Fighting in Congress, Then and Now

FreemanThe confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh have reaffirmed something that has become standard today: America’s congressional system, included the senate, is a very partisan space. While the vote is expected to follow strict party lines, both sides have lobbied insults and accusations at one another, party leaders have used shady mechanisms to get their way, and opponents have declared the moral depravity of the other. But at least they haven’t started to throw swings at one another.

(Yet, anyway; if they ever do, then perhaps this is the realm where Jeff Flake’s training might actually come in handy.)  Read More

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Black Voices and Black Rights in Black Baltimore

BirthrightAmong the many casualties in the recent push to remove confederate monuments was Roger Taney. Taney was the Supreme Court justice who authored one of the most nefarious rulings in American history, the 1857 majority opinion in Dred Scott vs. Sanford that declared African Americans as non-citizens devoid of any rights. Despite his national reputation, Taney was a beloved (by some) son of Baltimore, and his statue sat prominently in Mount Vernon Place since 1887. In the midst of the fervid discussion concerning how America commemorates its racial past, city officials had the statue removed and placed in storage in August, 2017. Taney played a significant role in Baltimore, but it was not one that had to be commemorated.

Taney plays a crucial, if indirect, role in Martha S. Jones’s new book, Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America (Cambridge University Press, 2018). Focusing on Baltimore between the 1820s and the Civil War, Jones argues that “black Americans can serve as our guides through a history of race and rights” (9). That is, rather than just focusing on race and rights as a touchstone topic—which historians have increasingly done—we must also incorporate black voices into this analysis. Birthright Citizens is a model for how to incorporate more characters into our historical narratives. Read More

Mormonism’s Expanded Canon

Expanded CanonOne of the most famous elements concerning the Mormon faith is its belief in an expanded scriptural canon. Besides the Bible, members of the church believe that the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price are holy texts that contain the word and commands of God; more liberally, and abstractly, Mormons also believe that the words uttered by leaders today are, at least in some form, scripture, even if the official canon has been functionally closed for some time.

A new collection of essays, titled The Expanded Canon: Perspectives on Mormonism & Sacred Texts (Kofford Books, 2018), explores many of the tensions related to Mormonism’s scriptural corpus. Most of these chapters are drawn from a conference hosted by Utah Valley University’s Mormon Studies program a few years ago. Indeed, this volume is the first in a collaboration between Kofford Books and UVU, which will serve an important service for the field by reproducing some of the more provocative and smart proceedings in Mormon studies today.  Read More

Approaching a Decolonized Zion

Decolonizing MormonismThere 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

Dissecting Mormonism’s Founding Documents

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 Significance of Leonard Arrington’s Diaries

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

William Smith’s “The Plural Marriage Revelation” and Nauvoo’s Legacy

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