Has Mormon History Taught Us Anything?

January 5, 2004 | 52 comments

Since the publication of Leonard Arrington’s Great Basin Kingdon, the writing of Mormon history has largely been professionalized. The major players in the field are no longer autodidacts like B.H. Roberts or Joseph Fielding Smith. Rather, they are by and large university trained historians, generally with an emphasis on 19th century American history. So here is my question, if we think of ourselves not as Mormons but as students of history, has the “New Mormon History” (if I may use that now loaded phrase) taught us anything? My answer: Not much.

Obviously, we have a whole bunch of fun stuff that we have learned about Mormonism, but my question is has the study of Mormon history taught us anything about history in general? It is not clear that it really has.

Consider for example two pillars of the New Mormon Historical establishment: Leonard Arrington and Michael Quinn. Arrington was originally an ecnomic historian and Great Basin Kingdom was an economic history. However, by economic history Arrington meant something like the study of church businesses and Latter-day Saint commercial activity. What he offers us is a compilation of facts and a vaguely articulated vision of Brigham Young as a kind of proto-New Dealer. If you weren’t interested in Mormon history per se it is not clear that you would learn much of anything about economic history by reading Arrington. There is no new theory of economic change or the role of economics in history in Arrington’s book. Indeed, there is almost no theory of any kind. Compare this kind of economic history, with say Douglas North, Structure and Change in Economic History, which offers a model why you see economic and political change overtime. This may not be an entirely fair comparison, Doug North got the Nobel Prize in economics and the so-called New Institutional Economics that he pioneered didn’t exist when Arrington was writing. Arrington would have had the rather vapid tools of classical microeconomics and Keynsian Macroeconomics, neither of which is much use in studying LDS economic experience. On the other hand, why has no Mormon tried to use the NIE to discuss Mormonism? Where is our imagination?

Next consider Michael Quinn. In a back cover blurb for his book Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, R. Laurence Moore says “Impressive . . . Quinn’s argument . . . has implications for cultural interpretation that go well beyond the origins of Mormonism.” And what exactly are those implications? You would read Quinn’s book in vain to find them. What Quinn offers us is a truely hurculean bit of archival research. His book is vast, glorius, bubbling mass of fun and wierd facts. He makes a nod toward synthesis in his opening and closing chapters, but only to offer a couple of types and theories which he almost immediately abandons in his orgy of footnotes and sources. In short, Quinn’s book is a gold mine of material, but you would be hard pressed to generalize from it. What does it tell me about the contested catagories of “magic” and “religion”? What theoretical insight can I take from this book and use in other contexts? Quinn, alas, doesn’t have much to say on such subjects.

In part, I suspect that the problem is disciplinary. Historians claim to have a distinct methodology, but what it amounts to is the ability to reconstruct narratives of events on the basis of archival material. If you compare the explanations of events offered by historians with those offered by social scientists, you will notice that historical explanations are dramatically under theorized. Again, compare Arrington’s economic history to North’s. The other problem is that to the extent that Mormon history becomes theoretical or self-reflective it becomes all inside baseball all the time. Thus, we get arguments about loyalty to the truth vs. being faith promoting, or spend a great deal of time wringing our hands about why church instructional materials don’t properly document nuance, conflict, and unseemly events. Notice, however, that it is doubtful that the resolution of any of these arguments is going to produce much of anything that is generalizable beyond the realm of Mormonism. The result is that Mormon studies gets ghettoized, and for professional reasons it is a realm that many of the best LDS scholars can only afford to visit on the weekends, if then.

UPDATE (Feb. 4, 2005): Re-reading it, this post is harsher than it ought to be. Alot of Mormon history is very good, and some Mormon writers make a real effort to connect their history to bigger themes. Kathleen Flake’s recent book on the Reed Smoot hearings, I think, is an excellent example of this sort of thing. Still, when reading some Mormon history I can’t help but think of the comment made (I think) by Ronald Coase — another nobel prize winning economist — that without a theory we are left with nothing but a pile of facts waiting for the match. I am no fan of book burning, but I do think that Mormon history runs the danger or sliding into the mindless accretion of additional facts. We can do better than that, I think.

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52 Responses to Has Mormon History Taught Us Anything?

  1. Clark Goble on January 5, 2004 at 2:36 am

    Those are excellent comments Nate. It does seem like Mormon history hasn’t exactly engaged issues much. There is a “so what” element to it all. I think that the New Mormon History was initially just excited about finding out what was going on behind the stories. But not much beyond that.

    There are exceptions I think. And there is something to be said for knowing the data and coming to ones own conclusions. But larger questions haven’t been addressed much – perhaps because many of the “matters of fact” are often still controversial.

  2. Dave on January 5, 2004 at 2:58 am


    You make it sound like every practitioner of Mormon History should just close up shop and go sell insurance or something. I think you are expecting way too much of history.

    First, the primary metric for the New Mormon History should be whether it is better than the Old Mormon History. It clearly is: it does not start an inquiry with predetermined conclusions; it does a better job of acknowledging contrary evidence and interpretations; it is more in touch with the standards and contemporary themes of professional history in general. It produces better “historical facts” for subsequent historians or other researchers to work with.

    Second, what can anyone legitimately expect of any field of history? This ain’t science, you know, but for some bizarre reason humans still produce and consume prodigious amounts of history and biography. What has French History given us? Well, a better understanding of France or the modern nation state maybe. What have innumerable studies of the French Revolution given us? Well, a better understanding of the French Revolution. That matters a lot to the French, you know, but the field has produced no accepted “general law of revolutions.” That’s not an indictment of French History, though.

    For me (no historian) the New Mormon History is (1) a considerable improvement over the Old Mormon History, and (2) gives me a better understanding of the history of the Mormon Church. That alone (multiplied by the thousands of others interested in this particular field) seems entirely sufficient to justify the endeavour. No other particular field of history appears to provide anything more to interested readers.

    Oh, in defense of history in general I suppose it’s worth mentioning that the study of history helps the informed student discount the claims that science, philosophy, and social science in general constantly make about having discovered or established general laws or truths. Most theories are much more historically situated or dependent than researchers in those fields ever recognize or admit. It’s hard to see for current theories, but go back more than two generations in any field and it becomes painfully obvious how blind we (as humans) really are to the degree to which our mileau shapes our thinking and perception.

  3. tyler durden on January 5, 2004 at 3:53 am

    i just recently saw tim burton’s “big fish”. the movie deals with a dying father who only told his life’s story as a complex collection of tall-tales and son trying to figure out his father’s real history. the movie goes on to question which is better…and what truly tells the story of his father: what really happened or the stories. i think this can be very related to what is going on with the search for the so-called new mormon history. (the movie also reminded me of the first appendix in james faulconer’s scripture study book that i read two nights ago)

    on the otherhand though, after reading quinn’s early mormonism and the magic world view, i found the ‘real history’ to seem more far-fetched, yet much more rewarding. is there more we can learn about the nature of faith, revelation, and god’s forms of interaction with us by understanding how the early saints applied their own faith, even it was through common folk magic of their day?

  4. Clark Goble on January 5, 2004 at 4:03 am

    To be fair as well to the historians, a lot of what Nate asks for is fairly interpretive. Given the controversies with the *less* interpretive history, what would the others look like. For instance one book that did do what Nate wants is the psycho-history of Joseph Smith interpreting his “delusions” in light of psycho-analysis. A bit far fetched to me, but more in line with what Nate suggests. A better book was Compton’s _The Wives of Joseph Smith_. While more a straightforward history of a lot of forgotten women, it also includes a “grand narrative” regarding polygamy and polyandry for dynastic marriages.

    More successful than Quinn, although in certain ways less interesting, Brooke’s _The Refiner’s Fire_ casts early Mormonism in light of hermeticism. It isn’t so all over the map or inconsistent as Quinn, although I don’t know if it quite fits what Nate’s looking for. A more interesting one which covers numerous topics is _Science, Religion, and Mormon Cosmology_. It is made up of different themes (effectively different papers under one large rubric). But certain chapters do what I think Nate asks.

    What I think Nate is really asking for though is more focus on the bigger ideas or themes – looking for the underlying principles from which to understand Mormonism. And few have done this terribly well. But I’m not sure the history is as bad as Nate makes out now that I’ve thought about it for a few hours.

  5. brayden on January 5, 2004 at 11:26 am

    I think Nate makes a good point in that most Mormon history is done outside of the context of history as an academic field. Its location in the discipline is peripheral. This doesn’t have to be the case given the success of other kinds of religious history in gaining esteem in the eyes of fellow scholars. Why can’t Mormon history be granted the same level of respect?

  6. Nate Oman on January 5, 2004 at 12:03 pm

    Dave: Perhaps I was not being clear enough. My point is not that the New Mormon History cannot be justified and therefore should be abandoned. Far from it. I have book shelves groaning from the weight of the stuff, and I quite enjoy it. My beef is that it could be better. As for the proper rubric, I don’t buy your proposed criteria. I did my 3L paper at HLS on a topic from Mormon history. My advisor offered me all sorts of criticisms on the first draft and pointed me toward a whole bunch of stuff done on the intellectual history of jurisprudence in post-Civil War America that I needed to integrate into the paper. It would have been absolutely ludicrous for me to respond to his criticisms by saying, “Hey! Your expectations are too high, and my paper is more sophisticated that B.H. Roberts’s treatment of the same subject!”

    I am also not necessarily looking for historians to promulgate causal laws of historical change or something like that. I am skeptical about the existence of such laws in the context of human behavior. On the other hand, all social theorizing need not take the form of causal laws. There are whole disciplines and schools of thought that begin with the rejection of the search for such laws, e.g., critical theory, anthropology, etc.

    Finally, I have repeatedly heard that claim that history is the great intellectual watch dog of other social theories and enjoys pride of place because of this role. Indeed, this was the substance of Claudia Bushman’s response at MHA to my paper on the history of legal concepts in the Reynolds v. United States. I don’t really buy it. First, the idea that theories etc. are socially constructed and historically conditioned was not originally propounded by historians. Hegel and Marx are better candidates for that particular honor. Indeed, much of what historians offer as meta-insights on the human condition are actually ideas that are picked up from other sources and fields. Given the intellectual skill set that historians acquire, this is hardly surprising, and I don’t think that there is any shame in it. I just don’t buy into the intellectual triumphalism that one occasionally gets when historians sagely remind others that, gee, other folks have thought about things differently. Dah! If that is the sum of the theoretical insight it is banal.

  7. Nate Oman on January 5, 2004 at 12:22 pm

    Clark: You are probably right that a more theoretically robust Mormon history might be more controversial than would be the current round of Mormon history. As you point out, Brodie took lots of heat for her more souped up intellectual approach. It is also a lot more intellectually dangerous to take such an approach, as Brodie also illustrates. Her methodological stand has not stood up well at all, and I suppose that theoretical daring opens you up to the possibilty of this kind of embarrasment. Arrington’s collection of facts is still pretty good stuff.

    For all their genuflexing before the altar of historical professionalism, there is a sense in which the New Mormon History, at the theoretical level, remains more of less in the thrall of the old Mormon history. Generally, the New Mormon Historians have taken religious belief as the causal engine of their story. Of course, they carefully subjectivize the belief so that it doesn’t turn into the providential causal engine of the old Mormon history, but the underlying explanation remains essentially religious. This, is a potentially interesting insight, but is by and large not one that New Mormon Historians have exploited. In order for the insight to matter, however, they would need to show that superiority of religion as an explanation vis-a-vis other theories. Furthermore, to have any teeth, it would need to engage the best, most sophisticated versions of those other theories, bromides about the inadequacy of vaguely referenced economic determinism of the like won’t cut it.

    I agree that it is entirely possible that I am simply expecting more than history as a dicipline is likely to give me. On the other hand, it seems that be eschewing theory, the New Mormon History has sown the seeds of its own decline. We have had about two generations of finding new stuff and telling the stories of the untold under belly of Mormonism. It is not clear that there are all that many interesting and as yet unturned rocks to look at. No less a committed iconoclast than Will Bagley has insisted that there is no secret, untold story of Mormonism left. He admits that we might find documents to fill in gaps here and there, but he doesn’t expect whole new narratives to emerge. The problem is that the punch of the New Mormon History has laregly revolved around unearthing new facts. One must now travel further and further afield to find new facts. Frankly, a daring expose of what was really happening in the Sanpete County hometeaching program of the 1920s doesn’t seem like all that much fun to me. However, unless Mormon historians provides ways of bringing their research into dialogue with bigger theoretical issues, I don’t see that they have much of anywhere else to go.

    Brayden: I think that you are exactly right. For all of their talk of professionalization, the New Mormon History is at the margins of the discipline. In part this is a function of subject matter. We are more interesting to ourselves than to others. However, I think part of it has to do with the theoretically stunted nature of the New Mormon History.

    On the other hand, I am an optimist. I think that things are getting better. I think that Kathryn Daines and Sally Gordon have done some promising research dealing with polygamy. I think that Bushman’s Joseph biography will be a big leap forward. We’ll see what happens…

  8. Clark Goble on January 5, 2004 at 1:16 pm

    I actually think there are interesting facts left unsaid. But I think Bagley is right in one regard.

    What seems left is making *connections*. That is slightly different from theory. To take one glaring example. Consider the Missouri wars that continued on up through the Civil War. Brutal guerilla wars. In many ways the earlier Mormon wars were part of this. Yet has there been a good mainstream book that looks at the Mormon wars from the context of the overall guerilla wars of Missouri that ranged through a great part of the 19th century? There are places where non-Mormon authors mention the Mormons. There are off-hand quotes from Mormon authors. If one does the research one can find a lot of this. But is there a good book that the average reader could pick up and see it? No.

    What about the relationship between the Utah War and the Civil War? Once again you can pick it up in various places – especially in non-Mormon histories of the causes of the Civil War. But a good one with a more Mormon history focus? No.

    Take your example of Quinn. There are some great ideas there. But no connection, no showing what the ideas *meant* (thus leading to many erroneous readings of Quinn), no showing how the Mormon experience compared (or was affected) by the general setting of early New York or Illinois.

    Now I’m all for a more ideological or philosophical analysis. And I certainly agree that is missing. But I’d settle as a first step for more connections between what is going on in our community and others. I think your comments about the Old Mormon History are apt. We still have this provincialism about our history which is unfortunate.

  9. Kristine on January 5, 2004 at 1:24 pm

    Nate: could this also be a generational problem for the discipline, in which Mormon history (predictably) lags behind other areas of the discipline? It wasn’t so long ago that merely gathering and compiling documentary evidence, creating a narrative to link the bits of evidence, and laying it out in some even slightly innovative way was a good day’s work for an historian. (Yeah, that’s grossly reductionist–this is supposed to be just a little comment :) ) In the last couple of decades, as instant access to digitized libraries and archives all over the world has become routine, mere documentation of the narrative suffices less and less. But the requirement for a rigorous theoretical underpinning is still a relatively recent development. And for historians of Mormonism, in fact, gaining access to documents is still a major issue–it shouldn’t be so surprising that they’re a little behind in the drive towards retheorizing the discipline.

  10. Kaimi on January 5, 2004 at 1:31 pm


    I know much less about Mormon history than others here. I was thinking about one thing, though, as I read the comments. To what extent is there a Mormon historiography? Is that what’s missing?

  11. Adam Greenwood on January 5, 2004 at 2:12 pm

    You pooh-pooh the role of history and historians in pointing out that theories are themselves historically situated and subject to the blindnesses of their creators. Fine. I don’t really care who generated the idea, it is history that puts flesh and bones on it. It’s one thing to toss of a pro forma acknowledgement that one’s times distort one’s ideas, it is another to read history and get kicked in the gut with the realization that the past is a different country, they do things different there.

  12. Nate Oman on January 5, 2004 at 4:15 pm

    Adam, my point is that the insight is not peculiarlly historical. One can get the same point by reading alternative philosophies, athropology, etc. Thus, this cannot be the unique value added of history. It seems to me that history purports to be an explanation of past events (broadly defined). I take it that we can judge it (at least in part) and power of the theories that it produces to explain those events.

  13. Adam Greenwood on January 5, 2004 at 4:52 pm

    Well, historians themselves think they’re supposed to explain the past, but I agree they often do a poor job of it.
    I think history can be strong when merely descriptive. That is, a historian who can imaginatively drag a reader into a time, a place, an incident, a person, an institution, or some facet of human personality has done a signal service. Most argue that history is a branch of the social sciences, but I think it best fits in the humanities.

  14. Clark Goble on January 5, 2004 at 6:24 pm

    Adam, I’ve long thought that much of the social sciences are more appropriate for the humanities, so I probably agree. (Excuse the traditional Jehovah complex intrinsic to physics )

  15. Nate Oman on January 6, 2004 at 1:32 pm

    Kaimi, what exactly do you mean by historiography? I confess that I find your comment a bit cryptic.

  16. Kaimi on January 6, 2004 at 2:01 pm


    I’m not a historian, and perhaps my definition is incorrect — my (limited) understanding is based on how I understood the terms as used by a professor, who actually is a historian (but I may have just misunderstood the term). My understanding of the word as used by this professor is that historiography is analysis of the work of historians, examining their underlying assumptions and looking at how those assumptions affected their conclusions. The term as she used it was very “meta” in nature, sort of the antithesis of primary-source archive digging.

  17. Kaimi on January 6, 2004 at 2:04 pm

    I just googled the term, and I think I confirmed that I’m not wrong in my definition. From Wikipedia:

    “Historiography is writing about rather than of history. Historiography is meta-analysis of descriptions of the past. The analysis usually focuses on the narrative, interpretations, worldview, use of evidence, or method of presentation of other historians.
    . . .
    Conal Furay and Michael J. Salevouris define ‘historiography’ as ‘the study of the way history has been and is written–the history of historical writing… When you study ‘historiography’ you do not study the events of the past directly, but the changing interpretations of those events in the works of individual historians.’”

    See http://en2.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historiographer

  18. Nate Oman on January 6, 2004 at 2:06 pm

    In this sense there was burst of historiographic writing in Mormonism in the mid to late 1980s. Essentially there were a bunch of non-historian scholars who pointed out that the New Mormon Historians claims to simply let the past speak honestly for itself were a bit philosophically niave. A bunch of New Mormon Historians wrote some rather huffy and poorly thought out replies in which they accused their critics of post-modern nihilism, being uncharitable, and advocating a return to the bad old days of pre-New Mormon History history. The fire works were kind of fun, but I am not sure that there was anything of great insight here. Essentially you had a bunch of historians with slightly out of date epistemological theories floundering around with a bunch of less historically informed but more sophisticated philosophers.

  19. clark goble on January 6, 2004 at 2:29 pm

    I think what Nate describes is still true, even if I am slightly more sympathetic to the defenders of the New History than the others. However I did find the charge of postmodernism rather funny, as none of those writing on the topic at FARMS really were embracing postmodern figures. It’s been a very long time so I may be getting things wrong, but I seem to recall Kuhn being the dominant figure. But he’s a neo-Kantian not a postmodernist.

    Still I think Kaimi has a point in that methadologies still are rather up in the air somewhat. But I’m admittedly not up on the most recent discussions (either in or out of Mormonism) My reading has suggested that a lot of recent academic history writing has been unduly affected by certain trends that started in anthropology.

  20. brayden on January 6, 2004 at 2:32 pm

    I’m not disagreeing with you Clark, but how has academic history been unduly affected by anthropology? Just curious.

  21. Nate Oman on January 6, 2004 at 3:49 pm

    In this thread I fear that I have come off a bit more critical of the New Mormon History than I actually am. There are some very smart people doing this stuff. A lot of it is insightful. It represents a huge amount of reseach and effort and I think that our understanding of Mormonism is much the richer for it. Also, despite what I wrote above, I don’t think that there were clear “winners” or “losers” in the spat of historiographic debates in the mid and late 1980s. I have met and know (to one degree or another) both David Bohn and Tom Alexander. They are both intelligent scholars and fine human beings. My problem is that it seems like there is a certain intellectual complacency that has settled over Mormon studies (or perhaps it has always been there) that I find a bit stultifying.

  22. clark goble on January 6, 2004 at 3:57 pm

    Bayden, I was thinking of the movement that started in anthropology regarding not saying one culture is superior to an other. Margaret Mead and so forth. That went through most of the humanities and even some of soft sciences to a degree. Combine that with certain kinds of readings of Nietzsche, Derrida, deMan, and others and there’s a lot I get uncomfortable with. (On the other hand it’s better than that nasty Freudianism that popped up among some prior to this)

    And I say this as someone who basically considers themself a postmodernist.

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  24. HL on February 4, 2005 at 12:46 pm

    I have not read the comments made to this original post, so I apologize if I am repeating something. I wonder if Mormonism as a culture suffers from a lack of affinity for original thinking. I often wonder why Mormons don’t produce, as a culture, great scholars, writers, etc. like you see for examlpe in Jewish culture. Obviously the answer is very complex involving several differnet aspects. However, one aspect to this answer has always seemed to me to be that Jewish culture seems to encourage questioning and intellectual exploration whereas, I think Mormonism encourages obedience above questioning and knowledge acquisition above intellectual exploration. Obviously this raises several questions. Even assuming my very simplistic generalization above is correct, one could still question 1. whether one approach is better than another. For examlpe I value Mormonism’s emphasis on obedience and knowledge acquisition. I believe obedience to be supremely important to being able to return to our Heavenly Father. And 2. whether such a distinction as outlined above should cause scholars not to feel comfortable or desire to apply Mormon studies to larger conceptual frameworks. Assuming my distinction is correct and assuming this has caused a reticence to use Mormon strudies to make larger theorizing shouldn’t we be able to be dualistic in how we approach first our lives and secondly our intellectual pursuits without running afoul of Church hierarchy or our own personal beliefs?

  25. Kaimi on February 4, 2005 at 1:19 pm

    I think that Clark’s idea may be right. If a historian goes out on any kind of limb at all (or even connects some basic dots) in a way that may be viewed as counter to anything about the church, FARMS/FAIR may jump all over him. For example, Compton’s book was criticized heavily by FARMS.

    Perhaps the specter of a highly negative FARMS review causes historians to prefer just simple fact dumps.

  26. HL on February 4, 2005 at 1:23 pm

    But is it just FARMS or is it more culturally prevalent and does this impact those who become LDS scholars later?

  27. Nate Oman on February 4, 2005 at 1:33 pm

    HL: My problem with your thesis is that even Mormon historian’s whose self-identity seems to be largely wrapped up opposition to Mormon conformity and the pressures of religious orthodoxy in writing history (eg Mike Quinn) seem to run into the problem of providing at best very weakly generalizable ideas. Don’t get me wrong, I think that there is something to what you say, but I don’t think that works a main theory.

    For my money, the problem comes from the fact that Mormon studies tends to view itself as an autonomous field rather than as an extension of broader intellectual discussions. As a result, its discussions tend to be narrow and somewhat ghettoized.

  28. HL on February 4, 2005 at 1:58 pm

    Nate: Your formualtion of the problem seems right on to me. I think it better explains the work of someone like Jan Shipps who was not raised in Mormon culture, etc. However, I specifically had Quinn in mind when phrasing my idea. The problem extends from critical to faithful scholar not only because LDS scholars want to be faithful or are nervous not to be faithful (Quinn appears to be neither). I wonder if it is more a way we are raised and aculturated. We do not learn at a young age to value intellectual curosity per se. As I read this, I seem to make it sound like a bad thing, which I’m not sure it is and it may in fact be a very valuable thing that inadvertantly costs us some on our scholarship.

  29. Clark on February 4, 2005 at 2:43 pm

    Actually Kaimi, while I think that is true, I’m not at all convinced it is a bad thing. I’m a very big proponent of the debate of ideas. While FARMS’ rhetoric occasionally gets overheated, I think the service they provide is essential. (Further I think their bad rhetoric is vastly overexaggerated – it makes up a relative small portion of the papers they publish) Now I think the things they focused in on with regards to Compton was relatively small. But so what? Surely those are legitimate things to debate.

    I think the problem with FARMS is more never having a clear audience. My honest opinion is that if we recognized the reviews as more a kind of critique of portions of arguments from a faithful perspective then most complaints would disappear. However it is also oriented as a kind of apologetic library for regular members who may encounter anti-Mormon or naturalistic arguments. In that function I tend to think they are far, far, less successful. (Although once again they do good work there at times and I think their flaws often are overexaggerated) The problem is that those two missions, along with oft repeated focuses on fundamental philosophical paradigms, are all conflated into a single journal.

    So, if one criticizes FARMS for confused focus and voice, I’d probably agree. If one criticizes them because they criticize arguments, then I strongly disagree. I think that is very important for any scholarship, but especially history where there simply is less “objective” answers to discover than in the sciences. If the argument survives the attacks, then it is probably strong. Likewise I think critics attack FARMS authors who occasionally put out weak arguments. So what? That’s the whole point of publishing ideally – to discover the truth and flawed weak arguments is often part and parcel of the process.

  30. Jed on February 4, 2005 at 5:51 pm

    Thanks for resurrecting this post, Nate.

    I think your overall point about the ghettoization of Mormon history is spot on. Like many Mormon historians who reflect on this subject, you frame ghettoization as a flaw, as something to be overcome, and of course that must be the case if academic respectability is the goal. You obviously want professional lawyers and economists like yourself to be able to publish papers on Mormon studies without that work being marked as marginal, trivial, naive, or insigificant. I have considerable sympathy for that position, but I also think we may be asking more of Mormon history than historical subfields are usually able to deliver. Academic history is filled with narrow subfields sitting in small little pockets: that is as much a function of the fragmented, overspecialized modern academy as it is the style of the subfield itself. Amish history, Presbyterian history, even Catholic history are all ghettoized fields. Medievalists often write fact-laden treatises with almost no metanarrative. If these subfields fail to attract the attention of scholars, the writing style is not to blame. The answer is far simpler: the subject fails to capture interest. Mormon minds take it as axiomatic that everyone should be interested in Mormonism without asking whether scholars should be expected to make similiarly intense interest in other subfields. How much Amish history do we read? When Mormonism gets as big as Islam, then maybe everyone will turn and take notice.

    As for your critiques of Arrington and Quinn, I see them much as you do, and some of these thoughts have echoed in my own mind, but I see Arrington’s GBK slightly differently. Economic history was still a new field in 1958, and GBK was well received back then (indeed its publication by Harvard University Press does not support your characterization of the book’s backwardness). The metanarrative now expected of economic history does not seem to be the expectation then. And I do not think it completely fair to judge Arrington by the standards of a Nobel prize winner writing in early 1980s. From the standpoiont of the present, we can easily see the flaws, as we can on all books written almost five decades ago.

  31. Nate Oman on February 4, 2005 at 7:22 pm

    Jed: I think that your defense of GBK is probably fair. I don’t mean to imply that it isn’t a great book. I much enjoy it.

    I think that your points regarding historical subfields are probably right. It is a bit depressing in some ways, as I just finished a draft of an essay arguing for the possibilty of Mormon legal thought. I am probably just deluding myself. It is just as well that my academic ambitions are tied to law and economics and the philosophy of private law rather than the possiblity of a Mormon jurisprudence. Still, it would be nice if Mormon Studies tried to be more than a subfield for self-obsessed Mormons. (I say this as a thoroughly self-obsessed Mormon.)

  32. David King Landrith on February 4, 2005 at 9:56 pm

    Mormon Studies as an academic topic is still in its infancy. Those active in it now are likely the pioneers in what will (at some point in the future) become a golden age of Mormon Studies.

    But I think the problem is that Mormonism as a religion just hits too close to home for many Americans, and the result on all sides (and there are sides) has been advocacy rather than dispassionate reason. There are signs that this may be starting to change, and this change is the kind of thing that needs to happen before Mormon Studies will really blossom.

    But I’m not at all surprised that Mormon studies have taught us very little about anything besides Mormonism. Holocaust Studies as an academic topic is also still in it infancy, and it has yet to teach us much about anything besides the Holocaust. Why is this a problem?

  33. Jed on February 4, 2005 at 10:18 pm

    Nate: There is more reason for optimism than you might think. I want to return to your original question, “Has [the New] Mormon History Taught Us Anything?”

    NMH has taught us that Mormons are intensely curious about their own past, and they want others to share in their curiosity, their wonder, their joy. NMH has taught us that the Mormon archives are filled with rich, effulgent, radiant documents written by and about America’s most persecuted sect, and that to ignore those archives is to risk not only not understanding Mormons, but America as well. NMH has taught us that Mormon historians often think about their task differently than American historians; instead of situating their history within American history, Mormons often situate their history outside American history, as though their church is exceptional, unique, apart (this is a natural move for a people who do already think of their faith in this way). NMH has taught us that those who make Mormon history appear unexceptional can sometimes alienate those whose job it is to protect institutional identity, namely, the apostles. NMH has taught us that Mormons have their own religious language; that this language takes work to learn (no suprise that Shipps, one of the few who put in the effort, was first immersed in the language in Utah), and that American historians cannot understand Mormons if they do not learn this language. The fact that Mormon historians so often pan books written by outsiders shows, in part, the failure of outsiders to learn the Mormon language.

    None of these lessons, I would argue, result from the failure of NMH; they are built into the sociological and institutional fabric of Mormonism as much as anything. Mormons do believe the details of history matter. God is in the details of our lives. We do have this amazing in-culture that makes the kind of discussion we have at T&S seem comfortable and natural. We like to speak in our own language and at times feel uncomfortable stepping out of it. In a sense NMH channelled all of the impulses that Mormons love about themselves: record keeping, God in the details, narrative, confidence in people wanting to hear our story as we understand it. NMH’s biggest “failure” was in being itself: Mormon.

    But being Mormon is alien to Americans. Ultimately, I think the big lesson NMH teaches us is the humbling realization that we cannot write academic history on our own terms. If we want to be read by Americans and published by their presses, we have to engage Americans in their own history, asking questions they find relevant, defining our terms against theirs, placing our story within the American story and not outside it (this is true for international history as well). We cannot throw Mormon history to the world without giving a translation. NMH has taught us the same lesson as Manifesto: to live in America means we have to play by America’s rules.

    I think clipping our sails in this way is ultimately the smartest direction to go in the long run. The history written for the Ensign will continue to emphasize our peculiarity because that venue is institutional and is designed to foster our exceptionality. As it should be. But history written for venues where values are negotiated on nonreligious terms and dictated through a long history not involving Mormons has to emphasize our similarity and shared concerns with Americans. The alternative, to see our history go unpublished, is not viable, because then we are left to have our story told by others and the public image so important to our missionary work shaped by the John Brookes of the world, historians who do not understand us.

    All of this doesn’t mean there can’t be a field called Mormon Studies. It doesn’t mean Mormon Studies has to subsume itself entirely by the American questions, muzzling its own voice. It does mean that whatever it does on its own terms Mormon Studies has to also engage the categories and the problems that preoccupy American academics.

  34. Rosalynde Welch on February 5, 2005 at 2:54 am

    Interesting discussion about ghettoization in the disciplines. It is perhaps significant that in the humanities certain cultural ghettos have become quite respectable, moving both to the center and to the (cutting) edge of the discipline–feminism being the major example, but postcolonial studies and cultural studies more generally (including queer studies and disability studies, etc) included. I think it unlikely that Mormon studies will follow this trajectory, though, because feminism and cultural studies have moved on the strength of their identity politics–and I think most Mormons individually and the church generally are reluctant (not to mention politically ill-suited) to engage the identity politics game, at least as it has been played over the past two decades.

  35. Jed on February 5, 2005 at 8:14 am

    I might add we do have much in common with Americans, for we are Americans. NMH underestimated these differences to its own peril. But you cannot have difference without similarity. As my Jewish historian friend Charles Cohen says, “Mormons will never know how different they are from Americans until they know how they are the same as Americas.”

  36. Shawn Bailey on February 5, 2005 at 10:26 am

    Jed’s point is interesting. I remember a conversation with an English professor at the University of Utah in which I (referring to my beliefs, mission, marriage) insisted that I was extremely odd compared to the typical person my age. He insisted that despite all this I was deeply and uniquely American. It was interesting to learn later that he earned his Ph.d at Yale under Harold Bloom. I suppose he saw me as an unfortunately staid inheritor of what he would probably call Joseph Smith’s brilliant gnosticism–and the type of person that will figure large in the future of America.

    The Mormon belief in providential history was brought up above, but a question remained for me: to what extent does the belief in dispensations characterized by revelation and apostacy, the theories of history posed by authors and editors of the Book of Mormon (in conventional terms, the pride cycle), and the eventual millenium, judgment, and end of human history figure into the discussion? Do these beliefs increase or diminish the likelihood that Mormon history will produce important general theories of history? Is there material here that could be expressed in academic terms? Do mormon historians have to ignore these powerful ideas to maintain academic respectability?

    Also, although I enjoy reading history I am a little ignorant regarding historical method. Can anyone suggest good introductory texts on historiography? What about an introductory text on the related meta-approaches in sociology, etc? Thanks in advance if anyone can help!

  37. Jonathan Green on February 5, 2005 at 10:52 am

    Postcolonial studies? Queer theory? Rosalynde, that’s so 2004. Stanley Fish says that the next big thing in the academy is religion. Maybe the 2008 MLA will have a couple sessions devoted to proto-Mormon readings of Shakespeare. (Then again, I recently swore I would ignore anything Stanley Fish has ever written.)

  38. Rosalynde Welch on February 5, 2005 at 11:08 am

    Oh dear, my degree is showing its age, isn’t it? (PhD vintage 2004.)

    Actually, my dissertation was on religion, and I was congratulated repeatedly on having chosen such a hot up-and-coming topic that would make me so attractive on the job market… I didn’t bother telling people that my choice had nothing to do with academic trends and that I had (almost) no intention of braving the job market!

    You’re right that queer studies are aging, but I think postcolonial studies still quite dynamic–and cultural studies remains the future, I think, with “religion” being an outgrowth of that.

  39. Christian Cardall on February 5, 2005 at 11:15 am

    Nate (#7): It is not clear that there are all that many interesting and as yet unturned rocks to look at… The problem is that the punch of the New Mormon History has largely revolved around unearthing new facts. One must now travel further and further afield to find new facts.

    I have trouble with this for two reasons.

    One is that the Church Archives are not so `far afield,’ and if there’s nothing interesting there, why are they closed? Where’s the promised third volume of the Papers of Joseph Smith, Journal 1843-1844 (Papers, Vol. 2, p. xxv)? Further, Jessee described these first three volumes as but the beginning of the projected publication of a much larger corpus that he described in the General Introduction to the Papers (Vol. 1, p. xxxi). To anyone who agrees with Jessee that “the papers of Joseph Smith provide the basic resource for understanding the man and measuring his credibility…” (Vol. 1, p. xvii), the current situation can only be described as a travesty.

    This may be out of left field, but my second concern is that the history of physics shows we ought not underestimate the potential impact of even just a couple of new facts. (This should also be obvious from a legal perspective—think `stained blue dress’. And I can only imagine that historians feel similarly jealous of their documents.) At the end of the 19th century, most eminent scientists (like Kelvin, as I recall) thought physics was basically complete, with some trivial questions like the electrodynamics of moving bodies and the specific heats of metals at low temperature to be tidied up. In the hands of young Einstein, these couple of facts unraveled the entire edifice of classical physics, unleashing the revolutions of relativity and quantum mechanics. (Appropriate to remember this in this centenary Year of Physics, a celebration of Einstein’s 1905 annus mirabilis!)

    To say we already have an embarrassment of riches—a surfeit of facts that still need theoretical treatment—is a fair enough point, but let’s not get complacent about the facts either. Now Jessee et al. must have seen it all, I can only guess that they’ve given assurances that there’s nothing dramatic. But are these like the assurances from Kelvin? Who knows what a few new facts might lead to in the hands of, say, a young Nate Oman?

  40. Rosalynde Welch on February 5, 2005 at 1:13 pm

    Christian, is this what you’re talking about? : http://smithinstitute.byu.edu/jspapers.asp

    (sorry, don’t know how to put the links in elegantly)

  41. Christian Cardall on February 5, 2005 at 2:04 pm

    Thanks, Rosalynde, that sounds exactly what I was talking about! Rejoice! (Not that I’ve taken advantage of even the secondary sources already available, or that I would ever be a serious user of the primary sources—just the principle of the thing bothered me.)

    Can anyone provide any insight into the hiatus in publication of the Joseph Smith papers (particularly the Vol. 3, 1843-44 journal), and any connection or lack thereof with the end of the ‘golden age’ of the open Church Archives? Do these recent developments, together with Bushman and Underwood’s seminar this summer—which includes introduction of the participants to the Church Archives—herald a new golden age in access? Or was the `closing’ overblown in the first place? I may need to be disabused of notions I’ve absorbed by osmosis. (Smells like a 12 Questions for Dean Jessee or someone with similar experience.)

  42. Jed on February 5, 2005 at 2:25 pm

    Christian says: “Now Jessee et al. must have seen it all, I can only guess that they’ve given assurances that there’s nothing dramatic.”

    I can assure you there will be no drama when Joseph Smith’s late Nauvoo journals are published in the Smith Papers series. The reason is they have already been published, in Scott Faulring’s edition of the jorunals entitled An American Prophet’s Record (Signature, 1987; reprint 1989). The Smith Institute at BYU is now hard at work on a 2nd ed. of the first two volumes of the old Jessee series, as well as aforementioned vol three and many new volumes including correspondence, legal papers, financial and administrative papers, etc., in a much grander series than Jessee first imagined. There is no smoking gun anywhere. Scholars who have been working on the Joseph Smith period have been looking at these documents for a long time. Accessability is the news.

    You speak of the Church ARchives holding back collections. Have you been to the CA recently, Christian? The Smith Papers (MS 155) have been open for years (and I mean many years), and only a few small percentage of the total holding in the CA are closed for research. The reports of CA repression have been greatly exaggerated.

  43. Nate Oman on February 5, 2005 at 3:00 pm

    Jed, I think, is right about the CA. One must also factor in the huge dump of documents recently done to DVD and now available through most research libraries with any serious Mormon collection. Even iconoclasts like Will Bagley have said that there is no secret history of Mormonism to be told. I have no doubt that new documents could provide us with some interesting new interpretations of past events, but I am a bit skeptical. It seems to me that the best recent work in Mormon history — Sally Gordon, Kathleen Flake, and Terryl Givens — hasn’t traded on unearthing startling new documents (the Quinn-Vogel model if you will) but has rather offered broader and more theoretically sophisticated interpretations of long available material.

  44. Christian Cardall on February 5, 2005 at 3:52 pm

    Thanks, all, for the “disabuse”. ;) Jed, not only have I not been to the CA recently, I’ve never been at all.

  45. John Morley on February 5, 2005 at 6:02 pm

    I think a major reason for the scarcity of “generalizable” social scientific theory in Mormon history is that Mormondom is a poor starting point for the formation of those ideas. Basically, it’s a bad sample. Mormonism suffers from two flaws: Its small size and its permeation by peculiar organizational and cultural traits not commonly found elsewhere. Robert Fogel revolutionized economic history, for example, not with the study of the development of a single region, but with the study of slavery over the course of several hundred years. His later innovative worked involved the role of railroads with Western expansion. Fogel could never have demonstrated the full complexity and scale of his new methodology because Mormon history is too small, and he could never have drawn his conclusions very reliably, because other scholars would have argued that his study was somehow distorted by weird traits in Mormonism.

    The history of Mormonism may occasionally serve as one among many examples an author uses to make a general argument. Bob Ellickson has used GBK in this way to support his theory of private property. But in general, Mormon history is only good as one brick in a theoretical wall, not as the foundation.

  46. John Morley on February 5, 2005 at 6:09 pm

    By way of clarification–I’m talking about why Mormon history hasn’t been a starting point for the development of new theoretical approaches. My argument doesn’t explain why innovative theoretical approaches developed elsewhere haven’t been applied more frequently to Mormon history.

  47. Nate Oman on February 5, 2005 at 9:34 pm

    I remember having a discussion with Ellickson when has visiting at HLS on Mormon property arrangments. What I found interesting was that he was aware of GBK, but not of any of the more recent stuff, especially Zion in the Courts, which would be more relevant to his purposes.

    I think ath John makes a good point. I suppose that we have two distinct issues. One, why hasn’t the NMH been better at linking its concerns to more generalized theories; and, why hasn’t it produced more generalizable theories. It may be that Mormonism is not necessarily as idiosyncratic as we would like to think. It seems that we might, for example, want to use it as a way of thinking about the rise of new religious movements (my understanding is that this is what Rodney Stark has done, although I haven’t read much of his stuff). Robert Cover thought that Mormon legal experience was useful for thinking about the development of legal narratives. I would not expect Mormon history to generate much in the way of global theories of economic change or social development. I could imagine it adding more to certain more focused questions

  48. Mike on February 6, 2005 at 1:44 am

    Interesting that this is what was brought back from the archive- As for the Rodney Stark stuff- I haven’t read any of it but a Stark article was used as part of my home teaching lesson by the member of the singles ward bishopbric that hometeaches my roommate and me.

  49. Shawn Bailey on February 8, 2005 at 10:12 am

    So no one has any suggestions on an introductory text on historical method, theory of history, historiography, meta-theoretical approaches to history, or whatever else you might call it? Have I stumped all the prolific polymaths at T&S? Inconceivable!

  50. Shawn Bailey on February 8, 2005 at 10:28 am

    Reflecting on those “vintage” T&S posts that invited recommendations regarding essential texts in different areas just as I pushed “Make Comment,” I had an idea for a possible T&S feature: an open thread (perhaps Kaimi’s about the 50 books in one year thing) where the well-read among us report on what they are reading now. Many posts here leave me wondering where I can learn more.

  51. Jared on February 8, 2005 at 12:04 pm


    The most commonly used text in the historiography class at BYU is:

    Mark T. Gilderhus, History and Historians: A Historiographical Introduction

    It is very short and decently written. Most professional historians tend to think that historiography is boring and they only engage the topic when they are forced to teach it to undergraduates. They are, of course, familiar with how other historians have treated their own area of expertise, but they tend to eschew any “meta-theoretical study” of all history writing.

    In fact, as Nate has lamented, historians tend to avoid grand theories as a matter of course. The exceptions are the cliometricians or economic historians such as the Nobel prize winner that Nate cited and academics from other disciplines who have less of an aversion to grand theories explaining the history of everything (e.g. Jared Diamond).

    There are several reasons historians are reticent about meta-theories. Jed has already pointed out many of them, but I would add one more: historians know that most grand theories end up as the subject of continuous ridicule only a generation or two later. Ever heard of Charles Beard? While he may be regarded as the first cliometrician, his work is generally used in historiography classes as a prime example of what not to do as a historian.

  52. Shawn Bailey on February 8, 2005 at 12:19 pm

    Jared: thanks!


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