Tom Mould on Folklore and Personal Revelation

I think the most underrated Mormon-themed book of 2011 was Tom Mould’s Still, the Small Voice: Narrative, Personal Revelation, and the Mormon Folk Tradition. As its title suggests, the book explores how the Spirit’s “small voice” is still an important part of religious life for Latter-day Saints. It’s is a folklorist’s examination of the stories Mormons share about personal revelation.

Mould is associate professor of anthropology and folklore at Elon University in North Carolina. He recently joined me as a guest on the “FAIR Conversations” podcast. His work is thought-provoking, challenging, and inspiring, both religiously and academically. He brings the perspective of a thoughtful outsider but speaks with an insider’s knowledge. Here’s an excerpt from the interview. You can hear or download the full episode here.


BHodges: Tom, in the beginning of the book you give a brief outline of personal revelation as something that is foundational to Mormonism perhaps beginning with Joseph Smith reporting his visions and revelations. But you say that [such foundational stories] are the tip of the iceberg in Mormonism when it comes to personal revelation. Can you explore that metaphor, the tip of the iceberg?

 Tom Mould: Sure. So, I think what I was trying to get at with that metaphor was that I think when people talk about or read about revelation in LDS scripture or in various teachings from Church leaders, et cetera, or from sacrament meetings, oftentimes it’s from the perspective of church leaders or from the Doctrine and Covenants, some of the major revelations that church leaders have received over the years, and how those play directly into theology. I see that as sort of being the tip of the iceberg, right, it’s the part that’s visible, above the water. But what’s sort of the foundation for that revelation is something shared by all members of the church, and so it’s a much broader base, it’s a much bigger tradition. And what I mean by that, of course, is that every member of theLDSChurchhas access to personal revelation. And the more righteous, the more that one upholds one’s covenants, the more likely, the more open to receiving revelation they are. And so what I found in looking at the scholarship that’s out there is that that tip of the iceberg had been addressed and studied from various perspectives, certainly theological but other areas as well. But that fundamental base—it’s a lay church, there is a laity, the folks sitting in the pews on any given Sunday—what is their lived experience of their religion like? And it’s fundamentally based around this concept of personal revelation. So that’s what the metaphor was trying to do was to set the stage for this book. Which is to say, I don’t wanna dismiss—those are very important revelations that church leaders have received—but let’s give some attention to the revelations of, you know, the average—there’s no such thing of course as an average member of course—but you know, of the membership of the church.

BHodges: I’ve known some pretty average members. So, you also note in the intro, some books are written to clarify or interpret doctrine (usually by church leaders), some books are written to give practical advice or to strengthen faith. And your book claims a different heritage, and that is through folklore. When people hear the word “folklore” I think the first thing that comes to mind is fairy tales or fanciful stories or things like that, so I want you to describe what you mean by folklore from an academic perspective.

Tom Mould: Yeah, you hit right at it that the term itself is fraught. And oftentimes those of us who are trained in folklore will say, well we’re anthropologists or we’re in the English department, we study expressive culture. And it’s only after people get an idea for what we’re doing that we ever even use the “f” word, because it just sets people off. As it would have for me before, when I went to grad school I didn’t know what folklore was, I just knew I was interested in oral traditions, specifically American Indians at the time. So from an academic perspective the field is focused on the study of expressive culture, whether it’s material culture: pots, quilts, housing, log cabins, things like that, to oral traditions. So oral narratives, jokes, riddles, etc. To customary belief systems. So superstitions and omens and fundamental spiritual belief systems. And so there was a time when the field was sort of struggling with this idea of, well do we call certain religions folk religions, or do recognize that there is folklore within all religions? And finally, Leonard Primiano, one of my heroes–and it’s not completely unproblematic—but he’s developed a definition for the study of religious folklore which is to say that every religion has it. And what we’re talking about, then, is that whether you’re Catholic or LDS or Muslim or Jewish, there are going to be traditions that are held that are outside the formal scripture, that are enacted by both leadership and laity alike, that are really help if you wanna understand the human condition, and understand the lived experience. Understanding those traditions helps us understand perhaps how people engage with their faith in a way that simply analyzing the theology and the doctrine doesn’t. Because there is a difference between the two. So I’ve sort of moved the explanation of folklore broadly into the study of how folklore intersects with the study of religion.

BHodges: The way that I’d have you clarify that is by tying it into the idea of what you’re asking, it seemed to me, throughout the book. Basically what you do is you interviewed people, you heard stories, you took notes at sacrament meeting, you interviewed members to hear their stories of when they prayed and received an answer to a question or when they were, what we call, prompted by the Holy Ghost to do something. And you analyze these stories, the way that they’re told, the settings that they’re told in. And it seemed to me what you’re trying to get at is the values that those stories tell. Rather than saying “let’s go through and see if we can verify that they were there at 10pm” and things like this, that’s not what you’re doing, you’re trying to look at what those stories tell us in terms of values, is that right?

Tom Mould: That’s exactly right. And so one of the differences people often draw between anthropologists and folklorists, fairly or not, they’ll say well anthropologists see the stories as kind of vessel for getting those values and belief systems out. So that’s part of it, that’s definitely what I’m up to. But the other part says that as we share our stories people are skillful at how they share their narratives, the narrative is an aesthetic form, and so the folklorist doesn’t want to lose sight of those formal aspects, where an anthropologist might say hey, we just want to get at the value system underlying it…


  1. Steve Evans says:

    Awesome. Tom is, as they say, the shizzle. I’d be curious to hear more about his take on Primiano.

  2. I didn’t take the chance to pursue Primiano in particular in the podcast, but Tom’s description reminded me a little bit of the sort of thing we get from religious studies scholars like Robert Orsi, lived religion, folk religion, religious religiony religion, etc.

  3. Tom is really remarkable. He is a very thoughtful scholar; Mormons are blessed by Tom’s insightful anthropology. If you ever get the chance to meet him, he’s also wonderful person.

  4. Blair, I very much enjoyed your interview with Tom Mould. I bought the book and its a gem.

    For me, reading Still, the Small Voice was akin to Takeo Doi reading Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. I had a similar reaction as Doi: “…I still remember the vivid impression I had of seeing myself reflected in it. Time and again, as I turned the pages, I gave a nod of surprised recognition.”

    Mould’s work is thoughtful, considerate, but always insightful. I had the same experience of being both intellectually and emotionally moved by his work.

  5. Shawn, he seemed like an incredibly nice guy, and he was really sharp in the interview, too, really knows his subject matter and theory in-depth,

    Aquinas, that’s a great quote, I felt the same way. I hope more people check this book out.

  6. I find it interesting the idea of being skillful at sharing a narrative, when we’re talking about personal revelation narratives. What kind of skills do LDS develop surrounding testimony bearing? I’m not just meaning little tics (people make a big deal of Glenn Beck’s signature crying that recalls testimony meeting tradition) but real skills. Are there things we’re good at because we talk at church? What are those and are they useful for things other than talking at church?

  7. Cynthia, in the book Mould talks about many of the performance norms we typically follow. For example, there is the “superlative ending,” where an account is concluded by noting that “and so-and-so became a Stake President” or “and they were eventually baptized.” There are norms of humility, ways that we phrase things to downplay suspected boasting, and various other things.

  8. I enjoyed the interview a lot. I was impressed by how familiar he was with things Mormon. If only journalists could talk about Mormons as well as him.

  9. In response to Cynthia’s question: “What kind of skills do LDS develop surrounding testimony bearing?”

    One storytelling skill Tom mentioned in the podcast that also applies to giving a talk in meetings is staying on topic. If you wander off on tangents very far from your topic, you’ll lose your audience very quickly. I tend to do this when I’ve giving ad-hoc talks and I can attest that it’s caused some of my audience members to fall asleep. I’ve never been a good story teller and I think this is definitely one of the reasons why. Your audience wants to know you’re going somewhere, if they get the impression that you’re drifting, they will drift too. It’s definitely something I’ve got to work on.

  10. thx noble.