Historians don’t just catalog events, they assemble events into stories or “historical narratives.” But to really be relevant or worth reading, a given historical narrative has to tap into a bigger theme or “grand narrative” (using the term rather loosely). I’m going to flesh out that concept a bit, then float some observations on the emerging grand narrative that might frame Mormon history in the 21st century.
First, some background. I’m using the term “grand narrative” in the way that John H. Arnold, an English historian, does in his book History: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2000). After using sources to piece together an illustrative tale of a rather obscure 17th-century Englishman who headed off for New England (leaving behind his wife and children), Arnold gave two examples of how such a story (or hundreds of others like it) might be tied in to a “grand narrative”: the English Civil War (which partly motivated our hero to flee to the colonies) or the colonization of America. Such grand narratives lend meaning and context to the stories historians tell such as the story of an Englishman who ran off to America.
And don’t be misled by labeling historical narratives as “stories.” They are based on facts and sources. Here’s Richard L. Bushman (in his 1969 essay “Faithful History”) describing how it works:
I doubt if any historian today thinks of history as a series of bead-like facts fixed in unchangeable order along the strings of time. The facts are more like blocks which each historian piles up as he or she chooses, which is why written history always assumes new shapes. I do not mean to say that historical materials are completely plastic. The facts cannot be forced into any form at all. Some statements can be proven wrong. But historians have much more leeway than a casual reading of history discloses.
So, using that leeway, how have historians tied Mormon stories into the grand narratives of each era? In the 19th century, we have The Restoration of the Gospel (covering 1805-1844), a religious theme. Then there is Pioneers Moving West (for Mormons, that covers the balance of the 19th century), a secular grand narrative that runs parallel to and merges with the general acquisition of territory in the western United States and the migration of hundreds of thousands of settlers. Those are great themes to work with for telling the LDS story in the 19th century (well, unless you are looking at it from the perspective of Native Americans, but that’s another story).
For the 20th century, I’m not sure there are any natural grand narratives for Mormon history, which is why 20th-century Mormon history seems rather shapeless. Institutional retrenchment and growth is a possible theme, but “How the Church Got Big and Rich” doesn’t really resonate with most readers and runs counter to the habit of depicting the Church as a persecuted sect. The mainstreaming of Mormonism in the 20th century is another possible theme, but “How Mormons Became Good Americans” isn’t really a story Mormons want to hear either. If you are trying to become a global church, you want to suppress or downplay national ties. There’s always “How We Got Rid of Problematic Doctrines,” namely plural marriage and the priesthood ban, but that’s one more theme that no one is too excited about, even critics (who aren’t generally willing to concede the Church has abandoned these doctrines). So, as I see it, 20th-century Mormonism lacks any generally accepted “grand narrative” to frame the story.
But it’s 2007. We’re seven years into the 21st century and a lot has happened in those seven years. Without dwelling on the details, I would note the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City; the sudden emergence of Mormon Studies programs at several universities; Mitt Romney’s serious candidacy for the presidency; and continued LDS temple-building in cities all over the world. And have you noticed how it is suddenly unacceptable for political candidates to dis Mormonism in public? This is a strange new world for Mormonism. Into what grand narrative will these (and subsequent) events be fitted? Here are a couple of guesses.
First, the there’s the “Emergence of a New World Religion” frame, which certainly qualifies as a “grand narrative.” I know, that idea has been around for twenty years. I think the new Mormon Studies programs — which will give serious scholarly reflection on Mormonism a new institutional sponsor that will legitimize the whole endeavour for a much larger audience — will lend credibility to that idea, partly by their scholarly work and partly just by being there. Being a “world religion” isn’t about just having congregations scattered across the globe. It turns on how the rest of the world is willing to regard your denomination or religion. And the present signs suggest the world is now beginning to regard the LDS Church differently.
A second theme (which may not rise to grandness but is still worth talking about) is the “Becoming a Good Religious Citizen” theme. By this I mean a self-conscious effort on the part of LDS leaders to scale back rhetoric, practices, and even doctrines that are offensive to members of other faiths. Have you noticed how no one talks about “the Great Apostasy” anymore? In addition, various LDS scholars have been very active in promoting ecumenical partnerships and programs with scholars and officials in other denominations. This is building a lot of goodwill, I think. Being more open about historical events we’d rather forget is part of this change, too. Even the shift from all proselyting to a mix of proselyting hours and service hours for our full-time missionaries seems to reflect this shift. Maybe this is just the internal aspect of the emergence theme referred to in the last paragraph. I suspect some people would describe this as a shift from a sect mentality to a denominational mentality. But it does suggest a change in Mormon self-identity as significant as the shift in the first two decades of the 20th century.
As noted in the quoted passage above, history “always assumes new shapes.” Perhaps other new shapes will appear to frame Mormon history in the 21st century, but these seem like promising candidates.