Mormonism’s Unbroken Past: Transcending the 1890 Rupture

By January 31, 2009

1890 is a date that looms large in American history, thanks largely to Frederick Jackson Turner, who famously declared in 1893 that the frontier had “closed” three years earlier, and with it, a distinctive element of American identity had closed as well. Turner’s 1893 essay revolutionized how historians thought about the American past, as he pointed to the process of westward movement as being the core of American distinctiveness. The frontier was where civilization met savagery and the wilderness, where Europeans became Americans, marked by values of individualism and democracy. Turner’s essay also had the curious effect of creating a significant rupture localized at the year 1890, a chasm that left historians with few conceptual tools with which to frame the history of the American West during the 20th century. If American exceptionalism died in 1890, was there anything worth writing about after that date?

Gradually, during the 20th century western historians began to write on contemporary topics, but due to the inherited framework that dominated the profession, scholarship on the 20th century West didn’t really “fit,” and was therefore seen as a marginal field of inquiry. Although the seeds of a paradigm shift can be traced to the 1960s, it was not until Patty Limericks’s 1987 Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West, that a widely-accepted replacement for Turner’s frontier thesis emerged. Limerick’s subtitle indicates the thrust of her argument-that western history did not end in 1890, but rather most, if not all, of the themes important to the contemporary West had pre-1890 origins. Her contention was that there was continuity between the 19th and 20th centuries, and historians should cease envisioning a bifurcated past.

Coincidentally, Mormon history also has a significant rupture localized at the year 1890, around which historians artificially construct the past. Despite efforts by Grant Underwood to “revision” the Mormon past, and in the process transcend the artificial 1890 barrier, historians continue to concentrate most of their research in the pre-1890 period. It could also be argued that a similar rupture exists around the year 1844, or perhaps 1847. My own tally of important works on Mormonism confirms in my own mind that most of the work on Mormon history looks at the period from 1820-1844/47, while a smaller number of works examine the period from 1847-1890, leaving only a handful of publications on the 20th century. A glance at any schedule for the yearly Mormon History Association conference likewise indicates that most historians today emphasize the early period over the later period.

I won’t pretend here in this post to produce a Limerickian paradigm shift that opens up a new framework within which we can imagine the continuities that transcend 1890. If Underwood’s article couldn’t produce that kind of conceptual transition, no blog post can. I suspect we’ll need a book as cogently argued as The Legacy of Conquest to do that. But let it suffice to say that I don’t believe that fewer historians are writing on Mormonism’s second century simply because it’s more recent, and that once we’ve covered the 19th century we’ll get to the 20th. Like western history, our bifurcated past is the product of deeply ingrained frameworks that we’ve inherited, and that at some point, need to be rethought at a very basic level.

But here are some thoughts I have on how historians have begun to transcend the 1890 barrier. All the works I’m about to discuss deal with the 20th century, but can, I think, be shown to have roots in an unbroken past. The most important works on the 20th century, in my opinion, have concentrated on three themes-identity, race, and gender/sexuality. In terms of identity, Kathleen Flake’s The Politics of Religious Identity traces the painful efforts of church leaders to move into, and be accepted by, the American mainstream. Armand Mauss’s The Angel and the Beehive likewise examines Mormon identity in relation to the mainstream, and provides a useful model for understanding the boundary maintenance strategies of a marginalized group. Jan Shipps’s forthcoming work on Mormon identity post-1945 promises to open up important avenues of research on how we’ve moved from seeing ourselves as a people to seeing ourselves a church. Lastly, the forthcoming work on Mormon migration out of Utah should likewise be a promising start to what doubtless is a central theme in 20th century Mormon history.

For race, Armand Mauss again has played a key role in helping us to understand the place not only of African Americans in Mormonism, but also Latinos and Native Americans in his monumental All Abraham’s Children. Although it is not widely available, Newell Bringhurst’s Saints, Slaves, and Blacks remains the best single volume history of Mormonism and blacks. R. Warren Metcalf’s Termination’s Legacy: The Discarded Indians of Utah (which I will be reviewing in a multi-post series shortly) contains the best examination of the role played by Mormon attorneys and politicians in the ill-fated federal termination policy for Native Americans of the 1950s (to be clear, treaties, not the Indians themselves, were terminated). Jorge Iber’s Hispanics in the Mormon Zion, 1912-1999 remains the best analysis of Mormon Latinos in the U.S.

For gender and sexuality, Martha Sontagg Bradley’s Pedestals and Podiums is the best look at the role of Utah’s women and the church in the battle over, and eventual defeat of, the Equal Rights Amendment. Brian Hales has produced the best, even if it’s not as scholarly as we’d like, analysis of Mormon Fundamentalism, in Modern Polygamy and Mormon Fundamentalism.

There are a few important works that span several decades, such as Tom Alexander’s seminal Mormonism in Transition, Ethan Yorganson’s Transformation of the Mormon Culture Region, and D. Michael Quinn’s Extensions of PowerAlso, biographies of Heber J. Grant, David O. McKay, and Spencer W. Kimball remain important contributions to our understandings of the 20th century. Other related areas of 20th century Mormonism have been the topics of book chapters and graduate theses, such as Mormon anticommunism, Mormon involvement in the MX missile crisis, and Mormon interactions with the academy and secular education. In terms of the international church, I think we’re still waiting for our first really solid scholarly work (hurry up, Reid!), although there are scattered works on the church in Mexico, Canada, and other places outside of the United States. I’m still waiting for a thorough discussion of Mormon connections with the Religious Right and the Moral Majority. I suspect we’ll be seeing a book in the near future, from D. Michael Quinn, on Mormon anti-gay rights activism (or, if you will, pro-family activism). I’ve also neglected works on other Restoration groups, such as the Community of Christ, but I suspect that there are important works there to be named.

I imagine I’ve missed some important works, but that’s what the comments are for, right? What other books and themes can be fruitfully used to illuminate Mormonism’s second century? Perhaps more importantly, what new frameworks can we identify that will transcend the 1890 rupture?

Article filed under Historiography


  1. Great post, David. As one whose interest does not (generally) make the trek west, I have mucho respecto for those who do later history, let alone twentieth century. I try to justify my research by claiming my interest is antebellum history in general 🙂

    While I do think Underwood’s (and others’) argument concerning the rupture is important, I do think that the 1890-1920 period is a period of more change than all other periods because of the centrality of polygamy/utopia/etc. in Mormon thought. However, your point of lack of work since then is very valid. I did a quick glance on my bookshelves and could not find nearly any important books on twentieth century Mormonism that you didn’t already list, besides several sociological works and the second half of Given’s People of Paradox (but his framework in the book definitely follows the rupture you mention).

    I have said this before, but I think the main reason for lack of twentieth century history–particularly the second half of the twentieth century–is due to sources. Sure, there is a lot of public sources, but by comparison to nineteenth century there is not a lot of primary sources. Most significant recent work have exceptions, like Prince with the Middlemiss collection and Kimball with access to his father’s stuff. Relying on public sources risks the chance of following the path of Hirshon’s Lion of the Lord. Don’t get me wrong: it can be done, it just appears difficult to me.

    (Unless, of course, your name is Ardis Parshall and you have the gift of finding gems almost everywhere.)

    Comment by Ben — February 1, 2009 @ 1:33 am

  2. At first I thought you were writing about the 1890 anticipated Second Coming, which in its own Adventist way does mark the end of an era.

    Ben’s penultimate paragraph says what I thought at the end of your post, though that does presuppose that the interesting history is of the hierarchs to some extent (although in my experience complex archival privacy standards that apply even beyond the Church can limit access to primary sources for rank-and-file individuals that are collected in the Church History Library).

    I also worry that stuff about events <3 decades old will end up fairly journalistic (not intending offense to journalists, just recognizing different spheres of influence and modes of approaching topics).

    I’m guilty too, though, of mostly loving the early republican period.

    As for your concluding question:

    I think for twentieth century I like some of the fiction as a window into Mormonism. Miracle Life of Edgar Mint was grand and Heresies of Nature was devastating.

    As for history, was that history of welfare any good? I never did read it.

    Although I’m not overly impressed by his religious (as opposed to his literary) criticism, Harold Bloom has written famously about the twentieth century.

    An Irish scholar just wrote a history of Mormon genealogy that I’m meaning to get around to reading, and of course Douglas Davies has written famously and extensively about Mormonism, and most of his work is centered on contemporary Mormonism, invoking early Mormonism only where it seems relevant.

    Comment by smb — February 1, 2009 @ 1:56 am

  3. Great post, David. I’m thinking that most studies in international Church history (where it was occurring) will find continuity across the 1890 date. In Mexico, for example, after 10 years of proselytizing, the last American missionaries left Mexico in 1889 for what would become a 12 year absence. Their reasons for leaving seem to have been related in part to financial difficulties exacerbated by polygamy prosecutions in the U.S. However, many congregations persisted in the absence of the elders as local leaders continued to guide the members. So, the events leading up to 1890 affected missionary work to some degree, but 1890 does not seem to have had (and does not seem to have) the same psychological effect in the Mexican Church as it has here in the U.S. I’d be interested to know more about what was happening in the Church in other parts of the world at this time. As I’ve worked a little more with Mexican Church history, it’s sometimes striking how some of the challenges of the proselytizing and administration of a “foreign” entity within another nation’s borders have had some amount of continuity even to the present day.

    Comment by Jared T — February 1, 2009 @ 2:37 am

  4. In lieu of a pingback, here’s a link to a Keepa post that launches off your wonderful post, David. I’m especially drawn to the history of the generation who came of age with World War I, those who were born in the 1890s. As different as their world and their church may have been from that of the parents, they didn’t come out of nowhere, and I appreciate pointers to writings that place their story in the stream of history rather than treating it like a spring that bubbled up in 1890.

    Aw, shucks, Ben! 🙂

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — February 1, 2009 @ 5:11 am

  5. Fine post, David. Your “unbroken past” argument might apply to the daily life of average (i.e., non-polygamist) Mormons, but it still seems like 1890 to 1905 marked a transition or break. Before then, Mormon leaders were focused primarily on plural marriage. After that time they were focused primarily on politics and on normalizing relations between the Church and the federal government, which really did work a transitional shift in the Church. At least that’s my impression having read Flake, Alexander, and sources I can’t recall that cover what one might call the emergence of national politics in Utah.

    Furthermore, this “political turn” doesn’t get much attention — mixing Church and politics still bothers people so the whole period is uncomfortable for most. Two figures who were central to the change and period are also largely neglected in telling standard LDS history: Reed Smoot (who ushered in the political phase and forced LDS leaders to change their focus) and J. Reuben Clark (who was, I think, central to moving us out of the political phase into the present bureaucratic phase).

    Comment by Dave — February 1, 2009 @ 7:16 am

  6. Wow, thanks to all the night owls and early birds for leaving such thoughtful responses to my post. I don’t have a lot of time at the moment, but let me respond to a couple of things quickly.

    First, I in no way mean to imply that no change occurred around 1890. I wouldn’t be a historian if I believed that there was no change over time. Rather, my point (and Limerick’s point), is that there is a great deal of continuity that historians miss because of the frameworks they’ve constrained themselves within. And more importantly, many of the themes of Mormon history that are important in the 20th century emerge in one way or another in the 19th, even if there has been change in those themes over time. We don’t, to use another metaphor, have two walnut halves that just happen to have been part of the same nut at one point in time, but are now completely separated.

    As to the problem of sources, sure, there may not be as much archival evidence in comparison with the 19th century. But there are other types of evidence that are readily available, not least of which are oral histories. When I was an undergrad, I admit having a snobby attitude toward the reliability of oral histories, but having read enough Native American and Latino historiography, I’m now convinced that oral histories are an important source. At one time I would have agreed with Sam’s point re: recent history being similar to journalism, but given the amount of quality research and writing on post-WW II America that I’ve seen, I really don’t know why I once thought that. There’s quality work out there, and some day they’ll be similar work on Mormonism.

    It just occurred to me that Brett wrote also wrote on this topic a few months ago, and so as not to appear to be slighting his work, here’s a link to it.

    Comment by David G. — February 1, 2009 @ 9:00 am

  7. Totally tangental: does the absence of the 1890 census from the historical record exacerbate in the present a general perception something drastically changed during that time period? I know that for me, as a genealogist, it sometimes feels like 1890 is a big mystery that I have to guess and stumble around.

    Comment by Coffinberry — February 1, 2009 @ 9:32 am

  8. I would agree, lack of sources is the problem with 20th/21st century LDS scholarship–especially when attempting to address developments in the Mormon hiearchy in any meaningful way. The question in my mind is: can oral history function as a “stop-gap” in light of the current policies at the LDS Archives? All the important/academic biographies of LDS leaders or major studies of the hiearchy in general especially in the 2nd half of the 20th century draw heavily on oral history. I am including here most of Quinn’s work, including his biography of J. Reuben Clark, Prince’s bio of David O. McKay, Ed Kimball’s biography of his father. Also The Mormon Corporate Empire and America’s Saints. Of course these works would not have been possible without some access to important primary sources. Kimball had transcripts of his father’s diary, Prince had the Middlemiss materials, and Quinn had more than a decade of research at the LDS Archives. However, all these scholars turned to oral history to fill in the gaps. In fact, I would argue that oral history was as or more important in these works (with the exception of the Quinn’s biography of Clark) than traditional primary sources. I might also add they all used confidencial interviews.

    Of course to oral historians the idea that oral history should function as a “stop gap” to replace preferred primary sources currently unavailable is objectionable. They would argue oral histories are not a second-class source. I learned this the hard way when I argued this point among a group of oral historians. However, it seems like this is the current trend in studies dealing with the 20th century hiearchy.

    Comment by Jake O. — February 1, 2009 @ 11:30 am

  9. Here I go again. I know this is a “History” Blog. But there are lots of Mormon novels about this transitional period. Right on point is: “Children of God” ( Vardis Fisher, 1939).

    Comment by Bob — February 1, 2009 @ 11:46 am

  10. There’s a lot I want to address in your post and in the subsequent comments, David, but I don’t have much time, so I’ll just respond to one point.

    I?m still waiting for a thorough discussion of Mormon connections with the Religious Right and the Moral Majority.

    It looks like John-Charles Duffy is taking that subject for his dissertation, whose working title is “Christians, Cultists, Cobelligerents: Mormon-Evangelical Relations in the Era of the New Religious Right.”

    Comment by Christopher — February 1, 2009 @ 1:19 pm

  11. David,

    Quakers and Methodists focus overwhelmingly on their early periods. I just don’t see anything wrong with it; i.e. I make no apologies for being interested mainly in the early period of Mormonism.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — February 1, 2009 @ 2:44 pm

  12. […] G. at Juvenile Instructor (the blog, not the periodical) has just posted Mormonism?s Unbroken Past: Transcending the 1890 Rupture, noting that 1890 is as historically significant to the Mormons as that year is to the wider […]

    Pingback by “The ‘Wild West’ Has Ceased to Be” | Times & Seasons, An Onymous Mormon Blog — February 1, 2009 @ 4:45 pm

  13. I’ve only got a minute, but first off, thanks to Jake for stopping by. Here’s someone who has actually written on the 20th century, so he has some good insights.

    I think Sam hits the nail on the head in his first comment. If we define significance in Mormon history as being the activities of our leaders, then yes, we’re going to have trouble finding sources. I think that a careful read of my post would hint that I try to follow the conventions of social and cultural historiography dominant in the academy since the 1960s–meaning, ordinary people, minorities, and women should be placed at the center of our narratives. If significance is defined in this manner, then oral histories will prove to be more than just a stopgap, but rather the lifeblood of our narratives.

    Thanks Chris for the headsup on Duffy’s dissertation.

    Steve, I was afraid an early Mormonist would be offended by my post.;) I know the nature of the post lends itself to your reading, but I’m really not trying to belittle or attack work done on the early period. My point instead is to attack the frameworks that marginalize 20th/21st century history.

    Comment by David G. — February 1, 2009 @ 5:00 pm

  14. I have not read Jorge Iber’s book, but I think a couple of other excellent books that I have read covering this period and related to Spanish speaking Saints include Jessie Embrey’s In His Own Language: Mormon Spanish-Speaking Congregations in the United States, and two histories of the Church in Mexico: LaMond Tullis’ Mormons in Mexico and Agricol Lozano’s Historia de la Iglesia en Mexico (the second edition is called Historia del Mormonismo en Mexico). I believe that El Museo de Historia del Mormonismo en México has published some other, more recent works on the history of the Church in Mexico,which I have not read. Tullis and Lozano both cover, from different perspectives, the fascinating history of the Tercera Convencion (Third Convention), a nationalistic schism that lasted several years before it reunited with the main Church during George Albert Smith’s administration.

    Comment by DavidH — February 1, 2009 @ 5:53 pm

  15. Thanks, DavidH. I’ve read Embree’s book, and while I respect her as a historian, I came away profoundly unsatisfied. It’s almost as though she was avoiding making any kind of interpretation of her data. Ignacio Garcia intends to write a book on Latinos in the U.S. someday, that I expect will be the book on Latino Mormons. I haven’t read Tullis or Lozano; Chris or Jared will have to comment on the scholarly quality of those works. As for the works coming out of El Museo, I’m glad he’s writing those books, but he’s not a historian (by his own admission), and he’s indicated that someday historians trained in Mexican history will have to take his materials and write a scholarly account of the history of the church in Mexico.

    Comment by David G. — February 1, 2009 @ 7:04 pm

  16. Thanks DavidG. I had the opposite reaction to Jessie’s book on Spanish speaking units, as did my parents, who also read it. In fact, my parents were so impressed by her book, that they also purchased and read, and gave great reviews of, her Black Saints in a White Church.

    It may well be that in comparison with Iber’s book it is wanting. I just checked, and our public library website says it is on the shelf, so I will check it out and read it.

    Comment by DavidH — February 1, 2009 @ 7:41 pm

  17. I’ll have things to say about Mexico in future posts.

    Comment by Jared T. — February 1, 2009 @ 7:42 pm

  18. I should be more clear. “In His Own Language” is certainly interesting and worth reading, but I just didn’t feel she went far enough with it in order to classify it as a “cutting-edge” work. I’m glad your parents enjoyed it; I can always applaud when historians connect with ordinary LDS.

    Comment by David G. — February 1, 2009 @ 7:49 pm

  19. Fine post, David. Your ?unbroken past? argument might apply to the daily life of average (i.e., non-polygamist) Mormons, but it still seems like 1890 to 1905 marked a transition or break. Before then, Mormon leaders were focused primarily on plural marriage. After that time they were focused primarily on politics and on normalizing relations between the Church and the federal government, which really did work a transitional shift in the Church. At least that?s my impression having read Flake, Alexander, and sources I can?t recall that cover what one might call the emergence of national politics in Utah.

    Furthermore, this ?political turn? doesn?t get much attention ? mixing Church and politics still bothers people so the whole period is uncomfortable for most. Two figures who were central to the change and period are also largely neglected in telling standard LDS history: Reed Smoot (who ushered in the political phase and forced LDS leaders to change their focus) and J. Reuben Clark (who was, I think, central to moving us out of the political phase into the present bureaucratic phase).

    Comment by Dave ? February 1, 2009 @ 7:16 am

    I agree that there was a great transition for the State of Utah as well as the Church into politics. From my reading plural marriage might not have been the focus of the Church but it was still one of the central themes to those living in the Church. Everyone was immersed in it if not by themselves then through friends or relatives. The leaders of the Church were especially interested. One thing that really stands out about plural marriage in that time period is that it was only suspended. It appears that at the time of the manifesto it was believed that it was only going to be suspended for a year or two. Maybe five or ten but that seemed to be unlikely. I don’t feel that hardly anyone thought that it would be suspended longer than twenty years.

    A couple diaries that come to mind from this time period are those of Abraham H Cannon, Rudger Clawson and David John. Although politics and plural marriage are very important topics from this time period, I would have to argue that disharmony in the Twelve and disharmony between the Twelve and First Presidency are equally important. From the inception of the Twelve there was occasional disharmony, even to the point of actual punches being thrown in quorum meetings. This did improve but was not a whole lot better through the turn of the century.

    Things did get worse shortly after 1905, and they even lost a couple members of the quorum. Around this time though Joseph F Smith appears to take the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and First Presidency in a new more harmonious direction. This continues up to the present day.

    This is just my opinion but I would be interested in hearing what anyone else has to say about it.

    Comment by Mike — February 2, 2009 @ 3:19 am

  20. In researching LDS legal history, 1890 does serve as a rupture for the public law side of the story. That was the date when the Raid stopped. On the other hand, the private law side of the story does not end there. Church courts continued to resolve civil disputes into the early 20th century, and while the return of Church property taken by the federal reciever under Late Corporation does form a kind of turning point, the retrenchment of Mormonism as a legal institution began during The Raid but continued on into the 20th century…

    Comment by Nate Oman — February 2, 2009 @ 10:18 am

  21. We have covered some of this ground before.

    I like the direction in which David G. is moving. He is right to push back on the lack of sources excuse. Our concept of what is significant and worth studying in the Mormon past also colors our perception of which sources are valuable or not valuable.

    We shouldn’t forget that Leonard Arrington already identified some of the reasons (i.e., biases) for the marginalization of the twentieth-century Mormon history.

    Comment by Sterling — February 2, 2009 @ 3:01 pm

  22. Sterling suggested a number of potentially interesting avenues of research in comment #9 on the thread he links to.

    Our own Matt B. is doing some excellent work on the history of Mormon worship that traces developments from the early 19th century to the present, and his recently published article on Mormon Christology, though only an article, points to some interesting directions that Mormon historians interested in the 20th century might want to explore.

    Comment by Christopher — February 3, 2009 @ 11:48 am

  23. Wanted to throw in a plug for liturgical history, which while 1890 looms large on the polygamy front, is definitely and robustly pursuable long after.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 3, 2009 @ 11:56 am

  24. […] though, my post fell on deaf (or uninterested) ears and received virtually no response. In another post more recently, David G. discussed some further implications of such a framework (namely, that it has […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Revisiting: Mormonism in Transition: a history of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930 — June 18, 2009 @ 1:38 pm

  25. […] written previously on ways Mormon historians can transcend the 1890 rupture and begin to conceptualize and integrate […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Mormonism and the Republican Party — December 12, 2009 @ 10:40 pm


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