During thoughtful commentary at the Calgary MHA meeting, historian and JSP editorial guru Robin Jensen argued forcefully that as Mormon historians spend more and more of their time in interpretive, synthetic pursuits, they ought not forget the careful, even fastidious work of those who practice traditional Mormon history. He confessed, with the kind of nerdly glee that only such historians can muster, that he has spent many hours debating the finer points of punctuation marks in holograph manuscripts. He is absolutely correct. As I wondered how best to engage this concern (I am by nature a synthetic historian), an image from my main, biomedical, area of research came readily to hand.
In biomedicine, we speak commonly of the bench and the bedside. By the “bench” we mean the hard work in scientific laboratories–pipettes, enzymes, flasks, RNA chips, experimental animal models–that defines the mechanisms by which health and disease occur. By “bedside” we mean clinical encounters between healthcare providers and patients or investigations that involve actual human patients with actual human problems. For complicated reasons there has been something of a love-hate relationship between the bench and the bedside for many decades in biomedicine. The bedside sometimes feels that the bench misses the point entirely, hammering away at metabolic pathways or genetic anomalies in yeast or zebrafish that will never apply in humans. The bench sometimes feels that the bedside is drifting in a sea of sentimentality, bad methodology, and personal anecdotes. Of course, even during the fights, we all recognize that the bedside needs the bench and vice versa, a point recently emphasized by an NIH initiative.
I think that a similar sort of framing can apply as we approach Mormon history or Mormon studies more broadly. The practitioners of traditional Mormon history–people who know every document and its provenance, who have irradiated 170-year-old documents with various special lasers and x-rays to uncover over-writes and erasures–are like the bench and the practitioners of synthetic Mormon history–people who try to evoke forests rather than trees, who chase human meaning through many different religious groups and engage various theoretical traditions–are rather like the bedside. Without the bench, without the careful analysis of the actual documents, their provenance, their creation, their contents and palimpsests, synthetic historians will have little if anything truthful to talk about. Without the synthetic historians, the bench historians risk a lapse into irrelevance, as the documentary insights gained from such assiduous work must somehow live to be of meaning. Knowing what issues matter, seeing the forest in which the trees live, improves one’s capacity to describe an individual tree.
Of course there are complex relationships and struggles for influence that such a simplistic distinction can not entirely overcome. We are, after all, human, and we will tend by our physical nature to want to be better than others, to want our camp to be better than another camp. But perhaps having such an obviously necessary division of labor (bench vs. bedside in biomedicine) as an example of fruitful collaboration can leave a little more space in Mormon Studies to embrace the various groups who hope to participate.