MHA and Me

By July 27, 2009

This is sort of a statement of contrition as well as an advertisement for the upcoming EMSA which probably none of us can make it to.

My first trip to MHA was at the end of my master’s program. My paper was on the early Mormon branches throughout North America and why we should study them. It was well received and my mother told me someone had told someone that mine was the best paper. I felt really smart.

The next year I gave a paper on what was to become my Church History article. I think I called it “Mormonism and the Great Revival.” This year I was in a small room (though it was full) which frustrated me because I felt so important.

The next year I was in a small room with very few people. I decided that MHA wasn’t important. It was too big and too parochial, I thought.

That year I signed up to give at paper at the inaugural session of EMSA. I got a grant from my university to go and took my wife (it only covered a fraction of the costs, but why not). I really enjoyed the conference and gave an updated version of what was to become my Church History article.

I went to EMSA again the next year in Finland and gave a paper called “Mormonism and the Christianity of the Folk.” The conference was very good again. I had to stay a few extra days because I could get a cheeper flight that way so I went to church on Sunday. I don’t think they got a lot of visitors and were curious why I was there. I talked with the bishop’s wife some who had the missionaries translate for me. Afterward they (the bishop’s wife and the missionaries) all asked me about the conference and my paper (they spoke pretty good English). She asked me if my paper was pro Mormon or anti Mormon and I tried to explain that wasn’t what the conference was about. She then asked me to explain my paper. This was a bad idea because I just couldn’t turn down the opportunity to talk about my stuff. After giving it a try for a minute or two and seeing looks of total confusion and perhaps horror on all their faces. I tried to say something positive or something.

The point is that we need a usable past. Comments to that end had bothered me at MHA. “Why can’t we focus on purely academic issues,” I would think. But, of course, separating academics from confession is just a rhetorical device; it’s certainly all “religious” to the participants regardless of how they talk about it.

This last MHA, though the insider talk was still around, I saw to a remarkable degree that participants could put sessions together of the highest academic quality. I sort of felt like I had missed out on something.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Thanks for the post, Steve. I can relate to the disconnect you felt as you tried to share your research with those Saints in Finland who wanted to know whether your research was “pro” or “anti.”

    We’ve debated some of these issues previously at the JI (i.e. the balance of “academic” and “insider” discourse at MHA and other Mormon studies conferences and symposia). I’m not sure if conclusions satisfactory to all will ever be reached, but there certainly value in continuing to revisit the discussion. Thanks for sharing your own thoughts.

    Comment by Christopher — July 27, 2009 @ 10:17 am

  2. Steve thanks for this.

    My last year at university I wrote an essay on Blacks and the Priesthood, focusing on the changes in the McKay era to the Revelation.

    I have to admit I worried about the reaction from my friends and relations when I talked about it. For the most part it was positive but nonetheless you still fret that people will some how decide you are some wacky liberal soon to be ex Mormon.

    Comment by JonW — July 27, 2009 @ 7:19 pm

  3. Is it possible to be a public historian if you work in the area of Mormon history? My recent conversations with people working on the Joseph Smith Papers has left me with the impression that they are writing and publishing primarily for scholars. And church historical sites seem like they are filled with missionaries rather than people with a masters degree in history. Am I missing examples of where individuals with academic training in history are employed in presenting Mormon history to the public or involving the public in the creation of Mormon history?

    Comment by Sterling Fluharty — July 27, 2009 @ 7:45 pm

  4. Sterling, many of the folks at the Utah State Historical Society represent those with graduate training in history who present Mormon history to the public, at least inasmuch as that history relates to Utah.

    Comment by Christopher — July 27, 2009 @ 11:13 pm

  5. Regardless, I think it is a useful skill to understand audience and how address different audiences. It’s a little tricky though.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 28, 2009 @ 12:08 am

  6. I think there might be an artificial divide (maybe more than one) between publishing for scholars and for the public. I intend my research for a scholarly audience, but I hope that it will percolate through to the tertiary literature. When I’m writing, I focus on scholarly standards and audiences, but when I’m choosing topics, I also consider the potential downstream popular audience.

    While we’re reminiscing… this year was my first MHA and I was scared stiff and stammering all the way through. But, dangit if there weren’t a lot of really nice, smart folks there being encouraging and insightful. I’m excited to go back.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — July 28, 2009 @ 3:02 pm


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