Using Mormonism to Understand American Religious History

By October 29, 2007

Over at the Mormon Wasp, Justin has presented compelling evidence that the oft-cited story about Leo Tolstoy describing Mormonism as the American religion is probably an exaggeration. It is true that Mormons have preferred to imagine a much more grandiose version of Tolstoy’s opinions of Mormonism, but an equally fascinating question is why have academics in recent decades also been inclined to agree that Mormonism is the American religion? Gordon Wood’s Tanner lecture called for scholars to use Mormonism to understand American religion. Laurence Moore followed up with his 1986 Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans , which deconstructed the insider/outsider dichotomy that has dominated academic discussions of American religion and placed Mormonism as the prime example of outsiders as insiders. There were also studies in the 1990s, such as Jon Butler’s Awash in a Sea of Faith and Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity, both of which placed Mormonism in a wider framework in order to illuminate American religion.

So, what is it about Mormonism that leads scholars to use Mormonism to illuminate American Christianity? Stephen Fleming, a graduate student in Religious Studies at UC Santa Barabara working with Ann Taves, concluded that it was the collapse of the Puritan-centered paradigm and the subsequent rise of the New Social history and the New Religious history that made space for Mormonism in wider narratives of American religious history. Bushman argued in Rough Stone Rolling that this recent attention is due to scholars recognizing the nineteenth-century popular appeal to Mormonism (RSR, 559). And Spencer Fluhman tackled this question in his recent dissertation on Anti-Mormonism and religious authenticity in American history, asking why a church that was almost universally despised in the 19th century as un-American has now come to be seen as the essence of Americanism. Fluhman concluded, with Moore, that the definition of “American” is not fixed and stable, but is rather a social construction that over time has expanded to include and even embody Mormonism.

So, what other ideas do people have to explain the appeal of Mormonism to historians of American religion? I think that another aspect is the (perceived) massive growth of the Church and the discourse on Mormonism being the next world religion that emerged in the 1980s, primarily in the works of Rodney Stark and Jan Shipps.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Historiography


  1. You mean aspects besides a so-called “Mitt”? 😉

    I do think a major reason is now that there is some distance between now and then, people are getting over the “weirdness” of early Mormons. I also think we are becoming a little more liberal in our approaches; we are willing, and are even interested, to study the “odd” and atypical religious movements.

    Another aspect, which I feel is unfortunate, but nevertheless significant, is people are think that by understanding this formerly fanatic group (Mormons), it is possible to understand a current fanatic group (terrorists). It was obviously a main point for “September Dawn,” “Under the Banner of Heaven,” and I would imagine several others.

    Comment by Ben — October 29, 2007 @ 1:32 pm

  2. Great post, David. I think Mormonism’s success (I use “success” here in the sense that Mormonism has been labeled a “winner” in the market economy of U.S. religious history by both Rodney Stark and Douglas Winiarski) almost forces it be addressed thoroughly. I’m also curious if Richard Bushman’s reputation has aided the appeal of Mormonism to historians. Having someone of that stature in academia subscribe to Mormonism’s claims seems like it might serve as a springboard of interest to other historians.

    Ben, I strongly doubt that September Dawn’s real motive was to highlight the dangers of modern Islamic fanaticism. That said, I’m not opposed to scholars situating Mormonism within the context of religious violence. It still accomplishes the presumed goal of framing the Latter-day Saint story in wider frameworks.

    Comment by Christopher — October 29, 2007 @ 2:43 pm

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