Mormonism and Historical Thought at the CFH

Randall Stephens

I just attended a wonderful session at the 2010 Conference on Faith and History here at George Fox University, south of Portland, OR. This year's program contains a wide range of panels and plenary sessions. See it here. A number of younger scholars are taking part, asking questions about the intersection of faith and history and looking into how religious groups have grappled with the past.

The morning's session, titled "Things True or Useful: Mormon Ways of Writing History," dealt with the contested meaning of history, the sacred, and scholarship within the Mormon world. The papers included:

“History Thrown Into Divinity: Faith, History, and the Founding Events of
Mormonism” Matthew Bowman, Georgetown University

“Finding Connections between Faith and History: A Journey of Discovery” Rachel Cope, Brigham Young University

"‘The Sacred and the Profane’: Shipps, Eliade, and Mormon History” Ryan Tobler, University of Chicago

Susanna Morrill, Lewis and Clark College, drew the three together in her concluding remarks.

I found it striking that evangelicals share many of the burdens of self understanding and historical thinking (or unthinking) with Mormons. The panelists pointed to a statement, well known among Mormon scholars, made by a church official: “Some things that are true are not very useful.” History--critical, influenced by enlightenment rationalism--might "not be very useful." Matthew Bowman explained some of the nuances of that infamous remark. It first hit me as a somewhat typical, anti-intellectual statement. . . the sort you would hear among fundamentalist with reference to human origins science (thinking Kurt Wise here.)

The panelists also dealt with the somewhat tortured relationships believers and the church have had with the field of history. Questions about bracketing exercised the audience in the Q&A. (I wondered if historians and religious studies scholars have different senses of "empathy.") I always find these conversations helpful. They mark out the boundaries of history and role faith communities play in working out their collective memory.

I look forward to seeing the future work of each of these early-career scholars.

Now, if I can just find time to make it to Powell's Books. I can get there quickly enough. Budget Rental gave me a free upgrade to a new Mustang. Makes my own car seem like a mo-ped.


Christopher said…
Thanks for the report, Randall. I'm thrilled to see Mormon participation at the CFH and would be hard pressed to think of 4 better participants for such a venue than Rachel, Ryan, Matt, and Susanna.