Talking past (part 3)

Part 3/3 (part 1; part 2)

In the last decade or so practitioners of Mormon history have spent increasing time and energy thinking through historiographical transitions and broader historical contexts. Mormon history is now more than ever bringing itself into conversation with broader trends in theory, history and theology. Our generation of scholars and students is witness to masterful treatments of issues that concern many peoples while allowing historical Mormons to join broader conversations—David Holland’s excellent Sacred Borders is emblematic of this evolving approach to Mormon history.

This is a risky transition: non-credentialed historians have contributed to the vibrancy of Mormon history and have likely constituted the majority of the Mormon history readership. The broad Mormon readership has provided the economic support that allows university presses to publish works on Mormonism. Many traditional readers of Mormon history will feel more comfortable with the denominational approach that has prevailed for most of Mormon historiography. Incredibly detailed accounts of relatively minor points of contention that rely more on bibliography and documentation than on interpretation on the one hand, and devotional treatments intended to strengthen affiliation and “promote” faith on the other have generated substantial interest among readers. On defense of these traditional histories, not every theoretical model actually illuminates; sometimes stories need to be told in their raw particularity rather than being bent to the constraints of the latest tortured offering from the opium dens of twentieth-century France.

In history probably the most important place the distinction between devotional and academic history manifests itself is in the relationship to the present. Academic history—while allowing present considerations to guide the questions historians ask of the past and the methods whereby historians hear the answers—works carefully to separate the shape of the present from the shape of the past. Devotional history, so much closer to the actual concerns of actual believers, often sees the past as a story about the present and the present as a story about the past.

The two types of history will coexist as they tend to in other areas. The different traditions require different languages, different standards, different audiences, and when the different traditions make contact, they can collide quite forcefully. When they collide, misapprehension, errors of translation, and frank animosity may occasionally result. In discourse among the current generation of students of Mormonism, the occasional foray into churlishness (“polemics”) has come to be associated—whether fairly or unfairly is a contested claim—with FARMS. As the Internet has affected the standards of academic and para-academic discourse, that churlishness has seemed to many to be on the rise.

Though I think it’s reasonable to dismiss churlishness as a rhetorical mode, academics should be careful to understand the sentiments beneath it. There is energy, a sense that something actually matters, in spirited arguments about devotion and affiliation. It is not surprising that many of us succumb to the temptation to polemicize, even to fight verbally over a particular claim about history. For those of us accustomed to such modes of argument, academic accounts that either ignore the controversies that matter to practitioners or refuse to take sides in those debates can be disorienting, even disconcerting. We who write in academic style can be a bit smug about our refusal to engage in simple polemics, and smugness is something we should defend against. By refusing to engage controversies of interest to practitioners we are often, whether we want to or not, dismissing without argument the contest of the other side. While we often believe that our approach is reasonable, even preferable, the academic approach does not justify rude dismissals of heart-felt protest. While we may be required to confess that we are not sufficiently interested in those controversies to invest substantial time in battling over them, we should be careful that we do not maintain that such disinterest demonstrates our superiority.

There are responsibilities on the other side as well. If an academic writer is uninterested in or unwilling to engage the controversies we feel most invested in, we would do well to ask ourselves what the academic author is contributing to broader discussions independent of our favored controversies. It may be that an external approach separated from devotional controversies may help us understand human experience and culture better.

Most of the time, I suspect, the devotional and academic systems operate best in parallel. Even if writers speak both languages and hope to contribute to both sets of conversations, they will tend to speak one language at a time. Constantly switching between methodologies and scholarly registers can be extremely inefficient. At times the two systems will be so far separated that conversations won’t make any sense. The participants in such cases simply speak past each other, unable to understand what is bothering their interlocutors. Failing to recognize this problem can make for rough collisions.

There are risks to separation, not least the age-old image of the cloistered academic in the ivory tower. If our scholarship talks entirely past general readers, what good does it do? Whether to take such a utilitarian approach to scholarship remains controversial. In the controversy over the Evangelical devotional historian David Barton stands the same set of problems. Should he be engaged by academic historians? Does such engagement matter? Any solutions will likely incorporate various responses at different points along the spectrum of academic to devotional history.

The blog Juvenile Instructor has recently attempted to provide gentle reviews of books from the devotional or non-credentialed side of Mormon history. In many cases the JI authors seem to be left with little recourse but to damn with faint praise, as the needs of the two groups are so different. I like and respect the JI bloggers. I have no desire to be critical. I wonder how best to handle intersections between devotional and academic history. My own policy—driven in part by time limits imposed by career and family—is to no longer review books that are of no interest to me academically. Which of the approaches is right? Are we both right? What does seem clear is that such reviews, if they are written, should be reasonably gentle. The JI bloggers have the tone right, if the decision is to review across boundaries, in the reviews I have read.

As we create rhetorical, intellectual and social space for ourselves through our writing, we should also acknowledge certain power imbalances. When we separate the academic from the devotional, we risk suggesting that our approach is superior. Many of us do in fact see scholarship as higher or indicative of greater merit than devotional works. In modern America’s particular version of egalitarianism, commonly beset by deep suspicion of experts, scholars may feel like Odysseus confronting Scylla and Charybdis as they choose between downplaying their scholarship or appearing as academic elitists. Charges of elitism often arise from real perceptions of offense. Is there a way to talk about devotional approaches to history that does not suggest that devotional practitioners must eat their Thanksgiving dinner at the children’s table in the living room instead of with the grownups in the dining room?

In closing, I want to consider briefly what seems to be the most important area of intersection between devotional and academic approaches to Mormon Masonry. Central to the question of Mormon Masonry is the question of difference. Comparison stands at the foundation of the scholarly study of religion, as J.Z. Smith eloquently reminds the field in several of his essays. It can be difficult to put into words how Mormonism differed from Masonry. Difference becomes more important the closer two entities are, as J.Z. Smith emphasized in his influential “What a Difference a Difference Makes.” At the end of the day, both the academic and the devotional writer will need to decide how and in what ways Mormonism differed from Masonry. Comparisons from devotional Mormonism will differ from the answers from devotional Masonry, and those will in turn differ from various academic answers. So will the meanings associated with the comparisons.

Modern Mormons may feel more comfortable following early Mormon views that Freemasonry represented fragments of Solomonic temple worship or an “apostate” “priesthood”. Alternatively they may feel that early Mormons had little contact with Freemasonry, and any comparisons are groundless and misleading. They may be prone to downplay areas of overlap. Modern Masons may feel more comfortable seeing Mormonism as an amateur plagiarism of Masonic myth and ritual. Alternatively they may see Masonry as Joseph Smith’s school-teacher. They may be prone to exaggerate areas of overlap between the traditions. Modern academics will likely be less immediately concerned with the modern contexts for these claims. They will tend to fall between the devotional extremes, hoping to make and support inferences about the ways these traditions functioned in the lives of practitioners or about the ways intellectual or religious systems developed over time.

Academics will, I think, tend to recognize that both movements encompassed an incredible array of themes, concepts, and symbols. With the conceptual scope of both, academics will likely tend to recognize that a case could be made for identity at any of a number of levels, even as a more attentive reading suggests that the movements understood themselves in different ways and drew from shared elements in overlapping cultural milieux. I have a hard time imagining credible scholarship that argues for the near identity of the two movements or the sustained, profound dependence of Mormonism on Freemasonry. That Mormons merged a translation of Masonic liturgy with baptisms for the dead, sacerdotal anointings, and special marriage ceremonies for the eternities called “sealings” surely suggests some loci of difference, even as Freemasonry saw itself as a universal brotherhood that extended to heaven. I tried to evoke the subtle but powerful distinction in language and ritual context that emphasized the differences between Masonry and Mormonism. Depending on what one brings to the encounter with early Mormons and antebellum Freemasons these important distinctions will be more or less persuasive.

Figuring out how not to talk past each other when we approach questions from different vantage points can be difficult. There will be times when parallel discourse is preferable to collision, and each writer will need to determine when explicit dialogue is necessary and when it is not. What seems beyond contest is that the communities interested in overlapping historical traditions will benefit from civility, careful engagement, and the awareness of the risks of talking to, about, and past each other.


  1. PS, I mentioned Juvenile Instructor because I think they are fair and reasonable in their reviews. I wasn’t intending to criticize. I think if you’re going to review books/articles across genres, JI exemplifies a fair approach to the problem.
    PPS, I wrote this before the editorial changes at the Maxwell Institute but did have in mind the debates over “polemics” and “apologetics” that have flared up again in the wake of that editorial change.

  2. smb, I have very little to add except to say that this has been a really wonderful series of posts. Although I am not an academic historian you have persuaded me that there is great value in thinking through the various questions that you raise in these posts. Moreover, to have this insight into how you approached these issues has been both helpful and fascinating.

  3. A very good series, Sam, very very good. I’m interested in doing further work looking at some of the differences between academic and devotional history with an eye to seeing them on a continuum with various overlaps, and blind spots, and benefits and drawbacks, and etc. Thanks for sharing your views which are usefully grounding in your immediate experience.

  4. Clark Goble says:

    Great post and great series. A few quick thoughts.

    Regarding churlishness (or polemics). I think that attempt to separate out academics from this rhetorical mode is doomed to be problematic. If only because academic blood sport is a well established phenomena. Admittedly more at conferences or the like with a more careful rhetorical style that apes the “objective” methodology within academic papers. I can think of several areas of academic discourse completely unrelated to religion that makes FARMS at their worst seem downright friendly are charitable. (Look up some of the discussion about Jaques Derrida getting an honorary PhD for example – although it’s not hard to find far worse examples)

    I say this not to defend what is attributed to FARMS (although I think it tends to be exaggerated and a small number of articles made representative of the whole). Just to note that what academics is tends to be more complex than I think many wish to acknowledge. Now I do come from the school where we should always write charitably, but even though that’s my ideal I know people have told me in the past I’ve crossed that line into churlishness before. (Apologies to anyone I did engage in that way)

    The note about difference is quite important. And yet I find the devotional vs. academic distinction somewhat problematic. I think the real issue tends to be the issue of public vs. private. That said it’s undoubtedly true as you allude that our preconceptions of how something should be discussed significantly affects how we judge certain discourses. I bet many Mormons want devotional rhetoric and are turned off by texts not written in that way – fairly or unfairly. Likewise those who find apologetics wanting (independent of the churlishness issue) often want it to be something it isn’t rhetorically. All independent of the actual strengths or weaknesses of argument.

    Maybe I’m just cynical in my old age but I’ve come around to thinking very few people are actually persuaded by argument.

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