More Metaconferencing: Sociality and the Periphery

By June 10, 2009

At the MHA conference a few weeks ago, an associate asked if I, as a never-married LDS male, were “hyper-aware” of single women at MHA. [1] I gave my standard spiel: I want to marry; feel strong social pressure to do so; and am into my third decade of post-pubertal celibacy and therefore am always aware of who does and does not wear a wedding/engagement ring. But, I didn’t feel any more aware at MHA and was, for better or worse, my normal self. It’s not the first time someone noticed that conferences might have social implications. In fact, in my MHA paper I argued that (what would today be called) district conferences shaped how Mormonism developed in Southeast Texas from 1898 to 1915 (and, presumably, later).

In 1928, thirty years after Mormon missionaries began (again) to work in Southeast Texas, the 15th annual Pioneer Day celebration at Williamson settlement, near Vidor, TX, drew 4,000 attendees with preaching, a seven-head beef barbeque, a rodeo, and a nine-hour dance. [2] In my paper I put out some tentative explanations how such an event, simultaneously so Mormon and so Texan, could come about. Thinking about church growth in colonial terms helps explain how Utah culture followed faith, repentance, and the Book of Mormon into the “hinterland.” [3]

Early on, the Mormon “empire” expanded by “gathering,” which meant converts went to the center at Salt Lake and then colonized territory on the periphery, under indigenous leadership. Later, Mormonism shifted from colonizing land to colonizing people. The whole Mormon Culture Region (MCR) became the center; “gathering” came to mean associating with other non-immigrating converts in groups with exogenous leadership: missionaries from the MCR. Subsequently, “gathering” meant joining a locally-led congregation comprised of convert and multi-generation members, some raised in the MCR and some not. Eventually, much of North America began exporting leadership and norms to the rest of the world. And so on with multiple MTCs and temples and satellite centers.

Back to Texas: how did Southeast Texas gathering sites acquire Utah-centric attributes before the Mormon diaspora? Early MCR missionaries imported instructions and exported money and people: a textbook colonial relationship. The rub is, they didn’t look like imperialists: they looked like hungry, tired boys in suits. Institutionally, power flowed from missionaries to members. The other twenty-three or so hours in the day, however, it flowed the opposite direction, as the Elders mostly depended on members for food, shelter, and contacts. Many of the members loved and were loved dearly by the missionaries-especially the middle-aged women, the “Texas Ma’s.” In the context of spiritual conversion and close personal relationships, cultural norms could spread by diffusion and accommodation rather than imposition. Additionally, in 1901 the four remaining missionaries began to “labor at present amoung the saints” rather than garner converts, which allowed for even deeper relationships. [4] The Elders’ vulnerability and authority worked together, along with their travel, to bind saints spiritually and culturally to Zion.

Few documents from members survive, so it is difficult to trace the Elders’ cultural impact. At best, we can say that some of their actions were consistent with colonial relationships. Conferences are one such example. Twice per year the conference presidency organized the conference-wide meetings, which were major social events lasting one to three days, with sometimes three or four days of travel on both ends. Mission leaders (all from the MCR) received reports and dispensed instruction, as did visiting dignitaries such as apostles and Relief Society general officers. A banquet lunch and socializing late into the evening complemented the formal activities. These minor religious pilgrimages emphasized the common Mormon identity, and the intra-conference friendships formed in the process reinforced allegiance to the organizing authority, from the missionaries all the way to Salt Lake. [5]

The intra-conference friendships also led to endogamy-as did missions (for males and females) by the early 1910s. Local missionaries and MCR missionaries had occasion to find their “last companion” in the field, which further developed the Mormon identity, enhanced connections to the MCR, and helped in the generational transition. Later, military assignments (especially in the 1940s) and, even later, BYU, played similar roles.

There are, of course, many other factors: control of bureaucracy, teachings about Zion, boosterism about life in the MCR, music, and so on. Conferences, though, played a key role in those first few years in solidifying a base for future growth-and for giving the local church an MCR flavor.

___________________________

[1] To be clear: the question came up in informal, jovial conversation; I cite it with permission. Also: I know the difference between a singles’ conference and an academic/professional conference. I believe in and strive to practice professionalism.

[2] Beaumont Enterprise, 1928 Jul 25. There were other Mormon clusters and colonies in the region; I cite the Williamson case as an example.

[3] Colonialism can also describe the relationship between Mormonism and the United States and for relationships within the church. The American/Mormon experience can be imagined as a competition between empires, each trying to colonize the other. America thought the Mormon Culture Region (MCR) “manifestly” belonged to it and that the Indian and Mormon “natives” should be pacified or removed. Mormons returned the favor, predicting that the “natives” on their “promised land”-the United States-would be converted or destroyed by the Lord.

[4] Folkman Diary, 1901 May 27; Duffin Diary, 1900 Nov 21, 1901 Nov 24, 28, 1902 May 25; Journal History of the Church, 1900 Nov 25, p. 2-3.

[5] See Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities on the pilgrimage effect.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. Fascinating work, Ed, and even better on a second hearing.

    Comment by Mark Brown — June 10, 2009 @ 8:32 pm

  2. At the MHA conference a few weeks ago, an associate asked if I, as a never-married LDS male, were “hyper-aware” of single women at MHA.

    The fact that the question even came up says good things about the future of Mormon studies, and can, at least a little bit, assuage fears about the “graying” of the audience/contributors at such gatherings. (Not sure it does any good for the fears of the graying singles, though! :))

    Comment by Kristine — June 10, 2009 @ 9:29 pm

  3. Holy heck, a seven-head beef barbecue, a rodeo and a nine-hour dance? That’s a Pioneer Day celebration!

    I see the initial question someone asked you in jovial conversation and your observations about endogamy among missionaries and so forth as related. Which is to say, that it is a peculiar type of Mormon who likes to attend Mormon studies conferences such as MHA. And it seems to me that that type of Mormon might have more success finding other Mormons of the opposite sex with similar perspectives in the Mormon studies milieu than in generic regional singles adult conferences.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — June 11, 2009 @ 10:04 am

  4. Thanks, Mark.

    Kristine: agreed. There were twenty or so students at the student reception, which seemed like a goodly number for this sort and size of conference.

    Kevin: Yes, they did know how to celebrate. I’ve never looked at festivals in Southeast Texas in particular, but it’s within the secondary Acadian Culture Region. For Cajuns of the period, a rodeo-like event, a huge meal, and hours and hours of dancing was the standard way of celebrating.

    On the endogamy: I acknowledge the logic (which is why I put them together in the first place) but I’m trying not to think about it so as to avoid awkwardness at future conferences.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — June 11, 2009 @ 10:59 am


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