A Peculiar People: The Mormon Lens on American History

A Peculiar People: The Mormon Lens on American History

By Jennifer Schuessler – For a century and a half, Mormonism has been something of a paradox in the history of the American West: passionately argued about by the church’s adherents and detractors, but largely ignored by professional scholars unsure of what to make of the religion Joseph Smith founded in 1830 or the communities created by what Mormon scripture itself described as a “peculiar people.”

But now, as Mitt Romney’s candidacy prompts talk of a “Mormon moment,”a growing cadre of young scholars of Mormonism are enjoying their own turn in the sun, and not just on the nation’s op-ed pages. Books relating to Mormon history are appearing in the catalogs of top academic presses, while secular universities are adding courses, graduate fellowships and endowed chairs.

“People are seeing right now that Mormonism is a great laboratory for studying all kinds of questions about religion and the modern world,” said Patrick Mason, the chairman of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University in California, which four years ago became the first secular university outside Utah to establish a program on the subject.

Latter-day Saints — as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints prefers its members be called — are also cropping up in broader historical accounts that might previously have just left them out.

“Mormons have been seen as outliers, as oddities, as strange, as people who don’t seem to fit the American narrative,” said Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a professor of history at Harvard University who is working on a book about Mormon women. “But they end up illuminating some of the most important themes in our national history.”

Ms. Ulrich pointed to Anne F. Hyde’s “Empires, Nations, and Families” (University of Nebraska Press), a winner of this year’s prestigious Bancroft Prize, which places Mormons alongside Mexicans and American Indians in its family’s-eye view of resistance to the westward spread of federal power. Others mention Mr. Mason’s “Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South,” published last year by Oxford University Press, or J. Spencer Fluhman’s “ ‘A Peculiar People’: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in 19th-Century America,” coming this fall from the University of North Carolina Press, which look at how hostility to the church helped shape national identity.

And increasingly, Mormon studies isn’t just about history. The Mormon History Association’s annual meeting, held in Calgary, Alberta, over the weekend, featured presentations by scholars trained in sociology, philosophy and gender studies, as well as plenty of amateur scholars, who have long played an important role in the field, often at a risk to their own standing within the church.

The development of Mormon studies in some respects mirrors the academic study of other minority groups, which has typically begun with creating a basic account of their history and then moved toward theoretical approaches that bring the subculture into conversation with the bigger picture.

The latest scholarship builds on the so-called New Mormon history pioneered in the 1960s and ’70s, which aimed to advance a field long dominated by apologists and debunkers by focusing dispassionately on the facts.

“There was some safety in the study of history, since you could study just the facts,” said Taylor Petrey, an assistant professor of religion at Kalamazoo College and the author of a much discussed recent article, “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology,”published in Dialogue, an independent Mormon journal.

Today, he said, “people are much more interested in interpreting history.”

The Mormon studies boom, many say, also represents a lifting of the intellectual chill that descended in the 1980s, when the church clamped down on access to its archives, and a number of scholars were forced out of Brigham Young University, a church-owned institution, and even excommunicated.

The church history department, which manages the archives, has hired increasing numbers of Ph.D.’s and begun publishing a scholarly edition of the Joseph Smith papers, projected to run to more than 20 volumes.

“These are all signs of a new openness,” said Matthew Bowman, an assistant professor of religion at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia and the author of “The Mormon People,”published in January by Random House. The church, he said, “is pushing for detente with historians.”

More non-Mormons are also entering the field, which serves an “important legitimating function,” Mr. Bowman said. Among them is John G. Turner, author of “Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet,” a biography of Joseph Smith’s successor, to be published in September by Harvard University Press.

Mr. Turner, an assistant professor of religious studies at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., who said he “got sucked into the 19th century” while researching Mormons and modern American conservatism, expects the book will displease some people. In particular, he noted its sustained consideration of Young’s polygamous marriages, his complicity in various violent episodes, and other unpalatable subjects that previous biographers — including Leonard J. Arrington, a former church historian who was relieved of his post in 1982 after instituting a more liberal access policy at the archives — had brushed past quickly.

“Just the fact that Brigham Young swore with some frequency will ruffle some feathers,” Mr. Turner predicted.

Yet he said the church had granted him unfettered access to Young’s papers, along with almost every other document he requested. ”I think in general they’re pretty open to working with outside scholars who don’t show up with an obvious ax to grind,” he said.

Mr. Turner also cited the church’s increasing willingness to acknowledge uncomfortable questions about its founders. He pointed to the introduction to the second volume of Smith’s diaries, which noted that some of his 30-odd wives were already legally married to other men — a fact that has generated a cottage industry of research, as well as a panel at the conference in Calgary.

In 1993 the historian D. Michael Quinn was excommunicated after publishing research showing that polygamy continued in secret among some Mormon leaders for a decade and a half after the church officially renounced it in 1890. That finding is now widely accepted by historians, who are increasingly likely to see Mormon plural marriage not as a bizarre aberration but as part of a broader history of debate over federal power, marriage and the law.

Historians are also looking increasingly at the practice from the point of view of Mormon women, who were not necessarily the “cheerless, crushed and unwomanly mothers of polygamy” invoked by Grover Cleveland in his 1885 annual address defending federal efforts to wipe out the practice.

For her next book, Ms. Ulrich, who won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for “A Midwife’s Tale,” is using diaries, letters and other records to look at the relationship between plural marriage and the 19th-century women’s rights movement. Utah, in 1870, became the second state or territory to give women the vote — a right that was eliminated in 1887 by federal anti-polygamy legislation.

“Some historians say, ‘Oh, the vote was just a publicity ploy by the patriarchs,’ ” Ms. Ulrich said. “But it’s part of a very complex story about women’s organization that goes back to the beginning of the church.”

Other scholars are exploring the religious dimensions of plural marriage. In a widely noted 2009 lecture, Kathleen Flake, an associate professor of religious history at Vanderbilt University, argued that 19th-century Mormon plural marriage — while certainly not a happy experience for all women — was part of a broader ritual system that conveyed a reciprocal “priestly authority” on both men and women.

“Clearly, there’s patriarchy in this church,” Ms. Flake, who is completing a book about gender and authority in early Mormonism, said in an interview. “But it has a history that tempts one to also use the word ‘matriarchy.’ ”

Ms. Flake, who is Mormon, said the field needs more non-Mormons, especially those who are ready to engage with the substance of the faith itself. “There’s something really curious here that helps you not just understand Mormonism, but religion per se,” she said. “You’ve got all these new religious movements in the early 19th century. But 200 years later, who’s standing?”

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