Title: Still, the Small Voice: Narrative, Personal Revelation, and the Mormon Folk Tradition
Author: Tom Mould
Publisher: Utah State University Press
Price: $39.95 (e-book $32.00)
Wordsworth, should I believe you?
Sweet is the lore which nature brings,
Our meddling intellect
Distorts the beauteous forms of things:—
We murder to dissect.
Replace “nature” with “religion” above and you raise one of the most difficult problems I see in the study of religion, especially as I’ve studied my own faith. The wind bloweth where it listeth and we try to catch it in jars, measure it with our rulers, weigh it in our hands, graph it in our charts, fold it up and tuck it between the pages of our books. The letter alone killeth, but the spirit giveth life.
Perhaps no gospel subject perplexes me more than personal revelation. This is due to the simple fact that as a practicing Mormon, I believe it encompasses the ways God speaks to me, so it’s relevant to the way I understand my day-to-day experiences. When does dissection of such a foundational belief become “murder” so to speak, rendering the belief lifeless on the academic table? I admit this is the issue that weighed most heavy on my mind as I began reading Tom Mould’s new book, Still, the Small Voice: Narrative, Personal Revelation, and the Mormon Folk Tradition. Soon enough the weight became lighter than a feather, not merely because Mould (an associate professor of anthropology and folklore at Elon University, and a non-Mormon) so ably describes LDS thought, but because he also provides fresh perspectives I hadn’t considered before. For an academic book, then, I found this one to be oddly intellectual and devotional, inhabiting a liminal space between my brain and my heart.
In this review I’ll describe the general arc of Mould’s narrative, discuss the undergirding method and assumptions, analyze its usefulness for insiders and outsiders alike, and situate it within the broader Mormon studies movement. Hopefully, when it all comes together you’ll understand why I’m calling Still, the Small Voice my absolute favorite Mormon book of 2011 (with all the respective weight you want to put behind that).
Outline in a Nutshell
Chapter one describes LDS thought on revelation in broad strokes—what it is, who expects it, when, why, etc. Chapter two discusses “performance norms,” or informal rules about how and when members of the Church share stories (60). Chapter three shifts to the “formal qualities” of our stories, developing a typology of prescriptive (solicited and unsolicited) and descriptive revelation. This delves into how cultural expectations help shape the ways we experience revelation, as well as the ways we relate it to others (137). Chapter four lists the “building blocks of the narrative tradition,” which are common motifs that crop up in the stories you hear in sacrament meeting and Sunday School (192). Chapter five focuses more broadly on the “echoes of culture” found in our stories, the over-riding and recurring themes our stories often revolve around, which include domestic life and church work (242). It discusses ways that region and era, age and gender impact the stories. Mould finds, for instance, that women are much more likely than men to relate stories of being prompted to protect children in the domestic sphere whereas men are much more likely to receive revelation on the location of a home (261-288; see also 316, 353, 420), following typical gender role expectations. Chapter six is unique in terms of what typically receives attention in folklore studies. Rather than paying exclusive attention to oral contexts, Mould recognizes the need to discuss the relationship between written texts like journals and official Church publications and oral story-telling (327). His rhetorical analysis of all twelve issues of the 2007 Ensign is fascinating (347, 349, 371), while throughout the book he includes many specific stories of personal revelation from a variety of printed sources in addition to his oral transcripts.
Mould’s over-riding goal in this book is to describe the ways Mormons understand personal revelation, but more broadly he focuses on the “social dimension of personal revelation,” which is the dimension of sharing our stories with each other:
Experience and narrative are drawn together in a complex relationship guided by the abilities of the human mind to comprehend the divine; the communicative abilities to express the ambiguous, the visceral, and the spiritual; and the cultural norms and expectations for narrative, performance, and the construction of social identity (381).
This is a fancy way of saying that Mould explores Mormon beliefs and values by paying attention to the stories we tell each other about what God tells us. The stories he analyzes come from official Church publications (Ensign, Preach My Gospel, all the way back to stories in the Juvenile Instructor) Mormon diaries, folklore archives, transcripts of personal interviews he conducted as part of his research, his notes from sacrament meeting talks, and a host of other sources. (Speaking of transcripts, many of them are based on his own recordings and some go on for multiple pages. How cool would a Kindle book be with embedded recordings?)
Note that “folklore” in the academic sense doesn’t equate to “falselore.” Folklore, according to Mould’s view, is assumed to be “true” in the sense that it actually reflects the values of the tellers and listeners, though it may or may not “be supported by historical evidence” (4-5). Folklore studies take a close look at questions of “artistic performance”; the structure of a narrative, common motifs, the impact of genre, morphing, etc. (5). He neither accepts a folktale at face-value, nor does he dismiss the apparently fantastic as beyond the realm of possibility. Did I mention he’s not a Mormon? This approach bears directly on my initial fear—that academic study simply has little to say on the ways I feel the Spirit (which I admit should not be the guiding expectation for reading a book like this). As my description suggests, I detected three strategies Mould uses to compensate for the ways that the “letter killeth”:
1. Separating “temporal” from “spiritual” revelation, the former dealing with other “facets of life, including daily, ongoing decisions” as James E. Faust described (40), the latter bearing directly on the truth-claims of LDS doctrinal propositions. This may seem like an easy out for Mould, but he found that “in the folk narrative tradition of personal revelation…temporal revelations dominate” (40). He still spends a few pages describing conversion narratives and testimonies, but the bulk of the book focuses on the “temporal” (see also 40-5, 244, 328, 383). In order to show you how inclusive Mould’s book is, here are the index entries listed under “themes in personal revelation narratives” (447): children, church work, conversion and baptism, danger, death, finding a home, genealogy, guidance finding scripture, guidance speaking, healing, helping others, marriage, missionary work, preparation, spirit children, temple work, travel.
2. Focusing the assessment of personal revelation narrative accounts on the values they communicate, rather than attempting history-directed debunkery. He recognizes that “folklore can distort [values] through accentuation and omission,” but folklore theory helps analyze such distortions as well (5). One quick example of how this plays out: Mould relates the oft-told story of Wilford Woodruff, who was prompted to move the wagon his family was sleeping in during the night. Had he not immediately obeyed his family would have been destroyed by a fallen tree. Woodruff’s account contains elements found in more recent “prompting” stories, including the fact that obedience saved the day. In later iterations of this story, however, a new motif common to later “prompting” stories emerges. Woodruff is depicted as initially hesitant to follow the prompting, waiting until he is prompted multiple times before obeying. Absent from the initial tellings, this new motif is retroactively added by current members filling in the gaps with their memories (197-201).
3. Approaching narratives from an “emic,” or insider, perspective (4). This is an “experience-centered approach that honors, rather than dismisses, the belief systems under study” (6). Mould does a remarkable job in this regard. He’s finely attuned to LDS concepts, repeatedly helping the outsider by providing descriptions of LDS jargon and culture, describing the standard works, current structure of LDS worship services, pass-along cards, “greenies,” “the Y,” etc. etc. He doesn’t always nail it—he says D&C 124 was received in 1841 “in the specific context of having to abandon Nauvoo” rather than Missouri (408); conflates the word “atonement” with “repentance and forgiveness” (217); refers to Joseph F. Smith as Joseph Fielding Smith (301), and once refers to “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” as “the Proclamation on Marriage” (261) . These nit-picky errors only serve to show how often Mould is right on the emic money; they’re the only glaring errors I noticed in the whole book, and they’re negligible.
Mould for Insiders and Outsiders
Due to the emic approach, Mould’s analysis can actually help members of the church better assess the stories they’ve heard, the stories they tell, and even the ways they experience personal revelation. (See especially the discussion of reactions to failed revelations on 176.) Of course, it also means that some of the included narratives irritated me, like the MTC trainer who tells about a missionary who takes a shotgun blast to the chest, only to rise up and convert the would-be murderer who later becomes a Stake President “or something like that” (214). Plenty of other stories inspired me, like the “white-haired sister by the name of Needum” who showed up in the nick of time to administer a healing blessing to a dying baby, having “been set apart in the temple to bless the sick with her prayers” (217-8).
Mould notes that one of the biggest benefits of writing as an outsider is the “silent train” phenomenon, whereby insiders sometimes overlook aspects of the culture which are “so normalized that they are ignored” (404). Mould frequently makes the sort of observations I’ve come to expect from careful outsiders who take insiders seriously. One particularly striking example is his likening of family stories to Mormon ritual:
Family stories draw relatives closer together, binding them in story just as sacred temple rites such as sealings and baptisms of the dead bind them in eternity (330; this idea seems to be implicitly articulated by a Church member on 336, though Mould as observer explicitly makes the point in a way that wouldn’t have occurred to me).
Mormons will feel at home with the stories he relates, even the cringe-worthy ones (he knows many of us may clench our teeth as little Primary children recite parrot-monies, p. 234) . But what about the academic application? He isn’t always as careful to make the academic jargon understandable to Mormons, who perhaps aren’t his main target audience. The sometimes-pedantic descriptions can sound pretty funny at times: “Dreams and promptings are part of the same revelatory phenomenon. A thrice-repeated revelatory dream is equal to a thrice-repeated prompt” (203). Seeing the process of revelation depicted on Mould’s charts and graphs may seem a bit much, but they are useful tools for depicting his points. These elements signal that Mould’s book is intended for the wider audience of folklore studies, and it makes several important contributions to that field using Mormons as the subject through which broader principles are explored. Sometimes this wider application is quite jarring, as when he suddenly begins writing in archive-ese for a page (216). But more often the application is natural, as when he situates the common appearance of the number three in Mormon narratives with broader Western culture (202-203). In contrast with prior Mormon-themed folklore studies, Mould focuses on the concept of personal revelation, rather than particular categories of lore, like the Three Nephites or J. Golden Kimball stories. Theme, rather than story type, drives the book; something other folklorists could emulate to great advantage (25).
Mould and Mormon Studies
When I make a reflexive initial assessment of a new book I consider a few currently fashionable expectations about what constitutes “good academic scholarship,” or good Mormon studies. Having now read the book I can confidently say Mould knocks it out of the park on almost every point. First, Mormon studies is heavily dominated by insiders who hope to be joined by more outsiders. Enter Mould.
Second, Mormon studies have been dominated by the genre of history; most of the existing work focuses on 19th and early 20th century Mormonism. Mould focuses on the contemporary church while still paying due attention to the history, and makes use of new resources like Preach My Gospel, recent General Conference talks, church magazines, and member interviews.
Third, good Mormon studies not only says “look, scholarship on Mormonism can be quality scholarship like yours.” More than that, it says “look, scholarship on Mormonism can make an important contribution to your field in addition to its Mormon content.” In other words, this isn’t an academic book about Mormons, it’s a book about folklore using Mormons as a lens through which broader principles are examined. Of course, folklore studies have been doing this sort of thing for decades; folklore’s focus on value over “truth claims” anticipated the “new, new Mormon history” by a few decades (see 4-5, and esp. 242).
Fourth, Mould himself recognizes his book is limited by the relative homogeneity of his sources (9). For lack of space and resources, Mould wasn’t able to fully explore variations in “other regions and other countries.” He points to a “nascent body of scholarship” trying to pay due attention to these wider contexts and issues a call for more attention to “social, cultural, and religious contexts around the world [in order to] provide a more accurate picture of Mormonism as a global religion” (386). The closest he comes to such analysis are his discussions on the importance of dreams in Latin American Mormon contexts (50). But this is a wonderful first step, sets the grounds for many exciting prospects to come.
Returning to my initial concern, the one about how dissection of personal revelation carries the potential of leaving it dead on the table. Mould repeatedly analyzes how culture shapes the stories we tell and raises the question of whether this makes our stories natural, purely cultural, or whether they can be considered to be revelation from God (139, 149, 185, 196). He recognizes the trickiness of analyzing truth claims (321-3, 227, 383. Above all, Mould is trying to advance “a theory of interpretation that validates both personal experiences and shared cultural patters” (324, emphasis in orig.) He wants to bracket the truth-claim issue, leaving the reader the space to form a conclusion:
Experience dictates the “data” one can draw upon to narrate, while personal choice guides which of those experiences one chooses to share. Both reflect the hand of God as well as of men and women. Revelatory experiences reflect God’s concerns for people’s well-being as well as people’s own concerns in what they choose to pray about…Analyzing the themes in personal revelation narratives, therefore, can reveal both the intent of God in heaven and the concerns of people on Earth. For LDS members, the former is of greater interest. For the modest scope of this book, it is the latter that takes center stage (243).
There is a bit of blood involved in the dissection here, but Mould wields his scalpel with care. In fact, Mould is actually doing a bit of theology in this book, although not explicitly and not often. Believe it or not, this over-long review is a mere snapshot of Mould’s excellent work. Despite some very tough competition, and quite surprisingly to me, Still, the Small Voice is my absolutely favorite Mormon book of 2011 (with all the respective weight you want to put behind that).