There are a lot of details, events, and insights found in John Turner’s excellent Brigham Young Biography that will trouble LDS readers: the practice polygamy, the promulgation of sobering racial beliefs, Young’s violent rhetoric and coarse language, you name it. But the thing that troubled me, as a believing Latter-day Saint, the most was not found in the prose. Rather, it was a picture found on page 395 that depicts John D. Lee shortly before his execution in 1877. Lee’s calm, serene look is enough to make my hair raise, but that’s not the only thing that troubles me about the photograph. No, it’s how “contemporary” the picture looks. Despite obvious wear-and-tear, the photo is generally of high quality. Lee’s wardrobe looks quite modern and not too ancient. And when I look into Lee’s aged, solemn face, I can almost see my own grandfather. This troubles me, because I like past events to seem more, well, past. I like historic photographs of historic figures, if they do indeed exist, to look grainy, out of focus, and pre-modern. Put simply, I feel much more comfortable when my LDS history, especially the unsavory aspects of that history, remain far enough in the past to seem foreign.
I have a confession to make: even with my background in researching and publishing on Mormon history, I hardly ever make historical comments at Church. (By “historical comments,” I mean comments that use history as a lesson for the present.) This is difficult, because we have a tradition of being so transfixed with the past that some have claimed (wrongly, in my opinion) that we have a history in lieu of a theology. Sacrament meeting talks and Sunday school lessons are inundated with references to historical characters from our rich legacy. Mormon bookshelves are filled with hagiographies, faith-promoting stories, and even historical fiction. We Mormons love our history–as long as it is told the right way and for the right purpose, of course.
But it’s that last cause that makes academic historians hesitate.
While on a bus to New York last week for a seminar on the development of American constitutional thought, I read George Van Cleve’s provocative, sophisticated, and deeply sobering A Slaveholder’s Union: Slavery, Politics, and the Constitution in the Early American Republic (University of Chicago Press, 2010). In some ways a stinging indictment of America’s Founders and early politicians, Van Cleve persuasively demonstrates how America’s early government was predicated on the power and extension of slavery–an important message in today’s age when we are seeing a paradoxical resurgence of originalism. But more than offering an impressive array of research and interpretation, Van Cleve also delves into human morality and the human condition, topics which are usually left untouched in cold, dry academic monographs. In engaging the pro-slavery arguments of Southerners and the disinterestedness of the Northerners, the book doesn’t shy away from calling out the inhumanity of the former and the ineptness of the latter. While he cautions against overreaching (he rightly notes that “proper moral judgement about past actions can be made only after one fully appreciates the actual degrees of freedom–the realistic choices–available to historical actors” ), Van Cleve is persuasive in his argument for more contemporary relevance.
This is only the most recent of several books I have read arguing for a similar methodological approach. In her award-winning book on Thomas Jefferson’s slave families, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (W. W. Norton, 2008), for instance, Annette Gordon-Reed argued that historians should feel obligated to make their lessons more imminent to modern-day readers:
Historians often warn against the danger of “essentializing” when making statements about people of the past—positing an elemental human nature that can be discerned and relied upon at all times and in all places. Warnings notwithstanding, there are, in fact, some elements of the human condition that have existed forever, transcending time and place. If there were none, and if historians did not try to connect to those elements (consciously or unconsciously), historical writing would be simply incomprehensible…Therefore, we should not be afraid to call upon what we know in general about mothers, fathers, families, male-female relationships, power relationships, the contours of life in small closely knit communities, as we try to see the Hemingses in the context of their own time and place. (31-32)
Such a methodology is often lacking in LDS historical work. This is due to several reasons, I think. First, burned by the debates over “faithful history” in the 1980s and 1990s, Mormon historians have retreated from the battleground of determining modern relevancy, instead being satisfied with just crafting sophisticated and nuanced reconstructions of past ages without explaining the significance to modern readers. Second, the proliferation of numerous “faith-promoting histories” within LDS culture, and the constant accusations of being an “apologist” from within the academy, has made Mormon scholars anxious to make a distinction between what their writing and devotional books. And finally, by avoiding the stewardship over making points immediately relevant to contemporary Saints, scholars have much more freedom in not worrying what their fellow ward members will think. My job is to speak to other academics, I often tell myself, and I imagine I am not alone in that sentiment.
Several recent, and mostly unrelated, things have made me question how I approach these issues.
The first was about a year ago when I read BYU Professor (and one of my undergraduate mentors) Craig Harline’s moving and relevant book, Conversions: Two Family Stories from the Reformation and Modern America (Yale UP, 2011), which looks at the family dynamics of conversion, belief, and change. (I wrote about the book here.) In this creative and provocative telling, Harline goes out of his way to make the narrative not only readable, but relevant; he notes the impetus behind including a modern story in the book as discussing family problems with a friend and wanting to write a book that would help them deal with the situation. I remember reading the book while on a research trip between Boston and Philadelphia and fearing I will never be able to write a book as important as this one, because Harline’s lessons tended to transcend the narrow parameters of the ivory tower. This was a book I could give to friends and not be afraid that they would find it too dry, boring, or irrelevant.
The second experience was attending the 2012 Annual Conference on Faith and History, held at Gordon College, Massachusetts, last weekend. A gathering of devout religious historians, mostly Evangelicals who teach at small Christian colleges, I was honored to be part of two sessions that were devoted to Mormon history. It was not our (sparsly attended) sessions that stood out to me, though, but the presidential addressed delivered by Tracy McKenzie (see overview here). McKenzie taught history at the University of Washington for two decades, grew tired of being the sole Evangelical voice in his portion of the academy, and recently moved to Wheaton College, an Evangelical university. His address was an indictment of Evangelical historians for ignoring their Christian “neighbors” and only focusing on academic standards. He specifically singled out Randall Stephens and Karl Giberson’s recent (and in my estimation, excellent) The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age (Harvard UP, 2012, reviewed by Blair here) as being too hard on common Evangelicals and too lenient on Evangelical scholars; it is too comforting, McKenzie argued, to be satisfied with the narrative that Evangelical scholars are providing top-quality work and that non-academics are just ignoring it. He further posited that we need to stop dreaming that the common masses will be interested in our works produced at an academic level and for an academic audience, and instead recognize that it is part of the “Christian calling” to also produce work for average Christians. I’m confident the same accusation could also be levelled against the Mormon academy.
A third, and final, example has been reading two essay collections from Jill Lepore: The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death (Knopf, 2012) and The Story of America: Essays on Origins (Princeton, 2012). Lepore has nothing to do with religious history–indeed, her neglect of religion is one of the most salient critiques of her work–but she has become the face of “public historians” due to her prestigious chair at Harvard University’s history department, her slew of books and articles, and her writing position with the New Yorker. After writing several critically acclaimed books–including winning the Bancroft and being a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize–she has turned her attention to writing for a more general audience through her witty essays and gorgeous writing. (Note: I have consciously forgotten her unfortunate attempt at historical fiction.) I found these two collections of essays phenomenal, a thoughtful and clever romp through many topics from the past that are still salient for today. It’s not just their responsible history, though, but her eye to ethical critiques and modern relevance that made these works so powerful. But this approach comes with a cost, as many academic historians dismiss her with snide remarks and think she now lacks the rigors of scholarly work.
So, what do we do? How are historians supposed to better reach out to the LDS community? I have several ideas, or at least observations, none of them concrete or fully fleshed-out, but at least worth mentioning. And since this post is already too long, I will keep it brief.
First, I think Mormon scholars need to recognize that we can’t expect average Latter-day Saints to buy and read academic works published by academic presses and written for an academic audience. As much as we would like to see that happen, it just won’t. Those who are already devoted to read such literature are usually not the ones who need their horizons broadened. This means that, on top of the academic publication required by our profession, we must also, if we wish to more directly add to the kingdom, reach through other venues. Second, books in general do not promise a far-reaching impact anymore in today’s digital age. Briefer essays, blogs, podcasts, interviews, G+ roundtables, all of these options provide a wider impact than 300 page monographs. Luckily, during the Mormon moment, we’ve seen a broad proliferation of such examples–even if not all are that learned or important. And third, even if it irks many Mormon intellectuals, it is important to recognize that many members won’t touch or believe specific ideas unless they are packaged in a way that deems it safe, either in a faith promoting-tone or carried by an institution-approved media (like Deseret Book). While insanely frustrating, pragmatism is often needed to bring actual change.
Which brings me to one final example: Fiona and Terryl Givens’s recently released The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life (Ensign Peak, 2012, see Julie Smith’s positive review here). Terryl is famous for his academic work, and those who know Fiona know her intellectual acumen is equal her husband’s. What brings me heart is that this volume is a direct attempt of two of Mormonism’s most brilliant minds to speak to average members. It is also perhaps the most intellectually rigorous book published by a Deseret Book imprint in years. Though not an academic book per se, and likely not something that will build Terryl’s academic pedigree, I believe it will make a larger impact on the broader membership because it is specifically addressed to them. And being that it is being heavily pushed by Deseret Book–who has, as is often pointed out, an unhealthy monopoly on determining what average Mormons read–I imagine it will be read more than a majority of Mormon studies books.
Whether such an approach will be echoed by others, though, will be seen in the future. But just to restate my main point: it will not be until Mormon scholars are willing to lower their sights and speak to average saints directly–rather than naively hoping average Mormons will raise their sights to read academic works–will we be able to see direct, real change in the culture. Not all must participate in such a move, of course; real life circumstances and personal prerogatives may force many to continue the academic path they are already on. But it is important to recognize that a continued avoidance of these important issues, collapsing the distance between our scholarship and its relevancy, forfeits our claim on the development of modern Mormon identities.