Tara Westover’s *Educated* IS a Story About Mormonism

Educated Tara Westover

Like many of us, I resonated with Tara Westover‘s memoir Educated.  I wrote about it here.

Westover writes that her memoir “is not a story about Mormonism.”  But John Durham Peters, an English professor at Yale who comes from a Mormon family and studied at Brigham Young University, is not buying it.  I don’t know enough about Mormonism to know if Peters’s review of Westover is right, but it is certainly thought provoking.

Here is a taste:

Reviewers tend to treat Westover’s story as miraculous. They miss how classically Mormon it is. Rural-smart-kid-goes-to-fancy-university is a well-established cultural archetype, one present in my own family for several generations. Anytime anyone gets a PhD at any university it is a minor miracle, of course, and Westover’s path was more circuitous than most. But her book is a version of the classic Mormon story of the talented young person rising from obscurity to the highest levels. For Mormonism, such an ascent can go both ways—as affirmation or abandonment of the faith—and Westover fully wrestles with the profit and loss.

Read the entire review here.

The Author’s Corner with Quincy Newell

Your Sister in the GospelQuincy Newell is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Hamilton College. This interview is based on her new book, Your Sister in the Gospel: The Life of Jane Manning James, a Nineteenth-Century Black Mormon (Oxford University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Your Sister in the Gospel?

QN: The most immediate spur was a conversation with a staff person at the LDS Church History Library. She knew I was working on nineteenth-century African American and Native American Mormons, and she told me that she had recently run across a mention of Jane James in the diary of one of Brigham Young’s wives. The diarist recorded that Jane James had stopped by and that told her that Isaac James (Jane’s husband, another African American Mormon) had left Jane for a white fortune teller. My jaw dropped—all I wanted to do for the next three days was scour the Salt Lake newspapers to see if I could figure out who that fortune teller was! That was the rabbit hole that finally convinced me I should write Jane James’s biography: I kept trying to write about African American and Native American Mormons more broadly, and I kept getting sucked into Jane James’s story. I joke that I made a deal with her: I would write her biography, if she would leave me alone. We’ll see if she keeps her end of the bargain!

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Your Sister in the Gospel?

QN: Your Sister is a biography and might best be classified as narrative history, so there is not an overt argument in the text. The implicit argument, though, is that racial identity, gender identity, and religious identity all shape one another in powerful and often underappreciated ways, so we have to keep all of these aspects of identity (and more) in mind in order to understand the past.

JF: Why do we need to read Your Sister in the Gospel?

QN: First of all, Jane James is a fascinating historical figure in her own right. So you need to read it because her life is just so interesting. My hope is that it is a relatively easy read—I wrote it for a broad audience with the aspiration of producing a book that might interest general readers, not just my academic colleagues.

But aside from having a good story, the book helps deepen our understanding of American history in four ways. First, it illustrates some of the less-frequently-trod paths open to African American men and women in the nineteenth century. Jane James lived in places that didn’t have large African American populations—rural Connecticut, western Illinois, Utah. And she joined religions that we also don’t typically associate with African Americans—Congregationalism and then Mormonism. Second, it helps us think in a more nuanced way about American religious history: James’s story gives us a totally different perspective on the development of Mormonism than the standard narrative, which takes the white male subject as normative. I sometimes explain James as “the Forrest Gump of nineteenth-century Mormonism” because she knew all the important people and was in the background for many of the most important moments. Because she was black, though, her experience of those events gives us a new angle of vision on them. Third, James’s life broadens our sense of nineteenth-century American women’s lives. James’s entire life was shaped by her identity as a woman and the struggle to conform to the gender norms of her community. Her experience demonstrates how those norms constrained her opportunities and made her vulnerable to attack, even as they offered some kinds of support and community not available to men. And finally, James’s story improves our understanding of the history of the nineteenth-century American West by increasing our knowledge of African Americans’ lives in the region. Grappling with James’s presence in Utah also helps us acknowledge the ways race shaped western societies: her experience demonstrates that even when those societies were overwhelmingly white, they still wrestled with the construction and meaning of whiteness and other racial identities.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

QN: I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the early religious history of Oregon, and I think it was that experience that really gave me the religious history bug. I vividly remember sitting in the Oregon Historical Society reading room, plodding through 1830s Methodist meeting minutes. I couldn’t believe that the OHS would let me touch these—they were over a hundred and fifty years old!—but I was also incredibly bored. The minutes were handwritten, sometimes barely legible, often badly spelled, and just plain tedious. But then I got to the bottom of one page and found a doodle: an elaborately drawn hand, in a frilly cuff, pointing to the next page. I realized that the poor guy taking the minutes was just as bored as I was reading them—and something about that connection, that shared boredom across the centuries, got me hooked on archival research.

JF: What is your next project?

QN: I’m getting back to the project from which Your Sister distracted me: an examination of the religious lives and experiences of nineteenth-century African American and Native American Mormons. W. Paul Reeve has shown quite convincingly in his Religion of a Different Color that the LDS Church was “struggling for whiteness” in the nineteenth century; I want to understand what it was like to be a Latter-day Saint of color during that time period.

JF: Thanks, Quincy!

Is Robert Jeffress Really a Bigot?

jeffress

On Monday, Robert Jeffress, the controversial pastor of the massive First Baptist Church in Dallas, offered the invocation at the dedication of Donald Trump’s new American embassy in Jerusalem.

When it was revealed that Jeffress would be praying at the event, the pundits pounced. Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP candidate for president, led the way.  In a tweet he criticized Jeffress for claiming that “you can’t be saved by being a Jew” and “Mormonism is a heresy from the pit of hell.”

If Romney had more than 280 characters to work with, he could have also noted Jeffress’s belief that Hindus “worship a false God” and Muslims are “evil.”

Indeed, Jeffress is a bombastic, loud-mouthed preacher who likes to peddle his brand of evangelicalism on Fox News and other politically conservative news outlets.  He was one of the few evangelical leaders to support Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy during the GOP primaries when there were Christian Right candidates in the field—Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, to name three—who did not come with Trump’s immoral baggage.

On Monday evening, Jeffress appeared on Fox News to defend himself against charges of bigotry.  Watch it here:

While Jeffress did not say anything negative about non-Christian religions during this appearance on Fox, he firmly re-asserted his belief that Christianity is an exclusive religion.  This, he proclaimed, has been the teaching of the Christian church for more than two thousand years.

Jeffress is correct. And Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard and a columnist at Bloomsburg News, agrees with me.  Here is a taste of his piece “This Isn’t Bigotry. It’s a Religious Disagreement“:

Do those statements really make Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, a bigot? All he is doing is echoing an almost 1,800-year-old doctrine: Extra ecclesiam nulla salus, there is no salvation outside the church. It can be traced to St. Cyprian of Carthage, who died in the year 258. The basic idea is that Jesus Christ came to save those who believe in him — and not those who don’t.

This view doesn’t reflect the latest in pluralism. The Catholic Church treated it as dogma for more than a millennium, but has backed away in recent decades. Pope Benedict XVI, when he was still the theologian Joseph Ratzinger, expressed skepticism about the view in a 1964 sermon. “We are no longer ready and able,” he said, “to think that our neighbor, who is a decent and respectable man and in many ways better than we are, should be eternally damned simply because he is not a Catholic.”

But plenty of Christians of many different denominations still believe this teaching in one way or another.

Even Mormons have their version. “Jesus Christ taught that baptism is essential to the salvation of all who have lived on earth (see John 3:5),” as the official website for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints puts it. That’s one reason Mormons practice posthumous baptism of those who would otherwise be unsaved: so that good people who were not members of the LDS church can achieve salvation.

To be clear, I have no dog in the Christian theological fight about whether good people who aren’t Christians can be saved — much less which version of Christianity is necessary to achieve salvation. That’s because I’m not a Christian.

My point is rather that I can’t, and shouldn’t, feel offended by someone telling me that I won’t be saved because I don’t have the right religious beliefs.

Most religions in the monotheistic tradition think they are right and others are wrong. That’s normal. It isn’t a reason to consider those who hold other beliefs to be bigots.

Read Feldman’s entire piece here.

In age in which the exclusive claims of the Christian gospel are scorned by a culture that celebrates tolerance as one of its highest virtues, Jesus’s claim in John 14:6 that he is “the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me,” seems like bigotry.

But why would we expect Jeffress, a Christian pastor, to believe that there is more than one way to God?  I am sure that Mitt Romney, if pushed to explain his own religious beliefs, would say something similar about the exclusive nature of the Christian faith as understood through his Mormonism.  Let’s face it, Christians are not going away anytime soon.  Thomas Jefferson learned this lesson the hard way.  The great man of the Enlightenment from Monticello predicted in 1822 that “there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian.” Woops. So much for Enlightenment progress.

So rather than wishing evangelicals away, I think it is time for Americans to think seriously about how to live together amid what Washington University law professor John Inazu has described as our “seemingly irresolvable differences.”  The practical application of Inazu’s vision will not be easy and people like Robert Jeffress will make it even more difficult.

I have been critical of Jeffress’s embrace of Donald Trump.  Just scroll through the blog and you will see what I mean.

As an evangelical and a historian, I have been critical of the Dallas pastor’s attempt to fuse God and country in a desire to “restore” America to its supposedly Christian roots.  It is a form idolatry and it is based on bad history.

As I told a writer who interviewed me today, Jeffress’s undying support of Trump and his Christian nationalism weakens the witness of the Christian Gospel–the “good news”–and alienates the very people who may be most in need of it.

Moreover, Jeffress’s extreme dispensationalism makes him insensitive to the sufferings of his fellow evangelicals in Palestine.  He seems completely oblivious to the very real possibility that he and his fellow court evangelicals are being played by a man who may not survive his presidency without their support.  As Thomas Friedman recently put it, the ceremony celebrating the opening of the new Jerusalem embassy was a “Republican mid-term pep rally disguised as a diplomatic event….This was meant to fire-up the far-right religious base of the Republican Party.”

When Jeffress does announce that salvation only lies in Jesus Christ, he may have the history of Christian doctrine on his side, but he makes such pronouncements with a culture warrior spirit that reflects the worst form of fundamentalism.

If secularists need to learn how to live with the millions of evangelicals who believe that salvation lies only in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then evangelicals to need to learn how to engage those with whom they differ with “gentleness and reverence” that will cause them to wonder about the “hope that lies within.”

And I could go on.  (Actually, I do go on here).

The Author’s Corner with Max Mueller

C7ntXjAUwAAmfNwMax Mueller is Assistant Professor of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. This interview is based on his new book, Race and the Making of the Mormon People (University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Race and the Making of the Mormon People?

MM: I’ve always been fascinated with Mormons as a people who have become the “stand in”—a synecdoche, if you will—for “American”—family oriented, patriotic, conservative in comportment, dress, speech, and often in politics, industrious, white, and often wealthy. But the church as an institution (as J. B. Haws has argued) is still seen as an outsider—even suspect—organization. I wanted to explore this paradox.

But I also wanted to explore how non-white Mormons—and yes, there have always been some (including Mormons of African and Native American descent)—have grappled with Mormon conceptions of whiteness, and whiteness as close to “godliness,” or better put, whiteness as signifying humanity in accord with God’s plan. Such an exploration must begin with the Book of Mormon, Mormonism’s foundational text. At its heart, the Book of Mormon is about how sin within the human family leads to schism, and schism manifested as curses of blackness/darkness. In 1830 when the Book of Mormon was first published, this view of race was (and, alas in some corners, still is) the dominate view of how the “black” and “white” races came to be, based on the standard interpretations of biblical curses (see Cain and Abel; Noah and Ham), which arose to justify the enslavement of people of African descent. (It’s key to note here, that the Book of Mormon, however, contains neither “white” Europeans, nor “black” Africans in its narrative, though it’s often been read as such. Instead, at least according to its “translator, Joseph Smith Jr., and earliest adopters, the origin story of America’s pre-Columbian Native peoples). But where Mormonism parts with the standard biblical hermeneutic, is that the movement’s earliest leaders taught that since race was not of God’s design—but the result of human family—race could be overcome and nonwhites could restore themselves to the original white (as in raceless) human family.

That’s the start of Mormon story with race—a story of (relatively) radical racial universalism, at least for the 1830s, which most people don’t know about. Due to internal and external pressures, within a few decades of the church’s history, what began as “white universalism” quickly became the sole purview of “white” Mormons. But fundamentally, my purpose was to move beyond the history of this “declension narrative” by focusing on how non-white Mormons participated in—fought against, accepted, acquiesced to—the evolving Mormon theology of race. So I try to highlight the histories—and as best as possible, the words of—the few African and Native American Mormons for whom we have records, to show how they negotiated living within—and also helped shape intentionally or not—this highly racialized community.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Race and the Making of the Mormon People?

MM: That the history of “race” in America begins first from the written word—notably written scriptures—and then gets read onto flesh and bone bodies. Race requires narration, an origin story of how different races came to be.

 JF: Why do we need to read Race and the Making of the Mormon People?

MM: There has been a lot of great scholarship on race and Mormonism as of late. But my book, I hope, makes two key contributions:

First, instead of looking at how “white” Mormons responded to outside pressures—especially non-Mormons’ racialization of Mormons as something less than white (the legacy of the fight over polygamy), and did so to assert their superior whiteness—my book examines how race emerges internally from Mormon theology and history. And, again, that begins with a careful reading of how the Book of Mormon shaped early Mormon conceptions of race.

And second, my book centers non-white Mormons’ stories to show that they aren’t peripheral to this history, but central to it (and often so in ways that are tragic). 

 JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

MM: Frankly, I cannot remember when I wasn’t going not to be one (save when I was in second grade and was going to be the first left-handed second baseman for the Cubs, save and a summer—not too long ago—when I was without an academic job and sending applications out to consulting firms…). I love American history, in large measure because I believe in this country’s exceptionalism—but (a version of) the exceptionalism that John Winthrop first articulated on the Arabella, in which the success of America’s experiment was conditional on its people’s the pursuit of justice. I’ve always been fascinated with how outsiders to the American mainstream (from Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, Jarena Lee, William Apess, and Frederick Douglass, to Malcolm X, Caesar Chavez, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Ta-Nehisi Coates) have been the most cogent articulators of this American exceptionalism and the fiercest critics (in the Jeremiad tradition) to how much America is failing to live up to it.

 JF: What is your next project?

MM: My next project is Wakara’s World, a material-culture biography of Wakara (1808-1855), who was a central figure in my first book as he was ordained a Mormon elder in the early 1850s, but then later went to war against his Mormon brethren when they began to destroy his people’s sacred lands and disrupt his most profitable endeavor: trafficking in Indian slaves. During the mid-nineteenth century, when he and his pan-tribal cavalry of horse thieves and slave traders dominated the Old Spanish Trail, Wakara became one of the U.S. Southwest’s most influential settler colonialists, capitalists, and statesmen. Yet in most historical narratives, Wakara has been reduced to the epitome of the incorrigible savage “Indian” in what Richard White calls the theater of “inverted conquest.” Wakara’s World is an attempt to recover the environmental, cultural, and political worlds of Wakara and his people by exploring material archives along with written ones. Each chapter of the biography focuses on one material object—from “Wakara’s Fish,” the sacred foodstuff of the chief’s tribe that was decimated by the arrival of the Mormons’ irrigation ditches, to “Wakara’s Skull,” which late nineteenth-century ethnologists from the U.S. Army Medical Museum dug up from the chief’s elaborate burial site in order to compare its cranial volume with other races.

JF: Thanks, Max!

The Author’s Corner with John Turner

image001John Turner is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at George Mason University. This interview is based on his new book, The Mormon Jesus: A Biography (Harvard University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write The Mormon Jesus?

JT: For years, I’ve been fascinated by the fact that many Christians insist that Mormons are not Christians even though Latter-day Saints so consistently and fervently demonstrate their devotion to Jesus Christ.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Mormon Jesus?

JT: Rather than a “new religion,” Mormonism is a vibrant new branch of Christianity. In visions, revelations, scriptures, hymns, doctrine, rituals, and artwork, Latter-day Saints have imagined and encountered a Savior who is both distinctly Mormon and utterly Christian.

JF: Why do we need to read The Mormon Jesus?

JT: I try hard — albeit without much success — to teach my daughter the differences between “needs” and “wants.” You don’t need to read this book, but you should want to because in its pages you’ll find men and women seeing Jesus Christ in visions, listening to their Savior’s words, wondering if they are his biological descendants, and creating beautiful paintings and statues of him.

One also has to consider the reasons for the LDS Church’s survival and growth. In part, it’s because Joseph Smith and his successors addressed questions of longstanding concern to many Christians: which is Christ’s true church? Does Jesus Christ, or does God, still speak to his church? How? What did Jesus look like? When will Jesus return?

Certainly, the Latter-day Saints introduced beliefs and practices that set them apart from their surrounding Protestant religious culture. Still, thinking about Mormonism as a new chapter within the longer story of Christianity opens up new ways to understand the LDS Church’s past and present.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JT: Due to deficiencies in talent and height, professional tennis did not pan out.

I fell in love with history gradually. Thinking back, my attraction to history began through the narratives of the Bible, which were far more interesting than the sermons I heard in church. I also had great history teachers in both high school and college, and they introduced me to books — such as Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand and Peter Brown’s The Cult of the Saints — that in turn stoked my imagination. In terms of my focus on U.S. History, I had great professors who wove together literature, history, and theology in their own study of the American past.  

JF: What is your next project?

JT: I’m working on a history of Plymouth colony. Having started my career with a study of post-WWII American evangelicalism, I’m hoping to get to late antiquity or so by the time I retire.

JF: Thanks, John!  Great stuff.

 

Robert Jeffress “Endorses” Donald Trump

Here is what Robert Jeffress, the pastor of a 10,000 member megachurch in Dallas, said in 2011 about having a Mormon for President of the United States:

Here is Robert Jeffress the other day in Sioux Center, Iowa:

In 2011 Jeffress would not support a family man, a man of deep faith and morality, and an experienced politician.

But in 2016 he will support a cultural mainline Presbyterian who has been married three times and has made statements on the campaign that do not always conform to the teachings of Jesus or Christianity.  (OK–this is an understatement).

I guess not all Southern Baptists get their advice from Russell Moore.

 

The Author’s Corner with Thomas Carter

Tom Carter is Professor of Architectural History at the University of Utah. This interview is based on his new book, Building Zion: The Material World of Mormon Settlement (University of Minnesota Press, March 2015).

JF: What led you to write Building Zion: The Material World of Mormon Settlement?

TC: It began back in the 1970s. I was finishing up at Indiana University’s Folklore Institute and needed a dissertation topic. Mormon folk housing seemed a likely target—no serious study existed and it seemed like a wide open field even for a Presbyterian. At first, especially since I was living in Indiana, I thought to work on Nauvoo. The more I looked into it, however, it became apparent that nothing had been done in Utah either. I chose the Sanpete Valley to study because of its abundant number of old houses, and luckily was to get a survey job with the Utah State Historical Society as a way of funding much of the early fieldwork. After the dissertation, I realized that what I needed to do was to include the whole of the Sanpete built environment in the study, since leaving the temple out of any kind of Mormon architecture study was preposterous. It took a long time to figure it all out, but the book is both handsome and provocation; it should make folks rethink the way they have view early Mormon history and culture. At least, that is my intention, and hope.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Building Zion?

TC: The book’s central thesis is that during the years before 1890 the Saints slowly and probably unselfconsciously retooled their material world from a radical apocalyptic to a more normative republican one. Two dates are pivotal in this transformation, 1841, when the Law of Consecration and Stewardship was abandoned in favor of the “lesser” law of tithing, and 1871, when the site for the St.George Temple was shifted from the central square to a location outside town, a move followed in all subsequent temples and one which effectively created both sacred (temple) and secular (town) zones.

JF: Why do we need to read Building Zion​​​​?

TC: Because it’s funny? Well no, not really, though I do think it’s very readable. Everyone should read it because it’s the first systematic study of the Mormon City of Zion, and it argues for a fundamental rethinking of the whole history of the church in the years before 1890.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

TC: I probably became a historian back in 1960. I was 11 and asthmatic and it was the centennial of the Civil War. There were all these histories coming out, many very accessible to youngsters like me, and my mother got me into reading them. I was hooked on history, and also became a devoted pacifist. Who could read these stuff and not be horrified. Such stupidity.

JF: What is your next project?

TC: I am finishing a detail history of the architecture of early cattle ranching in northeastern Elko County, Nevada. This area is home to the region’s oldest ranches, and also where my family is from. It’s called Sagebrush Cities: The Cultural Landscape of …. I hope to have it done by this time next year. Now that I’m retired, it’s easier to find time to write.

JF: Sounds exciting, thanks Tom!

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

Mormonism at the New York State History Conference

The Way of Improvement Leads Home is everywhere.  If there is a conference devoted to American history going on somewhere, there is also a good chance that we will be there, in one form or another, to cover some of it.  Last weekend Elizabeth Covart was at the Annual Meeting on New York State History in Poughkeepsie and has registered this report from a session on Mormonism.

Liz, a former student of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Alan Taylor, has been doing some very innovative work at the intersection of American history, digital history, public history, social media, and platform building.  I highly recommend her website.  She is no stranger to the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  You may also recall that she did some writing for us at the 2014 meeting of the American Historical Association.  –JF

Here is her post:

On Friday, June 13, 2014, Gerrit Dirkmaat (Joseph Smith Papers Project) and Michael Hubbard MacKay (Brigham Young University) presented “Mormonism and the Empire State,” a panel at the 35th Annual Conference on New York State History. Together these scholars analyzed Joseph Smith’s interaction with the scholarly and print culture of 1830s New York to demonstrate the connection Mormonism has with the state.

Michael Hubbard MacKay argued that Mormonism was “ensconced” in New York culture because Joseph Smith connected the religion with the state’s scholarly community. The Mormon tradition holds that in 1823, an angel visited Smith and directed him to a stone box buried on a hill near his Manchester, New York home. Inside the box, Smith found golden plates. The plates contained many cuneiform-looking characters. As the angel instructed Smith not to show the tablets to anyone, Smith kept the plates hidden and transcribed their symbols on to paper.

The symbols on the golden plates formed the basis of the Book of Mormon. However, neither Smith nor anyone else could understand what the Book of Mormon said until they deciphered the characters. Smith sought translational assistance from scholars around New York State.

A letter from Joseph Knight Sr. shows that Smith wanted a learned man to translate the symbols from the plates. Smith’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, confirms this idea when she wrote that her son transcribed the “characters Alphabetically and sen[t] them to all the learned men that he could find and ask[ed] them for the translation of the same.” Smith worked with his friend and follower Martin Harris of Palmyra, New York to find a scholar who could help them.

As one of the richest men in Palmyra, Martin Harris had connections. Harris made use of his personal network to connect Smith with Luther Bradish, a scholar in Albany who had an interest in the Egyptian language. Smith traveled to Albany via the Erie Canal, but Bradish could not help him with a translation.

Harris and Smith contacted other scholars around the Empire State, but no one could make sense of the cuneiform-looking characters. Eventually the symbols made their way to Charles Anthony at Columbia University who said “I cannot translate it.” Anthony’s response prompted Smith to embrace the task of translating the characters himself.

Over sixty-seven days, Smith dictated the 588 pages of text that comprise the Book of Mormon. Smith translated the characters with seer stones that he had placed in the bottom of his hat. The darkness provided by the hat allowed Smith to see the words the seer stones showed him. MacKay stated that the act of translation imbued Smith with priestly power.

MacKay argued that Joseph Smith’s attempts to have a scholar translate the symbols on the golden tablets demonstrates the importance of education and learnedness to New York culture. Smith wanted a scholar to imbue his text with legitimacy by providing a translation. Smith reasoned that if a scholar could translate the characters then they would also link the Book of Mormon to an ancient culture. Only when the learned community failed to supply a translation did Smith undertake the challenge of deciphering the characters, which ultimately prompted Smith to fulfill his Isaiah-like prophecy.

Gerrit Dirkmaat continued MacKay’s story of the Book of Mormon’s connection with New York State. Dirkmaat connected the Book of Mormon with New York print and political culture by exploring Smith’s quest to find a printer to publish his translation.

Smith wanted to print his translation before someone altered his dictation. Martin Harris agreed to pay for the printing of the first 300 copies of the Book of Mormon. Smith and Harris approached Harris’ friend E.B. Grandin, printer of the Wayne Sentinel. Grandin refused. Dirkmaat believes that Grandin declined for two reasons: First, the cost for the editions stood near $5,000, equivalent to approximately $140,000 today. Grandin did not believe that the book would recoup its printing costs. Second, Grandin and Harris were friends. Grandin did not want to take his friend’s money. Unable to convince Grandin to reconsider, Harris and Smith approached the other Palmyra printer, Jonathan Hadley.

Jonathan Hadley printed the Palmyra Freeman, a newspaper that promulgated his anti-masonic viewpoints. Hadley refused to print the Book of Mormon because he believed the book espoused mysterious, superstitious, and strange rituals and beliefs—rituals and beliefs as strange and mysterious as those practiced by the Masons. Hadley printed a scathing article about Smith, his book, and beliefs. The article appeared in the August 11, 1829 edition of the Palmyra Freeman.

Rebuffed in Palmyra, Smith and Harris traveled to Rochester, New York. Smith and Harris attempted to get Thurlow Weed, printer of the Rochester Telegraph, to print their book. In 1845, Weed recounted his negotiations with them. Weed referred to Mormonism as a “delusion” and as a “mental disease.” He explained that “Harris mortgaged his Farm to raise the money required for the temporal support of the Prophet, and print of the ‘Book of Mormon.’” Weed refused the job, but for whatever reason he sent Smith and Harris across the street to the print shop of Elihu F. Marshall.

Smith and Harris found a willing partner in Marshall. Dirkmaat stated that although we cannot know why Marshall agreed to print their book, he suspects that it has to do with Marshall’s radical views on religion. Raised as a Quaker, Marshall had strong views that everyone should be able to hold whatever religious beliefs they liked.

Delighted that they had found a printer, Smith and Harris returned to Palmyra. For whatever reason, both men wanted the first copies of the Book of Mormon to be published in their hometown. Armed with the knowledge that Marshall would print their book, the two men approached E.B. Grandin a second time. Grandin relented and agreed to print it. Although Grandin had declined their first request because he did not want to take his friend’s money, he agreed on their second appeal because Harris was determined to print the book and someone else had agreed to take his money. Grandin accepted the job and profited between 33 to 55 percent per copy.

Dirkmaat concluded his presentation by situating the Book of Mormon in New York History. He posited that *Smith and Harris had a difficult time finding a printer to print the first copies of the Book of Mormon because they had sought to do it at the height of the anti-masonic movement. Jonathan Hadley and Thurlow Weed had refused to print the text based on their anti-masonic sentiments. E.B. Gradin had refused on the grounds of friendship, but relented when Elihu F. Marshall agreed to take his friend’s money.

One audience member asked Dirkmaat and MacKay how the culture of New York determined anything for Joseph Smith and Mormonism when Smith had lived in New York for just fourteen years. Both scholars replied that Smith had his divine visions while living in New York and that most of his converts and funding came from the state. They also pointed out that Joseph Smith had acknowledged the importance of the state. Smith admitted that the culture of the ‘burned over district’ had prompted him to ask the questions about faith that led to his angelic visitation and his discovery of the golden tablets.

Thanks, Liz!

Evangelicals at BYU

Richard Land at BYU

The warm feelings between evangelicals and Mormons are growing stronger.  According to Adelle Banks’s article at Religion News Service, leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention (Richard Land and Albert Mohler) and the Assembly of God Church (George O. Wood) have recently delivered lectures at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.  Evangelical apologist Ravi Zacharias is also scheduled to speak at BYU.

This developing relationship is historically significant.  For most of the twentieth century evangelicals thought the Church of the Latter Day Saints was a cult. Many evangelicals still think this way, as we witnessed during the Romney presidential runs.  If you type the words “Mormonism is” into Google, the top hits are “a cult,” “not Christianity,” “fake,” “false,” and “stupid.” Most of these hits will take you to evangelical websites by organizations such as Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry and the Christian Broadcasting Network.  In the early 1990s, when I was a student at the decidedly evangelical Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, “anti-cult” groups would come to campus and stand at their tables in the lobby of the Chatlos Memorial Chapel to warn us against the threat of Mormonism and seek our support in the cause of exposing its false teachings.

It does not seem that the evangelicals mentioned above are willing to use the label “Christian” to describe Mormons, but they are definitely willing to work with them to advance certain moral issues. In the 2012 election cycle Land made it clear that Mitt Romney (a Mormon) was not a Christian, but a member of a fourth Abrahamic faith.  In 2007 Mohler said that the Latter Day Saints taught a “sincerely false gospel,” but still make good neighbors.  Zacharias is not new to the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City.  He spoke there in 2004 along with then Fuller Theological Seminary president Richard Mouw and evangelical recording artist Michael Card.  Wood has been taking some heat for his visit. Of course evangelical-Mormon cooperation on moral issues is not unique to the present moment. Mormonism was part of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority coalition in the late 1970s and the LDS leaders continued to stand alongside conservative Protestants as the so-called culture wars heated up in the 1980s and 1990s.

Meanwhile, Mormons have been making efforts to be a greater part of the American religious mainstream.  It should be noted that it was BYU who initiated the meetings with Land, Mohler, Wood, and Zacharias.  The meetings have been centered around faith, family, and religious freedom. 

I am curious what some of the Mormon readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home think about these developments.  Here is a taste of Banks’s piece:

The outreach has gone both ways. In September, Taylor joined two members of the LDS church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles at the Washington installation of Russell Moore, who succeeded Land as head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
“It’s clear where we disagree, but we’re standing together in the public square for religious liberty,” said Moore, who has recently spoken with Mormon officials about military chaplains’ religious rights.
As Mormons continue to work toward greater acceptance and visibility — from Mitt Romney’s White House bid to a category of questions on “Jeopardy” — they are more likely to have tangible benefits from this engagement, said Stephen Webb, author of the new book “Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn from the Latter-day Saints.”
Bob Millet, a BYU religion professor who suggested the evangelical visitors to LDS officials, said the rapprochement helps Mormons, “a sample of the population that’s not well-understood and highly misunderstood.”

Addendum:  Since I wrote and scheduled this post Thomas Kidd has posted something similar at The Anxious Bench.  Check it out here.

Kathleen Flake is First Richard Bushman Chair in Mormon Studies at U of Virginia

Kathleen Flake

University of Virginia is the first major public university to establish a Mormon studies chair.  You may recall that we did a post on the creation of this endowed chair in December 2012.

We can now announce that Kathleen Flake has been named as the first Bushman Chair of Mormon Studies at UVA.  She comes to Charlottesville after a career in law and a stint as a professor of American religious history at Vanderbilt.  Here is a taste of the press release:

Flake will begin teaching classes this spring. One course will focus on America’s newer religious movements: Scientology, the Nation of Islam and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A second course will examine variety of Scriptural texts produced in America, from the many versions of the Bible to entirely new bible-like texts, such as the Book of Mormon, she said.

Flake also plans to continue her research on 19th-century Mormonism’s highly gendered power structure, with an upcoming book on early Mormonism’s plural marriages.

“It is an honor to be named to this chair,” she said. “Professor Bushman is rightly considered one of the premier historians of early American social, cultural and political history. Those who occupy this position, not least myself, have been set a high bar of accomplishment, and his name on this chair signifies a pattern for our future endeavors.”

U.Va.’s Bushman Chair was established with a $3 million endowment funded by anonymous donors. Fundraising is under way to support student scholarships, special lectures and conferences.

Mormons at the Jersey Shore

I like to consider myself an amateur historian of all things Jersey Shore (the place, not the MTV reality show).  Before I die I want to write a book about this place.  It will probably be more nostalgia than history, but who cares.

Christopher Jones of The Juvenile Instructor (and other blogs) knows of my fascination for all things Jersey Shore and called my attention to his post on Joseph Smith’s 1840 missionary visit to what today is Highlands (near Sea Bright).  Here is a taste:

A couple of weeks ago, my wife, kids, and I closed out our summer vacation with a quick trip “down the shore” (we’d been staying with my in-laws in northern New Jersey, and I’ve been assured that’s the preferred terminology of locals for what the rest of America calls “going to the beach.”) Thanks to the wonderfully helpful research of our own Steve Fleming, I knew that Mormonism’s history in the Garden State dated back to the late 1830s, but I wasn’t sure if there was much activity along the Jersey Shore. Re-reading Steve’s article, along with a short piece in the April 1973 issue of The Ensign by Stanley B. Kimball (hey, remember when The Ensign used to publish short historical essays by actual historians? That was awesome.), I learned that not only did Mormonism’s history there date back to the 1830s, but that Joseph Smith himself preached in the region.

The Recent DOMA Decision and Polygamy

Polygamists in Utah are apparently rejoicing about the Supreme Court’s decision on the Defense of Marriage Act.  Here is a taste of an article form Salt Lake City Tribune:

Polygamists and their supporters celebrated Wednesday, saying they see implications for their cause in the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act.
Just hours after the court ruled that DOMA was unconstitutional, Joe Darger said he and his family were pleased. Darger, who with his three wives detailed their life in the book “Love Times Three: Our True Story of a Polygamous Marriage,” said the ruling should help remedy polygamists’ treatment as “second-class citizens.”

The Books of the "Book of Mormon" in 50 Words or Less

A couple of months ago, John Turner wrote a post at Religion in American History about his experience reading the Book of Mormon in fifteen days.  In a more recent post, Turner offers summaries of all the books in the Book of Mormon, and he does each book in 50 words or less. He  concludes:

Any scholar of nineteenth-century Mormonism would be well served to read the BOM in its entirety. I should have done so long ago. It would have helped me more fully understand certain terms (such as the Liahona or the Gadiantons). It’s one thing to read explanations of such terms. It’s another thing to read them in context. And perhaps I’ll have some recollection of the narrative when I see artwork about BOM stories or references to BOM figures. I’m trying to gain a better understanding of recent and contemporary Mormonism, and it’s worth keeping in mind that the LDS Sunday school curriculum takes members through the BOM in its entirety once every four years. [The other three years are devoted to, respectively, the Old Testament (including the books of Moses and Abraham, which Joseph Smith brought forth in the 1830s), the New Testament, and the Doctrine & Covenants]. Thus, active Latter-day Saints today probably have a much higher level of familiarity with the BOM than their nineteenth-century counterpart.


Of course, if you have a passing interest in things Mormon or teach it occasionally as a subject, it might make more sense to read portions in order to better explain the scripture in class. I’ve used portions of 1 Nephi, 2 Nephi, and 3 Nephi, and Moroni for that purpose. I also found Ether’s account of the Jaredites an interesting case study of the BOM as a whole. It contains an ocean crossing, some interesting points of doctrine (spirit body of Christ, as mentioned above), record keeping, an emphasis upon Jesus Christ, and the extinction of a people.

John Turner Wins "Non-Mormon of the Year" Award

Turner: non-Mormon celebrity

I am sure that John Turner will be thrilled to hear about this

Ben Park reports:

It’s too easy to pick a “Mormon of the Year.” It’s just too small a pool of candidates, and thus slim pickings. (Especially when there are presidential candidates, because heaven knows you have to pick one of those.) No, the real skill comes when your list of potential nominees number the entire world except the Mormons. Here at BCC, we take on the monumental task of choosing a recipient for the Boggs-Doniphan Non-Mormon of the Year Award; it’s a tough and thankless job, but someone has to do it. This award recognizes the non-Mormon who had the greatest impact–for good (Doniphan) or ill (Boggs)–on Mormons or Mormonism this year. The past winners are:

2008: Mike Huckabee
2009: Stephen Colbert
2010: Judge Vaughn Walker
2011: Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and Robert Lopez
 

Just like previous years, 2012 produced many worthy candidates. Would it be Anderson Cooper, for smacking down that “Mormons-are-a-cult” preacher? Or Billy Graham, for deciding we weren’t a cult after all? Or how about Barack Obama, who had the nerve to beat Mitt Romney, our tibe’s “one mighty and strong” who was destined to save the Constitution’s loose thread? (Or something like that.) After much deliberation, and lots of fasting and prayer, we have decided to award John G. Turner, author of Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet, the honor of possessing the 2012 Boggs/Doniphan crown. (Or is it a sceptre? I can never remember.)

The last non-Mormon to attempt a major biography of Brigham Young, Stanley Hirshson, did such a lousy job that his book remains the only recipient of the Mormon History Association’s “Worst Book Award.” So the standard wasn’t that high. But John Turner, recently hired by George Mason University’s Religious Studies Department (faculty page here), put in the time and effort to produce a marvelous biography. For four straight summers, he uprooted his family (including his wife and small child) and moved to Provo (the ultimate sacrifice!) to perform research in the mountainous collections of Brigham Young’s papers. The book has already received great praise in scholarly circles (see this phenomenal roundtable at Juvenile Instructor, the publisher’s collection of review excerpts here), though it has raised some (important) questions for some reviewers about whether all members of the Church will be ready for its contents. (Though it should be noted that particular reviewer didn’t have much of a problem with it.) Brigham Young led a tough life, maintained a rough personality (at least in public), and became involved with some difficult situations, all of which can be a shock to Mormons who only know the CES version of the “Lion of the Lord.” As Richard Bushman noted, Turner “reveals a Brigham Young more violent and coarse than the man Mormons have known. While lauding his achievements as pioneer, politician, and church leader, the book will require a reassessment of Brigham Young the man.” This, I think, is a good thing, because reassesments should “shock” us into a better understanding and more vigorous examination of such an important figure. During the year defined as the “Mormon Moment,” in which so much attention was paid to the faith and its history, it was important to have such a responsible resource on one of the church’s key figures.

By the way–who thinks that John Turner looks like Fred Armisen from Saturday Night Live and Portlandia?

Fred Armisen

Richard Lyman Bushman Chair of Mormon Studies

Here is the job ad.   From what I can tell it doesn’t include tenure and the teaching load (2-2) is the same as most every other faculty member at UVA. 

The University of Virginia seeks to fill a tenure track faculty position at the Associate or Full Professor level in the Department of Religious Studies. The appointment is the Richard Lyman Bushman Professorship of Mormon Studies and will start August 25, 2013.

Preference will be given to candidates well-grounded in American religious history with a distinguished record of research focused on Mormonism. The teaching commitment is two classes per semester at the undergraduate and graduate level, with at least one course taught in the field of Mormon Studies each academic year. 

For consideration, please submit a candidate profile through Jobs@UVA (https://jobs.virginia.edu) and attach cover letter, c.v., statement of teaching philosophy, statement of research interest, and contact information for three references. Search on posting number 0611090. Search contingent upon BOV approval of professorship. 

The University will perform background checks on all new faculty hires prior to making a final offer of employment. 

Questions about this position should be directed to: 

Associate Prof. Heather A. Warren,
Chair, Search Committee,
Department of Religious Studies,
University of Virginia,
P.O. Box 400126,
Charlottesville, VA 22904-4126
haw6w@virginia.edu

This Week’s "Anxious Bench" Post at Patheos: "Why I Am Glad The Election is Over"

“As an American historian, what do you think about the 2012 presidential election?”

I am asked this question often and I am never sure how to answer it.  Ask me in another ten or twenty years and maybe I might have an answer.  Or maybe ask another historian one-hundred years from now.  Sure, historians can place the re-election of Obama in a historical context and compare this election to others that have occurred in the past, but historians, in order to do their work effectively, need to have some perspective.

With that in mind, I am not going to use my post this week to offer some historical or religious “insights” into Barack Obama’s victory last night.  Instead, I am going publish a list of why I am glad that this election is over:

Read the rest here.

Would Mitt Romney Use the Book of Mormon to Take His Oath of Office?

No, says Mormon expert (and editor extraordinaire) Jana Riess.  Mitt would probably use the Bible that his father used when sworn-in as Governor of Michigan.

Riess was interviewed as part of a CNN article, “What Would a Mormon White House Look Like?”  Here is a taste:

Should Mitt Romney win the presidency next Tuesday, it will mark an historic first: a Mormon couple moving into the White House.

What would this mean and look like?

Would there be “dry” state dinners, since faithful Mormons don’t do alcohol? Would Secret Service tag along to sacred ceremonies only open to worthy church members? What book would a President Mitt Romney use to take his oath of office?

We can’t be absolutely sure about all the answers. But if the practices and homes of devout Mormons like the Romneys – not to mention his history as governor of Massachusetts – are any indication, we can begin to paint a picture of what a Romney-inhabited White House might look like.

Read the rest here.

The "Mormon Moment" Continues at the University of Virginia

The New York Times is reporting that the University of Virginia is establishing the Richard L. Bushman Chair of Mormon Studies:

The University of Virginia has announced a new endowed chair in Mormon studies, making it the first university in the East to have such a position. The chair will be named for Richard Lyman Bushman, a distinguished historian of early America who taught for many years at Columbia University and more recently directed the Mormon studies program at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif., which in 2008 became the first secular institution outside Utah to offer such a program.

Mr. Bushman, the author of “Rough Stone Rolling,” a biography of Joseph Smith, said in a statement that the Virginia chair represented a maturation of Mormon studies, which has recently begun to attract scholars from across disciplines, including many with no personal connection to the church. (He is a Mormon.) “Now we will have a center for study here in the East, where the Mormon movement had its genesis,” he said. “It’s an exciting time for those of us who care deeply about researching the sources of human behavior, motivation, commitment, relationships and expression.”

The chair, whose occupant has yet to be selected, is supported by a $3 million endowment from anonymous donors, and will be in the Department of Religious Studies. That department, which has no affiliation with any church or theological seminary, is the largest of its kind at any public university, according to a university statement.

Not to sound too envious, but how about a chair in Evangelical Studies?  Why not?

Leaving God Off the Campaign Trail

NPR’s Barbara Brown Hagerty reports on the limited role that religion has played in this year’s presidential campaign.

While many scholars expected Mormonism to be a major issue in the campaign, it has not played a significant role.  I find it interesting that the so-called “Mormon Moment” may have been more a creation of scholars and pundits than an actual political issue in the presidential race.  Romney has, for the most part, kept quiet about his faith and Obama has chosen not to bring it up.

Here is a taste of Hagerty’s story:

Shaun Casey, who teaches politics and religion at Wesley Theological Seminary, says there are several reasons for Romney’s reluctance to emphasize faith.

“The downside for Romney is, first of all, he’s not a natural cultural warrior,” says Casey, who also advised the Obama campaign in 2008.

Second, Casey says, is that every reference to Mormonism “reminds people in his conservative base that he is a Mormon and he is not an evangelical Christian.”
Romney needs those voters to turn out in record numbers, Casey adds, “and the fear is there, that those folks are going to stay at home.”

But despite reservations about Mormon theology, evangelicals immediately snapped into line once Romney became the Republican candidate. Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, says that new unity means Romney doesn’t have to spend time or money reaching those religious voters. Instead, Jones says, the GOP candidate needs to focus on voters in the middle.