In a recent post, the question was asked, “how significant is Mormon history to the larger narrative of American history?”
I think there are several ways it is significant, and I will just touch on one of them here. In Sarah Gordon’s book, The Mormon Question, she states that the Mormon situation helped re-define how the government interacts with local conflicts. She says that
For the first time in issues involving law and religion, the constitution in question was federal. Not only were the stakes arguably raised by the national (versus state) forum, but the contours of the challenge were enlarged and reconfigured in a more profound, more organized form of dissent. The Latter-day Saints, more effectively than other contemporary utopian sects of earlier freethinkers, achieved a degree of independence and influence that demanded attention. (pg. 77)
While there may have been similar issues before, this situation brought the idea to a new level.
Kathleen Flake, in her wonderful book on the seating of Reed Smoot, also points out that it was through the Smoot trial that America began changing their toleration towards religion. By the end of the trial, the government was ready to accept “the Latter-day Saints on the same denominational terms as other American religions: obedience, loyalty, and tolerance defined in political, not religious terms” (pg. 157).
So how else is Mormon history important in terms of American legal history? Is it important at all? Am I, along with these two authors, over-playing these historical events? Or, is this just hinting at a deeper significance?
Rumors have floated around since earlier this year that Warren Jeffs had renounced his role as Prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and that he had not held the FLDS priesthood since he was twenty years old. Court documents containing these allegations had been sealed so as not to influence jurors in his recent trial, but the judge recently reversed this decision and released the documents. Jeffs recanted these confessions in February of this year.
Salt Lake Tribune correspondent Brooke Adams reports that the documents reveal not only that Jeffs did make these statements, but that additionally he confessed that as a 20-year old he had been immoral with a sister and a daughter. He indicated that he had not held the FLDS priesthood since that time. With these confessions in place, it raises additional questions concerning allegations that Jeffs also had inappropriate relations with his nephews.
I’m not sure what effect the documents will have on the FLDS community. As long as the allegations remained in the status of rumors, they were easy to dismiss. Now that they’re publicly available from a reliable source, I can’t imagine that this will help his image among his followers, much less among those outside his community.
Note: I’ve you’re wondering about the euphemisms, they’re so this site doesn’t get blocked at the Church Office Building.
David’s recent post, coupled with a review of a new book by John Turner over at Religion in American History, has caused me to reflect on the place of Mormonism in larger narratives of American history. Recent historians of the Jacksonian Era have taken different approaches to the subject of Mormonism. Charles Sellers, in his 1991 The Market Revolution, spent nearly nine pages of his chapter on “God and Mammon” explaining and interpreting early Mormonism. Though his interpretation that “this patriarchal utopia arose from male panic [in which] the manhood of a generation of young fathers was threatened by inability to meet traditional family obligations” seems problematic and insufficient in explaining Mormonism, and in spite of careless mistakes in his discussion of the Book of Mormon (he repeatedly calls the Lamanites the “Amanites”), it remains significant that Sellers spent 1/3 of the chapter on religion on Mormonism.1
Sean Wilentz, in his more recent The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (winner of the 2005 Bancroft Prize and Pulitzer Prize Finalist), spends only one paragraph of the 800-page book on the Mormons. He offers little-to-no interpretation of the movement, simply noting that Mormonism was one of the most successful and “by far the most daring . . . of the spiritual enthusiasms that swept through the Yankee Northeast in the 1820s and 1830s,” and that Mormons in Utah practiced polygamy.2
At first, it might seem easy to explain the strikingly different takes on Mormonism in each of the books by looking at each author’s interpretive framework. Whereas Sellers sees “the Market” as the driving force of all aspects of American society during this era (a framework which popular religion fits easily into), Wilentz seeks to reassert “the importance of political events, ideas, and leaders to democracy’s rise” in contrast to “the importance of religion” (among other things) in the grand narrative of antebellum history.3 However, John Turner noted his pleasant surprise at “the amount of scholarship on evangelicalism and other religious movements that Wilentz digested and incorporated into his synthesis of the Early Republic.”4
I have yet to read Daniel Walker Howe’s new book What God Hath Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (part of the award-winning Oxford History of the United States series), but it appears that Howe spends some time discussing millennial belief of the era, using the Millerites and Mormons as two prominent examples. The new book has also received praise from religious historians Mark Noll and Paul Harvey, so my hopes are high that religion (and Mormonism) will be addressed at some length.
All of this leads to the question: how significant is Mormon history to the larger narrative of American history? Is Wilentz right in granting Mormonism just one paragraph in a 800-page book on antebellum American history? Or is Sellers (and possibly Howe) more accurate in devoting more time to Mormonism’s place in American history?
1 Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 217-226.
2 Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005), 634-635.
3 Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy, xx.
4 John Turner, “Wilentz, God, and What Hath God Wrought, Part II,” at Religion in American History, October 29, 2007.
As sociologist Barry Schwartz has shown with Abraham Lincoln, great men and women become great not because of what they do in life, but by how they survive in memories and narratives of those that follow. Most Americans (outside of the South) remember Lincoln as a national hero that held steady during crisis, unified the country, and brought an end to slavery. But during his lifetime, and especially during the last few years of his life, Lincoln was despised by many not only in the South but also in his own party and even in his cabinet. It was not until after his death that the image of the national liberator emerged as a dominant narrative in American culture, although that image has been contested, by Southerners that see him as a tyrant as well as by civil libertarians that see his suspension of habeas corpus as a gross violation of liberty.
In much the same way, Brigham Young has been imagined in several different ways in the years since 1877. Jan Shipps in “Brigham Young and His times” traced the history of changing representations of Young. The History of Joseph Smith, written by church scribes, cast Young as rescuing the Church from disintegration following Joseph Smith’s death. Bernard DeVoto and other observers took this to mean that Young saved the Church from the follies of Smith, an image that fit well with the emerging frontier school of American history that defined historical significance as the westward movement of Americans. Shipps then described “a broad-based attempt [by scholars] to assess the extent to which Young ought to get the credit for the survival and endurance of Mormonism,” primarily by Eugene England, Ronald K. Esplin, and Leonard J. Arrington (Sojourner, 247). These scholars have presented a new image of Young not as the savior of Mormonism (because Mormonism survived in the East, albeit in a different form), but as the one that created a Mormonism “that so fully explored the implications of the fullness of the first LDS prophet’s vision that was more esoteric, more communal, and, from the standpoint of traditional Christianity, more heretical under Brigham Young than it had been during the lifetime of Joseph Smith” (Sojourner, 254).
Shipps’ article is an important exposition of how historians and journalists have imagined Brigham Young, but it does little to explore how Church leaders, ordinary Latter-day Saints, and non-Mormons have remembered him in the years since his death. It seems to me that there is no other figure in Mormon history (aside from BRM) that has so many competing images in popular discourse. Brigham Young being a Prophet has been crucial to the self-identity of the Mormons that followed him west because of the succession crisis. In perhaps equal measure, those Mormons that did not follow Young west have defined themselves as not being like the Brighamites.
In recent decades, many Mormons have been forced to deal with Young’s legacy in terms of racism, the role of women in the Church, and doctrine. “Brigham Young said many things” is a narrative that I’ve heard several times during my lifetime, which seems to function as a way for Latter-day Saints to maintain their faith in him as a Prophet while distancing his prophet-status from the things that he taught. Despite these discursive techniques that seek to maintain balance, for many Mormons they also serve as subversive narratives that challenge and contest the dominant tropes of Brigham Young as successor and colonizer.
So where does Brigham Young “fit” in our collective memory? What are the narratives that we as Latter-day Saints use to situate him in the stories that we tell others about ourselves? How do we reconcile competing images of him? Do race, gender, or region of origin influence how Mormons remember Young? Does it matter if someone is a convert or born in the covenant? How do we interpret him in relation to Joseph Smith? [Note: This post is designed to promote an interesting conversation about Young and the people that have followed him. Please keep comments within the definition of “relatively faithful” as defined by DMI Dave. Basically, don’t hijack this thread to give justifications for loss of faith or to question how Mormons can believe in Young despite the racism, sexism, etc.]
University of Illinois Press has been one of the major reasons for the flowering of Mormon scholarship in recent decades. Many groundbreaking pieces have been published through this venue, and many of their books can be found on all of our book shelves. This made it all the more difficult when rumors started trickling out that they were not going to be doing Mormon history anymore. The rumor was that since Elizabeth Dulany retired, the press did not want to accept any more books for this genre.
As a piece of good news, Chris, Jared, and I had the opportunity to talk to Kathryn Daynes (author of More Wives Than One, published by the University of Illinois Press), and she said that this rumor is not completely true. It turns out that Liz’s retirement just caused a minor set-back (I guess 5 editors left with her, which left a big pile-up of work to do), but that they still plan on continuing their tradition of scholarly Mormon work. In fact, they just contacted her [Daynes] this last week saying that they have the intention to re-print her book in paperback. She says that it may take a while for them to get running again, but that they do have the intention to continue to publish quality work in this field.
So, my question is, where is the future for Mormon history scholarship? This is a broad question, so maybe we can focus on the field of publishing. Does it seem we have a broad range of publishers, or are we still lacking? University of Illinois Press will (hopefully/eventually) continue carrying the torch. Signature Books publishes some quality material. Oklahoma Press seems to have a good series going. University of Utah seems to have flirted with the idea. Oxford may have a future with Givens, Mountain Meadows, etc. Will all these presses remain on equal ground? Will others arise?
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 grandious 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 illumate 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.