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?
Scholars typically seek to locate Mormon history within two wide frameworks: that of American religious history and that of the history of the American West. Jan Shipps, in her review of literature on Mormonism in the West, describes the situation as a donut hole. In her essay, “Gentiles, Mormons, and the History of American West,” Shipps argues that historians of the West have skipped Utah, “circling all around the Great Basin, taking into account and telling nearly every western story except the Mormon one.” The task Shipps sets for herself in the essay is to understand why that would be and to offer suggestions to western historians for ways to integrate Mormons more fully into their accounts of the region.
As for the first objective, Shipps presents several ideas for why Mormonism has been ignored in the West’s wider story. First, she argues that it is Mormon “otherness” that leads historians to shy away from trying to incorporate the Latter-day Saints. This otherness reflects the divide that we Mormons have created ourselves by dividing the world into “Saints” and “Gentiles.” This leaves Mormons to write their own history. A second reason put forward by Shipps is the secularism that she perceives among historians. Since these historians do not see the divine in their own lives, they have a difficult time seeing it in the stories of the people that they study. A third reason is that with “[t]he transformation of Mormonism from regional faith to worldwide church makes it so difficult to get here from there, from the familiar Mormonism of western history to contemporary Mormon Christianity, that what has been occurring in the past few decades may be the principle reason why today’s historians of the American West so often neglect the region’s geographical center.” This last reason is perhaps the most intriguing of the three.
Shipps also offers suggestions for how western historians can begin to fill in the hole at the center of the donut. First, she sees Mormon history as a good counter-example to Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis. Turner’s provocative 1893 essay argued that the frontier was what made Americans unique, with Europeans entering the frontier in the East, struggling with nature and savages, and finally emerging in the West as Americans, fully democratic and individualistic. Shipps concludes that Mormons passed through the same process, but with very different results. “The trail was where Saints were made…they emerged in the Great Basin not as individualists committed to capitalistic ethos but as communally oriented Latter-day Saints ready to give what was necessary to give what was necessary to build up Zion.” This transformation led to the creation of an ethnic group that can be studies as are other ethnic groups in the West. In addition to seeing process in the development of Mormon ethnicity, Shipps also contends that historians should peek past their secular lenses and seek to understand the Mormon worldview from the inside.
The “donut theory” may not win the prize for Shipps’ most eloquent representation of the Mormon past, but it does get the point across. This review has necessarily focused on Shipps’ specific thoughts on how Mormons fit into the western narrative, but there are some wonderful autobiographical gems that she shares about her developing sense of identity as a
Gentile/non-Mormon/nonmember studying the Saints. But what of her ideas for situating the Mormons in the West? I am troubled by Shipps’ acceptance of Turner’s emphasis on process rather than the New Western history’s reliance on place. Although some respected historians continue to see a process at play in western migration, most historians have followed Patricia Nelson Limerick’s lead in seeing the West as a region first and a process a distant second. In my view, historians need to cease seeing Mormons as an isolated group in the West, and recognize that although Utah never was California in terms of diversity, Latter-day Saints in their Zion constantly converged and came into contact with “others,” whether it be Gold Rushers, federal officials, protestants, Gentile merchants, and general travelers. These contacts shaped Mormonism, as well as these “others.” Focusing our analyses on these points of contact and convergence will go a long way toward filling in that donut hole.
 Jan Shipps, “Gentiles, Mormons, and the History of the American West,” in Sojourner in the Promised Land: Forty Years Among the Mormons (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000), 21. Shipps, Sojourner, 25.
 Shipps, Sojourner, 35. Both D. Michael Quinn and Thomas G. Alexander have argued for secularism among historians for the neglect of religion in histories of the West (D. Michael Quinn, “Religion in the American West,” in Under an Open Sky: Rethinking America’s Western Past, eds. William Cronon, George Miles, and Jay Gitlin [New York: W. W. Norton, 1992], 165; Thomas G. Alexander, “Establishing Zion,” The Mormon History Association’s Tanner Lecutures: The First Twenty Years , eds. Dean L. May and Reid L. Neilson [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006], 117-18).
 Shipps, Sojourner, 41.
 Shipps, Sojourner, 34-35.
 Shipps, Sojourner, 36.
 Convergence, along with conquest, complexity, and continuity comprise Limerick’s four C’s for understanding the New Western history paradigm (Patricia Nelson Limerick, Something in the Soil: Legacies and Reckonings in the New West [New York: W. W. Norton, 2000], 13-28).
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.