Juvenile Instructor

The Sacred Literature Conundrum: Situating the Book of Mormon in the Academy by stanthayne
October 28, 2007, 10:05 pm
Filed under: Book of Mormon, Stan


One of the many things I wondered about while tracting door to door as a missionary was how I would respond if someone were to ask me if the stone box in Cumorah’s hillside, from which Joseph Smith had extracted the plates, had been located. As far as I knew, it never had.[1] While the absence of the plates was easy to explain—it was no more difficult to assert that Moroni had taken them back than it was to assert that he had given them—the box was a different matter. If it had held the plates securely for over a thousand years, surely it was only logical to expect that some trace of it was extant. As I considered how I would answer the question, I reasoned that, being left uncovered, the box had probably either filled in with dirt and was overgrown by vegetation or it had simply eroded away. Or maybe it had been destroyed, either by natural or supernatural means. (If God wants this matter to be taken on faith, after all, surely He’s capable of covering His tracks.)

But to those who do not believe the Joseph Smith story, such speculation is an absurdly moot point—a point that is made derisively clear on the title page of a nineteenth-century edition of Mother Goose’s Melodies, which tauntingly quipped that many of the included rhymes were “recently found in the same stone box which hold the golden plates of the Book of Mormon. The whole compared, revised, and sanctioned, by one of the annotators of the Goose family.”[2] The intended jibe is not hard to discern: golden plates, like nursery rhymes, are products of imagination, not hillsides.

The dilemma created by this disjuncture between the worlds of belief and disbelief in the Book of Mormon’s claim to ancient provenance, as illustrated above, is precisely the quandary one faces when trying to situate the Book of Mormon in the wider academy as an object of literary study. It is a dilemma that was made all too clear recently to Mormon scholar and Professor of English Terryl Givens when he requested that a course on the Book of Mormon as literature be taught in his department at the University of Richmond, Virginia. “He can’t teach a course like that here!” his department chair told his secretary. Anticipating such a reaction, Givens was able to treat the situation humorously, but it nonetheless has significant implications. “In my department,” states Professor Givens, “we have had courses on the Mary Tyler Moore show. But the Book of Mormon is unthinkable?”[3]

Considering the tremendous impact the Book of Mormon has had on global society—giving rise to an international church that has been described as a new religious tradition—the academic world’s failure to take the Book of Mormon seriously can be somewhat perplexing to Latter-day Saints. But the hesitancy to situate the Book of Mormon in academic discourse as an object of literary criticism has not been unique to non-Mormon institutions. Attempts by Eugene England to create such a course in the English department at Brigham Young University also met with resistance, though presumably for very different reasons.

Eventually a course on the Book of Mormon as Sacred Literature was created at BYU, but not as a part of the English Department. It was created as a part of the Honors Program, which draws professors and subjects from a number of fields and departments. In this case, Charles Swift, a professor from the Religious Education Department with a degree in English Literature teaches the class (a great class by the way). He makes it clear, however, that the course is not associated with the Religious Education department. 

So what is the Book of Mormon’s place in the wider acadamy? And how do we situate the literary study of the Book of Mormon in Church-owned universities? Is the Book of Mormon as literature an appropriate approach to the subject? And if so, why has it been so difficult to find a place for it? (I have my own theories–outside the academy: pc sensitivities, Church/State issues, general disregard, etc; Church schools: skepticism of lit crit, non-trad approach, etc.–but I would like to throw this open and see what y’all think.) 

[1] Terryl Givens points out that in 1875 David Whitmer told a Chicago Times reporter that he had seen the stone “casket” at Cumorah three times before it was “washed down to the foot of the hill,”(People of Paradox [New York: Oxford, 2007], 60).

[2] Mother Goose’s Melodies (Boston: Munroe & Francis, ca. 1833-1837), title page.

[3] Givens recounted this incident on Times and Seasons, January 31, 2005, “12 Questions for Terryl Givens, by Jim F.” <http://www.timesandseasons.org/?p=1914#more-1914&gt; accessed October 12, 2006.


Madness, Civilization, and Mormonism; or “Are Mormons Monomaniacs?” by Christopher
October 28, 2007, 1:13 am
Filed under: 19th-century Mormonism, Christopher


 In Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, Michel Foucault revealed that as early as the 18th century, individuals in Europe were being institutionalized for religious enthusiasm and what was seen as too strict of devotion.  Doctors went so far as to recommend “solitary confinement for religious persons who believe themselves to be inspired and who seek to make proselytes.”1

Subsequent studies have shown that this was far from uniquely European, and the American hospitals and asylums likewise identified religion among the various causes of insanity.A few weeks ago, Spencer Fluhman  presented a lecture at the BYU American Studies Lecture Series entitled, “‘A Perfect Hallucination of the Mind’: American Encounters with Early LDS Spirituality.” The research and conclusions of the lecture are part of Fluhman’s larger study of “Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Antebellum America” that he completed as a PhD dissertation at University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2006.

Among other things, Fluhman explained that doctors of 19th-century American Insane Asylums would query the individuals accompanying (and committing) new patients the following, “Is the patient a professor of religion? If so, of what denomination?”3, and that it was not uncommon for the answer to be “Mormonism.”  In his dissertation, Fluhman summarizes one such case:

[One] superintendent … seized upon on the preponderance of what he regarded as troublesome religious movements to explain spikes in admittance to the asylum. “Of the 87 cases admitted during the past year,” he wrote, “13 were attributed. with as much certainty as can ever be obtained on this subject, to religious excitement.” The “unusually large” proportion of cases with a religious connection, he surmised, was due “no doubt, to the extraordinary variety and vehemence of the religious movements that have characterized the past year.” Not only had the year [1841] seen a “remarkabl[e] awakening of enthusiasm among the older and more regular sects” but “Mormonism, Millerism, and other eccentric manifestations” had “agitated the public mind” to an “alarming” degree. With “such moral epidemics” sweeping “over the face of society,” he concluded, it was no wonder that so many predisposed to insanity had been “overthrown by their restless force.”4

A few other interesting conclusions drawn by Fluhman’s study:

1.  Generally, Asylum patients who were identified as Mormon were diagnosed with “monomania,” or “partial insanity.” Fluhman points out that this “remains as curious explanation in the reports because it apparently describes those who were by all accounts mentally fit except for a particular obsession or preoccupation.”

2. It wasn’t only physicians and psychologists who identified Mormons as mentally ill. Fluhman points out, for example, that E.D. Howe, author of the early anti-Mormon book Mormonism Unvailed, “defined any Mormon as necessarily a monomaniac at very least.”6

3. Occasionally, patients committed to an Asylum would be identified as Mormon, even though the “symptoms” of their insanity and the evidence presented in legal trials against the accused insane reveal that they were often more likely to be Millerists or spiritualists.7

4. “Mormonism’s ‘extravagences’ … forced tough questions to the fore” for American Protestants because Mormons used the Bible as their justification for enthusiastic and visionary religious culture of early Mormonism.  Walking the difficult road of Biblical interpretation, “Protestant skeptics” were forced to present paradoxical arguments against the Latter-day Saints as being both “too Biblical” and “not Biblical enough” at the same time.8


1 Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (New York: Vintage Books Edition, 1988), 215.

2 See Teresa Lynne Hall, “Religion, Madness, and the Asylum: A Study of Medicine and Culture in New England, 1820-1840” (PhD Dissertation, Brown University, 1991); William Sims Bainbridge, “Religious Insanity in America: The Official Nineteenth-century Theory, ” Sociological Analysis45, no. 3 (1984), 223-240; and Lawrence B. Goodheart, Mad Yankees: The Hartford Retreat for the Insane and Nineteenth-Century Psychology (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).

3 See The Twenty-Second Annual Report of the Officers of the Retreat for the Insane, at Hartford, Conn. May, 1846 (Hartford: Printed by Case, Tiffany and Burnham, 1846), 49.

4 J. Spencer Fluhman, “Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Antebellum America” (PhD Dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2006), 112.  Fluhman is quoting Third Annual Report of the Superintendents of the Main Insane Hospital, (Augusta: Severance & Dorr, Printers to the State, 1842), 14-15, 17-20.

5 Fluhman, “Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Antebellum America,” 116.

6 E.D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, Ohio, 1834), 73-74.

7 One such case is detailed in the dissertation. See Fluhman, “Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Antebellum America,” 117-119.

8 Fluhman,  “Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Antebellum America,” 120.

Religious History Blogs by Christopher
October 27, 2007, 2:05 pm
Filed under: Christopher, other blogs

Perhaps of interest to our readers, here are links to two blogs devoted to U.S. Religious History. 

The first, Religion in American History, is run by Paul Harvey, noted historian of religion in the South, and author of some great books.  Other contributing editors include a number of religious historians around the nation.  Among those editors is John Turner, assistant professor of history at the University of South Alabama, who is currently researching Brigham Young’s religiosity.  The blog has a number of posts that discuss Mormonism, and help situate both historical and contemporary Mormonism in wider frameworks.

The second blog, American Religious History, is a fantastic source for book reviews, interesting posts on all aspects of American religious history, and contains a detailed bibliography of Religion, Politics, and American Culture.  Recently, the blog reviewed Jan Shipps’s Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition.  While most readers here are probably familiar with the book, it is always interesting and valuable to see what sticks out to others in Mormonism.

I would direct all interested readers to these two blogs and encourage you to keep up with them regularly.  Links to both blogs are located on the sidebar.

Joseph Smith Papers Project TV Show (Sitcom?) by Jared
October 27, 2007, 12:28 pm
Filed under: documentary editing, Jared

I got word that a tv ad ran on KJZZ featuring a soundbite from Elder Marlin Jensen advertizing a tv program about the Joseph Smith Papers.  A tv listing here shows that on Nov. 5, at 7 pm a one hour show is to air (the site shows the current listing, you have to use the drop down menu to get to Nov. 5).  Does anyone have any more information on this?  This appears to be Larry H. Miller’s TV station. 

Second issue:

Here’s a 2005 blast from the past about the Papers and Larry H. Miller’s role.

The article states the following:

 “The project earned a major stamp of scholarly approval last year when it was endorsed by a division of the National Archives, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.”

 I’ve heard expressions of the hope that this project will be similar to the Hamilton or Jefferson Papers.  I wonder if the JSP will really attain that kind of scholarly acceptance the Jefferson Papers enjoys without being seated or printed at a University.  Questions about where the project is housed as well as its funding source, whether everything was placed in the volumes that should be might keep skeptics furrowing their brows.  Does it matter whether it attains that status? 

Whether accepted fully or not, one thing that is interesting is that it appears that the first volume of the Jefferson Papers appeared in 1950.  Now, 57 years later, Volume 33 is out.  Even though JS’s papers are not as voluminous as Thomas Jefferson’s, we may yet be in for a long wait before we get the whole series out. 

Emma Smith: My Story (Edited for Content) by David Grua
October 26, 2007, 11:52 pm
Filed under: church movies, David Grua

A few months ago a friend shared with me a rumor concerning a forthcoming movie about the life of Emma Smith, the (first) wife of Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of Mormonism. This movie, he told me, had been approved by the First Presidency and was set for distribution in theaters. I was admittedly skeptical, due to the difficulty inherent in any historical presentation of her life, given the sanitized image that we have of her in the modern church.

Evidence supporting this rumor came earlier this week when another friend sent me the link to the movie trailer. It appears that many, if not most, of the same actors from the 2005 Church-produced Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration will also appear in Emma Smith: My Story. I have it from a good source that while this Emma movie is not directly funded by the Church, the studio has permission to use materials from Joseph Smith: A Really Great Guy, including clips, actors, costumes, sets, and props.

 The trailer seems to follow the narrative of the Joseph Smith movie closely, while fleshing out scenes that were no doubt central to Emma’s life, such as her courtship of JS, her hardships suffered during the Church’s early persecutions, and the deaths of her children. The central theme seems to be her strength as an individual.

However, there does not seem to be any mention of JS’s polygamy and the strain that caused in her relationship with her husband. Neither does it seem that the movie will go past JS’s martyrdom in 1844, thereby ignoring her struggles with Brigham Young, the founding of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in 1860, and the subsequent debates with the Utah Church over whether or not JS was a polygamist. I realize that no movie can cover all the important aspects in a person’s life, but these are major events to leave out.

Of course we’ll need to wait until the actual movie comes out to pass final judgment. Despite my complaints, I applaud the Church for supporting these types of historical movies.