June 6, 2008

A Brief, Incomplete View of Mormon Studies in the 20th Century

I recently received an e-mail from a parent saddened by her daughter and son-in-law's loss of faith in the gospel, and possibly even in the existence of God. She wondered about this "New Mormon History" she had heard about. A few personal reflections on the subject may help people understand my own interest in blogging about the Church, and may spark an interest in those unfamiliar with developments in Mormon studies in general. Much of the following was sent to the concerned mother, who herself has a pretty broad background in reading on all things Mormon.[1] The so-called "New Mormon History" probably started back in 1945 when Fawn Brodie, niece of President David O. McKay, published her psychobiography of Joseph Smith. Mormon studies on history to that point had been relatively benign. (The best work to date had been done by B.H. Roberts, who wrote the Comprehensive History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, finishing the six-volume work shorty after the 1930 centennial celebration of the Church. Roberts at the time was Assistant Church Historian.) Fawn Brodie disbelieved in JS and the BoM, and wrote an excellent work-- from a literary standpoint. It is captivating reading! From a historical standpoint, not so good. She took a lot of liberties, as psychobiographers borrowed much from Freud, and exercised a little too much mind-reading for my taste. Still, she was probably the first writer to publish a book that took Joseph Smith seriously (other than more "hagiographic" works by members of the church.) The good news about Brodie is that she got a lot of national attention, and that got the attention of LDS scholars who wanted to investigate the origins of the Church more fully. In the end I honestly believe she helped the Church more than hurt it, though she depicted Joseph as a "pious" fraud. Her critique caught the eye of one Hugh Nibley, who published a response to her book, and then of course went on to publish much more (though he would have likely done so anyway.) Still, it wasn't until 2005 that a great biography was written by Richard Bushman. If you haven't read it I suggest you do: Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. Cut to the 50s now, a woman named Juanita Brooks. She wrote a landmark book on the Mountain Meadows Massacre, called, appropriately, The Mountain Meadows Massacre. Up to this point the church had largely ignored the massacre, and popular lore blamed the Indians, or blamed the victims of the massacre themselves. Juanita looked further into the story and discovered that while Church leaders in Salt Lake may not have ordered the massacre, they did help lead to what happened. Brooks wrote that Brigham Young and other leaders indirectly shared some responsibility in the attack, having used some fiery rhetoric in their sermons during the period in order to stir the Saints to repentance. A lot of hellfire damnation type stuff during a period now called the "Mormon Reformation."[2] Brooks' book stirred up a lot of people, including some Church leaders, but President David O. McKay stood up for Brooks. Now she has been largely vindicated, though there are still some mistakes in her work. An upcoming book by current Church historian Richard Turley is highly anticipated by myself and others interested in the history of the Church. He wrote a recent Ensign article which gave some excellent historical analysis. After Brooks, enter a man named Leonard Arrington. He was an excellent up-and-comer academic who spent a lot of student hours in the Church archives and published Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830-1900 in 1952-ish. This was a more academic approach to Church history and caught the eye of many in and out of the Church. Arrington was more an expert on economics than anything else. Around this time a publication called BYU Studies began, an excellent journal that still publishes today.[3] Arrington helped start the Mormon History Association in 1965, which began an academic study in depth, and has contributed very important work to our understanding of Church history. In 1972 Arrington became the first non-Church leader to be called as Church Historian. He began in earnest to publish and research. Though he was slightly scattered he was a faithful person who did his best to present the story of the Church as best he could. He and Davis Bitton[4] wrote an excellent book called The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints. I believe this was the first book written by faithful members of the Church that was published for a Mormon and non-Mormon audience in an academic fashion by an academic press. Arrington and Bitton presented the Church in more rational terms than normal, hence the "New Mormon History" was well under way. Some of the publications approved or overseen by Arrington were seen as controversial, (for example, Allen and Leonard's Story of the Latter-day Saints) and a few years later Arrington was reassigned to BYU. This was, in part, because the method of New Mormon History (which is still a rather nebulous term) advocates expressing the history in a manner that is "as functionally objective as possible" as the wikipedia article says. Some writers believe it is difficult in this setting to express God's hand in all things, and thus the Spirit is seen (by some) to be shifted out of the picture. Arrington himself defended the view saying "writers of religious history are obliged to inform readers of both naturalistic explanations and divine influences." Interestingly, Louis Midgley argues that Arrington himself never used the New Mormon Historian title, and seemed to believe it didn't apply to him, though many advocates of a "more open" Church history approach have held Arrington as a patron saint. During the 70s a few more important journals were started, Sunstone and Dialogue. They began as independent journals with an eye on tracking the culture, history, etc. of Mormonism. Over time the views of both publications have fluctuated. In the 80s the Church made a few cautionary statements regarding the publications and their symposia, and over time they have both come to be seen as more liberal, and much less orthodox than perhaps most Church members prefer.[5] Sometimes they still have articles that I really enjoy, but separating the wheat from the chaff is a little too much for me, as I don't have a lot of money to subscribe to them anyway. Back in the day (70s) both put out some great stuff. Elder Oaks and Richard Bushman served on the editorial board for Dialogue, for example. The two publications are still available, though representing less orthodox points of view. Then in 1979 a young man named Jack Welch started the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS). On his mission Welch had discovered chaismus in the Book of Mormon, something he believed helped vindicate an ancient origin for the book. After returning from his mission, going to some school, doing some firesides and writing some papers, he founded FARMS, which moved to BYU and has since been brought into BYU officially as the Neal A. Maxwell Institute For Religious Scholarship. They have published some landmark books and papers on many things Mormon. Shortly after that Signature Books was established. Signature books essentially has a secular outlook, and has done some work with various atheistic, naturalistic, positivist organizations. They have made efforts to strip Mormon studies of God, essentially (though I have enjoyed several of their books, actually. The spoonful of sugar, perhaps, that is meant to make the medicine go down.) During the early 80s, then, the Church experienced the Mark Hoffman "salamander letter" debacle, where Hoffman forged several documents calling into question the divine origins of the Church. This led several LDS individuals, such as D. Michael Quinn and the more recent Grant Palmer, to author books on the "magic" that led to Mormonism. (Reviews of their works can be found easily on the FARMS website.) In the early nineties Signature had some tangles with FARMS over book reviews, etc. which you can read about in Louis Midgley's article "The Signature Books Saga." Various Internet e-mail groups and message boards began springing up as use of the Internet rapidly grew through the nineties. One such group, tired of the Anti-Mormon rhetoric spread on the web, started FAIR as a non-profit organization to answer the claims of anti-Mormons and other critics of the Church. For an example of how anti-Mormons misuse historical sources, see "Historical or Hysterical," by Matthew Brown or see my blog entry "Quote Mining." In the late nineties the "Bloggernacle" was born; an assortment of websites devoted to different aspects of Mormonism. Aside from the many anti-Mormon websites out there, these Blogs are written by devoted members from many different walks of life. Personally I think the big 2 are Times & Seasons and By Common Consent. FAIR started a wiki page, an encyclopedia-type page, which a ton of information. A myriad of other blogs have sprung up, especially considering Elder Ballard's recent advice to members: take advantage of the Internet, share your testimonies online, he essentially said (see his talk "Using New Media to Support the Work of the Church.") There is also a message board called Mormon Apologetics and Discussion. The board is more of a debate-style, so you need a thick skin, but it has a lot of faithful members who contribute. Mixed up in all this is the concept of "apologetics." An apologist, to be brief, is one who defends a position. Apologists for the Church "give an answer" for anyone who asks for the reason for the hope that is in them as Peter encouraged (1 Peter 3:15). Elder Maxwell encouraged members of the Church to learn what they can so that anti-Mormons and critics do not get any "uncontested slam dunks." Professor Daniel C. Peterson from BYU (who works with FARMS) recently wrote an article describing the concept of "inoculation." In it he quotes Richard Bushman who described something of what my concerned e-mailer's daughter may have experienced when she talked about the "what I was taught in Primary" issue. Bushman said:

"I keep hearing of young people who are shocked to discover the ideal Joseph Smith they learned about in Church is not the Joseph Smith most scholars perceive. Taken aback, the young Mormons not only wonder about the Prophet but about their teachers. Everything comes tumbling down."[6]
Certainly this is a very brief overview of the New Mormon History, where it came from and what it is, so take it for what it's worth. I don't speak officially for the Church or for FAIR, I'm just another member of the Church who loves this stuff. No doubt I have left out countless other important aspects of Mormon Studies. The Association for Mormon Letters, the John Whitmer Historical Association, and various other examples of LDS scholarship. I hope this brief introduction gives a little background to nudge any newcomers along in their research. Footnotes: [1] She explained her daughter's situation:
She just says that one thing has piled up on another to make too many questions for her to ignore. She won't discuss specifics as I think she doesn't want to influence anyone else. She has told me that these are things that she didn't learn in Primary and feels that she should have. I would like to know what she has been told so that I can understand her a bit better, not to argue point by point with her but so I can try to talk to her when the time is right...Any information or reading you have for me to study so I can understand her thought process would be greatly appreciated.
[2] For an example of this rhetoric, see my posts "Preaching Pitchforks From the Pulpit," and "Contrasting Attitudes: Keeping Things In Context." [3] Subscriptions are 25 bucks a year, and I strongly urge you to subscribe if you can because it is an awesome and informative journal. Their website is http://byustudies.byu.edu/. [4] For an interesting view on church historians, see his 2004 FAIR conference address "I Don't Have a Testimony of the History of the Church." For a diverging LDS viewpoint, see a review by Matt Evans on Times & Seasons. [5] For example, see Dallin H. Oaks, “Alternate Voices,” Ensign, May 1989, 27. Kevin Christenson, an independent scholar on Mormon studies, has published with Sunstone and presented at their symposia. He called Sunstone "an unofficial forum for discussing things LDS" offering a "range of perspectives, some of which I appreciate, and some of which I dispute." He continues:
To use an analogy that Quinn offered, it's more a marketplace of ideas than a household of faith. But some of those ideas I have imported to my own household of faith, and some I do not accept. One issue might have an excellent response to a controversial book like Blood of the Prophets or Leaving the Faith, and in the same issue, an essay or review that smugly dismisses fundamental LDS claims. They like to see themselves as uniquely positioned to offer balanced, carefully reasoned, and reliably objective views on other LDS, unapologetically insinuating that other sources are tainted by institutional or apologetic agendas, and therefore, inherently unreliable due to not being Sunstone. They have a lively and interesting letters column. They like giving voice to persons at odds with the institution in some way. That can be both a plus and a minus, depending on the particular voice...At its best, it performs an important service for the LDS intellectual community. At it's worst, it gives voice to the views of those who openly strive to undermine LDS foundations, or the occasional crackpot...Personally, I hope Sunstone thrives, and does more and more of what it does best (See his MormonApologetics.org comments, June 13, 2008).
While Sunstone is seen by some as excessively liberal, others disagree and see Sunstone as a breath of fresh air. I have only personally read about 4 issues of Sunstone, and they were from 1998-1999. I saw the issues as being more cynical than I prefer in general. A discussion regarding the state of Sunstone can be read on the Mormon Matters blog here. [6] Daniel C. Peterson, "Editor's Introduction: Reflections on the Reactions to Rough Stone Rolling and Related Matters," FARMS Review 19:1, p. xi–liv. See especially the second section dealing with the concept of inoculation. See also President Henry B. Eyring's "Helping a Student in a Moment of Doubt."


Lance & Caetie said...

Yo hairy bro.

I finally got your link on my blog and will be tuning in regularly. I'll probably even check out the older posts bro. By the way, trade Boozer for Monta Ellis. That would give us someone who could score off the dribble and get into the lane, plus we'd be able to play Paul, who is a much better defender and shooter. It's MILLSAP TIME DUDE!

LifeOnaPlate said...

Sap better shooter than boozer? No way, dude. Millsap is your supreme bench guy right now, no way is he prepared to start. Still, Ellis intrigues me, but we already have that spot filled with Brewer and Korver. I say nay to the trade.

And gee whiz, you finally made it to my blog! Welcome.

Anonymous said...

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Noel said...

You have given an excellent summary o the issues in Mormon History. The 1900s gave us Brodie's book and this century we have Bushman's effort. Of course Bushman had access to a lot more material. But has he done a good job? Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp sees some serious flaws in his bio (Books & Culture, January/February 2006).
Also important in Mormon studies are the historical status of the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham. Are the original BOA still lost or do with have the source(?) in the Book of Breathings?

LifeOnaPlate said...

Noel: Regarding Joseph Smith, in between the two (Bushman and Brodie) we have a lot of excellent information. In the late 60s when an Evangelical published an article in Dialogue questioning the Palmyra revival described in the 1838 account of the First Vision Bushman responded with a few comments, but admitted that Mormon scholars were caught slightly off guard. Of course, further historical work largely vindicated Bushman, but I left out much between he and Brodie. It was also in the 60s that the BoA debate stirred up again upon the discovery of papyrus fragments. Nibley immediately began publishing about the papyrus, announcing the fact that the fragment is from the Book of Breathings, etc. but was somewhat limited in his knowledge of Egyptian, though he got the ball rolling for several other LDS in that field. Today the debate continues (I favor the textual studies over the how, what of the translation, due to the relative paucity of concrete information on the translation process.) Brent Metcalfe has been working on his magnum opus on the BoA for years now, his acquired photos of the papyrus coming to him through connections to Steve Christiansen and the Mark Hoffman episode. The debate rages on various internet sites; John Gee and others giving various points of view against Brent Metcalfe and others.

As for Bushman's bio, of course there are critical reviews of the work, I have some criticisms of my own for it as well. Overall, however, I believe Bushman did the best and most honest job he could do. I find his book to be an interesting attempt at not falling for the dichotomy of "secular" and "religious" history, of science or faith, of the miracles or the mundane. His personal thoughts written in On the Road With Joseph Smith are a valuable source for Bushman's take on the response his book received.

Thanks for stopping by the blog.

Noel said...

Hello, I came across you blog, as I have a Google alert for "Richard Bushman". You mentioned the 1969 issue on the revival. I think it was Marvin Hill who said he thought Smith may have been conflating events in 1820 and 1823-24. When did the family join the Presbyterian church in Palmyra? Smith Sr said that he was not joining because the preacher said Alvin had gone to hell. Alvin died in 1823?. Anyway these things are interesting and I keep coming back to them to keep myself up to date. These days I and my wife believe that individual LDS must make it to heaven. If we believe that Catholics with some theological baggage do also, maybe the tent should also include LDS.
BTW I have been reading the controversy over Sally Hemmings and Jefferson It seems she always fell pregnant when he was in residence at his house. This issue brought down the wrath of Jefferson scholars on Fawn Brodie. Yet it seems DNA evidence supports her stance.

Lance & Caetie said...


Where was the Neal A. Maxwell "uncontested slam dunk" quote from? What is the source?


LifeOnaPlate said...

Lance: Elder Maxwell was quoted as saying this in a brief article Gilbert W. Scharffs, see “I Have a Question,” Ensign, Jan. 1995, 60. I think I ran across it first in his bio by Hafen, but I could be mistaken, it's been several years since I read it.

Thanks for reading my blog, I'm glad you are taking the time, bro. Your feedback, criticism, agreement, whatever, is always needed and appreciated.

Kristine said...

I think your characterization of Dialogue is not quite fair--the journal tries hard to publish good work regardless of ideological orientation. The unfortunate refusal of BYU professors and other "conservative" scholars to contribute sometimes results in a publication that slants liberal, but that is not a deliberate editorial direction. You can request a free issue at dialoguejournal.com if you want to see how things have changed in the last few years. More changes are likely afoot as the editorial team changes up in the next few months--subscribe and see what happens :) Better yet, submit an article!

LifeOnaPlate said...


I think my explanation regarding Dialogue is most unfair in its simplicity, which is the risk in composing a brief incomplete history such as this. In being brief on discussing Dialogue I have missed many of the nuances you mention; perhaps the one deserving most notice is the apparent forbidding of BYU professors from publishing therein. (I haven't seen the official statement on that, personally, though. I would be interested in where that can be found.) Another aspect that was overlooked was the BYU Studies incident when publication was suspended for a time based on some disapproval of an article on the Word of Wisdom, I believe, charting the development over time.

As you say, however, overall Dialogue has most recently been a more liberal outlet. Some of the articles I have been able to read recently have been stellar (for example, an article on communication from an issue ago, I believe.) Still, given my extremely limited budget as a young married guy paying for college on two fronts, etc. it is enough to convince my better half that all the other subscriptions I maintain are worthwhile. For what it's worth, and sorry to the Sunstone folks out there, I would largely prefer a subscription to Dialogue. (A recent article on Joseph Smith and psychedelic drugs comes to mind. Geez. That was actually published?)

K. OF Creich said...

qrfyI did read the entire Journal of discourses when it came out--it isn't that hard, just one volume a week or month. I think it's unwise to let someone censor it for you, leaving out, possibly, everything that might
be difficult or controversial.

I'm sure this is a valuable service for some, snd thakyou for doing it.

LifeOnaPlate said...

Thus far I have been averse to "censor everything that has been difficult or controversial." A glance at just a few posts might clear up that notion quickly. Additionally, I have been pleased at how precious little controversial or difficult things I have seen thus far in JD. I have also been impressed at the interesting anecdotes, spiritual and temporal advice, and many other aspects of the JD that make it a valuable resource, but a long one.

K. OF Creich said...

Being a 7th Generation Mormon, I'm confused about the Sally Hemmings Controversy. It seems that the Jefferson family lived Sororal Polygamy, and though some would be more shocked by that than by her
apparently voluntary participation
in sororal polygamy with her stepsister, very common among indians, she was inherited by her
sister after her mother and was a
rebellious little brat, according to
Mrs. Jefferson.

Since she entered the household as
both Mrs. Jefferson's inherited family slave and her sister I doubt
Jefferson would have had children with her and raised them as his
family without his wife's consent.

Why didn't Jefferson free her when
she became an adult? Maybe it was
her rebelliousness. Perhaps she had one or more children by then-Mrs. Jefferson's nephews or neices.
Maybe living as the family slave was the closest thing to marriage and the most security for Sally and her children that Virginia law could provide. She could not marry him.

LifeOnaPlate said...

I appreciate the questions, but I don't really have a viewpoint on those issues as they are not related to my blog in any way. Please keep comments to the topic at hand. In this case the topic is an incomplete view of Mormon studies in the 20th century.

CB said...

Nice summary.

Don't forget Donna Hill's 1976 Biography of Joseph Smith -- an important step between Brodie and Bushman.


LifeOnaPlate said...

Indeed, I considered including it, but I have some questions about how much Marvin Hill contributed to the book, etc. and so deferred for now. ;)

Love Kpop said...

There are times when I find it difficult to make decisions, but still have to do. I know people always have emotions so that there is no justice. But I still hope.

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