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?