Reflecting on MHA: Mormonism in Colonial Spaces, with a nod to our Series on International Mormonism

By June 13, 2013

One of the questions that emerged out of this year?s Mormon History Association Conference was how we should think about Mormonism in colonial spaces.  I had the pleasure of commenting on a session with Gina Colvin, Chad Emmett, and Russell Stevenson.  Colvin began the session by exploring what it would mean to write Mormon history in a way that would take seriously the perspectives and lives of indigenous people such as the Maori.  Emmett then detailed the lives of Mormon men and women living in Dutch Indonesia in the early- to mid-twentieth century.  Stevenson rounded out the panel by exploring the meanings of conversion in British colonial India through the lens of the life of Mizra Khan, a wealthy Indian convert who wrote letters to church leaders about the legal and social status of his polygamous wives.

Taken together, the panel asks historians to think about the role of Mormonism in colonial spaces.  In what ways was Mormonism complicit in the destruction of indigenous cultures?  How did it allow for the preservation of cultural forms that would have otherwise been lost?  What was the relationship between elite Mormon figures and the colonial regime?  Colvin?s paper further asks Mormon historians to realize the politics of the histories they write and work to include indigenous voices.

Doing so is not easy.  One of the things with which I have struggled in my own work is the lack of sources from which to include indigenous voices.  Although there are a few letters and diaries from native Hawaiian and Maohi converts, they are far outnumbered by the sources produced by white Mormon missionaries.  Furthermore, the standards of evidence of the historical profession militate against the use of certain types of sources that might be used to overcome this problem.  Oral histories, although useful, are considered suspect by most nineteenth-century historians.  As a result, historians are left using sources produced by white men and women and trying to reconstruct the histories and perspectives of indigenous people from.  It?s a problematic endeavor, to be sure.  It?s also one that historians working on the twentieth century ? who are less allergic to oral histories and nontraditional sources ? than historians working on earlier time period have an easier time dealing with.

In spite of the difficulties of incorporating indigenous sources, however, it?s something with which Mormon historians need to grapple.  Writing histories that do not include indigenous perspectives and work entirely from the writings of white men and women is not a morally neutral endeavor.  Instead, our choice of topics is a reflection of what and who we think are important.  If we primarily write histories of elite, white men, then it suggests that it is their lives and experiences that we value.  If we write mostly about people living in Nauvoo and Utah, then it suggests that their experiences should be normative and should be centered within church history.  And, if we ignore the presence of non-white men and women in early Mormonism, then we suggest that they ultimately don?t matter.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Amanda,

    What’s the reasoning against oral histores for use in 19th century studies? Is it the transcription?

    Comment by Tod Robbins — June 13, 2013 @ 10:16 am

  2. I should be more specific… it’s against using oral histories produced in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century to describe what happened earlier. There aren’t many oral histories from the early or mid-nineteenth century so most oral sources come with the problem of memory. They are usually references to earlier events being remembered by family members, which raises questions of reliability and memory.

    Comment by Amanda — June 13, 2013 @ 10:19 am

  3. I would have loved to hear the presentation on Dutch Indonesia.

    Comment by Saskia — June 13, 2013 @ 10:41 am

  4. “If we write mostly about people living in Nauvoo and Utah, then it suggests that their experiences should be normative and should be centered within church history.”

    This is a very important point that I struggle with regularly with my own work. I think the position of Mormon history is unique in that there is so much focus on Utah (for obvious reasons!), but we need to find a way out of that narrative and central focus. Though my work does center upon Utah, I am trying to contextualize it within the larger (Mormon) West, which includes Mexico and Canada.

    Of course, there is the “problem” of archival sources. I know many sources are there–not as many of those written and produced by white men–but we just need to work harder to find them or reexamine them in a new context. So much more work to be done.

    Comment by NatalieR — June 13, 2013 @ 12:44 pm

  5. THe creation of these sources is probably why we are encouraged to do our personal family histories and keep persona journals.

    I’ve also found lots of wonderful stories in the country specific Church Newsroom pages.

    Comment by Joseph M — June 13, 2013 @ 2:54 pm

  6. Saskia, I believe it’s coming out as a book in the near future.

    Natalie – It’s something that I struggle with as well. Especially since I am consider spinning the chapter onto Tahiti into articles instead of including it in the book when I publish. That’ll make my dissertation tighter when it comes to revise but it also means the focus will be even more on elite, white men.

    Joseph – that’s an important point and will surely help historians working on 20th C history in the future.

    Comment by Amanda — June 14, 2013 @ 8:37 am

  7. “I?ve also found lots of wonderful stories in the country specific Church Newsroom pages.” (Joseph M.)

    Newsroom is excellent for PR, but I’m not sure its success stories in other countries would meet criteria for later historical research. Moreover, there is in proportion very little about the international church compared to US-news (while we claim there are more members outside the US).

    The country specific stories mainly have to do with welfare projects, disaster help, temple building, or a heroicized event — not the kind that tell the daily life of converts, nor the inner stories of wards and stakes, nor the relation with the host society, etc.

    Embellishment and blind trust in (re)told stories is one of the greatest problems in church sources for later history. I remember Deseret News once ran the story of a “famous WWII war hero” in a certain European country. It was the story how he had told it to some missionaries. In reality, after the war he had been condemned for Nazi collaboration.

    A lot of serious work still to be done, as Amanda said.

    Comment by Wilfried — June 17, 2013 @ 2:28 am


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