JMH Roundtable on Writing Interdisciplinary Mormon History

By April 30, 2012

In the most recent issue of Journal of Mormon History, JI friend Rachel Cope put together a wonderful roundtable titled, “New Ways In: Writing Interdisciplinary Mormon History” (JMH 38, no. 2 [Spring 2012]: 99-144). “The writing of Mormon history,” she opined, “has undergone a series of transitions” (99). The most recent transition has been taking place in the past decade or so, as new interdisciplinary approaches have been introduced into the field of Mormon studies. The prior transition, what is typically called New Mormon History and whose shoulders we all stand upon, brought the academic study of Mormonism to new levels and will always deserve deep appreciation. But it was also, for the most part, dominated by the tools common during the New Social History that swept the historical profession in the 1960s and 1970s (when most New Mormon History practitioners experienced graduate training). While such an approach will remain critical to the field, new complimentary avenues are now being invoked, especially from the growing–if still nascent–field of religious studies. This roundtable, Cope explains, hopes to highlight more questions and possibilities by “asking several young scholars to explain how their particular disciplinary lens enriches approaches to and the evolution of Mormon historiography” (100). As with all thought-provoking and cutting-edge roundtables, this series brought a familiar feeling: conviction. I felt convicted in overlooking important questions and ashamed that I often maintain problematic and dated views of history, as I’ll explain below. But in that conviction, I am also enthused to thoroughly repent and correct my ways.

I love these types of discussions, so I thought it worthwhile to share my thoughts on each contribution and then open it up to other reactions. Due to space, I can only offer one paragraph for each essay–a pitfall that certainly means their sophisticated and nuanced arguments will be shortened and perhaps even caricatured. Oh, well.

No contribution convicted me more than Cope’s essay on Mormon women’s history (“Shifting the Plot: Possibilities in Mormon Women’s History). After giving a cogent overview of how women’s religious history has gone from the peripheries of religious history to near the center—though there is still further to go—Cope rightly notes how women’s history still maintains a sphere separate from Mormon history proper. “We must be asking what difference it would make,” she asks, “if we included women in narratives of Mormon history? What did women’s participation mean to the movement as a whole?” (103) When Mormon women are mentioned at all, they are typically understood in the same “separate-spheres ideology” that is finally (and thankfully) being dismantled in the academy. “As it stands,” Cope declares, “the story of Mormonism continues to focus on male leadership, as well as other…male-dominated spheres” (106). And instead of just kindly condemning JMH’s audience, Cope offers several helpful and practice steps to do better in the future, including turning our attention to the home and its influence, moving past the emphasis on women “victimhood,” and better utilizing the lessons Catherine Brekus offered last year in her brilliant discussion on female agency.

Second up to bat is our own Matthew Bowman (“History Through Liturgy: What Worship Remembers”). Besides an explicit demonstration of how the study of worship can illuminate Mormon history, the implicit and more important lesson is the necessity of understanding religiosity–the first of several appeals for “lived religion.” Because of a previous focus on social history, Bowman argues, “the history of Mormon religiosity has generally been neglected.” Things like how and when Mormons read scriptures, how they pray, how they experience ordinances and rituals, and, most importantly, “what these things said about how they imagined their community and their identities” (111). Central to this is a paradigm shift in how we understand historical Mormons. We must recognize that “religion is not, in fact, a set of ideas, because human beings are not simply thinking machines.” We have to better grasp traits that are harder to categorize: we are creatures who want, and love, and desire, and hate, and do all sorts of things for reasons that are never really clearly articulated in our minds but which, rather, emerge from the unconscious realm of ourselves that we don’t really control” (112). Such things are difficult to place in our neat organizational structures. We must better recognize religious action just as much as religious thought, because “it is in religious behavior that we really get at the ways religion governs what historical actors do; it is through religious behavior that the ripples of belief’s influence on the past are manifest.” (113)

In the next contribution, English scholar Amy Easton-Flake offers the merits of a literary approach (“A Shared Historicist Enterprise: Mormon History Through a Literary Lens”). “Approaching historical documents from a literary perspective,” she writes, “will open up a range of new questions with which to interrogate a text, particularly about its literary dimension” (115). Historians of Mormonism should pay closer attention to “how a text is constructed,” because the form uses offers an important insight into the views contained therein. A more sophisticated literary understanding of Mormonism’s rich texts, in sum, provide an important glimpse into how “the print culture that accompanied the Mormon Church almost from its inception played a crucial role in constructing and maintaining Mormon identity and community” (116). This should mean a closer look at things like novels, short stories, and other literary forms that often go neglected by historians, for they are crucial in reconstructing the worldview of past saints.

The second JIer in the collection, Ryan Tobler (Mormon History and ‘Lived Religion’), explains the general background and possibilities that lived religion offers. A dynamic and nearly open-ended field, Tobler gives the three main spheres of lived religion, each of which offer an important framework for Mormonism: “(1) the social and communal dynamics in conversation with religion, (2) cultural and symbolic systems that overlap with religion or (help) constitute it, and (3) the material dimensions of religious practice and performance” (121). Tobler then focuses on each sphere in turn, showing how they both shed light on Mormon history as well as how Mormon history provides an important example for each sphere. Importantly, while he notes that “a deep theoretical knowledge” may be required for this type of approach—something that has never been too popular in the MHA community—a more important lesson is “simple openness and appreciation for the capacity of disciplines like the social sciences to grant deeper or different insights into the religious lives of our historical subjects” (124). Well said.

In perhaps the most provocative essay, Rebecca de Schweinitz (“‘Where Nothing is Long Ago’: Childhood and Youth in Mormon History”) introduces JMH‘s readers to the woefully neglected field of New Children’s History. While she notes that the Mormon history community has paid some attention to youth and children, de Schwinitz rightly claims that, with few exceptions, “it has not encompassed the main paradigmatic organizing principles that currently drive the field” (128). She then offers three of those guiding principles: that childhood and youth are social constructions, that childhood analysis is best understood in reference to other forms of social analysis like race, class, and gender, and that children should be seen as active agents throughout their own lives, the lives around them, and the institutions in which they participate. This is likely brand-new stuff to most readers of JMH, and it should cause reflection not only in how we choose historical figures to focus on, but also how we understand their development, context, and ideas.

The final essay is the new Specialist in Women’s History for the LDS Church History Department, Kate Holbrook (“Religion in a Recipe”). More an example of this new provocative interdisciplinary approach than an argument for a specific methodology, Holbrook demonstrates the insights one can gleam from merely focusing on the recipes that religionists use. Building off of the lessons learned from Bowman and Tobler, this essay examines how religiosity is manifest in something as seemingly mundane as how one cooks. It is also is a wonderful example of what Rachel Cope called for: a reorientation of what we look at in order to include more historic participants and historical lessons. For instance, when comparing Mormon recipe books to other similar religions, Holbrook determines that “an emphasis on celebration and flavor distinguishes Mormons from some of these groups”—a revealing vantage point for religious comparative studies (142). “Recipes shed light on theologizing processes because they reveal specific decisions that an individual has made regarding the body in a larger cultural and religious context,” Holbrook writes (143). Plus, she includes what looks like a delightful recipe for a Rhubarb Ice Cocktail!

In her conclusion, Cope offers a summary point: “We argue that it is essential to focus on the personal and collective pilgrimages of the Mormon people and to consider how they viewed their relationships with God and others as they embraced their quests for salvation” (144). Indeed.

Now, there’s your summary. But please, please go read the original essays, because they are all tremendous and much better than my overview details. Now, the discussion: what stands out to you? What possibilities do you see with these approaches? Pitfalls? Are there other approaches that deserve similar attention?

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews JIers in Print Methodology, Academic Issues State of the Discipline


  1. Great overview, Ben. These articles gave me a lot of pause as well. I asked Terryl Givens while he was at BYU what the next step was for Mormon Studies, and he said it was applying Mormon Studies into the greater realm of Religion in the Humanities and Religious History. These are all great ways that we can focus on improving our writing and study in all disciplines, but especially as we move forward with Mormon History.

    This roundtable reminded me of the roundtable from The Journal of Mormon History 35:3 (Summer 2009), Part 2. I’m glad to see that there is a continued push for improvement.

    Comment by J Stuart — April 30, 2012 @ 9:16 am

  2. Thanks for the summary, Ben. Rachel did a good job of putting together a great group to highlight these issues.

    Comment by David G. — April 30, 2012 @ 12:33 pm

  3. Great overview, Ben. I think these are all important developments and I am busily trying to educate myself in these approaches. I wonder how you see this playing out among traditional Mormon history consumers and producers. That is to say, that I think that there were aspects of the New Mormon History that were greatly benefited by the amateur participants (e.g., an almost obsessive approach to slogging through obscure sources to gather details). How do you see these folks (of which I guess I am) engaging the newer trends?

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 30, 2012 @ 12:50 pm

  4. J: you are right to be reminded of the previous roundtable, “What Do We Do Now that New Mormon History is Old?” Rachel’s introduction says that this was a natural outgrowth of that discussion, and hopefully we will see more similar dialogues. I meant to do a post when the original roundtable surfaced a few years ago, but never got around to it.

    J: Great question. I think we can already see some of these new methodologies creeping into the work of amateur participants. The more exposure practitioners of Mormon history have to these approaches, the broader their influence. For instance, I think some of the elements of ritual studies have cropped up in recent amateur scholarship, as have the general approach of lived religion. (And a greater awareness of women’s issues could be easily implemented by all historians.) Even if the sophisticated tools aren’t always invoked, I think the general acknowledgement of new frameworks can have a far-reaching influence.

    Comment by Ben P — April 30, 2012 @ 2:07 pm

  5. Also, one more point to tack on in case I wasn’t clear before: I don’t think all historians need to pick up these type of methodological tools. They are just a variety of approaches that should be added to the already robust field of Mormon history.

    Comment by Ben P — April 30, 2012 @ 2:38 pm

  6. I think geography and political demography are going to be big interdisciplinary methods in the future. And I don’t just mean the wishy-washy study of sacred space or sacred landscapes. I mean the scientific study of how geographical features, transportation systems, diseases, population density/composition, and migration events affect the birth, spread, development, and demise of religions– and how religions, in turn, affect these geographic and demographic variables.

    I also think we’re going to continue to see a strong interest in religion’s intersection with business and politics.

    Comment by Christopher Smith — April 30, 2012 @ 5:49 pm

  7. As a consumer of Mormon history I always get nervous about the excitement of scholars on these topics. I know that at the PhD level things are theory-driven and employing cutting-edge approaches gains the respect of academic peers (which in turn advances one’s career), but what does it mean to those of us on the outside? Mormon history shedding light on American and other history likely gets more attention from other historians, but (I think) Mormons who read Mormon history generally like doing so because it presents us with neat facts and broad themes about . . . ourselves. I see myself enjoying a Mormon-specific history informed by broader themes much more then a broader-themed study informed by Mormon history. I’d prefer a work informed by theory rather than a book discussing theory. (I recognize these are two different matters, but they’re related insofar as changing directions in Mormon history.) If other consumers are like me – and I think many are – would these approaches hurt the market for Mormon history books, thus making it harder for some to get published? Or would the higher level of acclaim from outside Mormon history allow publishing to continue to grow, albeit in smaller printings (for libraries rather than homes)? I suppose that professors are less inclined to be ultimately persuaded by the commercial value of their work and its interest to consumers, but on some level I think it probably has to factor in to one’s work.

    I’m curious how those who adopt such approaches plan to integrate them into their work. For example, should I expect to see a book on LDS food history, an article on it, or merely the approach integrated into a work on a much broader theme?

    Comment by Craig M. — April 30, 2012 @ 9:44 pm

  8. Thanks for the run-down, Ben. I’m excited to dive into this when I get back in town. And I’m thrilled to see so many JIers and friends of JI participating in the panel.

    Craig, Mormon history is perhaps the least theory-driven subfield of history out there. I think it’s safe to say that your rank-and-file consumers of Mormon history will still have plenty of new social and narrative histories of the faith to read and enjoy.

    Comment by Christopher — April 30, 2012 @ 10:09 pm

  9. Interesting thoughts, CS; I’m curious what other methodological approaches could be highlighted.

    Craig: I would echo what Chris said, that Mormon history, as it is currently practiced, is about as devoid of theory as any historical subfield. I also don’t think that using these methodologies makes the history less interesting to the average consumer. For instance, Richard Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith uses some sophisticated theoretical tools, yet I still think it is quite readable. Outside of Mormon history, scholars like Jill Lepore, Eric Foner, and others can invoke theory while still being eminently readable and interesting.

    And as I mentioned in #5, I don’t think all historians should focus on these new theoretical models. That would be boring and bland. I’m asking for more variety. I also think that a majority of Mormon history books has focused on the lay Mormon audience–the type of reader you speak of–but we also need more addressed to the broader academy. The sign of a good field is a broad variety of approaches, audiences, and methods; the Mormon history field has a long way to go down that spectrum before we worry about going too far.

    Comment by Ben P — May 1, 2012 @ 3:53 am

  10. Christopher and Ben P – thanks for your reassurances. So long as the good reads keep coming I suppose I won’t have any qualms at all about what tools are underlying them. And I certainly understand wanting increased standing in the broader academy – that is important for you all as individuals and as a community.

    Comment by Craig M. — May 2, 2012 @ 8:38 am

  11. As a consumer of history and amateur historian, I am intrigued with the work of the New Mormon Historians. The Youth of the Noble Birthright are building on the work of the old Mormon historians and clearing new paths. I am pleased to see my lifelong thesis subject, Virginai Sorensen, referenced in the inportant work on childhood. Winner of the Newberry Medal and the Child Study Award, she was also praised for the children in her nine adult novels. Her last book, FRIENDS OF THE ROAD, grew from her stay in Tangier near the American School for the diplomatic corps. “Ill never again have a chance to know a great variey of children from six to sixteen,” she said. Her uncanny ability to create childrean’s characters never faltered.

    Comment by Mary L. Bradford — May 7, 2012 @ 5:04 pm


Recent Comments

wvs on News from the Mormon: “Congrats to Chris Blythe!”

David G. on Book Review: Colvin and: “Thanks, Charlotte!”

J Stuart on Book Review: Colvin and: “Can't wait to read the rest of the review in JMH. Thanks, Charlotte!”

Ben S on MHA 2020 Networking Materials: “Thanks for this.”

Th. on Book Review: Jake Johnson,: “. Just commenting on your first paragraph: Egad.”

Steve Fleming on A note on the: “No but haven't really looked.”