Situating the Book of Mormon in America’s Literary Tradition

Just as members of the Latter-day Saint Church are familiar with Joseph Smith’s statement that the Book of Mormon is the “keystone” of the faith, participants in the field of Mormon studies are acquainted with the oft-repeated maxim that scholars don’t take the text seriously. The sacred scripture for a global religion, the Book of Mormon has mostly been a curiosity at best, or a point of ridicule at worst, for outside observers. This is a result of both external and internal factors: externally, scholars outside the faith are often ill-equipped to take scriptural works seriously; internally, those committed to defending LDS truth claims have declared the Book of Mormon, and especially its historicity, as a third-rail issue. The result has been general avoidance, with periodic moments of begrudging investigation.

BoMThis started changing about two decades ago, but from an unexpected place: scholars of American literature. In a way, this made sense: the field allowed readers to prioritize the text over its context, seemingly setting aside the controversial questions that served as battlegrounds in the past. Another development in American literature also enabled this examination: the move away from solely studying a “canon” of classic texts, and instead focusing on marginalized or overlooked voices. Thus, the field was ripe for harvest. Terryl Givens’s By the Hand of Mormon was perhaps the most prominent early example of this new trend, but it was soon followed by others. And, in the traditional step of any growing academic trend, we now have an edited collection that charts a variety of approaches found within the scholarly movement.

Edited by Elizabeth Fenton and Jared Hickman, two of the foremost proponents of this scholarly trend, Americanist Approaches to the Book of Mormon (Oxford University Press) contains seventeen essays that, while united in the purpose of incorporating the Book of Mormon into American literature, exemplify the divergences for how to accomplish that very goal. Together, I found this this most provocative collection on the topic I’ve ever read, as it introduced a number of ideas and theses with which I’ll be wrestling for quite some time. Read More

Mormonism as a Religion for the Railroad Age

The famed British author Charles Dickens was not a fan of Mormonism. Joseph Smith, he wrote in 1851, was an “ignorant rustic” who “sees visions, lays claim to inspiration, and pretends to communion with angels.” And most damning, according to Dickens, was that Smith dared to claim his fantasies not in the superstitious era of bygone antiquity, but rather “in the age of railways.” Railroads were just then sweeping over both America and Britain, and were represented the new modern stage into which humanity had entered. What made Mormonism so laughable, therefore, was that it sought converts in a period supposedly so advanced that everyone should see through the fraudulent sham.

WalkerIn 2019, another author, UC-Santa Barbara scholar David Walker, similarly used the railroad to discuss modernity and Mormonism. But in Railroading Religion: Mormons, Tourists, and the Corporate Spirit of the West (UNC Press), Walker makes a different argument: rather than wilting in the face of modernity, Mormonism’s history challenges the very concept of modernity itself.

When Dickens juxtaposed the rationality of railroads to the irrationality of Mormonism, he was far from alone. Further, many in America believed the advent of the railroad spelled the doom for the controversial faith nestled in the Rocky Mountains. Walker’s first chapter outlines what he refers to as the “death knell thesis”: that once Utah was connected to the rest of society, enabling the constant flow of both ideas and products between Deseret and American culture, the tyrannical cohesion that held Mormon converts hostage would crumble. Indeed, even as some politicians famously argued for the federal government to take a more aggressive stance rooting out the troublesome sect, others urged them to be patient, finish the transcontinental railroad, and wait for nature to take its course. Read More

Situating Joseph Smith’s “First Vision” in Modern Mormonism

I remember walking through Nauvoo shortly after returning from my LDS mission and passing by an Evangelical bookstore that was dedicated to challenging Mormon truth claims. Though closed, I couldn’t help but glance in the window to see their merchandise. Prominently displayed on the back wall was a large quilt devoted to the First Vision. This wasn’t the type of faith-promoting souvenir you’d find at the LDS-owned Deseret Book, however; rather, the quilt featured nine squares, each depicting what are arguably the conflicting details from the nine different accounts of the First Vision.[1] That was the first time I had heard of the controversy, so when I returned to my laptop I did as much reading as I could.

HarperGiven I was researching the topic in 2006, I fortunately had a lot of resources at my disposal. A quick search on google revealed partisan essays by Wesley Walters, Hugh Nibley, and a host of other critics and apologists. Most helpful for this recently-returned-missionary, however, was James Allen’s 1980 article on how the idea of the First Vision evolved over 150 years, and Richard Bushman’s just-released biography of Joseph Smith. These debates were my first entrance into the academic study of Mormon history.

I was pleased, then, to read Steven C. Harper’s new book, First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins (Oxford University Press), which not only delves into the vision’s narratives more closely, but also places the work of Walters, Nibley, Allen, and Bushman into the long trajectory of the theophany’s tale. Theoretically placing the vision’s historicity aside—though, it must be stated, the book’s tone and framing mostly takes its veracity for granted—the brunt of Harper’s work draws from the literature of memory studies to understand how Latter-day Saints and their critics have addressed the founding episode over the years. Read More

Seeing Early Mormonism through Newel Knight’s Eyes

KnightIf Latter-day Saints are a record-keeping people, then Mormon studies scholars are document-crazed researchers. The advent of the academic study of Mormonism’s past, known as New Mormon History, was driven by archive-hounds, largely enabled by a period of openness at the LDS Church archives. And that fascination has endured ever since, even as the field has become more theoretically rich and interpretively adventurous. Perhaps the most common expression of this obsession is the large number of documentary history volumes published nearly every year, enough so that both the Mormon History Association and the John Whitmer Historical Association have awards dedicated to the genre.[1] Even in the age of digitization, and when most university presses shy away from documentary editing, there are often close to a dozen titles that appear each calendar year, from a variety of different presses.

The most recent addition to this growing corpus is The Rise of the Latter-day Saints: The Journals and Histories of Newel Knight, edited by Michael Hubbard MacKay and the late William G. Hartley. Knight was one of the earliest converts to the Mormon faith, and was involved in a lot of “firsts”: he was one of the first outside of Joseph Smith’s family to hear the message, one of the first baptized, recipient of the first miracle, and the first person to be married by Joseph Smith. He traveled with earliest communities from New York to Missouri, from Missouri to Ohio, from Ohio back to Missouri, and then to Nauvoo, where he was part of the first migrant companies to leave in early-1846. After being appointed over a transient Mormon community in Nebraska, he died in early 1847 at the still-young age of 46. Given his long and close relationship with Joseph Smith, he was witness to a number of important episodes, especially early on, and his accounts are an immensely important source for reconstructing the young faith. Read More

Mormonism, Gender, and the Tangled Nature of History

PrinceFew topics have dominated modern Mormon discourse as much as those related to homosexuality. The issue has certainly framed my own experience with the LDS church over the past decade. I was in my final year at BYU when Proposition 8 took place—more on this below—and the episode was formative in how I see Mormon culture; seven years later, the “November policy”—also discussed below—was another transformative moment. Yet so many events preceded 2008, and things have seemed to only escalate since then, that it can be impossible to keep track of the larger story. The world has long-needed, then, a meticulous history of all the institutional decisions that brought us to this point, especially if it contained insider information that could flesh out traditional narratives.

Fortunately, we finally have a book that fulfills that need. Gregory A. Prince’s Gay Rights and the Mormon Church: Intended Actions, Unintended Consequences (University of Utah Press) is a nearly-exhaustive collection of institutional deliberations and actions over the past few decades, often buttressed by interviews and correspondence that have been previously unaccessible to scholars. Read More

The Legacies of Juanita Brooks

BrooksRecently, the University of Utah Press published Craig S. Smith’s edited collection of Juanita Brooks’s letters. Brooks is known as one of the founders of academic Mormon history, and was part of a generation of historians like Fawn Brodie and Dale Morgan, as well as literary authors like Maurine Whipple and Virginia Sorensen, that set the stage for New Mormon History. She is perhaps most recognized for her monumental book, The Mountain Meadows Massacre, first published by Stanford University Press in 1950 and then released in multiple editions since then. It remains one of the most influential books today, and is rightfully understood as a watershed in Mormonism’s historical conscience.

(Side note: it’s wonderful to see how Dixie State University has embraced her legacy, given she spent many years teaching there. They already run the Juanita Brooks Lecture Series. However, if you know some obscenely rich donor with an interest in the region’s past, you should talk them into endowing the Juanita Brooks Chair for Mormon/Utah History at the university.) Read More

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.
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