly on Mormonism but rather books that dealt with Mormonism indirectly while dealing the wider culture and environment; in short, there has been no work that has fully focused on the development of Mormon thought. Sure, there are several books and articles that touch on it (Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling, Alexander’s article on the development of Mormon theology, maybe a few others), but no large-scale—or even small-scale—treatment devoted entirely to LDS intellectual history.
Sadly, it seems that those who try to focus on early Mormon thought are based on polemics, trying to prove Brigham Young believed that Adam was God, that Orson Pratt taught many “kooky” things, or that Joseph Smith progressed from some form of “modalism” to an eventual “pantheistic” view of Gods. Indeed, most works on Mormon thought seem more demonstrative, showing that the early Saints believed a certain thing, rather than interpretive, trying to engage what that belief actually meant and how it fits into the larger historical milieu. Works like Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic World View might have attempted this type of approach, but in reality are quite shallow in their framework.
So, why is this the case? Why is work on Mormon thought so scarce and underdeveloped? To me, it seems a combination of several reasons. First is our inability to completely forget our conception of modern Mormon thought when viewing the past; perhaps subconsciously, many of us (particularly believing members) would like to hold some continuity from Joseph Smith to Thomas Monson. (We may also feel pressure from our Church and culture to reinforce this sense of continuity.) Second, connected to the first point and mentioned already above, the interpretation of early Mormon thought often gets stuck in polemics trying to prove or disprove that continuity, sensing that this issue is at the center of the LDS truth claims. And third, comparing Mormonism with its contemprary thought and environment runs the risk of losing its uniqueness–as well as, in some minds, its claim that all truth comes from revelation above.
Enough of my rambling. There are several questions I would like to see discussed:
Why do you think there has not been great work on Mormon intellectual history?
How do you feel we can escape this glaring gap in Mormon historiography?
In your opinion, what books transcend this problem? I know there are several books/articles/dissertations that do a decent job at dealing with early Mormon thought—which ones are the best?
 By this selection I made on the fly, you can see my bias for nineteenth century transatlantic thinkers.
 One exception I should point out is Grant Underwoods Millinarian World of Early Mormonism. This is, in my opinion, one of the only successful works dealing explicitly with Mormon thought, though it only explores one theme. Perhaps Phil Barlow’s Mormons and the Bible may also count in this regard.
 George Smith’s recent book is a great example of someone attempting a history of Mormon thought, yet failing to escape the snares of polemics and agenda.