Mormon Pioneer Day

It's July 25th, and the new San Diegans Ed Blum (via Joanna Brooks, author of the oustanding book American Lazarus: Religion and the Rise of Native American and African American Literature, reviewed here) remind me that yesterday, July 24th, was Pioneer Day, commemorating the Mormon trek and settlement in Salt Lake City. I'll be putting it on the annual blog calendar. With the documentary recently on PBS (reviewed by the New York Times here, HT to Art in the comments section, and by a Mormon blogger here), the presidential address at the American Society of Church History by Jan Shipps (a true pioneer in scholarship on the history of the LDS church), and of course Mitt Romney's candidacy, it's time for American religious historians to incorporate Mormonism more carefully into the narratives and scholarship, beyond recounting the nineteenth-century originating events of the church.

In his review of the book that Philip Goff and I edited, Themes in Religion and American Culture, Douglas Winiarski surveyed the "winners" and "losers" in the market economy of American religious history as it's being written now. Based on the essays in our volume, he pronounced Mormonism a "winner" (mainline Protestantism, not surprisingly, was a "loser," in both cases referring to the amount of discussion each respective group got in the essays). Although I co-edited the book, I hadn't realized how extensive the discussion of Mormonism was throughout the text, and was surprised when I skimmed the text again after the review and realized that Winarski's parsing of the winners and losers in the current historiographical economy was pretty dead-on.

Jan Shipp's presidential address to the ASCH on the changing meanings of Mormonism is not online (and if you're reading this, you need to be a member of the American Society of Church History -- you can do so online, so click on the link and just do it, and you'll receive the excellent journal Church History). However, Shipps has a nice piece "A Religious Ritual Wrapped in a Civic Event," which discusses the changing meanings of Pioneer Day. Here's a quick summary; click above for the link.

In the mountain West, Pioneer Day long had the effect of sustaining an unofficial pattern of stratification within Mormon culture that placed the members of families who came to the region during the early decades of LDS settlement in the area above those who came later. This pattern is gradually being altered, and one reason may be that Pioneer Day is undergoing a transformation.

The agent of change is an expansion of the idea of what being a Mormon pioneer means. Instead of simply honoring long-deceased pioneer heroes and heroines, today’s Saints in the mountain West and outside it are being asked to be pioneers themselves by doing something special to build up Mormonism in these latter days--perhaps being the first member of one’s family to go on a mission, being a leader of a branch of the church in an area where the church has not before had an organized unit, or serving the church in some other way that demands sacrifice and courage.

Looking at it this way reveals that the hoopla is not all there is to Pioneer Day. A closer look at this celebration reveals a larger truth about the Latter-day Saints: nowadays all sorts of things are changing within Mormonism. The transformation of the idea of what it means to be a pioneer will surely help dissolve what amounted to a caste system within the Mormon community. But as the meaning of being a pioneer is being transformed rather than de-emphasized or discarded, Pioneer Day is likely to retain its significance as both a holy day and a holiday.


Art Remillard said…
Great post. Just so that everyone knows, the PBS Frontline documentary can be seen online:

Here also is a review of it in the NYT:

I don't know what kind of reactions this has received from within the Mormon community. But I thought it was well done and thorough, like every Frontline production.
Phil said…
Thanks for the post, and for the reminder.

I used two segments of the documentary last week in my American religious history class, and students responded with great interest. Lecture and discussion prepped them with the history of Mormonism, and the same night we discussed Johnson and Wilentz's _Kingdom of Matthias_ and Matthias's encounter with Joseph Smith--who considered Matthias a bit too outlandish.

This encounter, and the contour of subsequent discussion seemed to (for lack of a better term) "normalize" Smith and Mormonism for my students in a way many had not at the outset of discussion.

I would certainly commend clips of the documentary in class. As Art says, it is well done and thorough.
Amy said…
Thanks for the post and the reminder. I love the PBS documentary. I had coffee with Jan this summer in B-ton and she seemed very pleased with how it turned out. I plan to use it next semester in my survey course. I might even use it in the grad. student seminar paired with Flake's book.

PS: I linked you to my blog
Randall said…
This is a good time to be doing Mormon history. Experts in the field are probably getting calls aplenty and offers to be talking heads.

I, too, thought that the doc was wonderfully done. The earlier part will work well in my Religion and American Culture course:

Not knowing much about the historiography of the LDS, could anyone tell me what books might work well for undergrads? Shipps treatment is a little dated now.

I have grown pretty tired of using monographs for undergrads. But something that was scholarly and yet very well written might work nicely.
John Fea said…
Ditto on the comments about the PBS documentary.

Phil's remark about using the documentary and other readings to "normalize" the Mormons for his students got me thinking about just how "normal" the Mormons are in American culture.

I find it quite ironic that Americans question whether or not the country can have a president who represents one of the most "American" religious movements in the country's history. (I believe Paul Conkin's described the Mormons as "homemade.") I realize the reaction to Romney's candidacy is more complicated than this, but the irony of it all is still apparent if we can just get people to look hard enough at the past.
Anonymous said…
This is a good point of discussion: how "American" is Mormonism in the United States? For example, I always find it interesting that while most Mormon folk I know claim to be in the Protestant camp, most evangelical Protestants I know do not accept Mormons as Protestants or Christians. This, of course, is not to say they are right. And, at the time when this "American" faith was being created in 1830s, other "Americans" were attacking it as unAmerican.

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