We are pleased to present a Scholarly Inquiry Q&A with Seth Perry, Assistant Professor of Religion in the Americas at Princeton University and a past guest contributor to the JI. Professor Perry earned his PhD from the University of Chicago (whoop whoop!) in 2013, and he maintains an active research interest in Mormonism, which he discusses both below and in his article “An Outsider Looks In at Mormonism,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education 52, iss. 22 (3 February 2006) [subscription required for full access]. He is also the author of “The Many Bibles of Joseph Smith: Textual, Prophetic, and Scholarly Authority in Early-National Bible Culture,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 84, no. 3 (September 2016): 750-75. See my overview of that article here. Perry’s first book, imminently forthcoming from Princeton University Press, is Bible Culture and Authority in the Early United States.
What initially prompted your interest in or awareness of Mormon history?
I went to Georgetown University as an undergraduate, and during junior year I literally wandered into the Mormonism stacks in the library – the BX 8600’s – while looking for a senior thesis project. I had some vague awareness of Mormonism before that, but I had no idea there was so much to think about. By then I had already declared a Theology major (it’s a theology department at Georgetown, and a great one, for both the study of Christian theology and religious studies as a field), but I really think I discovered the study of Mormonism and the study of religion at the same time. I started with Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History, and I was hooked. That book is rightfully out of fashion, of course, for all kinds of good reasons, but I still hold a candle for it – there’s a lyricism to Brodie’s approach to Joseph Smith, and she had a real appreciation for what makes early Mormonism interesting that I still share. Incidentally, Brodie did a lot of research for that book at the University of Chicago, and as I was working on my dissertation in the Regenstein Library there I kept running into books with old sign-out cards in them that she had signed, back in the thirties, and that was humbling. I may or may not have stolen one of those cards.
We’re always interested to know what historians are reading as they engage with the Mormon past. What scholarship have you found to be most useful and illuminating?
I’ll divide this work loosely into a few categories. First, it’s the primary-source work that is changing Mormon Studies right now, and that is what I find most useful and illuminating: Royal Skousen’s intricate studies of the Book of Mormon text; the collection of early Relief Society documents edited by Jill Mulvay Derr and company; and, above all, the Joseph Smith Papers project. The careful labor that’s going into presenting those early documents is amazing, and the editorial notes are invaluable sources. In terms of secondary literature, I am drawn to work that presents nineteenth-century Mormonism within its broader intellectual and social contexts – David Holland’s Sacred Borders; Spencer Fluhman’s “A Peculiar People”; Elizabeth Fenton’s article, “Open Canons: Sacred History and American History in the Book of Mormon.” Ben Park has published a whole handful of great articles on early Mormon thought in its contexts. Then there’s all of the great work elaborating better understandings of early Mormonism itself from the sources: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A House Full of Females, Paul Gutjahr’s “biography” of the Book of Mormon. Finally, I think a lot of Mormon Studies scholarship is making important contributions to the study of religion as a field: Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon is a model for thinking about the logics of scriptural texts, for example. Just recently I’ve been reading Kathleen Flake’s Neal A. Maxwell Lecture from last Fall, published in the Maxwell Institute’s annual report, in which she eloquently distinguishes between religious education and religious studies (her audience there is a general rather than specifically academic one, but she gives all of us a lot to think about).
Your work considers Mormonism in conjunction with other groups of contemporary religious actors, such as the Campbellites. Why is the case of Mormonism valuable to your analysis? What does it disclose about broader issues or developments?
Rather than finding Mormonism as a case study, I actually started with an interest in early Mormonism and grew outward from there to Bible culture in the early nineteenth century as the subject of the book. I was interested in early Mormons’ use of bibles, but the more I read and thought about that, the more I became convinced that this bible culture – though rarefied and particularly legible in its manifestations – could not be separated from the wider cultural forms of its time and place. Early Mormonism’s differences with wider American bible culture were differences of emphasis, or maybe rhetorical approach – they were not differences of kind.
How does your forthcoming book engage with the historiography on Mormonism? Does it make arguments about the history of Mormonism itself?
The primary intervention that the book makes with respect to early Mormon studies is to show that relationship to early-national biblicism. I would always hesitate to call any movement a “product of its times” – I think phrases like that sin against the novelty and contingency of human action – but I do think that early Mormonism is made much less “strange” through an appreciation of broader nineteenth century bible culture. Early Mormons’ performative, rhetorical, materially-oriented approach to scripture and the scripturalization of new texts makes sense against the backdrop of the broader culture.
Once this book has been launched, what’s next for you? Do you expect Mormonism to be part of your future work?
I will always have an interest in Mormonism. I feel like early Mormonism is like a key to American religion in the nineteenth century: facility with early Mormonism is pretty essential to understanding what’s going on more generally. My next book is a study of American religious celebrity through the life of Lorenzo Dow, the early-national period’s most famous itinerant preacher. Other than having long thought about Joseph Smith also as a premier nineteenth-century American religious celebrity, I had not initially thought that there was a clear tie between Dow and early Mormonism, but the more Dow I read the more his thought looks awfully familiar. His writings were beyond popular, especially in the Methodist circles from which so many important early Mormons came (Brigham Young had a brother named Lorenzo Dow, for example). So, I expect there to be more than a little of Mormon relevance in the next book…