A More Diverse Mormon History Association, or How the 2014 Tanner Lecture Has Haunted Me Since June

By September 15, 2014

I’d like to offer some thoughts I’ve had on Jehu J. Hanciles’ Tanner Lecture at the 2014 meeting of the Mormon History Association. During his lecture, Professor Hanciles, a Professor of Global Christianity at Emory University, shared his research on the growth of Mormonism in Africa.

Hanciles’ address largely spoke to the advantages and disadvantages within Mormonism in regards to performing missionary work in Africa. As far as aspects conducive to missionary work are concerned, Mormon beliefs regarding food storage, prophetic gifts, gifts of the spirit, and the celebration of family and kinship networks mesh well with many African cultures. On the other hand, Mormonism does a poor job of adapting to local circumstances through requiring local congregations to adapt to the American church. He gave examples of this trend, including insistence on using American hymnbooks, not offering leeway on church dress to jive with local dress and tradition, and church services which allow for more participation from the congregation.

He also spoke about the need for more people of color/international folks to be involved in MHA and the study of Mormonism.** He called out the tiny numbers of articles in major Mormon publications on non-white, non-western Mormon history and the deplorable fact that so few were written by people of color. While Hanciles did not offer his methodology for what history was written by non-whites, I believe that whatever framework he used is probably correct. This lecture came after Professor Ignacio Garcia’s comment that he hoped one day MHA would be able to invite an expert on Mexican Mormonism to speak at MHA, rather than “just” a Mexican Mormon. Needless to say, academic guilt and white guilt felt palpable during the lecture and the Q&A period. Both Hanciles’ and Garcia’s comments, in my mind, were damning. We can do better. We must do better.

At the lunch following the lecture, several of us discussed the means by which MHA could involve more topics on non-western, non-white history and involve a more diverse membership. Our little group had several suggestions (listed below), but we largely have not followed up on our desire to “repent” and find ways to involve diverse audiences and scholars in the study of Mormon History. With that in mind, I hope that in the two weeks before paper proposals are due for MHA 2015 we can encourage more participants in MHA, particularly paper proposals on diverse themes and topics. MHA won’t become more diverse overnight, or in one year. But I think that a concrete plan can and should be carried out to ensure that MHA not only thrives in the next fifty years, but has membership that reflects the racial diversity of Mormonism and those who are interested in Mormon History.


1. Provide travel funds specifically for scholars of color.

2. Work with schools with faculty studying Mormonism to hire research assistants of color.

3. Work with schools with faculty studying Mormonism to mentor students of color and encourage all research related to non-white, non-Mormon topics.

4. Work with Utah based schools to fund the attendance of MHA by more students. 2015 and 2016 present an opportunity for students at BYU, UVU, the University of Utah, Utah State University, SLCC, Westminster, LDS Business College, and other schools to attend MHA. If students are anything like me, after one MHA meeting you’ll be hooked. Attending MHA (and other academic conferences) makes a person a better scholar if they participate. Also if they’re anything like me, attending MHA will want them to attend again and again.

Any thoughts, readers? Any takeaways from Professor Hanciles? lecture or how to build a more diverse population of Mormon scholars? Or how to incentivize the study of non-white, non-American topics?


**He also noted that many issues of race regarding MHA and Mormon History could be said of other academic subfields and the academy in general.

Article filed under Conference/Presentation Reports Methodology, Academic Issues Race


  1. I’ve attended LDS Church services in 4 different Ugandan chapels. And Hanciles’ comments concerning Mormonism in Africa, from my limited knowledge, are right on the money. I’m sorry I missed his presentation at MHA.

    Comment by roger hansen — September 15, 2014 @ 9:42 am

  2. […] Jehu J. Hanciles, Professor of Global Christianity at Emory University at the 2014 meetings of the Mormon History Association, shared his research on the growth of Mormonism in Africa.  He spoke to the advantages and disadvantages the Church has in regards to its missionary program (this summary is based on a post by J. Stuart). […]

    Pingback by Mormonism in Africa | Tired Road Warrior — September 15, 2014 @ 12:55 pm

  3. History, like most social sciences, is a luxury science. It’s something people can do when they aren’t worried about survival on a daily basis. Also, specific culture traditions in Mormonism take time to develop. In the area of Africa where my husband served 15 years ago (Cote d’Ivoire), the Mormon church was still only a couple decades old. Richer folks weren’t generally interested in the gospel, and the regular people who *flocked* to the missionaries weren’t exactly in positions where they could take advantage of higher learning. Among that small country were a host of different villages with their own tribal identities and languages — it was not one defined culture. It seems that what MHA is thinking with the scholarships would work better in cultures where Mormonism has been around a long time AND where education or economic opportunities have developed enough so that people can choose to go into humanities and other social sciences. Thinking of one urban American ward I’ve lived in, the Mormon pioneers of their communities (Liberia, Nepal, Singapore, etc.) were all in financial situations that would make this type of feat impossible, even if they did have the desire.

    BTW, the equatorial areas he was in didn’t lend well towards food storage, so that was pretty much nonexistent. Also, the family emphasis became difficult because polygamy was still accepted culturally. According to church rules people aren’t allowed to get baptized until they get down to one spouse (obviously through either divorce or death), so they become forced to choose between their families and the church. Understandably, they usually choose their family.

    Comment by Mary Ann — September 15, 2014 @ 1:38 pm

  4. Focus on non-western (non-Euro-American) as well as POC, specifically. To some extent, you cover this with your suggestions above. I think it’s important that Mormonism and Mormon studies start allowing people to tell their own stories. (Tricky balance to achieve: I obviously don’t necessarily think Americans can’t tell non-American stories, etc, as I’m a non-Mormon writing about Mormonism, but I think we do have a responsibility to make sure the American or the non-Mormon or the whatever voices are not the only ones being heard.)
    Let MHA work together with other national Mormon studies associations: isn’t there a Brazilian one? Maybe they can co-sponsor a travel stipend or something like that.

    Also, at my MHA panel we had to rely on technology for our commenter (she skyped in due to a family emergency). It would mean some finagling of time zones, but maybe a Skype panel would be something to try, even if it’s just one presenter to start with, with the others being physically present.

    Comment by Saskia — September 15, 2014 @ 2:08 pm

  5. To the extent that Mormon history is happenning in broader settings, it is happenning in ways that I suppose don’t matter for a proper modern profesional historian, and move along without the professionals’ notice, interest, or involvement. For example, one of my old mission presidents, Hugo Salvioli, was baptized in 1939 in La Plata, Argentina at age 10. He was made branch secretary, and still has his notebooks; not just a former Mormon boy, but someone a bit like Mormon as a boy. He put some history of the beginnings of the church in La Plata up on web pages five years ago (link). Or here’s his memory of President McKay’s visit to Argentina in 1954: link. Whatever Salvioli has accomplished with his notebooks and memories doesn’t seem to have any connection with academic Mormon studies.

    How about Fernando Gomez’s Museum of Mormon History in Mexico? Is that place doing anything worth supporting that MHA would care about?

    Comment by John Mansfield — September 16, 2014 @ 8:54 am

  6. I left a comment regarding support for LDS history in Argentina and Mexico, but it appears to have been placed in a moderation queue, perhaps due to the links that were included in the comment.

    Comment by John Mansfield — September 16, 2014 @ 8:57 am

  7. Lots of good comments, thanks everyone.

    Roger: I’ve heard similar things from African BYU students and folks who have served missions in Africa as well.

    Mary Ann: I really like your comment on polygamy. I agree that history is something seen as secondary to survival. However, that doesn’t mean that people who DO engaged in history shouldn’t take different approaches to int’l history. 95% of any lecture/paper/book I’ve read on international Mormonism goes something like this:

    “The gospel came to X country in XXXX. The missionaries struggled but the first converts had lots of faith and the work grew. [Charming story about struggles] Elder X dedicated the work later for work. Now the country has XXXXX members and XX stakes and/or X temples.”

    While this is certainly didactic, interesting, and useable, I’m not sure that we’ve exhausted topics on international Mormonism that could be explored.

    Saskia: Great ideas! I think especially MHA teaming up with other organizations and the use of technology for conferences have a lot of promise.

    John: I’ll try and fish your comment out.

    Comment by J Stuart — September 16, 2014 @ 10:13 am

  8. […] at the Juvenile Instructor blog, asks what the Mormon History Association can do to become a more diverse organization that champions studies of non-white, non-western Mormonism. Stuart uses a powerful speech by Jehu J. Hanciles, delivered as the Tanner […]

    Pingback by Signature Books » Mormon News, September 15?19 — September 19, 2014 @ 4:19 pm


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