Recent weeks have seen stimulating (and occasionally heated) discussion of a July Ensign article on the life of Bathsheba W. Smith. The article, meticulously parsed by Justin Butterfield, omits, together with other biographical material, all references to Bathsheba Smith’s sister-wives and any reference to the polygamous families of her husband, George A. Smith. This conspicuous lacuna looks to many readers like a deliberate effort to edit the historical record, selectively striking embarrassing references to polygamy—and, in the process, variously flouting standards of historiography and simple honesty, dishonoring the memory of polygamous wives, and writing women out of Mormon history. I’m instinctively sympathetic to the concerns articulated by Justin and Kris (I mean really, who wouldn’t want to put themselves in such distinguished company?), and to my mind they raise compelling historiographical questions. They stop too soon, though: the work of writing history is just that—writing and history–and thus the questions we ask about that work need to be both historical and rhetorical.
Consider, for example, the ideological work of a publication like the Ensign. Its function, in my view, is two-fold: to teach individual readers how to be A Mormon, and to teach that collection of Mormons to be a A Worldwide Church. That is, its function is first to assemble the Mormon subject position, and then to assemble the imagined community of Mormonism. Although each of these tasks uses historical information as a crucial source of discursive raw material, neither can be said to be doing anything like modern historiography. Modern historiography, vulnerable as it is to poststructuralist critique, still attempts and often succeeds in something like a reconstruction—if not, as the postructuralists insist, of an unmediated and fully accessible past reality, then still of a (mediated and incomplete, to be sure) recognizable past. The Ensign and publications like it, on the other hand, are concerned not with a reconstruction but with an ongoing construction of person and collective.
It’s misleading and counterproductive, then, to compare the Ensign to, say, the Journal of Religious History. A much better match, in my view, are the periodicals and print publications that Benedict Anderson examines in his book Imagined Communities, discursive technologies that served the emerging colonial nationalisms in the 18th and 19th centuries in the same way, I think, that the Ensign now serves an emerging global church. Anderson’s crucial insight (now some twenty-three years old) is that nationalism as an ideological artifact works as an imagined political community: a collection of people separated in space, most of whom will never meet or even become aware of one another, but who still understand themselves as linked by “a deep, horizontal comradeship.” In developing this claim, Anderson deals with an emerging print culture of second-generation nationalist movements, which, after the strenuous first-generation celebration of historical novelty subsided, began the process of reading nationalism genealogically—as the expression of an historical tradition of serial continuity. He looks at the newspapers, textbooks, and other forms of textual production that emanated from the imperial metropole to the colonies, teaching the far-flung inhabitants what it was to be an Englishman or a Spaniard, and what it meant to belong to England or Spain. History, or History emplotted in particular ways, opened itself as a vast quarry of the raw ideological material necessary for this sort of teaching, formulating the emerging subject position and imagined community as something deep-down always known. As Anderson puts it, “All profound changes in consciousness, by their very nature, bring with them characteristic amnesias. Out of such oblivions, in specific historical circumstances, spring narratives. … Out of this comes a conception of personhood, identity which, because it can not be ‘remembered,’ must be narrated.”
The comparison to global Mormonism and the Ensign is not perfect, of course (and please, let’s not get diverted into an argument over whether missionary work is inherently colonialist), but it is instructive. And one can recognize the basic discursive features of nationalism—in particular, the construction of a subject position and imagined community out of fragments of history—in almost any self-conscious social movement. Protestantism, classical liberalism, feminism, the gay movement, neo-conservatism—they all did and do the same thing, because that’s how communities get made. As an American Mormon, I’ll never know even the slightest fraction of British or South African or Guatemalan Saints, but I’ve been taught to imagine myself as connected to those Saints through the cultural and spiritual tissue of the Global Church—and I do that, in part, by understanding all of us in relation to a common History. Church publications teach us how to do that imagining of self and connecting of community: the Bathsheba Smith article shares a cover with, among other items, an interview with Elder Eyring about how to study the scriptures and a collection of “Latter-day Saint Voices” narratives.
Because the pedagogical task of the Ensign is not to teach “what a Mormon is” but “how to be a Mormon,” then, every word and image between that cover, by virtue of its rhetorical context, will be taken normatively rather than merely descriptively. Why did some readers object so strongly to the photos of housework in last month’s “Strengthening Future Mothers”? Simple: because the photos, by virtue of their placement between those two glossy covers, told us what we should be doing. An article that prominently and positively featured a functioning polygamous family, even removed in time, would inevitably be taken by some as a covert endorsement of polygamy: this is how to be a Mormon.
As I said, I’m instinctively sympathetic to the ambient distress about the violence done to history in the Bathsheba Smith piece, and I think it entirely possible that the Ensign staff got the balance between history and History—between “what a Mormon woman was” and “how to be a Mormon woman”—wrong in this case. I personally would like to see a definitive doctrinal repudiation of polygamy, followed by a frank acknowledgment of its place in our history and a concommitant opening of the church archives and strong institutional support for Mormon history disseminated in appropriate venues—but then my husband would like sports car, too. The Church hasn’t dealt with historical problems this way in the past, and I’m not holding my breath for it to start in the future—not, as some have suggested, because of a sinister or even merely defensive suspicion of women or women’s history, but, more likely, because of difference of opinion or simple uncertainty among the leading Councils. Meanwhile, there are important problems to be addressed in women’s experiences in the Church, in becoming a global church, in calibrating our attitudes toward history. That polygamy doesn’t show up in the 2005 Ensign, in my opinion, isn’t one of them.