Today's guest post comes from Matthew Bowman, the author of The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith. Professor Bowman teaches at Hampden-Sydney College and is the associate editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. We asked him to reflect on teaching Mormonism in the U.S. history survey.
Mormonism in the US Survey Course
First, you have to decide which Mormonism you’re dealing with. Mormonism has most often beenuseful to teachers of the survey for its ability to uncannily embody particularnational characteristics, and so it is often dumped into the survey toillustrate (examples listed from most to least traditional) The Winning of theWest, the Antebellum Utopian Impulse, or The Patriotic Religion of the Cold War.
But at the same time, Mormonism also (usefully) revolts against such standardnarratives of the American past, and thus can be used in counterintuitive waysthat complicate all of the traditional narratives mentioned above.
A few examples.
1) The Winning of the West. For a long time Joseph Smith was a secondaryplayer in Mormon historiography: Brigham Young, the organizer, the colonizer, the settler was the main character, and the Mormons were less an odd religiousmovement than they were the exemplar pioneers. This is still a traditional place for Mormons to pop up in the survey course, but inconveniently the Mormon exodus comes a bit early for mosttraditional surveys, who take on the West only after the Civil War is done.
|some early Mormon converts from Wales|
2) The Antebellum Utopian Impulse. This interpretation refocuses attention ontoJoseph Smith himself: the visionary experiences he had as a young man in 1820s upstate New York and his attempts to build a religious community in Kirtland,Ohio, Far West, Missouri, and Nauvoo, Illinois. Involving economic communalism, polygamy’s radical reorganization of Victorian familial structure, and the creation of a strong, but entirely lay,priestly hierarchy that governed the nascent church.
The traditional interpretation here alreadyhas an interesting set of tensions built into it. Were antebellum utopias places where the democratic impulse ran wild and free, or were they enclaves for those whocraved structure and being told what to do? Nathan Hatch sees Mormons as the first, pointing to their lay priesthoodand new scripture; other historians, like Larry Foster or Gordon Wood, tend toward the second, acknowledging the complicated sacramental hierarchy Mormonsconstructed and the authoritarian nature of Smith and Young’s theocratic leadership. In dealing with thistension, teachers might usefully contrast Mormons with other groups that soughtto claim the American idea, but found themselves largely spurned for it: abolitionists, say, or Catholics.
3) The Patriotic Religion of the Cold War. A few newer surveys of American history, or American religious history, revisit the Mormons in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s,when they had largely discarded their older radical ways and instead begandevoting all their time to trying to stop their kids from becoming hippies. Indeed, along with Billy Graham, Mormons of the Cold War period were among the most assiduous believers that America and Christianity must stand together against communism, and Mormonleaders like Ezra Taft Benson and J. Reuben Clark combined their faith withpolitical careers.
At the same time, though, the Mormons also exemplified some of the challengesto American claims to freedom and democracy. From the time of Brigham Young to 1978, Mormons of African descent were restricted from holding the priesthood granted to every white man, a policy that came under increasing fire throughout the civil rights movement. Similarly, an insurgent feminist movement inthe 1970s and 1980s challenged the church’s stand against the Equal Rights Amendment, and pitted a few Mormon women against their male ecclesiasticalsuperiors.
The breadth of possibilities here is broad, as are the primary sources available to teachers of the first half of the US survey. Smith’s biographer Fawn Brodie once wrotethat Joseph Smith’s greatest scandal was his audacity at founding a new religion in the age of print, and reams of sources are available – from the diaries of the average converts who made up the backbone of Smith’s newreligion, to the revelations he dictated in the first person voice of God.
A useful place to start is the Joseph Smith Papers Project, an unprecedented attempt to organize, transcribe, and publish every documentproduced by Joseph Smith’s hand or under his direction. The website has posted a number of Smith’sdiaries, revelations, and capsule biographies of most of the important players in Joseph Smith’s life. It also hasother nuggets; particularly interesting is the earliest minute book of the Relief Society, the Mormon women’s organization founded in 1842. Including a debate about how close Mormon women wished to be associated with other female advocacy groups in antebellum America, the minute book is an invaluable source useful for positioning the Mormons in American life.
More obvious might be Joseph Smith’s new scripture: the Book of Mormon, a long, dense narrative of a Christian civilization that flourished in the Americas hundreds of years before Columbus arrived there; the Doctrine and Covenants, a collection of Joseph Smith’s revelations, and the Pearl of Great Price, a collection ofmiscellaneous other writings.
Teachers might be tempted toassign selections from the Book of Mormon or Doctrine and Covenants. They can be quite rewarding: certain passages from the Book of Mormon, particularly the books of Mosiah and 4 Nephi, reflect the Mormons’ later utopian bent, and much of the Doctrine and Covenants directly guided their religious practices: section 132 inspired polygamy andsection 42 the “law of consecration” which introduced economiccommunalism. Further, many of the early sections come in response to crises the early church faced. At the same time, the language of these works can be daunting, based as it is on the King James Bible, and their complicated provenance, internal structure, and underlying assumptions means thatundergraduates may flounder. If framed well, these sources can be extremely fruitful, but students will need a firmguiding hand. (Laurie Maffly-Kipp’s introduction to the Book of Mormon in the Penguin Classics edition is a useful guideto the book’s structure and plot.)
More accessible might be aselection or two from the Pearl of Great Price. “Joseph Smith – History” is a short 1838 account Smith produced with ascribe describing his early revelatory experiences, the social, cultural, and religiousanxieties which provoked them, and the resistance and reaction which followed. The Articles of Faith are a brief list of the essential beliefs of Mormonism Joseph Smith composed in his middle career, andmake for an interesting source for Mormonism’s utopian impulses and the verybeginnings of Mormonism’s divergences from historic Christianity.
As interesting, from the grassroots level of Mormonism, are the diaries of William McLellin, an early Mormon convert and missionary who abandoned the church after less than a decadeof membership, and the autobiography of Parley Pratt, another early convert whobecame the church’s leading pamphleteer and polemicist in its first few decadesof life. His vigorous prose remainsaccessible a century and a half after his death. Both sources are published and readilyavailable; both illustrate, to some degree, why Americans with no prior contactwith the Smith family might find Mormonism compelling; why they would embracethe strange sacramental structure and, in Pratt’s case, the marital revolutions that drew Mormonism so far from American culture.
In the end, such tensions are infact the point: Mormonism is neither a perfect avatar of antebellum American culture, but nor is it a revolt against it. Teachers would do well to take it on its own terms, and attempt to navigate the ways the Mormons understood themselves.