December 12, 2007


Making Mormon history: An influential religion struggles with how to tell the story of its past (Mark Oppenheimer, December 9, 2007, Boston Globe)

Serious analysis of Mormonism has never been more important, but that doesn't mean it will be easy. In Romney's speech on faith last week, for example, the candidate spoke movingly about religious tolerance, and tried to highlight similarities between Mormonism and mainstream Christianity, but he said nothing substantive about Mormon theology or history. Campaigning politicians can't be expected, of course, to discuss the more uncomfortable aspects of religious history, which for the Mormons include a ban on blacks in the priesthood until 1978, and their often contentious relations with what they call their "Gentile" neighbors. It is historians and journalists who are charged with describing unpleasant realities, and how well they accomplish their task will depend in part on which the LDS church decides is more important: guarding its image or uncovering the truth.

Mormon history should be uniquely accessible. In 1829, Smith finished his "translation" of a new Christian testament, the Book of Mormon, from gold plates he claimed to have found hidden outdoors, and the following year he and his followers published the book. Persecuted for the heretical beliefs they were developing - including baptism of the dead, the nonexistence of original sin, the Book of Mormon's completion of the (insufficient) Bible, and, for a time, the need for "plural marriage," or polygamy - the group traveled from Ohio to Missouri to Illinois. Along the way, the group made converts but even more enemies, and in 1844, in Carthage, Ill., an angry mob murdered Smith, shooting him repeatedly. Numerous newspaper accounts of Smith survive, as do diaries of his followers. As far as historical religious figures go, Smith is not a murky one.

What's more, Mormons have always been obsessive record-keepers and genealogists, so it would be incorrect to say that they had contempt for history. But as in many church traditions, historians of the faith were expected to support the faith. And unlike, say, many Congregationalists or Episcopalians, few Mormons attended leading secular universities, where they might have been drawn to academic history. So for much of Mormon history - from Joseph Smith's "First Vision," when God spoke to him in 1820, through his writing of the Book of Mormon, decades of persecution, the arrival of Smith's followers in Utah in 1846, the end of plural marriage in 1890, to the first decades of the 20th century - Mormons who wrote Mormon history worked in the devotional mode. They gave "the Mormon story as an account of a true church led by a true prophet versus a hostile world," writes Jan Shipps, an esteemed non-Mormon historian of Mormonism, in the September issue of The Journal of American History. Non-Mormon historians, Shipps adds, approached the same story with the opposite bias, calling Smith a con man.

In the 1940s and 50s, some Mormon historians became impatient with the piety enforced on them, and they began to publish accounts greatly at odds with the church's preferred versions. The most famous was Fawn Brodie, who in 1945 wrote "No Man Knows My History," a biography of Joseph Smith notable for its skeptical and irreverent attitude toward the founder and his supernatural claims. Her book scandalized the church, and in 1946 she was excommunicated. Brodie was from an influential Mormon family - her uncle would in 1950 become the Mormon prophet-president - and her banishment was a strong statement from the LDS hierarchy that some unspoken lines could not be crossed.

Soon, however, the church entered a new period of scholarly engagement, with Mormon historians taking greater liberties and non-Mormon historians beginning to take a fresh, less anti-Mormon look at the church, too. Beginning in the 1960s, younger scholars wrote books, rigorous and academic in their approach, that formed the heart of what came to be called the "New Mormon History." As historian Shipps notes, other factors contributed to this opening of the Mormon mind. In 1965, the Mormon History Association was founded, and the next year Dialogue, a new, independent journal of Mormon studies, began publication. The Mormon bureaucracy itself added historical and archival departments, hiring well-trained historians. And new and expanded history departments at church-affiliated schools, like BYU and Iowa's Graceland College, meant new jobs for Mormon historians with secular training.

In 1972, Utah State professor Leonard Arrington was hired to be the official LDS church historian. Arrington was a Mormon, but he had been trained at the University of North Carolina. Under Arrington, the Mormon archives were opened to more historians, and with fewer restrictions than ever before. The result was a flowering of scholarship, as both Mormon and non-Mormon historians offered frank looks at Mormon history and Mormon ancestors, in many ways picking up where Fawn Brodie left off. They wrote about skeletons in Smith's closet, such as his interest in the occult, or the Mormons' massacre of non-Mormons at Mountain Meadows, Utah, in 1857.

The New Mormon History constituted a new field of scholarly inquiry. Historians wrote dozens of well-regarded books, greatly increasing what we reliably know about LDS history. Mormon and non-Mormon historians developed close relationships, and the academic establishment began to treat Mormonism less as a bizarre cult and more as a religion. But these books and articles also worried conservatives within the church. In 1981, Mormon apostle Boyd K. Packer, a leading conservative, famously cautioned: "Some things that are true are not very useful." Mormon historians who do their work "regardless of how they may injure the Church or destroy the faith of those not ready for 'advanced history,' " he said, may find themselves in "great spiritual jeopardy."

It was not empty rhetoric. A decade later, in 1993, the church excommunicated several scholars, including D. Michael Quinn, a tenured historian at Brigham Young University who had written a number of controversial works, including one about the persistence of church-sanctioned polygamy after its official ban in 1890. [...]

Today, bigger and more prominent than ever, the church is in a period of heightened confidence, and with it has come a renewed receptivity to scholarship. Mormon historians aren't as afraid of crossing their church as they would have been 10 years ago. "I do think there's more openness today than in the nineties," says Jed Woodworth, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, who assisted in the research for a recent biography of Smith by Richard Bushman, a former Columbia history professor and a Mormon patriarch.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 12, 2007 6:40 AM

By all means read that Richard Bushman book, and while reading it, keep in mind that this is the favorable version of Mormon history.

After you have read it, think about the Apostle Paul's letters to the church at Corinth. Quackery, paricular sexual excess, is a risk for the new church. Breaking new ground, theologiclly, empowers the religious quack to write his own domestic ticket.

We need not wait for a copy of the Bushmnan book: the linked article contains enough red flags concerning Mormonism's concealment and distortions of its inconvenient truths.

Posted by: Lou Gots at December 12, 2007 6:02 PM

The Catholic church isn't new and it's as queer as the British Navy.

Posted by: oj at December 12, 2007 8:33 PM