Teaching Mormonism in the U.S. Survey

By November 14, 2011

We’ve spent quite a bit of time at JI over the years considering how Mormonism fits into larger narratives of U.S. history, and I was finally able to put some of those discussions and recommendations to use this semester while teaching the first half of the U.S. History survey (U.S. History to 1877) to a group of 35 students, most of whom are from the mid-Atlantic and upper South and have very little personal experience or interaction with Mormons or Mormonism.

I introduced Mormonism as part of a lecture a couple of weeks ago on “Religion and Reform in Early America,” tracing Mormonism’s immediate roots to the religious revivals of the early nineteenth century and the rapid changes in society wrought by the transportation, communications, and market revolutions of the era. I thus began with a brief overview of the Joseph Smith, Sr. and Luck Mack Smith family, emphasizing their religious wanderings and their several moves throughout New England and New York in response to the socio-economic upheaval caused by the rapidly-changing society. I then shifted gears to the religious revivals of the 1810s and 1820s, and compared JS’s experience and resultant vision with that of converts to the Methodist and Baptist faiths. We discussed the visitation of an angel and the translation of the Book of Mormon, emphasizing the ways in which the book spoke to those who read it (emphasizing its essentially Arminian theology, as well as its explanation of Native American origins, and paying attention to both those who believed it and those who rejected it), and the formation of the Church of Christ, its embrace of a lay, untrained ministry, and the community’s several moves from NY to Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois and the doctrinal, cultural, and sexual developments that occurred along the way. After summarizing by briefly considering the ways in which Mormonism was both democratic and authoritarian, both Christian and something more, and both cooperative and capitalist, I concluded by comparing Mormonism to other radical religious reform movements and communitarian groups, including familiar groups like the Shakers and the Oneida community,  as well as less-commonly-recognized communities like the Inspirationists (I borrowed directly from Scott Rohrer’s excellent chapter on that group in this book). These comparisons allowed for a consideration of both the immediate conditions to which these groups responded as well as (taking a page from John Brooke) the longer historical trajectory of radical Protestant thought that crossed the Atlantic with early American settlers and colonists and found expression in divergent religious communities into the 19th century.

That same week my class read Paul Johnson and Sean Wilentz’s fantastic Kingdom of Matthias, which led to further discussion of Mormons as students considered why Joseph Smith and Mormonism has not only lasted but grown into an emerging worldwide faith while Robert Matthews’s “kingdom” lasted only a few years.

And then today in class we discussed westward migration during the 1840s and 1850s. I used the regions of Texas, California, and Utah as case studies in an effort to highlight the diverse motives for migration. After narrating the death of Joseph Smith, the succession crisis, the Mormon trek west into Mexican territory, the subsequent incorporation of the area into the United States, and the proposed State of Deseret and creation of Utah Territory, we moved onto an in-depth look at Mormonism and Utah in the 1850s, focusing on points of conflict between Mormons and the American government/public: the acknowledgment and expansion of plural marriage, the Utah War, and Mountain Meadows Massacre. Among other things, we discussed the ways in which Mormons were socially and legally constructed as “other”—both religiously and racially (the latter was useful as a segue into the ways in which other groups in the West, including Mexicans and Native Americans, were racialized during this period).

Overall, students seemed very interested in the topic and asked a number of questions. While I mentioned on the first day of class that I have two degrees from BYU, it seems that many students have no clue that I am a Latter-day Saint, and their comments and questions about Mormonism appear to confirm that. They asked questions about Mormon cooperative economics, temple rituals, and especially polygamy, and raised important points about the ways in which Mormons today are simultaneously seen as all-American and somehow still subversive and isolationist. While I don’t imagine we’ll discuss Mormonism again this semester, I am both pleased and a bit surprised at how much time I spent on it in class lectures. How have others’ experiences been? Any critiques of my approach? Suggestions?

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Methodology, Academic Issues


  1. Sounds like a lot of fun, Chris. How do you expect to assess how well the students learned from your lectures? Will there be test questions or will you have them do any writing that requires them to think about how Mormonism fits into 19th century American history?

    Comment by David G. — November 14, 2011 @ 2:32 pm

  2. Christopher,

    This sounds like you did a great job. From your comments you sound like your approach was balanced, informative and honest. I am sure you are a great teacher. Good work.

    I am curious if your discussion about Matthias brought up the fact he was a murderer? Also was it acknowledged that Brigham Young has to be given most of the credit for the Utah Church’s survival and growth? Matthias had no Brigham Young.

    Again, great work in bringing Mormonism into the the main stream of intellectual thought and study.

    Comment by Joe Geisner — November 14, 2011 @ 2:54 pm

  3. I also had an interesting experience incorporating the Utah War into the narrative of the happenings leading up to the Civil War in my Civil War and Reconstruction class this summer. I didn’t really say that much about it, but I analyzed it as an iteration of the wag the dog phenomenon. I also briefly utilized some of Brigham Young’s reactions to the war in a larger context of religious understandings of what the war meant. That was added to the limited discussion of Mormonism that McPherson addresses in Battle Cry of Freedom . My students didn’t seem to balk too much at their inclusion, but this limited insertion of Mormonism into the scope of the class caused one of my students to guess my Mormon background, divining it from such limited mentions together with my Idaho background. While it wasn’t a big deal since the question came in an one-on-one setting. It did make me rethink whether my interest in Mormon history influenced the way I taught the class, and what it means when students know about an instructor’s religious background.

    Comment by Joel — November 14, 2011 @ 3:02 pm

  4. Thanks for sharing, Chris; this has giving me a lot of ideas for my own curriculum.

    Comment by Ben Park — November 14, 2011 @ 3:57 pm

  5. Thanks, guys.

    David, I will likely include some sort of ID (i.e. “Utah War,” “Mormon Trail,” or “Joseph Smith”) on the final exam, but beyond that my only gauge is their participation and comments in class.

    Joe, yeah we got into all of that and more when comparing and contrasting Mormonism and Robert Matthews.

    Thanks for sharing, Joel. One of my students did approach me privately after the first lecture dealing with Mormonism and asked whether I was Mormon. He said it wasn’t at all evident in how I taught but that it was clear I knew a lot about the religion.

    I’m excited to see what you come up with, Ben.

    Comment by Christopher — November 14, 2011 @ 4:39 pm

  6. Wait, Chris, you’re Mormon? I had no idea. I thought that you were a Methodist and that Stan Brown was a Mason. Sorry for the confusion.

    Surprise, surprise, but I’m wondering how you are working a history of women, religious or otherwise, into your course. And how did you talk about Mormon women?

    Also, I wish I were in your class. It sounds great!

    Comment by Liz — November 14, 2011 @ 11:25 pm

  7. Great questions, Liz. I’ve tried to incorporate women into each lecture, though some topics lend themselves more easily to that aim (i.e. early feminism and abolitionism) than others (the election of 1800 or the “Era of Good Feelings”). Among the most productive discussions we’ve had this semester were the students’ response to Camilla Townsend’s book on Pocahontas and their response to the Kingdom of Matthias, when we spent some time discussing Matthews’s female followers and the gendered nature of their little community.

    In the lecture on Religion and Reform, I spent some time contrasting the evangelical conversion narratives of women with those of men, and in the lecture following, I used Mormon women as a segue into a discussion of the women’s rights movement and a useful example demonstrating the diversity within that movement (my students were a bit blown away that polygamous wives were also sometimes ardent feminists).

    Comment by Christopher — November 15, 2011 @ 12:11 am

  8. Christopher, I second Joe Geisner’s assessment of how you handled this. Add me to the list of those waiting to audit, if not take, your course.
    Joel, next year BYU Press will be bringing out a collection of essays edited by Col. Ken Alford titled “Civil War Saints,” the early chapters of which will bridge the Utah War and the Civil War. If you get into the Utah War again, you might point out that current presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman both had ancestors who were part of the U.S. Army’s Utah Expedition before they, er, changed sides. Two of the Utah Expedition’s officers (John W. Phelps and Winfield Scott Hancock) later ran against each other [unsuccessfully] in the presidential election of 1880.

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — November 15, 2011 @ 1:38 am

  9. Bill, that’s an interesting thing to note. Has anyone written on how many converts came out of these “invasions” of Utah? I know that today Church leaders often like to trump how many conversions there are in the Utah region.

    It’d be interesting to know how many were going on in the 19th century. A lot’s been written on things going the other direction along with tensions between Mormons and gentiles. I don’t recall reading anything about missionary work in Utah nor the perceptions of it.

    Comment by Clark — November 15, 2011 @ 10:47 am

  10. Clark,
    Most of the Utah Expedition soldiers who stayed in Utah did so as a result of desertion rather than missionary work, although after leaving the army they converted in the course of getting married while forging their new life as fugitives. It’s a bit hard to get the facts of what happened in individual cases as the former soldiers and/or their descendants tended to create a mythology that troweled over the nature of their departure from the army. In the case of Pvt. Charles H. Wilcken, the Romney ancestor, he deserted in October 1857 near Fort Bridger, and converted by December. Fearing his apprehension by U.S. Army provost marshals in later decades as he passed through the Atlantic Coast for Europe while on church business, Wilcken carried with him a letter from the Nauvoo Legion attesting to the fact that he had been “captured” during the Utah War. In the case of Pvt. Giles, the Huntsman ancestor who left once the army was into Utah and garrisoned at Camp Floyd, his descendants constructed a very elaborate story of his having been given “leave” by the army because of his involvement as a witness in an earlier murder case in Texas — wholly fantastic. A number of researchers are trying to get to the bottom of how many such cases there were. They are also trying to identify the parallel cases in which Utah Expedition soldiers married while still in the service or after they were discharged honorably. Pvt. John Roza of the Tenth U.S. Infantry, husband of Patience Loader Roza, is an example of such a marriage, although I’m not sure if John Roza converted. He, of course, died while still serving with the Tenth in Virginia during the Civil War.

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — November 15, 2011 @ 1:47 pm


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