I’m making my way through Jeffrey Williams’s Religion and Violence in Early American Methodism: Taking the Kingdom by Force (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), an admittedly revisionist challenge to the current scholarship on early Methodism that highlights the rhetorical violence in the sermons, conversion narratives, and personal writings of Wesley’s disciples in the early American republic. I may consider posting a brief review of the book (and noting any potential avenues for research in Mormon studies it may suggest) when I complete it, but for the time being, I want to focus in on one line from the book’s foreword, authored by Catherine Albanese and Stephen Stein, editors of the Religion in North America series of which this book is a part.
Albanese and Stein note that “Methodism is understudied in American religious history and therefore deserves all the new attention it can receive” (p. x). While I, as an aspiring scholar whose research focuses on early American Methodism and Methodists, welcome such statements, I wonder at what point a religion (or a topic in general) graduates from understudied to “studied” (or “overstudied”?)? In some respects, it is difficult for me to believe that Methodism can still be considered understudied at all. Following the publication of Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity in 1989, there has been a veritable explosion of scholarship on Methodism and Methodists in 18th and 19th century America. Several important monographs on the subject—including those of Russell Richey, John Wigger, Lynn Lyerly, Christopher Owen, Dee Andrews, Christine Heyrman, and David Hempton—have vaulted Methodism into the scholarly spotlight. Methodists similarly occupy an important place in larger narratives of American religious history, from Mark Noll’s America’s God to Ann Taves’s Fits, Trances, and Visions. And within the last year, we have seen the publication of The Cambridge Companion to John Wesley and The Oxford Handbook of Methodist Studies. All of this, in part, is why I struggle to maintain that Methodism is, in fact, understudied. That does not mean that there isn’t research to be done—at least I hope so, otherwise I’ll need to change course halfway through my PhD program.
But I wonder about Mormonism. Is it understudied? Like Methodism, Mormonism has in the last couple of decades emerged from the corners of historians’ minds and now occupies an important place in American religious history. We’ve discussed here before Daniel Walker Howe’s observation that Mormon historiography is “gigantic and sometimes polemical.” And context is important here. Whether a certain topic is judged “understudied” by scholars probably depends a lot on who that topic is studied/understudied by. The second half of Howe’s comment is revealing here. Mormon historiography is “polemical” at least in part because so much of the research in the field has been conducted by those with an active interest in either proving or disproving the truth claims of the LDS church. There have long been, of course, faithful Latter-day Saints interested in investigating Mormon history to other ends—to reveal something about American religion or the American West, for example—and that number seems to be steadily increasing today. The last several years have also witnessed an increasing number of scholars with no LDS affiliation active in studying Mormonism. There are, as in the field of Methodist history, a number of important scholarly monographs on Mormonism, a forthcoming volume entitled Mormonism: A Historical Encyclopedia, and there are now Mormon Studies programs/offerings at more than one university in the United States.
But is Mormonism still understudied in some sense? If so, by whom? And when will Mormonism as a scholarly subject of study graduate to “studied”?