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.
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
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.
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
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.