One of the objectives for most Mormon historians today (including this blog) is to attempt to place Joseph Smith within his American framework. One author who has succeeded the most in this attempt is Richard Bushman, author of Rough Stone Rolling. However, in his address at The Worlds of Joseph Smith Symposium in the Library of Congress, he spoke about putting limits on this type of approach. In it, he makes several arguments as to why Joseph should be placed within a larger framework than just American religious history.
First, he stated why he feels this “transnational” approach is necessary.
The broader the historical context, the greater the appreciation of the man. If Joseph Smith is described as the product of strictly local circumstances – the culture of the Burned-over District, for example – he will be considered a lesser figure than if put in the context of Muhammad or Moses. Historians who have been impressed with Joseph Smith’s potency whether for good or ill, have located him in a longer, more universal history. Those who see him as merely a colorful character go no farther than his immediate environment for context. No historians eliminate the local from their explanations, but, on the whole, those who value his genius or his influence, whether critics or believers, give him a broader history as well. (pg. 4)
Other quotations from his argument:
In the nineteenth century, historians of all stripes…agreed that Joseph was more than American. Something about his life and accomplishments transcended his time and place. (pg. 5).
Joseph had to have a broader history to explain his extraordinary powers, and both critics and friends supplied him with one. (pg. 6)
To be comprehended, Joseph had to be viewed from two historical perspectives – one national and the other a transnational history of apostasy and restoration. (pg. 6)
He then reviews many of the major national-type of histories that biographers have placed Joseph in, concluding that they “strip the Prophet of grandeur and depth, even the gothic horror of the religious fanatic” and “do not open new vistas for readers.” Bushman then says that he expects “that Joseph Smith’s future biographers will swing back toward the nineteenth century’s combination of American analysis and transnational histories of the Prophet, allowing Joseph Smith to escape a confining provinciality” (pg. 9). This is because, he claims, “The American history of Joseph Smith looks for causes: what led Joseph Smith to think as he did? Comparative, transnational histories explore the limits and capacities of the divine and human imagination: what is possible for humans to think and feel?” (pg. 11).
Bushman then concludes with this summary.
It is doubtful that a purely American history of the Mormon prophet will explain him. His mind ranged far beyond his own time and place, and we will have to follow if we are to understand. A small history will not account for such a large man. (pg. 18)
So, my question is, how do we balance American and transnational history? Are we often too quick to try and explain things by his cultural settings, or is that the best way to proceed? Does explaining Joseph by using the American history approach really limit Joseph to a religious fraud?
As explored elsewhere, novel reading/writing did not have a major stronghold in 19th century Mormonism. This sentiment changed with Orson Whitney’s call for “home literature” around the turn of the 20th century, novels became more common both for past-time reading as well as a career in writing. These were often didactic tales teaching morals with a simple plot, usually with the intention of building faith. Very characteristic of the neo-classicism era, they found historical accuracy not as important in their tales as the message gleaned from them. A modern-day example of this type of literature is The Work and the Glory series.
However, Mormon novels did not gain respect outside of Utah until the 1940’s, when a handful of authors dared to write historical fiction from a not-too-glamorized point of view. Two of these books, Virginia Sorensen’s A Little Lower than the Angels and Maurine Whipple’s The Giant Joshua, explore the practice of polygamy in the early Church. While Sorensen focuses on the Nauvoo time period, Whipple sets her story in the settling of St. George. While a case can be made that neither denied the faith in their masterpieces, it is safe to say that they offered a very humanistic approach to controversial topics.
So, my question is, what role does historical fiction play in understanding how Mormons view the past? A vast majority of members would prefer Gerald Lund’s stories over Sorensen and Whipple, but does the fact that the latter’s books were written say something about our community? And, perhaps more importantly, how does literature help shape our outlook on the past? Even though it is obvious that the books are fiction, would they structure how a person would view the time period that the story is set in?
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?
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?