Part I of the interview is available here.
BCC: What sort of conflicts (social, personal, religious, or professional) do you encounter as Mormon scholars studying your own community? What tactics have you adopted to negotiate your paths through such conflicts?
Terryl Givens: I can’t say that I have encountered any real conflicts to speak of. The term “Mormon Studies” arouses some suspicion, as it should. We haven’t yet reached consensus on whether or not there is such a creature, whether there should be, or how it would or should be defined. But when it comes to faith and scholarship, I have not. Richard has, I understand, to the extent that some historians say you can’t do a study of Joseph Smith without a naturalistic explanation for his visionary experience. Similarly, I imagine any number of critics might say, you can’t do a study of the Book of Mormon without proposing a naturalistic explanation for its origin. Well, that problem was largely obviated because my study was a reception study, and therefore included naturalistic accounts along with the accounts of LDS orthodoxy.
As far as scholarship that must be divorced from one’s faith, I don’t believe that is generally possible or necessary. In any case, it would be to play on an uneven playing field, and concede to the myth of pure objectivity. As Gadamer said, prejudice of one kind or another is the inevitable starting point for all interrogations, and “opens us up to what is to be understood.” The question isn’t are we objective, it is, are we honest?
I think it is hugely telling, that in my particular case, the New York Times, Harpers, and other major media called my work fair and impartial. Only certain constituencies more closely associated with things Mormon raised objections. I think this reaction is very similar to what Eugene England referred to so insightfully as Mormons’ “provincial anti-provincialism.”
Richard Bushman: My confession that I am a Mormon does, I think, raise doubts about my objectivity among some readers. The same book written by a non-Mormon would not evoke the same degree of criticism. I sometimes wonder if I would be better off not to show my colors, but that is what I do. The criticism is not really a detriment. I think it is better for me to face people’s actual objections to a Mormon writing on his own culture than to skirt the issues. Actually other scholars are fascinated by my situation. They love to hear me explain myself and are usually sympathetic. My aim when criticized is not to lose my composure. Rule one: never cry in public.
BCC: Do you think you will specifically revisit as a theme church women’s history, given the occasionally rocky reception of the fellowship program the year that it was devoted to women’s history? Do you think that could ever happen again?
TG: (I will let Richard answer this one)
RB: I would like to have another summer seminar on a woman’s theme. The scholarship that came out of the seminar Claudia directed was terrific, and the young women who participated have become fast friends. There is a lot more to do in this field, and I would prefer that LDS historians get in on the ground floor rather than letting outsiders set the terms of the debate.
BCC: So far as we can tell, neither of you sprang forth as fully-formed Mormon historians and scholars. Would you mind telling us a little about how you became interested in the field, and maybe address what each of you consider to be the minimum criteria for someone to be considered a “serious” scholar of Mormon Studies?
TG: I am still not a “fully formed” historian or scholar. I began my career as a scholar of nineteenth century literature, with special emphasis in Romanticism. My father was a book collector and historian, and amassed quite a collection of nineteenth century anti-Mormon texts. For some time I considered them little more than an amusing sub-genre of American. With some prodding from him, I soon came to see that this area had received very little scholarly attention. I then realized that literary studies gave me a special vantage point to investigate one question in particular: What light did 19th century popular treatments of Mormonism shed on the real sources of, and cultural means of resolving, anxieties about the “Mormon menace.” Viper on the Hearth was the result.
Later, I again used literary studies as a point of departure to ask, What can the reception history of the Book of Mormon tell us about the various ways it has functioned as a keystone of Mormonism and as a magnet for opposition. By the Hand [of Mormon] came out of that adventure.
To be a serious scholar of Mormon Studies, to my mind, requires first of all a good critical grasp of one’s own discipline and its tools. And then it requires a fresh question, that such training gives you the means to pursue.
RB: I sometimes say that every LDS scholar is partly a member of the BYU faculty if only to claim the right to complain about BYU practices. The same is true for Mormon historians and Mormon history. I have always been interested in Mormon history even when only dabbling in it. Mostly I wrote on Mormon topics only by invitation. The Beginnings of Mormonism came out of Leonard Arrington’s request that I contribute to his series. Similarly Rough Stone Rolling was a result of an invitation from Ronald Esplin. Even now I am eager to get back to my studies of eighteenth-century farming.
Serious scholarship in the sense of being taken seriously in the larger world of historians is very much a matter of style. You have to be rigorous, of course, and know the sources, but mainly you must know the intellectual world well enough to speak to it. If you are totally immersed in the Mormon world, it is difficult to hear how you sound when you talk about Mormonism. (The reverse is true too.) That is why so much of our serious scholarship comes from the diaspora. Scholars working in Utah are at a serious disadvantage, although terrific work does come from some of them.
BCC: Many of our readers are new to Mormon history or issues in Mormon Studies outside of what is taught in the course of our three-hour meetings. Where should people start, if they feel an inclination to learn more? Of what hazards should budding scholars be wary?
TG: The field is too large to suggest a reading list to fit all. Find where your passion is, and start with a good history or biography (like Richard’s) published by a major press. When you find a treatment that intrigues you, delve into the bibliography, and work toward sources that get you closer to the time and people in question. Or start with some of the better journal writers who take you right into the thick of church history as it unfolded, like Wilford Woodruff and William McLellin, or the autobiographies of Parley Pratt or B. H. Roberts.
For those weaned on church manuals, there will be the inevitable surprises. Joseph used a peep stone and a hat to translate most of the Book of Mormon. Mormons counterattacked the settlers in Missouri. Joseph Smith got in fist fight with his brother, and plurally married other men’s wives. Its important to remember that all history is selective, and that our construction of people like Joseph Smith into infallible prophets and purer-than-driven-snow Saints was something he expressly repudiated. We need to be a little more like the Catholics, who elevate this principle into a doctrine: the truth of a church, the legitimacy of its authority, and the efficacy of its ordinances, do not rise or fall with the personal perfection of any individual.
But perhaps the most dangerous hazard for budding student-scholars of Mormonism is economic. Feeding your appetite can be a costly addiction.
RB: One purpose of Rough Stone Rolling is to make information about Joseph Smith that is not generally known common knowledge. Church classes cannot deal with all the issues arising from the historical record. People have to seek out these things on their own. My book is one introduction. For the Book of Mormon issues, you can’t beat Terryl Givens’ By the Hand of Mormon. The work of the great apologetic organizations, FARMS and FAIR, is less effective because they only give one side of the picture. Looking through their eyes, you don’t see the debates as a fair-minded outsider would coming to the subject.
BCC: Richard’s said a few times now that blogging is a distraction, hobby, or waste of time. As a blogger I’d probably take issue with that or at least qualify it, but the statement to me has an unanswered question behind it — what should we be doing with our time? There’s an implicit suggestion that there is some task or study out there that would be more practical and more worthy — ideas?
TG: I am not a blogger either. On the few occasions when I have visited some of the LDS sites, I have been impressed with the intellectual rigor and intensity of effort that goes into some of the posts (along with abundant portions of fluff). And I always think, why not channel those efforts to a larger audience in a non-perishable form? At the same time, I am quite prepared to consider that blogging may be the nearest equivalent we have had in two centuries to the great European salons of the 17th and 18th centuries, where bright lights met regularly to wheel and deal in the currency of untested ideas and scintillating conversation. Academic conferences seldom have the informality and spontaneity to function in the same way.
RB: I think blogs have a critical function in Mormon culture. They provide an arena for free and open debate. Many Mormons feel perfectly free to talk about their religion from all perspectives but have no place to speak out. They can find like souls on the blogs and sound off on everything. It is said that conversation is the essence of civilized society, and that is what you get on the blogs.
My seemingly negative comments were actually expressions of wonder. People I knew with big jobs and heavy responsibilities kept turning up on the blogs. I could not figure out how they managed. I suppose it is a serious hobby filling time otherwise spent in golfing or TV.
What I would hope for is more serious and focused thought, the kind that Nate Oman turns out, rather than off-the-cuff chatter that is fun but leads nowhere.
Many thanks again to Professors Givens and Bushman for their time.