A New Framework for a New Generation of Mormon Studies: The Conclusion from my Bushman Tribute Conference Paper
What follows is the conclusion from my paper “On Mormon Thought and its Context(s): Joseph Smith, Thomas Dick, and the Tricky Task of Determining Influence,” presented at the conference in honor of Richard Bushman a few weeks ago. The paper spends most of its time outlining how the question of Thomas Dick’s influence has been handled in Mormon historiography, the problems with past approaches, and then demonstrates a possibly more fruitful approach. (A very early version of the paper is found here.) Then, in this conclusion, I use the topic as an example of how new frameworks are needed, specifically when engaging the development of LDS thought, in the next stage of Mormon studies. This topic—and even much of my message—has been trumpeted of late (both by myself as well as others), including Richard Bushman’s own concluding remarks at the conference, but it is still an important enough message that it is worth repeating.
The traditional mishandling of intellectual influence hints at a broader problem in Mormon historiography. LDS scholarship in recent decades has presented itself as increasingly aware of broader cultural contexts and trends, and in many ways they have succeeded. Most historians now agree that early Mormonism did not develop in a vacuum, but that Latter-day Saints were aware of and interacted with broader environmental factors, such as millenarianism, folk magic, or democratization, just to name a few of the most prominent themes. But while broader cultural trends are now often invoked, a persistent scholarly parochialism still frames much of the discussion. Thomas Dick’s theology is only important inasmuch as it actually influenced Joseph Smith; folk magic is only significant if the Smith family’s practices could be meticulously documented; freemasonry proves useful only in determining whether Mormonism’s temple rituals were counterfeited or not. Put simply, the scholarly framework that has long dominated Mormon history renders contemporary influences essential only if a tangible and explicit connection can be made. Mormonism, then, remains the central actor in these narratives, thus limiting the role and range of supporting characters.
But this solipsistic view of Mormon history stunts both our understanding of Mormonism itself as well as the larger culture from which it derived. While it is tempting—whether at a practical, ideological, or devotional level—to construct a framework in which Mormonism is the center of activity, such a picture distorts a reality in which Joseph Smith and his fellow Saints were only a few examples of a much larger population striving to interpret, incorporate, and react to their surrounding culture. Patrick Mason subtly emphasized a more useful approach in his recent book on anti-Mormonism in the American South. Mason noted that since his topic was the construction and reaffirmation of Southern identity, instead of anti-Mormon violence in-and-of itself, “Mormons appear here more as objects than subjects.” It is this framing—that is, of Mormons as “objects” rather than always as “subjects”—that must be more liberally adopted in order to speak to broader topics and be received by larger audiences. As Matthew Bowman recently noted, “Mormon historians need to swallow our pride and recognize that insights can be gained if we position Mormon history as a subfield” rather than the scholarly endgame. Indeed, though Mormon historiography has often depicted contemporary and external sources as supporting figures within the larger narrative of Mormon development, in actuality Mormons were equal participants in the larger production of American culture and religious thought. Luckily, this type of approach has started to trickle in of late, demonstrated in books by Mason on Southern identity, David Holland on canonicity in the Early Republic, Jared Farmer on ecohistory in America, and Terryl Givens on pre-mortal existence in western thought.
This subtle shift of perspective speaks volumes to the potential of Mormon historical studies. The question of whether Thomas Dick influenced Joseph Smith’s understanding of the cosmos becomes much less important than the question of how both Thomas Dick and Joseph Smith were both responding to a post-Enlightenment world that brought supernatural assumptions into doubt. The focus isn’t on whether Joseph Smith borrowed the three-tiered heaven from Emanuel Swedenborg, but on the cultural milieu that encouraged revisions to the traditional understanding of the afterlife. The issue isn’t so much whether early Mormonism “stole” elements of Freemasonry rites as it is determining how both the Mormon temple and the Masonic lodge are two examples of American constructions of communal identity and validating masculinity. These types of frameworks may force Mormon scholars to read more and more broadly, as well as rob Mormon characters of their uniqueness and the preeminent position they have held amongst both its practitioners and historians, but it will better illuminate both Mormonism itself as well as its surrounding culture.
And finally, this type of approach finally addresses issues that speak to a much broader academy, for until Mormon scholars are more willing to join those discussions they will be circling the same questions while positing the same answers. Indeed, by adopting a new framework of contextualizing early Mormon thought in a way that illuminates its surrounding environment, the development of LDS thought suddenly becomes much more pertinent to external and broader scholarship. Recent decades of historiography may have indeed made Mormonism more respectable in the eyes of external fields, but it still remained inconsequential to their own research and conclusions. Now that Mormon Studies is demanding a more prominent place at the larger academic table—which is most tangibly seen with the Mormon Studies Chairs at respectable universities—practitioners of Mormon history must make their work more pertinent to related fields. To do this, they must cease debates that frame questions like Thomas Dick’s influence on Joseph Smith as one focused on whether there was a linear linkage, assuming that Dick’s usefulness depends solely upon his direct relationship to Joseph Smith, and begin treating both as equal representatives of larger issues. Previous debates surrounding figures like Dick within Mormon historiography are not fitted to address the questions posed by a new and more sophisticated Mormon Studies.
Indeed, Thomas Dick provides a potent example of the issues at stake here and serves as an example of a more plausible middle way in which to view the idea of “intellectual influence” in early Mormonism. By being equally hesitant with wholesale associations as well as wholesale dismissals, and thus actually engaging what these similarities and divergences really meant within the predominantly give-and-take environment that was the “spiritual hothouse” of antebellum America, the theological position of Mormonism becomes increasingly clear. Not as merely another expression of systematic categories, though, or as an entirely unique religious movement created within a vacuum, but rather as part of a larger religious community struggling to answer many of the same questions, deal with a number of the same issues, and react to much of the same intellectual climate.
For the next generation of LDS scholarship, those who wish to explore Mormonism’s developing theology must first better understand the intellectual air which its early adherents breathed, recognizing the eclectic theological climate of varying degrees of adaptation and agreement, and then attempt to determine the significance of Mormonism’s mesh of theological answers. And, once these answers are better understood, it is then crucial to apply them to larger cultural questions and issues, emphasizing how Mormonism related to and diverged from their larger environment. Indeed, one of the great achievements of New Mormon History was using broader contexts to better illuminate early Mormon thought—now it is time to use early Mormon thought to further illuminate its broader contexts.
 Grant Underwood, The Millenarian World of Early Mormonism (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1999); D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987); Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989).
 Patrick Q. Mason, The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 12.
 Matthew Bowman, “Context and the new-New Mormon History,” Journal of Mormon History 35, no. 3 (Summer 2009), 210.
 Mason, The Mormon Menace; David F. Holland, Sacred Borders: Continuing Revelation and Canonical Restraint in Early America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); Jared Farmer, On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008); Terryl L. Givens, When Souls had Wings: Pre-Mortal Existence in Western Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
 “Spiritual hothouse” comes from Jon Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 225.