The new new Mormon history: a response read at MHA, May 24, 2008

By May 26, 2008

I am here responding to panel 6E of the 2008 Mormon History Association Annual Meeting: “Scientific Mormonism: evolution, monism, and Mormon thought,” featuring the following papers:

“Transmutational Theology: An Unofficial Authoritative View, Mormon Responses to Darwin, 1859-1933,” Jordan Watkins, Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, CA

“Marginal Dialogues: B. H. Roberts’s Reading of Science and Philosophy,” Stanley J. Thayne, Brigham Young University

“The Making of a ‘Mormon Modernity,’” John Dulin, Whittier, CA

An image: BH Roberts, hunched over a copy of William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, pencil in hand, brow furrowed, looking for new ideas, new images, new ways to express and understand exactly what it was that his Mormonism was telling him about the universe and humanity.

Ths panel is a generation or more removed from the heyday of the groundbreaking movement we call the New Mormon History – a historiographical reformation that, in the end, was primarily about nuts and bolts.The New Mormon historians aspired to respectable professionalism and polished technique; they joined the academy’s quest for disinterested objectivity.Leonard Arrington, the movement’s dean, urged Mormons to overcome the urge to put God’s hand in every footnote; to consider – and even prioritize – evidence, evidence empirical, human, and mundane; to bracket off the question of divine intervention in favor of the human stories of the Saints. These stories were, above all else, chronicles of detail and triumphs of research. The Mormons had discovered what historical method could reveal about their past, and they gloried in its exploration. The various texts of the first vision narrative, the hunt for revivals in the spring of 1820 in Palmyra New York, the average ages of polygamist brides in Manti, Utah, the contents of Joseph Smith’s boyhood library – the cluttered facts of Mormonism’s past were dissected and carefully reassembled.

For all of these reasons – its provenance, its practitioners, its practical bent – the New Mormon History’s primary strength lay in the evidence it dug up. And partly for this reason, for far, far too long it was engaged in domestic warfare over these facts were: what precisely was in the box at Cumorah? When did polygamy begin? Whose idea was the priesthood ban? Etc, etc. And of course these were more than historical issues; for so many of its practitioners, they were also questions of faith. That was why the work was done. That made such questions urgent, but also, ultimately, as Jan Shipps has argued, internal. One round on them was generally enough for non-Mormon scholars, for whom Mormonism is interesting less for the veracity of its truth claims than for what it implies about other stories. Political historians like Sean Wilentz are interested in the Mormon priesthood as a manifestation of American democratic culture; scholars fascinated with religion like Harold Bloom marvel as Joseph’s skill in religion-making; students of the American West like Patricia Limerick see the Mormons as paradigmic examples of settlement and community building.

It is, then, with this in mind that that panel – and the work that makes it possible – are so exciting. I want to suggest – like the Apostle Paul – that perhaps the gentiles are on to something. What we have, what we need, is, perhaps, a new new Mormon history.

There are two ways in which this might be so. History is perhaps simultaneously the most accessible and the most versatile of academic disciplines. For the first reason, it – rather than literary analysis, anthropology, or philosophy – has dominated Mormon scholarship for the past sixty years. But, at the same time, historians have never been shy about stealing these methods for our own. We like to think it’s a way of participating in some universal academic discourse; a way to fly closer to the sun and seek truth with a capital T. And, ominously, it’s only gotten easier. From the political, quantitative, organizational history of the 1960s and 1970s – that history in which many of the New Mormon Historians, like Arrington himself, were trained – we have in the past two decades entered an age of cultural history as interested in the ways people understand their world as in what they do in it. And anthropology, sociology, religious theory are proving valuable tools to get at this.

And here we have John Dulin – with his anthropological tools, his excitingly long words, his theoretical sophistication – joining the ranks of scholars like Kathleen Flake and Armand Mauss, whose work has just began to show us the potential that theory offers to not just Mormon history, but Mormon studies more broadly. The lines between religion and science, religion and philosophy, have always been blurred, and thinking about what Mormonism is across a variety of these spheres deepens our understanding of it.

But work like John’s implies and even demands a second methodology – comparative analysis. We Mormons are fascinated with ourselves; with what we believe to be our uniquenesses, our singular significance, our blazingly new ideas and practices. But, fascinatingly, Mormons were not the only nineteenth century religious sect who practiced a form of plural marriage; James E. Talmage was not the first theologian to argue that Jesus was the Jehovah of the Old Testament. Mormons were not the only persecuted religious minority of antebellum America, and Joseph Smith not the only prophet God spoke to in the heady years before the Civil War. The Book of Mormon is not even the only new work of scripture an American visionary has produced.

Scholars like Lawrence Foster have been telling us these things for a long time. So we, twenty-first century historians, are set, right? Though much more remains to be done, the backdrop behind Joseph and Emma and Parley and Eliza and the rest is brightening. But, strangely, we still don’t really know what these people thought of John Humphrey Noyes, who in the 1840s preached what he called ‘complex marriage.’ We don’t know enough about Joseph Smith’s familiarity with the natural theology of William Paley, or about what Brigham Young thought of contemporary utopian communities like Onieda, Brook Farm, or New Harmony. Far too little work has been done on Heber J. Grant’s understanding of the contemporary temperance movement. And it seems bizarre that we try to understand Joseph’s ideas about God, Brigham’s about the United Order, and Heber’s about the Word of Wisdom without paying attention to the cultural air they breathed.

In short, the comparative work we’ve done exists more on the page than in the past. We need a more integrative, contextual new new Mormon history; one that approaches Mormonism as a phenomenon fully in – if not of – its time and place; one that understands that Mormons looked not only up, but around them as they struggled to solve problems of theology, of organization, and of simply surviving in a vaguely hostile Protestant America. The Mormons shaped their times, but were also shaped by it. Stan Thayne and Jordan Watkins, fortunately, know this.

This panel approaches the issue from the perspective of intellectual history. To what extent were Mormon ideas, Mormon systems of thought, Mormon worldviews influenced by other thinkers? The late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the period all these papers deal in, is a valuable one here because it was a great age for master narratives, for totalizing theories that explained everything – Marx, Darwin, Herbert Spencer, geological catastophism, fundamentalist dispensationalism – And of course, that last’s ultimate nemesis: an infectious confidence in progress – an idea that spread through politics, through science, and into religion and transformed them all, making them over into various roads toward some kind of utopia. This was the age of Christian civilization, when American Protestants greeted every new development with the assumption that it could be assimilated into a grand teleology culminating in an American Protestant Zion. These were the men Jordan Watkins tells us of – the Asa Grays and John Fiskes who theologized the threat of Darwin into something called theistic evolution.

Mormons, as we have learned here today, were not immune to these processes – they faced the same problems: the challenges of secularism, of the frighteningly quick growth of an industrial economy, of new psychology, and of Darwin: all things that terribly complicated old assumptions about the place and role of human beings in the universe. And if these papers can teach us anything, it’s that the solutions they reached were not – totally – unique. They were distinctively Mormon, yes, but like everything else, Mormonism – and its ideologies, its doctrines, its culture – did not grow in a vacuum.

This given, we can see how these papers work better together than apart. John Widstoe, Sterling Talmage, BH Roberts – they all struggled with this same complicated network of ideas and events, and all participated in the cultural war that gave birth to the modern world.

That word ‘modern’ is a tricky one, and I’m not quite sure what John means by it. In his introduction, he follows the definitions of the time; to be ‘modern’ in 1900 was to subscribe to the mores and truths of Christian civilization, to have confidence in a narrative of cultural progress and in the ultimate beneficence of technology, to be forward looking. But as his paper develops, John hints at – though does not specifically argue for – a deeper notion of what modernity is, one described by sociologists like Peter Berger. Henry Ward Beecher, a New York Protestant preacher acclaimed in 1875 as the most famous man in America, once argued that “Natural laws are the constant expression of the divine thought and purpose,”[1] That is, science was the way to discover the will and nature of a radically immanent God. For Berger, this was dangerous; it marked transition into modernity, that being a society which relies upon rational rather than religious ways of meaning and authority. And indeed, though in 1890 Beecher’s liberal Protestantism seemed to own the day, a hundred-ten years after his death Americans are abandoning it in droves for conservative churches who insist upon far less accommodating distinctions between God and man. John – and Fenella Cannell – seem to assert easily that Mormonism, like Beecher, was able to resist secular ideas by assimilating them. However, we might, as John does, question why Widstoe’s theology went into eclipse in Mormonism, in favor of the decidedly anti-modern theology of what has been called Mormon neo-orthodoxy – or whether it actually did. There is an interesting tension here: Widstoe’s “ontological monism” does not appear to be abandoned today, though few Mormons would be comfortable with the conclusions Widstoe believed naturally developed from it. Pushing this question a bit more might allow John to more fully explore what he means by “modern” and “secular.”

Certainly, Jordan Watkins has a much less sanguine view about how Mormonism entered the twentieth century. His story has a slightly elegiac air, because he’s fascinated with the wild variety of interesting ideas that, entirely unintentionally, spawned within Mormonism. And yet, alas, Jordan tells us we have spurned pre-Adamites and JF Gibbs’s celestial planets and ended up stuck with boring old creationism. The paper is particularly interesting, looking back from an America in which we often casually equate creationism with a somehow purer faith, we see an age in which the dance between religion and science was far more fluid, where theological speculation signaled an active faith, and where virtually everybody (until fundamentalism showed up) believed that evolution confirmed God. Watkins nicely contextualizes his Mormons, the somewhat unruly troops of Asa Gray, Darwin’s bulldog, who was determined to demonstrate that evolution proved that God was real and worked through – what else – progression. What could improve Watkins’s paper, I think, should be obvious by now – context, context, context. He has added to the store of facts scholars like Richard Sherlock have compiled, but I’d like to see him push their implications a bit more. Joseph Fielding Smith, for example, corresponded with fundamentalist thinkers, and borrowed many of their arguments. What does this mean for Mormon theology? To what extent did Jordan’s hero Sterling Talmage draw from men like Gray? But this itself is not enough: what we are interested in is how did they spin such borrowings in a particularly Mormon way? How did they correlate what they learned within their own worldviews? How did their ideas mesh? Theological arguments are just that – exchanges, reorientings, horsetradings, and reinterpretations. The great danger of intellectual history is that it isolates particular thinkers and pretends they speak and think in a fog. Jordan’s paper, then, would be improved if he could show how these ideas worked in dialogue – among all these thinkers, but also between them and non-theologians; your average Parley on the streets of Salt Lake. As with my final point on John’s paper, I wonder how decisively Jordan has proven that Mormonism as a whole accepted, in this case, the creationism of Joseph Fielding Smith.

Stan Thayne, on the other hand, offers us no shortage of dialogue. The paper is an interesting ramble through BH Roberts’s library, and, by extension, his mind; its great strength is that helps us to explore the inchoate swirling of ideas and inspiration that precedes the crystallization of works like Seventy’s Course in Theology and The Truth, the Way, the Life. This is strikingly worthwhile, for knowing how these men read is as valuable as knowing what they wrote. We’re catching Roberts here unguarded, glimpsing the presuppositions with which he sat down to write, and also the world in which he lived from day to day. Interestingly enough, Stan seems to have internalized this mood, for his survey is like a Catherine wheel, a kaleidoscope of Roberts’s reading, tossing off Roberts’s pungent comments and dancing around the themes he engaged with. It is less successful at systematically correlating these notes into a clear worldview of Roberts’s own, connecting Roberts’s marginal notes with his own writings, or showing how his scattershot commentary developed into a mature engagement with the work of Spencer or James or other thinkers of the day. For example, Stan casually offers us Roberts’s affirmation that the Lamanites were cursed with dark skin. For what it represents this seems to me a profoundly interesting point, and one certainly worth deeper integration with the rest of Roberts’s thought. It reveals a fact I’ve toyed with some in my own work – that Mormon thinkers of this time pursued a rational faith, a reconciliation of religion and science, an application of contemporary philosophy to Mormonism: and yet, at the same time, clung tighter than ever to the particular supernaturalisms of their own religious tradition. You see it in Talmage, in Widstoe, and certainly in Smith. This, certainly, is something Mormon thinkers like Roberts brought to the great and unsettling conversations of the early twentieth century.

1 Beecher, Evolution and religion (London, 1885) 17.

Article filed under Historiography Intellectual History State of the Discipline


  1. Thanks for posting this, matt. As to your initial points, I think that there are some broad parallels between historiography on early Christianity, which moved from an exceptionalist paradigm to one that saw Christianity as emerging from the Near Eastern culture of its time. Likewise, the challenge of the “new new Mormon history” is to see how Mormonism emerged from and has corresponded with American (and now international) cultures.

    As for the papers, I wish I could have been there. Thanks for the roundup.

    Comment by David G. — May 26, 2008 @ 1:26 pm

  2. Wow, great write up! My partner Mike and I were trading off staffing the JWHA booth and he was the one who got to attend this session. (Lucky him, unlucky me!) He likewise reported that it was a lively, thought-provoking discussion.

    Jan’s idea that Richard’s work represents the culmination of the New Mormon History is intriguing, as is her idea of what comes next. Like her, I can’t wait for the navel-gazing and the polemics to end and for the integration of Mormon history within the broader historical context (along with comparative religious studies) to begin. In that direction, my own small contribution has been to try to show LDS Mormonism within the slightly broader, comparative context of other strains of Mormonism. And also, with my mapping, I’ve tried to emphasize the contemporary geographical context in which Mormons found themselves.

    However, I think that Richard’s work is more like a light at the end of the tunnel, or a map of how we can get beyond the New Mormon History, than an end to it. For example, the incredible work coming out of the Church History department on Joseph Smith’s papers along with the minute details of the Mountain Meadows Massacre seem, if anything, to be firmly rooted in the characteristics we’ve come to define as the New Mormon History: professional, detailed, and incredibly inward-looking scholarship. I can’t wait to have the published materials, but they don’t seem to be post–New Mormon History.

    By the way, I love the idea of having a graduate seminar format for sessions, like this one that my cousin Keith Erekson put together. I’m on the program committee for MHA next year. If any of you folks think of another topic you’d like to moderate a discussion of, including required reading and a seminar format, please submit your proposal to MHA and flag it to my attention. You can also email or +CC me directly.

    Comment by John Hamer — May 26, 2008 @ 2:58 pm

  3. I didn’t include my email address above, because I was afraid it might get caught in the spam filter. You can find it on JWHA’s webpage under staff, or can write JHamer(at)

    Comment by John Hamer — May 26, 2008 @ 2:59 pm

  4. Wow – I felt like I was in Sacramento! These posts are a tremendous service to those of us who weren’t able to make it this year, so thank you Matt.

    I entirely agree with your sentiments about the integration of Mormon History within the larger context of American religious, intellectual, and political history. This seems to be a particularly important task for scholars who wish to appeal to a more general audience.

    Comment by John Turner — May 26, 2008 @ 4:19 pm

  5. thanks again Matt for your grand finale to the session, and for the suggestions for revision, which I will definitely incorporate when I get around to it.

    Comment by stan — May 26, 2008 @ 4:51 pm

  6. Thanks for this, Matt. However, reading it was not even close to as entertaining as watching you perform it.

    Like you, I can’t wait for historians to quit being bogged down by debating facts and focus more on ideas, thoughts, and larger frameworks.

    Comment by Ben — May 26, 2008 @ 5:06 pm

  7. I stepped out before your response and now I see my folly (it was stuffy in there, though).

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 26, 2008 @ 5:46 pm

  8. While I’m all for more theory I also think there are still plenty of facts left to establish. So I hope there isn’t such a rush to theorizing that the details get lost. (What I like to call the Nibley effect since he was unfortunately guilty of this more than I care to admit)

    But a lot of foundations have been laid by the New Mormon History and it definitely is time to move on to the next phase.

    Comment by Clark — May 26, 2008 @ 9:05 pm

  9. I hope Clark is right. I believe he is right.

    Part of that is personal temperament — Ideas and grand theories are, well, grand, but they don’t speak to me. I get nothing from lofty discussions of the theological implications of thus-and-such, where a simpler explanation of what I should be doing and why, or how to extract even elementary meaning from the obscurity of Revelation, have great power for me. As with theology, so with history, for me.

    Part of that is also the frank admission of a non-academic, non-professional historian. I believe dedicated amateurs like me can make significant contributions, but almost always that will be in uncovering the most basic of historical facts, and translating them into a form that can reach other non-academic, non-professional, ordinary, but interested people. We’re the ones who do the spade work for the academics, uncovering the building blocks for your overarching theories, and making it possible for you to build your theories on a solid foundation — do you really want to invest your effort on faulty assumptions and misunderstandings?

    I hope that as we move into a new new Mormon history that we won’t allow a division between theorists and fact-finders. We need each other.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 26, 2008 @ 9:27 pm

  10. I think Ardis is exactly correct. This is an issue of division of labor–it’s not an either/or dichotomy. I think it’s clear that the Mormon historical community (producers and consumers alike) still views the discovery of new facts as the most important kind of contribution. A great deal of this stems from the fact that the readership involved has little patience for the sort of theoretical reflection common to fields with a more insular (read tiny and academic) audience. I confess that much of my work is interperative and informed by theoretical insights gleaned from a variety of disciplines. This is how I was trained in graduate school. I also confess that such things are not very enjoyable to read.

    Comment by SC Taysom — May 26, 2008 @ 9:48 pm

  11. I think the bigger issue is that often to do the larger theoretical work you have to be trained in other areas. (Say economics or so forth) Nate Oman had a great post on this a year or two ago that I’m too lazy to look up right now.

    That’s not to say there aren’t theoretical areas that people trained in history can’t find. There definitely are. But I think what is of most interest to some is connections with larger structures found in philosophy and the sciences (or even economics, law and political science)

    Comment by Clark — May 26, 2008 @ 11:47 pm

  12. Thanks, folks.

    For what it’s worth, I agree with Taysom. I hope I’m not setting up a facts/theory dichotomy; that was not my intent. Indeed, I think part of what I am calling for *are* more facts – the type, though, which have hitherto may have been overlooked because they’ve often seemed tangential to the story we’ve told so far.

    Joseph Fielding Smith’s correspondence with the creationist thinker George McCready Price, for example, is in the Price papers – it seems to me that this is a monstrously valuable resource about Smith’s intellectual development. While scholars of fundamentalism like Ronald Numbers have used this collection, scholars of Mormonism have not.

    The sort of intellectual reorientation I’m calling for – thinking about Mormonism as a particular iteration within a broader context – would help us ask new questions of the old evidence, and spur us toward looking at new.

    Comment by matt b. — May 26, 2008 @ 11:54 pm

  13. Jared T. directed me to this conversation. In the discussion session mentioned by John (#2), we had a very wide-ranging and interesting discussion of what new new Mormon histories might look like. I had to convince this year’s program committee to experiment, so I am happy to see that next year is already interested. If you pull something together I will be more than happy to serve as chair, and, if needed, to send an “official” letter from the MHA board of directors to the publisher of the reading material asking for free access (which the Journal of American History readily granted).

    Comment by Keith Erekson — May 27, 2008 @ 5:19 am

  14. Clark,
    There may be something to what you are saying, although it’s worth pointing out that history proper and my own field of historical religious studies have very little “theory” of their own–most of it is borrowed from anthropology, sociology, literary criticism and philosophy.

    I didn’t read your response as advocating or exacerbating a dichotomy at all.

    Comment by SC Taysom — May 27, 2008 @ 6:43 am

  15. Matt, terrific response. I can’t agree more with your plea for comparative work. The more I teach the 19th century, the more I see the Church as thoroughly embedded in its culture and the less I believe that it represented something completely new and unique on its horizon. And the need to see, for example, Campbellite Restorationism as something in its own right and not just as the stepping-stone into LDS faith, or to see William Miller’s dispensationalism as in line with our own, or to see Ellen White as not a “failed prophet,” but as a prophet in a recognizable historical category of American prophets, etc, the deeper and more accurate will be our understanding of our own history.

    Comment by tona — May 27, 2008 @ 7:13 am

  16. SC, that’s sort of what I was trying to say. I guess I wasn’t terribly clear. More of what I was saying is that especially at the beginning it’s helpful to have folks trained in those areas also doing the history. But clearly you can have a person trained in history who is familiar with such things on their own.

    Comment by Clark — May 27, 2008 @ 9:34 am

  17. Will someone please explain to an ignoramus precisely what is so bad about the New Mormon History, and why people seem so eager to leave it in the dust (or “move beyond it,” or what have you)?

    Comment by Steve Evans — May 27, 2008 @ 10:54 am

  18. Thanks for posting this, Matt. I think your comments are timely and appropriate for all historians of Mormonism to consider.

    Steve, the New Mormon History generally suffered (suffers?) from being too inward-looking, concerning itself not so much with the importance and meaning of Mormonism historically, but rather debating to no end specific “facts” in the tradition’s history. Unfortunately, this has often degenerated into what John Hamer (in #2) so eloquently labeled “navel-gazing and … polemics.” As Clark, Ardis, and Taysom all rightly point out, the goal now is not to move into some sort of “post-factual” era of Mormon history, but rather to produce scholarship that while “factually sound” also utilizes theoretical models to demonstrate how Mormonism fits into wider contexts.

    Comment by Christopher — May 27, 2008 @ 12:41 pm

  19. Steve,
    I would add to Chris’s nice summary that one of the implicit criticisms of the NMH is also that it relies covertly on a kind logical positivism. History is imagined as a puzzle which, when fully assembled, will produce a complete and undistorted correspondence with the past and will contain and communicate a self-evident meaning. The key is thus to find all of the pieces. There is little tolerance for multivalent levels of meaning or ambiguity. This isn’t true of every work that might fit under the NMH rubric (in fact there is debate about which works consitute that particular corpus) but it is a generally applicable critique.

    Comment by SC Taysom — May 27, 2008 @ 12:47 pm

  20. Steve – Actually, the new Mormon history rocks. Great Basin Kingdom, Mormonism in Transition, and Quinn’s, um, The New Mormon History are on my most accessible bookshelf, right next to my Dashiell Hammett stuff. All three of these (and many, many more) are essential reading and foundations on which the rest of us build. I’ve read them all more than once and still dip into them for footnotes and inspiration. People still (and will continue to) write new Mormon history, and a good thing, too.

    Mormon studies, though, has meant “Mormon history” for a long, long time. Other disciplines have things to offer, and I hope future historical work will integrate some of these insights. We’ve settled the valley, and can keep building there, but a diaspora is coming, I think.

    Comment by matt b — May 27, 2008 @ 12:49 pm

  21. SC, isn’t that critique more indicative of a given ecclesiastical perspective? Is NHM simply inheriting its traits from a correlated church system?

    Comment by Steve Evans — May 27, 2008 @ 12:53 pm

  22. “…and Quinn’s, um, The New Mormon History…”


    Comment by Steve Evans — May 27, 2008 @ 12:54 pm

  23. Steve,
    It’s indicative of an older model of historiography that happens to lend itself nicely to any ideology, religious or otherwise. It doesn’t depend necessarily on the belief, for example, that God’s hand is present and recoverable in the historical record, but simply on the notion that the past is a discrete “thing” that is recoverable and self-evident and that history is the chief means of recovering it.

    Comment by SC Taysom — May 27, 2008 @ 1:26 pm

  24. Steve, as I see it, the NMH was the internal application of external methodologies, an intensely introverted exercise that, ultimately, existed in a sort of vacuum. This expansion that Matt and others are advocating is meant to be an external focus using external methodologies, seeing Mormon Studies as a way to learn more about people both Mormon and non- using the experiences of the early LDS.

    A classic example of the differences between old and new would be Mike Quinn’s article on the Munster Anabaptists. This article, meant vaguely to associate early Mormons with the poster children of the radical Reformation, engages in a gentle inversion of Nibleyan parallelism, leaving the reader with little sense about what the connection, if any exists, means. But in point of fact, the Mormons knew about the Anabaptists–their enemies constantly compared them to the Anabaptists–John C. Bennett even claimed that the LDS were plagiarizing the Anabaptists directly. Suddenly the connection to Anabaptists is “live,” and we have to ask what does it mean to discover that some of your ideas were formulated before you ever showed up on the scene? How do you construct history or deal with accusations of enthusiasm when you are feeling alive with the spirit?

    I think people have a valid point that there are different histories for different constituencies. But I think it’s reasonable to suggest that there is a need for another history other than NMH.

    Comment by smb — May 27, 2008 @ 2:39 pm

  25. Thanks guys, I appreciate the hand-holding. Next time you want some explanation regarding, say, the new Terminator movies, I’ll be happy to reciprocate.

    Comment by Steve Evans — May 27, 2008 @ 3:54 pm

  26. SMB it is interesting that Quinn was one of the early folks to move away from this with Magic World View. Of course as important as this work was it also highlights the huge problems when one moves to a theoretical stance. Quinn was sloppy with facts and the small details in many places and wasn’t clear about how the facts related to the larger issues. Then in the larger structures he had muddled and unclear categories.

    So that’s why I have such a love/hate relationship with that book. It did what I long thought should have been done but just did a really poor job. I still keep hoping someone else will come to the topic and do a more careful job. (I’m still eagerly awaiting Nick’s book on Masonry which may do that in a smaller to digest part – although we’ll have to wait and see)

    Comment by Clark — May 27, 2008 @ 4:33 pm

  27. To add I think there are many books of the last few years that are doing this more expansive reasoning. Offhand Grant Underwood’s The Millenarian World of Early Mormonism does a very good job of relating some larger structures to Mormonism. One can see it as being somewhat narrow aims and thus not what some are looking for. But it is an example of a trend that I think has been going on.

    Comment by Clark — May 27, 2008 @ 4:53 pm

  28. SC Taysom wrote:

    “one of the implicit criticisms of the NMH is also that it relies covertly on a kind logical positivism. History is imagined as a puzzle which, when fully assembled, will produce a complete and undistorted correspondence with the past and will contain and communicate a self-evident meaning. The key is thus to find all of the pieces. There is little tolerance for multivalent levels of meaning or ambiguity.”

    Doesn’t this run the risk of degenerating into a sort of relativistic defeatism?

    I mean, the relativists may have a good point that objective truth is an impossible human endeavor. But it seems to me rather stupid to conclude from these arguments that the search for objective truth must be abandoned.

    In my opinion, the embrace of relativism in the 1960s has led to some of the stupidest crops of American higher education graduates our history has ever produced.

    We may sneer at the naivete of scholars in the 1950s and their confident assertions about a future enlightened age. But, by golly, at least they gave a damn about truth and sought for it.

    The same cannot be said of large swaths of today’s academia.

    A religion that is premised on the existence of an absolute truth needs to be very careful about wedding itself to relativist paradigms. It could wind up being a very uncomfortable fit.

    Comment by Seth R. — May 28, 2008 @ 10:10 am

  29. Seth,
    I understand your reservations about “relativism” unleashed, but I think they may be misplaced here. I think, for example, that calling for a toleration of ambiguity and nuance in the creation of historical narratives is not fairly characterized as “defeatism.” It is, rather, an acknowledgment of what historical narratives are–intellectual constructs or matrices in which historical facts are emplotted and arranged, emphasized or ignored, on the basis of multiple cultural imperatives and individual intuition. It is just good intellectual manners to recognize that such influences are probably at work, even if we don’t recognize them, and to then allow for correction or elaboration or evolution or abandonment. On the question of religion and relativism, it is possible to believe in absolute truth while remaining less sauguine about the available methods we have of ascertaining that truth. I think that this is a very Mormon way of looking at the world, and it offers at least one explanation for the changing beliefs we hold over time.

    Comment by SC Taysom — May 28, 2008 @ 10:54 am

  30. The balanced scholar craves mature, comprehensive overviews of historical events and thought. Too often, however, the panoramas which we paint are not distilled from extensive details, so much as they are extrapolated in a near vacuum from a few fragments which are most readily available – or philosophically convenient. When, by contrast, a larger, more authentic view finally strikes the eye in some unexpected moment, it can feel like a revelation – like pausing during a hill climb to survey the scene after having focused intently upon a difficult path. This wider appreciation is only won as a natural reward of mastering each component of the tangled environment, perceiving every pitfall and measuring every step, to whatever extent our observations and our perceptions allow. A successful climb requires training, conditioning, and equipment. That is why, before the final ascent of history, vast archives are assembled – and why some historians need to spend more time there. “. . . [I]n the past,” lamented noted Mormon researcher Dale Morgan,

    too much has been done in isolation, the training of historians, librarians, and archivists proceeding in separate and only hopefully parallel paths. Nobody who has thought about this can be particularly happy over the results. We come up with historians who are abominably ignorant of the most elementary principles of bibliography, pathetically dependent on librarians to lead them by the hand, totally lost in an archive. We come up with librarians who have been technically equipped to deal with the management of books and the disposition of reference inquiries and yet are totally innocent of the creative mind which alone enables a library to remain or become great. We come up with archivists who have been superbly trained for narrow jobs, and vanish into them like moles into the ground, nevermore to be seen in the light of day. [Dale Morgan, “The Archivist, the Librarian, And the Historian,” off-print from the Library Journal 93:22 (December 15, 1968), pp. 4621-4623, (quoted here from the sixth, unnumbered page of this eight-page pamphlet].

    If we will learn to work together more watchfully, pausing longer to respect even that which seems most mundane, we can do a better job of interpreting the grand historical and sociological phenomena: from the narrow to the broad (but not too quickly), then back to grass roots again, over and over, each time emerging still more triumphant over the misconceptions and the premature generalizations of our past.

    Comment by Rick Grunder — May 28, 2008 @ 11:28 am

  31. Taysom,

    I guess I’m OK with that as long as the groundwork isn’t being ignored.

    The privilege of engaging in the sort of “nuanced” scholarship you are talking about is something you aren’t automatically entitled to. It’s something you earn AFTER you have a good grasp of the “positivist” facts that are available. Once a student of Mormon history has a good foundation of “objective” facts, THEN I have no objection to them wandering off into theoretical areas.

    But you need that informed and disciplined foundation.

    Comment by Seth R. — May 28, 2008 @ 11:53 am

  32. Seth,

    I know of no responsible scholar who would ever, ever, advocate the kind of loose-cannon activity you are describing. Do you have some specific work in mind here? I have a hard time imagining what a work informed by theory but ignorant of available archival data (“groundwork”) would look like. It strikes me as a bit of a straw man. And as a matter of clarification, I don’t know what anyone is or is not “automatically entitled to” when it comes to writing history. Anyone who has spent long enough in graduate school to get a PhD isn’t dealing with anything being “automatically” granted by Clio, or the history geenie, or whoever.

    Comment by SC Taysom — May 28, 2008 @ 12:36 pm

  33. I wasn’t making accusations so much as expressing concerns.

    Comment by Seth R. — May 28, 2008 @ 1:15 pm

  34. […] cumulative evolutionary effect, Roberts noted: “Not so with the cursed Lamanites.” (See Matt Bowman’s comments here–last paragraph of […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Marginal Dialogues: The B. H. Roberts Memorial Library — May 30, 2008 @ 10:01 am

  35. The two poles of positivism and relativism introduce a false dichotomy. There are a lot more options.

    Comment by Clark — May 30, 2008 @ 3:40 pm

  36. […] exactly the sort of methodologically-informed history that Mormon studies so desperately needs (and that Matt himself called for at last year’s MHA). It speaks to larger issues, and successfully situates Mormonism within a comparative religious […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Bowman on “The Crisis of Mormon Christology” — January 13, 2009 @ 3:26 pm

  37. […] I’ve mentioned before, and as Matt B. pointed out at last year’s MHA, intellectual history is a growing trend in Mormon studies; indeed, many of the posts on this site […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Interpreting Early Mormon Thought — February 24, 2009 @ 1:17 pm

  38. […] The New New Mormon History: A Response Read at MHA May 24, 2008 […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » From The Archives: Posts You Might Have Missed, March-May 2008 — July 2, 2009 @ 7:52 am


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