Talking to, Talking about, Talking past

In my book on early Mormonism (as viewed through its relationship to death, dying, and the dead), I spent a portion of chapter seven thinking through the various meanings of Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo temple liturgy. In that chapter, I tried to evoke, in broad brush strokes, some of the ways that Mormon founder Joseph Smith and his inner circle may have seen, used, adapted—“translated”—elements of the American Freemasonry of their day.

In the last few months, that section of the book has seen criticism from some practicing Masons. Severe constraints on my time have forced me to postpone a response to that criticism to my normal rotation of Fast Sunday devotional posts for BCC. I wanted to be sure that I could strike the right tone and exemplify the kind of dialogue about important issues that I think is conducive to clarity and understanding. Such an effort takes time. My reflections on this topic are perhaps best expressed in terms of three prepositions modifying “talking”: “to,” “about,” and “past.” I have scheduled these three sections to post on successive days as a series.

Talking to

Audiences matter, a lot. We know that intuitively when we hear the box office receipts for the latest blockbuster and we feel strongly that we must acknowledge audience/readers if we are within a decade or two of our undergraduate exposures to Derrida and Foucault. But we don’t always appreciate what audience entails at a practical level. We speak differently—in all the various modes of human speaking—based on the audience we are addressing. When I speak at a private gathering of humanities academics, I speak densely, allusively, almost inscrutably. When I speak with physicians, I use very different language and tone than I do with patients, and when I discuss technical issues with engineering colleagues and other quantitative researchers I use another tone and register still. People overhearing a conversation intended for another audience may feel confused, even alienated. But it’s not just those of us who happen to inhabit obviously multiple worlds that need to confront the perpetual process of addressing audiences. Successful communicators are routinely translating and re-translating among the various audiences with which they interact or overlap. Unsuccessful communicators are unable to translate from one world to the next.

But even as we address a particular audience, we want desperately to address all of humanity. However much the wounded Proust scholar or literary novelist might wish it weren’t so, there is great power and pleasure in addressing a broad audience. When writing about something as controversial as an old New Religious Movement in America, it can be particularly difficult to address more than one audience simultaneously. When I wrote In Heaven, I tried to do so in the academic language of American religious history with the simultaneous awareness that (if I were fortunate) many practicing Mormons would also read the book. I did not primarily or secondarily write for modern Masons, though I tried to portray the antebellum fraternity in generally positive terms, avoiding the tired conspiracy theories and comparisons to the disproportionately famous Bavarian Illuminati that dominate too much writing about Masonry.

Though I tried to be sympathetically neutral, my main goal was to evoke the early Mormon experience. At times I allowed early Mormons their own voice even when what they claimed was more caricature than fact. Because their criticism of Calvinism was so important to their worldview, I gave Mormons particular leeway in their caricatures of the Calvinist traditions. To a lesser extent I also allowed the early Mormon experience to frame in part my treatment of Masonry. The questions I tried to answer, however briefly, included What was it about Masonry that drew early Mormons? How did they understand its liturgy and traditions? What was it like to be Joseph Smith Jr. and his inner circle encountering Masonic traditions?

Because I was writing about Mormons to an audience primarily interested in Mormonism, I had to restrict my treatment of Masonry to certain highlights relevant to the basic point that Joseph Smith translated elements of Masonic liturgy into his own Nauvoo liturgy, recognizing a kinship born of concern with death and its conquest. Because initiation rites persisted more durably in Mormon experience, I focused on those rather than, e.g., Masonic funerals. I was not proposing (and I suspect few readers would have tolerated) an exhaustive accounting of every way in which Masons—Mormon Masons among them—tried to think through death, fraternity, and special knowledge.

Had I been writing explicitly for a Masonic audience, I would have spent significantly more time on the details of Masonic liturgy and experience, though I would have continued to largely bracket postbellum and later Freemasonic sources, just as I avoided as much as possible post-Smithian Mormonism in my treatment of Mormonism. In my history writing I have come to believe strongly that we can best make sense of the past when we allow it to be foreign before building bridges of communication between the present and the past. That requires, though, a willingness to allow the past to seem different than it has to us previously. In some respects we modern readers are eavesdropping on the conversations and world-making of the long dead, and we would do well to remember that we generally do not understand the world the way they did.

That some Masons were offended by what I saw as a neutral-to-sympathetic treatment is a reminder that many unanticipated audiences will have concerns and grounds for offense that elude even the well-intentioned outsider. Though an exhaustive consideration of all possible audiences is probably impossible for any given project, it seems worthwhile for us to consider more than just our primary and secondary audiences when we write, particularly when the group we are describing has living heirs who identify with the historical tradition. In a complementary vein, we as readers should extend the benefit of the doubt to authors when we read work written primarily to another group, even when that writing refers to us. This seems to me a responsibility of readers to match the responsibility of writers. We can go too far in granting an author latitude when she is not addressing us. I think it was reasonable, for instance, for Mormons to protest that Jon Krakauer had fundamentally misread the Mormon experience in his Banner of Heaven—admittedly written for a non-Mormon American audience—about the Lafferty murders and the perils of organized religion. Even in that highly readable but methodologically flawed book, though, there were elements that could be useful to practicing Mormons interested in understanding themselves and their history better.

I believe that our discourse, our communities, and our scholarship will benefit from the respectful consideration of the audiences for our writing and our speech. This type of consideration of potential audiences requires substantial work and does not tend to arise spontaneously in the setting of Internet communication, but I believe it is worth the effort. We could all do better. As we negotiate the intersecting and occasionally conflicting sensibilities of multiple audiences, we should all be careful to remember that harshness tends to reinforce boundary lines that have traditionally interfered with fruitful scholarly interchange on certain topics.

In what was in retrospect an incomplete interrogation of possible reader responses, I shared my section on Mormon Masonry with two practicing Masons, one Mormon and one ex-Mormon. Neither reported to me any concerns about my treatment. I assumed that meant my writing would not offend practicing Masons, even if it was not primarily about them. In the light of post-publication criticism I see some areas where I could have made the text more user-friendly for Masonic readers, without sacrificing my central argument, could have considered better the devotional needs of modern Freemasons. I could and should have made clearer that the symbolic executions of Masonic liturgy were not, with the complex apparent exception of William Morgan, generally intended to be carried out in actual fact. (Various affidavits published in the aftermath of the Morgan affair do not clarify much—seceders proclaimed that the symbolic executions were intended literally, but they did so as part of their secession from Freemasonry.) I also should have made clearer that while various contemporary lay and later scholarly sources suggest that most antebellum American Freemasons were not expert hermeticists, for an inner core of members of the Craft, Freemasonry did represent the actual secrets of the universe.

[Continued: part 2 and part 3]


  1. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book — or heard a lecture, like the one you gave at Benchmark — that better helped me realize that the past was different, and that words which we usually think of as easily and obviously defined conveyed very different concepts in that past.

    And I’ll have to keep in mind your experience with Masonic reaction to In Heaven when I read materials that speak of Mormonism tangentially to the main argument.

  2. Thanks for this, Sam. A model of thoughtful scholarship.

  3. it's a series of tubes says:

    Ardis, I see from FB that you are “at the office” today. New position, or new digs?

  4. David M. Morris says:

    Very interesting Sam, it reminded me of the approach of Richard J. Mouw, in “Talking_with_Mormons”, while he doesn’t particularly agree with LDS theology, he highlights that many of the differences are in the rhetoric and not the substance. Sometimes, we are all talking about the same thing but just framing it differently, but as you said in being more sympathetic to a particular creed or belief system it will no doubt provide others opportunities to be more respectful or understanding of LDS perspectives.


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