I started really paying attention to scholarly approaches to Mormonism after I wrapped up my graduate studies in an unrelated field almost a decade ago. Since that time there have been some fairly radical institutional, demographic, and perhaps methodological shifts. In 2005 a group of scholars—some Mormon, though not all—gathered at BYU for a seminar sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities: “Joseph Smith and the Origins of Mormonism.” This was the year Rough Stone Rolling was published and when a lot more people starting paying attention to Mormonism. The proceedings have been edited and are now published and are heralded as analyzing and contributing to some of the shifts in the field.
Quincy D. Newell and Eric F. Mason, eds., New Perspectives in Mormon Studies (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013), 230 pp.; chapter notes; index; paperback; $24.95, ISBN: 9780806143132
First things first. I think that the whole insider-outsider analysis, and call for new methodologies (multidisciplinary!) would have played a lot better had this volume come out, in say, 2007. As it stands we are eight years removed from the seminar, and a lot has happened since then. Perhaps more importantly, a lot of people have been talking about these things. That said, I think that this volume still has some wonderful contributions and is worth the read.
Several of the chapters have been published elsewhere in somewhat different form (a full table of contents is available at the linked title above). I’m going to focus my comments on what I think were the three chapters with the most significant contributions.
Newell has done some great work with Jane Manning James, one of the few black Mormon pioneers. Manning’s story has been the focus of a lot of attention for a number of reasons, but her proximity to Joseph Smith and her position at the fulcrum of discussions regarding the priesthood and temple restrictions are probably the most common. Newell takes Manning’s autobiography—a document that is now fairly well known—and probes it, analyzing the implicit and explicit arguments and presuppositions in her narrative. This results in some important insights with regards to the conceptions of authority among Latter-day Saints. This helped me clarify some arguments I have been formulating regarding authority and proximity to the Smith family.
I’ve read a lot on John Alexander Dowie, mostly in books, dissertations, and articles relating to the Divine Healing movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In our article on female ritual healing, Kris and I point to him explicitly as an example that threatened Mormon conceptions of authority and power. Grant Wacker, for example, in his “Marching to Zion: Religion in a Modern Utopian Community,” describes dozens of fascinating similarities between Dowie’s movement and Mormonism, but doesn’t really ever make the connections between the groups. In New Persepectives D. William Faupel documents not only the similarities, but how Dowie had direct connections with Mormons and Mormonism. This work was tremendously eye opening for me, even though it didn’t engage the broader literature on Dowie. Such an engagement should be the next phase of work.
Lastly Steven Davies, a non-Christian scholar of the New Testament has written a theological treatise on the character of Elias in Mormonism. Now, I’m going to be honest. I don’t really agree with everything Davies has written here, but that didn’t prevent me from finding his chapter to be remarkably fresh. There is something off-putting with the way many Mormons engage in theology. If it isn’t bathed in gnostic revelation, it at least has the odor of it. Here is a revelation for you: your secret knowledge is boring and a little bit creepy, folks. Having this non-Mormon, non-Christian engage in serious Mormon theology was, I hope, just the beginning.
In conclusion, this volume was well worth the read. Not all the chapters are stellar, and I think that most of them could have engaged the broader literature a bit better. It is also about seven years too late. Still, what it does offer is significant and makes me wonder what sorts of wonder might be produced now in a similar setting.
Ben P. has written a review of this volume, which is available here. I haven’t read it yet, because I didn’t want to poach him wholesale. Off to read it now.