On Chris Smith?s post, in my attempt to defend ?the bracket? or experiential agnosticism as a historiographical method, I made the remark that Fawn Bordie had said very little that was new. I no doubt was engaging in hyperbole, sometimes that happens around the blogs. This was particularly egregious on my part considering that I have never read Brodie! (First no Nibly and now no Brodie!). It?s not really on my ?to read? list either but I?m happy to be convinced otherwise. There?s a few reasons why. 1) Marvin Hill?s reviews in both Church History (43, no. ) and Dialogue. Hill called NMNMH both secular and sectarian, the two big no no?s in American religious historiography from the ?90s forward. Hill may have been wrong (few have been more critical of Hill than me [I feel kind of bad about that]), but, for me, defenses of Brodie ought to start with those articles. 2) I?ve tried to approach Mormon history from an academic perspective; that is, I haven?t been trying to figure out it Mormonism is true but instead trying to read the relevant work with an eye toward the larger field of American religious history (now, Christian history) and Brodie seems dated.
Nonetheless, I do have a feel for some larger historiographical trends and thus wanted to offer a few thoughts in regard to a post on Mormon Mentality. In discussing historiography, one ought to distinguish between the Mormon field and the larger American religious one. No doubt Brodie is one of the most (perhaps the most) significant books in the field of Mormon history, but NMKMH is not quite as significant in the larger field. When I wrote my historiographical article on Mormonism, my adviser questioned why I even mentioned Brodie (crazy, I thought). Brodie was a must read in Mormon history, not in American religious history. This is not to say that NMKMH wasn?t important in the larger field but there were a handful of others between her and Bloom. Most importantly Whitney Cross, The Burned Over District. The BoD was a must read for generations of American religious historians and portrayed Mormonism rather differently than did Brodie, for instance, how they treated the Hurlbut affidavits: Cross was largely dismissive (I did read Brodie?s little essay at the end of her book on them). In a letter to John A. Widsoe, Cross called Smith ?one of the tribe of religious geniuses who appear from time to time.? JMH 19, no. 2 (1993): 60-61). In additions, Arrington?s The Mormon Experience and Bushman?s Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism played very important roles in the flourishing of attention Mormonism received in the major works on American religion in the next decades.
Cross?s description of Smith brings up another problem: the Mohamed example. Religious historians do not work in this binary situation between real divine experience or false/fraud (also, didn?t Brigham Young say that God had talked to Mohammed; I have no problem with it). That?s what the bracket is all about. Another way to put it is agnosticism, not deciding either way on these experiences but instead focusing on the content and the context. Mormons did not invent this methodological trend. It was best articulated by Ninian Smart (religious studies of Sri Lankan Buddhism) in the 1960s and ?70s. Bushman isn?t being innovative in using the method.
On the point about ?explaining? not being ?explaining away? I?m reminded of a line from Ann Taves?s Fits, Trances, and Visions. Taves agues that 18th century mainstream Protestants who rejected ?enthusiasm? or the belief in personal revelation made considerable use of psychology. ?As the hand maiden of true religion [meaning mainstream Protestantism in the eyes of the practitioners], psychology?s initial task was to explain and thus discredit enthusiasm? (20.) In this context, explaining is explaining away revelation.
Now, bracketing, though common, is not without its critics. Ann Taves (my adviser) is actually rather critical of the method because she is now working on the cognitive science of religion and wants to study religious experience scientifically and apply what is learned to figures in the past. Ann is writing a new book that will have a chapter on Joseph Smith. Though I often feel a little lost in the topic (she lets me work on Christian history but does have me read cognitive science stuff from time to time), I have seen some pretty interesting stuff. She just had me read a very interesting study on witchcraft in early modern Germany that I need to write a review of here. Anyway, I think these discussions need to keep these broader historiographical trends in mind.
No one can doubt the impact of Brodie but DKL seems to be engaged in hyperbole as well. I find it hard to believe that no one else would have found Joseph Smith interesting (see Cross) and as mentioned, many had attacked the Spaulding Theory before her (Riley really took it to pieces). It?s hard to believe that it would have held up without her.
Also bear in mind that at Smith?s death, most Mormons had not met him. His personality played a role in the conversion of very few Mormons. I?m not sure that Mormonism as the cult of the personality of Joseph Smith works.