Posted by Rafiq A. Tschannen
Published: July 2, 2012
For a century and a half, Mormonism has been something of a paradox in the history of the American West: passionately argued about by the church’s adherents and detractors, but largely ignored by professional scholars unsure of what to make of the religion Joseph Smith founded in 1830 or the communities created by what Mormon scripture itself described as a “peculiar people.”
But now, as Mitt Romney’s candidacy prompts talk of a “Mormon moment,” a growing cadre of young scholars of Mormonism are enjoying their own turn in the sun, and not just on the nation’s op-ed pages. Books relating to Mormon history are appearing in the catalogs of top academic presses, while secular universities are adding courses, graduate fellowships and endowed chairs.
“People are seeing right now that Mormonism is a great laboratory for studying all kinds of questions about religion and the modern world,” said Patrick Mason, the chairman of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University in California, which four years ago became the first secular university outside Utah to establish a program on the subject.
Latter-day Saints — as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints prefers its members be called — are also cropping up in broader historical accounts that might previously have just left them out.
“Mormons have been seen as outliers, as oddities, as strange, as people who don’t seem to fit the American narrative,” said Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a professor of history at Harvard University who is working on a book about Mormon women. “But they end up illuminating some of the most important themes in our national history.”
Ms. Ulrich pointed to Anne F. Hyde’s “Empires, Nations, and Families” (University of Nebraska Press), a winner of this year’s prestigious Bancroft Prize, which places Mormons alongside Mexicans and American Indians in its family’s-eye view of resistance to the westward spread of federal power. Others mention Mr. Mason’s “Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South,” published last year by Oxford University Press, or J. Spencer Fluhman’s “ ‘A Peculiar People’: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in 19th-Century America,” coming this fall from the University of North Carolina Press, which look at how hostility to the church helped shape national identity.
And increasingly, Mormon studies isn’t just about history. The Mormon History Association’s annual meeting, held in Calgary, Alberta, over the weekend, featured presentations by scholars trained in sociology, philosophy and gender studies, as well as plenty of amateur scholars, who have long played an important role in the field, often at a risk to their own standing within the church.
The development of Mormon studies in some respects mirrors the academic study of other minority groups, which has typically begun with creating a basic account of their history and then moved toward theoretical approaches that bring the subculture into conversation with the bigger picture.
The latest scholarship builds on the so-called New Mormon history pioneered in the 1960s and ’70s, which aimed to advance a field long dominated by apologists and debunkers by focusing dispassionately on the facts.
“There was some safety in the study of history, since you could study just the facts,” said Taylor Petrey, an assistant professor of religion at Kalamazoo College and the author of a much discussed recent article, “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology,” published in Dialogue, an independent Mormon journal.
Today, he said, “people are much more interested in interpreting history.”
The Mormon studies boom, many say, also represents a lifting of the intellectual chill that descended in the 1980s, when the church clamped down on access to its archives, and a number of scholars were forced out of Brigham Young University, a church-owned institution, and even excommunicated.
The church history department, which manages the archives, has hired increasing numbers of Ph.D.’s and begun publishing a scholarly edition of the Joseph Smith papers, projected to run to more than 20 volumes.