MHA 2011 Conference Preview: Paper Abstracts from JI Presenters

By May 23, 2011

In case anyone needed more motivation to attend. (Or, in my case, more regret at not being able to attend.)

What follows are short abstracts of the MHA papers being presented by Juvenile Instructor contributors, just to give you a sampling. There are numerous other Mormon history and bloggernacle celebrities taking part in the conference (including JI’s friends Sam Brown, Brittany Chapman, Rob Jensen, Janiece Johnson, and Margaret Young, to name a few), so keep your eyes peeled to the online program.


Steve Fleming, ??The Welfare of Our Souls?: Theurgy and the False Dichotomy between Religion and Magic? (session 1D, Friday 9:30-11:00)

The Smiths? folk practices have attracted considerable attention from scholars, though Lucy Smith?s statement that the Smiths ?went at trying to win the faculty of Abrac drawing Magic circles or sooth saying ? but while we worked with our hands we endeavored to remember the service of & welfare of our souls? is seen as particularly curious. Scholars often speak of the Smiths combining religion and magic, yet I will argue that the magic/religion divide is a false one. Instead scholars need to speak more specifically of particular rites the Smiths practiced. I will argue that the practices to which Lucy referred constitute theurgy, or the performance of rituals for the purpose of coming into the presence of the divine. And theurgy, I will argue, was a central purpose in Joseph Smith?s religiosity.

Ryan Tobler, “Lived Religion for the Dead: Early Baptism by Proxy and LDS Experience” (1F, Friday 9:30-11:00)

As part of my panel?s emphasis on ?lived religion,? my presentation will assess the practice of baptism for the dead among the Latter-day Saints, focusing on the period before the introduction of other vicarious ordinances in 1877. While much has been said theologically about the singular doctrine of baptism by proxy, little has been done to help appreciate how the doctrine informed the inner life, the religious thought and everyday experiences of contemporary Latter-day Saints.

In line with Robert Orsi?s argument that it is ?pointless to study particular beliefs or practices?apart from the people who use these ideas in the definite circumstances of their lives,? this paper will approach baptism for the dead in terms of religious experience. One of the pursuits of ?lived religion,? religious experience is the phenomenon at the crossing of religious thought and action. How did thinking about this novel idea influence the way Latter-day Saints? experienced their families and human society? Their conceptions of righteous action? Their sense of self? Their experience of mourning, death, and loss? How did the way that this ritual was practiced and performed ? its manner and location, the way it was regulated, the way it was documented ? establish and reinforce its meanings? I?ll be exploring these questions in an effort to weave the intellectual history of baptism for the dead together with a history of how it was experienced and practiced.

Jordan Watkins, ?’Look Well to the West!’ Constructing the Mormon Other in a Catholic Image” (session 4F, Saturday 8:00-9:30)

In this paper I argue that pre-exodus non-Mormon and anti-Mormon descriptions of the Mormons in the West, though developing in relation to actual Mormon beliefs and practices, relied on already existing imagined constructions of the Catholics in the West. In an attempt to ensure that the region would serve its destined role in Protestant America?s millennial future, Euro-American easterners organized a body of knowledge about the West that corresponded with attempts to master frontier environments. This body of knowledge explained as much about easterners and their hopes for the nation as it did about western environments and their potential for settlement. We might refer to this power dynamic between eastern minds and western lands as American Occidentalism. These views informed understandings about perceived non-American others in the West, including Catholics. Antebellum nativism, developing during the very period in which the myth of the West as the garden of the world became most determinative, directed individuals such as Lyman Beecher to warn Protestant American against western Popery. Though evolving in dialogue with actual Catholic beliefs and practices, imagined constructions of Catholics in the West revealed as much or more about the subject (eastern American Protestants) as the object (Catholics in the West). Mormon Zionism, inspiring interactions with Native American tribes and western movement to Missouri, contributed to the shape of pre-exodus anti-Mormon descriptions of the Mormons in the West. Joseph Smith was the American Mohammed more than the American Pope. And yet, ready-made anti-Catholic rhetoric served as a foundation on which anti-Mormons constructed understandings of the Mormons in the West in dialogue with the new religion?s idiosyncrasies. In turn, these imagined constructions provided a basis for later interactions between the eastern American federal government and Utah Mormons.


Matt Bowman, “To The Souls of All Those Who Partake: A communal interpretation of the Mormon Lord’s Supper, 1830-2000” (session 6E, Saturday 4:00-5:30)

The Lord’s Supper was the major battleground of the Protestant Reformation. It represented in microcosm both the ways that individuals understood their saving relationship with God, but also the ways that the religious community they were in understood itself. The Protestants wrenched from the Catholics not merely a different interpretation of the Lord’s Supper, emphasizing less the mystical presence of Christ and more its aspects as a sign and mediator of invisible grace, but a revised conception of who the Christian community at worship was. Work on the social implications of Reformation theology has revealed that these sorts of transformations had profound ramifications for the processes of European society. As the old notions of the Church in awe before the dramatic presentation of the transformed Host faded before Protestant conceptions of the faithful gathered at the Lord’s Table, how Europeans understood concepts of justice and debt, crime and punishment, rights and hierarchies, changed also.

This paper applies many of these same interpretive techniques to the ways Mormons have understood the Lord’s Supper throughout the course of the church’s history. It traces threads of both theology and practice, examining the ways Mormons have administered the Lord’s Supper as well as ways in which they have used theology to explain what precisely the Supper is. It links the meanings of these acts of ritual and discourse to the social and political evolution of the LDS Church, from a radical, separatist sectarian movement to an established church which prizes social stability. Participation in religious rituals like the Lord’s Supper both expresses the beliefs and values of a community, but also shapes the community in the image of those values; we can see, then, in the evolution of the Lord’s Supper the shifting ways in which the Mormons have understood themselves.

The paper draws upon LDS scripture and authoritative statements by leadership as well as sources from the grassroots, which describe and express opinion about the administration of the Lord’s Supper. It is part of an in-progress larger work – eventually a book – that interprets Mormon history in the light of its forms of worship.


Looks like a blast!

Perhaps this thread could be used for several reasons:

  1. Advertise any other sessions worth drawing attention to
  2. Share what you are particularly excited for
  3. Organize any last minute logistics or arrangements, including directions, carpooling offers, general questions, etc.
  4. As always, we are very welcome to award speculation (go Taysom!) and good-natured gossip.

Article filed under Conference/Presentation Reports Current Events


  1. I haven’t made all my decisions about which sessions to attend, but I do look forward to my first MHA conference, and meeting some of you folks.

    Comment by kevinf — May 23, 2011 @ 12:56 pm

  2. Ben, thanks for the good wishes, but apparently the book was passed over. I never heard anything from the awards committee, so I’m sure it’s going to another worthy piece of scholarship.

    Comment by SC Taysom — May 23, 2011 @ 1:27 pm

  3. Wow. That is, in all sincerity, a travesty. Speechless.

    Comment by Ben — May 23, 2011 @ 1:50 pm

  4. If Steve’s book is out of the running (truly a shocker), then here are my predictions:

    Best Book: Reid Neilson, Early Mormon Missionary Activities in Japan

    Best First Book: Mark Staker, Hearken, O Ye People

    Best International Article: Kim B. Östman, ?From Finland to Zion: Immigration to Utah in the Nineteenth Century?

    Best Documentary: Edward Leo Lyman, ed., Candid Insights of a Mormon Apostle: The Diaries of Abraham H. Cannon, 1889-1895

    Lyon Award for best Article: Dave Hall, ?A Crossroads for Mormon Women: Amy Brown Lyman, J. Reuben Clark, and the Decline of Women?s Activism in the Relief Society?

    Best Dissertation: David Howlett, “Parallel Pilgrimage at Kirtland Temple”

    Best Biography: I’m drawing a blank here. Any suggestions?

    Anyone else want to take a stab at it?

    Comment by Ben — May 23, 2011 @ 3:12 pm

  5. This is going to be awesome. Sad you can’t be there, Cambridge man.

    Comment by Liz — May 23, 2011 @ 8:20 pm

  6. Looks like a delightful program. Count me among the lamenting non-attenders.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — May 23, 2011 @ 9:59 pm

  7. Writing from gorgeous St. George–Really excited about this! We are adding some color to the conference this year with _I Am Jane_. In Springfield, Darius was the only African American Mormon in attendance. Our cast (including ten African American Mormons) arrives tomorrow.
    Very excited to see my online friends in person!

    Comment by Margaret Blair Young — May 26, 2011 @ 7:01 pm

  8. Margaret: you’re make me even more envious!

    Comment by Ben — May 27, 2011 @ 6:00 am


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