Microhistory and Mormon Studies

By August 31, 2010

As you might be able to tell from my recent posts, I have recently been contemplating historical theory and the historian’s craft, especially as it relates to Mormon history. I am particularly interested in historiographic methods that have not, as of yet, been adopted in Mormon studies. (See here, for instance.) Today, after reading Jill Lepore’s evocative essay “Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography,” I am contemplating the benefits of microhistory.[1]

Microhistory has been an emerging field as of late, especially with the diversification of cultural and social history. In its most basic sense, it is the study of a rather narrow topic as a way to explore broader themes. These studies could include an isolated town, a limited timeframe, or a single individual. Leading microhistorians include John Demos, Carlo Ginzburg, Laurel Ulrich, as well as BYU?s (and Times and Seasons?) own Craig Harline. Using the methodology of biography as a comparative lens, Lepore outlines the benefits of microhistory while at the same time trying to better define the broader approach. At the risk of simplifying Lepore?s engaging exploration of the methodology, I will just list her four ?propositions? of the difference between biography and microhistory:

1. ?If biography is largely founded on a belief in the singularity and significance of an individual?s contribution to history, microhistory is founded upon almost the opposite assumption: however singular a person?s life may be, the value of examining it lies in how it serves as an allegory for the culture as a whole.?
2. ?Biographers seek to profile an individual and recapitulate a life story, but microhistorians, tracing their elusive characters through slender records, tend to address themselves to solving small mysteries about a person?s life as a means to exploring the culture.?
3. ?Biographers generally worry about becoming too intimate with their subjects and later betraying them; microhistorians, typically denied any such intimacy, tend to betray people who have left abundant records in order to resurrect those who did not.?
4. ?A biographer?s alter ego is usually the subject of the biography, while a microhistorian?s alter ego may be a figure who investigates or judges the subject. For this reason, a microhistorian may be a character in his own book.? (141)

Though Lepore devotes much of her article to the methodology of biography, that is not my focus here. (Which is a shame, because biography is such a popular approach in Mormon history and deserves attention—perhaps a future post.) I wish to rather explore the benefits of microhistory, and hopefully start a discussion on its potential, progress, virtues, or vices of such an approach.

One of the obvious benefits is the ability to sidestep some of the common snares of Mormon historiography. With microhistory, one does not have to take a stand on if Joseph Smith was a prophet or a fraud, whether Brigham Young’s teachings were necessarily racist or not, of whether Joseph Fielding Smith’s views were a shift or continuation of traditional Mormon theology. The historian does not have to fully divulge their personal stance?or ?declare one?s allegiance,? as I?ve previously discussed. While many examples could be mentioned, what comes directly to my mind is D Michael Quinn’s struggle to be fair with J Reuben Clark, an individual who was directly opposite intellectually than Quinn himself.

The second benefit I?d like to highlight is it forces one to engage larger themes. Rather than just focusing on a specific Mormon event or individual for their own sake, microhistory enables one to broaden both the implications and the relevancy of that topic. This requires a better understanding of the broader context?a virtue traditionally missing in Mormon historiography?and is an important step in the development of Mormon history. Jan Shipps commented how such a step is necessary for the field to emerge from the ?provinciality? of the past into a ?new sort of Mormon history.?[2] One of the great achievements of New Mormon History was using broader contexts to better illuminate Mormonism?now it is time to use Mormonism to further illuminate the broader context.

Before I open up the discussion, I should highlight a couple of the best examples of microhistory in Mormon studies. Kathleen Flake, in her book on Reed Smoot, uses the isolated event of the Mormon apostle?s senatorial seating as a way to engage broader issues of American religious identity in the progressive age. More recently, Laurel Ulrich has utilized a single Mormon quilt from 1857 while exploring the broader issues of faith, family, and national tensions. I?m sure other examples could be easily identified.[3]

Now, what advantages do you see such an approach can offer Mormon history? What are some of the potential pitfalls? What authors and texts do you feel do the best at utilizing microhistory?


[1] Jill Lepore, ?Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography,? Journal of American History 88 (June 2001): 129-144. See also here.

[2] Jan Shipps, ?Richard Bushman, the Story of Joseph Smith and Mormonism, and the New Mormon History,? Journal of American History 94 (September 2007): 516.

[3] Kathleen Flake, The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2003); Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, ?An American Album, 1857,? American Historical Review 115 (February 2010): 1-25, summarized here.

Article filed under Cultural History Methodology, Academic Issues State of the Discipline


  1. Nice post, Ben. An obvious example of a scholar using a small Mormon story to illuminate a national trend is Jared Farmer’s On Zion’s Mount. While we mostly talk about Farmer getting the Parkman Prize, he also won the 2009 Award of Merit from The American Association for State and Local History. To paraphrase, Farmer acknowledges that Utah is weird, but it is weirdly typical. He concentrates on a broad theme that Mormons have participated in–the European colonization of North America–and demonstrated how Mormons, like other Euro-Americans, displaced Native Americans and their lanscapes and then invented a new landscape and themselves as the new Natives. Here is a link to some of his ideas on microhistory.

    Comment by David G. — August 31, 2010 @ 9:05 am

  2. Very interesting topic, Ben — sounds like it opens doors to a lot of new, uh, microtopics for aspiring LDS historians. Turns out I’m just now reading John Demos’s The Enemy Within: 2,000 Years of Witch-hunting in the Western World, which I now realize (given your post) seems to use the microhistory approach in some chapters.

    I like the contrast between biography and microhistorical use of a biographical story. You noted Flake’s book on Reed Smoot as an example. How about Newell Bringhurst’s Brigham Young and the Expanding American Frontier?

    Comment by Dave — August 31, 2010 @ 9:19 am

  3. David: thanks for bringing up Farmar. I have yet to read his book–a shame, I know–so it didn’t come immediately to mind. However, as you point out, it is most relevant; both as an effective example of mormon micro history specifically, and as an award-winning example microhistory in general.

    Dave: I have not read Bringhurst’s book, so I can’t really judge. Coincidentally, Demos was the graduate advisor of Lepore (whose article I cite above), and is one of the “founding fathers,” if you will, of this approach.

    Comment by Ben — August 31, 2010 @ 10:11 am

  4. I am, as you know Ben, an advocate of microhistory, and like what you’ve laid out here. The foremost danger, as I see it, is the risk of the intended microhistory instead becoming merely a biography or a history of a certain locale, while losing focus of the original intent—to shed light on a larger history.

    I’ll also put in a plug here for Ron Hoffman, Mechal Sobel, and Fredrika Teute’s edited volume, Through a Glass Darkly: Reflections on Personal Identity in Early America (UNC Press for OIEAHC, 1997). The several essays in it provide excellent examples of microhistory done right. I’ve mentioned these before, but Jon Sensbach’s work on the Afro-Moravian Atlantic world (Rebecca’s Revival) and Allan Greer’s study of Catherine Tekakwitha (Mohawk Saint) are also excellent examples.

    Comment by Christopher — August 31, 2010 @ 11:10 am

  5. Now it is time to use Mormonism to further illuminate the broader context.

    An astute observation, Ben. It seems there’s a lot to think about with this effort. As you say, Mormons in history have gotten largely insular treatment – and they were generally an insular people. It will take some rethinking and a more nuanced view of Mormonism to enable it to be reflective of the context outside itself and to draw some of these connections.

    On the level of popular history, it’s worth noting that microhistories and biographies, with their prominent human elements, engage their readers. If they can be written to introduce thought about broader themes to a general audience, they would do a great service.

    Still thinking…

    Comment by Ryan T. — August 31, 2010 @ 12:26 pm

  6. I’m reading Ginzburg’s Cheese and the Worms right now, as it’s gained a broad prominence for the study of the history of reading practices. I think Ginzburg’s detailed examination of one individual is fascinating, but I think it also raises questions about possible pitfalls of microhistory. It’s not at all clear to me that the subject of the book is in any way representative of contemporary peasants or millers, and I don’t find the ascription of various beliefs to a pre-Christian, European oral culture to be at all convincing. In this case, I’m not sure how much one extremely interesting tree tells us about the forest.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — August 31, 2010 @ 1:25 pm

  7. ?Now it is time to use Mormonism to further illuminate the broader context.?

    Thanks Ben, I’m currently reading and enjoying your article on early Mormon angelology, which I think exemplifies this approach.

    On perhaps a deeper level, it could be argued–and has been argued–that Mormonism or Mormon Studies ultimately needs to provide a critical perspective that can be used to look at anything, whether or not it is a broader context within which Mormonism fits. Givens? _When Souls Had Wings¬¨_ is an example of what a Mormon perspective can bring to the history of Western thought.

    But also I have to say I have a bit of a problem with this ?Now it is time to use Mormonism to further illuminate the broader context? way of thinking. I agree it is a good time in our historiography start doing some of this, but I also resist seeing it as a Whiggish trajectory. I remember well when I took a history class on the ancient near east and the professor dismissed all modern history as ?currrent events? written with limited historical perspective. Unless you are a cosmologist, someone can always tell you that now it is time for you to place your subject within a broader context. Also, broader contexts often have a strong flavor of historical fad. I?ve appreciated the turn in American history toward the broader context of Atlantic history and I found many of the results quite valuable. But I understand that many historians on the eastern rim of the Atlantic basin are in reaction to the American turn toward Atlantic history and are focussing on continental context rather than Atlantic context. In the end, what counts as a legitimate subject depends on class enrollments. I seriously study American history and genuinely value it in and of itself. But I?m not afraid to admit that I value American history even more for helping me to understand Mormon history. I doubt I?m alone here–even among those trying to make a career in the history profession.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — August 31, 2010 @ 2:00 pm

  8. Jonathan and Chris bring up potential dangers with this approach. With Chris’s problem, the historian loses sight of the larger picture; with Jonathan’s the historian generalizes the larger picture. Both are definite pitfalls, and must be kept in mind. The best solution, in my mind, has to be a better understanding of the broader context. While the single individual is part of the study, so must be the environment she is supposed to represent. If Ginzburg doesn’t succeed in this–and I have not read the book, so I can’t say if he does or doesn’t–then that is a result of his failure to fully understand the broader culture.

    The biggest potential problem I see with the approach is the potential to homogenize a culture. Perhaps the biggest pitfall of the old social history was the inability to recognize the heterogeneity of past cultures, and the last two decades of historiography or so has worked to overturn that. Thus, microhistorians must remember not to overstate generalizations of broader contexts.

    I think Gordon-Reed’s Hemingses of Monticello is a spectacular example of this approach done right. Though focusing on a single family, each page is packed with deep research of the larger world, and it is obvious that she can be trusted in her descriptions of the surrounding environment.

    Oh, and thanks, Chris, for the excellent suggestions for other examples of exceptional microhistory.

    Ryan: I think you are exactly right that this has great implications for popular history. I know I have found several of the best microhistories not only insightful, but extremely engaging.

    Comment by Ben — August 31, 2010 @ 2:06 pm

  9. Mark: I think you are exactly right about the need for balance here. This approach is not for everyone–nor is it meant to be the only approach for a single author. John Demos comes to mind as a historian who can speak in both languages. Provincial histories will always have and important place in both Mormon history and history in general.

    Further, I not only think that both the broad and narrow perspectives of history can coexist, but that they need each other. The latter builds the foundation, makes sure all the details are in line, and challenges generalizations; the former gives a wider angle, makes larger connections, and can make the study more relevant to a larger segment of people.

    Comment by Ben — August 31, 2010 @ 2:14 pm

  10. yep

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — August 31, 2010 @ 4:02 pm

  11. In the end, what counts as a legitimate subject depends on class enrollments.

    So, so true.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — August 31, 2010 @ 6:02 pm

  12. All historians/scholars choose topics according to their interest and there really isn’t any intrinsic reason why one topic is more valuable than another.

    Ben does describe a lot of my interests, however. I started out trying to do some microhistory stuff on Mormons in the Philadelphia area and am now engaged in trying to apply what I learned there very broadly. In fact, I’m thinking along the lines of Carlo Ginzburg. Though Cheese and Worms is considered a highly innovative microhistory, Jonathan, Night Battles and Ecstasies will give you a better sense of his overall project and influence.

    Such an approach does have its draw backs as I blogged about here.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 31, 2010 @ 6:50 pm


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