“Myths” among Mormon Historians

By September 30, 2009

No, this post is not meant to address Mormon history myths promulgated in Seminary or Sunday School, but rather the possible historical misconceptions that are accepted and presented among the academy.

I have recently been reading S. J. Barnett’s intriguing The Enlightenment and Religion: The Myths of Modernity. For those of you poor souls who are not Enlightenment enthusiasts, Barnett’s thesis could be summarized as thus: as a result of modern historians’ desire to correlate the Enlightenment with “the birth of modernity,” we have overstepped the evidence when it comes to the 18th century Deist experience. Rather than seeing them as a predominantly few—if vocal—secular voices steaming against traditional Christianity (more of a “bogeyman” than a tangible reality), modern scholarship has described them as a large, unified movement that was a legitimate threat to the Christian faith. This distortion, Barnett believes, is one that began with modern historians’ wish to support a widely accepted thesis (that enlightenment=modernity), and has continued to go unchallenged even if it lacks historic credibility.

Whether or not Barnett’s argument about the Deist movement rings true, I think the the idea of modern impulses and academic agendas influencing our interpretation of the past is, as always, an interesting perspective. As such, I’m interested in what everyone else believes are some modern “myths” about Mormon history that many academics currently hold, and why you think they originated or stick around.

For starters, I can think of a few. A popular study during the 60s through 80s among the LDS crowd was engaging Mormon communalism, specifically attempting to define it as “anything-but-communism.” While the differences between the Law of Consecration and Soviet communism are obvious and significant, I think that there is no doubt that the intellectual period a lot of these historic works were written had a large “anti-Marxism” feel to them, and it would be interesting to see some of those themes explored again today.

In the 1980s and 90s, when a popular topic was the development of Mormon theology, several writers rushed forward to argue that Joseph Smith specifically, and Mormonism in general, progressed from a modalism to binitarianism to polytheism view of the Godhead. While there is no doubt that Mormon conceptions of God made some significant transitions during the first two decades, I think it’s safe to say that this radical trajectory was overstated (personally, I think JS started out in the popular anti-Trinitarianism crowd, but that his views never corroborated with modalism or binitarianism). In reaction to this, and in an attempt to prove more of a congruity within Joseph Smith’s thought, several scholars have tried to swing the pendulum the completely other way by arguing that the Mormon prophet always believed in a “social” trinity that consisted of three separate personages, including a corporeal God the Father with flesh and bones. Though this is still debated, I think both sides of this argument are overstepping the boundaries of the evidence we have.

Another possible “myth” that I actually take part in as well, but which historians like JSPP editor Robin Jensen seem to be trying to challenge, is the assumption that the Book of Mormon did not play a significant role in the development of Mormon thought. I’m very interested to see where this dialogue and engagement takes us.

Enough from me, what other possible misconceptions do you see as continuing within the Mormon history field? Or, if you prefer, like me, to just benefit from 20-20 hindsight vision, what do you think were some of the significant misconceptions of the past? (Klaus Hansen and the Council of 50, anyone?)

Article filed under Methodology, Academic Issues State of the Discipline


  1. How about: It seems to me that calling any period of Mormon history research “Camelot” is just a bit overwrought.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — September 30, 2009 @ 8:08 am

  2. I just read the Angel and the Beehive which I found brilliant, but I do think that the assimilation/retrenchment story is a bit overblown. I’d like to see some more critical studies about how assimilated the church and its members ever were.

    Comment by Daniel Ortner — September 30, 2009 @ 8:23 am

  3. I’m with Jonathan. If Arrington was Arthur, who was Guinevere? Who was Lancelot? Wait–there may be something here. Maybe this is the key to why the entire thing was shut down and shipped off to BYU in a shoebox.

    Comment by SC Taysom — September 30, 2009 @ 10:29 am

  4. I think that while it’s not really a myth, it is a common methadological error to assume things are more defined than they are. I think the evolution of God’s number by both extremes you mention is an example of this. The moving from ambiguous and muddled thinking on those narrow issues to a more defined view really ought be the obvious view but gets little more than lip service quite often.

    I think this tends to apply to Deism as well – at least among many I’ve read. I think many were distrustful of the literalist form of Christianity and Trinitarian doctrine. But outside of a few like Spinoza who worked things out I suspect most just didn’t have fully formed views.

    Comment by Clark — September 30, 2009 @ 11:14 am

  5. Excellent post, Ben – thanks for this.

    Perhaps predictably, the myth which has bothered me the most during the past quarter century relates to a certain complacency about early Mormon origins – an idea that we have pretty much plumbed the depths of the most essential underlying cultural background sources and data. I see this complacency in both broad and specific treatments – from Richard Bushman’s call for a departure from regional studies to broad expansive views of Joseph Smith, to off-hand remarks by clearly intelligent writers that (for example), while the American temperance movement obviously had something to do with the Word of Wisdom, what about tobacco, or eating meat sparingly?

    I believe that this complacent myth of our historiographical sufficiency in origins is our own fault. We have generally been too quick and too simplistic in methodology when it comes to Mormon parallels, both ancient and modern. When I see most of what has been written about, say, Ethan Smith by both critics and defenders, I do not wonder that students of Mormon Studies begin to feel “over it.”

    My answer would be to broaden our sources, and to stop trying so hard to force a few of the countless nineteenth-century examples into tight, unworkable corners of the Restoration. Overworking the unworkable has led even the brightest among us to suppose that there is not enough back there to hold our attention much longer, and that we should move on and upward. To take one specific example, Ben suggests departing from the idea that “. . . Mormonism in general, progressed from a modalism to binitarianism to polytheism view of the Godhead.” Blake Ostler said the same thing on Juvenile Instructor on September 23, in reference to . . . “. . . assertions about the development of the Mormon concept of God from modalism, to binitarianism and then to something like sheer polytheism. Those who have written on these ideas seem to have scant grasp of any of these views or their relation to the existing theological options.” (http://www.juvenileinstructor.org/in-defense-of-mormon-history/ Comment 11).

    I disagree strongly, but in a calm, long-deliberated way, I hope. My own treatment of that subject . . .

    http://www.mormonparallels.com/parallels/mp481.pdf (warning: 4 MB .pdf document)

    . . . won’t likely convince the inconvincible, but I would at least like to submit that the complacent modern Mormon scholarly idea – that we are essentially done with the cultural origins – is a troublesome and ultimately unsustainable myth.

    Comment by Rick Grunder — September 30, 2009 @ 12:48 pm

  6. The myth of the “New Mormon History” is sort of overdrawn, IMO. It becomes difficult to understand when you are looking at it close up. It seems to implicitly mean little more than “better history.” Or perhaps it means “history that caught up with a certain philosophical way of creating history in a certain time period, and matched particular academic expectations better than previous attempts,” but even then, different New Mormon Historians tended not to be so easily mixed (looking at it retrospectively, of course.)

    Comment by BHodges — September 30, 2009 @ 6:32 pm

  7. I agree with Ben that this idea that early Mormons ignored the Book of Mormon is wrong-headed. (several of the scholars responsible for it would I think resist such a broad generalization–I’m not trying to discredit them.)

    Comment by smb — September 30, 2009 @ 10:37 pm

  8. Rick, I don’t think you’ll find many people who disagree with you around here. For those of us who write or have written academically on Mormonism, there is a conscious effort to locate its history and culture within the broader culture of the time. Christopher has written on Mormonism and early Methodism, I’ve written on Mormon memory of persecution and discourses of persecution in American history, Ben writes on Mormonism and Anglo-American thought, Matt writes on Mormonism and Protestant theology, SC writes on Mormonism and Shakers, Steve F. writes on Mormonism and radical protestantism, and I could go on. Nearly all of us tries to connect Mormonism with its surround culture in one way or another. I don’t say this to really contest your call for better contextualization, but rather to say that the younger contingent of scholars are pretty committed to the model you’re proposing.

    Comment by David G. — September 30, 2009 @ 10:57 pm

  9. Rick: I don’t know if I’m just “inconvincible”, but your paper didn’t come close to doing the job for me.

    Comment by Blake — September 30, 2009 @ 11:36 pm

  10. Blake: I would not expect it to.

    Comment by Rick Grunder — September 30, 2009 @ 11:56 pm

  11. #6: I feel ” New Mormon History” began when the GAs stopped being the “Historians” of the Church, and “outsourced” the task to Provo and the professional thinkers.
    We now see things being written that would not be written by any of today’s GAs.
    I also see more Church History is being written by the young, not the old. This speeds the transition.

    Comment by Bob — October 1, 2009 @ 8:48 am

  12. BTW Rick, your webpage is beautiful.

    Comment by Blake — October 1, 2009 @ 10:26 am

  13. Many thanks, Blake.

    Comment by Rick Grunder — October 1, 2009 @ 9:18 pm

  14. David G, based on Rick’s provided paper, how well do you think Rick employs a contextualizing model?

    Comment by BHodges — October 2, 2009 @ 11:14 am

  15. The use of a term like “polytheism” is ambiguous without further qualification. In this case there is “poly-omnipotent-being-ism” and “poly-exalted-personism”.

    I don’t think there is any question that the D&C rather explicitly teaches “poly-exalted-personism” nor that Joseph Smith taught that God is an exalted person in the KFD.

    I don’t see any evidence that Joseph Smith ever taught or believed in the “poly-omnipotent-being-ism” that is a common belief today, even if the latter is a vaguely plausible (if logically contradictory) implication of the “photocopier theology” first given serious treatment with the every exalted being an Adam or Eve (and HF or HM) to a new world theory.

    Comment by Mark D. — October 2, 2009 @ 12:22 pm

  16. Blair, to be honest I haven’t read it closely. When I said we agree with his model, I was referring to the gloss he provided here, not the paper. Are you asking if I agree with his assumptions and conclusions or just his basic premise that contextualizing Mormonism within broader cultures is a good thing?

    Comment by David G. — October 2, 2009 @ 4:21 pm

  17. I see what I have read of Rick’s work so far to go beyond contextualizing to mostly attributing.

    Comment by BHodges — October 2, 2009 @ 8:03 pm

  18. Better phrased: What I have read of Ricks new publication goes beyond contextualizing to practically directly attributing.

    Comment by BHodges — October 2, 2009 @ 8:06 pm

  19. […] more theological influence in the early church than the Book of Mormon, although there are some calling this into question. As with grace, the original Latter-day Saints arrived on the scene with Biblical Christianity […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Christian Common Sense and the Shape of Mormonism — January 4, 2010 @ 11:54 pm


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