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?
Matthew N. Schmalz, associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the College of Holy Cross, has an article entitled “Meet the Mormons: From the Margins to the Mainstream” over at Commonweal: A Review of Religion, Politics, and Culture (hat-tip to American Religious History blog). Schmalz discusses his personal history with Mormonism (“It was Kolob and associated exotica that first drew me to the study of Mormonism” he says), as well as how his students at Holy Cross react to the study of Mormonism (“I’ve found that my students combine a personal openness to Mormonism . . . with deep skepticism about details of Mormon belief.”).
As a Catholic, he sympathizes with Mormons who struggle to get others to take their religion seriously. He explains that unless “one sees Mormonism as something more than eccentricity or pathology” there cannot be “a more substantive kind of Mormon talk, especially surrounding Mitt Romney’s [Presidential] candidacy.” He also briefly critiques the PBS documentary The Mormons (“[it] did not give a full sense of the diversity of Mormon life, the surprisingly broad spectrum that exists between orthodoxy and apostasy”), shares his experience at the Sunstone Symposium in 2004 and concludes by calling for others to approach Mormonism in “good faith.”
As a religion, Mormonism is still quite young-but it is a religion. As Sunstone’s Dan Wotherspoon told me, “Someone who views others in good faith would assume that these other people have gone through similar processes in sifting the wheat from the chaff of their religion.” In other words, we share more than we might think at first. Talking about Mormonism in “good faith” does not mean accepting all-or any-of Mormonism’s teachings. Instead, it means accepting that Mormonism is composed of real people who are best seen up close, not from high atop the Rameumptom.
Recently, after a tight vote by the faculty of the BYU History Department, it was decided to furlough the graduate program in history. Apparently, the struggle for the survival of the program has raged for years. One of the reasons voiced for the suspension of the program is that the resources devoted to the graduate program can be better utilized on undergraduate education.
As one who is in the process of applying to graduate school, I was first not only surprised, but saddened. I thought about the important influence that solid grad students, friends, had had (and continue to have) on my education and what I would have done without that influence. I also wondered about what this would do for Mormon studies. Understandably, with a preponderance of well respected scholars in Western American, American, and Mormon History, many of the thesis topics have focused on Mormon-related themes. BYU grad students under this capable tutelage have participate in national conferences such as the Western History Association and gained admittance to prestigious doctoral programs at universities such as Notre Dame. Because of it’s stellar faculty and having the third best (and probably most under-appreciated) university library in the nation, even with Mormon Studies programs being set up at great schools such as Claremont, USU, The University of Wyoming, and even UVSC, I can’t think of a more fitting place to do Mormon studies than BYU. I find it surprising that after discontinuing the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute of Latter-day Saint History, the next step has been to furlough the grad program in history. One non-student friend declared, “Mormon Studies is dead at BYU.”
Has BYU’s decision crippled Mormon studies? Or could this be a boon by forcing interested students out to a wider variety of schools and perspectives? Or, thirdly, will this loss have no effect on Mormon studies?