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Posts Tagged ‘mormons’

God Bless the Genealogists

Laura Arnold Leibman

Rabbi Malcolm Stern, Author of
First American Jewish Families

Genealogy fever has swept the nation.  Commonly considered the second most popular American hobby, genealogy is surpassed in the number of devotees only by gardening. Genealogy similarly holds the second place internet record for “most visited category of website,” with only pornography capturing the American gaze more frequently (USA Today).  Genealogy helps Americans understand who they are, where they came from, and how they fit within the larger narratives of American history.

Religion has played an important role in genealogy’s rise in prominence.  The Mormon Church’s interest in baptizing the dead has encouraged the church to dedicate tremendous resources to mapping the past.  Equally crucially, many of the early American documents desired by genealogists (including marriage and burial records) were often originally created and kept by religious organizations.  Religious practice can also fuel the desire for knowledge about one’s ancestors.  In my own field, which covers both converso and early Jewish American families, people sometimes turn to genealogical research to make sense of their personal religious life stories.  Furthermore, genealogy fever has helped channel vasts amounts of human and financial resources into digitizing early records that can help foster scholarship on American religious communities.  God bless the genealogists! Genealogists make our scholarly lives easier; however, they also challenge us in productive ways to rethink our audience and create more interactive and accessible modes of history making.

Every early American project I have worked on has been made easier not only because of the wonderful academic scholars who came before me, but also because of the tireless work of professional genealogists.  Editing  Experience Mayhew’s Indian Converts (1727) would have been much more painful were it not for Jerome D. Segel and R. Andrew Pierce’s Wampanoag Genealogical History of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. I similarly owe an enormous debt to Rabbi Malcom Stern, the father of American Jewish genealogy. While new sources mean there are occasional errors and oversights in Stern’s magisterial First American Jewish Families, my  research would be exponentially harder if I didn’t have Stern’s genealogies to use as a starting point for identifying the exceedingly complex family relations. David Kleiman’s Americans of Jewish Descent from the Inquisition to Integration (AOJD-online.net) has helped update and expand Stern’s work.  David’s recent death was a great loss to all of us working in the field of early Jewish American studies.

More recently I have been grateful to the nonprofit and for profit genealogical  organizations that have blossomed to meet the needs of both professional genealogists and family history hobbyists.  My most recent wave of gratitude goes out to Family Search, for digitizing the New York Probate Records, 1629-1971. In the past week, they added 8,613,673 images added to this collection, increasing its holdings by 63 percent. A significant portion of my current book project involves the Jewish and African American communities in early national New York. Although I have an upcoming research trip planned to New York, I am grateful not to have to spend a significant portion of that trip pouring over the wills, deeds, and inventories of the communities members who interest me. Rather I can maximize my time on the east coast by discovering what I can before I get there.

Yet even as I benefit from the resources and manpower put into genealogy, I am also cognizant that the national obsession with family history has shaped my own scholarship, particularly its digital manifestations.  When I created my Indian Converts Database, for example, I had a vague idea that it might be of use to people doing family history or members of the Wampanoag community.  I was taken aback a couple of years ago, however, when a colleague in computing at my college noted that the Indian Converts site was so popular that three of the Indian Converts Study Guides (those on kinship, clothing and colonial American handwriting) were in the top five most commonly visited CONTENTdm pages in the college’s collection pages for the past six months.  That is, the colonial Native American community on Martha’s Vineyard drew in more readers than our college’s pages on sexism in advertising, classical art, architecture, or maps. I knew from the email queries I’d received that most likely these visits were from people engaged in family history research.  When we designed the Jewish Atlantic World Database, this audience helped shape the new database’s structure, content, and metadata.  For example, I made sure we had tagged all gravestones and objects by family name as well as individual names to allow people doing genealogical research to find connections across the collection more easily.

Informal Discussions in the Hunts Bay Cemetery, Jamaica
The Jewish Diaspora of the Caribbean” (Leibman, 2010)

Genealogy also reminds me that my seemingly obscure scholarly talents can be of use to people outside of academia.  Recently, for example, I have been participating in two facebook groups dedicated to the intersection of Sephardic genealogy and history, one of which is the brainchild of archivist and Renaissance man Ton Tielen.  In my mind, these groups represent the internet at its best.  These online communities function as a virtual and ongoing version of gatherings like the The Jewish Diaspora of the Caribbean” conference in Jamaica in 2010, in that they help foster connections between historians, professional genealogists, and lay people.  In addition to posting items of general interest, people on the Sephardic Diaspora facebook page commonly post leads or documents on which they are stuck.  For example, sometimes someone will post a gravestone, marriage contract, or document for which they lack the linguistic skills or historical knowledge to interpret.  Group members respond with translations, connections, and help “decode” the document.  Each individual commenting brings a different piece of expertise to the puzzle, and often discussions about interpretation emerge (e.g. what are the connotations of the particular handwriting style used in the document?). These group collaborations are not only a good example of crowd sourcing, but are an important reminder that the internet is a great way to make the methods that infuse our research visible and useful to others. For example, one post about a ketubah led to my “top ten list of things you can learn from a marriage contract.” For those that are interested, besides the date of the wedding, ketubot can provide:

  1. The names of the fathers of the bride and groom
  2. If either of the couple had been married previously (even to each other, e.g. in Portugal in a Christian marriage)
  3. If the husband of the couple could fluently write (and hence possibly read) Hebrew
  4. If the husband of the couple was literate in Spanish, Portuguese, etc. (based on the groom signature’s handwriting)
  5. How the husband pronounced his name (if in roman alphabet)
  6. Who in the community was close to the family (the witnesses), and if those men knew Hebrew
  7. How much money the bride and groom’s family had and what each family brought to the marriage
  8. If the parents of the bride and groom were alive when the couple got married
  9. If either of the couple was a convert
  10. If the groom favored Spanish or Portuguese.

How rare and precious it is to find another academic who cares about the minutia of our methods.  How much more powerful to find average people might not only find our methods and skills interesting, but be able to use them to learn more about themselves and their past.

Resources Mentioned:
New York Probate Records, 1629-1971. https://familysearch.org/search/collection/1920234

Questions:  Does public history or family history influence your work, and if so, how?   Do you use social media to connect to non-academics who might benefit from or be interested in your research?  If so, what have you found is the result?

CFP: Mormon Studies Conference, "Authority, Community, and Identity"

Call for Papers: Authority, Community, and Identity

The Religion Department at Claremont Graduate University is pleased to announce its annual Mormon Studies Conference, to be held March 6 and 7, 2015 in Claremont, California.  We encourage proposals from graduate students and faculty of all disciplines.  There are limited travel subsidies available for graduate student presenters.  The theme for this year is “Authority, Community, and Identity.”

The study of Mormonism requires an exploration of what it means to be a religious person.  Individuals exist within a community where they negotiate and maintain their identities.  The conference organizers are open to a wide range of paper proposals, including but not limited to topics suggested by the following themes and questions:  How do people negotiate their Mormon identity in joining or leaving Mormonism?  How does ritual impact community maintenance and religious authority?  How have developments in communication changed methods of creating orthodoxy and heterodoxy?  In what ways have changing norms and debates regarding gender and sexuality impacted identity and community?  How have communities of doubt influenced claims to authority and identity?   How has Mormon identity and community developed regionally and internationally?  What role does tradition play in different geographies?  How has secularization altered Mormon community formation and institutional authority?

While this conference will focus on Mormonism in particular, we encourage comparative papers, or papers on related traditions in which the theories or insights developed have some bearing on Mormonism.

Please email paper proposals and a CV to jeffrey.turner@cgu.edu by November 15, 2014.  Proposals should be no longer than 250 words and should be attached as a Word or PDF document.  Please indicate in the email if you would like to be considered for travel funding.

Announcement: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press Launches Mormon Studies Book Series

The Fairleigh Dickinson University Press Series in Mormon Studies

The Fairleigh Dickinson University Press Mormon Studies Series welcomes academic works from established and emerging scholars that explore Mormonism in a thoroughly contextualized manner. Mormon Studies is a burgeoning field of scholarly inquiry that has been buttressed by the establishment of academic journals, professional societies, and university programs, as well as an ever growing number of books published by university presses. It intersects with and is enriched by many disciplines including history, family history, religious studies, American studies, literature, philosophy, ethics, law, political science and sociology.

 The objective of this interdisciplinary series is to encourage fresh lines of inquiry and analysis that will shed light not only on established subjects of research such as Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and the Mormon role in the settlement of the American West, but also on a variety of lesser known topics. Some of these might include Mormons and comparative religion; interfaith relations; Mormonism and politics, race, class, gender; the institutional development of the Mormon Church, its history in North America, and its growth on an international scale, including its intersections with global history; LDS theology, liturgy, missiology, and Christology; studies on the Book of Mormon–any aspect–as literature, as sacred scripture, in relation to the Bible, as a way of understanding the cultural role of religious texts in nineteenth-century America, within the context of book history, etc. This series is committed to publishing scholarship that will add depth and breadth to the academic discourse on Mormonism as well as considering how it has interacted with society, culture, folklore, philosophy, and the arts.

Books and monographs are of particular interest. Edited collections with strong introductions and reviews of literature are also invited. We will not consider unrevised dissertations nor will we publish works that embrace a polemical tone. The Mormon Studies Series does not reflect the views of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or Brigham Young University. All submissions will undergo peer review.

Proposals and inquiries may be sent to:

Dr. Rachel Cope
210A JSB
Brigham Young University
Provo, Utah 84602

Series Editors:

Rachel Cope, Andrew Hedges, Andrew Skinner, John Welch

Advisory Board:

Catherine Brekus (University of Chicago Divinity School), Richard Bushman (Columbia University), David Campbell (University of Notre Dame), James H. Charlesworth (Princeton Theological Seminary), Terryl Givens (University of Richmond), David Holland (Harvard University Divinity School), Kate Holbrook (Church History Library), Laurie Maffly-Kipp (Washington University in St. Louis), Susanna Morrill (Lewis & Clark College), Tom Mould (Elon University), and Stephen Webb (Independent Scholar).

My MHA, more than AOK

Edward Blum

I only had the privilege of spending an evening and a day at Mormon History Association’s annual meeting, but oh what a meeting it was. I arrived to fantastic news: Spencer Fluhman had won “best first book” and John Turner had won “best biography”. Then, I heard some terrific papers on Mormon women and nineteenth-century reform movements, a project led, in part, by Matthew Grow.

Sarah Barringer Gordon kicking it off

Lunch was a “who’s who” of young Mormon scholars. Ben Park to the left of me. Chris Jones to the right. Joseph Stuart announcing that he was headed to UVA to work with Kathleen Flake and their fantastic program (with Matt Hedstrom and Valerie Cooper). We all raised a glass of … well, not beer or wine … to huzzah the news. Conversation ranged from Lebron-hating to intense readings of Terryl Givens’s works. I felt like a kid in a Mormon candy store.

Oh, I forgot to mention that Leigh Eric Schmidt used the Tanner Lecture to discuss three Freethinkers and how they deployed Mormonism in the late nineteenth century in complicated ways. It was an epic lecture (no surprise to those of us familiar with Schmidt and his scholarship) and it was made even better by Schmidt’s use of Fluhman’s book and Patrick Mason’s work on anti-Mormonism in the South.

I spent the afternoon mostly discussing representations of Mountain Meadows massacre, as Christine Hutchinson-Jones and Janiece Johnson ran from England in the nineteenth-century to twenty-first century films to consider the place of the horrific events. Brief interludes with hair weaving from Jenny Reeder left me wondering if anyone would want my locks after I had left the land of the living.

My panel featured two incredible papers. First, W. Paul Reeve described how Mormons went from “not quite white” in the Age of Lincoln to “too white” in the Age of Obama. Second, Max Perry Mueller presented on Temple Square during the 1960s and how it became a site of racial-religious contest. Mueller explained how African Americans used civil rights protest to compel public transformations, which also resulted in the church hierarchy focusing on its First Amendment rights when it came to their private worship and space. Quincy Newell did what she does: make absolutely brilliant points about how the essays could critique one another.

Finally, my conference was animated by the good will of Newell Bringhurst and Brian Hale. Without doubt, Dr. Bringhurst is one of the most important Mormon historians of the past thirty years. His Saints, Slaves, and Blacks (1982) was a path breaking book on religion and racialization. He was doing “whiteness” studies before they existed by name. His biography of Fawn Brodie uncovered the genius of her Joseph Smith scholarship and demonstrated the cathartic importance of No Man Knows My Story for her. Bringhurst’s short biography of Brigham Young is a model of short, erudite scholarship, and he has been hugely important in work on polygamy in a series of edited volumes. He, with Brian Hales, who has also written considerably on polygamy, were wonderful hosts!

Huge kudos to Andrea Radke-Moss, Matthew Bowman, and the rest of the program committee! If you’re looking for a conference for next year that will have incredible scholars young and old, where audience members are intensely interested in the material, and where laughter is heard as often as laments, then the MHA is for you.

Touchdown Jesus, Catholic Blessings, and Supporting Mormon Religion

Christopher Jones

[cross-posted at Juvenile Instructor]

Not even a Catholic blessing could save
Manti Te’o and the dying pop-culture
Mormon Moment he represents.

On Monday afternoon, just hours before the Alabama Crimson Tide blew out the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the BCS National Championship football game, Peggy Fletcher Stack posted a short note at the Salt Lake Tribune‘s Following Faith blog on the Catholic pregame rituals of ND.

Specifically, Stack drew readers’ attention to the Mormon story embedded within a fuller exploration of that subject at the Wall Street Journal: Star linebacker, Heisman Trophy runner-up, and devout Mormon Manti Te’o joins his teammates in “attend[ing] a Catholic Mass, receiv[ing] ‘a priest-blessed medal devoted to a Catholic saint,’ and ‘kiss[ing] a shrine containing two slivers Notre Dame believes came from Jesus’ cross.’” He was even photographed receiving a blessing from Notre Dame president emeritus Father Theodore Hesburgh (a blessing Te’o reportedly sought out). Football team chaplain Father Paul Doyle explained that Te’o has privately told him that “he feels supported here [at Notre Dame] in his Mormon religion.”

All of this immediately brought to mind some of my previous thoughts on Mormon supplemental worship, in which Latter-day Saints supplement their Mormon activity by attending other Christian church’s services (a habit that dates back to at least the late nineteenth century). While the example provided by Te’o is clearly part of that larger historical tradition, it also strikes me as unique for a couple of reasons:

1. Most Mormon supplemental worship seems to take place in Protestant chapels instead of Catholic churches, joining a choir or playing the organ for the local Methodist church, for example, or tuning into televangelist Joel Osteen’s broadcasts on Sunday mornings before heading off to Sacrament Meeting. The supplemental worship of Manti Te’o, by contrast, is explicitly Catholic, and while I have previously expressed my own admiration for Catholic liturgy, I’ve never gone so far as to receive a blessing from a Catholic Priest. Furthermore, Catholics and Mormons have a long history of less-than-flattering judgments of one another and in spite of efforts in the last several decades to repair that relationship, some anti-Catholic sentiment persists at the popular level throughout Mormondom.

2. Manti Te’o is Hawaiian, and his Polynesian ethnicity introduces an important element to my considerations of Mormon supplemental worship. What role, if any, does race and ethnicity play in the ways Mormons choose to (or not to) supplement their regular worship? I can’t speak specifically to Te’o's case (I’ve heard that the theological and political disputes that divide Protestants, Catholics, and Mormons in mainland America aren’t as pronounced among adherents in the Pacific Islands, but am happy to be corrected on that point), but I wonder about racial minorities closer to home. Do black Mormons, for instance, ever attend more traditionally black Protestant services? What about Latina/o Mormons and Spanish-language Catholic and evangelical services? I don’t have answers to these questions, and hope others will weigh in and share their experiences/observations. And I’d really love to see a more thorough and  scholarly examination of these issues–any takers?

The Mormon Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

More provocative stuff on contemporary Mormonism, politics, economics, and race keeps coming out. In “The Mormon Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” at The New Republic, the historian Jackson Lears explores the longue duree of the transition from 19th-century communitarianism to 20-century capitalist boosterism in Mormon culture. Along the way (and more interestingly to me), he also discusses recent works by our friends Matt Bowman, John Turner, and others (he refers to Turner’s biography of Brigham Young as “authoritative,” and has kind words for Bowman’s survey of Mormon history as well as Terryl Givens’s work People of Paradox. I would also point you to, and highly recommend, the latest essay from the vital young scholar Max Mueller, over at Religion and Politics, responding to Andrew Sullivan’s piece on Mormonism and race and leaving us with some wise words on the subject. 

And now today’s guest post, which comes from Jennifer Polopolus-Meredith, a graduate student in American religious history from the University of Utah; she reflects on the architecture of Mormonism and capitalism in Salt Lake. 

by Jennifer Polopolus-Meredith

          As I sat at the New City Creek Mall in downtown Salt Lake City I found myself gazing on the golden angel Moroni atop the Mormon Temple. As I sipped a chai tea latte from the patio of the Nordstrom’s caffe, I realized the temple was directly across from the mall. A friend and I had just been discussing Mitt Romney’s Presidential campaign and what it meant for Mormonism. Did his campaign symbolize an acceptance and blending of Mormonism into American society that the church has so long sought? As I looked at the temple, I wondered if the malls proximity to the temple was subtle part of the Mormon church’s campaign for acceptance.
            The Mormon church has embraced the media with marketing on the web and radio with its “I am a Mormon Campaign.” The ads show Mormons who have diverse lifestyles from a single school teacher, to a man with tattoos who likes to ride motorcycles. The ads demonstrate a shift in Mormon marketing to portray the church as diverse, inclusive, and all American. They challenge the image of Mormons as only white, married, and uptight. They play in cities where anti Mormon sentiment is thought to flourish, such as towns with a strong evangelical presence. I first heard the ads in Colorado Springs, Colorado home of New Life Church. These are the not so subtle attempt of the Mormon church to change misconceptions. The location of the mall might be a more subtle connection.
            With its location, City Creek Mall offers both shopping and salvation. These two might appear an odd coupling at first, especially with the economic downturn, but not if Mormons desire to blend into American society. Mormonism has long shaken off its communalist tendencies that marked its early days in Utah. In fact, the mall could be viewed as just another example of Mormon’s embracing capitalist American ideals. The church both created needed jobs and tax income for the city.Their reason for opening the mall is to revitalize down town Salt Lake city. What better way then to provide a high end shopping for both visitors and residents? The mall, coupled with the multimillion Conference Center (also owned by the church) will hopefully attract businesses to hold conferences in Salt Lake and bring in needed revenue. But why build the mall right across from the Mormon Temple?
            When I finished my tea I decided to venture across the street and peruse the temple grounds. A short jaunt through a convenient cross walk leading directly from the mall to the temple, and I stood amidst the beautiful statues and flowers of the landscape. Many people strolled around, reading the placards of the statues and venturing in to the Tabernacle hall. Tourists snapped pictures and listened to helpful Mormon guides explain the history of their faith. That’s when it hit me, what a perfect way to market their faith and normalcy in an unassuming manner. Would people, residents or business people from out of town, who came to the mall to shop or eat realize the temple was directly across the street. How many would follow their curiosity and cross the street, as I had done? Would they spend a couple of hours looking at the statues that explain some of the Mormon’s history and chat,with the very nice Mormon guides? After talking to the guides they might think, Mormon’s hmmm, they seem a lot like me, their not scary or weird. In fact, their really nice. Would those thoughts slowly change perceptions? The opportune location could encourage curious people to explore the temple grounds. Visitors who would never have sought out the temple might wander over because of the convenience and have a positive experience.
            Shopping and Mormonism: not a bad combination to economically revitalize the city and demonstrate the link between American capitalism and your faith. A lot less artificial feeling than the “I am a Mormon” adds on the radio and internet. What is more American than capitalism and religion?  Maybe the location of the temple and the shopping center are just a happy coincidence with multiple benefits. Either way, they subtle convey the normalcy and assimilation of Mormonism in America.

Nobody Knows the Curses We’ve Seen

The Untold Story of Black Mormons: DVD
Last week, I officially received my invitation to the “Mormon moment.” It came from Margaret Blair Young, a creative writing teacher at Brigham Young University. Author, editor, and film creator of several works on African American Mormons, Young has been presenting a series at Patheos on black Mormons (another good one here) that has been simply marvelous. This weekend, as my fantasy football team soundly defeated the only non-religious historian in our league, I took the time to watch her co-directed and co-produced film Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons. It was definitely worth missing Derek Jeter break his ankle.

I watch a lot of religious history documentaries these days, at least more than I would like. I prefer my television to air shows like ESPN or films like Prometheus, but I’ll log the hours to watch God in America or that one on Sister Aimee from years back creatively titled … wait for it, wait for it, wait for it, … Sister Aimee. I like the music; I like the pictures; I find the aesthetic of Ken Burns-like documentary films quite soothing.  Nobody Knowshas these many of these qualities. Music introduces chapter titles which then use voice-overs, panned-over photographs, video footage, and interviews to bring the viewer from the 1830s to the 21st century. Our senses are pit against one another from the very beginning. The slave spiritual “Nobody Knows” resounds as we read “What comes to your mind, when you hear the word … Mormon?” Visually, an African American man smiles at us in a close up. Sight, sound, and text provide different markers of meaning and the goal seems to be dissonance, a dissonance the film will try to explain and negotiate.

Nobody Knowswas different from other documentary films, though, because of this dissonance. It did not have a story cleanly to show, but a problem cleverly to solve.The directors, producers, and participants never shied away from the central problem of how can one be black and Mormon? Why would one of “African descent” choose to be a part of a church that has long claimed those people are “cursed”? How could you function within an organization that bars your men from certain rites and rituals and who has its main university named after a fellow who counseled beheading for any white individual who married one of your racial group?
After narrating the history of several intrepid first African American Mormons, including Elijah Abel and Jane Manning James, the film spends most of its time on the late twentieth century. As we all know, for some reason in the 1960s and 1970s, the LDS altered its policies that restricted African American men from full priesthood rites. “People can think you’re an idiot,” explains one black Mormon. Martin Luther King III discusses how assumptions about Mormon racism continue to color the church and keep African Americans from it. Historian, author, and co-director and co-producer of this film Darius Gray states that he is “proud black man” whose parents were “proud of our ethnicity.” He”embraced the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Gray continued,  and “that should say something.” “I’m not stupid,” Gray concluded, I’m not a fool, and I’m not an Uncle Tom”
In Nobody Knows, the answers are clear: mission, calling, and revelation. “I believe I chose to come to earth as a black man,” explains one African American attorney. He repeats himself over and over. “I chose my mission.” Others discuss hearing God call them to the church to be beacons of light – that African Americans were actually made to save the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
This is the story of racialized missions within a racialized tradition. Nobody Knows is a powerful and intriguing saga, one that is still unfolding as well-meaning white Mormons sometimes ask what their black counterparts will look like as “white” in the celestial kingdom.

There is so much to analyze within the film. The use of African American music (composed largely outside the Mormon canopy) to structure the story of Mormonism is fascinating move, one that could, perhaps, strike some as what Eric Lott called the envious “love and theft” of some white racism – where whites pine for the cultural experiences of those deemed non-white. Others may read this use of music as an attempt to “blacken” Mormonism aurally. When we get to the 1978 “revelation”, however, the music shifts from the spirituals to a vocal-less organ. Are African American cultural traditions subsumed within LDS musical norms?

The Help

The background images also had stories to tell. The Christus never appears (I know, we’re all so sad about that :) . But within the first five minutes, a clearly non-African American Jesus appears on the wall of a home. And that’s not all. White Jesus figures run through the background of the film as they do in The Help and The Apostle. (shocking that I would pay attention to those, right). The visual images are never commented upon, but they add another layer of meaning. We’re seemingly not the only audience. White Jesus is, perhaps, an overseer; perhaps he’s a friend who cares naught for the color of one’s skin (in this world or the ones before or after); perhaps black Mormons have so many other thorny issues to deal with within the church that this is simply too much to bring up. Whatever the meanings, certainly there is much more reckoning to be had as the church deals with its new black members, its art, and its embodied theological “folklore.”

The ultimate question, I guess, is this: is Nobody Knows worth watching? Most certainly! The stories are personal, compelling, and get to so many main questions in US religious history: the problems of race in American religions; the struggles between notions of religion as human-made and more-than-human-made; the role of various contexts, such as the Second Great Awakening and the Civil Rights Movements; and it leads to contemporary questions of the role of race and religion today. And Nobody Knows is only 70 minutes long – so easily built into 1 or 2 class periods. I definitely plan on using this when I teach US religious history again next fall.

Mormons in the Media, 1830-2012

 Paul Harvey

This semester I am using Jared Farmer’s wonderfully entertaining  book On Zion’s Mount for an M.A. class in the history of the American West. We’ve posted about that work previously, here and here. Religion Dispatches covered the work more extensively here. , and Juvenile Instructor (somewhat more critically) here

As John Turner posted Sunday (just as I was writing this — great minds think alike), Farmer has has spent the summer (unbeknownst to me) putting together this excellent e-book — an illustrated e-book, is how I would describe it — Mormons in the Media, 1830-2012 – on Mormonism, anti-Mormonism, and the media, from the 1830s to the present. He describes it as aimed at general readers and journalists, but scholars will find plenty here to enjoy.

You can read John’s post from Sunday for more, but I asked Matt Bowman, who just blogged for us on Stephen Covey, to take a look at the new e-book and provide some thoughts. Here is what he wrote — some good suggestions here for you scholars in the field:

1) The material culture of Mormonism is a field white and ready to harvest.   There’s not been a lot done on it (one exception being The Color of Christ’s attention to representations of Jesus, and another being at over at George Mason University Jenny Reeder is prepping a material history of the Relief Society for her dissertation) and ever a cursory glance through this thing shows how fruitful the study of images might be.  

2) One obvious possibility is how much images can contribute to ideas about race.  Farmer spends a lot of time here, both on how Mormons related to Native Americans but also on how other Americans understood Mormons to be in the process of creating their own degenerate race, made of equal parts polygamy and political tyranny.  The comparison to brutish images of Irish Catholics seems appropriate here.

3) It’s also fascinating to watch the ways in which Mormons have represented themselves.  I was thrilled to see Farmer devote time to a pressing question that sometimes receives attention in the hallways of the Mormon HIstory Association annual meeting: the many weighty meanings of Mormon facial hair.  From nineteenth century Biblical beards signifying patriarchal authority to twentieth century respectable clean-shavenness, the presence or absence of facial hair in Mormon media is only one striking illustration of Mormonism’s careful attention to its own image.  Farmer provides many more.

Is John Turner’s Brigham Young Biography Better than Broadway’s The Book of Mormon? Pre-Pub Reviewers Think So!

by Edward J. Blum

Lots of wonderful pre-publication reviews of John Turner’s Brigham Young biography: here’s a sampling:

  • “A scholarly yet thoroughly readable historical/biographical study, of considerable interest to students of 19th-century American history and religious revivalism.” (Kirkus Reviews)
  • “Turner’s broad historical perspective clarifies why Young’s ecclesiastical successors have still felt the man’s influence–even after abandoning polygamy. An impressively detailed portrait of a controversial giant.” –Bryce Christensen (Booklist (starred review)
  • “Previous biographers of Brigham Young have used epithets such as “American Moses” and “Lion of the Lord.” However, what Turner demonstrates here is that the three-dimensional Young cannot be reduced to saint or tyrant; he was bold, brave, crude, petty, visionary, manipulative, creative, charismatic, kindly, and much more besides. He presents Young as a family man navigating the complexities of polygamy, as a leader moving large numbers of people across the Great Plains, and as a politician negotiating enough independence for the Mormons from the American government that he could build the kingdom of God as he saw fit. Turner was given unprecedented access to the LDS church archives and he makes full use of them and other sources, as well as providing a cogent interpretive context. It is easy to forget Young’s significance in American history, but at a minimum it needs to be remembered that he is responsible for settling a vast swath of the West. Turner gives him his due…There aren’t enough superlatives for this book. It will remain the standard biography for a long time. Because of its thorough documentation, academics will take it seriously, while general readers will appreciate its clarity of prose and argument.” –D. S. Azzolina (Library Journal (starred review)
  • “A definitive biography of Mormonism’s greatest activist and apostle” –Adam Gopnik (New Yorker )
  • “Turner teaches us not just about Brigham Young, but also about American society in the nineteenth century” (Edward J. Blum, Christian Century, not out yet)
  • “Simply put, Turner’s treatment of Young’s life is a landmark in Mormon biography.” (amazon.com customer review)

The Mormon Moment Hits the New Yorker

Paul Harvey

The Book of Mormon was a sacred object meant to be venerated; the fact that it existed mattered as much as what it said.Here’s something you don’t see every day: a sympathetic look at the history of Mormonism, drawing heavily from recent scholarship by contributors and friends of the blog, in the New Yorker. There’s a bit of a weak connection with Mitt Romney’s campaign at the end, and other issues that could be raised with this or that passage in the article, but I’m less interested in picking nits than highlighting Adam Gopnik’s praise of and reliance on Matt Bowman’s The Mormon People, John Turner’s Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet, Joanna Brooks’s Book of Mormon Girl, and J. Spencer Fluhman’s A Peculiar People. Did I mention we have covered each of these works extensively on the blog previously? (He also mentions Paul Gutjahr’s The Book of Mormon: A Biography, which we’ve mentioned briefly here before).

Gopnik writes:

Matthew Bowman’s “The Mormon People” (Random House) offers a comprehensive, neatly written synopsis of the whole history of the Latter-day Saints movement; Paul C. Gutjahr’s “The Book of Mormon: A Biography” (Princeton) traces the origins and afterlife of Latter-day Saints scripture; J. Spencer Fluhman’s “A Peculiar People: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth Century America” (North Carolina) shows how much Mormon-hating helped shape standard American Protestantism; and John G. Turner’s “Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet” (Harvard) is a definitive biography of Mormonism’s greatest activist and apostle.

The rest of the article is an interesting read; glad to see these authors get appropriately prominent play in an unexpected place.

Was Jesus Lily White?

by Kevin M. Schultz

While driving through the wilds of Texas a few months ago, I got into a conversation about why some conservatives hate Obama so much.  I mentioned that the government was shedding jobs faster than the Bachelorette was dropping suitors.  I said that taxes were the lowest they’ve been than throughout most of the twentieth century.  I mentioned that Obamacare was initially the Republican counter to Hilary-care, a proposal that emerged from right-wing think takes.  I even mentioned that Obama spoke about God more than any of his predecessors.  What gives?

My conversant said, simply enough, it was his race.  At the root of it all, she said, many conservatives–at least the ones she knew in Texas–had never come to grips with the reality of having a black president (or at least as black as the son of a white Kansas woman can be–gotta love the one-drop rule America!).

I’m not sure she’s right (and I’m not sure she’s wrong), but I’m also surprised by how little this gets talked about.  Therefore, I was glad to see our very own Ed Blum featured in The Daily Beast talking about the conceptions of Jesus that underlie the current presidential race–and how those conceptions of Jesus subtly reinforce ideas of what is sacred (eg. white skin versus black).

Blum, pulling from his (and Paul’s) soon-to-be-released Color of Christ, astutely brings up Obama’s ecumenism, and his likely disavowal of any claim that, say, Jesus was black.  But despite all Obama’s remarks, there is something pernicious lying in the continued reminders about Rev. Jeremiah Wright.  As I write, I just saw a Pew report claiming that more Americans than ever think Obama is a Muslim.  Willful blindness is potent stuff.

On the other side is the interesting phenomenon of the Jesus of Mormonism, a faith that has traditionally imagined Jesus as a blond-haired, blue-eyed beauty, much like most of the Mormons I see walking the streets of Salt Lake City and Provo.  It’s an interesting fact that, right smack in the middle of the civil rights movement, the LDS Church erected an 11-foot statue of white Jesus right in the middle of Salt Lake.  Mormon history has changed, most tellingly with the 1978 revelation that African Americans can serve in the priesthood.  Today, when you take a tour of Temple’s visitor center in Salt Lake City, the tour guides are still overwhelmingly nubile folks in their late teens and early twenties, but they are from all over the world.  Still, the traditional Mormon Jesus has got those steely blue eyes.

Both sides have histories to their understanding, which is what Blum goes after in the article.

Despite all this, my guess is that the candidates will stay as far away from this discussion as they have gun control.  Rationality escapes the masses on both sides, and these guys are smart enough to let sleeping dogs lie.  I’m just glad we’ve got a historical take to give us some perspective.

The Mormon Lens on American History

Paul Harvey

The Mormon moment srikes again! Jennifer Schuessler, “The Mormon Lens on American History,” just posted online in the New York Times and published in Tuesday’s paper, provides a very nice survey of the rapid rise of interest in the history of Mormonism as well as some of the major scholars covering it. The article features the experiences of our contributor John Turner, in researching his soon-to-be-published big biography of Brigham Young; mentions J. Spencer Fluhman’s outstanding history of nineteenth-century anti-Mormonism which UNC Press is publishing in September, as well as Patrick Mason’s recent volume which we’ve covered here before; and quotes folks such as Matt Bowman and Kathleen Flake as well. I was also very glad to see the article throw some props to an older scholarly pioneer in the present renaissance of scholarship, D. Michael Quinn, who did the short essay on the LDS Church for my volume the Columbia Guide to Religion in American History

Finally, the article brings in the incorporation of Mormon history into broader volumes of American history scholarship, most notably recently Anne Hyde’s Bancroft-Prize winning Empires, Nations, Families (and to that I would add Jared Farmer’s really cool book On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape). 

This is a good piece of journalism on the scholarly world that I hope will introduce a lot of people to the fruitful ferment in the field and lead them as well to some of these books.

Pioneer Prophet

John Turner

If you will excuse the shameless self-promotion, I was recently pleased to learn that my forthcoming biography of Brigham Young is available for advance purchase. In fact, it was rather surreal to have it appear while I was poring over page proofs. Just in case it sells out quickly, reserve your copy of Pioneer Prophet now! I am joking, of course.

If anyone is interested in a preview, Harvard has put together a podcast about the book, available here.

If you assign it for a class (sorry it’s not shorter — Brigham Young had quite a life), I’m very happy to do a conversation with your students, grade their papers, clean your office, etc.

Saturday’s Warriors and Mormon Correlation

Paul Harvey

Today’s must-read for ya’ll: Matt Bowman, “Saturday’s Warriors: How Mormons Went from Beard-Wearing Radicals to Clean-Cut Conformists.” Aside from covering the short-lived, cute-if-cringe-inducing history of “Mormon rap,” the piece expertly details the origins of the policy of “correlation” in early twentieth-century progressivism’s emphasis on efficiency and order, its translation in the world of the modern corporation, its usefulness in creating a church capable of handling growth and expansion, and the struggles to translate mid-century corporate correlation into a more contemporary idiom of pluralism and self-expression. A little excerpt:

Saturday’s Warrior
—the title alludes to the latter days—was an unprecedented pop phenomenon in the small world of midcentury Mormondom at least in part because it struck with perfect pitch the tone of that Mormon moment. In the 1960s and ’70s, many Mormons were disappointed with American culture, which seemed to them to be spinning wildly out of control. The musical’s heroes urge their wayward siblings to protect themselves by embracing a rigorous code of personal morality and loyalty to the clean-cut church that teaches it. Saturday’s Warrior is, essentially, a tract from Mormon parents desperate to keep their children out of the dangerous clutches of hippies.

But Saturday’s Warrior is not only an amusing bit of Mormon cultural ephemera. It is also a remarkable relic of the midcentury bureaucratic reform effort that gradually became the defining force of 20th-century Mormonism. This program went under the vague and harmless-sounding name of “correlation.” If you’ve ever wondered how Mormons went from beard-wearing polygamous radicals (think Brigham Young) to your well-scrubbed, wholesome, and somewhat dorky next-door neighbors (think Mitt Romney—albeit with not quite so much money), the short answer is “correlation.”

The piece also makes a nice intro into Matt’s book The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith. And it’s an entree, too, into the culture, with both its strengths and its weaknesses, that has helped to shape and inform Mitt Romney. 

Religion and Politics: New Online Journal Out Next Month

Paul Harvey

I’m pleased to let you all know about the much-anticipated online journal Religion and Politics, soon to be published digitally by the Danforth Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University at St. Louis. R. Marie Griffith, formerly of Princeton and Harvard, has taken up the task of heading the Center, joined on the faculty there by Leigh Schmidt. Tiffany Stanley and Max Mueller (who has blogged here before) are serving also as editors of the journal. The editorial board includes folks such as Jackson Lears, Mark Silk, Diane Winston, Robert Wuthnow, and others. 

I have written a piece on religion and politics in Colorado which I believe will be posted there in one of its early editions, and some other authors have been contracted to write about their own state. My piece reflects on the vast range of religio-political diversity up and down the front range of Colorado, within a 90 minute drive, featuring the yin of Colorado Springs and the yang of Boulder. I also read a fantastic sample piece on Indiana, which I think should be a highlight. 

One other cool thing — the Center already has been featuring a roster of stellar scholars, writers, and journalists to give public lectures, and then making those available. A recent one of note: Laurie Maffly-Kipp speaks on “The Long Approach to the Mormon Moment: The Making of an American Church.” Click on the link for the full lecture, and if you’ll look over to the thumbnails on the right you’ll see the other ones available there to listen to, play in class, or sample. 

Max recently wrote the following, which I’m copying here to promote the launch of the journal:

Tiffany Stanley, Marie Griffith and I have the past year helping to create Religion & Politics, a new online journal published out of Washington University in St. Louis.

After much anticipation, we launch next month. 

Prior to our beta launch, we’re hoping to get a base of social media followers. What can you do to help?

          Pretty please like us on Facebook.
          Follow us on Twitter.

         And tell all your friends!

Mormon Proxy Baptisms

John Turner

As the fate of Mitt Romney (and, for those of us in Mormon History / Studies, yet another golden age of national attention surrounding all things Mormon) hangs in the balance, Mormon-Jewish relations have dominated religious news coverage over the past two weeks.

The Mormon practice of “proxy baptism” or “baptism for the dead” typically strikes outsiders as odd, but it offends some. For nearly twenty years, a variety of Jewish groups have complained about proxy baptisms done by Mormons on behalf of Holocaust victims, and the Catholic Church has also expressed concerns about the practice.

Many good essays and posts have appeared over the last ten days that place this ritual in its historical and theological context and attempt to mediate between Mormon and Jewish concerns. In particular, see Jana Riess’s Religious News Service blog post and Samuel Brown’s Huffington Post piece.

I chime in here. I can certainly understand the complaints of non-Mormons that proxy baptism violates the memory of their ancestors.

Still, in my mind there are primarily two ways to understand the rite. For Mormons, proxy baptism is a sacred task of bringing their ancestors into celestial glory, of rebuilding family connections that will persist for eternity. The church is attempting to provide an opportunity for the departed to respond to the gospel in the afterlife. From the earliest days of the ritual (which Joseph Smith introduced in 1840), Latter-day Saints have not always been content to provide for their own ancestor’s salvation. Early Mormons were baptized for George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and the explorer Zebulon Pike. If memory serves me correctly, Latter-day Saints were baptized for deceased American presidents, with understandable delays for Martin Van Buren and James Buchanan. Technically, though, all of the recipients of proxy baptism are non-Mormons, whether related to Latter-day Saints or not.

For non-Mormons, all of this is nonsense. While historians and pundits continue to debate whether the Founding Fathers were Christians, no one believes they were Mormons. Same for Adolph Hitler and Anne Frank. I would be amused, not offended, to learn that Mormons had been baptized for my grandparents (one of whom, technically a step-grandfather, was Jewish). If one doesn’t believe that proxy baptisms in the basements of Mormon temples actually provide a opportunity for those gone to the spirit world to posthumously obtain salvation, then there really is very little cause for concern.

Book of Mormon Girl Meets Review of Baptist Guy

by Paul Harvey

What a pleasure it was this weekend to verytemporarily stop the endless rounds of academic duties – job searching, juking some assessment stats, grading (and then some), survey reporting, adinfinitum – and sink a little while into Joanna Brooks’s engaging memoir/warstories/reflections on her life, The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories from an American Faith. This came outelectronically originally, and has just been published in print.

Scholars will know Brooks as the author of thefield-defining work American Lazarus: Religion and the Rise of African-American and Native American Literature (Oxford University Press), as well as The Collected Writings of Samson Occom, an incredible feat of scholarship that I recently relied heavily upon in writinga bit about Native American Christians in the colonial era. Ipreviously blogged about that work appreciatively. You scholar-geeks out there– check out the annotations and footnotes to that book, and be humble.

But while teaching first at UT Austin and now SanDiego State, where she chairs the English department (and delivers wise adviceto some of us who face the burden nightmare  tedious task  wonderful opportunity of chairingsoon), and writing frequent and always insightful blog entries for Religion Dispatches and for her personalblog/advice column Ask Mormon Girl, Joannahas more recently turned to a new calling – to write for a more general publicon growing up as a Mormon, confronting the LDS Church as a feminist andliberal, and learning to appreciate her story and struggles even while dealingwith the pain of her struggles. 

TheBook of Mormon Girl is a book of stories, taking us throughchildhood scenes (where she was a “root beer among Cokes” in Southern California), adolescent struggles, and then on to college, where, ratherthan (as she expected) meeting her long-awaited husband, she ended up tearingup her diploma in protest. She then tells about her “years in exile” from theChurch, and her more recent (partial) reconciliation with her past and herfaith.I’m not going to try to describe the stories; youjust have to read them in her original and very powerful voice.

Further, the book is getting discussed reviewed extensively in the “Mormon archipelago” of blogs, including this piece at Common Consent, and all of these are by people with the firsthand experience and knowledge to judge, appreciate, and critique the work, as well as to compare their own personal experiences. In terms of comparing stories, I yield to their greater experience. 

 Rather,throughout I kept comparing them to my stories, if I were to ever write a “Storiesfrom an American Faith” of growing up Southern Baptist (and don’t worry, thatain’t going to happen). So many of the scenes she relates here were likeamped-up versions of times I remember from younger years. While Joanna and15,000 teenage Mormons rocked around the clock in the Rose Bowl in 1985, astory told in a wonderfully entertaining chapter, I gathered with 10,000 otherBaptist kids from across Oklahoma, Texas, and elsewhere in what was (so wewere told) the largest religious youth assembly in the country, Fall’s Creek,in Oklahoma, and sat remarkably patiently through stifling southern Oklahomasummer heat while charismatic preachers orated emotionally and memorably andscores of youths came to the altar tearfully. I even played in the band (trumpet — and execrably bad) so thatI could sit in the front (and flirt with the flute players, of course) and nothave to arrive an hour early to get a “good” seat in the hard outdoortabernacle pews. And that was just one week. Fall’s Creek in those days annually went on for 5 weeks, with a different set of 6,000 – 9,000 kids a week. That’s a lot of Southern Baptist youth. I always envied the kids from the big city churches, with their strappingly athletic volleyball teams, seemingly cosmopolitan young women, and excellent musicians.

 And while Joanna tore up her BYU diploma in protest against the purge happening in those years, some of us at Oklahoma Baptist University (around 1979-1981, at the inception of the so-called “conservative resurgence” in the Southern Baptist Convention) wore T-Shirts that said “Heretic” in defense of professors who were being secretly taped by fundamentalist youth who reminded me of Nazi youth — that was my perception then, and it remains my perception now for that matter. And the purge of Mormon feminists, related in this work with the pain that Joanna still so obviously feels, can be likened to the purge of female scholars at Baptist seminaries for a certain time in the 1980s and 1990s (and for that matter more recently, in the case of a female Hebrew professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary that was so despicably handled that even some Baptist conservatives spoke out against it)

 And yet, all the way through, I kept thinking, nomatter what story I can think of, Joanna has one that is ten times better, likegrowing up evangelical, only on steroids. Evangelicals had family timestogether, but not like Mormon families. We had visionary experiences, but theywere safely kept at a distance. We talked sometimes of being embattled in aculture, but the fact of the matter is we werethe culture, too busy drinking cokes to even know there were root beers (I think I was unaware that actual Mormons existed until the year BYU beat my beloved Sooners in football — 1980 something, I think it was). Some of us might get made fun of occasionally (and in my youthfulself-righteousness, god knows I deserved that), but we didn’t have tracts,books, and anti-Southern Baptist evangelists specifically out on the hustingsattacking everything about our faith. On the contrary, we were the ones attacking others. It was Friday Night Lights meets church on time.

We had plenty of missionaries, of course, but for god’s sake those were special people called by God; the idea that it would be normally expected of all Baptist male youth would be unthinkable.

 And then I found the explanation in the chapter “Mormonsv. Born-agains: Dance-Off, Rose Bowl, 1985” (by the way, by 1985, I was muchmore likely to be found at the Greek Theater Bowl in Berkeley or Yoshi’s in Oakland, at a Stevie Ray Vaughan or King Sunny Ade or Joe Henderson concert, than at a religious meeting,but that’s a story for another day).

Joanna relates a massive gathering of Mormon youth inthe Rose Bowl, where they sang

Shall theyouth of Zion falter
In defending truth and light
While the enemy assaileth
Shall we shrink or shun the fight?
True to the faith that our parents have cherished
True to the truths for which martyrs have perished.

Wow, just some years before at Fall’s Creek Iremember singing a lot of tunes such as “God is Watching is Over me,” with asing-song tune and incredibly simple and reassuring lyric. We didn’t have anymartyrs who had perished, and so therefore “everything is going to turn all all right.” We weren’t spitting in the wind; we were enjoying the fruits of generations of Southern Baptist laborers who had created a remarkably comfortable, mostly happy religious world in which to grow up.

But then Joanna writes (reproducing her 13-year oldthoughts in first person): “I’d like to see the born-agains pull this off. I’dlike to see them muster this degree of regimentation. . . .What did thesepeople know about discipline and commitment”?

Hold on just a minute there, I thought; I saw anawful lot of discipline, commitment, and regimentation at Fall’s Creek, andamong adults in the literature about the “Bold Mission Thrust” that Iremembered from my high school years, and the annual and incredibly effectiveLottie Moon Day offerings, and in the denominational machinery which pumped outliterature for the 15 million and more Southern Baptists across the country.So, Joanna, I’ll see you and raise you one, I thought.

But then she continues (still in first-person thirteen-year-old voice): 

Did they go to church atsix a.m. every morning before school like Mormon kids did? . . . Had theydrilled the stories and teachings of four – that’s right, four—books of scripture into their heads. No, just one, just theBible. 
   Had they carefully sealed up tins of rice and textured vegetable proteinagainst the great and final days? Were they ready to live through the endtimes? No, while they dreamed of being transported up into the clouds like StarTrek, we were ready to live out the nuclear winter that would follow the secondcoming of Christ, to rebuild a kingdom from the charred timbers of leveled forests. 
   Those born agains could never do what we did. Cross the plains. Track down andbaptize our dead ancestors by the millions. Fan out all over the globe two bytwo, knocking doors. Precision coordinate 15,000 teen-aged dancers. What it allcame down to was this: those born-agains were soft.

Yep: game, set, match.

She concludes the scene:

“We waved our pompoms for Godon Jump, calicobonnets, and Bachman Turner Overdrive, and against The Godmakers [an anti-Mormon film] and the anti-Mormon stand upcomic in his rumpled khakhis. . . I waved my pompom because I was not afraid ofpolygamy, sacred underwear, or the idea of eternal godhood, and neither werethe 15,000 youth in flammable sateen outfits moving in majestic precision onthe field around me. I was not the only one who believed in worlds asnumberless as the stars in the sky. Why not? Why the heck not?”

You win, Joanna – we were soft. And you win, too, in producing a collection of memoriesand stories with imagery that will linger long with me.  

There will be other books of Mormon stories, andborn-again stories, and memoirs from every tradition, and there will be light and happiness, and there will be blood. Joanna’s is one experienceamong many – but one told with a power, grace, and humor that you will notforget.

Diagnosing History

I’m pleased to host this guest post today from Samuel Brown, a physician, biomedical researcher, and (to boot) a talented historian, and author of the fascinating new study In Heaven as It Is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death (Oxford University Press, 2012). Below, he reflects on his work as a physician and a historian, and the nature of the “calling” of these two enterprises.
by Samuel Brown
In Heaven as It Is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of DeathWhen Istarted college in 1990, I was filled with excitement about scholarship in thehumanities. I particularly loved the idea of Classics, with its mix of languageand ancient history. But as the first semester wore on, I couldn’t escape thefeeling that God had a different path in mind for me. I had no desire to be aphysician, saw it as selling out the life of the mind, something upper-middle-classpeople did in order to be self-employed. But the call to medicine seemedundeniable to me, so I ultimately relented. I did, in a bit of homage to the biblicalpatriarch Abraham (Genesis 18:20-33), negotiate with God over the structure ofmy undergraduate career and ended up majoring in Chomskyan linguistics en routeto medical school. Even as a linguistics major, I considered a PhD in religioushistory several times near the end of college, but I always grudgingly heededthe call back to medicine. (I finally wanted to be an academic physician in mysecond year of medical residency, much to my relief.)
I havegreat admiration for professional historians, for their discipline, theirrigorous empathy for their subjects, their love of ideas and narrative andmethod. I often experience holy envy when I converse with friends ensconcedwithin the traditional humanities academy. But I am happy in my career as anacademic physician, researching cardiovascular physiology and caring forpatients with life-threatening illnesses. I prefer the stress of life-or-deathdecision-making at the bedside to the ennui of untangling undergraduate prosewhen I am not actively researching physiology.
My mainjob and chief priority is quantitative research on the ways the heart, lung,and blood vessels interrelate in order to maintain life in the face of severeinfection. In this biomedical research, I think constantly about causal inferenceand association, confounding and counterfactuals. Skepticism is natural andvital to these endeavors, and I feel great satisfaction in my career as abiomedical researcher.
It ishard, though, having once imagined myself as an academic humanist, to practicemedicine and research physiology without wondering about the big issues. Notjust ethical problems with the distribution of medical care but reflectionsabout the human struggle to maintain (or is it create?) sanity and to makesense of the world. I wonder about the ways we as patients and physicianscreate narratives to interpret lived experience. Perhaps most powerful andfrightening for me as a young physician were the emotions that arose whenindividuals, despite our best efforts to the contrary, finally passed fromlife. I wondered what people thought of their religious systems at thosemoments, watched the ways those systems often failed to provide the support I hopedthey would. And from those ruminations—combined with my awareness that Mormonangels were not traditional angels—came a book project that grew over severalyears into In Heaven as It Is on Earth.The book reinterprets early Mormonism and explores beliefs about death in earlynational America, especially in the groundswell of anti-Calvinism thatencompassed fringe groups like Mormons and increasingly mainstream groups likethe stunningly successful Methodists. The book also reflects my conviction,broadly sympathetic to the Lived Religion school of social history, thatreligion is most interesting when it is most relevant to participants, whenthey apply it, test it, stretch it.
I findthat my experience as an academic physician provides both advantages anddisadvantages as I approach cultural history. I know that cold exposure doesnot cause pneumonia and emotional stress or ambition does not itself causeearly death. But I must remind myself that historical subjects believed thatthese common problems were causally connected. I know that in general associationis not causation, but I must remind myself constantly that historical actorsconstantly developed and followed inaccurate causal models. In many respectsthe responsibility of the historian is to elaborate the details of these causalmodels without necessarily dismissing them as epidemiologically groundless. Skepticismis not always the correct response to a particular document or set of documents,not if the goal is understanding the people who created them.
Ibelieve in the vital symbiosis of biomedical research/practice and culturalhistory. Different participants will have complementary skills to bring to bearon problems of relevance to all.  Mymedical work is enriched by my relationships with historians and their craft,and I hope that my historical work is enriched by my experiences as a physicianand researcher. I am grateful for the opportunities I have had to know andrespect scholars across a variety of disciplines.

Book of Mormon Conference and Memoir

Paul Harvey

The Book of Mormon Girl - Click to order a copyThis weekend appears to be the Mormon moment for academics, with the conference at Columbia previously announced, and at Chez Harvey, as reports from the conference dovetailed with getting my hot-off-the-press copy of Joanna Brooks’s Book of Mormon Girl (originally available on Kindle, now available for non-e-readers like me in actual book form). And that was preceded by last week’s justified excoriation (amongst friends and colleagues online) of the ludicrously sophomoric review in the New York Times of Matt Bowman’s also hot-off-the-press The Mormon People.

(A quick aside to get it off my chest: Contrast Molly Worthen’s extremely thoughtful and balanced review of Randall Stephens’ and Karl Giberson’s The Anointed, also in the NYT Sunday Book Review, with the review of Bowman’s work noted above, and see how much difference it makes when the reviewer actually knows something about the subject and doesn’t demand Broadway entertainment from books meant to present a balanced and thoughtful history of a complex subject).

The Mormon People CoverTweeps can follow reports from the conference at the hashtag #mapconf. Here’s one I just saw, from conference organizer Jana Riess’s summary of one part of Matt Bowman’s presentation, from a portion of his work which examines the history and practice of “correlation” in twentieth-century Mormonism, as well as the successful incorporation of the ethos of corporate business progress and organization into the Church’s doings (with Romney’s career and and business success being a clear example, a point Matt develops much further in this outstanding piece for The New Republic):

Mormons retain the unadulterated confidence in organization that many Americans left in WWI & WWII & the Great Depression

The earliest more substantial report from the conference, however, comes to us via Juveniile Instructor, where Max Mueller managed to get off some pretty substantive impressions/reports from the conference before leaving JFK. You can check out his summary here. I anticipate, or at least hope for, more reflections from others in days to come. Here’s one brief summary of a presentation at the conference by the sociologist David Putnam:

Mormons are a peculiar people—and are glad for it.
David Campbell, the co-author of American Grace, pulled from his survey work with Bob Putnam (and new surveys focused in particular on Mormons) to show that Mormons love being Mormons more than any other group. This “ingroup” love is so powerful that it can be compared to the “ingroup” affection among Latinos and African Americans—yes Mormons’ self-directed affection looks more like an ethnic group than a religious group.

As for Joanna’s book, more to come on that front very soon! With a stack of papers to grade sitting in front of me, I of course could not resist picking up the work and just turning to a page at random, which turned out to be an account of some early educational experiences and hymns she learned in the Church, which were evidently like versions of those I got in Southern Baptist Sunday Schools, only on steroids. I found myself trying to remember if I had ever heard anything in church growing up about Mormons, and the answer was no. As far as I can remember, I was completely unaware of their existence ( except for one time when OU played BYU and my Sooners got their asses behinds kicked). The Mormon Menace that Patrick Mason so expertly traces in his recent book about anti-Mormonism in the nineteenth-century South had not made it to the Oklahoma Panhandle. But I’m guessing this would be very different nowadays. 

More to come about all this soon, here and elsewhere! Stay tuned.

Mormonism and American Politics Conference at Columbia University

Here’s an incredible conference for those of you in the New York City area to consider attending this weekend — with an all-star lineup presenting. 

Mormonism and American Politics Conference

Click here for bios of the participants and abstracts of the presentations
Friday, February 3rd, 2012 to Saturday, February 4th, 2012, 9am-5pm; 9am-2pm
International Affairs Building, Room 1501
420 W 118th St. New York City
With a Mormon candidate for the presidency and the unprecedented media attention given to Mormons recently, this conference  will take a broad view of the history of Mormon participation in American political life, from Joseph Smith’s 1844 run for the presidency to the Reed Smoot trials of the early 20th century and to the rise of Ezra Taft Benson during the Eisenhower administration, which ushered in a new era of Mormon identification with the Republican Party.
Mormonism and American Politics ConferenceSpeakers include Randall BalmerRichard BushmanClaudia BushmanJoanna Brooks, Matthew Bowman,Sarah Barringer GordonJan Shipps, Trevor Hill, Meredith LeSueur, David Campbell, Russel Arben Fox, Max Perry Mueller, Philip Barlow, and Peggy Fletcher Stack. The Religious Test, a documentary about American voters’ perceptions of Mormons, will also be screened.
Moderated and organized by Randall Balmer and Jana Riess. Sponsored by the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life.
No registration required. Seating is available on a first-come, first-served basis. Members of press may contact chriscdtr@gmail.com.
Conference schedule and participant bios and paper abstracts follow:
Friday, February 3rd, 2012, 9am-5pm
International Affairs Building, Room 1501
420 W 118th St.
8:45 – 9:00 am: Registration and Introductions
9:00-10:15 am
Richard Lyman Bushman: Joseph Smith’s Presidential Campaign
Sally Barringer Gordon: The Laws of God and the Lawyers
10:45 am -12:00 pm
Jan Shipps: Ezra Taft Benson and the Conservative Turn of “Those Amazing Mormons”
Max Mueller: Twice-told Tale’: Telling Two Histories of Mormon-Black Relations during the 2012 Presidential Election
LUNCH (a list of nearby establishments will be available)
1:00-2:15 pm
Philip Barlow: A Mormon-Inflected Foreign Policy?
David Campbell: A Peculiar People? The Religious, Social, and Political Distinctiveness of Mormons
2:45-4:00 pm
Claudia Bushman: Mormon Women Talk Politics
Joanna Brooks: On the “Underground”:  What the Mormon Yes on 8 campaign reveals about the future of Mormons in American political life
Saturday February 4th, 2012, 9am-12:30 pm
International Affairs Building, Room 1501
420 W 118th St.
9:00-10:00 am
Film screening: The Religious Test
10:30-12:00 am
Russell Arben Fox: Canon, Community, and Civil Religion: Mormonism and Politics in a Post-Establishment America
Peggy Fletcher Stack: Mormonism in the Media: The Inadequacy of Parallels or Why Reporters Can Get it Right and Still Be Wrong
Matthew Bowman: Eternal Progression: Mormonism and American Progressivism

Click here for bios of the participants and abstracts of the presentations

Mormon Books in the Wall Street Journal

Christopher Jones

(cross-posted at Juvenile Instructor)

In Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, Samuel Brown, professor of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at the University of Utah and author of the recently-released In Heaven as It Is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death (Oxford University Press, 2012), penned a short annotated list of “the five best” books on Mormonism, which included the following:

  • Grant Hardy, ed., The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition (Oxford University Press, 2003) 
  • Richard Bushman, Mormonism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2008) 
  • Terryl Givens, The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Creation of Heresy (Oxford University Press, 1997) 
  • Kathleen Flake, The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle (University of North Carolina Press, 2004) 
  • Matthew Bowman, The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith (Random House, 2012)

    There’s quite a bit to discuss here, I think, and perhaps some to quibble with, too. As I understand it, though, Brown’s list was aimed at the average WSJ reader who might want to consult a book on the subject if (when?) Mitt Romney secures the Republican nomination for President, so we can probably forgive him for leaving off tomes like Richard Bushman’s 500+ pp. biography of Joseph Smith or those volumes focused solely on a specific event or topic in the Latter-day Saint past that sheds little light on the movement today (i.e. those treating the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the Mormon trek westward to Utah, etc.).*

    Beyond disagreements over whether or not the books listed here are actually the best, here are a few things that stick out to me:
    • All five books are relatively recent publications (Givens’s The Viper on the Hearth being the oldest), with four of the five being published in the last decade. Does this suggest that scholarship has made such significant advances in recent years that earlier classics (Brodie’s No Man Knows My History, Shipps’s Mormonism, or even Brooks’s The Refiner’s Fire)? Or is it simply that these books incorporate and converse with the veritable flood of recent scholarship on the subject and speak more directly to Mormonism’s place in the 21st century?
    • The list includes two general surveys of Mormon history and culture (Bushman’s and Bowman’s), two books dealing with the 19th century (Hardy’s edition of the movement’s founding text and Givens’s examination of early anti-Mormon literature), and only one focused on something that occurred in the 20th century (Flake’s splendid treatment of the controversy surrounding the seating of Mormon Apostle Reed Smoot in the U.S. Senate, and it should be pointed out that this episode occurred in the first decade of the century and speaks as much to Mormonism’s 19th century legacy of polygamy and avowed outsiderism as it does to its 20th century trajectory). It’s no secret (and a continually-voiced frustration among those invested in the field) that Mormon history has focused (like American religious history more generally) on the decades and centuries prior to the 20th century, and Brown’s list reflects that observation. It should be noted, though, that Bushman’s and (especially) Bowman’s (who studies 20th century American religion) books offer insightful and provocative interpretations of Mormonism’s more recent past, and that there are several recently-published and forthcoming books treating various aspects of that history as well. This list may well be more evenly balanced between time periods if written even 3 or 4 years from now. 
    • All five authors whose books are included on the list are, in fact, Mormons. There is many ways to interpret that observation, and I’m not sure entirely how to account for it. It brings to mind, of course, ongoing debates among historians of Mormonism (and of course, scholars of religion more generally) about the perils and promises of being an outwardly religious individual and studying religion–debates that are, at long last, finally coming into conversation with one another. But it also raises important questions about the recent boon in Mormon studies more generally. With endowed chairs at several secular universities and an ever-increasing (in terms of quality and quantity) outpouring of scholarship on the subject, Brown’s list made me reflect on whether or not there are enough scholars outside the Mormon tradition studying the Latter-day Saint past to help Mormon studies become something more than a perpetual conversation among believers. The answer, I think (hope?), is that there are–our own John Turner‘s forthcoming biography of Brigham Young will very likely be given serious consideration on any such future lists, Laurie Maffly-Kipp has authored an introduction to another edition of the Book of Mormon, and several young scholars and graduate students outside the Mormon tradition are currently conducting fascinating research on many aspects of Mormonism’s past. 

    *Kathleen Flake’s The Politics of American Religious Identity is the notable exception, but the event it focuses on speaks so directly to the ongoing concerns over Mitt Romney’s Mormonism today that it would be hard to not include given the list’s parameters.

    The Origins of the Mormon Moment; or, How to Generate Your Own Such Moment

    Christopher Jones

    As a follow-up to Paul’s post last week on “the Mormon moment in scholarship,” and in an attempt to answer the questions posed by Elesha and Curtis in the comments of that post, I’ll simply point readers to a post today (“2011: The Year of the Mormon“) over at the Mormon blog By Common Consent. Embedded within that post, which surveys a number of individuals, events, and trends in pop culture, politics, sports, and scholarship that kept Mormonism in the spotlight all year long, is what appears to me to be a basic (if slightly complicated) formula for those interested in generating a similar moment for their respective religious movement/scholarly-subject of study/etc. With a giant tip-of-the-hat to the fine folks at BCC, then, here is my formula:

    1. Aim for an election year (preferably a presidential election), and ensure that at least two of the candidates are of the specific faith community. If they represent divergent approaches to said faith, and maintain a personal and/or political rivalry dating back several generations, even better.

    2. Politicians alone, of course, cannot create such a moment. They need to be buttressed by likeable star athletes that inspire hip-hop songs and videos, rock/pop music sensations that publicly proclaim their faith without coming across too condescending or annoying and incorporate elements of the religion’s founding theophany in their music videos, and television programs portraying the more controversial elements of the faith tradition. For scholars of religion, it is particularly important that these figures not only be members of the religion, but also that their respective talents can be explained by alluding to, for example, Thomas Aquinas’s theory of scripture. Landing these public figures on the cover of several prominent national publications doesn’t hurt, either. Oh yeah, and if the guys behind South Park create the Broadway hit of the year about the religious community, that’s just icing on the cake.

    3. While loads of publicity may generate a “moment” for the religion, they do not automatically lead to a corresponding “moment” for scholarship on the subject. The key there, of course, is to keep researching and writing. The sheer amount of scholarship focused on Mormons and Mormonism over the past year (or that forthcoming in 2012) really isn’t all that unique—historians, sociologists, and others have been generating volumes and volumes of scholarship on the subject for decades now. The key here, as I see it, is that the younger generation of scholars—folks like Pat Mason, Matt Bowman, John Turner, and Spencer Fluhman—are building on the work of their predecessors but also more directly engaging trends in larger fields (American religious history, religious experience, religion and politics, etc.) and demonstrating what the Mormon experience uniquely reveals about those larger subjects, trends, etc. It also helps if the institutional church in question decides to take an active role in that scholarship by expanding and publishing archival collections.

    Looking forward to 2012, Paul may be right in wondering if “another mainline moment in being born.” But just to be sure, someone may want to put in a call to the South Park guys.

    The Mormon Moment in Scholarship

    Paul Harvey

    Everyone is discussing the “Mormon moment” thanks to Romney and national politics, and Max Mueller’s piece for Religion Dispatches discusses why non-expert pontificators feel free to pontificate on Mormonism’s “weirdness” where they would do no such thing about other religious traditions. Don’t miss his article.
    But it may actually be more the Mormon moment in the scholarly world than anywhere else. Our own John Turner’s biography of Brigham Young will be out in a little over a year or so (and scroll down for John’s recent post on Joseph Smith’s Journals), with Harvard University Press, and the big biography of Parley Pratt by Terryl Givens and Matthew Grow will be reviewed here at the blog in just a little while. And don’t forget Patrick Mason’s The Mormon Menace, reviewed here at the blog a while back. The world awaits J. Spencer Fluhman’s forthcoming study of nineteenth-century anti-Mormon rhetoric, coming out next fall with the University of North Carolina Press; the parts I’ve seen represent scholarship at its best.
    The efflorescence of scholarship in the field is pretty astonishing, keeping up with it impossible. For a little assistance in the latter, I recommend Ben Park’s “2011 in Retrospect: A Look at Important Books and Articles in Mormon History,” over at Juvenile Instructor. Here are Ben’s personal award winners for the year, but go over to his post for a much fuller and more extensive discussion of the variety of recent scholarship in the field.

    My picks for a handful of MHA’s awards are as follows. (Drumroll please…)

    • Best Book: Sam Brown, In Heaven as it Is on Earth
    • Best Biography: Terryl Givens and Matthew Grow, Parley P. Pratt
    • Best First Book: Patrick Mason, The Mormon Menace
    • Best Article: Stapley and Wright, “Female Ritual Healing in Mormonism” (Stapley also gets recognition for “Adoption Sealing Ritual,” which is equally deserving of the award)
    • Awards of Excellence (2 Articles): Patrick Mason, “God and the People”; Chris Jones, “The Power and Form of Godliness”
    • Silver Award for Women’s History: Catherine Brekus, “Mormon Women and the Problem of Historical Agency”

    Robert Jeffress and the History of Anti-Mormonism

    Paul Harvey

    Earlier this year John Turner reviewed for our blog Patrick Mason’s new book The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South, a book foreshadowed in an outstanding article in the Journal of Southern History.
    Good time to be reminded of this again while Mitt Romney endures the latest round of this particular ugliness. Over at Religion Dispatches, Joanna Brooks interviews Mason, and the two discuss the various stages of anti-Mormonism in American history — from violent vigilantism in the mid-19th century, to the adoption of the “cult” terminology in the 1960s and 1970s (a word that my students still use to describe anything in religion that strikes them as vaguely weird or outside their experience), and more recently to “organized anti-Mormonism,” reflected in the comments of the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas. A little excerpt:

    That helps me understand the edge I hear in the contemporary caricaturing of Mormonism as a “cult.” It’s not just theological differentiation. There’s an edge to the accusation. It’s a residue of the anti-Mormon violence of the nineteenth century.

    Yes. Once Mormons drop polygamy in the late nineteenth century, anti-Mormon violence stops. Violent anti-Mormonism disappears, whereas African-American lynching does not. But latent ideas of Mormons as polygamists continue to dominate the Southern imagination.

    Usage of the word “cult” as a descriptor for Mormonism picks up steam in the 1960s as a reaction to new religious movements like the Moonies, Jonestown, Scientology, and so forth. It also indexes a feeling of eroding religious authority on the part of mainline and evangelical Protestants who have had a custodial relationship to culture in the American South. Beginning in the 1960s, with greater secularism, there comes a sense that this Protestant custodial relationship is under threat. “Cult” becomes a catch-all phrase to catch new and unrecognizable religious movements.

    Mason also discusses the role that anti-Mormonism also plays for church authorities (to label dissenting views or mild criticisms as “anti-Mormon”), and praises Mitt Romney’s handling of the latest controversy.