Is Mormonism “understudied”?

By June 4, 2010

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 OwenDee 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”?

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Comparative Mormon Studies Historiography State of the Discipline


  1. Nice post, Chris; these are important questions.

    I know this point has been made numerous times on the blog, but I definitely think Mormonism can be, on the one hand, “gigantic,” while on the other, “understudied.” It’s all about relevant questions, context, more relevant questions, and even more context. As problematic as categorizations are, ‘New Mormon History,’ in general, was more focused on the nuts and bolts of history, laying a rich foundation of that what’s, when’s, and who’s in Mormon history; and, of course, this will always (and should) continue. This has indeed provided a gigantic corpus of historical work that is as intimidating as it is useful–and, significantly, sometimes irrelevant to those outside the narrow disciplinary boundaries of Mormon history.

    However, there are many things that are still “understudied,” mostly relating to context, themes, frameworks, and theory, and I imagine this is the dynamic Albanese and Stein are hinting at with regard to Methodism. For example, just this past weekend at MHA demonstrated many potential avenues heretofore untouched in Mormon history: lived religion and children/women studies being the most prominent.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that a key component of being “studied” would entail numerous interdisciplinary tools, a better engagement with broader contexts, and new and exciting theoretical frameworks.

    Comment by Ben — June 4, 2010 @ 12:10 pm

  2. Gosh I’m verbose. My apologies.

    Comment by Ben — June 4, 2010 @ 12:11 pm

  3. First of all, if a book is published in that series, it must be written by a genius 🙂 But I suspect that Ben is correct in that they (I’m not sure which of them wrote this particular intro, but I know they take turns) are talking about multi-dimensional work with a heavily theoretical underpinning. I agree though that it does not seem particularly useful to refer to Methodism (or maybe anything else) as understudied. I also agree with Ben on the topic of Mormonism. It has received tons of attention, but how much it has actually been “studied” is an open question.

    Comment by SC Taysom — June 4, 2010 @ 4:59 pm

  4. Ouch, SC (your last sentence). Something is either understudied or overstudied depending on the importance one ascribes to the topic. It might be interesting to compare developments in Mormon and Methodists historiography. I’ve can’t say I’ve ever seen Mormonism referred to as understudied (has anyone here?)

    Comment by Steve Fleming — June 4, 2010 @ 7:27 pm

  5. Thanks, everyone, for the comments. I don’t have much time to respond at the moment, but Steve, IIRC correctly, Nathan Hatch’s Tanner Lecture at MHA (1993 or so?) compared Mormon and Methodist historiography. So it’s a little dated now, but might be a useful starting point.

    Comment by Christopher — June 4, 2010 @ 8:29 pm

  6. Ben and Taysom, I’m sure you’re both right on the mark re: method, theory, and context.

    This has indeed provided a gigantic corpus of historical work that is as intimidating as it is useful?and, significantly, sometimes irrelevant to those outside the narrow disciplinary boundaries of Mormon history.

    I actually think that is exactly what Hatch said in his Tanner lecture about the state of Mormon history in 1993.

    [T]hey … are talking about multi-dimensional work with a heavily theoretical underpinning.

    With this in mind, then, is Mormon still understudied? What books (or future books, if you feel like tooting your own horn, SC 🙂 ) in the corpus of Mormon historiography qualify as being based on a “heavily theoretical underpinning”? And, to continue the discussion started in Matt Bowman and Rachel Cope’s MHA session (and alluded to in Ben’s comment), what theoretical/methodological approaches most pressingly need to be utilized in studying Mormonism? Which hold the most potential for illuminating aspects of the Mormon past previous historians have either missed or muted?

    Comment by Christopher — June 4, 2010 @ 8:58 pm

  7. I am taking part in the Joseph Smith Summer Seminar currently hosted by Terryl Givens and I think what has struck me the most in our discussions thus far is how many areas of our thought are understudied. In the realm of theology, we have very little analyzing the development of thought on key issues. In terms of biography, we lack great biographies on many of the key figures of the church. Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon is as far as I can tell the first serious literary analysis of the Book of Mormon ( Aside from Terryl’s Very Short Introduction). You could probably not count how many similar studies of the bible are in print. The list could go on and on.

    Additionally, while not related to scholarship persay, we also lack a masterful work ala Mere Christianity that clearly and succinctly lays out the beauty of our church doctrine and theology. There’s a lot of work and ground to cover.

    Comment by Daniel Ortner — June 4, 2010 @ 9:38 pm

  8. Thanks for commenting, Daniel. I agree that the history of Mormon thought and theology remains understudied, but I wonder what end such research ultimately serves. Don’t misunderstand–I don’t doubt that the work being done currently on the subject will add to our understanding of Mormonism both past and present, but I’m interested in any specific ways you (or others) think such closer attention to theology will do so.

    Comment by Christopher — June 5, 2010 @ 10:40 am

  9. Thanks for the thoughtful post, Chris. Ditto to your last question.

    Comment by Jared T — June 5, 2010 @ 12:07 pm

  10. Approached from a broader spectrum, and defining the “who” as modern academics, Mormonism (and Methodism for that matter) are studied much more than even entire religious traditions such as Sikhism, Shintoism, and Confucianism. When cast in this light, I tend to find unqualified claims about a particular form of Christianity being “understudied” to be quite laughable. Not that the OP was suggesting that Mormonism is understudied. Neither is this to say that Mormonism doesn’t deserve more attention in other forums where it is less represented (such as theology, etc).

    Comment by smallaxe — June 7, 2010 @ 10:16 am

  11. That’s a good point, smallaxe, and one I hadn’t considered.

    Context of course matters here, and Albanese and Cohen are speaking specifically to American religious history. And considering that Methodists were the largest (and in several respects among the most influential) of the Protestant denominations in the 19th century, they probably deserve more attention than do adherents of various eastern religious traditions in narratives of Am. religious history.

    Comment by Christopher — June 7, 2010 @ 12:30 pm


Recent Comments

J Stuart on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Armand, your response made me unexpectedly emotional. Your work has shaped me as a scholar in many important ways, but your legendary willingness to engage…”

Ardis E. Parshall on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “I've enjoyed these three discussions -- crowned by this response by Armand Mauss himself. It is so representative of his ability and willingness to interact…”

Armand Mauss on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “I am pleasantly surprised and deeply grateful for the three assessments offered in this space this week by Gary Shepherd, Jana Riess, and Matt Bowman.…”

Roger T on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Since I work in Mormon studies, I tend to read a lot. It's impossible to keep up with everything being published, but over the past…”

Jeff T on Q&A with Taylor Petrey,: “Thanks, Taylor!”

Jeff T on The Mechanics of Applying: “Thanks, J!”