Thoughts on MHA: Mormon History, Succeeding Generations of Scholars, and the Need to Move Forward Together

By June 16, 2014

At the Mormon History Association’s meetings two weeks ago (was it only two weeks ago?!), I attended several excellent sessions and roundtables. Each of the sessions I attended was worth the price of the conference registration; it was my favorite MHA I’ve attended. As usual, meals, hall conversations, and the student reception provided an excellent arena for sharing ideas about the research being presented, but also about the new developments in Mormon history and American religious history.

One session in particular seemed to spark more conversations than most. LaJean Purcell Carruth, Christopher B. Rich, Jr., and Paul Reeve presented on Orson Pratt and Brigham Young’s speeches on slavery at the 1852 Utah State Territorial Legislature meetings. LaJean, whose fabulous work is underappreciated, explained how these speeches were recently discovered and transcribed from Pittman Shorthand to readable English.[i] Rich, a graduate of the University of Virginia’s Law school (WAHOOWA), shared his research and findings on the legal precedents and definitions of slavery in the early 1850s.[ii] Finally, Reeve shared his research and analysis of the historical context of the two speeches, paying careful attention to the insight the newly transcribed speeches give to Mormonism’s understanding of race in the mid-nineteenth century. Reeve also described the problematic nature of Wilford Woodruff’s account (an account that has been used for decades as authoritative in Mormon history), and compared Woodruff’s account with the accounts transcribed by Purcell-which paint a much more nuanced view of Mormon leaders’ debates over slavery.

Rich’s somewhat controversial opinion is that Brigham Young’s rhetoric does not fall into the legal definition of slavery as was defined at the time. Young’s wording, and the wording of the state legislature’s approval of impressed labor do not meet the terms of the legal definition of slavery. Reeve’s analysis also provoked discussion; he spoke on the context in which the speech was given and whether or not Young’s utterance should count as a religious statement with prophetic authority.[iii] Their respondent, a person that one person in the audience called a “patriarch” of the history of blacks in Mormon history, vehemently disagreed. The first questions from the audience also questioned Rich and Reeve’s findings.

As a person who agreed with the panel’s findings, and as someone getting their feet wet in the subject of Mormonism and race, I was somewhat concerned with the comments and questions that followed the paper presentations. Historians are accustomed to agreeing and disagreeing with each other, reaching different conclusions, and then publishing what our findings indicate. As new evidence is found and analyzed, the field changes and new avenues of research and analysis are opened and pursued. So it goes.

What I have just written is not particularly profound, but it raises the question-how do we as Mormon historians ensure that we build upon the work of prior scholars and not merely acknowledge them? Rich and Reeve’s work is not the first to be done on early Utah Mormonism and race, or Utah slavery, but it came to very different conclusions than the pioneering work in the field (some of which is nearly thirty years old). Rich’s legal training provided valuable insight; his work was discounted or not accepted by some who didn’t trust that particular approach. Both Rich’s and Reeve’s work complicate Brigham Young and racial attitudes in early Utah, ways that could be seen as “vindicating.” Young, or simply arguing the semantics of what constitutes slavery.[iv] I hope that future research in Mormon history is not simplified into binary terms of “apologetic” or “non-apologetic?”but it seemed that in this particular case, some were inclined to see alternate views in these shallow, oversimplified terms. The reality of studying Mormonism in an academic sense guarantees that certain views and wide held conclusions will change over time. No field is immune from it; well, no field that thrives and becomes better, at any rate.

So how are the new generations of Mormon historians to build upon the work of the generations that have come before and made new contributions possible? If Mormon history is like any other academic area of study, there will be disagreement as the field matures. I hope/predict/beg that Mormon history (or the nebulous, much more broad subfield “Mormon Studies”) will become more theoretically savvy, where new conclusions will almost certainly challenge and alter the state of the field. Theoretically-driven work is not always as accessible to non-professionals, who will always constitute a significant portion of the cadre of historians of Mormonism; that isn’t to say that it will not be accessible, but I believe there will certainly be pushback on the new findings and their approaches. Pushback and disagreement is useful in academia”it’s how the field stretches and grows.  We must be careful to frame disagreements in terms of evidence, theory, and approach rather than “that’s not the way I learned it” or “that seems to be too flattering/unflattering to the historical actors.”

I believe that it will take a lot of patience from the pioneers in the field, including mentorship of younger scholars and a willingness to publicly engage with the ideas on the terms in which new findings are presented. Those who study Mormonism have in the vast majority of circumstances been “most excellent” (in the spirit of Bill and Ted’s adventure) to those who are less experienced. Indeed, I believe it is one of the friendliest subfields in the academy. This means that there should be room for discussion and pushback, but I fear that too often arguments aren’t evaluated on academic terms. Work can and should be judged on more than just awards from MHA, book sales, or other arbitrary standards that may not indicate the value of the contribution (although these marks will continue to be influential). This will require the pioneering scholars to engage the younger generation on the research and quality of their analysis rather than whether or not it disagrees with their findings. Younger scholars will also benefit from seeking out the advice and mentorship of more seasoned scholars.

Mormon History will always owe an intellectual debt to folks like Leonard Arrington, Richard and Claudia Bushman, and other giants in the field; but the true measure of how we develop as a field will be the degree to which we can build upon their work and add new insight through research and theoretical models. This will require patience on both sides; BOTH those who built the foundation and those who want to build upon the foundation will need to cooperate with each other. It doesn’t matter if there are disagreements; it will only be productive if the different findings push research and discussion further than it has previously gone.  I hope that each issue of JMH and each MHA conference can be called “the best yet” not only because of the quality of the research but the quality of the discussions that follow it.

How can we ensure that happens? We must not be afraid of disagreeing?although it can be deeply uncomfortable and is generally avoided in Mormon culture.

Following the Purcell/Rich/Reeve session, in hallway conversation and Facebook messages, many were excited about the trio’s findings. After the initial shock of hearing new information, many were excited to engage with the participant’s findings and incorporate it into their own work. I take this as a positive sign that Mormon History is maturing; I look forward to seeing the field’s development in the near future and welcome suggestions on how different generations can speak to each other in the comments.


[i] An explanation of Purcell’s work can be found here.

[ii] His work can be found here; our own Nate R’s response can be found here.

[iii] To be brief, it’s problematic to say that Brigham Young thought he was speaking as a prophet. We all eagerly await the article highlighting this panel’s work in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Mormon History!

[iv] Again, I don’t want to give too much away since the session will be an article, but some audience members were concerned that the work was too “apologetic.” I didn’t feel that way, personally.

Article filed under Conference/Presentation Reports Current Events Historiography Race Reflective Posts State of the Discipline


  1. *raises* the question. I’m begging you.

    Comment by Publius — June 16, 2014 @ 8:16 am

  2. I’ve fixed it for you, Publius. Any thoughts on bridging the gaps between generations of Mormon historians?

    Comment by J Stuart — June 16, 2014 @ 9:41 am

  3. A very thoughtful post, J. I saw LaJean’s comments then slipped out to see another session and missed what I understand was some enthusiastic disagreement. My experience at MHA involved some very pointed criticism both leveled by me and towards me, and in both cases the result was both enlightening, and fun.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 16, 2014 @ 10:17 am

  4. Interesting and important post, J. As you know, we all have egos we protect, whether or not we’re fully aware of doing so. I’d like to think that a certain amount of caution, deference, and humility plays a role in all our interactions. But it’s hard sometimes, especially when we’re convinced we’re correct. For me, history’s more about the journey and less about the destination.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — June 16, 2014 @ 10:41 am

  5. Respect among scholars of different generations needs to go both ways. That is, scholars of a new era need to recognize that they might not be holding these conversations without the groundwork of an earlier generation; but scholars of that earlier generation need to acknowledge that new voices, with new techniques, new discoveries, new interpretations will inevitably alter the earlier conclusions.

    In this case what I saw was three scholars presenting brand new information, records that had never been seen before, that necessarily altered the established thinking. Theirs was not revisionist history in the sense of merely looking at what has always been known and putting a new spin on it. Rather, they brought never-before-seen documents to the table that drastically increased our knowledge of what went on in these crucial meetings and speeches. They challenged assumptions not for the sake of creating names for themselves (as I see certain young scholars doing — “look at me!” seems to be their mantra) but because they had radical new documents that drastically challenged the historical record (“look at the evidence!” is the mantra of Purcell/Rich/Reeve and others like them).

    It will take time to consider that new evidence, and I’m not surprised at the first response. But the hazard of jumping in too fast with a defensive response — “you’re just trying to salvage the reputation of the worst racist and most brutal tyrant of Mormonism’s brutal past!” — is that it makes it harder for those who voiced that opinion to back down when they have time for mature consideration.

    So I suppose my advice for bridging the generations of scholarship is for all to exercise courtesy and patience and consideration, to look at new evidence and new ways of looking at things, discussing those new ideas with other scholars in a dispassionate setting, before condemning the presentation of new ideas with the tired, worn-out assumption that religious loyalties blind Mormon scholars to the evidence on the documents in front of them.

    (Nevertheless, I hasten to cheer “Long Live the New Kings and Queens of Race Studies in Mormon History!!”)

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — June 16, 2014 @ 11:16 am

  6. Thanks to J, Gary, and Ardis for commenting.

    J., I’ve had fantastic commentors at MHA who were very sharp with their criticism. I’ve also had commentors who make comments without examining the new evidence I had presented. Either way, comments are always appreciated but some are much better than others. Alas, such is life.

    Gary, I struggled with my own ego in writing this post. How much of this post was because I agreed with the presenting panel? I think you’re absolutely right that “caution, deference, and humility” are essential to building upon what we have. I also agree with Ardis’ point that scholars with new things to say shouldn’t proclaim “look at me!” rather than “look at the evidence!” I thought your comments on the Cold War panel were exemplary–fwiw, Jan Shipps thought so as well (I was sitting next to her).

    Ardis, per usual, your comments are articulate and well-reasoned. Courtesy, patience, and consideration are the keys. I also wonder if having sessions at MHA, where everyone examines documents in groups, or learns a certain skill together might help bridge the gap. This would be a “safe” place in a dispassionate setting; goodness knows we have folks with skills that fellow scholars could employ in their own work. Maybe professional development sessions/classes (with scholars from both ends of the experience spectrum running the show) would help?

    Comment by J Stuart — June 16, 2014 @ 11:40 am

  7. J., Re. your last paragraph in no. 6: You should seriously consider proposing and pulling together such a session at next year’s Provo MHA.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — June 16, 2014 @ 12:22 pm

  8. Without any first hand experience with this particular event (I was not at MHA this year), I can only say that as Ardis indicated, respect goes both ways, and I think you have correctly summarized how it works best (“look at the new evidence”).

    It is an important discussion to have, so I’m glad to see it discussed here. It’s a start.

    Comment by kevinf — June 16, 2014 @ 1:13 pm

  9. Thanks for commenting, kevinf.

    Gary, I should say that at least one person has already submitted the idea to MHA (but I’m not sure if it’s been greenlit yet). I do hope that others continue to submit similar ideas so that I can benefit!

    Comment by J Stuart — June 16, 2014 @ 1:33 pm

  10. J Stuart,
    I greatly enjoyed your comments. I think that it would be fantastic if there was a better way to engage with some of these great scholars. I think part of the problem, at least from my personal perspective, is that I am quite far removed from them geographically (I currently live in Italy and I actually finished my first UHQ article in Iraq), and because of my legal training I have not had many opportunities to gather contacts among academic historians. Indeed, almost all of my contacts stem from a chance encounter with Ardis Parshall a number of years ago (and I continually bless the day). As a result, I came to the MHA Conference essentially as an outsider.
    I believe another issue is adequately explaining new approaches as you mention. I majored in history and I love history, but I am a trained lawyer rather than a historian. My training tells me that in interpreting a law, before I do anything else, I have to look at the statute. Where it is ambiguous I will look to other sources. In looking at the work of all of the great scholars that have gone before, I could not find a single book or article which actually wrestled with the text of the statute. Moreover, not one explained the legal context of An Act in Relation to Service such as the decades of gradual emancipation laws, etc. So unfortunately, during the panel I felt that many of the comments were talking past our conclusions rather than engaging them.

    Comment by Christopher Rich — June 16, 2014 @ 2:14 pm

  11. Thanks for these comments. It’s a fascinating and important topic. I’m looking forward to the published materials, and I hope the discussion continues at future MHA meetings, including perhaps in a different format as mentioned in comment six.

    Comment by Amy T — June 16, 2014 @ 3:04 pm

  12. Another suggestion (one I learned the hard way) is not to wait until our work is submitted for publication to send it out to knowledgeable colleagues for an early “peer” review. I’d much rather learn about my work’s shortcomings from friends than from anonymous, and no-so-anonymous, reviewers.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — June 16, 2014 @ 3:38 pm

  13. This is now my favorite post on JI!

    As someone who is preparing to get into the field (soon hopefully), I think your thoughts are spot on. Working with more seasoned scholars has been essential while I have been researching.

    Comment by Jeff C — June 17, 2014 @ 5:44 pm

  14. Christopher: Your legal training is what made such an important contribution to the field. I think especially as Mormon Historians fall into the nebulous field of “Mormon Studies” MHA will need to embrace more methodologies and training. As the New(er) Mormon History (definitely need a better name)takes off, we can learn from the experiences of the New Mormon History. What I mean by that is, they too had to struggle with different approaches and fallout from their approaches and findings–the younger generation can and should learn from these pioneers, for lack of a better term.

    Gary: Agreed. The more help and feedback we receive, and the earlier we can incorporate it, the better our work will be in the long run.

    Jeff: I’m glad you liked the post. Working with more experienced folks has been a major blessing in my academic and personal life.

    Comment by J Stuart — June 18, 2014 @ 9:22 am

  15. Useful post, J. Thanks.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — June 18, 2014 @ 10:36 pm


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