“Mormon history?s (and historians?) movement out of the margins”: The State of Mormon History and Mormon Historiography

By February 19, 2010

In yesterday’s Inside Higher Ed, Kevin Schultz and Paul Harvey explore what they see as the paradox of the current state of American religious history. On the one hand, more historians appear to be engaging religious history than in past years. They note, for example, that according to a recent AHA report, “religion now tops the list of interests that historians claim to have as their specialty” and point to a number of stellar offerings recently published in the field.Yet in spite of the increase in both quantity and quality of religious scholarship over the last several years, “within mainstream historiography [religion] has been basically left behind.” On this point, the authors point to (among other things) Jon Butler’s 2004 survey of American history textbooks, which found that religion is granted much attention in early American history (pre-Civil War), but only scant attention in more recent history. “In a sense,” they summarize, “religion is everywhere in modern American history, but nowhere in modern American historiography.”

The article is well worth the read, but it is only a summary of their larger analysis published in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. In that fuller treatment, Schultz and Harvey spend some time discussing Mormon history and historiography. They explain that “examinations of America?s religious pluralism have paved the way for increased focus on two outsider religions, Judaism and Mormonism, our second historiographical trend.” I think their analysis is fair, both in its recognition of important developments in recent Mormon historiography (they rightfully, if a bit too generally, credit Bushman with demonstrating “how scholars who happen to have ‘Mormon DNA’ can speak to a larger audience of historians and the general public”) as well as in its nuanced critiques (they suggest that Mormon historiography has only “moved partially away from provinciality” in the recent past (emphasis mine)).

I thought JI readers would be interested in what they had to say, though, so I am including the relevant portion below. I’ll add my own reaction that the very recognition of the state of Mormon historiography by scholars from outside the tradition who do not research Mormon history is both significant and (for those of us with a vested interested in the matter) encouraging.

These examinations of America?s religious pluralism have paved the way for increased focus on two outsider religions, Judaism and Mormonism, our second historiographical trend. In recent work, Mormon historiography has moved partially away from provinciality, focusing instead on placing Mormonism within the boundaries of mainstream culture. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is, after all, the fourth largest church in the country today. But there is a reason for the provinciality of some Mormon history: Mormons have emerged only recently from the confines of the Rocky Mountains to play a significant role in the life of twentieth-century American politics and culture. Nevertheless, stellar works of Mormon history, notably Richard Lyman Bushman?s new biography of Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (2005), show how scholars who happen to have ?Mormon DNA? can speak to a larger audience of historians and the general public. A recent dialogue in the Journal of American History between Bushman and Jan Shipps, the foremost non-Mormon interpreter of LDS history, gives further evidence of Mormon history?s (and historians?) movement out of the margins, even if not quite to the mainstream. In this case, religion (by definition) is everywhere, and the serious scholarly engagement with it (largely thanks to Bushman and other talented Mormon historians) has become central to historiographical dialogue. This work not only illuminates the period of Mormonism?s founding, but it also shows how Mormonism was both a foil for mainstream Protestantism (in, say, forcing it to define its boundaries on plural marriage) and, recently, as a key player in the Religious Right, helping to fund such causes as the anti-gay marriage movement in California.

Article filed under Comparative Mormon Studies Historiography State of the Discipline


Comments

  1. Richard Bushman, I’m sure many would point out, has far more than just Mormon “DNA.”

    Comment by John Turner — February 19, 2010 @ 1:07 pm

  2. In reading the shorter article, this question stuck out:

    …when we move from the mainstream to the margins, does it become safer to introduce religion as a central actor in people?s lives?

    I think that for now, the answer to their question is still “yes”. I kind of get the impression that we as Mormons take a perverse pleasure in being marginalized. Kind of a “Look at us, we’re almost normal, but not quite!” Friendly, fringe-dwelling trendsetters, we are.

    Comment by kevinf — February 19, 2010 @ 1:25 pm

  3. Nice find, Chris. For my American Religious Historical Canon course, these are exactly the kinds of questions we’ve been asking. We’ve been rereading some of the old historical treatments that attempt a synthesis of American religious history, and I’ve been fascinated with the migration of Mormonism over time – starting at the margin (or sometimes off the page entirely) and slowly coming into historian’s classification systems and narratives. I elected to focus on Mormonism, and so I’m actually in the middle of a project that traces Mormonism specifically through mainstream historical writing.

    Comment by Ryan T — February 19, 2010 @ 5:13 pm

  4. Awesome, Ryan. I hope you have plans to publish that. JMH would be the obvious choice, but I think you could find another journal interested as well, if you approached it the way Schultz and Harvey have here.

    Comment by Christopher — February 19, 2010 @ 6:03 pm

  5. Thanks, Chris. I find the paradox fascinating as well. More historians writing on religion and yet their works aren’t making much of an impact on how textbooks are written. I think there are two phenomena at play here. First, religious historians, like most subfields, tend to be insular, engaging their own historiography without thinking critically about how their research challenges textbooks and syntheses, which concentrate primarily on politics and economics. Second, in relation to the first point, the writers of textbooks and syntheses are for whatever reason not religious historians (Howe I think is a notable exception), and as such don’t recognize the importance of religion in their accounts. This is especially the case I think for modern historians such as David M. Kennedy, Alan Brinkley, and James Patterson, who are primarily political and economic historians (with some dabbling in social history).

    Ryan, sounds like a fun project. If you haven’t looked at it, you should look up Steve Fleming’s article in Mormon Historical Studies from a few years back. He looks at some of those issues.

    http://www.mormonhistoricsitesfoundation.org/publications/studies_spring2003/MHS_Spring2003_American%20Religion.pdf

    Comment by David G. — February 19, 2010 @ 9:58 pm

  6. Thanks for pointing out this article. I agree that this is quite a significant development.

    Comment by aquinas — February 19, 2010 @ 11:14 pm

  7. Steve’s article totally skipped my mind, David. It is worth the read, indeed. Thanks for linking to it.

    Comment by Christopher — February 19, 2010 @ 11:36 pm

  8. Thanks, Chris. I am looking to publish, and I’d like to move a little more mainstream, but we’ll see. This article does provide a nice model.

    And David, thanks for the heads up on Steve’s work. It’s a great article, and it looks like he’s broken a lot of ground.

    Comment by Ryan T — February 20, 2010 @ 10:15 pm

  9. Thanks guys.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — February 21, 2010 @ 4:29 pm

  10. Thanks for highlighting this discussion, Chris. I hope to read up on it more soon.

    Comment by Jared T. — February 22, 2010 @ 12:01 pm

  11. Steve, I’d be curious to hear your reflections on the last decade of Mormon historical scholarship (since it’s been 7 years since your article was published). There have been some significant works, both those focused solely on Mormonism (RSR, People of Paradox, Politics of Am. Religious Identity, among others) and larger treatments of American history/religious history that feature Mormonism to varying degrees (Howe’s What God Hath Wrought, Noll’s America’s God, etc). How do they fit into your framework?

    Comment by Christopher — February 22, 2010 @ 12:03 pm

  12. Chris, I was worried someone might ask me that :). The last 4 years I haven’t done American stuff at all or much Mormon stuff either. It’s been theory and early modern and medieval Europe. So RSR is the only one of the books you mentioned that I’ve read.

    Nonetheless, from David’s review of Howe, it looks like it was another big step forward in not just locating Mormonism in the burned-over district and communal movements, but integrating it into a lot of other themes. I think that’s a really big deal.

    We should note that non-Mormon scholars have praised Mormons for doing good non-apologetic work since Arrington. Yet I see a trend with the younger scholars. There was a tendency for earlier Mormon scholars to get their degrees then focus pretty solely on Mormonism thus becoming pretty historiographically isolated. It seems to me that this current crop is working hard to get stuff in broader journals and engage in other topics. Last year’s MHA had a broader historiographical focus than I had seen before. Most Mormon scholars aren’t interested in that and that’s okay, but I think it’s good for Mormon scholarship to have a solid group that will be more integrated.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — February 22, 2010 @ 3:17 pm

  13. Jan Shipps, “the foremost non-Mormon interpreter of LDS history”? Give me a break: Shipps may be a great water-carrier for the brethren and adept at whipering sweet nothings in Mormon ears, but she’s a sociologist, and not a great one at that. As Trent Harris told me after filming an interview with her, on things Mormon, “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.” For prominence, my vote for this title would go to Dan Howe. For sheer impact, I’d award the laurels to Bill MacKinnon.

    Will Bagley

    Comment by Will Bagley — February 22, 2010 @ 4:26 pm

  14. Thanks, Steve; that’s helpful. You may now return to your readings in European religion and theory. 🙂

    Will, we get it. You don’t like Shipps. That’s fine; you’re more than entitled to your own opinion of her as a person and her scholarship. Others disagree on both counts, though, and despite the blog’s name, this really isn’t the place for your juvenile jabs at Shipps. The fact remains that she is the foremost non-Mormon interpreter of LDS history by a long shot, if we define “foremost” as “most often cited” and “most often read” non-LDS interpreter of Mormon history. To my knowledge, Howe has not written anything on Mormon history, aside from his excellent, but largely synthetic inclusion of Mormonism in his scholarship (see David’s review of What God Hath Wrought on this point). And while Bill MacKinnon is a fine historian who has made numerous contributions to our collective understanding of Mormon and Utah history, his work isn’t on the radar of most religious historians.

    Perhaps you could explain a bit more your take on this?

    Comment by Christopher — February 22, 2010 @ 5:39 pm

  15. Will, how many times has MacKinnon been on RadioWest? I usually judge my scholars by the number of times they appear alongside Doug Fabrizio.

    Comment by BHodges — February 23, 2010 @ 5:55 pm

  16. Blair,

    You sure you want to use Fabrizio as the gold standard? I was surprised to learn Bill hasn’t ever been on RadioWest–I need to work harder to get the KITW authors on, obviously. Shipps has been on three times. But Ken Sanders has been on 27 times.

    I’m puzzled as to why juvenile jabs at me are OK but comments are not: I pointed out that Shipps’s serial misinterpretations disqualify her from being “the foremost non-Mormon interpreter of LDS history.? Granted, Jan Shipps may be the sacred cow of religious history, but being on everybody’s Rolodex doesn’t make her a good historian. I’m glad the denizens of this blog are above writing “largely synthetic” history–as in “not natural or genuine; artificial or contrived: counterfeit”–but I fail to see how any historian can avoid trying to synthesize the original sources and latest interpretations–which is what Howe does very well and Shipps does not at all. Plus, I’ve got a soft spot for “Danny Howe,” as Dale Morgan called him, because Morgan thought how, the son of his original patron Maurice Howe, was the brightest prospect he knew in the history business. And whaddaya know: the guy won the Pulitzer.

    As for MacKinnon, yes, his work isn?t on the radar of most religious historians. The best maybe. But that was no more the point than saying Shipps isn’t on the radar of most military historians. But as far as actually INTERPRETING LDS history, go take a look. Or is finding new evidence and drawing new conclusion passe?

    Will

    Comment by Will Bagley — February 26, 2010 @ 8:05 pm

  17. Thanks for the response, Will.

    I?m puzzled as to why juvenile jabs at me are OK but comments are not

    I certainly hope you did not read my response to you as a juvenile jab at you. If that’s the case, let me assure it was not intended as such, and I admit to having difficulty trying to figure out how you could get that from what I said.

    Granted, Jan Shipps may be the sacred cow of religious history, but being on everybody?s Rolodex doesn?t make her a good historian.

    Of course it doesn’t. Again, others disagree, but that is beside the point here. The fact that she’s on everybody’s rolodex, though, does in fact make her the foremost non-Mormon interpreter of LDS history. “Foremost”–as in “the most prominent in rank.”

    I?m glad the denizens of this blog are above writing ?largely synthetic? history

    No one said that.

    as in ?not natural or genuine; artificial or contrived: counterfeit?

    No, as in historical synthesis, Will. Howe’s What Hath God Wrought (his only book to really engage Mormonism in any substantial way) was historical synthesis–meaning not a monograph, but a synthesis of existing scholarship.

    I fail to see how any historian can avoid trying to synthesize the original sources and latest interpretations?which is what Howe does very well

    You’re right. Howe succeeds wonderfully. His book is first rate, and well deserving of the Pullitzer it won. I’ve praised his work on this blog and elsewhere repeatedly, and used his book as a text for a class I TA’d/taught last year. He is an excellent scholar, an adept historian, and from everything I hear, a wonderful person.

    As for MacKinnon, yes, his work isn?t on the radar of most religious historians. The best maybe. But that was no more the point than saying Shipps isn?t on the radar of most military historians.

    Actually, in an article on the state of RELIGION in current narratives of U.S. history, that is the point. If Schultz and Harvey had been analyzing military historiography, it would have been remiss to ignore MacKinnon’s scholarship.

    But as far as actually INTERPRETING LDS history, go take a look. Or is finding new evidence and drawing new conclusion passe?

    I have taken a look. I’m familiar with MacKinnon’s schlolarship. That’s why I praised it in my earlier comment.

    Comment by Christopher — February 26, 2010 @ 10:11 pm


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