Mormon Studies and Edited Collections

Three of the books published this summer that I’m most excited about are edited collections on Mormon topics: Kate Holbrook and Matt Bowman’s Women and Mormonism: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (University of Utah Press), Patrick Mason’s Directions for Mormon Studies in the Twenty-First Century (University of Utah Press), and Patrick Mason and John Turner’s Out of Obscurity: Mormonism Since 1845 (Oxford University Press). And late last year we also received Randall Ballmer and Jana Riess’s Mormonism and American Politics (Columbia University Press). I’ve read through most of these (Out of Obscurity just arrived yesterday, so give me a couple days), and I’ll probably highlight them each individually in coming weeks. But I wanted to take a minute and note how odd it is (in a good way!) that Mormon studies produces so many edited collections.

For starters, young academics are actively discouraged from putting together edited collections—they take a lot of time and don’t mean much in your tenure portfolio. Further, many university presses are running from edited collections. They are typically seen as the type of academic book that won’t sell well. Even when there’s a special academic conference on a particular topic—which was what led to three of the volumes listed above—the proceedings usually appear in a special issue of an academic journal. For instance, a couple years ago I participated in a conference, hosted by the McNeil Center for Early American Studies, that focused on Benjamin Rush and the early republic. Select papers from that even will appear in Early American Studies next Fall. That is how it typically works, given that it will assure people interested in the field will get a copy since they likely subscribe to the journal. And university presses don’t have to take the risk that an edited volume will just sit in their warehouse shelves collecting dust. But that doesn’t seem to be the case for edited collections on Mormon topics.

So perhaps a large part of what drives the continuation of edited collections in Mormon studies is that Mormonism still sells. Jana Riess pointed out a few years ago how Mormon studies has been a boon for many academic presses, in some cases being their most popular titles. So the same caution that demonstrated in some genres is clearly not present here. Mormons buy books about their faith’s past and tradition, and non-Mormon academics are certainly becoming more interested as well.

But I think there has to be something else. Edited collections have long played an important role in Mormon history. Looking at my shelves I can see a long line of significant edited volumes in the field: Bitton and Beecher’s New Views of Mormon History (University of Utah Press), Bringhurst and Smith’s Black and Mormon (University of Illinois Press), Hanks’s Women and Authority (Signature Books), Bringhurst and Hamer’s Scattering of the Saints (John Whitmer Books), Taysom’s Dimensions of Faith (Signature Books), Bushman’s Mormon Sisters (Utah State University Press), and Beecher and Anderson’s Sisters in Spirit (University of Illinois Press), to just name some most prominent. We’ve done edited collections that focus on past books, like on Arrington’s Great Basin Kingdom, Flanders’s Kingdom on the Mississippi, and Thomas Odea’s The Mormons. Presses like Signature and BYU’s Religious Studies Center have had prolific series of edited collections. Some authors have made a cottage industry of the practice. And given the many edited collections that I know are still in the works, I don’t see this trend stopping any time soon.

What does that say about the field? Probably a lot of things. But I’ll just mention four.

First, it demonstrates the myriad of topics and sources that energize those interested in Mormon history. The MHA community is, much to its strength, a mix of academic and amateur, which often leads to enormous interest in different issues. Everyone has a “pet topic,” and if you gather enough people who are also interested in that “pet topic,” you have a collection. These volumes also enable historians to fill a “hole” present in the field. For instance, the Out of Obscurity volume is directly meant to address the lack of work on post-WW2 Mormonism.

Second, connected to the first point, it is indicative of the people who are plowing the field of Mormon history. Very few academics are interested in slogging through an entire manuscript–writing an essay can be much more manageable. So the accessibility of these edited collections allows more people to participate in the field than otherwise could. This is also probably why Mormon history has so many scholarly journals—probably too many, but that’s an issue for another post.

Third, you’ll notice that many of the more academic collections are focused on, to borrow from the title of one of the books highlighted above, “new directions” in the field. (Or, to borrow from another recent and excellent volume, “new perspectives.”) This is common when a field is at a moment of transition, as I think Mormon studies is now.

And finally, it reaffirms the collaborative nature of the Mormon studies community. People like to work together. People like to organize conferences. People like collaborating on projects. Mirroring the very community that we study, the scholarly investigation into Mormonism is a group affair. Joseph Smith would probably be proud of the academic family spawned by his faith tradition. One of the field’s best practitioners put it best when he called it “intellectual kinship.”

There are probably more reasons, but those four stand out to me. And though there are likely serious downfalls of so much focus on edited collections, which I could touch on another time, I say let a hundred flowers blossom.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s