I must admit that I have a fascination with the development of the Mormon scholarship enterprise. In other words, the birth of the (sub)field known as Mormon studies. I’ve published a number of articles on the topic, and have blogged many more. As someone who was raised Mormon, was introduced to American history through a fascination with the LDS past, and am now a practitioner of the historical craft, it’s an issue that’s close to me. And a crucial part of the story relates to audience: for whom is this scholarship written? That is a question that has proved slippery for a lot of LDS authors.
I explore this question a bit in a chapter found in a newly published collection, Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Apologetics (Kofford Books), edited by my friends Loyd Ericson and Blair Van Dyke. This is an odd fit for me, because I don’t see myself as participating in Mormon apologetics. But my essay explores the fraught relationship between apologetics and the academy within the history of Mormon scholarship. Why was there so much animus between historians and apologists during the 1980s and 1990s? Some have even referred to this as the “history wars.”
In my article, “A Wall Between Church and Academy,” I argue that part of the problem was they were both fighting over the same audience: Latter-day Saints. It was a turf war. New Mormon History, the scholarly movement that used secular tools to understand the LDS past, was still mostly devoted to answering Mormon questions for a Mormon audience. But this was contested ground. Authors with competing goals took offense and fought back. It was genuinely unpleasant.
I believe that the rise of Mormon studies—which uses Mormonism to understand broader context, rather than using broader context to understand Mormonism—helped relieve the tension. This led to two new arenas: “Mormon scholarship,” which uses scholarly tools to speak to a Mormon audience (this includes crucial institutional history, responsible devotional work, and, yes, apologetics) and “Mormon studies,” which draws from the LDS tradition to address academic questions (this includes all the different disciplines that fits under its broad interdisciplinary umbrella). One approach is not more important than the other—indeed, works in the former category can have a more noble purpose and address a larger audience—but they are more clear with their focus and audience.
I give more detail to this scholarly evolution, as well as examples of each approach, in the essay. If you’re interested, I encourage you to read it. (It’s the shortest essay on the volume!) I’d also love to hear feedback.