Repudiating Scholarly Violence in Mormon History

By April 6, 2009

Before I start this post, I just want to apologize to all my fellow JIers for my unproductive participation in the blog as of late. Because my primary area of research falls outside of the Mormon History paradigm, I often have to wait for the spirit to move me towards some sort of meaningful post. I still want to put together some concluding thoughts on Mormonism and ethnicity one of these days, but it seems like my dissertation research has kept me pretty busy the last little while. I am hoping to attend at least some of the Mormon History Conference in May since Springfield is quite close to Champaign. Several posts on the Bloggernacle of late (not particularly on JI but as a blog devoted to Mormon history I think this is a good forum for addressing the issue) have made me think about the reality and role of bias in the production of historical scholarship.

Projects of revisionism and re-revisionism have always depended on the revelation and identification of bias within previous scholarly endeavors. Historians try to demonstrate how ideological and methodological blinders have caused previous historians to misread, misrepresent, or even leave out important historical details in order to create space for their own particular projects and interpretations. The study of how historical interpretations change over time and the reasons why such changes occur is called historiography.

Although understanding and engaging historiographical debates is central to the study of history, for those outside the discipline, accusations of bias often are taken as excuses for disavowal. Such overly-simplistic dismissals of scholarship are grounded in a world-view that identifies bias as a spoiler of truth, especially when framed within a world devoted to the idea of objective, scientific discovery. Like it or not, the study of Mormon history has gone mainstream, but its popular manifestations often lack the nuance of deeper, more respectful scholarship. When historians identify scholarly biases, they usually do so not to discredit former scholars, but instead to augment or correct some of their conclusions. We can never look at every relevant document from a particular time period or event. Even if we examine everything we can find, events never occur within vacuums and we must rely on the scholarship of others to place our narratives into proper historical context.

Rough Stone Rolling provides a great illustration of how history works. Bushman’s magnum opus has been proclaimed as the most comprehensive biography ever written about the prophet. He spent years looking at almost every shred of paper that had something to do with the prophet’s life. Nevertheless, if you look at his notes you will find that he relied on Michael Quinn at times when talking about the culture of magic in which Smith grew up. He followed Todd Compton in discussing Joseph’s plural wives. He even follows Fawn Brodie in some of his interpretations, while at the same time superseding many of her other conclusions. Historical scholarship is an inherently collaborative project, and good historians know that even as we criticize and revise other historians’ conclusions that we also stand on their shoulders. [1]

I am trying to make two points. First, I want non-specialists to begin to understand the importance of nuance, criticism, and collaboration within the study of history. I also want to caution historians to think hard about the way that we dismiss other historians’ work and interpretations in historical forums. We need to choose words and arguments that help others understand the discipline’s complexity.

I think that one way to do this is to talk about investment instead of bias as we evaluate other historians’ work. As professionals, historians literally found their careers on particular interpretations of particular events. By spending years developing a dissertation, we have invested time, money, and sweat in creating our own little niche in the scholarly world. We expand this niche every time we publish something new. What we sometimes don’t realize is that when it comes to Mormon history, people are invested for a variety of reasons. Members are invested in a particular narrative of Mormon history that gives their membership meaning, stability, and value. Many have invested their entire lives in a church based on their belief that a fourteen year old boy saw God and Jesus Christ. While this definitely biases the way that they perceive and understand the past, it does not give others the right to completely discredit this narrative either. Just because members are heavily invested in a particular take on history does not mean that that this history is completely wrong. The same goes for all those that have undertaken the study of Mormon history. New Mormon Historians became invested in Mormon history as a scholarly endeavor. Many of them built their academic reputations around the analytical discussion of Mormonism as a social and historical force. Others are invested in disproving the story of Joseph Smith. I really like the concept of investment because it fully humanizes even those with whom we disagree. When we dismiss someone as biased, especially in a public setting, others often perceive it as an attack or complete repudiation. They often respond in kind. I think it is important for us as historians to understand the humanity invested within the stories we tell. We must repudiate scholarly violence. [2]

[1] Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith Rough Stone Rolling: A Cultural Biography of Mormonism’s Founder (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 573, 575, 624-625.

[2] Some of my thinking is inspired by Jane Tompkins, “Fighting Words: Unlearning to Write the Critical Essay,” Georgia Review 42, no. 3 (1988): 585-90.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. What about those who call themselves revisionists while producing nothing but polemics?

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — April 6, 2009 @ 11:57 am

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Joel. The fact that everything you post here is so dang thoughtful and worthwhile, I wouldn’t worry too much about the time in between your posts.

    Comment by Christopher — April 6, 2009 @ 12:59 pm

  3. I think it would help if historians placed more value on synthesis. Then we would have to spend more time examining each side of various issues and come up with a compromise or middle ground. It would also serve as a check on our prideful antics by forcing us to think about larger themes that transcend our often narrow concerns.

    Comment by Sterling Fluharty — April 6, 2009 @ 1:57 pm

  4. In these economic times, who can think about investments.

    Comment by Desert Rat — April 6, 2009 @ 2:32 pm

  5. Joel,

    As a non-scholarly type, I am guessing that the transcript of the Turley/Bagley/Cuch exchange here at the JI provides an example. Bagley and Turley obviously have much different “investments” in the MMM narratives they have created, yet still manage to respect and like each other.

    It requires some effort on my part to try and view these differences objectively, and that is the challenge. However, I keep thinking about the analogy that when your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. And we still see some of that in our interpretations of Mormon history.

    Comment by kevinf — April 6, 2009 @ 3:15 pm

  6. Joel, the concept of investment is so very valuable to the discussion of responsible Mormon scholarship in an ecclesiastical setting, as is the concept of repudiating scholarly violence. Thank you. Do you have any thoughts on ways to go about peacefully repudiating such violence, since repudiation itself can sometimes become violent?

    Comment by Elizabeth — April 6, 2009 @ 4:15 pm

  7. This is a huge topic in biomedical scholarship. We call it “interest” as in conflict of interest. Huge debates about what constitutes such an interest. Recent voices have opted to call them “competing interests” or perhaps loyalties. You should see how gruesome these debates get in my main field. Makes mohist sound fairly tame truth be told.
    To be honest I see the fighting as existing outside scholarship. Do apologists and angry seceders need to be historians or is their role distinct? What seems to me strange is not the violence but the fact that mohist encompass these nonscholarly voices.
    Are you ready to professionalize mohist fully? What would be the cost?

    Comment by Smb — April 6, 2009 @ 9:07 pm

  8. Joel, I echo Chris’ sentiments.

    I don’t know how professional historians can help it if nonprofessionals/apologists wants to ignore good advice like what Joel has set forth here, but professionals can surely choose to follow such advice in their treatment both of fellow professionals and the nonprofessionals.

    I’m intrigued by Smb’s question about being ready to professionalize Mormon History fully. I’d like to hear more, Smb.

    Maybe you could explain further about how Mormon History “encompasses these non scholarly voices”?

    Can “apologists and angry seceders” be historians in anything resembling a professional sense? My inclination is to say no. If not, why engage them at all except for sheer boredom?

    Maybe a lack of specifics is what’s tripping me up here. Joel or Smb, can you give some specifics/examples of what we’re talking about here?

    Comment by Jared T — April 6, 2009 @ 10:07 pm

  9. Mohist traditionally encompasses a wide array of non-professional or non-specialist voices. Almost all of the polemics come from either non-academics or non-specialists. These “apologists and angry seceders” are the ones who are fighting out the meaning of historical scholarship, but they are not themselves producing the type of scholarly history being practiced by those Joel describes.

    “sheer boredom” seems to me to miss the point entirely–they are fighting so desperately precisely because they believe a staggering amount is at stake. That I find their arguments wholly uninteresting should not be taken as a reliable indictment of their quality in their given context.

    The simplest way to eliminate scholarly violence from Mormon History is to exclude the voices that are so easy to caricature on these blogs (“FARMS” and “Bagler” are the current poles of these stereotypes). But the Mormon History that remained would be something different from the complex entity that so strangely and powerfully joins the worlds of the academic and the believer (on both sides of institutional allegiance).

    I personally don’t have the time to engage the polemicists much, but I don’t wish they would go away or become professional historians. I think they remind those who want to practice more typically academic history of the stakes among actual people living and breathing lives in the complex and sometimes turgid idea-worlds that some of us want to observe and describe.

    The harder question is whether to fight with them over the title “historian.” I can understand some desire to pull back from the overbroad use of that title, though I think it would be difficult to implement that.

    For perspective, it might be worth considering Masonic “history,” which is similarly academically muddied by polemics on both sides. When professional historians like Bullock turn their eyes to it, they utilize some of the nasty messiness, have to toil through a whole lot more of it, and ultimately write something that makes good sense to well-disposed outsiders.

    Comment by smb — April 6, 2009 @ 10:44 pm

  10. Thanks for the clarifications. I don’t mean that the nonprofessionals are acting out of boredom, it was a crude way of trying to ask why a professional would engage the polemicists in the first place.

    So, when you say professionalize fully, you’re talking about this exclusion of nonprofessionals from the conversation, thus leaving a different Mormon History, a fully professional Mormon History? I think I’m starting to get what you’re driving at and appreciating even more fully what Joel is trying to say.

    Stay with me while I flesh this out a little. My first reaction to your comment about professionalizing fully was
    that I thought the likes of my cobloggers and other aspiring professionals like myself were already operating in a “fully professional” world of Mormon History. In the sense that if I were writing about Mormonism in an academic setting I wouldn’t have any interest in engaging polemicists or nonprofessionals in my work.

    Of course, I thought, that’s one world, but then I enter, for example, this other world of blogging and I’ve drawn my share of blood.

    So when you mean “fully” are you talking about not engaging polemicists and nonprofessionals anywhere (even blogs) or can we have different hats we put on for our different situations?

    For example, my professional Mormon Historian hat I put on at the Western History Association and my polemic, slightly snarky, but still mostly respectful hat that I put on for the bloggernacle.

    Comment by Jared T — April 6, 2009 @ 11:19 pm

  11. Thank you everyone for your comments so far. As you probably can tell, I am still formulating my own ideas concerning these questions, and I am grateful for the ways in which your comments and questions push me to define my thinking to greater degree.


    You make great point that certain writers use the cover of scholarship to hide a hurtful agenda–though I actually think the number of those involved in such endeavors is quite small. My point is not that we shouldn’t engage such scholarship; indeed, I have come to admire your tenacity in defending the historical record. I guess I am just bemoaning a certain level of ad hominem attacks that often stand in for true dialogue. I think that we owe even the people we disagree with a certain level of respect for the investment they have made in whatever historical endeavor they choose to follow.


    Thanks for the kind words. I have great respect for your thoughts as well. I am grateful to have a forum here for my very limited musings about Mormon history.


    I agree that many historians overlook the value of synthesis. Why not depend on other historians that we respect? One of the historians here at UIUC, David Roediger, is a masterful synthesizer and one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. He is always advising students that it is worthwhile to reread books and think collaboratively. I must add that good synthesis is actually very hard to do which is why I think a lot of people shy away from it.


    Your point is well-stated. I must admit that the transcript was part of the malaise that inspired this post.


    Thanks for your comment. Your point that repudiation can in itself be a violent process is well taken. I guess the key might be to not engage in mudslinging ourselves. I think the key is to reject scholarly violence as a tool of the trade.


    Another inspiration for this post came from my observations last week at a conference on the history of 19th Century Latin American Revolutions. I found myself observing the battles that went on in that room–baffled at times because I had no investment on either side of the issues. Nevertheless, I also found myself evaluating my own scholarly investments, and the legitimacy and importance each holds. Because our scholarship becomes so personal, it seems so easy to violently defend it from all detractors. I am not surprised by scholarly violence, I simply bemoan its existence.

    I think the reason that so many non-scholarly voices participate in the Mormon history world is because they have a stake or investment in it. I think it is important to recognize and respect that investment even if it doesn’t produce much new scholarly understanding. I also think that we need to acknowledge the extent of our own investment in Mormon History. I think that the scope of everyday church members investment in Mormon history precludes their exclusion from its practice. Yet I think focusing on individual investments in the practice of history can do much to separate professionals from amateurs.


    I don’t know if I am calling for a separation between the sheep and goat practitioners of Mormon history. I think that I am more interested in focusing on the common humanity and separate investments of those that engage in Mormon history. I think it can be helpful to learn to admire someone with whom you disagree for the efforts they put into whatever work they do. Sometimes I admire polemicists in the field simply because they continually refocus people on the truth claims of the church. Although I think more professional historians have agreed that these questions cannot be answered through historical means, I think polemic scholarship plays an important role in helping us remember what’s at stake in the practice of Mormon History.

    Comment by Joel — April 6, 2009 @ 11:34 pm

  12. Also, about your thoughts, Smb, on fighting over the title “historian”. I had similar thoughts over the terms “scholar” and “academic” which words invoke professionalism and the academy to me, yet I hear terms like “gospel scholar” and “academic” used all the time in apologetic settings where I personally don’t feel they fit. On the other hand, I don’t know if I’m ready to begrudge anyone the use of those terms in their own context. I guess its when those terms are used in an attempt to pass “that” off for “this” that I get uneasy.

    Comment by Jared T — April 6, 2009 @ 11:35 pm

  13. Joel,

    Thanks for your response. Sorry, I had an unfinished thought in #10. I didn’t mean to imply the sheep-goat separation as something your post was driving at, but rather what you’ve put forth again in #11.

    Comment by Jared T — April 6, 2009 @ 11:48 pm

  14. Jared, I do see scholarship heavily mimicked among lay audiences. In lit-crit, my brother calls it Test Tube Envy. I don’t have a great answer to this problem of dueling authority claims, and I take as important your comment that we ourselves will play different roles. I have a different way in Sunday School than I do when writing a paper for a scholarly journal or when I’m participating in a blog. I wonder though whether, at least as far as polemics, we further muddy the water when we engage in pettiness in blogland that does not square well with academic CVs.

    Could we, should we entirely ignore “FARMS”/”Bagler” in our encounters? Occasionally they find bibliographical gems–is that how we shall use them? They would find it immensely insulting, which I think bears its own cost, but perhaps that would allow us to quietly professionalize–the benign neglect approach. I don’t find that arguing with “F”/”B” moves forward understanding at all. Maybe we should push more strongly for separate spheres.

    I don’t know. I’m delighted that “F”/”B” exist, just like I’m delighted that there are people who eat Arugula on the Upper East Side and who make possum/squirrel gumbo in rural Louisiana. (I use these because I’m not a giant fan of Arugula or possum gumbo, but they are important parts of vibrant lifestyles.)

    Comment by smb — April 7, 2009 @ 8:59 am

  15. Smb, I like the idea of a benign neglect approach.

    Your point about muddying the waters on the blogs is also well taken. Even though in our minds we think we are maintaining separate spheres-professional vs blogosphere-that distinction might be lost on the nonprofessionals we bait.

    Good food for thought…now some possum gumbo as food for stomach… : )

    Comment by Jared T — April 7, 2009 @ 9:18 am

  16. They would find it immensely insulting

    Yes, we would and do. Ditto the idea of being “used.”

    Like it or not, history is one area where outsiders can and do make significant contributions. We always have and always will — long after it became impossible for us to make contributions to physics or medical science or astronomy. Call it Test Tube or any other kind of envy you want: I have it, and there’s nothing I can do about it. Some of us didn’t have the means of getting the formal education to become “professional” historians. I know what I’m lacking better than any of you do, believe me. I respect what I’m lacking (not the fact that I lack it, but the thing itself) and I’m jealous as hell.

    I like you guys — I really do — but I’d caution you just a bit: Until you have individually proven yourselves by producing noteable written history, beware too much navel gazing, or at least keep it private. Otherwise you risk sounding like a gaggle of 12-year-old girls sitting around on the playground discussing how mature they are.

    And who would have guessed I would put myself forward as a stand-in for either FARMS or Bagler? You’ve thrown me to both wolves!

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — April 7, 2009 @ 9:27 am

  17. Otherwise you risk sounding like a gaggle of 12-year-old girls sitting around on the playground discussing how mature they are.

    You mean we don’t already sound like that?

    Comment by Christopher — April 7, 2009 @ 9:45 am

  18. Your voices are a little deeper.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — April 7, 2009 @ 10:02 am

  19. Ardis, I don’t know, I think you might be finding offense where none exists (or is intended). I don’t think anyone here has argued that only people with history degrees (or, more broadly, some professional degree of some sort) can make contributions to the field of professional history. The argument has been about when nonprofessionals turn to polemics and whether it’s in a professional’s interest to engage that aspect of the dialogue. When a nonprofessional resorts almost exclusively to polemics, I’d say that would be good grounds for some benignly neglectful treatment. If you want to lump yourself with such, that’s your choice, but I don’t know of anyone here who would do so.

    For example, if a professional, whether in Mormon history or in Western history wants to discuss violence in Utah, I don’t think they would be justified in ignoring say, your article on the Santa Clara massacre, just because you don’t have a degree in history.

    Christopher’s last comment is well taken, but I don’t know that I agree with the original assessment that drew his comment out. On my first day of grad school last semester, one of my professors told us very clearly, “Your professional careers start now.” I think more than a few of us are well aware of our being in the “budding” stages of professionalism in our chosen career paths, and it’s a process that takes years to develop and years to produce “noteable written history”. But I reject the idea that as a budding professional, I or anyone in my position is ill advised in engaging these ideas and shaping our understanding of our chosen field at this early stage in our professional developments.

    It is not so (not normally, anyway) in my experience with Academia. One example is a seminar, the Rocky Mountain Seminar in Early American History that takes place about every month here at the U. Basically, an outside scholar is invited to the U to present their latest research for critique by their peers. A professor last semester took the class to this seminar where we were fully expected to participate and engage the ideas along with the rest notwithstanding none of us has produced a publishable article as of yet. We were only required to attend that one for class, but we get regular invites for other sessions of the RMSEAH. In short, no one was telling us to keep our opinions to ourselves because we hadn’t met some sort of arbitrary requirement for participation, but rather, we are encouraged always to engage these issues. If we sound too big for our britches sometimes its because rhetoric and discussion (thankfully, usually) precede written contributions.

    Now, back to my gumbo.

    Comment by Jared T — April 7, 2009 @ 10:25 am

  20. I think the professional appellation is fairly useless. I consider Ardis a professional extraordinaire. While it is true that I have never met an amateur chemist (though perhaps evolutionary biology could be an interesting parallel); I can’t imagine a similar debate in the field of my graduate work. I tend to judge work on its merits. There is good scholarship and there is crappy scholarship and there is some in between. Sometimes there is amazing scholarship.

    To the original post, I find myself currently in the position of dismantling the work of a generation of “revisionist” scholars. I wish that they would have done things differently, but I appreciate having access to their bibliographies. Still, I don’t care what people consider themselves. Who cares if Rodney Turner thought of himself as a scholar, or Gerald Tanner?

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 7, 2009 @ 10:41 am

  21. …just to clarify: when discussing people, I generally describe them by what they do: “She is a professor at xyz,” “he is a professional researcher,” or “he is a chemist by day and a caped vigilante by night.” I then generally describe what they produce: “This is crap,” “this is analytically rich but contextually poor,” or “this is a nice devotional but misses the historiographic boat.”

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 7, 2009 @ 10:54 am

  22. Just to be pedantic but amateur astronomers can actually still provide a lot of important information.

    Comment by Clark — April 7, 2009 @ 11:21 am

  23. J. thanks for your thoughts. I can agree that the use of a word like “professional” can bring with it some unnecessary baggage. Terms like this (and “academic”, for example) have often been used to marginalize (across the ideological spectrum). That having been said, I’m not convinced that they’re useless.

    I hasten to add, in fairness to Joel’s excellent post, that this issue is part of a thread jack that I’ve participated in perpetuating.

    Whatever the terms we decide to use and for whatever reason we decide to use them, we can look at issues of investment and critique each other’s work without being disagreeable or inappropriately dismissive.

    Comment by Jared T — April 7, 2009 @ 11:23 am

  24. Jared, no offense taken (I launched off of smb’s use of that word, but I’m not offended).

    The discussion overall has been broader than to engage or not to engage polemicists — it has ranged through engaging or ignoring revisionists and polemicists and apologists and academics (and non-) and scholars (and non-). I’m only responding to that part of the discussion about the labels “historian,” “scholar,” “professional”), who gets to use them, and whether work is ignored or engaged based on the label claimed by/applied to the worker.

    Since he is one of the examples used here: Will “Bagler” has written little but polemics for quite a while now, but his earlier work — written when he still had some affection for his subjects — is great history and great writing. He still achieves both when his subjects aren’t Mormon. But often, in both conversation and writing (not here, particularly), I hear Will and his work dismissed on the grounds that he doesn’t have formal academic training in history. That’s isn’t right and it isn’t good scholarship. Counter the argument (or the tone, or the structure, or whatever), but avoid the ad hominem, as Joel calls for in the original post.

    This isn’t a defense of Will, particularly — he’s a bulldog and can defend himself if he cares to. It’s self defense. If academics were to deny Will the label “historian” or were to ignore his contributions because he is not academically trained, rather than because his work is faulty for whatever reason, they can do exactly the same thing to me.

    I’m only pointing out that on the way to professionalizing history, academics need to be careful to ignore a work or an argument because the *work* is unworthy of engagement, not because the man or woman who produced it isn’t an academic professional. I think that fits very well with Joel’s post.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — April 7, 2009 @ 11:25 am

  25. “I?m only pointing out that on the way to professionalizing history, academics need to be careful to ignore a work or an argument because the *work* is unworthy of engagement, not because the man or woman who produced it isn?t an academic professional.”

    Ardis, I don’t think there is disagreement here about this point. Throughout this discussion, I’ve been employing words like “non/professional” and “scholar” in regards to people, though I think the implication has been to describe what is acceptable *work*, not people. If that was unclear, that’s my bad. Therein lies a potential danger of using those terms (though I’m not ready to give up on them just yet).

    I think it’s true that one can be overly dismissive of a FARMS or a Will and risk marginalizing both in a wholesale fashion. This must be resisted, or repudiated as Joel says.

    Comment by Jared T — April 7, 2009 @ 11:40 am

  26. Wow, this discussion has taken off this morning, hasn’t it?
    Some overall thoughts:

    1. I think everyone agrees that good scholarship is good scholarship whether produced by degreed or non-degreed historians.

    2. Training and standards whether self-acquired or obtained along the path to a degree are important for producing good scholarship.

    3. It’s important for us to not forget the humanity of all those involved in Mormon history, both professional, apologetic, polemic, devotional. All these people are children of God and should be treated as such.

    4. Professional historians tend to be gatekeepers, to some degree, like every other professional organization. This is, in part, because our jobs will eventually depend on our ability to produce quality refereed scholarship. This sense of contingency, especially in a depressed economy and a rapidly changing job market, creates a certain sense of exclusivity. Also it requires that we engage with the work of others on both a micro and macro level. I guess what I’m trying to explain is the socio-economic aspect involved in professionalization. I sometimes wonder if the banality of the bottom line is one reason for the previous marginalization of Mormon history from the the larger profession. Are professional historians afraid of such an informed group of outsiders?

    5. Part of my original inspiration came from the fact that all fields of history suffer from the problem of scholarly violence–though I think it is sometimes amplified in fields such as Mormon history where many different kinds of people have a strong investment in its implications.

    Thank you all for your thoughts! This conversation is one that needs continual discussion amongst all kinds of historians.

    Comment by Joel — April 7, 2009 @ 12:28 pm

  27. Joel, I’ve been thinking about your point about investments a lot lately, particularly since taking a seminar on race and religion. One of the points the professor wanted to get across was that for some, scholarship is intensely personal (particularly in terms of some of the angry books we read). Though we do strive for a kind of scholarly discourse that seeks to transcend such things, the context of our personal experience does matter.

    The field unfortunately is heavily based on critique where we often gain “significance” by attacking other scholars. I think I’ve often been guilty of this; I know I’m continually working to tone it down.

    We do tend to marginalize untrained historians in our discourse. It would make an interesting post to ask what we think our graduate training has done for us as historians.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — April 7, 2009 @ 12:29 pm

  28. Ardis, your argument is sort of my point. If “professional” historians want to “stop” or reprimand “F/B”, they risk eliminating an entire body of highly useful work and estranging a diverse group of intelligent contributors.

    I didn’t have time to engage this much, but the definition of “professional” can be very problematic in application. Having acquired various degrees over years, I have acquired healthy skepticism about the significance of particular credentials on an academic CV. And despite my interest in academic approaches to cultural history, the academic specialty for which I have trained is well outside the humanities.

    My proposal of benign neglect was of angry polemics, not an ad hominem rejection of all work by a particular author or group of authors. And specifically the benign neglect should not involve censorship–there are diverse audiences that cherish “F/B,” and I think the declaration of a civil “professional” community that does not engage the polemics does not deny the utility of F/B to their specific audiences.

    Comment by smb — April 7, 2009 @ 12:34 pm

  29. Joel, does your own field of history of ethnicity and race also qualify as one in which “many different kinds of people have a strong investment in its implications”? My sense, from reading David Roediger’s autobiographical introduction to the Wages of Whiteness is that such is the case. If my suppositions are correct, perhaps you could explain to us how persons in that field deal with the issues at hand here?

    Comment by Christopher — April 7, 2009 @ 12:36 pm

  30. Christopher,

    That is a great question. My initial response is to remember an interesting experience from a couple of weeks ago. We were having a conference here at UIUC which revolved around the question of diversity in our department and was put on as part of the recruiting process for diversity candidates. I was moderating a panel of graduate students who had just given descriptions of their personal journeys here at the University of Illinois as students of color. One point that they had all agreed on was how a sense of community here at the University had helped them feel more secure in their scholarly endeavors even though many of their subjects belonged to groups traditionally marginalized by the academy. As the conversation turned to the importance of sticking up for these groups in the larger university populace as well as in historiography, one student in the back raised his hand and made a comment about how he had felt marginalized himself as a white student who studied Native Americans, and that it was important for the academy to change the perception that minorities should be the ones to do minority history. The guy obviously made the comment in a heartfelt way, but many of the conference participants took exception to the idea that he was being oppressed as a white scholar in the field. They pointed out that scholars of color often understand the effects of racism firsthand, and so have an understanding of that history that white scholars can never comprehend. In some ways I felt for the guy who asked the question because his comment, made in good faith, was subject to such violent rhetorical reactions. Yet at another level, he was completely clueless about the true nature, past and present, of white supremacy in the United States and its malicious effects on minority populations. Thinking about each others’ scholarly investments might have saved us all from such an awkward experience.

    I will write a more comprehensive response to your question later, but I think the previous story heuristically serves to demonstrate the ways in which some of the issues we have been discussing play out in the field of race and ethnicity.

    Comment by Joel — April 7, 2009 @ 1:04 pm

  31. Smb: In regards to post #28, I hope you will indulge me by describing what elements and credentials on a CV are over rated and why you feel that way.

    Comment by Morgan Deane — April 7, 2009 @ 1:51 pm

  32. Thanks, Joel. I’ll look forward to your more comprehensive response, but appreciate your sharing of that story.

    Comment by Christopher — April 7, 2009 @ 1:54 pm

  33. I mean “particular credentials” rather broadly. I am as guilty as any academic of CV devotion (you develop a strange sort of embarrassed fondness for the thing as it grows up, simultaneously aware of its potential and its absurdity), but I remain very aware that degrees, awards, institutional affiliations are often misleading. I guess I see CVs as an academic shibboleth and a sort of textual protection against insignificance, but I am finding more and more that the main thing that interests me on CVs is who/what people value and have invested time and energy in, which translates into mentors, collaborators, and published papers. I find myself little impressed by degrees or institutions or awards or the like.

    Probably more than you wanted to hear. I guess a restatement of my view of a more useful CV: Tell me what you love, what you’ve learned, whom you welcome on your journey. Don’t tell me what degree you got from which institution.[1]

    [1] I confess here a significant degree of hypocrisy and competing interests and advise that you not take me too seriously on this point. I would, however, like it if academics more frequently included a brief narrative of their intellectual journey alongside the traditional CV.

    Comment by smb — April 7, 2009 @ 2:49 pm

  34. Sorry, as a non-academic, to continue a threadjack, but as I think about the concept of “professional historian”, I can’t help but think of Stapley and Ardis, both of whom have made great contributions despite not coming through a formal academic tradition (at least in terms of history), or in a different sense, Blake Ostler’s contribution to Mormon thought and philosophy despite being an (cough, cough) attorney.

    Apart from a lack of dissertations and academic degrees, you’d be hard pressed to differentiate their output in terms of quality. In their cases, their “investment” looks a little more like our traditional view of investments: many hours and small efforts, aggregating over an extended period of time, producing something in the end that gathers “interest” rather than pays it out.

    That’s not to discredit in any way the work of the history scholars with dissertations, degrees, and tenure. I just think it’s remarkable that Mormon history still benefits, on occasion, from many different sources and personalities. After all, isn’t Church Historian Marlin Jensen also a (cough, cough) former practicing attorney?

    Comment by kevinf — April 7, 2009 @ 4:24 pm

  35. Kevinf,

    Although I believe others have responded to your statement, the difference between professional historians and non-professional is similar to getting your surgery done by a surgeon vs. a nurse. Both have medical experience, but the understanding and product of a professional surgeon is much greater. A nurse would often get the surgery wrong, though they might do ok from time to time.
    When it comes to Mormon religion and history, trained historians often try to deliver professional and objective histories. Sometimes non-professional historians, and those hired by the church to write history, often write with an eye to promote faith, are unable to speak the truth for fear of retaliation, and other. This is often a plateau many latter day saints can’t see above, until they obtain a higher degree, though that’s not always the case. Anyhow, good point on your perspective, though I will have to respectfully disagree.

    Comment by zachj — April 7, 2009 @ 7:27 pm

  36. zachj, I believe that your comparison of history to surgery is fallacious. While I don’t have a medical degree, I do have a Ph.D. in Chemistry. Surgery, like chemistry is a quantitative, scientifically empirical endeavor. (Further, surgery is basically mechanical in nature). I’m not sure what you think “professional and objective histories” are, either.

    While I agree that some authors write to promote faith, I fail to see how the academy acts as the guardian for ethical, quantitatively effectual, and empirically validated historical treatments. Can you sue for historical malpractice?

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 7, 2009 @ 7:52 pm

  37. #36 consider papers to have been served.

    The place where I think zachj has a point is in the invocation of the greater body of historical _theory_, which credentialed historians will do a better job of. The $64k question is whether that matters at all. And having scoped out the Lacanimal Muppet Revolution [1] I will say I’m not at all convinced that the invocation of critical theory or similar constructs is fundamental to good history. I think these endeavors tend to serve different audiences. When I talk to my friends who are traditionally credentialed, they know a heck of a lot more than I do about the historiography and the theory. For some it dramatically enriches what they write; for others (no one I know) it keeps them from saying anything important.
    [1] I find Lacan fatuous. He tends to be invoked in religion/philosophy/theology far more than in history, but you see it creeping in at times. I’m terrible with theory on multiple levels and admit that I find it liberating to be largely free of theory. I find that as a non-credentialed historian I have a flexibility to ask questions that strike me as interesting rather than trying to make everything fit the current scholarly craze.[a]

    [a] again I will confess to hypocrisy here, as I do rather like the lived religion academic movement and, loaded with anti-nausea drugs, have managed to plunge in some to the theoretical literature.

    Comment by smb — April 7, 2009 @ 9:18 pm

  38. For some it dramatically enriches what they write

    This is where I have Test Tube envy. I admire historians who can draw on theory to organize and enlighten, which some of the posters here at JI do regularly, and I can’t help hoping that had I the same background I would draw on it to “dramatically enrich” my own work. Or at least to give me the confidence to dare to do more than blogging.

    for others (no one I know) it keeps them from saying anything important

    But then I’ve also suffered through oral and written presentations where THIS was dramatically illustrated, too. 🙂

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — April 7, 2009 @ 9:30 pm

  39. Sam, did you just footnote and toenote a comment on a blog?

    Comment by Christopher — April 7, 2009 @ 9:30 pm

  40. Heads, shoulders, knees, and toes, Christopher. Heads, shoulders, knees, and toes.

    Comment by smb — April 7, 2009 @ 9:57 pm

  41. Christopher, that is just part of smb’s charm.

    Where does Juanita Brooks fit in this analysis?

    Comment by Mark Brown — April 7, 2009 @ 10:00 pm

  42. I’d say Mormon history is where it is today because of historians without traditional training, and they continue to do good and important work. I think it’s somewhat fallacious to say that amateur history is necessarily somehow more biased than that of trained historians. Indeed, the style of the New Mormon History is particularly suited to folks like Bagley and Dan Vogel and Greg Prince and Ardis and Juanita Brooks and Rick Turley and so on. We know what we do because of their commitment to research.

    In fact, looking at the landscape of Mormon history, the broader theoretical and historiographical perspectives that training offers are actually underdeveloped, comparatively. Though I’d argue that the contextualization and comparative work that such training makes possible are where the field needs to go, they’re both good types of history; and indeed, the second relies upon the first. In religious history today, cultural historians like Anne Braude and Leigh Schmidt are on the cutting edge theoretically, but they rely upon the spadework that the old school denominational historians did.

    Comment by matt b — April 7, 2009 @ 10:08 pm

  43. “find it liberating to be largely free of theory.” Read your Foucault, Sam. You only think you’re free of theory, but it surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the universe together. Mwhahahahah.

    Comment by SC Taysom — April 7, 2009 @ 10:12 pm

  44. #42, I agree that denominational/devotional/polemical history unearths important evidence that can then be remolded by more theoretical historians. I personally find my own idiosyncratic work much easier by token of the wealth of primary sources available. And I have an intellectual crush on Schmidt. If I ever did get a PhD in this field, I think I would try to work with him as a mentor.
    #43, that second thing makes me a little nervous (all those action verbs). sometimes allowing things to go uncommented is like refusing to discuss digestion on a first dinner date. Some things are just smoother if you don’t explicitly dissect them. And as Lacan reminds us, something something something freud something dialogue something unfreedom something something. [long drag from cigarette]. nothing. something.

    Comment by smb — April 7, 2009 @ 10:44 pm

  45. Like I said before, I think that the professionalization of the historical craft has in part been about boundary maintenance. There are economic and social factors that push us to want to exclude those who haven’t been through the torturous process which is a PhD in history. However, as mattb pointed out in #42, Mormon historiography has been framed, partially through its marginalization by mainstream historians and partly because of those who practice it, in a way that makes it welcoming to any who research and write well.

    What is the value of training then? Well, the PhD process does give a wider grounding both in larger historiographies and theory. For example, someone studying the Mormon experience in graduate school would probably have to take a prelim in Religious History, American History, and perhaps something like the American West. This, as mattb pointed out, gives us the background to look at Mormonism from both the inside out and the outside in. As many have pointed out already, there are many great historians, trained and untrained, working on Mormonism with enough desire and practice to go to the archives and figure out, to the best of their ability, what happened in a particular historical moment. Theory, on the other hand, can be valuable as a tool for trying to figure out why particular events occurred and analyzing why they unfolded in the ways that they did. Although all theory is not created equal, I think that it can also be helpful for uncovering historical motivations not transparently recorded within the documentary record.


    You asked me a little about how the issues we have been discussing play out in the field of race and ethnicity. In many ways it is very different simply because there is an almost universal assumption in the field that white supremacy and racism are bad things. This really is the central organizing assumption among those that practice this kind of history. Thus, the principle project of the field is two-fold: first to document how and why racial and ethnic discrimination occurs, and second, to record how persons of color have worked together to fight such racial hatred. I’m not sure that Mormon history has a similar set of unifying assumptions. Because the field of race and ethnicity is structured around the assumption that the othering of marginal groups is wrong, any personal oppression suffered by a practitioner of this type history is not generally perceived as a bias, but instead as a bonus. In this field empathy is seen as a helpful tool for gaining understanding about racially and ethnically marginalized groups. The field of race and ethnicity are also much more theoretically sophisticated, and have a much longer history as subjects of study in the academy–even if the academy was segregated for many of those early years.

    Scholarly violence does still occur in these fields, and it generally involves the political implications of scholarship. Those whose ideas hold more of a radical bent tend to disagree strongly with those that espouse a more pragmatic approach to social justice. Scholars also disagree about which aspects of oppression are more important to highlight. They all tend to react violently toward any vestige of racism that they see persisting in the academy.

    Comment by Joel — April 8, 2009 @ 1:04 pm

  46. That makes sense, Joel. Thanks for the detailed answer. I wonder if there’s a comparable field of history/group of historians for the Mormon historical community to learn from.

    Comment by Christopher — April 8, 2009 @ 2:20 pm


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