Review: Shakers, Mormons, and Religious Worlds

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. [1] 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.

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  1. 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.

Comments

  1. J. Thanks for the review. I think it’s a good summary and a fair evaluation. It is fascinating to me how, as you imply in the review, the theoretical dimensions of the book are so polarizing. The same things that make some people really appreciate and enjoy the book also cause others to find it well-nigh insufferable. I kind of like that.

  2. Great review, J.

    I was disappointed Taysom’s book wasn’t recognized with an award from MHA this year, and suspect that its theory-heavy approach may largely explain why it wasn’t. But the fact of the matter is that if “Mormon Studies” is to succeed in any sense, folks are going to have to do much more than simply do Mormon theology, philosophy, and sociology alongside Mormon history—they’re going to have to engage the theory-driven world of religious studies departments. And Taysom’s volume is an excellent example of how that should be done.

    I’ve begun to appreciate more recently the tightrope Mormon History/Studies walks in appealing to both academic-types and more general audiences (and everywhere in-between), and feel some responsibility to make my own research on the Mormon past accessible to a wide range of readers. But that also doesn’t mean that we should categorically reject works like Taysoms. In fact, they’re a necessary and important part of the (sub)field.

    I should add that most of my own research isn’t explicitly theoretical like this (hence my placement in a History PhD program instead of a Rel Studies program), and Taysom’s book was a challenge for me as well. But I ended up really appreciating what he did, and like you, his work forced me to think about Mormonism in new ways.

  3. I enjoyed the book and recommend it too. It challenged some of my thinking on the twins and I think I share some of your caution about some of things you mention: Zion, reformation, etc. All in all, it was a refreshing look at a number of things and I appreciated the theoretical approach. A welcome addition to the corpus of Mormon studies. Bravo.

  4. Thanks for the review, J.

    Chris’s first paragraph in his comment expresses exactly what I wanted to say. I really wish MHA recognized the book, because theory has to be a part of Mormon studies in the future.

    I really enjoyed the volume.

  5. Good review, J.

    I’ve chatted briefly with a historian who disliked this book based on my review, pointing to the bugbear of theory. I tried to explain my feeling that history can’t be written or even read without a multiplicity of (at least implicit) theories. Further explanations were cast aside as too theoretical. Go figure.

  6. The question of audience and accessibility is always difficult. In this case, I’m writing generally to specialists, so I expect that non-specialists in religious studies to find it somewhat unfamiliar in terms not only of content but also in terms of the shape and purpose of argument. My chapters on the Mormon Reformation and Zion always seem to get the most attention and cause the most stir, and I can see why. Any time a model is consciously used to try and interpret the past, there will always be flaws in the model that are illuminated by counter-argument (and J alludes to some of these in his OP). The models I used in the book aren’t meant to be definitive as much as, well, experiment, or exercises in thinking through historical problems with different intellectual devices. On the other hand, many historians who are working, as they claim, without models, are actually using models all the time (as Blair points out) but it serves as a nice defense to leave it unstated. There hasn’t really been any serious debate about that point in decades.

  7. Re-reading that last comment of mine made it seem like I was saying that anyone who finds flaws with the book does not understand theory, etc. That was not what I meant.

  8. Great book, great review. I affirm the polyphony that more explicitly theoretical accounts introduce into Mormon Studies. I tend to read a lot of theory and chew on it and then hide it in the footnotes or in the ether. I haven’t decided whether it’s the right solution, but for now it’s my solution.

    And I think JZ Smith is much more readable than a lot of other theory and recommend that the MoStud crowd read more of it as a way to pleasurably wet one’s feet.

  9. I look to study about the Shakers and their beliefs. I read someone who was no longer a Shaker said that the training there helped her to be a good neighbor in society. I like their practice of having people with mental problems or other maybe even longings to sleep in a bed that rocks.

    I think it would be neat to live in a monastic like society. I wish there were such a place for single LDS people. :)

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