The future of Mormon history

By August 15, 2008

About a year ago, I was talking with a friend about the state of Mormon history. He mentioned that he felt that one of the problems with Mormon history was that so many historians emphasized nineteenth century Mormonism, with a particular emphasis upon the Joseph Smith years. He then told me that he thought that the future of Mormon history would be in the field of twentieth century Mormon history.

In theory I agree with my friend?s assessment of the situation. It is clear that the number works on Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and the early years of the Church far outweigh the number of books on twentieth century Church leaders and history. Although books like Alexander?s Mormonism in Transition, Prince?s biography on David O. McKay, and Kimball?s biography on the Spencer W. Kimball Presidency years do much to enhance our understanding of twentieth century Mormon history, they are too few and far between. As a simple matter of historiography, the niche in Mormon history appears to be firmly settled in the twentieth century. However, I?m not that this is a practical possibility, at least for the present.

There are several reasons for my pessimistic outlook.

First, without access to the journals and papers of important leaders like Heber J. Grant and Spencer W. Kimball, as well as the minutes of some of the organizations, our understanding of Church history during these years will remain quite limited. As a matter of personal opinion, I understand and agree with the restrictions imposed on many of these items. I?m not one to argue that the Church Archives is involved in some sort of conspiracy against historians. On the contrary, I have found the archivists and librarians to be most helpful, securing access for me wherever possible. I merely suggest my hope that in the coming years, some of the restrictions will lessen on important sources, at least those which are over 70 years old.

Second, it seems that within the Church we often have an easier time dealing with human imperfections that are further removed from our own time. The closer we get to the present, the more nervous we seem to become. I think that this is particularly true in light of the changes that Mormonism underwent around the turn-of-the-century. Peculiarities in nineteenth century Mormonism can be easily brushed aside with the thought, ?Look how much further advanced we are than them.? But if we are to benefit from our history, we must be willing to see the imperfections and mistakes in which we may personally have played a role.

Finally, while I would not say that this is an appropriate reason for many aspects of the history, some parts of twentieth century Mormonism are simply still too recent to adequately assess. However, I believe we must take a page from our own past when it comes to recent events. Joseph Smith did not feel that 1832 or 1838 were too recent to record his recollections of and thoughts about the significance of key events in his life. B.H. Roberts did not believe that the 1910s were too recent to write an interpretive history of Mormonism, even up to his present.

I have discovered a good example of the dangers of waiting to record our history as I have researched the Church?s Religion Class program, which was an auxiliary program from 1890 to 1930. Materials on this program are scarce, and recollections by those who were students in it are even harder to find. Tragically, most of those who were beneficiaries of the classes have long since died, with the only remaining participants being in their 90s. Those who might have been a rich source of knowledge about this program have taken their experiences and recollections with them and are no longer able to share them with us.

While there are reasons to be pessimistic about the possibilities of twentieth century Mormonism, I believe that we must make an effort to expand the history of Mormonism beyond just Joseph and Brigham. It is a niche that needs to be filled and we as a Church have a mandate to fill it. As far as I know, the commandment given to John Whitmer never read ?It is expedient in me that my servant John should write and keep a regular history until the twentieth century.? (D&C 47:1).


  1. Great post, Brett; very important questions.

    To me, it seems that the biggest problem lies within the lack of resources, as you outline in your first reason. You can point to all the major twentieth century books and see how they are somewhat an exception on this point: Prince and Wright had access to McKay’s secretary’s papers, Kimball had access to his father’s info, and Alexander had access to the Camelot years.

    Besides the Twentieth Century, Reid Nielson’s recent book on Global Mormonism has shown that we need to quick ignoring the international historical developments in the Church.

    Comment by Ben — August 15, 2008 @ 9:18 pm

  2. Hmmm. I’m a big fan of historical back doors. That is, while we may not be able to access and quote, say, the committee meetings where a 20th century policy was discussed or a program developed, we *do* have a lot of material showing how the policy played out or the program was implemented — bulletins, magazines, newspaper articles, handbooks, manuals, recorded speeches, mission records, photographs. We can’t interview many people active in the early 20th century; neither can we interview ANYbody in the 19th century, yet that doesn’t stop the production of 19th century history. And limiting the study of history of any century to the study of a leader is, well, limited.

    I do agree with your (or your friend’s) assessment that the 20th century is the coming niche in Mormon history. We just have to be creative and diligent in how we locate sources. Look for the back doors.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 15, 2008 @ 9:41 pm

  3. I too favor a 70 year grace period. I have found in my 20th century research that the few individuals still living that we have tracked down offer, wonderful insight. As well, folks that have done oral histories and family histories (audobiographical sketches, etc.) while not ideal are still helpful. The 19th century is just dripping with source material, so it is daunting to jump the century mark.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 15, 2008 @ 9:45 pm

  4. …missed Ardis’s comment. Amen to what she said.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 15, 2008 @ 9:45 pm

  5. Ardis: Very good point, but I still don’t think Prince’s book, for example, would have been as great if it wasn’t for the papers that only he and Wright had access to (until they put them in the UofU library, of course). But you are right, there is a lot of public information already out there, even if we don’t have the behind-the-scenes info that gives it another dimension.

    And limiting the study of history of any century to the study of a leader is, well, limited.

    Amen and amen. That is another aspect that Mormon history has been lacking: the non-hierarchical views.

    Comment by Ben — August 15, 2008 @ 9:58 pm

  6. Simple economics, Brett. Most of the demand is for 19th century history, so that’s what the historians will write and what the publishers will publish. The job of the historian of twentieth-century Mormonism is rather like that of a vacuum-cleaner salesman: he must find a way to create demand for a product that people don’t know they want yet. One of the best ways to do this is to hire some famous anti-Mormon to write a book making all sorts of outlandish claims about twentieth-century Church leaders. Then the masses will clamor for you to write a book debunking his book, and the two of you can make a fortune and open up a whole new horizon of knowledge for members of the Church.

    Comment by Christopher Smith — August 15, 2008 @ 10:48 pm

  7. Brett,

    As someone whose research is firmly grounded in the 20th Century I couldn’t agree with you more that there is much work to be done. I also think it is important to acknowledge the difficulties that you outlined. I completely agree with Ardis and Ben that Mormon Studies have often been focused too narrowly on leaders and I would add intellectuals to the list of overly studied objects of analysis. It would be fascinating to write an academic history of a ward or stake and tie it in with the larger church, national, and international narratives.

    I also agree, if perhaps a little less cynically, with Christopher that questions revolving around the Church’s revelatory and authoritarian claims as well as its controversial moments have often driven Mormon historiography more than anything else–at least at the monographic level. This is understandable because historians study what they are most passionate about. Claims of faith or falsity are two factors that continue to excite the imaginations of historians. I do think, however, that Mormon historians have started to reach outward and that this development will be one of the most exciting in the field in years to come.

    Comment by Joel — August 16, 2008 @ 12:31 am

  8. Ditto to Ardis. However those of us 20th century historians working outside the Mormon Culture Region have even more limited access to those kinds of sources for the 20th century. Alas.

    Comment by tona — August 16, 2008 @ 6:43 am

  9. It is strange how Mormon historiography is focusing almost exclusively on the 19th century while the majority of Americanists in history doctoral programs are writing dissertations about the 20th century.

    Here are some questions from post-1945 U.S. history that I hope future Mormon historians will consider answering:

    Were Mormons full participants in the baby boom or were they already having lots of children?

    Were the 1950s anomalous or exemplary in the history of Mormon families?

    To what extent did Mormon workers anticipate the shift away from manufacturing and towards a service economy?

    How closely have Mormons followed the trend in urban history of white flight and urban resegregation?

    What is unique and what is typical about Mormon tourism?

    What has been the relationship between Mormonism and the evangelical movement?

    Whose agendas have been served as images and portrayals of Mormons have appeared in the mass media and popular culture?

    What would a history of Mormonism’s modern visual culture look like?

    What is the history of labor within Mormon communities?

    How did Mormon leaders and authors adapt the emerging ideas of the conservative and neoconservative movements for the use of their own communities?

    Does Mormonism have a history of radicalism?

    Was there ever a liberal consensus within Mormonism?

    Did the 1960s raise the rights consciousness of Mormons?

    Did most Mormons move into the middle class during the 1950s and early 1960s or were they already there?

    Did Mormons participate in white ethnic revival or did they pretty much stay assimilated?

    What is the history of the struggle for Hispanic equality within Mormon communities?

    How has the political, social, and economic status of Mormon women changed over time?

    What changes have happened in the sexuality of Mormons?

    To what extent did young Mormons participate in the social movements of the Sixties?

    How successfully did Mormons advance within conservative movements and obtain positions of power within governments and corporations?

    How receptive have Mormons been to various aspects of the environmental movement?

    How have Mormons played instrumental roles in changing specific policies of the federal government?

    Why have the economic eras within Mormon comunities not always matched the economic eras in the history of the nation?

    What impact did McCarthyism have in Mormon communities?

    What role have Mormons played in shaping the decisions of the Supreme Court?

    How did Mormons experience and evaluate Great Society programs?

    How did Mormons experience and remember the Vietnam War?

    Lastly, I would ask if anyone has used the tools of social history to study Mormons outside of the Mormon culture region. I think the use of uniquely Mormon surnames would make it possible to identify a large number of Mormons in archival and municipal records.

    Comment by Sterling — August 16, 2008 @ 11:22 am

  10. #9: “Here are some questions from post-1945 U.S. history that I hope future Mormon historians will consider answering:…”
    I was born in 1945, and I could help now with some of those questions. Sadly, I will be long gone before I am interviewed.
    Given the Church’s efforts in Family History, I don’t see they have an organized plan to capture members oral history before it’s too late. (?)

    Comment by Bob — August 16, 2008 @ 12:10 pm

  11. Sterling — A great list of questions; a few of them would benefit from access to official, internal records, but official records aren’t essential to most of them, at least on the surface. The last one could be tackled by use of the church membership records up through 1940ish, where records are grouped by locality; the church census 1914-1962 would also be a way to identify a target pool of Mormons in US areas, at least. As of now you’d have to come to the Family History Library in SLC where those records are available; they don’t circulate to branch FLCs.

    Bob, there is a very active program to collect the oral histories of church members in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Afrida — so active that the transcriptionists can’t even pretend to keep up with the workload; they’re already decades behind. If the church hasn’t come knocking at your door, recorder in hand, I suppose it’s because you’ve heard sermons and lessons for 60+ years about keeping a personal journal, writing your family history, writing your personal history, compiling your records. If a literate man with access to a computer and/or a tape recorder hasn’t cared enough to obey that call after all these years and all those lessons, I guess they figure it’s not worth the handholding to extract your story.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 16, 2008 @ 12:32 pm

  12. Ardis – Thanks for the response. I didn’t realize the extent of the church census records for the twentieth century. Has anyone tried to link these records up with other record sets (like the decennial census, veterans records, city directories, obituaries, etc.)? Does anyone know what ever happened to the Mormon Historical Demographic Project at the University of Utah, which during the 1980s created over 180,000 computerized genealogies for people who lived in Utah between 1880 and 1910?

    Comment by Sterling — August 16, 2008 @ 1:45 pm

  13. #11: Don’t worry about my efforts. I keep my Family History on Legacy 7, FTM, and the Heritage Collection. My personal thoughts are kept on Family Historian, Telling Stories, and Passage Express.
    But, I, and I think most others, have missed answering Sterling’s questions.

    Comment by Bob — August 16, 2008 @ 2:02 pm

  14. Sterling, I don’t know of anyone who has tried coordinating the two types of census on a broad scale. I’ve tried it for 1920 and 1930, the only two US censuses overlapping the church censuses that have been publicly released, for a single tiny Utah county and found it very daunting, mostly because the church census is available on microfilmed file cards that have to be digitized and coordinated. Still, I believe it could be done for at least target cities by someone who planned the project carefully before beginning. (I don’t know anything about the Demographic Project, sorry.)

    Most of your suggested projects are out of my league, but this last one sure caught my eye because of my familiarity with some of the tools that could be used, and because I’m already knee-deep in a project studying Mormon out-migrants to New York City in the early years of the 20th century. I’d love to discuss projects with anybody working on anything remotely related. This is one area where I *know* we could help nudge written Mormon history into the 20th century with records that are currently available.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 16, 2008 @ 2:28 pm

  15. Sterling, What I am using as a Model in my head is akin to:
    ” American Life Histories: [Utah] Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940″

    Comment by Bob — August 16, 2008 @ 3:22 pm

  16. My impression is that the Mormon Historical Demography Project became the Utah Population Database.

    Comment by Justin — August 16, 2008 @ 4:22 pm

  17. Bob – You raise a good point. Lots of Mormons have kept journals and written family histories. But they usually don’t think about where they and their families fit into the larger narratives of American history. I wonder if the ward/stake historians these days are encouraged to tape record interviews. I know my mother-in-law has done this in her calling as ward or stake historian.

    Ardis – Your project sounds really interesting. I was surprised when you said the church census records were not digitized. So this afternoon I registered for to see for myself. It really does look like the church omitted its own census records when it tied all of the other records (IGI, temple, etc.) into the new web site. Do you think the church has any plans to include these records? What Utah county are you studying in the 1920 and 1930 censuses? I just learned some new info today about some ancestors of mine who were living in Utah during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. What are your sources for Mormons in NYC during the early 20th century? Have you tried the census or city directory for the Big Apple? I am working on a method for finding Mormons by surname in these kinds of sources. It would sure help if there was an API for and a mashup that I could use to combine the data.

    Justin – You might be right. Although I wonder how the genealogical and demographic records are now limited to just health research.

    Comment by Sterling — August 16, 2008 @ 5:48 pm

  18. I think one useful thing that we could do is to encourage more oral histories be recorded about peoples experiences with change in the church. For example what people thought of the priesthood revelation, changes in the 70 organization, dealing with immigration in wards, sacrament trays etc.

    Comment by Clark — August 16, 2008 @ 6:59 pm

  19. Sterling, my county of addiction is Piute County, (Marysvale, Junction, Circleville, Kingston, Greenwich), where I am trying to document every pre-1930 person who lived, died, drove through, or sneezed there.

    My NYC project began with transcribing the near-weekly “Salt Lakers in Gotham” letters to the Deseret News 1901-1930, expanded by a similar column in the Trib (I’m closing in on 3,000 transcribed pages now). That’s a great source for identifying the outmigration from Mormon Utah, not so great for finding those who were native New Yorkers or who stopped at NYC on their migration from Europe and never moved further west. Membership records are incomplete, but I’ve picked up what I could from those, and I’ve done some creative searching of genealogical databases (not FamilySearch, which doesn’t allow for a lot of creativity if you don’t already have a name in mind) to search for people with a birth or marriage or death in New York and another event in Utah, and some church census searches. I use the general non-LDS-generated genealogical sources like census and city directory for more information about known LDS, but I haven’t used those as a starting point looking for “typical” LDS names because I have a more reliable source, I think, in the reports of church activity published in the Deseret News (There are similar but far less extensive newspaper letters for Chicago, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, by the way, should anyone be working on those cities.)

    As far as I know, nobody has ever created a digital database of the church census records, so there is nothing to tie in to the new FamilySearch. It’s a fantastic source for tracking 20th century LDS movements and the descendants of pioneer families, but it’s kind of ticklish to discuss it in a public forum like JI. You want to share a great source with scholars, but yet not draw undue attention to it, because the newest of those census records are less than 50 years old. There are far easier ways for a researcher to violate the privacy of a living 50+-year-old, but I’d hate to be the one whose encouragement to use this source led to its being removed from easy access. I fear that as a far more likely outcome of suggesting the church digitize those records than that such a project would be started. Let’s hope I’ve droned on long enough now that any mean-spirited person has stopped reading.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 16, 2008 @ 8:38 pm

  20. Sacrament trays, Clark? Whatever suggested sacrament trays to your mind? [g]

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 16, 2008 @ 8:39 pm

  21. It’s unclear to me if we are talking about Mormon history, or Mormons IN history? (See #9). Oral histories of Mormon history, will get you mostly Testimonies, as members are hardwired to speak of their histories in that matter. Secular history, will lead you down different roads. Three big themes in my Family history in Utah, (before 1950) are: the railroad, the Depression, and WWII.

    Comment by Bob — August 16, 2008 @ 8:55 pm

  22. LOL. I was thinking of you.

    I was more thinking that what is missing is how the society of Mormons reacted to many events. The raw “events” are pretty well documented (IMO) except perhaps for some of the background events. But the social changes from say integrating blacks, dealing with racism, the move to the international church, all aren’t well treated.

    In that sense I think testimonials are useful.

    I confess that a lot of the ‘mundane’ type of studies I’ve read that are focused on 19th century life don’t interest me. But if one can tie those common reactions to major events I find it very interesting. For instance when I’ve read my family histories I’m amazed that rather major events aren’t focused in on. (For instance surprisingly few even discuss polygamy more than briefly)

    Comment by Clark — August 16, 2008 @ 9:26 pm

  23. Ardis – Thanks for the details. It sounds interesting. I went to the web site you linked. I noticed that you didn’t have the index to the 1920 federal census of Piute County linked. Have you seen sanborn fire insurance maps for the area also? What kind of database are you using to link up the various records?

    Did you know that the archives of The Salt Lake Tribune (from the late 19th century through about 1977) have been digitized? I am able to access the back issues for free through my university library web site. The pages from the newspaper come up as searchable PDFs. Getting access to this newspaper database could save you a lot of time when it comes to transcription.

    I have never seen a definitive list of typical or uniquely Mormon family names. Here is a sample of what I have come up with so far (in order of frequency): CHRISTENSEN, LARSEN, SORENSEN, HATCH, CHRISTIANSEN, ALLRED, MADSEN, BARNEY, CALL, ROWLEY, FARNSWORTH, NIELSON, MORTENSEN, JOLLEY, HAMBLIN, NEILSON, ORTON, SHUMWAY, CHILD, SEARLE, WORTHEN, HUNTSMAN, PARKIN, TOLMAN, HAWS, POULSEN, ALDER, BROADBENT, POULSON, NEWBOLD, BROUGH, MAUGHAN, AVERETT, DURRANT, EYRE, ASAY, FARRER, MITTON, BENNION, ROMNEY, ASTLE, CONDIE, BELNAP, BERRETT, CLOWARD, CRAPO, STAPLEY, BRINGHURST, SCHOW, BITTON, SPACKMAN, HAFEN, LINFORD, ESPLIN, BUTTARS, CLAYSON, ASHDOWN, HOLYOAK, DANSIE, THAYNE, WAHLQUIST, EREKSON, STAHELI, ANDREASON, BRIMLEY, PAXMAN, DREDGE, MCCONKIE, and WIRTHLIN. I am still testing my method, but I can tell you that these surnames occur in Utah much more often than they do in other states. That is why I am fairly confident that people with these names are quite likely Mormon. You might see if this approach leads you to Mormons in NYC city directories whose membership you can verify through church records.

    I think I can understand your hesitancy about revealing the names of the living in church records. But maybe I mention a few examples of open access to get you thinking that maybe digitization of the church census wouldn’t be such a bad thing. I think NARA has been a leader in this movement. I am amazed by their 9 million WWII enlistment records, for instance. Or maybe you heard in the news this past week that NARA opened up the OSS personnel files. These are the people who worked for the forerunner of the CIA back during World War II. Yet the few 90+ year-olds still living who worked for OSS were okay with their files being released. Maybe the church census records could be digitized without ordinance being made available online. Just let me know if I am saying too much.

    Comment by Sterling — August 16, 2008 @ 10:01 pm

  24. #22: “But if one can tie those common reactions to major events I find it very interesting.”

    That’s why I like to tie the railroad to my Family History in Utah. 1) There is a ton of stuff written by Railroad “Nuts”, (As in Civil War “Nuts”), and a million photos! 2) My mother was raised in Albion, ID. A boom town until the railroad passed it by. My father was from Moroni. The railroad turned a hard two day wagon trip to SLC, into two hours. All the kids got jobs in SLC, and came home and worked the farm on the weekend.

    Comment by Bob — August 16, 2008 @ 10:15 pm

  25. Bob – That is the $64,000 question. Do Mormons have their own history? Yes. Is Mormon history part of U.S. history? It depends on who you ask. I suspect that Mormon historians like to think that there should be more Mormons in the written histories of the United States.

    I think it is great that you include the railroad, Great Depression, and World War II in your family history. Historians call this context. Mormons will understand their own history better as they place it within the larger stories of the U.S. history. And the opposite is also true.

    Comment by Sterling — August 16, 2008 @ 10:31 pm

  26. #25: I hope you are right that Mormons are open to Mormon history being tied closely American history. But, I have my doubts they are ready for ‘context’, over ‘faith promoting’.

    Comment by Bob — August 17, 2008 @ 1:27 am

  27. I have been fascinated by Mormon outmigration from Utah, being a product of my parents choice to leave in the 1950’s. I have seen a few efforts to document causes and individual stories. But no general treatment of the issue. From what you’re saying I probably won’t find much in the way of publishe material.

    Comment by BruceC — August 18, 2008 @ 11:40 am

  28. #27: “Oh I’m packin’ my grip and I’m leaving today.
    cause I’m taking a trip California Way….
    (The San Fernando Valley Song, 1943)
    I know of many reasons Mormons left Utah for California, but it should also be remembered this ‘movement’ was not limited to Mormons.
    But you are right, (others help!), I know little of Church material or books that take this on.

    Comment by Bob — August 18, 2008 @ 1:21 pm

  29. […] has up an interesting discussion of what the future of Mormon history will be. I think everyone agreed that there’s a lot to be written about 20th century […]

    Pingback by Best of the Week 6: Academic LDS : Mormon Metaphysics — August 18, 2008 @ 11:57 pm

  30. Re #28
    Bob –
    Juanita Brooks wrote an essay entitled “The Scattering of the Gathered and the Gathering of the Scattered: The Mormon Diaspora in the Years after World War II” in 1987. But I have yet to locate a copy.

    Humor and Pathos: Stories of the Mormon Diaspora by William Mulder, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 24.4 (Winter 1991): 176-178

    Some reviewers claim that Sojourner in the Promised Land by Jann Shipps, covers the Mormon Diaspora. I haven’t read it yet. So little time….

    An article at Median Magagzine describes the Outmigration Leadership Project run by the Marriott Graduate School of Management

    and there is this call for authors…

    So maybe more is on the horizon…

    Comment by BruceC — August 20, 2008 @ 12:00 pm

  31. Of course, the Mormon Diaspora could be defined in other ways. The scattering of Mormons after Nauvoo is more like a diaspora than the outmigration following WWII. While it is true that “most” followed BY to Utah, some went to Texas, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Iowa, or back to Missouri. While some of these groups coalesced into what would become the CoC, some of these groups still have little to do with each other. This disorganized scattering has more in common with Jewish or African diasporas that anything else.
    The outmigration is more like an expanding of the homeland. Already Mormonism is the second largest denomination in several western states.

    Comment by BruceC — August 20, 2008 @ 12:13 pm

  32. #30: I would like to know, say by 1865, How many Deseret Mormons were even from Nauvoo. A (much?) larger number was from Europe (?) There is still a lot of Folklore about the 19th Century settling of the Utah that need reworking.
    It is unclear to me: Is there a “Homeland”? I don’t think most Mormons have lived in Utah, even if the Church Headquarters is there.

    Comment by Bob — August 20, 2008 @ 1:51 pm

  33. I have heard that strictly by numbers, Brigham Young only attracted half of the Saints from Nauvoo. That the rest split up between the various groups. The story goes that the Strangites were originally the second largest, but by the time the RLDS was formed the Strangites were down to almost nothing.

    Anyone have verifiable numbers and dates on the split?

    Comment by BruceC — August 20, 2008 @ 4:31 pm

  34. #32: If your numbers are right, 6,000 left from Nauvoo.
    “Between 1847 and 1868, (railroad), Mormon emigrants traveled on the pioneer trail in more than 250 companies departing from various outfitting places. These companies in which about 60,000 LDS Church members….”

    Comment by Bob — August 20, 2008 @ 5:24 pm


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