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
Things have been quiet around here as the last few weeks have been a blur. But now that the semester has commenced I hope to return to a more standard schedule, including my Wednesday book reviews.
I’m excited for the Spring semester to finally start, although it was postponed again this week as a surprise freeze gripped the region. For those interested, here are the three classes I’m teaching this semester. As you can tell, I’m all Revolution, all the time. The Hamilton musical is coming to Houston in a few months, so I’m taking advantage of the cultural excitement that comes with it. (The titles link to the syllabus for the course.)
- The Age of Hamilton: This is an honors seminar with students across the disciplines.
- The Era of the American Revolution, 1763-789: This is an upper-division course for history majors, and it is also framed around the Hamilton play.
- Revolutionary America: This is a graduate course taught on-campus for our master’s degree students.
And by the way, in case you missed the news, my book is out! I’ll have more info next week.
A few days before I left Texas for the holiday break, I received a copy of a new edited volume: Mormon Women’s History: Beyond Biography, edited by Rachel Cope, Amy Easton-Flake, Keith Erekson, and Lisa Olsen Tait. The volume began with a conference held at BYU and Salt Lake City a couple years ago that tried to explore what happens when Mormon women’s history left the safe confines of biography—a methodological safeguard that had been common in the field. There are a lot of great gems in the collection. Here is the table of contents:
1 Charting the Past and Future of Mormon Women’s History
Keith A. Erekson
2 Sifting Truth from Legend: Evaluating Sources for American Indian Biography through the Life of Sally Exervier Ward
Jenny Hale Pulsipher
3 Silent Memories of Missouri: Mormon Women and Men and Sexual Assault in Group Memory and Religious Identity
Andrea G. Radke-Moss
4 Early Mormonism’s Expansive Family and the Browett Women
5 Poetry in the Woman’s Exponent: Constructing Self and Society
6 Aesthetic Evangelism, Artistic Sisterhood, and the Gospel of Beauty: Mormon Women Artists at Home and Abroad, circa 1890–1920
Heather Belnap Jensen
7 Leah Dunford Witdsoe, Alice Merrill Horne, and the Sacralization of Artistic Taste in Mormon Homes, circa 1900
Josh E. Probert
8 Double Jeopardy in Pleasant Grove: The Gendered and Cultural Challenges of Being a Danish Mormon Missionary Grass Widow in Territorial Utah
Julie K. Allen
9 Kings and Queens of the Kingdom: Gendering the Mormon Theological Narrative
Benjamin E. Park
10 Individual Lives, Broader Contexts: Mormon Women’s Studies and the Refashioning of American History and Historiography
R. Marie Griffith
While each of these are worth a read, I particularly loved Andrea Radke-Moss’s careful meditation on the use of historical sources in order to engage rape accounts from the Mormon-Missouri War. It’s an article that should make waves in the Mormon history field.
My chapter is part-extension of my Nauvoo project and part-exploration of gendered methodologies. I argue that the historiography on Mormon thought has been divided into two spheres: “Mormon theology,” which is primarily men, and “Mormon women’s theology,” which is sequestered into its own space. Here are two paragraphs from the introduction:
This compartmentalization is representative not only of the field of Mormon history but also the general approach to historical theology. That is, even while the subfield of women’s history is encouraged, it is often compartmentalized from broader Mormon narratives and frameworks. What Paul Harvey and Kevin Schultz said about religion within twentieth-century American history can similarly be said about women in Mormon history, and especially Mormon historical theology: it is “everywhere” in that specialized work in the field has proliferated at an astounding rate, but it is still “nowhere” in that it has been relegated as marginal and contained.5 Women’s history becomes a methodological ghetto, unable to make any real revision to synthetic narratives. Only through the integration into broader synthetic stories can our historical narratives become less exclusive and more representative. Otherwise, only those specifically interested in women’s history will encounter the lessons of the subfield.
This chapter is both historiographical and provocative in nature and seeks to point to future roads for historians to traverse and questions for scholars to answer. Following a general overview of how historians of Mormon thought have dealt with—or, in many cases, avoided dealing with—theology produced by women, it will posit reasons for this androcentric framing as well as point toward potential methodological avenues for more integrative synthetic approaches. Rather than merely carving space for the history of women in Mormon thought, we must conceive of ways in which female voices both constructed and transformed the history itself. And finally, this chapter will offer one example of such a study that seeks to blend both male and female voices into a Mormon theological narrative of the Nauvoo period. Throughout, this chapter also attempts to demonstrate how this Mormon example provides important lessons for theological, intellectual, and religious history more broadly, as it identifies how to integrate a broader array of voices and frameworks into broader synthetic narratives.
Sadly, Farleigh Dickinson University Press’s pricing model makes the volume cost prohibitive. I wish it were otherwise. But pester your local library to purchase a copy, because there are several great chapters in this volume.