Ben holds degrees from Brigham Young University (BA, English and history), the University of Edinburgh (MSc, historical theology), and the University of Cambridge (MPhil, political thought and intellectual history; PhD, history). His interests include American intellectual, religious and cultural history, primarily in a transatlantic context, during the 18th and 19th centuries. He currently teaches history at the University of Missouri, where he is a fellow at the Forum on Constitional Democracy, and serves as an Associate Editor for the Mormon Studies Review as well as on the editorial board for Journal of Mormon History. More background can be found at his website.
[We are pleased to have yet another guest post from Jeff Turner, incoming PhD student at the University of Utah. See his previous posts on early Mormon missions here and here.]
As I was looking through some old JI posts today, I thought, “There’s a ton of posts on the First Vision!” So it only made sense to write another one.
Kathleen Flake and James Allen have provocatively argued that the First Vision grew in usage around the turn of the twentieth century. I hope to add to this story from the narrow lens of the use of the First Vision in Mormon missions.
In 1840, Orson Pratt wrote the first missionary tract that contained an account of Smith’s vision. It reads: “He, therefore, retired to a secret place, in a grove, hut a short distance from his father’s house, and knelt down, and began to call upon the Lord. At first, he was severely tempted by the powers of darkness, which endeavoured to overcome him; but he continued to seek for deliverance, until darkness gave way from his mind; and he was enabled to pray, in fervency of the spirit, and in faith. And, while thus pouring out his soul, anxiously desiring an answer from God, he, at length, saw a very bright and glorious light in the heavens above; which, at first, seemed to be at a considerable distance. He continued praying, while the light appeared to be gradually descending towards him; and, as it drew nearer, it increased in brightness, and magnitude, so that, by the time that it reached the tops of the trees, the whole wilderness, for some distance around, was illuminated in a most glorious and brilliant manner. He expected to have seen the leaves and boughs of the trees consumed, as soon as the light came in contact with them; but, perceiving that it did not produce that effect, he was encouraged with the hopes of being able to endure its presence. It continued descending, slowly, until it rested upon the earth, and he was enveloped in the midst of it. When it first came upon him, it produced a peculiar sensation throughout his whole system; and, immediately, his mind was caught away, from the natural objects with which he was surrounded; and he was enwrapped in a heavenly vision, and saw two glorious personages, who exactly resembled each other in their features or likeness. He was informed, that his sins were forgiven. He was also informed upon the subjects, which had for some time previously agitated his mind, viz.—that all the religious denominations were believing in incorrect doctrines; and, consequently, that none of them was acknowledged of God, as his church and kingdom. And he was expressly commanded, to go not after them; and he received a promise that the true doctrine—the fulness of the gospel, should, at some future time, be made known to him; after which, the vision withdrew, leaving his mind in a state of calmness and peace, indescribable.” (more…)
This is the ninth installment of the first annual JI Summer Book Club. This year we are reading Richard Bushman’s landmark biography of Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005). JI bloggers will be covering small chunks of the book in successive weeks through the summer, with new posts appearing Monday mornings. We invite anyone and everyone interested to read along and to use the comment sections on each post to share your own reflections and questions. There are discussion questions below.
- Part 1: Prologue, Chapters 1-2
- Part 2: Chapters 3-4
- Part 3: Chapters 5-6
- Part 4: Chapters 7-9
- Part 5: Chapters 10-12
- Part 6: Chapters 13-15
- Part 7: Chapters 16-18
- Part 8: Chapters 19-21
- Next Week: Chapters 25-27
Richard Bushman begins Chapter 23 by saying, “Eighteen Forty may have been the happiest year of Joseph Smith’s life” (403). This was because it was basically a honeymoon period between the tragedy of Missouri and the rising tensions in Illinois. In these three chapters we meet a triumphant Joseph Smith—a Joseph Smith who pled his case to the President of the United States, earned the respect of intellectual observers, built a bustling city, and flirted with Christian heresies—and is notably couched in a triumphalist narrative. You could feel that it was in these years, 1839-1841, that Joseph Smith became a national figure worthy of more than mere parochial attention. Bushman compares the pro- and anti-Mormon literature of the previous few years that rarely mentioned Smith to the growth of pamphlets that now identified, engaged, denounced, and praised the Prophet. “Joseph Smith was at last given a name and a role in print as the searching youth to whom God and angels appeared,” he explains (402). Smith was finally a figure with which to be reckoned. (more…)
Mormon History Association 51st Annual Conference
Call for Papers
2016 Snowbird, Utah
The 51st annual meeting of the Mormon History Association will take place on June 9-12, 2016*. The conference theme is simple yet evocative: “Practice.” The work of Mormon history in the past few decades has delved deeply into theological, institutional, and cultural research. And yet the richness of the lived realities of the Mormon experience begs to be uncovered in new ways that cut across these familiar categories. “Practice,” in this sense, is used broadly in order to capture the dynamic participation of individual adherents within diverse strains of Mormonism throughout the past two centuries. Several decades-worth of scholarship in “lived religion” provides the tools to capture these fresh perspectives. Mormonism’s distinctive religious morphology and substantial corpus of records creates a promising field for new theoretical understanding. What role does “practice” play in Mormon religiosity? What is the relationship between hierarchical, correlated authority and grassroots implementation and innovation? How do Mormon practices change, evolve, and adapt over generations and throughout global communities? How are global Mormon religious norms shaped by indigenous culture in Salt Lake City, Kinshasa, or Manila? (more…)
Anniversary conferences are a wonderful time to have retrospective panels that aim to chart the field’s development and future. Therefore, for MHA’s 50th anniversary, I thought it would be worthwhile to put together a panel that looks back on Mormon history’s most successful (in terms of academic awards) and most divisive (in terms of praise/rejection) book in the last few decades: John Brooke’s The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844 (Cambridge UP, 1994). A recipient of both Columbia University’s Bancroft Prize and the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic’s Best Book Prize, most Mormon historians denounced the book as methodologically flawed and, in some corners, as anti-Mormon. This led to a bifurcated legacy: on the one hand, most religious historians’ only exposure to Mormonism is through the book, given its wide academic popularity, while most Mormon historians have tended to dismiss it and pretend it never happened.
Two decades later, it is time for a fresh look of both the book and its reception. What does Refiner’s Fire tell us about Mormonism’s place in the academy in the 1990s? What does its reception tell us about New Mormon History’s relationship to the broader historical community? How have the two fields developed in the past twenty years? (more…)
Paul Reeve‘s recent work, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness (Oxford University Press, 2015), was one of the few books that were highly anticipated yet exceeded expectations. To both celebrate and engage its arguments, we here at the JI have organized a roundtable that will take place over the next three weeks and offer a multivocal overview and analysis of what will certainly become one of the classics of the developing (sub)field of Mormon studies, not to mention the best book on the contested issue of the Mormon racial restriction’s origins to date. In this post, I will give a general overview and discussion of the work’s framework, and starting next week we will hear from Janiece J, Nate R, Joey S., and Amanda HK on the different sections of the book. In total, we hope to identify Religion of a Different Color‘s biggest strengths, historiographical contributions, and contested questions, as well as future avenues that scholarship on Mormonism and race can take in the next generation.
Religion of a Different Color uses Mormonism as a case study for understanding notions of “race” throughout the ninteenth century. We may assume that such a concept has always been clear, yet ideas of what constituted “white,” “black,” and a myriad of other racial qualifiers were constantly in flux in early America. More, even while these ideas were contested, their meaning was all the more important: being considered “white” gave access to the rights of citizenship and, far to often, the dignity of humanity. (In the 1850s, there was even a rise of the “Know Nothing Party,” a political base which centered around the principle of purely white citizenship.) This made the case of the Mormons all the more peculiar: by most estimations, they were clearly Angl0-Americans descended from the very ethnic lineages that were supposedly valid. Yet a combination of their actions and beliefs led Mormonism’s contemporaries to marginalize the sect any way they could, including through racial othering. Mormons were depicted as blending the racial lines between white and black, white and red, and eventually even white and yellow. In response, Mormons tried to prove their whiteness, and thus validate their rights of citizenship and civilization, by marginalizing the racial minorities within their own Church, most famously by instituting a restriction on black access to priesthood and temple activities. (more…)
Previous #JMH50 posts:
Liz M. on Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Personal Essay
David Howlett on his own article on jobs and publishing in Mormon Studies
J. Stuart on William Russell’s “Shared RLDS/LDS Journey”
Brett D. on Jared Farmer’s “Crossroads of the West”
Ryan T. on Matthew Bowman’s “Toward a Catholic History of Mormonism”
Tona H on Richard Turley’s “Global History of the Church”
If Leonard Arrington was the dean of New Mormon History, Richard Bushman is the patriarch of Mormon studies. Bear with me for a moment while I get into some nerdy insider historiographical speak. The term “Mormon studies” gets thrown around a lot, sometimes to the point that it loses all usefulness. Does it just mean any “study” of “Mormonism”? Does it have to be academic? Does it include apologetics? Is it, *gasp*, “objective”? Does “Mormon” imply the institutional experience of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Answers to these questions vary depending on who you ask. (more…)
In case you missed it last week, the Mormon History Association unveiled two important and noteworthy things:
1. They have a new website. It looks quite spiffy, so make sure to explore it a bit. It is still obviously a work in progress, as several pages and uploads don’t seem to work, but I’m sure they will be fixed in due time.
2. There is now a lot more information about this year’s annual conference, taking place in early June in Provo. This includes a conference program which looks absolutely spectacular–perhaps the most stacked program I’ve seen. The weekend includes great plenary sessions (one by Colleen McDaniel and a presidential address by Laurel Ulrich), a number of “50th Anniversary Sessions” (including one, chaired by yours truly, on the legacy of John Brooke’s Refiner’s Fire, and another on the legacy of Leonard Arrington, to name only two), and even a Gold and Green Ball. And since there are not as many pricey meals as usual, you can take your money and register for some of the fantastic pre- and post-conference tours, including a women’s history tour hosted by our own Andrea Radke-Moss and Jenny Reeder. So if you haven’t already, renew your MHA membership, register for the conference, and book your hotel room.
There are, of course, too many great panels at the conference to attend them all, but if there are any that excite you, please share them in the comments.
As if the announcement of MHA’s 50th anniversary issue roundtable wasn’t exciting enough, we are also happy to bring back JI’s March Madness bracket tournament. You can find our group at this link. You will need to create your own (free) ESPN account and fill out your bracket by Thursday’s first game. Each participant is allowed up to two brackets. The winner gets bragging rights, as well as a digital trophy that we may or may not create by the Final Four.
Also, creative bracket names are encouraged.
The first issue of the Journal of Mormon History this year is a special volume in honor of the Mormon History Association’s 50th anniversary. It is guest-edited by Spencer Fluhman and Douglas Alder, and includes reflections on the past half-decade, a number of smart and provocative essays demonstrating the vibrancy of the field, and predictions concerning where Mormon history may go from here.
[We are happy to pass along this CFP from our good friends who run the Mormon Studies Group at AAR. In my personal experience, these sessions usually include some of the most exciting work currently being done in the field.]
The Mormon Studies Group seeks proposals for full sessions or individual papers that consider any aspect of Mormon experience using the methods of critical theory, philosophy, theology, history, sociology, or psychology. This includes the use of Mormonism as a case study for informing larger questions in any of these disciplines and, thus, only indirectly related to the Mormon experience. For 2015 we are particularly interested in proposals addressing international Mormonism and which engage questions of globalization, imperialism, and decolonization. (more…)
It’s that time of year, and MHA folk are reminding us to submit books and articles for their annual awards to be given at the conference in June. We would especially like to draw your attention to the following awards, and encourage everyone to submit your own work to the relevant categories. The deadline is February 1. (more…)
[A few months ago, we highlighted a recent article by Jared Hickman titled, “The Book of Mormon as Amerindian Apocalypse,” published in American Literature (the premier journal of its field). This was a long-awaited article, and was worth all the excitement. I’d argue it is one of the most sophisticated treatments of the Book of Mormon, from an American literary perspective, in quite some time. We are thrilled to offer the following Q&A with Professor Hickman, who was gracious enough to give very thoughtful responses to our questions.]
This has been one of those long-awaited articles that (probably unethically) passed around in manuscript form for nearly a decade. Could you describe the provenance and development of this important article?
Around 2005 or 2006, while still in graduate school, I was graciously invited by Richard Bushman—a cherished mentor from my days as a Smith fellow—to participate in a Book of Mormon roundtable in Salt Lake City. The idea was that this roundtable would eventuate in an Oxford Introduction to The Book of Mormon. As a Ph.D. candidate soon to face the bleak academic job market, I couldn’t turn down such an opportunity to beef up a meager c.v. Fortuitously, I had been teaching The Book of Mormon in Sunday school in our local ward—full of formidably smart and thoughtful people—and was thus reading it with a new level of rigor informed by my ongoing scholarly training. I found it speaking profoundly to both my research interests in religion, race, and American literature and my evolving spiritual proclivities. Its formal curiosities were suddenly apparent to me as never before, and I fancied I could see in its intricate narrative architecture theological and ethico-political possibilities that I at the time desperately needed. I wrote a draft at the tail end of a summer spent working in a one-room yellow-brick house that had formerly housed a plural wife and her family on my in-laws’ glorious patch of earth in Sanpete County, Utah. It was a summer that had in part been spent absorbing local lore about Chief Sanpitch and the Ute groups ousted by the Mormon settlers, including an outing to the reported site of Sanpitch’s tragic death, a boulder movingly inscribed with commemorative marks. I recall the initial composition process as an exhilaration—one of those rare alignments of will and circumstance. The essay seemed to go over well enough at the roundtable, but the projected volume never materialized, so I was left holding a long and idiosyncratic essay on The Book of Mormon that didn’t have a home. At my adviser’s suggestion, I sent it to a couple of journals in my field and received rejection notices, but richly bemused rejection notices that made me think I might have something if I could figure out how to make it a less quirky artifact of my own intellectual alchemy. So I put it on the back-burner. Then, in a pinch—when I didn’t have a dissertation chapter ready for workshop—I presented it in my American literature doctoral colloquium and was cheered by my non-Mormon peers’ enthusiastic response to it. For a brief time, the essay was up and available on the colloquium website, and many people seem to have gotten hold of that very early (and, frankly, embarrassing) version of the essay. Over the ensuing years, I thought about it now and again and tinkered with it here and there, but I had other, more pressing projects to work on. After years of encouraging e-mail queries about it from readers of the online version that had circulated, I finally got my act together and got it in good enough shape to submit to American Literature. The review process was especially rigorous—for which I am most grateful—and forced me to translate the essay in important ways that I hope make it a valuable contribution not only to Mormon studies but American literary studies. (more…)
A few weeks ago, I posted my review of Jedediah Rogers’s new book, The Council of Fifty: A Documentary History (Signature, 2014). Today, we are pleased to feature a Q&A with the author. Enjoy!
What first grabbed your attention about the Council of 50?
The devil is in the detail, as they say, so while I was familiar with some of the council’s larger themes, it was the little things that struck me: the council prohibiting “cutting Spanish rusty” or converting corn into whisky; Hosea Stout wittily suggesting in an April 11, 1883, meeting that a legal defense for a bigamist might be that “he cohabited with only one at a time”; Moses Thatcher’s reported opposition to “the proposition to anoint John Taylor as Prophet, Priest and King”; and so on.
More generally, I was grabbed by the tension between rhetoric and reality. The council discussed grandiose ideas—playing a pivotal role in the End Days, working to elect Joseph Smith as U.S. president, destroying an army and navy with an invention of “liquid fire”—that to some modern observers may seem absurd. Council members, interestingly, seemed to have thought them all probabilities. Council deliberations sometimes contained violent rhetoric, including some early utterances by Young on the doctrine of “blood atonement,” while simultaneously centering on the millennial dream of a utopian society. Historiographical debates suggest another dynamic: was the council a mere symbolic formality or did it represent the Mormon quest for real political power? Like most things historical, the answer in this case is not either/or. (Mike Quinn cautions historians not to confuse symbol and substance; indeed, within the structure of Mormonism the Council of Fifty was subservient to the First Presidency and the Twelve, at least under the reigns of Young and Taylor. Taylor’s anointing, Quinn argues, is a prime example of the symbolic nature of the Fifty. Still, readers will find ardent rhetoric of council members convinced they were part of something grand operating in the temporal realm. And we must not downplay the significance of the council in organizing and leading the trek west and as the governing body in the Salt Lake valley from 1848 to 1850. While their minds may have been, at times, hovering in the clouds, they also worked in the soil, and they expected results from their labors.) (more…)
Happy New Year’s Eve! Before we ring in the new year, we thought we’d look back at the year that was at JI. Below you will find the 10 most-viewed posts from the past twelve months. (more…)
Jedediah S. Rogers, ed., The Council of Fifty: A Documentary History (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2014).
Secret ecclesiastical organizations usually draw a lot of attention, yet few secret ecclesiastical organizations have garnered as much speculation and mythologization as the Council of Fifty. Anyone with even a cursory interest in Mormon history has heard of the council, often wrapped up with rumors of kingly coronations, clandestine governments, and power struggles. Academic engagement with the organization has ranged from the ambitious (and as it turns out, overstated) Quest for Empire: The Political Kingdom of God and the Council of Fifty in Mormon History (Michigan State University Press, 1967) by Klaus Hansen to the more nuanced articles by Michael Quinn and Andrew Ehat. Recently, the LDS Church has announced plans to publish the long-secluded minutes from the original Nauvoo council as part of the Joseph Smith Papers Project. But the council left a larger printed impact than what is found in that minute book; further, the council lasted much longer than merely Nauvoo. To help chart the development and relevance of this quixotic council, Jedidiah S. Rogers has edited The Council of Fifty: A Documentary History, which compiles a large number of documents that shed light on the secretive organization from its formation in 1844 through John Taylor’s resuscitation of the council in the 1880s. There are a lot of things that could be highlighted from the volume for discussion, but as a historian of American religious and political culture, I’d like to point out two themes that stood out to me. (more…)
Just a few books from this last year that should be found on your bookshelves.
It’s that time of year again.
This is the sixth annual installment of my “Restrospect” series, which attempts to overview what I thought were important books and articles from the last 12 months. (Previous installments are found here, here, here, here, and here.) Every year, I wonder if I want to do this post again; every year, I decide it is once again worth it. (Though no promises for next year.) Mostly, it is an excuse to catch up on what has been published and to chart historiographical trends–something that really is only possible when you look at articles as well. I’ll also continue my tradition of offering my selections for MHA’s awards.
The usual caveat: my selections represent my own interests, and I admit I likely have many blindspots. So please fill in the gaps with your comments.
Of course, if you want more substantive engagement with recent scholarship in Mormon studies, you’d read the recent issue of Mormon Studies Review, especially since digital subscriptions are only $10. But you already knew that. (more…)
(Allow me to grab my cheerleading megaphone…)
I’m happy to state that the second volume of the Mormon Studies Review is now available in digital and paperback form. If you missed it last year, I described volume one and the general outlook for the periodical here. But in short: the Mormon Studies Review attempts to chart the development of the subfield of Mormon studies, which we generally define as scholars using Mormonism to speak to larger academic issues through many disciplines (history, religious studies, literature, philosophy, sociology, etc.). The primary audience are other academics, though we are sure there are many interested in the topics that they will find much to interest them. The journal is filled by several different types of essays, all solicited: a forum (where a handful of respected scholars discuss a relevant issue), discipline essays (where a scholar engages the current state of a particular academic field), review essays (where a particular book, or series of related books, receive an extensive review), as well as traditional book reviews. As an editorial team (Spencer Fluhman is editor, while Morgan Davis, Melissa Inouye, and myself are associate editors), with extensive imput from our editorial board, choose who we think are the best people to trace the state of the subfield through their engagement with these issues and texts. We are grateful for all the authors who agreed to our invitations, especially those who are not generally part of the Mormon studies community; we feel that their participation is what makes our project most crucial to the Mormon studies world.
Melissa Inouye has a helpful overview of the new issue at the Maxwell Institute Blog; go read it now. You can also see the entire Table of Contents here. I’ll be brief by just outlining what practitioners of Mormon history will find interesting in this volume. (more…)
We missed a week or two, so let’s hope this week’s roundup makes up for it. Or, at the least, is better than nothing.
By the way, have you heard if Mormonism has been the news lately?
In a way, this last week has been a throw-back to the second half of the nineteenth century, when stories Mormon polygamy filled the American imagination, not to mention the newspapers. The New York Times featured the recent LDS Church-produced essays on plural marriage as an A1, top-fold story that proceeded to set the media ablaze. MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell’s Last Word had a nice segment that included Richard Bushman as well as the author of the original NYT story, Laurie Goodstein. Other coverage was found at PBS, The Guardian, and from the always-reliable Jana Reiss. One of the most perceptive takes, I thought, was Joanna Brooks’s. I could link to a dozen other pieces, some good and some not-so-good, but you have a google machine. (more…)
Terryl L. Givens. Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmology, God, Humanity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. xv, 405 ppg. Notes, index. Cloth: $34.95. ISBN 978-1-9979492-8.
Few books encompass as audacious a scope as Wrestling the Angel. In this work, the first of projected two volumes, prolific Mormon scholar Terryl Givens presents a rigorous and exhaustive overview of Mormonism’s theological foundations. This is not necessarily a historical work that systematically traces theological developments and places them in cultural context as it is an attempt to faithfully reproduce the intellectual tradition founded by Joseph Smith, refined by Parley and Orson Pratt, and tinkered with by a handful of twentieth century thinkers like B.H. Roberts, James Talmage, John Widtsoe, and, sometimes, more contemporary LDS leaders. The finished product is an overwhelming account that makes a compelling case for Mormonism’s inclusion within the Christian theological canon.
The book is separated into five sections. The first, “Frameworks,” outlines Mormonism’s relationship with theology and posits a new prism through which to understand Joseph Smith’s conception of “restoration”; the second is a very brief overview of Mormonism’s theological narrative, which is meant to ground the remainder of the discussion. The final three chapters are the “meat” of the project by taking, in turn, the three broad topics under consideration: “Cosmology,” “The Divine,” and “The Human.” Each chapter within these sections engages particular topics—embodiment, salvation, theosis, etc.—and places them within Christian theological context. (more…)
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Post “Mormon Moment” conference to examine LDS and media
Conference Oct. 17 at BYU Salt Lake Center will honor historian Jan Shipps
SALT LAKE CITY — At look at how journalists covered Mormonism during the 1970s Equal Rights Amendment campaign, a discussion about how Mormons are responding to a call to share their faith through social media, and a tribute to historian Jan Shipps are scheduled at the Third Mormon Media Studies Conference, Friday, Oct. 17. Admission is free. (more…)