There are many books that influenced my development as a young Mormon academic, but few were as significant as Hugh Nibley’s Approaching Zion. A collection of essays spanning several decades, the volume was Nibley at his finest: cultural gadfly, materialist critic, and armchair historian. Even as I might have grown a bit disillusioned with his historical chops—it turns out Brigham Young wasn’t the intellectual and individualistic iconoclast Nibley promised!—several fundamental lessons from the book still shape me today: an abhorrence toward the gross accumulation of wealth, a love for intellectual inquiries, and, most importantly, a belief that one could still be a Mormon while simultaneously critiquing the faith’s mainstream culture.
Also, the book made me a Democrat, so there’s that. Read More
The field of Mormon history has always been inundated with an obsession with documents. There are multiple reasons for this. For one, the LDS tradition itself possessed an injunction in an early revelation that “a record shall be kept among you,” which resulted in the Saints compiling loads and loads of significant texts since its earliest years. Indeed, I often marvel that in writing my history of Nauvoo, I suffer from a problem rarely encountered in microhistories of early America: rather than having too few sources, I perhaps have too many. Read More
The legacy of Leonard Arrington is familiar to anyone who studies Mormon history. Author of the classic monograph Great Basin Kingdom, Arrington was the known as the founder of the New Mormon History movement as well as the first academic to be appointed the official historian for the LDS Church. His decade-long tenure in the Church Office Building, affectionally heralded as “Camelot” in Mormon history circles, was known for its attempts at archival access and prodigious publishing. He is also known as a martyr figure due to a series of clashes with ecclesiastical leaders that led to his quiet dismissal and reassignment to BYU. There are few more significant figures in the development of academic Mormon history than this short and jovial professor born in Twin Falls, Idaho. Read More
It all started with a domestic dispute.
Okay, so it was more complex than that, and there were certainly many layers behind the origins of Joseph Smith’s polygamy revelation, but for the sake of my point let’s just say one of the most controversial documents in Mormonism’s history was meant to solve a marital spat. Because, in some ways, it absolutely was. The setting was summer 1843 in Nauvoo, Illinois. Joseph Smith’s zealous and devoted brother, Hyrum, had just embraced the doctrine of polygamy. This was no simple conversion: he had been one of the most outspoken critics of what many called the “spiritual wives” doctrine that was secretly being taught in the city, allegedly promulgated by the disgraced mayor and serial adulterer John C. Bennett. Joseph, knowing that Hyrum held such strong feelings concerning the rumors, was cautious to teach him the concomitantly controversial and secret theology of plural marriage. But once he heard and accepted the practice—a story worthy of its own post—he became one of its most ardent defenders. And now he was ready to proselytize one of his fellow colleagues in the anti-polygamy crusade: Joseph’s wife, Emma. Read More
Historians of early Mormonism have long noted the connection between Joseph Smith and a contemporary restorationist, Alexander Campbell. Both lived in antebellum America, both sought to restore a primitive form of Christianity, and both based their religion on (what they believed to be) a literalistic interpretation of the Bible. And unlike other theological figures sometimes theologically linked to Smith, Campbell actually encountered Mormonism and had a lot to say about the faith: many of the first LDS converts came from congregations loosely affiliated with Campbell’s movement, and Campbell wrote one of the first anti-Mormon books attacking Smith’s new scriptures. The two religious leaders not only had some intellectual similarities, but they also were fighting over the same circles of believers. Read More
For those interested, I was interviewed by William Black for the website “Meaning of Life.” The discussion touched on modern Mormonism, the transition of LDS leadership, and other topics related to the modern Mormon tradition. You can find their website here, and I’ve embedded the video below.
The Broadway musical Hamilton did a lot for the protagonist Alexander Hamilton, but little for his nemesis Aaron Burr. Despite the valiant effort of historians like Nancy Isenberg, the victor of the 1804 duel was now seen as the villain of one of America’s greatest rivalries. But what’s fascinating is that one of the most intriguing elements of an overall intriguing life took place in the years immediately following that storied morning at Weehawken: rumors quickly spread that Burr was canvassing the nation’s westward territory, possibly plotting an insurrection or even the establishment of a new empire. Now that would be a great plot for the theater. Read More