Mormon, History, Association?

As the MHA 50th Anniversary Conference draws closer, I’ve been thinking about various efforts and groups within Mormonism that attempt to make sense of our history. There have been lots of such groups, with varying levels of professionalism, success, and academic prowess, most of them the output of the sixties [1]. A partial list of groups and journals would include Dialogue, MHA, BYU Studies, the Maxwell Institute, EMSA, Sunstone, Interpreter, and the JMH. None of these organizations is perfect. If you were going to join or be part of a group that looked at Mormon history, what would it look like? What are the attributes of a good Mormon historical association, what would they be? Let me suggest a few.

1. Academic chops. The backbone of a solid Mormon history group is a core assembly of thinkers, authors, and historians. It requires academic discipline and a comfort level with deep research. This is not the same as having every member be a professional historian or a member of academia; rather, I mean that the study of history, especially in a field as document-rich and recent as Mormon history, requires a level of patience, rigor, and consistency that is typically acquired from higher education.

2. Institutional trust. You won’t get very far as a Mormon historian without the cooperation, and ultimately the trust, of the LDS Church. It is that simple. The sources, the community, the institutional access — you need to be working with the Church. If people can’t join your organization because they’d lose their job at BYU, that is an indicator of two things: 1) BYU is not about academic freedom, it’s oppressive and really fraught, and 2) your organization does not have the buy-in it needs.

3. Ideological diversity. There’s a recognizable tension when you explore the history of a religion: are you about the HISTORY, or are you about being FAITHFUL? Choose forever! The only right answer is to say that for Mormons, being faithful does not mean neglecting the history of the religion: it means being curious, it means searching and exploring and finding out the truth. Our religion can stand for itself, and Mormons do not be afraid of the truth [2]. That said, there is a difference between explicitly devotional content and raw, dispassionate history. Are Church sources entitled to presumptions of accuracy or truthfulness? Should a Mormon religious scholar attack inaccuracies or inconsistencies without considering the impact of their scholarship on the testimonies of their fellow Saints? A good Mormon history association does not need to answer these questions definitively in the abstract, but it must be open to vigorous debate over these points.

4. Thematic diversity. There are many paths that are well-trodden in Mormon history, but others that are not. It’s time to look at fresh ideas and fresh perspectives. We have given short shrift to people of color in Mormon history, with some notable exceptions. The scholarship surrounding women in the Church has also been limited, but is improving. The international church deserves serious study, in particular the Church in Africa and South America. More than this, diversity of authors is needed: the graying of Mormon Studies needs to be countered, the whiteness of Mormon Studies needs to be countered, the maleness of Mormon Studies needs to be countered. And I say this not out of some social justice or affirmative action impulse, but simply because there are important stories to tell, and not just anyone can tell them.

5. Independent. See #2, but here’s the thing: if you’re going to be an effective organization in Mormon history, you need to preserve editorial independence. This is because your honesty cannot be questioned. Your financial sources should come from neither the Church nor its enemies, lest people frame you as being in the pocket of the Church or, alternatively, a tool of the Adversary. [3]

6. Relevance. The Mormon Studies journals, by and large, are dying. Their subscription bases are dwindling and as their audiences shrink, they are becoming less relevant and more shrill. They seem to have little new to say, and prefer to dwell on the trophies of the past. Few, if any, have effectively embraced social media or other alternative avenues of finding new audiences. This is in part because there is no money in social media, but heck — print publishing is no goldmine, either. Similarly, their conferences are polarizing, between showcases for disgrunted nutjobs (on both ends of the orthodoxy spectrum) and stoic, boring sepulchres. There are exceptions, and they are important exceptions, but still — the academic approaches in Mormon studies need to innovated, to find new blood and new relevance. It’s needed.

Here’s the awesome thing about Mormon studies and Mormon history: nobody will agree on how to resolve these points. Disagreement over these points is great! It is a sign of a vibrant community that has a lot invested in its history and culture. As MHA hits 50, Dialogue nears 50, and Interpreter turns three, considering these questions will be more important than ever.

[1] You know who you are. The closest that I’ve come to being directly affiliated with any such groups is that I serve on the editorial board for Dialogue. I don’t have any affiliation with MHA but this year’s conference looks exciting and will do what I can to promote it.

[2] Detractors of Mormonism disagree with this sentence, obvs.

[3] BCC takes no funds from anyone, and it has not prevented us from being accused of both of those things.


  1. Good stuff, Steve. I’ll have more to say in the morning, but as of now I think your point #6 is a bit too grim. I think Dialogue’s quality is as high as ever, and MHA’s conferences keep improving. (Though I may be the very type of boring sepulchre you denounce; I’m not counting out that possibility.) But I do agree that organizations need to be more progressive when it comes to social media and digital content. I know that MHA and Dialogue are wrestling with that now, and I hope to see more on that front in the immediate future.

  2. Ben, as I mentioned, there are lots of highlights out there. Dialogue’s quality is terrific, but can they survive? MHA’s conferences are good — but who goes?* They both are in tight, tough situations. And yet this is all happening as interest in Mormon history is at an all-time high. So what’s up?

    Also, there is really no money in blogs and social media. We cannibalize off the journals. We drive people away from the long form. I can’t blame a print organization for not embracing those forms – it’s like embracing your executioner.

    The age and adaptability of the leadership of these organizations is critical.

    * as it turns out, lots of people go. It’s very popular… among academics.

  3. Great point, Steve. A couple points, as I procrastinate sleep:

    1. One reason of this disconnect between great interest in Mormon history and the growing vulnerability of Mormon publications is the obvious competition from digital content (blogs, discussion boards, fb groups, etc) and the short attention span-culture they promote, which means less patience and interest in rigorous and researched articles. Especially when they can get what they think is similar quality (which it isn’t) for free!

    2. Another reason for decreasing stability for Mormon publications is Mormon studies is not a parochial endeavor anymore, which means that a lot of work–and often the best work–appears in venues outside of JMH, Dialogue, BYUS, etc.

    3. I think it is important to note that the academic Mormon publishing spot that features the most consistent quality (at least from the last 3 years) and most stable condition, the Maxwell Institute, is housed at an academic institution. My personal belief is that if MHA and Dialogue want to have a longer legacy, more relevance, and stronger quality, they too will have to form some kind of an institutional affiliation, hopefuly with a school like the University of Utah. That’s what the most successful academic journals do, for a host of reasons I won’t go into now, and we need to stop thinking of Mormon endeavors as unique.

  4. One last point on MHA attendance: I’d venture to say that at least half of those who attend aren’t academics, but history enthusiasts. That makes MHA unique compared to other scholarly conferences, and is something that should never be diminished. One of the consequences of that is a split identity and vastly different presentations. Another consequence is that it’s quite quirky. And it should remain that way, or else it becomes even more niche with solely academic participation.

    But yes, even factoring in the amateur participation, there is a general *type* of MHA attendance, and it is not as broad as one would like.

  5. Good. Thanks for clarifying around that.

  6. This summer and fall, I’ll be on the program at Sunstone, John Whitmer, and the Ex-Mormon Foundation conferences. I had high hopes for a promising presentation at MHA, replete with a couple of qualified co-panelists who were enthusiastic to address my topic. Alas, it was not to be. I’m probably in good company, as there are numerous others who also got that boilerplate-language turndown by email at 8 a.m. on January 1. I would feel a lot better about it if I could be assured that all of the available slots were filled with better qualified applicants who submitted superior proposals. I don’t mind finishing out of the money in a race with faster horses. I can’t be sure of that, but I’ll be content to be in the grandstand in Provo in June, cheering on those who impressed the judges in the preliminaries.

    Scholars with a professional attitude rise above rejection. But your blog post gives me pause and rekindles my suspicions.

    One of those with all of the scholarly gravitas and institutional trust you mentioned, a colleague who will be presenting at both MHA and FAIR-Mormon this year, exchanged ideas with me recently. We’re both a bit concerned about the effect of presenting to groups on the fringe that may be more opinionated than scholarly, and how others may see that impacting our objectivity. Nevertheless, we agree that we should take the opportunity to promulgate our ideas to the widest range of audiences who will hear us. Chances are, though, that nobody with power to allow or deny access to Church records will hold his FAIR appearance against him.

    Moving on to a few of your other points:

    One thing I will never do is temper my writing in consideration of how it will affect someone else’s degree of religious faith. My mother is a devout Catholic who took chemistry coursers in college. She undoubtedly knows that the consecrated Eucharist contains the same chemical elements of wine and wafer that it did before the priest blessed it. Yet, she’s strong enough to consider it the body and blood of Christ on Sunday, while maintaining her intellectual acumen all week long. Quite frankly, is someone’s Mormon testimony is threatened by a dosage of Mormon history, may i suggest that that individual’s degree of religious faith was a bit shaky to start with?

    I recall listening to a podcast featuring Jan Shipps. She warned against the danger that religious denominations face when they allow their history to be canonized. Catholicism, she says, is one of those with a canonized history. So is Mormonism. Yet, John Cornwell could write Hitler’s Pope and still receive the Eucharist the next Sunday.

    You are absolutely right about the advantage that one has when institutional trust allows access to the Church’s records. Yet, especially in the international arena that you addressed, that advantage is being mitigated by the eras of the Internet and increased secularization. Somebody trying to do 19th century Mormon history is still very dependent on records held closely by the LDS Archives. For 20th century and international historians, that is less so. Also, in contrast to when I got started, during the past few years I’ve been asked “Are you a member of the church?” as a screen question much less frequently.

    I see the barriers to doing Mormon history being lowered, despite your thoughtful observation of the dissonance that still exists among the various scholarly groups with which we affiliate.

  7. I actually would really like to go to MHA- but in the past have felt intimidated, like there wasn’t a space for a non-academic. Conversely, I have backed off from participating in the non-academic conferences because I have felt the vitriol and the “disgruntled nut jobs” don’t accurately represent my space within Mormonism either.

    I keep my home at BCC and at the handful of other bright spots online. But there is something to be said for communing with the saints in person, and wish there were more opportunities to do so.

  8. J. Stapley says:

    It is easier now than ever to access the church’s archival holdings, and they are open to anyone, regardless of affiliation. Granted, you are correct that relationships always exist, and things always go more smooth when mutual respect abounds.

    I think one important issue is cost. With digital subscriptions, the barrier to entry is very low. However conferences are relatively expensive, especially academic conferences. I think the conference format is very important as a developmental step for both scholarship and community, so it is worth the investment. But that is not obvious to the casual participant. I also am not a fan of recording conferences, because of that developmental nature.

    For the religious community, I think the conference format is also important performatively, in that it models constructive engagement. I think that MHA does a pretty good job with this. I think some conferences model other more negative things, however.

  9. J, I think you are correct, but I also think you are dramatically underestimating the role of relationships. I say this not because the CHL won’t let you see the juicy stuff, but because if you are viewed as damaged goods your group will never gain mainstream traction.

  10. Ben, I’m going to disagree — vigorously, vociferously — with your diagnosis that what the Mormon print journals need is closer ties to academia. If the journals and conferences want to be more relevant to more people, if we want Mormon history in general to be more interesting, more accessible, more relevant to more people, then for heaven’s sake reverse the direction the journals and organizations have taken in the past few years, and move away — far away! — from the universities and academics.

    We need scholars — and scholars are not limited to academics.

    What we need are people — writers, editors, new media specialists — who can appeal to broader audiences, and who are not, like academics, more and more focused on less and less. We need people who can tell stories; can find questions that are of interest to a broad, non-academic audience; can write without jargon; can speak to the deep need we have to understand ourselves and our past and often our religion — and who can do it with the same rigor as academics. More and more often, though, “rigor” becomes “rigor mortis” in the hands of academics.

    There is of course a personal danger in my speaking up against the overrunning of MHA and JMH and other history venues by the academics: I am not an academic and therefore easy to dismiss as reviling what I ain’t got. Please believe me that I know better than most what I lack and know better than anyone what I wish I had.

    And I know from the groups and individuals I do speak to that I am not alone. Professionalized history, academic history, doesn’t appeal to any but a narrow segment of the potential consumers of history.

  11. Ardis, I suspect that part of why Ben suggests alignment with an academic institution is mere survival – these groups won’t generate enough operating income to survive on their own. But I agree with you about the costs of such an alignment.

  12. Christopher J. says:

    Good thoughts, Steve. I largely agree with Ben above. A couple of additional observations and then a question:

    JMH is almost certainly reaching a larger audience than ever now, thanks to its inclusion on JSTOR. Perhaps folks aren’t reading each issue cover to cover, but the likelihood of an important article from JMH being discovered is greater than ever. I’d also note that any concerns of the “graying” of Mormon Studies, at least in the case of MHA, are almost certainly no longer relevant. I remember lots of folks freaking out about this when I attended my first MHA a decade ago; I almost never hear those concerns today, and I would guess that the average age of both presenter and attendee at MHA’s annual conference is younger than ever, and the number of grad students active in the field is probably larger than ever. During my time on the board (2011-13), we saw attendance at the student reception grow from ~15-20 attendees to well over 50. I’d be surprised if this year’s didn’t far surpass that figure. Heck, even the leadership is younger than ever; while the president and president-elect are almost always senior scholars, the other members of the board are almost all younger scholars and supporters.

    And now the question: How do these organizations go about cultivating the sort of thematic diversity you call for? I don’t know anyone that doesn’t want to see more work done on and from Mormons outside of the U.S./Mormons of color/Mormon women/etc, but how to successfully accomplish that remains a matter of debate. I’m interested in any thoughts you (and others) have.

  13. CJ, it’s supply and demand. The scholarship and articles will be published in the next couple of years, as people are now realizing where the exciting frontiers really are to be found. Paul Reeve is ahead of the curve. Joanna Brooks is as well. There are others.

  14. Color me in Ardis’s boat. More personal stories, less clinical approaches, if you want to attract new blood.

  15. Ardis: believe me when I say that I am very sympathetic and agree with much of what you say. I still hold to my points for at least three reasons:

    1. One is, as Steve notes, survival. Independent, niche history organizations, especially those centered around a journal, just don’t survive anymore without institutional affiliation. It’s an unfortunate fact of today’s economy. Even the most stringent independent journals have had to join up with a university or press in recent years, and MHA will most likely suffer until they do so as well.

    2. A vast majority of those best qualified to edit the journal are found at academic institutions, and the only way we can get them to edit, due to the politics and realities of the academic world, is to have institutional affiliation. That brings the benefits—course reduction, credit toward tenure and promotion, grad student assistants, etc.—that the JMH editorship is desparately in need of.

    3. MHA has long made it clear, even at its founding, that while they encourage and cherish diversity of thought and background, they want academic credibility. That has dictated most of their decisions in the past. It is a tremendously tough line to balance, and will be a continuous struggle long in the future. I think that balance can be maintained with an academic affiliation.

    With all that said, I am firmly, strongly (even vigorously and vociferously!) of the opinion that if MHA were to take this route, they would have to choose the right affiliation and editor that will not only maintain but sincerely appreciate the broad range of voices and purposes of MHA and the JMH. I think they’ll need to share a lot of the views you just outlined, and make a permanent space for the crucial works by the Ardis Parshalls of the community, and if that isn’t possible then the fit might not be right.

    I’m clearly biased. I don’t have nearly the negative view of academic work of others. And to be honest, I don’t think MHA has come even close to too academic—if anything, I don’t think it and its journal have progressed as far as necessary. I own that bias.

  16. Ben, as a layman, I’m not sure I agree with you about where MHA is at. To me, an outsider, it seems daunting and steeped in academia. That might not be an accurate perception, but if I find MHA to be that way – and I’m a dilettante and history fan – what is the mainstream perception?

  17. The academic tone of MHA is an attitude as much as it is any particular affiliation. It isn’t academic enough for Ben; it has recently become too academic for me.

    MHA needs to be scholarly. It needs not to be academic. Few academics understand the difference, it appears.

  18. The comments so far illustrate the challenges facing MHA and JMH. I find myself agreeing with both Ardis and Ben. I like the accessible personality-oriented articles and dislike those that partake of an elitist jargon that might as well be a foreign language. I also worry about MHA becoming a cliquish organization that caters primarily to academics. It would be a tragedy if MHA were to lose its grass-roots orientation. After all, as long as MHA remains wholly independent of institutions, its financial future seems to rest with us retiring and soon-to-be retiring baby boomers. It’ll be interesting to see where MHA goes in the future: stay independent or compromise–if only to a certain extent–and affiliate with an institution.

  19. re the question of becoming more academic: I think there’s a false dichotomy at work here. Think about the ways in which academic biblical scholarship — highly technical work, published in specialized, peer-reviewed journals read solely by specialists — has enabled so many quality books geared toward lay readers. Think about, say, Richard Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible; how are we ever going to see similar works on Mormon history without a similar scholarly foundation?

  20. Patrick says:

    Sincere question for Ardis: Does your own understanding of scholarly and vision for MHA/JMH allow for more academic discourse and writing? Would only research and writing accessible to the lay reader be permitted to be presented and published? Or is your vision one in which the two approaches remain side by side (if sometimes in uneasy tension)?

  21. Patrick says:

    Whoops. First sentence should read “Does your own understanding of scholarly tone and vision for MHA/JMH …”

  22. Patrick, you’re proving my point that all BCC comments should be peer reviewed.

  23. Kevin Barney says:

    I can empathize with those intimidated by MHA. I was a member (to get the journal) for years before I decided to venture to an actual conference (mainly because it was going to be in Kirtland that year and that sounded like a fun road trip from Chicago). Once I got there I quickly realized I didn’t need to be intimidated at all, but until one actually experiences it in the flesh that sense of not being up to snuff for it is going to be an ongoing barrier for a lot of people.

    And yes, cost is a problem. I can generally count on spending about $1,000 to attend a conference (registration, airfare, hotel, rental car, meals). I really enjoy the conferences and so am willing to do that, but for a lot of people that puts it out of reach. (There are of course ways to do it on the cheap, sharing a car trip and hotel room, etc., but even then it can be a reach for a lot of people.)

    I am not going to make it to Provo in June (due to work conflicts, not a lack of desire to go), and I am definitely sad about that. I would encourage anyone who has idly thought about it to pull the trigger and actually give it a try; I’m willing to wager you’ll actually have a great time.

  24. $1000!!

  25. One thing I think we could all agree on: if we could just hoodwink more people to make substantial dontations to MHA, this would be a completely different discussion. (Still debates, mind you, but different and preferable debates.) Most of the best niche organizations are heavily subsidized by a handful of premier donors, and while MHA has some of those, we could certainly use more.

    Perhaps some of the money currently being funneled to Mormon Studies Chairs—at a moment when Mormon studies, to be completely honest, does not have enough established mid-career scholars to perhaps justify all those positions—could be funneled to MHA in order to allow more public initiatives, amateur programs, decreased costs, and even a respectable JMH editor stipend.

  26. Ben, reliance on a few wealthy private donors is not a long term strategy, and it steers you away from independence: what happens when the donor doesn’t like a particular article?

  27. So, no, I don’t think we all agree on that :)

  28. Kevin Barney says:

    I’m not going this year, but if I were, here is what my costs would look like:

    Conference registration:

    $195 (as an MHA member. I’m not counting my membership fee. As a non-member, this would be $250)
    $55 Presidential banquet
    $18 lunch (other meals are on your own)

    $414 flight + rental car

    $300+ three nights at the conference hotel

    So I’m at $982, not counting the other meals beyond the two as part of the conference. So total cost would indeed be something a little over $1,000.

  29. Christopher J. says:

    “The scholarship and articles will be published in the next couple of years, as people are now realizing where the exciting frontiers really are to be found. Paul Reeve is ahead of the curve. Joanna Brooks is as well. There are others.”

    I’m a big fan of both Paul and Joanna’s work, but I’m afraid neither does much to address “the whiteness of Mormon Studies.” There’s never really been a shortage of folks doing worthwhile work on Mormonism and race, Mormon women, and the like (even if that work did not always receive the attention it might have deserved, and with the caveat that what Paul has accomplished in Religion of a Different Color is truly innovative); the problem (as you point out in the OP) is that Mormon studies is a decidedly white, male space, and that it runs the risk of dissuading people of color from participating. And I want to know how you or anyone else propose to correct *that* problem.

  30. “Ben, reliance on a few wealthy private donors is not a long term strategy, and it steers you away from independence: what happens when the donor doesn’t like a particular article?”

    In theory, this is true. In practice, independent organizations have always only been able to exist through wealthy private donors. It’s the nature of the beast.

  31. Chris, there are some minor inroads. I’m not here to propose solutions, man !

    There’s a difference, though between studying the phenomenon of how various groups have been treated, vs approaching minorities and women as bona fide objects of study on an individual basis. In other words, treating them as people and not merely objects that have been acted upon.

    In terms of non-white, non-male authorship, you got me there. Step one would be not being a total jerk to young academics and fostering their research.

  32. Patrick (and anybody else who cares), I’ve posted something at Keepa that I think answers your question about my opinions. I think it’s bad manners even to appear to want to poach readers from one blog to another, though, so I’m not posting a link. Anybody who cares will have to find it after they’re through reading this thread.

  33. Clark Goble says:

    Steve: “as it turns out, lots of people go. It’s very popular… among academics.”

    There seems this tension in your post. Are your critiquing Mormon History as an academic interest or are you critiquing the wider influence of Mormon history on the general public (whether Mormon, Utahn, or American in general) After all as an academic conference it can be rather influential and productive even if few go. If the goal is to be a successful academic movement that then might have the secondary effect of improving the secondary more popular literature as they refer to the academic literature.

    So it’s not quite clear what the problem is, beyond the question of funding. But that’s always as problem in academics from history through physics.

  34. Clark, I wasn’t aware I was critiquing either of those things!

  35. Clark Goble says:

    To add, there have been big evolutionary changes in academic disciplines and journals. Most of this hasn’t hit the humanities much. But if the goal is to shift historical or quasi-historical/social critique journals to institutions it might be skating to where the puck was not where it is going. Look at physics which has nearly totally shifted to open access journals. This movement is moving down from the hard sciences to the biological sciences and will almost certainly start hitting the social sciences more in the coming years. While it’s not really hit the humanities yet, it is inevitable. Something to keep in mind when looking at changes.

    The other difficulty is that Mormon history (now more broadly Mormon studies) do have that amateur and interested public aspect that many other studies don’t. (Well, perhaps feminist, gender and race studies do) It might do well to have a separate more academic track and then a more popularizing track of publishing social critiques, summaries of fields and so forth. While I’m in no position to say, it might be that attempting to do both at the same time will ultimately prove more and more difficult. If so then a bifurcation will be necessary.

  36. Clark Goble says:

    By critique I’m speaking broadly not in the sense of criticizing as finding fault.

  37. I understand, I’m just not sure that I did what you’re describing in even the broader sense. But you’re the reader!

  38. I posted a too long comment over at Keepa about these issues, but I will say that the cost of attending MHA this year is daunting. My wife and I have both attended in the past, but this year, with the large cost increase, and as an independent without and sort of sponsorship for these things, we have had to cut back. Katie won’t be attending at all, and I will only be attending on the day that I am presenting. Plus we will be staying at my father-in-laws home to save money, but it is a long drive in a rental car from Ogden to Provo. Kevin Barney’s $1,000 figure is not unrealistic. For both my wife and I, it would have exceeded $1,500 with air fare, rental car, registration and meals, but without hotel costs.

    I will say that in the past, the MHA and JMH have been more than welcoming and encouraging in my efforts as an independent. I just fear that for other reasons, it may become harder to accommodate us independents in the future.

  39. Clark Goble says:

    Well don’t want to get sidetracked down a rabbit hole, but you started off with, “If you were going to join or be part of a group that looked at Mormon history, what would it look like? What are the attributes of a good Mormon historical association, what would they be?” That to me is intrinsically a critique of the social structure of Mormon history groups.

    In any case that ultimately doesn’t matter too much. I think any consideration of how future groups organize or focus has to take into consideration the broader shifts in publishing and the inherent tension between popular history/studies and academic history/studies. I think a discussion of the journal/blog tension has to take into consideration these broader social trends in academics.

    Further, as Ben notes, wealthy donors are always a key issue – even if one is associated with an academic institution. As such of course their wishes will have an outsized influence. But I took you to be thinking the issue in more idealized terms.

  40. J. Stapley says:

    Just a quick note that fees increased $10 and the conference is offering more free activities.

  41. J, good point. Personal issues, such as starting a job in IT at a local school district this last month puts me at half wages until October 1, so the overall cost is a bigger issue this year than in previous years. But I do get my summers off.

  42. The Other Clark says:

    As a non-academic armchair historian, I tend to agree that the key to survival is making articles relevant to a broader audience, not a smaller one. Remove the big words and specialized languague, but keep the high standards of research and writing. For instance, suppose the recent essays on race, polygamy, and the PoGP origins had been published in a Mormon History Journal. I argue that type of scholarship–rigorously research but written for the educated lay member–would be tremendously popular. Interest in Mormon History among the general membership is higher than ever; indicating it’s a marketing problem, not one of demand.

    This democratization of knowledge occurs in most other fields. Take music or science. The Boston Pops Orchestra took the stuffiness out of classical music and brought it to the masses. Some claimed it wasn’t truly worthy symphonic music, but it certainly didn’t hurt sales! There’s jazz so complex that only other jazzmen appreciate it. But their simpler pieces are better known because more people can relate to it.

    Magazines like Popular Science and Smithsonian enjoy greater circulation than the scholarly journals because they package the content in a way the masses will understand. I think a huge percentage of active Mormons want more than the Ensign (which is getting lighter all the time) but don’t want the stigma of Dialogue or Sunstone, or the academic tone of some of the others.

    I see an untapped market for the group that’s willing to go after it.

  43. Christopher J. says:

    For instance, suppose the recent essays on race, polygamy, and the PoGP origins had been published in a Mormon History Journal.

    No. Just no. If that makes me an elitist, fine. But no. Absolutely not.

  44. Agreed.

  45. PS the Boston Pops sucks.

  46. I’m not an academic, but I heartily second Christopher J. No.

  47. Good thoughts, Steve. I would disagree somewhat on your point #6, though. Since I work there, I can tell you that BYU Studies’ subscriber numbers are not dwindling. They’ve held steady or increased slightly over the past several years. Our online presence is expanding rather impressively, with ever-increasing traffic. I would also argue that our tone is not shrill or our content less relevant. Good scholarly articles are not easy to find, perhaps partly because some who could write well-researched and footnoted articles are opting instead to go the easy route (blogs that don’t hold them to the same high standards that a peer-reviewed scholarly journal would), but we do get some very good and diverse material. Of course BYU Studies Quarterly is not just a Mormon history journal and welcomes articles on anything from astronomy or civil engineering to literary theory or art, as long as it has an LDS connection, so some of your comments don’t exactly fit our situation. Still, the field of Mormon studies seems to be expanding in some very promising ways.

  48. BYU publications are sort of an exception, for various reasons. I’m glad you pointed it out. PS – I like BYU Studies. It is a quality publication.

  49. I can’t believe I’m reading this post. Why do we need groups outside of church to help us make sense of church history? Shouldn’t that be the job of our church manuals and teachings within the church? Members have every right to this information and the church should be obligated to give it. We should not have to pay more $$$ of what we already tithe to the church in order to get this information. Instead of the church paying apologist $$$, maybe they should be hiring experts that are presenting at these symposiums and groups instead.

  50. Oh, Athena, you don’t go to MHA, don’t read JMH, don’t participate in your state or local historical society, don’t go to living history museums, don’t read Smithsonian or other popular history journals, don’t participate in public history in any way, do you? History isn’t “information,” nor is it nor should it be always “done” in the interest of an institution, ANY institution.

    Almost nothing that appears in the journals or takes place at conferences has any direct relevance to devotional purposes.

    But then, that’s not really where you’re coming from, is it?

  51. Historically, the Mormon History journals have met the mandate of popularization. That’s changing now, probably for the best. I like the idea that you have academic writing qua academic and that you have popular writing qua popular. Like the difference between _Science_ and science journalism. In a sense, the blogs and online magazines can play the role of science journalism. No reason people couldn’t contribute to both, and no reason to think that one should exist without the other. The concern is the funding for the academic stuff, which tends to get funded by the researchers themselves in other domains. Interesting questions.

  52. “Remove the big words and specialized language, but keep the high standards of research and writing.”

    SIgh. I am a failed academic, but making it more like a magazine and less like a journal might increase subscriptions (though probably not), but it would undermine the mission of the organization.

  53. The Other Clark says:

    Chris, would you be willing to explain how removing the big words and specialized language “undermines the mission of the organization?” I’m not trying to troll; it’s a sincere effort to understand your viewpoint. FWIW, my career is as a writer publisher, but outside academia.

  54. Kristine says:

    The mission of the organization is to promote scholarship. Using the tools of academic study, including specialized language and “big words” [eyeroll], is what aspiring scholars do. I don’t know about MHA & JMH’s finances, but for Dialogue, it is true that subscriptions are unlikely to ever cover the costs of producing the journal–we rely on donations from people who are committed to Dialogue’s mission; the few casual readers who might be attracted by a more popular style are unlikely to pay for long form, peer-reviewed scholarship if they aren’t interested in acquiring the (not particularly arcane or rigorous) expertise needed to simply read articles written in an academic style. It seems to me, though, that there is more than enough sentimentalized and oversimplified history being peddled elsewhere in Mormondom. *cough*DeseretBook*cough*

  55. The Other Clark says:

    I appreciate the clarification. To be clear, I wasn’t advocating sentimentalized and oversimplified. I sometimes think Deseret Book and MHA/JMH offerings are opposite ends of the spectrum, and there’s precious little in between. It’s a niche that’s currently being partially filled by the bloggernacle, I suppose.

  56. Clark Goble says:

    Athena Why do we need groups outside of church to help us make sense of church history? Shouldn’t that be the job of our church manuals and teachings within the church?

    That’s not the job of the Church manual department and they make no attempt to do that. The Church historian does some of this and the Church can commission some people. But usually these are people already involved with Church history in other institutions. So there’s a bit of overlap. (Think the recent Mountain Meadows Massacre book done in part with people from the church history department) Traditionally for faithful history BYU has been the Church’s go to source. However the manual writers appear to look through scholarship in general.

    I think that this is good mind you. There’s a strong fallibility with academics and I think people would ascribe too much weight if it were the Church doing it. Overall though I’m glad there’s a wide range of people doing research on our religion. I might disagree with a lot of it but I think it’s healthy to have numerous voices. I think it was Hugh Nibley who joked we should be thankful for anti-Mormons because without our responding to their attacks we’d probably never have taken our own scriptures seriously. So I think that the nature of discussion with both believing and non-believers ultimately helps the believers engage and understand our history and theology.

    That’s not to ignore a hugely important role more official organizations play. But I think those by themselves aren’t sufficient.

  57. I have nothing but praise for Paul Reeve’s Religion of a Different Color, so I can use it as an illustration. It is important, and it is accessible to general readers who will make an effort, big words an’ all, and it ought to be of interest and use to Latter-day Saints of just about any stripe in helping us understand who we are and how we got to today.

    Religion is an academic book — and not just because of the big words and the endnotes and the logical development of its argument. Those are also characteristics of scholarly books that are not academic. It’s an academic book because of the questions it asks. Racialization is an academic concept. The questions that are asked and answered are academic ones, not normally discussed outside of academic circles. In the hands of a lesser scholar, Religion would be inaccessible to anyone but academics.

    Kristine, do you really not admit anything between academic history and the “oversentimentalized/oversimplified” history of *cough*DeseretBook*cough*? Do you really not allow that exploring the Mormon past with narrative, character and incident — the characteristics that interest a broader swathe of Mormon history readers than anything academic ever will attract — can be scholarly, and that it falls well within the purposes of MHA?

    Because if it isn’t, there’s no place for me in MHA.

  58. Kristine says:

    Ardis, of course there is, and I would say that most of the work presented at MHA and in JMH (and Dialogue, for that matter) falls solidly in that middle ground. Mormon Studies is not suffering from a surfeit of theory or sophisticated historiographical methods. Or even all that many big words.

  59. Well, we disagree on that point. But you still have great taste in shoes.

  60. Jason K. says:

    I’m highly sympathetic to Ardis’s response over at Keepa. As an academic, I believe in trying to make my work accessible to the widest possible audience by using technical language sparingly and aiming for elegance of style, because a Ph.D. should not be a prerequisite for participating in scholarly conversations. As a teacher of undergraduates I think I have to believe this.

    In light of these beliefs I do not think that Mormon Studies has abandoned the middle ground Kristine describes. We are not in a state where something like the Sokal Hoax* is possible or even imaginable. It seems to me that Ardis more than holds her own, and that curiosity, determination, and intelligence still matter more than credentials or facility with jargon. May it ever be thus!


  61. Well, thanks, Jason K. — but what we’re still missing is what is interesting to non-academics. MHA has, or had, a very broad base of people who enjoy the narrative/character/event-based history (I’m sure you academics have a formal, and possibly condescending, label for that, which I won’t hold against anybody). If we’re interested in story, and not interested in the debate of academic questions, if that’s what we want to share at MHA or read in JMH, that’s what’s missing. I can read the big words, but I don’t get the story.

  62. Jason K. says:

    In my field, 17th-century British literature and history, there was a long “revisionist” pushback against grand narratives. The disparaging term for such things was (and is) “whiggish.” Instead of diachronic explanations of events on a national scale, people aimed to give synchronic accounts of local matters. Things got to the point where nobody was quite sure why, in 1642, a civil war should have broken out. Thankfully, a “postrevisionist” response has brought a return to narratives that take account of the complexities added by the revisionists. It’s possible that Mormon History is going through a revisionist moment. All that needs to happen is for people (like yourself) with a penchant for narrative to develop new syntheses that draw on this more “specialized” work and make it broadly accessible. I think that a healthy scholarly ecosystem needs both tendencies to thrive. We need people to get all wonky with the archives and make deep sense of particular moments (which, incidentally, seems to be one of your strengths, especially given your interest in ordinary folks and their experiences–a very revisionist attitude), and we also need people who can take stock of these particularities and develop new ways of seeing the big picture.

    FWIW, I share your impatience with “the debate of academic questions.” One of my own touchstones as a writer is Borges’s comment that T.S. Eliot was a lesser critic than he might have been because he was always making fine points, disagreeing with some professor or other. This isn’t to say that the questions don’t matter (except when they don’t), but that getting too much into the she said/he said of them is tedious. There’s a reason why nobody reads dissertations unless they’re being paid to do so. (An overstatement, but only just.) All the formal positioning is a requirement of the genre that should be moved beyond when the time comes, although of course Mormon Studies should make plenty of room for young scholars to find their feet by writing and publishing apprentice work, because there really is no other way.

  63. meekmildmagnificent says:

    That Mormon Studies is coterminous with MHA in Evans’ view and not even challenged by a single commenter explains why Mormon Studies really is a monolithic and rather narrow discipline with little expertise in broader studies that define Religious Studies in other religions. It is also explains why I personally have very little interest in it.

  64. That comment is hilarious!

  65. … Especially since I’m not an MHA member, have never attended a conference or subscribed to their journal… Seriously MMM, bravo on the trollery.

  66. Jason K. says:

    Compliments from Steve Evans on quality trolling are rare and thus to be savored. MMM, you should revel in this honor.

    When you’re done reveling, go back and read the first paragraph of the OP, which lists a bunch of journals in addition to JMH.

  67. Jason K., for the first time in this whole discussion, I finally feel like somebody understands my central point, although everyone else has been nibbling at the edges. Thank you! It feels amazingly validating to be understood.

    “All wonky with the archives.” If I ever have business cards again, that’s going on them.

  68. Jason: Do go back and read. There are several journals mentioned (all of which publish heavily in Mormon history) and then we get: “None of these organizations is perfect. If you were going to join or be part of a group that looked at Mormon history, what would it look like?” Why the quick question after mentioning these history-heavy journals? Reductionism at its best. And Steve, your lack of membership in MHA has nothing to do with your equating of Mormon Studies with MHA in this post. One could write what you did equating Mormon Studies with history without ever taking MHA seriously — wait, that is just what you did!

  69. So great. Thanks.