Juvenile Instructor

Revisiting the “Re-visioning of Mormon History” by Christopher
November 5, 2007, 7:16 pm
Filed under: 19th-century Mormonism, Christopher, Mormon Historiography

In 1986, the Pacific Historical Review published an article by Grant Underwood entitled, “Re-visioning Mormon History.” [1] Challenging the traditional portrait of 19th-century Mormonism as a countercultural, radical response to democratic politics, capitalist economics, and Victorian marriage ideals, Underwood argues that “upon closer examination, the nineteenth-century attitudes and behavior of most Latter-day Saints may prove to be less countercultural and the influence of communitarianism, plural marriage, and theocratic politics more superficial than transformationists generally assume” (412). 

Underwood also takes to task historians of 20th-century Mormonism who have exaggerated the Americanization of the Church.  He points to the size of Mormon families, the Word of Wisdom, the Church’s welfare system, and contemporary politics to show that “Latter-day Saints continue to be a ‘peculiar people’” (412-413).  He warns against “attribut[ing] everything that the Saints said or did to the fact that they were Mormons,” and argues that if “doctrines and beliefs are traced to their ultimate refuge in the mind of the common individual, there may be found, even within the institutional boundaries of the LDS church, a kaleidoscopic pattern of Mormonisms” (420-422). 

In his view, the “transition of Mormonism” that scholars have suggested occurred in the period of 1890-1920, is not quite as black-and-white as made out to be.  While admitting that a transformation certainly occurred, Underwood suggests that it was neither as drastic nor as instantaneous as previously suggested.  

Overall, the essay is well-argued, carefully-documented, and somewhat convincing.  However, few historians, if any, have followed Underwood’s suggestion that “monolithic Mormonism on either side of 1900 needs to give way to a more fine-grained analysis.” (414-415).  The reasons why deserve further discussion.  Thomas Alexander’s excellent (and highly influential) work, Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930 appeared just after Underwood’s article had been sent to the printer.  Alexander’s work, noted by Underwood as “the most detailed and sophisticated treatment of this period to date” (406, n. 6), was probably convincing enough to most readers so as to negate Underwood’s article altogether.  But should it?  I’m not entirely convinced one way or the other.  The historical interpretations Underwood critiqued continue to dominate the literature of Mormon studies, but is this because that interpretation is most convincing? Is it because many Mormon historians (myself included) find expression of personal ideals in 19th-century Mormon radicalism?  Or is it because polygamy, communalism, and theocracy are more mysterious and consequently more interesting than the moderate Mormonism Underwood suggests?


[1] Grant Underwood, “Re-visioning Mormon History,” Pacific Historical Review 55 (August 1986), 403-26.


1 Comment so far
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Chris: IIRC, his main target in the article is the admittedly sloppy shorthand that we employ when we discuss the discontinuities between 1889 and 1891. He’s right that the transformation was not all that drastic, and that change had been occurring as early as the 1860s. I think that the studies that have appeared since the article—primarily Alexander and Yorganson—do a good job of showing that transformation was a process that took several decades.

Much of his argument seems to be a call for better social history, which I applaud. But I think that he undervalues the importance of the image of the Mormons as communitarian, polygamous, and theocratic in defining Mormon-Gentile relations during the nineteenth (and twentieth) century. This I find ironic since Dr. Underwood is primarily a historian of Mormon ideas.

Comment by David Grua

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