Temples, Archives, and Apostates

John G. Turner

I've been meaning to blog about our nearly three months in Provo, Utah, and environs. For anyone writing Mormon History, a trip to the former Deseret means entering archival heaven (well, at least the Terrestrial portion). It's also both somewhat bizarre and exhilarating to emerge from academic isolation and suddenly meet scores of people who share research interests.

Hopefully without too much self-indulgence, here are several of my not-too-coherent summertime thoughts on Mormonism and Mormon History:

▪ Temples are important. That sounds obvious, but in general, historians of Mormonism (like historians of American religion more broadly) still do not pay nearly enough attention to religious practice (as opposed to the politics, economics, and theological / ecclesial development of the church). Granted, the sacred nature of Mormon temple ritual poses particular challenges. But it occurred to me that one gets a very limited sense of Mormon spirituality from, say, visiting sacrament meetings or watching church conferences. Serendipitously, the recently dedicated Oquirrh Mountain Temple had its months-long open house during our summer stay. We accompanied a Mormon friend and his family through the open house, saw the baptismal font, the changing rooms, the sealing room, and the endowment room. The contrast (paraphrasing another Utah friend) between the remarkably low-church sacrament meeting and the liturgical nature of the temple is striking. That contrast has certainly existed since the Nauvoo period of the church. Visiting the temple rammed home the lesson that there is an entire side of Mormon spirituality and practice that I'll never understand, but it's nevertheless good to keep in mind that it's there. If you teach or study American religion and there's ever a temple open house in your vicinity, don't miss it.

▪ The new Church History Library is a much-improved facility for research. The edifice itself testifies to the significance of the church's history for the Latter-day Saint faith. Can you imagine any other religious group in the United States unveiling a new library / archive like this in the midst of an economic downturn? You can find a thorough discussion of its virtues and shortcomings here. Biggest improvements: more light (much easier to stay awake), better technology, and evening / weekend hours. On the downside, you now have to walk across the street to obtain the cheap and tax-free LDS cafeteria lunch, but it's still worth it. The nearest coffee I could find was in a basement McDonald's just south of Temple Square. I tried to wean myself because of enforced abstinence while at BYU but gave up. The flesh is weak.

▪ We were based in Provo, the only place I've lived where the grocery featured Emergency Food Preparedness sales (my wife is taking her cues from the Saints and is stocking up in the midst of hurricane season on the Gulf Coast) and storytime for children. Strangely, though, we attended a Pioneer Day event at Pioneer Park in Provo and never heard or saw anything pertaining to Mormonism. Those weren't just any old pioneers, you know. Maybe I missed something.

▪ In terms of Mormon History publications, you can't blink without missing significant books. After a near-decade book-ended by two major books on the Mountain Meadows Massacre and centered around Richard Bushman's magisterial biography of Joseph Smith, I'm trying to figure out what's coming next. This year appears to be the year of apostasy (historiographically), with books on the subject by Polly Aird and Edward Leo Lyman. I haven't read either book yet, but I'm curious to learn more about why and how people left the church. To return to the first point above, I do think we'll see more books that foreground Mormon religious practice. For an example of innovative and diligent research on the subject, see the article on Mormon ritual healing by Jonathan Stapley and Kristine Wright in the current Journal of Mormon History (link to Table of Contents only).


Brad Hart at: September 1, 2009 at 10:43 PM said...

Great article. You are absolutely right that historians completely downplay or simply ignore the importance of the Mormon Temple endowment ceremony. Temple worship is a critical component to understanding Mormonism. I also believe it's a fundamental component to understanding how Mormon Zionism evolved from a palpable physical reality (during the early years) into a more metaphysical and eternal concept.

Art at: September 2, 2009 at 2:40 AM said...

On a research trip last year, I passed through Nauvoo and did a few interviews. Interesting place. Very small and an unstable population. What stands out amid this tiny town, though, is the immense temple. Without even going inside, I recognized that the size alone is a statement. In my uneducated eyes, it says something like, "This is our place, once again."

Of course, like all sacred places, its meaning is contested, both between and within the religious groups there. An evangelical ex-Mormon owns a place in town that serves as a "truth center" of sorts. And the different wings of Mormonism all have a presence there.

This is all a way of agreeing with you and Brad. Sacred places are significant--and even if you can't get inside, they have many stories to tell from the outside too.

Christopher at: September 2, 2009 at 8:40 AM said...

It was great to have you so close, John, and I'm glad you enjoyed your short stay in Utah. I look forward to the eventual fruits of your research.

Art, you might be interested in the research of David Howlett, PhD candidate at the U of Iowa, whose dissertation explores another Mormon community---Kirtland, Ohio---as a site of contested pilgrimage. Like Nauvoo, several Latter Day Saint groups claim Kirtland as their own, with the temple (which, btw, is open to the public) being the focal point of that contestation.

BHodges at: September 3, 2009 at 1:52 PM said...

It was great to spend some time talking about your work, John. Thanks for sharing these perspectives of your visit.

JonW at: September 3, 2009 at 6:44 PM said...

awesome perspective thanks a lot for your post. It certainly is an interesting dichotomy.

Neil at: September 10, 2009 at 9:32 AM said...

I spent two months in the fall of 2005 at the (old) Church History archives. I'm curious as to your experience with access to materials. I had at least 50% of my requests denied to me, often without explanation. I would say a good 75% of the items I requested were listed as "Restricted" and required that I fill out a separate application form for each one. Is this practice still in place?

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