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.
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…)
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…)
From our friends in SoCal.
Authority, Community, and Identity
Call for Papers
The Religion Department at Claremont Graduate University is pleased to announce its annual Mormon Studies Conference, to be held March 6 and 7, 2015 in Claremont, California. We encourage proposals from graduate students and faculty of all disciplines. There are limited travel subsidies available for graduate student presenters. The theme for this year is “Authority, Community, and Identity.
The study of Mormonism requires an exploration of what it means to be a religious person. Individuals exist within a community where they negotiate and maintain their identities. The conference organizers are open to a wide range of paper proposals, including but not limited to topics suggested by the following themes and questions: How do people negotiate their Mormon identity in joining or leaving Mormonism? How does ritual impact community maintenance and religious authority? How have developments in communication changed methods of creating orthodoxy and heterodoxy? In what ways have changing norms and debates regarding gender and sexuality impacted identity and community? How have communities of doubt influenced claims to authority and identity? How has Mormon identity and community developed regionally and internationally? What role does tradition play in different geographies? How has secularization altered Mormon community formation and institutional authority?
While this conference will focus on Mormonism in particular, we encourage comparative papers, or papers on related traditions in which the theories or insights developed have some bearing on Mormonism.
Please email paper proposals and a CV to email@example.com by November 15, 2014. Proposals should be no longer than 250 words and should be attached as a Word or PDF document. Please indicate in the email if you would like to be considered for travel funding.
Michael W. Homer, Joseph’s Temples: The Dynamic Relationship Between Freemasonry and Mormonism (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2014).
There are few topics in Mormon history more fraught than the relationship between Mormonism and masonry. From the Mormon apologetic folklore that Joseph Smith only attended three masonic meetings to the anti-Mormon accusation that the temple rituals were merely plagiarized masonic rites, this is a topic that enlivens discussion in academic classrooms and missionary companionship study alike. Michael Homer’s Joseph’s Temples is the most recent contribution to this discussion, as it is a vastly expanded version of his previous work on the topic. And though it may not be up to addressing the deeper and more complex issues involved with the topic that are demanded by today’s Mormon studies field, it is the culmination of four decades of Mormon scholarship on the religion’s contested history with the contested fraternity.
Unlike most work on Mormonism and masonry, this book is not dedicated to the two years between Joseph Smith’s introduction of temple endowments, which came months after his induction to the Nauvoo Lodge, and his death in Carthage Jail, when his last words were the masonic call for distress. Rather, this book has a very broad chronological and geographic sweep, detailing freemasonry’s development in Renaissance Europe to masonry’s demise and resurgence in Utah. Half of the book does, though, detail with the Nauvoo period, which chapters dedicated to race, gender, ritual, and succession. Though this framework for chapters made it somewhat redundant at times—and certainly did not help with the book’s length—it did add to the book’s exhaustive nature, which is indeed its best strength. (more…)
No, the title of this post is not the opening for one of those “…walk into a bar…” jokes, although it does provide good potential.
NOTE: This post doesn’t aim to make a particular argument, or perhaps to say much new, but merely to express some issues that have been circling my mind for a while, and conclude one of those historical nerd tangential interests that we all know so well.
Apparently not satisfied with merely enraging Mormon historians, Brodie later tried to do the same to Jeffersonian scholars.
A few months ago, in a conversation on the H-SHEAR list (an email group focused on the history of the early American republic), someone made a reference to Fawn Brodie’s biography of Thomas Jefferson. Then, as an aside, the writer added, “Incidentally, Fawn Brodie is in my view the Rosalind Franklin of American history. There are many Watsons and Cricks in the historical profession who owe her a posthumous apology.” Franklin, for those of you (like me) who aren’t encyclopedias of this type of knowledge, was a biophysicist who studied DNA in the early 1950s. Watson and Crick, who were dismissive and rude toward Franklin in public and private throughout her life, accessed her data without her knowledge, much less permission, and used that data to make the critical leap in insight that elucidated the structure of DNA. They published with no mention of Franklin’s contribution and went on to great fame and a Nobel Prize a decade later.
While Brodie is mostly known in Mormon circles for her controversial biography of Joseph Smith, she is more widely known in the American historical community for her innovative use of psychohistory, especially in her biographies of Thomas Jefferson and, less successfully, Richard Nixon. Indeed, No Man Knows My History was merely her entrance into the historical profession, where afterward she became one of the foremost practitioners of psychohistory American political biography, and was even one of the first tenured female professors at UCLA. Most especially, her Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate Life (W. W. Norton, 1974) was a national bestseller and instigator of much debate in the academic community. In the book, Brodie focused on Jefferson’s private life, and was one of the first to strongly argue that there was a relationship between the president and his slave, Sally Hemings. The book was a commercial success, but was panned by many historians, especially Jeffersonian scholars, who rejected the thesis that Jefferson would procreate with a slave. Many historians rejected Browdie’s interpretation of Jefferson, just as Mormon historians rejected her interpretation of Joseph Smith.
Several decades later, however, Brodie’s argument was vindicated. (more…)
This image, from British Chartist George Cruikshank in 1840, raises a provocative question: when tracing the origins of Mormon symbology, why not look at the British political debates over class–an atmosphere most of the Q12 experienced in formative years?
For a historiographical tradition birthed from the New Social History movement, New Mormon History has certainly lacked attention toward the potent topic of class. Sure, it pops up every once and a while—most expectedly from the economic work of Leonard Arrinton, and perhaps least expectedly in Terryl Givens and Matthew Grow’s biography of Parley Pratt—but historians of Mormonism in general have neglected class tensions as the dominant lens through which to view the LDS tradition. There are probably a number of reasons for this, including the lack of theoretical sophistication in most works on Mormon history, the assumption that Mormonism’s emphasis on communalism has shaped our understanding of distinct social classes, the LDS tradition’s emphasis on the equality of the gospel, most participants’ adherence to economic free markets, and perhaps the expectation that few Mormon historians would employ the tools of Marxist criticism. This lack of focus should give us pause, because of at least three general points. First, Mormonism’s message had significant consequences for the temporal realities of its converts. Second, the LDS Church’s constant migration forced particants to create anew social networks and circumstances in several new contexts. And third, as confirmed through political debates year in and year out, notions of class and societal power have a real impact on how individuals live, work, and socialize, a phenomenon that is especially acute for communities that place religious significance on their cultural surroundings. Religious historiography of recent decades has digested these facts, and it is left for historians of Mormonism to catch up. (more…)
I’d like to thank all the contributors and those who provided excellent discussion during the Mormon Studies in the Classroom series from the past two weeks. In case you missed any, all the links are below:
- Ben P, Introduction
- Christopher Blythe, Mormonisms
- Patrick Mason, Approaches to Mormonism
- Nate R, Mormon Studies in the 7th Grade Utah Studies
- Amanda HK, Religion, Witchcraft, and Magic
- Ben P, Mormonism and American Politics
- Grant Hardy, The Beginning of Wisdom
- Saskia, On Sensitivity
- Andrea RM, Mormon Women, Patriarchy, and Equality
We certainly didn’t cover all angles possible under this topic; no classes on Mormonism outside of America, most notably. But I am thrilled with the broad range of perspectives and backgrounds exemplified in the various posts, and the number of questions they raise.
I’m still not covinced that, in most cases, a course devoted to Mormonism is the best option, save in special circumstances. I’m of the mind that Mormonism works best when included amongst a plethora of groups dealing with the same issues. Yet I do believe Mormonism can serve a useful case study for a number of topics, as demonstrated through the various theoretical and real courses listed above.
Any general thoughts on the series? Do you think Mormonism works well in the classroom? What other courses would you have in mind? How would you incorporate Mormonism into broader courses? What books on Mormonism do you think work best in the undergraduate classroom?
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Though the Romney Moment is over, the intersections between Mormonism and American politics remains a potent topic for research and discussion. In this theoretical course, which I have yet to have the opportunity to teach, I would aim to capitalize on this interest and introduce important themes from American history.
The goal of this course is to explore key tensions in America’s dynamic history of Church and State, with Mormonism serving as a case study. We will cover the entire historical sweep of the Mormon moment, from Joseph Smith to Mitt Romney. Throughout, Mormons and Mormonism will not be presented as aberrations to the American tradition, but as embodiments of its key features. Though there has been a temptation in the past to characterize the LDS faith as an external dissent from or challenge to the American mainstream, students will learn that the issues highlighted through the Mormon Church’s confrontation with the United States’s political establishment and democratic ideals are part and parcel of American history in general. Attention will be given to political ideals found within scriptural texts (like the critique of capitalism found within the Doctrine and Covenants), the ideas of specific individuals’ political thought (like that of Joseph Smith), particular moments of conflict (like the Utah war), unique theological strains (like the nebulous idea of theodemocracy), heightened moments of debate (like Reed Smoot’s hearings), foundational periods of transition (like Mormonism’s loud response to the Cold War), and the continued tensions of exclusion/inclusion (like during Mitt Romney’s presidential runs). Students will be expected to not only demonstrate a nuanced understanding of Mormonism’s relationship to American politics, but also the larger tensions of American culture’s perpetual dance between Church and State. (more…)