When Joanna Brooks wrote the manuscript for Mormonism and White Supremacy: American Religion and the Problem of Racial Innocence (Oxford University Press), she likely didn’t expect it to be so timely. (Few historical works ever are.) But the official publication date for the book, June 1, coincided with protests across the nation that called for an end to racial oppression. The loud chants for #BlackLivesMatter have forced institutions, corporations, and churches to reassess their connection to the systematic racism upon which America was built. Mormonism and White Supremacy, then, was perfectly timed to add to a growing chorus at a moment of discursive crescendo.
Yet in other ways, Brooks’s work was a long-time coming, as it reflects decades of work within the LDS intellectual community, and it builds on the efforts of previous historians and activists who have paved the way to reassess Mormonism’s troubled history with white supremacy. Yet what the book lacks in novelty it certainly makes up for in punch: it is one of the most trenchant and persuasive appeals to confront the history of LDS anti-black racism, past and present, and is a clarion call for academic intervention in contemporary issues. Scholarship, she argues, must accept its role of “unsettling and interjecting urgency into conversations around religion and race in America.” In this instance, her aim is to “evolve our discussion of the role of American Christianity has played in securing and sustaining racial privilege more broadly.”
Few texts have proven to be as controversial as the Book of Mormon. Designated the “keystone” of the LDS faith by none other than Joseph Smith, it has proven to be the “third rail” for both apologists and critics alike. As a result, many scholars who look at the Mormon tradition have steered clear of the founding text. Recently, however, there has been a growing number of academics, especially literature scholars, who have found innovative ways to approach the Book of Mormon that simultaneously provide new cultural insights while also avoiding tricky questions of historicity. Much of that interpretive move, however, has involved sidestepping the questions of the book’s origins and instead focusing on the text itself.
At the heart of Davis’s monograph is an investigation into the oral culture of early America. Joseph Smith was raised in a world of performance: lectures were a primary form of education, and sermons were a predominant form of worship. Davis performs a deep dive into the contemporary literature to show the different techniques that were being taught and used during the period, and even demonstrates how Smith’s later texts (like his 1832 history) and sermons (like the King Follett discourse) exemplified their methods, and serve as evidence of his knowing the general trends. Even if Smith did not receive extensive schooling, then, scholars have overlooked the extent to which the Mormon prophet was conversant with his surrounding performative culture.
Few documents are as influential in the modern Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the 1995 “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” In many ways, the six hundred-word text is the clearest and most efficient distillation of current LDS teachings concerning gender and sexuality, as it declares gender to be an eternal characteristic, and heterosexual marriage the only acceptable type of union. Though the proclamation has never been officially added to the scriptural canon, despite persistent rumors that it eventually would, it remains all-but-scriptural in terms of authority.
And while the myth that the document preceded the cultural battles over gay marriage, as recent scholarship has highlighted how it was the product of legal disputes in the 1990s, another myth has remained persistent: that the proclamation reflected long-standing ideas of gender essentialism within the faith. As the common narrative goes, the LDS tradition had long believed that gender was eternal, a trajectory that culminated in the proclamation.
Yet Taylor Petrey, in Tabernacles of Clay: Sexuality and Gender in Modern Mormonism (UNC Press, 2020), shatters that easy teleology. Instead of a long-cemented idea, gender essentialism was only one of many potential trajectories; and rather than a predetermined culmination, the proclamation was merely the result of one of those trajectories winning. Indeed, Mormon notions concerning gender and sexuality have fluctuated substantially, even in the past fifty years, and have never been truly fixed. And in telling this surprising story, Petrey adds an important chapter to broader stories of religion and gender writ large.
Much of Petrey’s work is driven by the scholarly field of queer studies which, more than merely highlighting the ideas and experience of people who identify as LGBT, attempts to destabilize notions of gender and sexuality. These disciplinary tools demonstrate how notions of heteronormativity are inherently fragile and malleable, and therefore any discussion of homosexuality require a concomitant study of gender ideas more broadly. In other words, to understand how modern Mormons have dealt with topics like gay marriage, scholars must also examine how they conceptualized marriage in general. Petrey’s study is therefore an attempt to not only integrate LGBT issues into the LDS narrative, but also to recast the wider story of Mormon sexuality since World War II. Anything less is only a fragment of the story. Read More
One of the harbingers of the Mormon studies field’s development has been the increasing number of scholars who have turned their attention to the faith in order to explain broader academic issues. The most recent contribution to this growing trend is Peter Coviello, literature scholar and author of a handful of well-received books, whose Make Yourselves Gods: Mormons and the Unfinished Business of American Secularism was published in the University of Chicago Press’s prestigious “Class 200” series. This series, edited by Kathryn Lofton and John Modern, prides itself on being interdisciplinary, innovative, and provocative; Make Yourselves Gods is no different.
Though early Mormons make up the subject of Coviello’s study, the true object of his focus is “secularism,” a potent word pregnant with many interpretations. Read More
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.
This 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