Mormonism, History, and Religious Studies

Paul Harvey

Just a quick note to commend you to a series of terrific posts, reflecting on the study of Mormonism (and its key figures, including Joseph Smith) in academia, at Juvenile Instructor, including an insightful review of Reid Neilson and Terryl Givens, eds. Joseph Smith, Jr.: Reappraisals After Two Centuries, reflections by Brian Birch of Utah STate on "The Awkwardness of Mormonism and Its Place in Religious Studies," Philip Barlow's address on "Mormon Studies in Relation to the Liberal Arts," and finally Chris Jones's essay/defense of the importance of history in Mormon studies, against those who would wrench "Mormon studies out of the monopoly of historical studies."

Matt Bowman's review of the Neilson/Givens volume raises particularly interesting questions of what happens at the divide of history and religious studies (and other fields), when what Robert Orsi has called "abundant events" overflow the categories for which historians can account. He concludes:

But the nagging question still remains, because those sources – the possibilities of visionary experience that Smith experienced, and, as importantly, imparted to followers like Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon, and others – lie exactly at the heart of who Joseph Smith was. In another context, the eminent theorist of religion Jonathan Z. Smith warned us that if students of religion hid behind words like “demonic” and “crazy” instead of seeking to understand the religious creation of Jim Jones, they might as well abdicate their claim to understanding religion at all. [4] It may be that, as Orsi laments, the critical apparatus given to scholars in the humanities is insufficient to apprehend Joseph Smith, and we must continue to use words like “genius” to describe his puzzle. But, one hopes, the sort of work this volume offers may eventually bring us a sword capable of cutting through the Giordian knot Joseph presents to us.


Christopher said…
Thanks, Paul, for the plug.

As a sidenote, I thought I'd mention that I've met and/or encountered a number of people since my move to Virginia who are regular readers of your blog. You all really provide a fantastic service to those interested in keeping up with the field. Thanks.
John G. Turner said…
Thanks, Paul. I've been enjoying the series at JI -- Chris and the other folks there do a wonderful service to those of us trying to stay abreast of current trends and literature in Mormon history.
Anonymous said…
One thing that would be helpful to me (and perhaps others) is if someone could point me to works done on Mormon history after the nineteenth century. I find that I can say a lot to students about Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, plural marriage, but then have not much else to say (beyond general beliefs and practices). Not knowing too much of the history post-1900, is it that Mormonism is more mainstream and so we focus on the more extravagant events of early Mormonism or am I just missing some important works in Mormon historiography? Any help would be appreciated.
Christopher said…
Todd, your observation is essentially correct. Mormon history has been overly-focused on the 19th century in exclusion to the 20th, which is unfortunate. We've discussed the reasons for such a divide at the Juvenile Instructor (

There are some signs this is changing, though. Here's a couple of books and links that might prove useful.

Thomas Alexander's Mormonism in Transition (University of Illinois Press) covers the period from 1890-1930, and is generally useful for documenting change in the institutional Mormon church during that era. For a recent critique, see here:

For a book that looks at similar issues through a sociological approach, see Armaund Mauss's The Angel and the Beehive (University of Illinois Press).

Greg Prince's biography of David O. McKay, who presided over the Mormon church for a quarter of the twentieth century, is excellent, and uses McKay as a window into what the author calls "the rise of modern Mormonism." (The book title is David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (University of Utah Press)).

Jan Shipps is currently working on a history of the Mormon church post-WWII, but I don't know what her time schedule is for completion. Her older work, Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition, is useful in that it takes on both the 19th and 20th centuries.

There's a handful of projects underway grad students as well, including UNC student John Charles Duffy's dissertation on Mormon-Evangelical relations in the era of the New Religious Right, which should be an important contribution.

Hope this helps.
Christopher said…
Claudia Bushman's Mormonism: Latter-day Saints in Contemporary America might be helpful as well, and Richard Bushman's recent VSI to Mormonism is good at briefly tackling 20th century Mormonism, too.
Neil J. Young said…
The second volume of D. Michael Quinn's "The Mormon Hierarchy" is a must-read for 20th century Mormonism.
John G. Turner said…
Per Matt's comment, and I haven't read the essays in the volume, it seems to me that Richard Bushman was able in many ways to transcend the New Mormon History paradigm and write a biography that incorporates its findings while still advancing Joseph Smith as a prophet and revelator. Furthermore, it's interesting that while some secular historians dismiss Bushman's "faithful history" approach, I think many others (non-Mormon at least, if not secular) can appreciate the work as a piece of faithfulness but also good history.
Christopher said…
Neil, the problem is that Quinn's book is terribly unreadable, especially the 2nd volume.

And as Todd's question seemed to suggest he was looking for something to assign to students (or at least to refer them to), would you really assign undergrads Quinn?
Neil J. Young said…
Sorry - I didn't pick up that this was something he wanted to assign for reading. No, definitely wouldn't put that on undergrads, but I personally find it an important and impressive work.
John G. Turner said…
Along with Alexander's, Kathleen Flake's The Politics of Religious Difference is both essential and entertaining reading on the 1890-1920 period.

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