In 1986, the Pacific Historical Review published an article by Grant Underwood entitled, “Re-visioning Mormon History.”  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?
 Grant Underwood, “Re-visioning Mormon History,” Pacific Historical Review 55 (August 1986), 403-26.
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?
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.