It has generally been the case that when those interested in Mormon history gather to chat about the latest publications, it is frequently primary documents which elicit much excitement. When synthesis is subject of the chatter, one hears names like Alexander or Bushman or Walker invoked. Only in the dark recesses of lonely hallways does one hear of others: Jonathan Z. Smith, Victor Turner, or Mary Douglas.
When people discuss the new New Mormon History (or the post-new Mormon History, or whatever), I think many envision something like Steve Taysom’s Shakers, Mormons and Religious Worlds. I also think that there are people that for any number of reasons (not excluding generational bias) just won’t like Taysom’s volume, which analyzes Shaker and Mormon boundary maintenance. He employs what the kids like to call “theory.”
Stephen C. Taysom, Shakers, Mormons and Religious Worlds: Conflicting Visions, Contested Boundaries (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2010).xiv, 259 pp. Endnotes; index. Cloth. $34.95 ISBN 978-0-253-35540-9
Taysom jumps right in, assuming that the readers are generally aware of both Shaker and Mormon history. As someone who is not well read in Shaker history, I had to tread water a little harder than I might have had to otherwise, but I found the process invigorating. There are some quite uncanny points of similarity between Ohio Shakerism, and Ohio Mormonism—providential readings of cholera epidemics, conversions of entire congregations in establishing a regional foothold, glossolaliac hymnody, conceptions of apostasy—but Taysom generally leaves such things to the reader to gather along the way.  He is interested in something else. And to be honest, I think most readers will be challenged by Taysom’s analyses. I’m not fully persuaded by every point in the volume; but in reevaluating my perspectives and ideas, I found that I did readjust in many areas.
Taysom describes how Mormonism existed in a state of tension or crisis with broader society, resulting from various beliefs and practices. This tension breaks when the destruction of Church is imminent, and the tension is reformulated or recreated. Taysom looked at the evolution from the Zionic city-state models of Jackson County and Nauvoo, to the Temple-body delimiters of Utah Territory. My immediate response was to look for counter-evidence and I wondered about Caldwell County, or Adam-ondi-Ahman and Far West. I wondered about Joseph Smith’s adaptation of Zion before his death to encompass continental expanses with the Temple being only a temporary weigh-station. And while I would like to see how the author would integrate those things into his narrative, I also agree that his narration of the shifts are nevertheless descriptive.
Taysom offers some really interesting insights, for example, how Mormon Polygamy and Shaker Celibacy are manifestations of the same analogical impulses among believers—the imitatio christi to invoke Sam Brown’s interest du jour. Though I am not an expert on Shakerism, it is clear that Taysom brings new evidence to the analytical table and recasts some previously held notions in that area. But that is not all that he recasts.
I think that Taysom’s section on the Mormon Reformation will strike many as the most difficult sell, and not because it isn’t recognizably descriptive. I have viewed the Reformation as an outgrowth of a consciously Old Testament providential world-view. Taysom discounts the famine and hardship of the time, instead describing the period as generally peaceful. Taysom states: “Brigham Young and other Mormon leaders, sensing a paucity of immediate external evil and recognizing the centrality of crisis to Mormon communal identity, turned the searching eye of God inward.” (182) While I appreciate the dynamics that Taysom outlines, and while I think that they are plausible, I’m much less convinced that Young was cognizant of what he was doing as a calculated sociological strategy. There are a few areas where I thought of counter-evidence to certain claims throughout the volume, but Taysom has done a fair job of representing the myriad sources to consider.
In summary, Taysom’s first published volume is important and insightful. I appreciated the challenge to my perspectives and the inclusion of theory-oriented historical analyses. Religious Worlds is accessible; the theory is not impenetrable (the author should be commended for a fine dissertation adaptation). It will, however, be a bit difficult read for those not familiar with academic history writing. The lonely hallways of theory chit-chat, are beginning to be less lonely and Taysom has done a fine job in opening the doors.
Stephen Taysom is a friend and editor of a volume in which my work appears, though he in no way influenced my review of this book. See also Blair Hodges review here.
- There are also some interesting parallels for current religious experience. For example Taysom describes Shaker performative lived religion (pp. 14-15) in a way that made me think of things like the recent “I am a Mormon” mormon.org campaign.