The Mormon Diaspora: Remarks from MHA 2019

BickertonRecently, someone noted how Amazon has changed its category title from “Mormonism” to “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” This was, of course, in response to LDS leaders’ request that we phase out the use of the term “Mormon” when referring to the faith, its members, and particularly the institution. (See this excellent podcast discussion on the topic.) I’ve tweeted about this broader name dilemma in the past—see here for the academic context, and here for the cultural issues—but this particular twist raises another point: it further marginalizes religious traditions that trace their heritage to Joseph Smith but are not the LDS Church. That is, Amazon’s “Mormonism” category used to include books on various schisms and figures outside the mainstream, but now they are pushed aside into a different, and profoundly smaller grouping. Given Amazon’s various digital tools, especially the “suggested books,” I worry this will lead to fewer people being exposed to excellent scholarship.

This topic has been at the forefront of my mind because I had the privilege of participating in an author-meets-critics roundtable at the Mormon History Association conference on Daniel Stone’s recent book, William Bickerton: Forgotten Latter Day Prophet (Signature Books, 2018). Below I’m pasting the final portion of my remarks, which aim directly at why it is important to study figures like Bickerton, and why I’m nervous about any policy, approach, or digital algorithm that marginalizes non-LDS movements.

Now I’d like to return to the theme with which I opened my remarks: the significance of Mormon diasporic studies. On the one hand, the significance of studying people like Bickerton should be clear: without them, the story is just incomplete. To have an exhaustive Mormon history—especially now that “Mormon” is freed from the Utah-based LDS institution—we need to be more comprehensive in terms of the groups and individuals who claim an authoritative lineage to Joseph Smith. But I’d also like to tease out two other reasons, one parochial and the other integrative in nature.

The first concerns the Mormon studies field in general: studying marginalized traditions disrupts simplistic teleological narratives of Mormon development. Put in other words, Mormonism did not have to develop the way it did, and we know that because we see people taking multiple trajectories from a single point. Bickerton read the same Book of Mormon as Joseph Smith, yet he interpreted it in fundamentally different ways. He also inherited the same Doctrine and Covenants as Brigham Young, but structured a very different ecclesiastical system. Using the same clay from which the Utah saints built a patriarchal, millenarian, and racial system, Bickerton developed one that was, arguably, more progressive in each of those categories. I was struck how, within months of converting to Sidney Rigdon’s religion, Bickerton was already questioning his decisions and revelations—what was it about their community that put such a premium on personal freedom rather than strict obedience?

Mormonism, in other words, was never determined to develop in any particular way; Mormon theology is a malleable organism that bends and shapes according to different individuals and contexts. By understanding the ways in which Bickerton created Mormonism in his likeness and image, we get a better understanding of the ways Brigham Young, James Strang, and Joseph Smith III created theirs. If one of the historian’s task is to reveal roads that were not chosen, rather than just the roads that were, Mormon schismatic studies should take up much more of our scholarly bandwidth than previously observed.

Now the second, and I promise final, point, and it admittedly has to do more with Mormon studies than it does Mormon history. If one of the key purposes of Mormon studies is to use Mormonism to better understand the world around it, rather than merely use the world around it to better understand Mormonism, then it seems the study of people like Bickerton and movements like the Bickertonites prove a crucial role: nineteenth century America was known for its religious marketplace, as citizens took advantage of a new disestablished culture to sample divergent traditions and dabble in various denominations. As recent scholarship has shown, a majority of Americans changed faith at least once in their lifetime, and often more. Historians have struggled at explaining why this was, and what it meant: was this just the inevitable fruits of disestablishment? Did the American emphasis on the personal conscience equal an unending stream of conversions and dissensions? Did the physical mobility of westward expansion lead many to believe they could up and leave faith traditions as easily as they could cities? What was it that made the faith of their fathers no longer acceptable for a majority of Americans?

Enter the Mormons. Even for those who remained within the diaspora, individual choice led them to affiliate, leave, restore, and expose particular institutions in favor of others. These divergent Mormon traditions, I argue, finally in conclusion, might offer a key to unlocking one of the mysteries of American religious history more broadly: what was it about the national climate that allowed William Bickerton, a miner in rural Pennsylvania, to determine that, in lieu of merely following other prophets, he could actually become his own?