One of Einstein’s great discovery was that time and space were intimately related concepts. It is an insight that one ought to keep in mind when thinking about Mormonism. I believe that there is much in Mormonism that is genuinely unique — “fire out of heaven” to borrow Terryl Givens’ phrase. On the other hand, I think that too often Mormons view themselves and their history as occurring in some hermetically sealed universe unconnected with broader political, economic, or intellectual currents. I think that we would understand ourselves and our past a lot better if we recognized the way in which Mormonism emerged from the confluence of lots earlier streams of history.
Once you start looking at Mormonism in this way, what you will rapidly find is a time lag. For example, if you want to understand the intellectual world of Mormons in the 1860s, you probably don’t want to look at the intellectual developments of the 1860s, but rather those of a generation or two before. There was always a time lag between the generation of new ideas and their penetration to the frontier and the hinterland where Mormonism has spent so much of its life.
For example, during the 1860s the cutting edge questions for science and religion were all biological, particularly those flowing out of Darwin’s Origin of Species. The leading Mormon intellectual of the period — Orson Pratt — is basically uninterested in biology. Rather, he occupies an 18th century intellectual world in which Newtonian physics represents the cutting-edge of scientific thought. Accordingly, his most ambitious theo-scientific speculations are related to Newtonian questions of gravitation and aether, which he tries to solve with an elaborate theory of a universal spirit fluid. Another example is Mormon constitutional thinking in the 19th-century. In United States v. Reynolds, decided in the 1870s, the Mormons deployed a series of legal arguments based on 18th century assumptions about natural law and pre-Civil War assumptions about federalism. In short, their jurisprudential thinking was a generation or more out of date.
To a certain extent this trend continues. It generally takes about a generation for a new intellectual fad to penetrate Mormon thinking. Hence, for example, Leonard Arrington offered an economic history of Mormonism in the 1950s that was essentially based on the progressive economics of the pre-war years. Hence, we get a vision of Brigham Young as proto-New Dealer written as the economics the supported the New Deal was being systematically knocked to pieces by the leading economic intellectuals. (Go Milton Friedman!) Likewise, post-modernism of various forms became very hot within Mormon studies in the late 1980s and early 1990s just as its influence was beginning to wane elsewhere in the academy.
Unless the flow of intellectual production is reversed, so that ideas developed within Mormonism colonize other fields, I don’t think that this time lag phenomena is going to go away. Furthermore, I am not sure that such a reversal of the flow of ideas is possible, and in any case it will be some time before Mormon thought has the experience and ambition to reverse the flow. In the mean time, looking at Mormon thought is like looking at the night sky; you are gazing back in time at ideas that are just now reaching you from distant stars.