Friday, April 27, 2012

The Scholars Speak: Amy Murrell Taylor

"The Scholars Speak": Civil War and Reconstruction

Today's scholar is Professor Amy Murrell Taylor, professor of history at the University of Albany. She is the author of the marvelous book The Divided Family in Civil War America (2005) and a co-editor (with Michael Perman) of Major Problems in the Civil War and Reconstruction.

1. Ever since the Civil War began, Americans have been fascinated by "what caused" it. How do the scholars and scholarly debates in Major Problems in the Civil War and Reconstruction present this debate?

We present this debate by suggesting that it is no longer a “debate” at all.   To ask “what caused” the Civil War is usually to ask if it was caused by slavery, and the answer to that, my co-editor Michael Perman and I firmly believe, is a resounding yes.  Of course, this is not the answer that some Americans still prefer, and quite a few of my students last semester—here in New York, I might add—came into my course thinking that slavery was not really the cause of the Civil War but something that was thrown into the mix somewhere down the line.  But the vast scholarly literature on the coming of the war over the last couple decades keeps coming back to this answer, so it would have been out of date to present it as an open question.

Our Major Problems volume therefore builds on the premise that slavery caused the Civil War and then considers the next logical question: how did slavery cause the war?   It may be that part of the hesitation about – or denial of – slavery’s role in the war comes from a basic lack of understanding of exactly how it could become intertwined in the nation’s social, political, and economic development all at once.  It is not easy to straighten out this history in one’s mind.   But rather than abandon the effort, we encourage students to confront the complex history of slavery’s causation in multiple ways.  The second chapter in the volume, “The Slave South,” for example, considers how slavery shaped popular beliefs about the South’s economy and society.  To what extent did slavery encourage Americans—then and now—to view the South as a different place?  To what extent did the belief in those differences affect their impulse to compromise or go to war?  Chapters three, “The Impending Crisis,” and four, “Sectionalism and Secession,” turn next to politics, and specifically, to the way in which slavery entered into and changed the course of politics in the 1840s-1860s.   What did leaders North and South think was at stake when they debated the expansion of slavery in the west?  What did they fear?  How did this debate give rise to distinct political worldviews on either side of the sectional divide?  And how did this, in turn, make war seem increasingly necessary and unavoidable?

2. If you had to select one primary document that showed the coming of the Civil War, which would it be and how would you use it in the classroom?

I have actually used all of them, but there is one that, time and again, makes students sit up and take notice: Alexander Stephens’March 1861 address – his so-called “cornerstone” speech.  To hear the vice president of the Confederacy state outright that this new nation’s “foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition,” is quite shocking for some readers.  My students don’t expect to hear one of our historical actors talk so explicitly – they expect more formal or indirect 19th century phrasing, I guess – and of course the speech demolishes the notion that slavery was somehow incidental rather than central to the South’s secession.  It was its “cornerstone.”  (Interestingly, Jefferson Davis didn’t expect to hear Stephens talk so explicitly either and was reportedly dismayed by the vice president’s carelessness in revealing the centrality of slavery.)

I always tell students that the best way to understand the past, or to understand how and why people acted in the way that they did in the past, is to read their words.  Here is a set of words that does not distract students with unfamiliar language, and does not beat around the bush, but instead cuts right to the heart of the matter of why the Confederacy came to exist.  It pulls away the curtains that students may have thought still obscured the Civil War past.  Sure, I’ve had some students who were inclined to be skeptical, who would rather see the speech as the view of one person rather than of the whole, but even this reaction can help elicit a more general discussion perspective and representativeness in our primary sources. 

3. What are the next plans for _Major Problems in the Civil War and Reconstruction_?

We would like to publish another volume!  And I think the scholarly literature on the Civil War will support a revised volume in the not-too-distant future.  It might surprise some people that a single war could generate the thousands of books that it has – and still manage to stimulate more and more books every year.  But it does, and right now Civil War scholarship seems to be as healthy and vibrant as ever.  I don’t think this has much to do with the current sesquicentennial observance prompting new work, but instead has more to do with some of the dynamics of the field itself.  We now have not one but two journals devoted to publishing scholarship in the era – and both are excellent – and this summer the Society of Civil War Historians is about to host its 3rd conference.   New trends evident in American history more broadly seem to be making a dent on the war’s literature too, from environmental and public health history to the history of technology, and I can already envision a future volume that would take these new approaches into account.

4. What are you working on now or are there any of your more recent articles or books that would help students more interested in this topic?

Slaves Fleeing from Army
I’m working on a book about the mass flight of enslaved men, women, and children during the Civil War--the so-called “contrabands.”   It’s a population that is widely known about (see the documents by Benjamin Butler and the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission in our volume).  But it’s also a population more commonly discussed as a collective--as a powerful force numbering over 500,000--than as individuals.  So I am tackling such basic questions as: Who were they?  Where did they go?  What did they experience on a day-to-day basis while living in Union camps?  For a narrow glimpse of this research, students are welcome to consult an article I recently published: “How a Cold Snap in Kentucky Led to Freedom for Thousands: An Environmental Story of Emancipation,” in Stephen Berry, ed., Weirding the War: Stories from the Civil War’s Ragged Edges (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011).  I should also note that there are other projects about emancipation in the works right now by other historians, so I suspect that this could be yet another topic to be addressed differently in a forthcoming Major Problems volume.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

We're Number 12! We're Number 12!

According to The Daily Beast, Tina Brown's e-zine that Newsweek bought, becoming a history major is the 12th worst choice a student can make.  Of course, that's based on this criteria:

Unemployment, recent grad: 10.2 percent
Unemployment, experienced grad:
5.8 percent
Earnings, recent grad:
Earnings, experienced grad:
Projected growth, 2010-2020:
+18 percent
Related occupation:

All that said, 18% growth is fantastic!  No wonder I had such a good time at this year's AHA, although I'd love to know how they came up with that figure.

Nevertheless, I'd still choose different criteria when defining "useful," but maybe that's just me.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Scholars Respond - Graber on Prisons

Here is Jennifer Graber's response to the student comments on her work that considered antebellum prisons and how to teach antebellum America.

Similar to Matt's response, I'm interested that students picked up on something - the connection to slavery - that was not the focus on my book. I find this instructive in terms of how we might organize our courses in ways that focus both on the big themes students know something about (slavery) and the connecting strands (life criminal punishment) that are so often overlooked. It could be interesting to ask scholars in the field as well as students at the end of a course what pairings they would create. Let me suggest one to get the juices flowing: late nineteenth century urbanization and Indian reservations. Thank you for your comments!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

uncoverage update

Followers of the blog may have read about my attempts to incorporate an "uncoverage" approach to my course in American religious history.  Rather than bull through the material in typical survey style, I've structured the course in five chronologically progressing sections, with each section geared toward answering a single question.  The idea was to get my students to learn to think critically, write better, and engage the material in a potentially useful way as democratic citizens. 

I'm not sold on the technique yet, and I'll give a more complete update once the course is done next week (to give away the ending: two steps forward, one step back). But I did want to present to you the five questions that framed the class.

And I'd also love to hear what questions you think I might have tried instead. Here's what I've got:

1. Was America founded as a Protestant nation? (1492-1789)

2. Was the First Amendment or the Market Revolution responsible for the religious revivals of the early 19th century? (1789-1851)

3. How, if at all, did immigration and the intellectual challenges of the second half of the 19th century (evolution and biblical criticism) challenge the Protestant mainstream? (1851-1924)

4. Has the religious tolerance that exists in America weakened or strengthened religion?

5. Are we a more or less religious nation now than we once were?

What would have been better?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Matthew Bowman Responds to Student Comments

Matthew Bowman Responds to Student Comments

Offer extra credit and they shall come! My students were offered some extra credit to read Matthew Bowman's blog entry on teaching Mormonism in the US history survey course and incorporate their thoughts on Joseph Smith's writings on plural marriage in 1842 (and apologies to all for the typographical error when referencing the name of the church - we know it's the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and not the Church of Latter-Day Saints). Here, Matt graciously responds to their comments.

The students here mostly invoke a topic that I dealt with only glancingly: that is, Mormon polygamy.   Joesph Smith began practicing polygamy in earnest in 1841, and over the next two years married some thirty women.  Though he kept the practice largely secret, by 1844 he had initiated multiple of his male followers and many more women into what they called "the Principle."  In 1852, in Utah, Smith's successor Brigham Young made the practice public, and for two generations the Mormons practiced plural marriage.  Some twenty percent of Mormons were involved in a polygamous relationship at the practice's height, around 1880.  But only ten years later, the president of the church announced that the practice would cease (though it took some dozen years to die out among the mainstream Mormon church completely).   The Mormons had come under intense pressure: prosecutions, arrests, and the threat of seizure of their property stamped out the practice.

How should we think of Mormon polygamy?   In one sense, polygamy was a deeply conservative principle: it sought to bind the Mormon community together through marriage ties, much as medieval European nobility used marriage to forge alliances and peace.  Mormon leaders married into each others' families, and due precisely to its radicalism polygamy bound those who practiced it intensely to the Mormon community: there was no going back once you had taken a third or fourth wife. Polygamy was closely governed by church leadership to ensure that it was practiced with all the rectitude these Victorians could muster.  But while it strengthened the Mormon community it also turned them against that society they had emerged from: Americans despised polygamy, understood the community it produced to be immoral, and also undemocratic.  It was bound in their minds to tyranny, sexual repression, and even racial decay.    In this sense, then, polygamy embodies my larger point about Mormonism generally: the ways it embodies but also protests American culture.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

First Feminisms

Primary Sources on Transatlantic Feminisms
"And the war came." Thank goodness for Abraham Lincoln, his short sentences, and even his passive voice. There is so much to teach even from this little bit in his Second Inaugural. In class, we're pressing ever closer to the Civil War (or whatever we choose to call it). One of the factors, of course, that we've discussed is the rise of abolitionism and the role of women in the movement. 10 years ago, I had a clear historical argument about it: as abolitionists railed against slavery, a number of women started to see that they should have rights too, and hence abolitionism birthed feminism in America. I based this mostly on Kathryn Sklar's wonderful Bedford series: Women's Rights Emerges from Within the Anti-Slavery Movement.

But as all things historical, we know it's more complicated, and a wonderful new book of primary sources from Lisa L. Moore, Joanna Brooks, and Caroline Wigginton titled Transatlantic Feminisms in the Age of Revolutions has women from Anne Hutchinson to Katharine Tegakouita to Susanna Wright to Phillis Wheatley to Mary Wollstonecraft to Elizabeth Hart Thwaites discussing the rights of women throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Folks looking for primary sources to include regarding women and women's rights in their survey classes can certainly use this book, and I could see it being crucial to any US women's history course.

[on a side note, I'm curious about the cover image. If we had a drawing of Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Gerrit Smith naked would we put that on a reader about manhood and abolitionism? Just curious. And no quiz updates; we're not having one on Wednesday]

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Home Stretch

Trimester of the Semester

As my students handed in their second essays (either on what made the United States a “nation” from 1760 to 1830 or on what was the biggest weakness in the new nation-state), I reflected with my students on entering the “trimester of the semester.” My wife has just entered her third trimester with our newest baby boy (we’re hopeful and terrified at the same time) and the tiredness of it all was weighing on her. Students and faculty are tired too, typically, during the final portion of the semester. Final projects are due; final papers need to be written; there’s all that grading to do and the students who now beg for extra credit.

Given all these issues, I wanted to reflect on some overall teaching issues that come up near the end of the semester. First, how do we deal with exhaustion and the pressing amount of material due? I try to shake things up a little bit by shifting the routine of the class. If before I lectured the first half and then had discussion, I now do discussion first and then lecture. If before we got into groups of 4 or 5, I now get them in groups of 2. Anything to jolt them into a new feeling. But I make sure not to change things too much, because the rhythm of the class can be comforting too. Oh, and I take a few minutes to let them exhale at the beginning of class so they can get their bearings from racing around campus.

Second, how should we handle mistakes? I received a call earlier in the week from a friend with a “teaching question.” She noted that she had assigned, by accident, the wrong book for a course (intended to use an author’s first book, but instead ordered the author’s second book). The assigned book was not pitched to undergraduates. It’s dense, difficult, full of complicated theory and even more complicated sentence structure. What should she do?

I’ve encountered this problem before, but usually my error has been in assigning a book that I had not read before class (as a way to force me to read it). When I find the book miserable to read, I know my students will probably dislike it too. When I first started teaching, I approached it this way: some books are hard; some ideas are difficult – and we need to work hard through them so tough it out. And this is true; some books and concepts are more difficult to grasp than others. But what I didn’t realize then was that many (most) of my students would simply not read; they would ignore it, fake it, pretend. So for me, that strategy didn’t work.

(so if you assigned Das Kapital, because you
had yet to read it; students may be a little
I always try to make negatives into positives so now when that happens I turn to humility and humanity. I go before my class and say, “well, guess who didn’t read this book before the semester? Guess who had a really difficult time reading it? Guess who is really confused by chapters 1, 3, 4, 5, oh yeah, and chapter 2 as well?” Typically, my students have appreciated the honesty – I’m human just as they are, make mistakes, and it takes me time to figure things out as well. Then, I say, OK, we bought this book, let’s try to figure something out. What is going on in chapter 1? And we slowly work through it as best we can. If the class is small (like 15), I’ll then have a pizza party to “apologize” for them buying a book that really didn’t help them (so I’m willing to kick in some money to offset what they had to spend). This may seem like overkill, but I try to respect the money my students have (and don’t have, or would rather spend on glamorous phones).

(oh, and there will be a quiz on Monday; on lecture material from Wednesday and from Major Problems chapters 13 and 14. I would pay particular attention to Frederick Douglass's speech, Lincoln versus Douglas, reviews of Uncle Tom's Cabin, which historian argues what, Tally Simpson on Gettysburg, and artistic representations of the Emancipation Proclamation ... oh, and extra credit will be on who the co-editor of this blog is with me and why you should know about his first book and not just his textbook)

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Scholars Speak - Anthony Kaye on teaching slavery

The Scholars Speak - Anthony Kaye on Teaching Slavery
Today's edition of The Scholars Speak comes from Anthony Kaye who teaches history at Penn State University. He is the author of Joining Plaecs: Slave Neighborhoods in the Old South, a fascinating examination of how slaves made space in the Natchez District of southwest Mississippi and eastern Louisiana.

1. Your essay (and book) do a marvelous job of showing how slaves created neighborhoods in the antebellum South, while Walter Johnsons's essay (and book) suggest that movement and mobility defined the slave experience. Do you see your work in contradiction to Johnson's or can they work

It's an interesting question. From a birds-eye view, I can certainly see how my account and Walter's can be opposed to one another. Walter portrays the South as the product of the vastmobility of people in the buying and selling of the slave market. I'm arguing that at the core of slave society was a profound sense of place in neighborhoods. The attachment to place seems like the opposite of mobility. On closer inspection though, my account and Walter's can be reconciled. The first thing we have to do is consider these arguments diachronically--how they line up in sequence in time. In effect, slave neighborhoods are an account of what happened after slaves left the slave market and how they repaired the social ruptures it caused. In other words, slave neighborhoods were created in the aftermath of the slave trade. We might say that, if you line up these arguments in time, slave neighborhoods follow the slave market. The accounts follow in another sense: the role of mobility. Slave neighborhoods, I point out again and again, were the product of slaves' mobility. Slaves created neighborhoods by going courting on adjoining places, making families on adjoining places, working and socializing on adjoining places. The key to the making of slave neighborhoods was the movement of slaves. Johnson is making a similar point about the creation of the South.

2. What primary document or documents do you find work best with students when teaching slavery in general?

I think slave narratives,especially the autobiographies written before the Civil War, offer the most vivid glimpse of slavery through slaves' eyes.

3. What primary document or documents do you find work best when teaching about notions of space and place in the antebellum South?

Documents about social space and the sense of place are hard to come by because our interpretation of space and our sense of placeare unconscious. We have a hard time putting our own understandings of place and space into words--they literally go without saying. This was as true in the past as it is today. I was only able to excavate slaves' sense of place because I discovered a vast new source of testimony by former slaves--the pension records of former slaves who served in the Union army during the Civil War. Reading thousands of interviews, I repeatedly came upon the use of the word "neighborhood." Then, I could use language of place as the outward sign of the sense of place, the former slaves' vocabulary of place to tease out their sense of place in neighborhoods. The closest analogy I can draw is to pulling out phrases of testimony and putting them together like a jig saw puzzle. Eventually, the
pieces came together in portrait of slave neighborhoods. But what could be more boring than watching someone put together a jig saw puzzle? So, when I teach students about space and place in slavery, I show them the patterns in the organization of plantations. I show them 'how, especially in the West
Indies, plantations were organized to minimize the distance between the tasks of work. Then I ask studentsto think like a slave, and think about where the paths of least--or best--resistance lay. Where on the plantation could slaveholderssee/not see slaves? Where could slaves see planters and
overseers without being seen by them? Where would you run away to? Where was plantation production most vulnerable to sabotage? Once students begin to read the terrain this way, they also get a feel for how slaves struggled with owners and their agents.

4. If you had to set up a debate about antebellum slavery differently from _Major Problems_, how would you do it? What would be in the principle contest or major problem? What would be the take home message for students?

Far be it from me to suggest that the major problem in the history of slavery lies anywhere but at the center of my own work. Another way of thinking about slavery though is whether it was a modern way of organizing society that anticipated many features of our own day or an archaic vestige of older ways of organizing society. Historians used to think about slavery as a holdover from Feudal society, but they have increasingly come to see it as an early form of modernity. But my narcissism is showing again (I've written a little about slavery and modernity).

5. What are you working on now or are there any of your more recent articles or books that would help students more interested in this topic?

I'm working on a book about the Nat Turner revolt in Southampton, Virginia, in 1831. In part, it's about how the revolt played out along neighborhood lines. But it also uses the rebellion as a lens on how slave society was put together in the United States duringthe early republic, what the problem of rebellion was like for slaves in the South compared to other slave societies in the Americas.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Alasdair MacIntyre coming to UIC this Tuesday

Okay, so slightly off topic, but one of the programs I'm involved in my day job is bringing Alasdair MacIntyre to campus this Tuesday, and I'm excited.

He is, of course, one of the most famous philosophers in the Western world, and he's been at the top of the field of ethics for four decades.

If you're in Chicago, check it out. Full detail are here, but the talk is this Tuesday, April 10 at 3pm at UIC's Student Services Building (SSB) Conference Room B (1200 W. Harrison).

Friday, April 6, 2012

A Friday Funny from the Newly Named "TUSH.0"

We don't advocate alcohol abuse (or any kind of abuse) at this blog, but sometimes "Drunk History" is pretty funny. Today's Friday Funny is about William Henry Harrison and his short presidency. A war hero from 1812, a Whig, and a part of the taking of Native American lands, Harrison fits a lot of big picture issues of antebellum America. For my students who are now enjoying day after day of life in the early 1800s, the joke is on them: they have 2 chapters from Major Problems to read for Monday (11 and 12). And, because I'm the meanest professor this side of the Mississippi River, we'll be having a quiz on the two chapters. My students may want to examine what Samuel Morse feared in 1835; they may want to sing along with Irish immigrants in the 1860s; they may want to know which scholar of slavery discusses neighborhoods, and why a southern white woman, Mary Chestnut, would "hate" slavery. I can hear their moans on Monday now, "Professor Blum, you're like one of the Careers in The Hunger Games; so cruel; so powerful. You probably would have killed Rue too."

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Reading them the riot act

Have you ever ranted at your students? Just flat-out told them they weren't cutting it and needed to do better?

Last week, as I was grading their third assignment, I realized that many of them weren't improving in the way: (a) they should and (b) students in the past have done in this exact class. As I handed back the assignment, I told them they needed to do better. I was supportive of their efforts, but also clear about my disappointment. They needed to work harder. They needed to ask more questions. They needed to tell me when things were unclear. I turned on my serious voice and I got their attention. We'll see if it pays off.

There are two ways to think about what caused this: (1) I have a difficult batch of students this semester and I'm the control, the only similar thing between this class and the previous ones; or (2) I may be the control, but I need to step it up too.

At any rate, what all this has done is, I think, made me a better teacher during the last week. We almost always now spend nearly 10(!) minutes giving background to situate the lecture I'm about to give. And by background, I mean Socratic style--we learned what last week folks? And the person who ran the Soviet Union during World War II was who? And his preferred form of national economy was called what? And the junior senator from Wisconsin's name was what? It takes a hell of a lot of pedagogical time, but repetition helps things get ingrained in those neural pathways. Or at least I hope so.

Plus, now many respond to the questions. They had in the past, but only 5 or 6 really participated. Now most do. They are making the effort.

We'll see if it pays off come finals time, but it seems that a little splash in the face three-quarters through the semester was no bad thing for either of us.

Have you tried this before? How'd it go?

Monday, April 2, 2012

Matthew Bowman on teaching Mormonism in the American Survey

The Scholars Speak - Matthew Bowman
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
Another way to use the Mormons to examine the antebellum West, though, takes cues from Patricia Limerick and Richard White and other New Western Historians.  Instead of lumping the Mormons in with the railroads and the Homestead Act, use their slow westwardmovement as a way to explore the American frontier as a crowded place full ofethnic and religious diversity.  The Mormons, after all, were driven from Missouri in part because of questions over slavery.   Those Mormons who wereAmerican were often New Englanders and Midwesterners – but a large number were in fact immigrants from Europe: the British Isles and Scandinavia, a fact that sheds interesting light on Mormonism’s Americanness.  As they moved west they cultivated a verycomplicated relationship with Native Americans, fraught with tension betweentraditional American-Native American dynamics and Mormon theology, which understood Native Americans to be a remnant of the House of Israel.

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.