Mormon Studies’ Growth in the Past Ten Years: Institution Building

By January 1, 2020

I didn’t know what Mormon Studies was in December 2009. Sure, I had just taken a course on American Christianity at BYU, but it hadn’t caused me to think much about the academic study of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or any of the other branches that connect to Joseph Smith’s religious ideas. Now, a decade later, it strikes me that the field has risen considerably in the eyes of the academy and in the estimation of non-academic Latter-day Saints.

I believe the strength of Mormon Studies publications and the venues in which they appear is one of the most important developments of the past ten years. We’ve passed the point where a press will take on a Mormon Studies project just for book sales. Books on Mormonism are now published regularly by university press catalogues, and not just traditional Mormon Studies powerhouses like the University of Illinois Press, the University of Utah Press, or the University of North Carolina Press, but with Harvard University Press, Liveright/Norton, Oxford University Press, University of Nebraska Press, and the University of Chicago Press.

Senior scholars outside of the Church History Library and BYU are writing about Mormon Studies (there have always been a few scholars unconnected to the LDS Church writing histories, but there are far more now than there were in 2009). For instance, Colleen McDannell’s Sister Saints won the prestigious Mary Nickliss Prize in U.S. Women’s and/or Gender History from the Organization of American Historians. Also, behind the scenes, her work in graduate seminars has helped students publish nearly a dozen articles on Mormon history. Indeed, one of the greatest benefits of more diverse scholars participating in Mormon Studies is that they foster students to create hubs of research interest in Mormonism outside of Mormon institutions. Mormon Studies will never overtake Catholic Studies, Jewish Studies, or the history of Protestants in American history or American religious history, but it’s now a field where scholars in these other fields are aware of developments within Mormon Studies.

Furthermore, the Journal of Mormon History, Mormon Historical Studies, BYU Studies, and Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought have published consistently strong issues, but perhaps just as importantly to the field of Mormon Studies, articles are appearing in periodicals like the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Religion and American Culture, Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture, and Nineteenth-Century Studies.  Sources tell Juvenile Instructor that American religion journals are now overwhelmed with Mormon-related studies, a problem, those sources say, was never the case before the previous decade.

That can be tied in many ways to the proliferation of Mormon Studies in academic institutions, such as Mormon Studies Chairs and the pre-doctoral fellowship program at the University of Utah’s Tanner Humanities Center. As the Leonard J. Arrington Endowed Chair of Mormon History and Culture Patrick Mason told me, “Although the chairs at Utah State University and Claremont Graduate University were created in the 2000s, it was only in this decade that funding became secure.  Then the University of Virginia added its chair in the early 2010s to make a total of three.  These represent crucial anchors for the field.” Simmons Professor of Mormon Studies Paul Reeve agrees, adding that Claremont’s emphasis on global Mormon Studies “encourage an understanding of Mormonism’s global reach and its historical, cultural, geopolitical, social, and economic influences across time and space.”

Without a doubt, though, the greatest contribution to the rise of Mormon Studies is, in the words of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, the “creation of the new Church History Library with increasing open access to resources and professional management and digital access.” It’s now possible to research the history of Mormonism, especially the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, from one’s office and not only in Salt Lake City. This cannot be overstated. Programs like the Smith-Pettit Lecture and other initiatives to bring in scholars who have never published on Mormonism have brought fresh ideas, big names, and respectability to Mormon Studies. But allowing students, history buffs, professors, and any other number of people the ability to write history from primary sources cannot be underestimated.

Every time that a scholar comes to the University of Utah they remark on how much time and effort and brainpower has been put into making sources accessible and producing documentary histories. Kathleen Flake, the Richard Lyman Bushman Chair of Mormon Studies, singles out the publication of the Joseph Smith Papers as the “indisputable” best work of the past decade. I agree; the Joseph Smith Papers Project, the publication off the First Fifty Years of Relief Society, and the Nauvoo Relief Society Minutes are enormous achievements. As in, Leonard Arrington, even in his unbounding optimism, could not have dreamed that they would have been printed under an LDS Church imprint. The sources that became available to researchers with access to archives in the Camelot years created the books that are still foundational to the field in any subset of Mormon history (women, race, etc.). But, now with their publication, Mormon Studies is better able to create new historiographies. They contribute while standing on the shoulders of giants, to be sure, but, for instance, Ulrich says that “A House Full of Females could not have been written without that earlier work.” The books and articles being published by prestigious presses and journals I mentioned previously would not be possible without the availability of sources.

Digitization, according to Matthew Bowman, Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University, cannot be limited to the Church History Department’s efforts. Says Bowman, “the emergence of digital projects like the Century of Black Mormons, and Signature Books’ and the University of Utah press’s efforts to publish transcripts of more contemporary source material, like the letters of Juanita Brooks” are also essential to the growth of Mormon history and Mormon studies. Digital projects, I think, will have an enormous impact on the field in the next decade (look for another post on where the field will go in the next ten years sometime soon).

This may be difficult for many to think about, but the success of Mormon studies’ growth in the previous ten years is due in large part to the institutional Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  On one hand, researchers might be frustrated with institutional subsidy or bureaucracy, perhaps wondering why they haven’t received equal access to sources. On the other hand, these same researchers must acknowledge that digitization has leveled the playing field and that more publishing venues are possible because fresh sources encourage new interpretations of the Mormon past. These two effects result from the field’s reliance on an archive, pulishing house, and employment center that is, fortunately, one of the most financially secure and professionally developed religio-historical institutions.

The same can be said of the “Camelot” years that fostered the birth of the New Mormon History. As the LDS Church’s attitude towards history, historians, and scholarship goes, so goes the expansion and development of Mormon Studies.

Article filed under Miscellaneous

  1. Thanks, Joseph. It is truly amazing to look back over the past 40+ years and to see the roller coaster that is scholarly Mormon studies.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — January 1, 2020 @ 10:27 am

  2. Great recap. I’m biased, but I believe the creation and development of the MORMON STUDIES REVIEW has also helped trace the field’s development in the last decade, too.

    Comment by Ben P — January 1, 2020 @ 4:39 pm

  3. Ben, Could you tell us a little more about the Review? If not here, then in a stand-alone post? Thanks.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — January 2, 2020 @ 8:34 am

  4. I really like this post but this is seems less of the state of Mormon Studies than the study of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Not your fault!)

    We go to the same historical associations, but the study of the broader Restoration can feel like different fields.

    Some complaints:
    While digitization has greatly helped researchers at the CHL, most other restoration churches don’t have the resources to make their archive THAT level of open access from home.

    Very few researchers ares studying the broader Restoration movement internationally. It’s mainly only the few dedicated church historians and a handful of LDS (at least in the case of CofC).

    Some Suggestions:

    Reach out to some people to write about a 10-year retrospect studying about other movements in the Restoration? I’d especially be interested in the state of the study Mormon Fundamentalism. There seems to be some interesting reasons for growth.

    Comment by Katherine Pollock — January 3, 2020 @ 8:42 am

Leave a Comment


Recent Comments

wvs on The historiography of adoptive: “Bravo, J.”

J. Stapley on The historiography of adoptive: “Thanks, guys.”

Gary Bergera on The historiography of adoptive: “Really interesting information, J. Thanks.”

John Hajicek on The historiography of adoptive: “THIS is how all Mormon history should be written. Outside of Utah, historians write the history of the story, instead of writing a…”

Jeff T on Digital News: The Woman's: “Thanks Liz and JJohnson! I know that there are efforts to capture data from individual articles, although that might be a while down the pipeline.…”

JJohnson on Digital News: The Woman's: “Such a great source. And the scans are beautiful. Any attempt being made to identify all the authors? I'm particularly interested in A.P. today. …”