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?)