Mormons in the West: Life in the Donut Hole

By November 7, 2007

Scholars typically seek to locate Mormon history within two wide frameworks: that of American religious history and that of the history of the American West. Jan Shipps, in her review of literature on Mormonism in the West, describes the situation as a donut hole. In her essay, “Gentiles, Mormons, and the History of American West,” Shipps argues that historians of the West have skipped Utah, “circling all around the Great Basin, taking into account and telling nearly every western story except the Mormon one.”[1] The task Shipps sets for herself in the essay is to understand why that would be and to offer suggestions to western historians for ways to integrate Mormons more fully into their accounts of the region.

As for the first objective, Shipps presents several ideas for why Mormonism has been ignored in the West’s wider story. First, she argues that it is Mormon “otherness” that leads historians to shy away from trying to incorporate the Latter-day Saints. This otherness reflects the divide that we Mormons have created ourselves by dividing the world into “Saints” and “Gentiles.” This leaves Mormons to write their own history.[2] A second reason put forward by Shipps is the secularism that she perceives among historians. Since these historians do not see the divine in their own lives, they have a difficult time seeing it in the stories of the people that they study.[3] A third reason is that with “[t]he transformation of Mormonism from regional faith to worldwide church makes it so difficult to get here from there, from the familiar Mormonism of western history to contemporary Mormon Christianity, that what has been occurring in the past few decades may be the principle reason why today’s historians of the American West so often neglect the region’s geographical center.”[4] This last reason is perhaps the most intriguing of the three.

Shipps also offers suggestions for how western historians can begin to fill in the hole at the center of the donut. First, she sees Mormon history as a good counter-example to Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis. Turner’s provocative 1893 essay argued that the frontier was what made Americans unique, with Europeans entering the frontier in the East, struggling with nature and savages, and finally emerging in the West as Americans, fully democratic and individualistic. Shipps concludes that Mormons passed through the same process, but with very different results. “The trail was where Saints were made…they emerged in the Great Basin not as individualists committed to capitalistic ethos but as communally oriented Latter-day Saints ready to give what was necessary to give what was necessary to build up Zion.” This transformation led to the creation of an ethnic group that can be studies as are other ethnic groups in the West.[5] In addition to seeing process in the development of Mormon ethnicity, Shipps also contends that historians should peek past their secular lenses and seek to understand the Mormon worldview from the inside.[6]

The “donut theory” may not win the prize for Shipps’ most eloquent representation of the Mormon past, but it does get the point across. This review has necessarily focused on Shipps’ specific thoughts on how Mormons fit into the western narrative, but there are some wonderful autobiographical gems that she shares about her developing sense of identity as a Gentile/non-Mormon/nonmember studying the Saints. But what of her ideas for situating the Mormons in the West? I am troubled by Shipps’ acceptance of Turner’s emphasis on process rather than the New Western history’s reliance on place. Although some respected historians continue to see a process at play in western migration, most historians have followed Patricia Nelson Limerick’s lead in seeing the West as a region first and a process a distant second. In my view, historians need to cease seeing Mormons as an isolated group in the West, and recognize that although Utah never was California in terms of diversity, Latter-day Saints in their Zion constantly converged and came into contact with “others,” whether it be Gold Rushers, federal officials, protestants, Gentile merchants, and general travelers. These contacts shaped Mormonism, as well as these “others.” Focusing our analyses on these points of contact and convergence will go a long way toward filling in that donut hole.[7]

[1] Jan Shipps, “Gentiles, Mormons, and the History of the American West,” in Sojourner in the Promised Land: Forty Years Among the Mormons (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000), 21.

[2] Shipps, Sojourner, 25.

[3] Shipps, Sojourner, 35. Both D. Michael Quinn and Thomas G. Alexander have argued for secularism among historians for the neglect of religion in histories of the West (D. Michael Quinn, “Religion in the American West,” in Under an Open Sky: Rethinking America’s Western Past, eds. William Cronon, George Miles, and Jay Gitlin [New York: W. W. Norton, 1992], 165; Thomas G. Alexander, “Establishing Zion,” The Mormon History Association’s Tanner Lecutures: The First Twenty Years , eds. Dean L. May and Reid L. Neilson [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006], 117-18).

[4] Shipps, Sojourner, 41.

[5] Shipps, Sojourner, 34-35.

[6] Shipps, Sojourner, 36.

[7] Convergence, along with conquest, complexity, and continuity comprise Limerick’s four C’s for understanding the New Western history paradigm (Patricia Nelson Limerick, Something in the Soil: Legacies and Reckonings in the New West [New York: W. W. Norton, 2000], 13-28).

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Historiography


  1. Interesting thoughts, David. Do you think that historians focusing on Mormons’ contact with other “others” (gold rushers, protestant missionaries, travel writers, etc.) might also have the ironic effect of reinforcing Mormon otherness since that is how the Gentiles often portrayed the Mormons?

    Comment by Christopher — November 7, 2007 @ 2:10 pm

  2. Chris: Works that deal with contact between cultures definitely examine how groups construct “otherness.” In that sense, I’d agree that yes, works that treat Mormonism will reinforce the notion that Mormons were seen as “other” to nineteenth century Mormons.

    Comment by David Grua — November 7, 2007 @ 2:22 pm

  3. I think one reason historians avoid Mormon history is that it’s situated in a pretty ugly and unglorious period of US history in general. It’s that messy period after the War of 1812 and before the Civil War that historians largely ignore. It’s not a period that generally reflects well on America, and most people want to forget about it.

    Such is the legacy we Mormons have inherited.

    Comment by Seth R. — November 7, 2007 @ 3:29 pm

  4. Seth, I hardly think that historians largely ignore the antebellum period from 1812-1860. In fact, Jacksonian America receives quite a bit of attention from historians. For how historians of this era situate Mormonism into their narratives, see here.

    Comment by Christopher — November 7, 2007 @ 3:50 pm

  5. Seth…hmm…I think I agree with Chris on this one. Antebellum America is one of the most studied eras of history, due to the importance of understanding the market revolution, the Second Great Awakening, Manifest Destiny, and the causes of the Civil War. Now, if you’re saying that this period is not popular among ordinary Americans, I think I’d agree with that. But historians don’t ignore the period. In fact, if Mormons are mentioned at all in history textbooks, it’s usually in the antebellum period, although we also get a few spot appearances in 1856-58 with the Utah Expedition and Mountain Meadows as well as in the 1880s with the polygamy raids.

    Comment by David Grua — November 7, 2007 @ 4:05 pm

  6. When I was studying the West under Clyde Milner at USU in the late 90s he insisted the West was not a donut but rather a swiss cheese. There are other holes in the region’s history. He listed several. If I remember correctly, eastern Washington and Oregon and also eastern Texas were part of the list.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — November 8, 2007 @ 10:37 am

  7. Interesting, Mark. I didn’t know you studied with Milner. I think that he’s right that swiss cheese is a better image than a donut hole.

    Comment by David Grua — November 8, 2007 @ 10:55 am

  8. Though I would dispute that eastern Texas is part of “the West.”

    Comment by Christopher — November 8, 2007 @ 11:42 am

  9. Technically Chris, eastern Texas is west of the Mississippi River, the arbitary line that scholars use to define “the West” as a region.

    Comment by David Grua — November 8, 2007 @ 11:47 am

  10. Technically David, eastern Texas is south of the Mason-Dixon line, the arbitrary line that scholars use to define “the South” as a culture.

    Comment by Christopher — November 8, 2007 @ 11:49 am

  11. Don’t mess with Texas!

    Comment by rememberthealamo — November 11, 2007 @ 9:02 pm

  12. Amen.

    Comment by Jared — November 11, 2007 @ 11:22 pm

  13. […] American males. Unlike many mainstream historians, Limerick does not ignore Latter-day Saints by relegating them to the donut hole. This, I suspect, is due to the fact that Limerick’s father was a Mormon (grew up in Brigham […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Limerick on Mormonism — January 22, 2008 @ 2:04 pm

  14. […] solely on what makes Mormons exceptional, Godfrey and Taniguchi help ongoing efforts to plug the donut hole in the middle of Western history. Comments (0) […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Mormon Utah in the Progressive-Era West: Reviewing Two Recent Works — May 28, 2010 @ 8:49 am


Recent Comments

Ben S on Call for Applicants: Mormon: “Dang. Missing it by 36 hours.”

John Turner on What's in a name?: “Titles are hard because they serve so many purposes, as several of you have mentioned. I am also agonizing about my current project (it's a…”

Ben P on What's in a name?: “These are good questions, Janiece. I suck at coming up with titles, so I often rely on others. (Ironically, it was John Turner who came…”

JJohnson on What's in a name?: “I'm not so much opposed to the pithy quote title formula, as I am impressed when a non-semi-colon title is able to accomplish as much…”

J Stuart on What's in a name?: “I may stand alone but I like the pithy quote title formula, so long as it isn't too obscure. I think it's what the book…”

JJohnson on What's in a name?: “Secularism in Antebellum America's subtitle wins everything.”