Reassessing the Classics: Armand Mauss’s THE ANGEL AND THE BEEHIVE (part 3 of 3)

By October 17, 2019

For the past several days, the Juvenile Instructor has examined the work of the sociologist Armand Mauss, a pioneering figure in Mormon studies, under the banner of our occasional series “Reassessing the Classics.” This is the last of three posts dealing with Mauss’s landmark 1994 book THE ANGEL AND THE BEEHIVE: THE MORMON STRUGGLE WITH ASSIMILATION (University of Illinois Press). I wrote it.

I first encountered The Angel and the Beehive in the early years of my graduate school training—not in readings for a course or recommendations from a professor, but in a way far more glancing and tangential (as so many of the best things in academic research develop). I was working on a project about miracles in Mormonism, and it suddenly seemed as though it would be useful to me to know whether or not Mormons commonly talked about such things in the regular monthly testimony meetings held in every Mormon congregation.

So I walked over to the library. This was at a point where such online databases as JSTOR were in their infancy, and even if they were not, the world of peer reviewed journals interested in Mormonism were far from such databases’ consciousness. I’d have to start digging through books, and perhaps reverse engineer my way into any useful articles in Sunstone or Dialogue. As I stood in front of the BX8600 shelves in the library, idly scanning for anything that might seem worthwhile, I had a realization: there were virtually no peer reviewed, university published books about contemporary Mormonism, at least on these shelves. (Or, I learned before too long, really at all.)  Claudia Bushman’s Contemporary Mormonism  was on the verge of publication. Terryl Givens’s The Latter-day Saint Experience in America was there, as was Susan Taber’s Mormon Lives. And that was about all.  This was the first time I felt some frustration that scholars seemed interested only in Joseph Smith and plural marriage. After all, I was interested in twentieth century evangelicalism and liberal Protestantism; they seemed to have rich histories after the end of World War II.

In the end, I left the library with the Shepherds’ A Kingdom Transformed (a fine study of themes in General Conferences of the Church from the nineteenth century to the near present), and with The Angel and the Beehive.

I found what I needed in Mauss’s book; it contains a short but pointed discussion of testimony meetings and the references therein sent me to a series of useful articles. But I found a lot more than that as well.  Mauss’s book has now for twenty-five years been the best comprehensive work on twentieth century Mormon history we have. It managed to both be among the first thorough works on the topic, but also to set the parameters and narrative arc that have structured nearly all work on twentieth century Mormon history since. Mauss’s model of assimilation and retrenchment (and his follow-up works that have extended his interpretation to the periods after the timeframe of the book ends) have proven durable and persuasive to historians working on a wide range of topics. The book has become a firm canopy that has proven able to shelter and anchor a range of other topics.

Mauss’s sensitivity to narrative and to cause and effect has made his book exceptionally useful to historians; it is carefully crafted, not merely well-researched, although it is that too. Mauss draws together a wide range of seemingly fragmentary primary and secondary material—reams of articles in Mormon journals, church-published manuals, surveys, both within and without Mormonism, and a series of trenchant and insightful case studies––and organizes them into a durable story of what happened to Mormonism over a long period of time, as the best work of synthesis do. The legacy of the book among historians of Mormonism is even more impressive when one recognizes that, of course, Mauss’s book is a work of sociology, not a work of history.

I’m convinced the book will remain part of the Mormon studies canon even as the work which follows it transcends it. In part, of course, Mauss pointed the way there himself, with his followup All Abraham’s Children, a study of race and Mormonism which illustrated how many stories beyond the white, male, Utah centers of Mormon power remain to be told. More, we have begun to see Mormon studies branch beyond the historians who have embraced it so far; more and more scholars of multiple disciplines have begun taking the tradition seriously—and as that has happened, those shelves in the BX8600 section of the library have begun to fill with books both building on and dissenting from The Angel and the Beehive—though all still owe it a debt.

Article filed under Miscellaneous

  1. Thanks for these posts, Matt. Both of these volumes you mention are brilliant required readings, and as you say, will continue to be so.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 17, 2019 @ 6:37 am

  2. Thanks, Matt!

    Comment by Jeff T — October 17, 2019 @ 11:22 am

  3. Since I work in Mormon studies, I tend to read a lot. It’s impossible to keep up with everything being published, but over the past decade and a half I have read probably 70 to 75 books in this field. Among those, there are only three or four that completely altered the way I view the Church. One is The Angel and the Beehive. Another is Charley Harrell’s This Is My Doctrine. The Prince and Wright biography of David O. McKay is maybe in that league also. But the Angel and the Beehive is unique. Thanks for reminding me of its revolutionary content.

    Comment by Roger T — October 17, 2019 @ 11:58 am

  4. I am pleasantly surprised and deeply grateful for the three assessments offered in this space this week by Gary Shepherd, Jana Riess, and Matt Bowman. Now in my 90s, I am especially gratified to see, while still in mortality, that my work in Mormon studies has had some enduring impact. If Matt found the library shelves thinly garnished with serious scholarship on Mormons when he was in graduate school, imagine what my own similar searchings provided when I was in graduate school! We have all rejoiced to see the recent flowering in this field of studies, especially during the past two decades, though I am frankly astounded — even appalled — to see that there has appeared as yet no truly comprehensive, critical (scholarly) history of the Latter-day Saints covering the middle and later years of the twentieth century (chronological successors, that is, to Thomas Alexander’s Mormonism in Transition). I am aware of a couple of fine scholars who had aspirations in that direction, but apparently time has run out for them, as (now) for me.
    My own Angel & Beehive, while sometimes considered a comprehensive history, really is more of an interpretive historical overview, offering a general theoretical framework for making sense of the historical period in question. Anyone interested in the intellectual process by which I arrived at this framework (including my debt to other scholars) can find it articulated in Chapter Five of my more recent Shifting Borders and a Tattered Passport (U. of U. Press, 2012).
    In the changes made since President Hinckley, and especially those since President Nelson, I see the same kinds of course corrections occurring, the great majority of which are moving the ecclesiological culture of the Church in a more assimilative direction — that is, in a tension-reducing direction with the surrounding societies, at least in North America and Europe. Indeed, as I noted in a recent review of Jana’s new book on The Next Mormons, almost all of these recent changes accord well with the preferences expressed by today’s “millennials.” The renewed emphasis on features that might, at first glance, seem more “retrenching” than “assimilating” (e. g. sabbath observance, the double-down on the Word of Wisdom, and the reminders that we are led by prophets receiving regular revelation) all turn out to be features mainly for internal consumption — that is unlikely to be even noticed by the outside world, but of increasing importance as symbolic markers of faithfulness within the fold. The one exception, of course, that will remain a source of tension with the outside for some time to come, is the LGBQT set of issues. I think that quandary has as much potential to produce schism as did the polygamy issue a century ago.

    Comment by Armand Mauss — October 17, 2019 @ 12:42 pm

  5. These have been interesting posts about a major work in Mormon Studies. If I may boil down my understanding of Mauss’ thesis to a sentence or two, it is that the LDS Church must navigate its way through two major social constraints: (1) a constraint arising from its membership (i.e. needing members to have a strong sense of Mormon identity, aka “retrenchment”); and (2) a basic constraint of fitting into society at a basic level (since a totally bizarre church will have difficulty attracting new members and keeping its current ones – aka “assimilation”).

    This summary, however, is not my main point. Rather, my main point is that this thesis–and more importantly, a large fraction of “scholarship” in “Mormon studies”– is itself subject to several constraints that lead me to question how impartial or objective Mormon studies actually IS or CAN BE. A more cynical way of posing the issue is whether Mormon studies has been corrupted by some of the constraints below. And if Mormon scholarship is thus corrupted, how can we trust its findings?

    Scholars like Mauss who are LDS and who engage in Mormon studies face some of the following constraints. Not all constraints apply to every LDS scholar, but I believe many of them do:

    – The desire to maintain their current church membership. Scholarship that sufficiently threatens the established LDS order faces the threat of discipline (excomm), so LDS scholars often consciously or unconsciously mold their questions and conclusions to fit within these parameters.

    – The desire to maintain their social standing within the church – to not be ostracized within their ward, to not lose opportunities for future callings, to not embarrass or disappoint their family.

    – The desire to maintain social/professional standing within the Mormon studies community. Some questions and some conclusions will alienate a person from certain sectors of the world of Mormon scholarship (e.g., someone regarded as apostate may lose opportunities to publish with some outlets like the Maxwell Institute or Deseret Book, or may lose opportunities to be invited to give lectures at the Maxwell Institute, FAIR, etc.). These pressures can include not wanting to upset a collaborator on another project who happens to be very orthodox, as well as not wanting to espouse views that would alienate Orthodox LDS donors who you depend on for financial backing.

    – The need for employment. Scholars employed at BYU cannot ask certain questions or come to certain conclusions while maintaining their livelihood at BYU. They risk being fired.

    – The desire for salvation. If people believe that their loyalty to the church will affect their eternal salvation, can they really be honest brokers and interpreters of church history?

    If the study of constraints facing the LDS church is sufficiently rich to yield a landmark work by Mauss, I wonder whether studying the constraints experienced by LDS intellectuals – constraints that silently permeate the landscape of Mormon Studies – would be similarly fruitful.

    Comment by Mirror — October 18, 2019 @ 10:55 am

  6. Thank you for your lasting contributions to Mormon Studies, Armand.

    Comment by Blair Hodges — October 19, 2019 @ 7:54 pm

  7. I’ve enjoyed these three discussions — crowned by this response by Armand Mauss himself. It is so representative of his ability and willingness to interact with us all, whoever we are, whether a near-stranger as I was when I first emailed him with a request to search his memory for details reaching back almost 80 years, or known scholars discussing his work in print or online.

    Armand, you are a treasure, and I will be forever grateful for your friendship and personal touch.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 20, 2019 @ 12:40 pm

  8. Armand, your response made me unexpectedly emotional. Your work has shaped me as a scholar in many important ways, but your legendary willingness to engage others’ work inspires me most.

    Comment by J Stuart — October 21, 2019 @ 9:48 am

  9. Armand is a wise and lovely man who deserves these kind words. I absolutely agree that his books were key entries in the scholar’s library during my coming-up as a student of Mormonism.

    Comment by Smb — October 22, 2019 @ 1:19 am

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