Mormons and American History

Yesterday’s New York Times has a piece on the way Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign has brought Mormon history into American historical mainstream.  It references a host of historians–some young and some old–who are writing well-respected books on the relationship between Mormonism and American culture. 

It seems as if Richard Bushman and Jan Shipps are no longer carrying all the water for historians of Mormonism.

Here is a list of the movers and shakers mentioned in the article:

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (Harvard):  Writing a book on Mormon women.

Patrick Mason:  Chair of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University and author of Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South (Oxford)

Spencer Fluhman: BYU professor and author of A Peculiar People: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in 19th-Century America (North Carolina–forthcoming).

Matthew Bowman, religion professor at Hampden-Sydney and author of The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith (Random House)

John Turner, religion professor at George Mason University and author of Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet (forthcoming, Harvard)

Kathleen Flake of Vanderbilt, author of The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle (North Carolina, 2003) and an influential lecture on the Mormons and plural marriage.

Anne Hyde of  Colorado College, author of the Bancroft Prize-winning Empires, Nations, and Families: A History of the North American West, 1800-1860.

Here is a small taste:

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.” 
Mormon history is hot right now.  Many of its practitioners are Mormons (and many of them are young Mormon historians at the beginning of their careers), but some of them are not.  This new interest in Mormon history leads to a few random questions/comments:

1.  How much of this surge in Mormon history is related to the Romney campaign?  I know that the Mormon Church has been more liberal with access to its records of late, but I wonder if this article would appear in The New York Times if we did not have a Mormon running for president?
2.  The renewed interest in Mormon history reminds me a lot of the rise of the history of American Evangelicalism in the 1980s.  Scholars such as George Marsden, Mark Noll, Harry Stout, Grant Wacker, Joel Carpenter, Nathan Hatch and others emerged at a particular political and cultural “moment.”  They helped us all understand the rise of the Christian Right as a significant force in American life.  Most of these evangelical historians were “participant-observers.”  They were evangelicals trying to make sense of their own tradition while at the same time showing the historical community that evangelical religion was important to the larger story of American history.  It seems as if something similar is now going on with the new Mormon history.
3.  Perhaps the most intellectually engaging book on Mormonism I have ever read (although I love Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling) is John Brooke’s The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844 (Cambridge, 1996).  I don’t hear a lot of discussion about this book any more.  I wonder what the Mormon Church and some of the Mormon historians mentioned above (or others) think about this book.  I seem to remember that Mormons were not particularly happy about Brooke’s treatment of early Mormonism, but I could be wrong about that.
I am sure that some of these topics were discussed, either formally or informally, at the recent Mormon Historical Association meeting in Calgary.

3 thoughts on “Mormons and American History

  1. Yes, and it's that very depth and creativity that deserves recognition and should have inspired other historians of Mormonism (and appears to be inspiring the upcoming generation of historians) to consider his framework, sources, and approach more seriously.

    Good stuff. Thanks, John.

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  2. Thanks for this comment, Chris. I had no idea how to evaluate Brooke's book from the perspective of someone who knows something about Mormonism, but I was amazed by the depth and creativity of his scholarship.

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  3. Thanks for highlighting this article, John. It's probably the best thing the NYT has written about Mormonism in, well, ever. I think it's a bit naive to say that Romney's candidacy is responsible for bringing Mormon history into the American historical mainstream, though the national spotlight shone on him over the last few years has certainly helped bring some of the books you listed into the public eye (and in one case–that of Bowman–is largely responsible for the book existing at all).

    In addition to the several excellent volumes you listed, let me add a few others:

    -Paul Reeve's in-progress manuscript (under contract with OUP), Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness. This one should be truly groundbreaking.

    -David Howlett's forthcoming volume from U of Illinois Press on the Mormon temple in Kirtland, Ohio as a site of contested pilgrimage. I read a chapter from this one a couple of weeks ago, and it's going to be great.

    -Sam Brown's In Heaven as it is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death (OUP), which was just awarded MHA's best first book award.

    There's also a large number (perhaps more than ever before, I would guess) of dissertations dealing with various aspects of Mormonism. In chatting with students at MHA last weekend, I was surprised at just how many potentially-fantastic projects they are all working on. You can get a sense of other recent articles, books, and papers dealing with Mormon history by checking out the list of award winners from this year.

    Finally, re: Brooke's The Refiner's Fire. You're right that it was largely panned by historians of Mormonism (including heavyweights like Bushman). While his argument is more than a little problematic, I think much of that reaction was a product of the time in which it was written. As the NYT article suggests, Mormon history, Mormon historians, and the LDS Church's attitude and approach to history have all come a long way since Brooke's volume was published. The younger generation of scholars seems to see more value in Brooke's book, which you gain a sense of in in this post from last year.

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