Patty Limerick on Mormonism in the West

By January 22, 2008

One of the seminal texts in Western American history is Patricia Nelson Limerick’s Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West. Limerick’s genius can be found in her defining the West’s importance in terms of convergence of peoples, rather than simply the westward movement of white 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 City) and her mother was a gentile living in Salt Lake City. Although Limerick does not consider herself a Mormon, she does attribute many of her character traits to her “Mormon ethnicity.”[1]

Limerick devotes two extended sections in her book to the Latter-day Saints, although neither section deals with “religion” per se. The first section is in a chapter on race and ethnicity in Western history. “Race, one begins to conclude, was the key factor in dividing the people of Western America. Its meanings and distinctions fluctuated, but racial feelings evidently guided white Americans in their choice of groups to persecute and exclude. Differences in culture, in language, in religion, meant something; but a physically distinctive appearance seems to have been the prerequisite for full status as a scapegoat. If this conclusion begins to sound persuasive, then the Haun’s Mill Massacre restores one to a realistic confusion.”[2] Limerick then proceeds to narrate Mormon history, focusing on persecution, which she argues “served to unify the Saints, not to break them; persecution was clearly crucial in the formation of their emerging ethnic identity.”[3] Persecution and radically distinctive beliefs such as polygamy served to mark the Mormons as other, although they were white. “Once polygamy had been formally settled, the ‘differentness’ of Mormons could be subordinated and their essentially American qualities celebrated.”[4] Although there certainly are errors in her analysis to quibble over, I think that the significance here is the the space dedicated to the Mormons, and the framework that she uses to analyze them. Using Mormons to complicate whiteness in the West is full of intriguing possibilities.

Mormons also appear in Limerick’s chapter on the twentieth century. One of her primary theses is that there is continuity in Western history. Too often historians have defined western history (or Mormon history, for that matter) as ending in 1890. But in Limerick’s view the past continues to be present. “Probably no case better represents the problem of history in conflict with faith than does Mormonism.”[5] Using the controversies over racial exclusion from the priesthood, women’s roles and the ERA, the Hoffman forgeries, Fundamentalism, and opposition to the Denver temple. “[I]t was no pleasure to official Mormondom to have the past come back and ask for explanation. The Mormon problem stood for the larger one in Western history. Celebrating one’s past, one’s tradition, one’s heritage, is a bit like hosting a party: one wants to control the guest list tightly.”[6] Again, I think that Limerick presents a fascinating framework in which to situate Mormon history in wider frameworks. Although she doesn’t use the scholary language of collective memory (which would not become common in academic circles until the early 1990s), her analysis points to the politics of memory, something that the church has not been able to avoid. I don’t think it’s too far fetched to say that most of what the New Mormon historians wrote on were things that the church had deemphasized about it’s past.


[1] Patricia Nelson Limerick, “Peace Initiative: Using the Mormons to Rethink Culture and Ethnicity in American History,” in The Mormon History Association’s Tanner Lectures: The First Twenty Years, eds. Dean L. May and Reid L. Neilson (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006), 189.

[2] Patricia Nelson Limerick, Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: Norton, 1987), 280.

[3] Limerick, Legacy of Conquest, 287.

[4] Limerick, Legacy of Conquest, 288.

[5] Limerick, Legacy of Conquest, 324.

[6] Limerick, Legacy of Conqest, 330.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Historiography


  1. I remember reading Limerick for the first time in Brian Cannon’s seminar in Western American hisory about 10 years ago. Thanks for the reminder. It seems like she also has a chapter on Mormon ethnicity in her compliation of essays called SOMETHING IN THE SOIL. It might be the same essay reprinted in the Tanner lectures bok though, I’m not sure.

    Comment by SC Taysom — January 22, 2008 @ 2:18 pm

  2. SC: You’re right, the chapter in Something in the Soil is just a reprint of the Tanner lecture. I hope to do a post on the Tanner lecture in the near future.

    Comment by David Grua — January 22, 2008 @ 2:23 pm

  3. “Limerick?s genius can be found in her defining the West?s importance in terms of convergence of peoples, rather than simply the westward movement of white American males.”

    Living in Washington and having several of the UW’s channels on basic cable, I have been delighted to watch a series of lectures by Quintard Taylor on the history of African Americans in the West. It has been superb and highlights this very thing. Definitely worth watching.

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 22, 2008 @ 2:27 pm

  4. Thanks for the link, J. I’ll definitely check that out. I’ve been meaning to read Taylor’s stuff for awhile now.

    Comment by David Grua — January 22, 2008 @ 2:32 pm

  5. David, I agree with your assessment that the significance of Limerick’s work is not necessarily in the content of her treatment of Mormons (though it is certainly important), but rather the space she grants to the subject in situating the place Mormons in the West. Have other historians followed suit, or do they continue to relegate Mormons to the doughnut hole?

    Comment by Christopher — January 22, 2008 @ 3:49 pm

  6. Good question, Chris. Richard White, in “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”, perhaps the best single-volume history of the American West, also devotes considerable space to the Saints. Like Limerick, he doesn’t necessarily look at the Mormons through the lens of religion, but rather as a social group.

    Comment by David Grua — January 22, 2008 @ 3:53 pm

  7. I find this post lacking, for obvious reasons. I hereby supply the missing analysis:

    There was once a prophet named Mormon,
    With gold plates (tho he was a poor man),
    When his people were slain,
    He wept not in vain,
    Cuz he followed the plan God was formin’.

    Comment by Steve Evans — January 22, 2008 @ 4:24 pm

  8. Steve, you know we always like it when you stop by, but can I ask, what does that have to do with the post?

    Comment by David Grua — January 22, 2008 @ 4:35 pm

  9. David, read the title of your post, man!

    Comment by Steve Evans — January 22, 2008 @ 4:36 pm

  10. Um, ok. Thanks for supplying the missing analysis.

    Comment by David Grua — January 22, 2008 @ 4:38 pm

  11. […] A post over at the Juvenile Instructor is causing me to reflect on that most juvenile of poetic forms: the limerick. This has led me to write a couple of very bad limericks (inspired by our intrepid leader). They are both very bad. Keep that in mind. […]

    Pingback by By Common Consent » There once was a sister missionary from Nantucket — January 22, 2008 @ 4:42 pm

  12. Steve Evans, you make me proud to be a BYU English professor, knowing that you are an alumnus.

    Comment by Margaret Young — January 22, 2008 @ 9:07 pm

  13. I’ve never been a huge fan of “Legacy of Conquest.” Although I think that Limerick’s framework describing the West as a zone of convergence and conflict between racial and social groups is quite useful, her analysis always seemed to me to be a bit more style than substance–I still cannot follow her argument all the way through the text. Also, her willingness to jump on the Mark Hoffman bandwagon always made me feel that she didn’t really “get” Mormons.

    Comment by Joel — January 23, 2008 @ 8:05 am

  14. Joel: I have to agree with you on the lack of substance in her writings. She for the most part relies on secondary sources and a compelling writing style to sell her arguments. Richard White and William Cronon, on the other hand, are able to dig into the sources and present their arguments compellingly. But I think that Limerick is still very important in terms of providing frameworks for the study of the West. The 4 Cs of Conquest, Convergence, Continuity, and Complexity do weave their way through her text, although she wouldn’t flesh them out as concepts until a few years later.

    As for the Hoffman stuff, she did write her book in 1987, when Hoffman was still recent memory. I have to wonder if she were to write the book today if she would see it as that compelling of an example to make her point about the presence of the past.

    Comment by David Grua — January 23, 2008 @ 11:48 am


Recent Comments

J Stuart on Book Review: Lincoln Mullen–The: “The historiographical situating was really helpful for me. Thanks, Jeff!”

Christopher on God's Blessings and Labor: “Thank you, Jared* and cc, for the correction. I've updated the post.”

Hannah Jung on Previewing 2019: Looking Ahead: “Thanks for doing this Joey! I'm excited for the new year!”

Gary Bergera on Previewing 2019: Looking Ahead: “Great summary, J. Thanks for pulling all this information together.”

cc on God's Blessings and Labor: “^^ Jared is correct. Ammon served (with me) in Minnesota. The reference to Argentina in the Vice article is for Wes.”

Jared* on God's Blessings and Labor: “FYI, this Buzzfeed article says that Bundy served in Minnesota. The article linked to above appears to be talking about someone else (i.e.…”