National or Transnational History?

By November 10, 2007

One of the objectives for most Mormon historians today (including this blog) is to attempt to place Joseph Smith within his American framework. One author who has succeeded the most in this attempt is Richard Bushman, author of Rough Stone Rolling. However, in his address at The Worlds of Joseph Smith Symposium in the Library of Congress, he spoke about putting limits on this type of approach. In it, he makes several arguments as to why Joseph should be placed within a larger framework than just American religious history.

First, he stated why he feels this “transnational” approach is necessary.

The broader the historical context, the greater the appreciation of the man. If Joseph Smith is described as the product of strictly local circumstances – the culture of the Burned-over District, for example – he will be considered a lesser figure than if put in the context of Muhammad or Moses. Historians who have been impressed with Joseph Smith’s potency whether for good or ill, have located him in a longer, more universal history. Those who see him as merely a colorful character go no farther than his immediate environment for context. No historians eliminate the local from their explanations, but, on the whole, those who value his genius or his influence, whether critics or believers, give him a broader history as well. (pg. 4)

Other quotations from his argument:

In the nineteenth century, historians of all stripes…agreed that Joseph was more than American. Something about his life and accomplishments transcended his time and place. (pg. 5).

Joseph had to have a broader history to explain his extraordinary powers, and both critics and friends supplied him with one. (pg. 6)

To be comprehended, Joseph had to be viewed from two historical perspectives – one national and the other a transnational history of apostasy and restoration. (pg. 6)

He then reviews many of the major national-type of histories that biographers have placed Joseph in, concluding that they “strip the Prophet of grandeur and depth, even the gothic horror of the religious fanatic” and “do not open new vistas for readers.” Bushman then says that he expects “that Joseph Smith’s future biographers will swing back toward the nineteenth century’s combination of American analysis and transnational histories of the Prophet, allowing Joseph Smith to escape a confining provinciality” (pg. 9). This is because, he claims, “The American history of Joseph Smith looks for causes: what led Joseph Smith to think as he did? Comparative, transnational histories explore the limits and capacities of the divine and human imagination: what is possible for humans to think and feel?” (pg. 11).

Bushman then concludes with this summary.

It is doubtful that a purely American history of the Mormon prophet will explain him. His mind ranged far beyond his own time and place, and we will have to follow if we are to understand. A small history will not account for such a large man. (pg. 18)

So, my question is, how do we balance American and transnational history? Are we often too quick to try and explain things by his cultural settings, or is that the best way to proceed? Does explaining Joseph by using the American history approach really limit Joseph to a religious fraud?

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Methodology, Academic Issues


  1. I think a simply American context is extremely limiting, because it would seem arbitrary. Even a topic like folk magic can’t be constrained to an isolated American context.

    In my work on Mormon liturgical history, I’ve been struck on several occasions how the history parallels early Christian liturgical trends. It is important that people across time struggled with the similar problems. In going further in contextualizing Mohamed, I’m not sure how much of a role there is for historians though. It seems that the further we extend from Joseph’s surroundings the further we have to go from history into ritual studies, religious studies, anthropology and others.

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 10, 2007 @ 6:07 pm

  2. Interesting post, Ben. I think that Bushman is right that biographers of JS need to look beyond the Burned-Over District in order to understand his place in history. For historians of American religious history, though, it’s a bit more tricky and involves making an argument as to how JS’s experience reflects a wider context than just a local one. One example of a semi-successful effort at this is Brooke’s Refiner’s Fire, which, despite its almost complete rejection by Mormons, presents an approach that an increasing number of Mormon scholars are finding to be useful. Brooke argued that JS should not be interpreted within a narrowly American context, but within wider frameworks that go back to Europe. While I don’t buy his hermeticist argument, his synthesis of the survival of the radical reformation in the United States, and its influence on early Mormons, is quite useful. Brooke’s transatlantic approach does serve to give JS multiple histories that expand beyond his immediate environment, as Bushman calls for.

    I agree with Stapley that comparing JS with Moses or Mohammed is a bit more tricky for American historians, and I think would be much more successful in religious studies or sociology of religion circles. Jan Shipps’ Mormonism is a good example of the possibilities that open up when a scholar compares the growth of different traditions.

    Comment by David Grua — November 10, 2007 @ 6:14 pm


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