The ecology of Mormon History has tremendous benefits. Among them are deeply committed institutional patrons, obsessive readership, and dedicated amateur researchers willing to slog through enormous volumes of minutiae. Some of these benefits can also yield challenges. I’d like to focus on one in particular: Denominational histories that even when not overtly devotional are disconnected from the historiography and analytical trends of religious history more broadly.
Some of you may know that my graduate training is in a field quite unrelated to Mormon history. While I did track down 100-year-old articles for my dissertation, they were written by German chemists, and I was interested as a chemist. I have greatly appreciated the accessibility of Mormon history since that time, as I have worked avocationally to develop a familiarity with the various sources, repositories, and authors in the field. I have also tried to read up on Atlantic religious history generally, and specific areas like Christian healing. However, not having endured the ultramarathon that is comps, and not having participated in the specific training of a graduate program, I certainly come up wanting.
Consequently, when I grabbed a copy of Hall’s edited compilation, Lived Religion in America: Toward a History of Practice, and read through the first chapters on a recent flight, I was thrilled to find language that clearly described ideas that I had been noodling for some time. It also opened up my perception to some cool new areas of application that I most certainly would not have found on my own. There I was, on the plane, and struck with how some of the material so readily applied to areas as disparate as early Mormon charismata, and John Dehlin’s disaffection therapy cultus.
Now, I picked up the book because of Hall and Brown’s chapter on Baptism and the Lord’s Supper in early New England, which relates to a current research project. And I know that I should read Robert Orsi’s work more broadly (he opens the volume up), which I just haven’t gotten around to it yet. But I am a huge fan of review essays in general and as a book that is intended to introduce readers to “lived religion” through case studies including such an introduction, well, I sort of fell in love.
When I had a moment, I shot a quick note to my colleagues here at the Juvenile Instructor, who I imagine had read the book when they were nineteen years old. We like reading lists (e.g., here and here) and I asked them for their recommendations. If they were to offer a list of volumes which all members of the Mormon History Association (MHA) should read, what would be on it? You see, the MHA is chock full of non-traditional scholars: amateur historians like me, compulsive genealogists, Mormon battalion reenactors, irritated former Mormons (though not too many), and more, all of whom would benefit from such readings.
One response indicated that reading Alstrom’s A Religious History of the American People with a William Hutchison chaser was important as understanding American religion requires and understanding of Protestant cultural dominance. A subsequent response suggested Tweed’s edited volume, Retelling U.S. Religious History as a “very helpful for correcting the old model, of which Ahlstrom is the best example, [i.e.,] timeless and encyclopedic, but very top-heavy in its focus. Hall’s & Tweed’s contributors help provide the perspective from those with a lot less access to religious and cultural power.” I like the generational dynamic, and for me (very interested in women’s history and lived religion) a quick look at the TOC had me sold.
I remember reading through Hatch’s Democratization of American Christianity, Butler’s Awash in a Sea of Faith and Hall’s World’s of Wonder and thinking they were huge winners and that they would be beneficial to others like me. Same with authors like Leigh Eric Schmidt and Ann Taves. But I like the suggestions of the edited volumes, as they can include a particular methodological focus. For example, I know that I should be better with material culture. I even sat at a recent gathering with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (discussing one of her essays) where if there was an anxious seat, I would have certainly confessed the conviction of my sins. But I still don’t really know where to look to get better.
The JI team instructed me that this topic was definitely post fodder, and so I beg of you dear readers and fellow bloggers, please offer your suggestions to the Mormon History Association and to me.