Mormonism in The Western Historical Quarterly, Spring 2009

By April 30, 2009

Likely because the 2008 annual meeting of the Western History Association was held in SLC, the Spring issue of the Western Historical Quarterly contains two articles that deal substantially with Mormons and Mormonism.

Virginia Scharff, “What’s Love Got to Do with It? A New Turner Thesis” (5-22)

Virginia Scharff is a major historian of gender and women in the West at the University of New Mexico. In her presidential address, Scharff asks why historians tend to write small and safe books, when we should be pursuing interesting topics that matter historically. In answer to her question, Scharff presents a new Turner thesis, one that is perhaps less bold than the original, yet equally as relevant for young scholars seeking inspiration the field. Rather than suggest an overarching thesis that places the frontier (or the West) at the center of American history, Scharff argues that historians need three weapons to produce relevant and exciting history, namely, bravery, joy, and love, which are emotional qualities inherent in Tina Turner’s hit, What’s Love Got to Do With It?”

So what’s the Mormon angle? Scharff uses the life and work of Fawn Brodie to illustrate her point. In Scharff’s view, Brodie possessed bravery, joy, and love, three characteristics necessary to write solid yet controversial biographies of Joseph Smith, Thaddeus Stevens, Thomas Jefferson, and Richard Nixon. Latter-day Saints are familiar with the critical (and often sexist) response to No Man Knows My History (Scharff’s gendered analysis of Nibley’s No Ma’am, That’s Not History alone makes reading the article worthwhile), but Brodie faced similar responses to her other works.

Scharff’s take on Brodie is insightful and provides a useful example of how Mormon history can illuminate broader questions in American history and historiography. Now that the initial hoopla over the publication of RSR has passed, expect to see other reevaluations of Brodie and her place in American and Mormon historiography.

Matthew Kester, “Race, Religion, and Citizenship in Mormon Country: Native Hawaiians in Salt Lake City, 1869-1889” (51-76)

The history of race relations in nineteenth-century Utah is often obscured by a historical focus on the division of the white community along religious lines. In Utah, the struggle between Mormons and non-Mormons did not so much replace the discrimination, inequality, and violence common throughout the West as it usurped it in the historical imagination. (60)

So argues Matthew Kester, university archivist and assistant professor of History at BYU Hawaii. Kester’s article traces the place of Native Hawaiians in Utah public discourse from 1869, when the first Hawaiian converts migrated to Utah, to 1889, when the Utah Supreme Court ruled that Hawaiians were not white, and as such could not naturalize as U.S. citizens. In between those years, Kester uses the history of Salt Lake’s Hawaiian community (never including more than 70 individuals) to illustrate the power of religion in the sustaining of diasporic communities, explore the negotiation of religion and racial identities, and demonstrate the power of public discourse to shape diasporic communities.

After tracing briefly Mormon origins in Hawaii, Kester shifts attention to the negative stereotypes of Hawaiians prevalent in Utah newspapers, images that associated Native Hawaiians with leprosy (as punishment for sin), political corruption, and cannibalism. Also common was the idea of the inevitable decline of the natives. Kester uses these articles to contextualize the Utah Supreme Court’s June 1889 decision, which came just months before all Mormons were disfranchised. The Court ruled that Hawaiians could not naturalize, since the Chinese Exclusion Act only permitted Caucasians and Africans to become citizens. Kester also shows how this decision fit within the debates over the naturalization of Mormon immigrants and Mormon political power during the Raid.

Kester then briefly discusses the decision by Church leaders following the decision to relocate Mormon Hawaiians to a new settlement, Iosepa. This community at its height included 228 inhabitants, but in 1915 Joseph F. Smith counseled the inhabitants to disband the city. Although the Native Hawaiian population in Utah during the nineteenth century was comparatively small, Salt Lake City today has the largest U.S. concentration of Pacific Islanders outside of Honolulu, which in my view more than justifies research into this community. Like Scharff’s use of Brodie to illuminate broader issues, Kester’s use of Mormon Hawaiians not only transcends the white Mormon/non-Mormon binary that has dominated our conceptions of Utah history, it also widens our understandings of race and religion in the American West.

Ethan Yorganson, review of Terryl Givens, People of Paradox (100-101)

Some quotes: “People of Paradox affirms Terryl Givens’s status, if it was ever in question, as the leading mid-career scholar of Mormonism.” “This well-researched cultural history succeeds brilliantly in what it sets out to do–synthetically identify and explain fundamental issues and trends within Mormon culture.”

Erica Cottam, review of Eric A. Eliason, ed., The J. Golden Kimball Stories (112-13)

Positive review.

Article filed under Miscellaneous

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