What is “Early” Mormon History?

By January 13, 2017

9780307594907On Wednesday evening, I attended a public lecture by noted historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, in which she talked about her recently-released book, A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835-1870. We have a review of the book forthcoming here at JI (spoiler alert: it’s good and you all should read it), as well as a Q&A with Dr. Ulrich, but for now I wanted to reflect on the final four words of the book’s title: “Early Mormonism, 1835-1870.”

As someone who has published articles dealing with early Mormon history, I was at first surprised to see Ulrich extend that undefined period all the way to 1870. My sense is that “early Mormon history” has traditionally referred to that phase of the movement’s existence covering its beginnings up to and through Joseph Smith’s death in 1844. When Brigham Young assumed leadership of the largest body of surviving Latter-day Saints and led them west to the Great Basin, the movement entered into a new era, something distinct from early Mormonism. My own master’s thesis, which I introduced as a study of “early Mormon religiosity,” covered only up to 1838, “when the Latter-day Saints moved to Nauvoo, Illinois, and the church experienced a transformation in its theology, worship practices, and organizational structure.”

A House Full of Females is not the only recent effort to extend the timeline of early Mormon history, though. Though the title of JI alum Max Mueller‘s forthcoming book, Race and the Making of the Mormon People (University of North Carolina Press),  makes no mention of early Mormonism, it positions itself in the book’s introduction (and in the abstract of the dissertation on which it is based) as a study of “early Mormonism” and the “early history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” a period Max carries past even Ulrich’s 1870 cutoff into the final decades of the nineteenth century.

Neither Ulrich nor Mueller is attempting to pin down precise dates for what constitutes early Mormonism. Such concerns are, at most, secondary to the primary aim of each. Nor do I have much interest in debating what early Mormonism is and when it ends. Rather, I’m interested in the ways in which each project’s chosen subject: women’s history and race, respectively, challenge the traditional periodization of Mormon history. That is, early Mormon history will certainly look different when viewed through the eyes of its earliest female adherents, and their may be continuities between the experience of women in the 1840s and in the 1870s that transcend the theological or ecclesiological shifts of the era. So, too, with race. The major turning points in the experience of African American Latter-day Saints (or that of American Indians, Asians, or other converts of color) might present new and fruitful ways of thinking about change and continuity in the Mormon past.

That is, in my estimation, a good thing and a sign of vitality for the field. Karin Wulf, director of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, has recently championed the exploration of what she’s termed #vastearlyamerica. “The depth and breadth of the field we refer to as ‘Early America’ is astonishing,” she noted in a blog post last year. “One of the many joys of my job is the near-constant reminder of the field?s wide reach.” Mormon history’s reach is not quite as wide, at least not in the existing scholarly literature. But I hope that is changing, as historians approach Mormonism in new and exciting ways and challenge the existing chronological and topical paradigms that shape its study.

Article filed under Announcements and Events Book History Categories of Periodization: Accommodation Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Categories of Periodization: Origins Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Current Events Gender Historiography Intellectual History Methodology, Academic Issues Race


  1. Hurray for #VastEarlyMormonism.

    Comment by Ben P — January 13, 2017 @ 11:54 am

  2. Interesting, Christopher. I think this goes to a post of mine about what year historians use to categorize when Mormonism changes. I think your reflections are spot on–scholars of Mormonism would do well to think outside of typical (and typically narrow) chronological and topical boundaries.

    Comment by J Stuart — January 13, 2017 @ 12:09 pm

  3. Interesting point. I would tend to agree with your break-off at 1838, although it could easily be argued that “Early Mormonism” lasted only until 1835, when the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods were established and when the Twelve Apostles came into being. This is the point at which the Church changed from a loosely organized religious association into an increasingly hierarchical ecclesiastical entity.

    Comment by Wally — January 18, 2017 @ 10:28 am

  4. Looking forward to reading this. As someone who generally teaches and does recent history (late 19th/20th/21st), I’ve always been intrigued by the “early” definitions in American & Mormon and other historical subfields. And by what gets defined as “modern,” too, but that’s a post and comment for another day. One way to look at this is that earlier grows in proportion to the rest of the History of Whatever, since the rest of that Whatever History also grows. One could portion off “early” with an unchanging date (as Wally does, above), but one could also see “early” as a sort of ratio to what followed, and in that sense “early” might always have some elasticity to it.

    So maybe the 1890s, when plural marriage ended? Why not 1905, after the Second Manifesto and with the seating of Senator Smoot, after which Mormonism’s uneasy bargain with American mainstream culture had at least been struck, if not shaken on? Etc. Good thoughts here and thanks for reminding us, as always, that Mormon history lives not entirely on its own insular terms, but always in relation to other histories.

    Comment by Tona H — January 24, 2017 @ 5:51 am


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