Ben P

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.

Fawn Brodie, Joseph Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Bushman, and Psychoanalysis

By: Ben P - June 09, 2014

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.[1]

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.

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.[2]

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.[3]

Several decades later, however, Brodie’s argument was vindicated. (more…)

Hannah Tapfield King, Gendered History, and Class

By: Ben P - May 21, 2014
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?

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.[1] 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.[2] (more…)

Mormon Studies in the Classroom: Roundup

By: Ben P - May 09, 2014

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:

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?

Mormon Studies in the Classroom: Mormonism and American Politics

By: Ben P - May 01, 2014

General JSThough 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.

Course Objective

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…)

New Series: Mormon Studies in the Classroom

By: Ben P - April 21, 2014

The flowing of Mormon studies in the print world has been well-documented. Presses are rushing for more titles on LDS topics, partly because they sell consistently well. While the quantity has sometimes overshadowed the quality of this movement, I think it is safe to say the field is much stronger as a result.

lecture-hallBut publications are only one part of the integration of Mormon studies into the academic world. Another important element is the inclusion of Mormonism in academic classrooms. This is done through several ways. The first is through better integration of Mormonism into broader courses (including classes on American Religous History, New Religious Movements, the American West, or even the classic American history survey). This is mostly accomplished as scholarly work on Mormonism becomes better known, and thus professors are more aware and likely to include it in their lectures, readings, or comprehensive exams. (I was interested to find out that here at Cambridge, the only question on religion in an undergraduate American history exam from a couple years ago was on the Mormon trek west.) Joseph Smith is always a popular topic for undergraduate students, and the Book of Mormon often serves as a surprisingly rewarding text for students to engage. Many have said that Sally Gordon’s The Mormon Question is the go-to text for teaching the intersection of religion and law in the nineteenth century. I imagine this will, and should, continue, as Mormon history becomes more intimately intertwined with the academic study of religious history. (more…)

The Mormon History Comps List (2014 Version)

By: Ben P - April 10, 2014

MoHist BooksOver three years ago, I posted my first attempt at a Mormon History Canon. Since a few years have past, a few new books have shaken the field, and I am bored post-dissertation, I thought it was time to do an update. I’ve also refined the type of list this is, which is discussed below.

The goal of the list was to name 25—and the number had to stick to 25—books that every student of Mormon history should read. It is designed as a template for a grad student’s theoretical comprehensive exam list (though I should again emphasize that I’d think it’d be a stupid idea for a grad student to dedicate a portion of a comprehensive exam merely to Mormonism). Thus, books need to cover a broad swath of topics, chronologies, and approaches in order to be inclusive, but they should also match a particular level of quality. I’m also shying away from (most) biographies, edited collections, and documentary sources; those can have separate lists. (more…)

Job Opening: Research Assistant, Joseph Smith Papers Project

By: Ben P - February 21, 2014

[From our good friends at the CHL.]

Research Assistant-Joseph Smith Papers Project

Type: Full-Time – Regular

USA – UT – Salt Lake City

Posting Info:

  • Posting Dates: 2/18/2014 – 3/14/2014
  • Job Family: Library, Research&Preservation
  • Department: Church History Department

Purposes

The Church History Department announces an opening for a research assistant with the Joseph Smith Papers project. This will be a full-time position lasting one to two years, beginning in May 2014. Compensation competitive with other internships; benefits included. (more…)

MHA’s 2014 Annual Conference: A First Look

By: Ben P - February 19, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-02-19 at 18.56.49In one of the most exciting days of the year for Mormon history geeks, the Mormon History Association posted a preliminary program for the 2014 conference (pdf), which will take place June 5-8 in San Antonio, Texas. I’ll let you read through it all and find whatever niche papers you are most excited about, but below you will find the plenary addresses along with the papers being delivered by your ol’ pals here at JI. (more…)

Breaking the Airport Bookstore Barrier

By: Ben P - January 23, 2014
A sign that your book has truly "made it": people purchase the text as an impulse buy between ordering their Starbucks and boarding their plane.

A sign that your book has truly “made it”: people purchase the text as an impulse buy between ordering their Starbucks and boarding their plane.

There are many different types of books on Mormon history: faith-promoting, exposé, amateur, academic, and popular, not to mention the many books that blur those boundaries. Here at JI, we usually focus on the academic variety, which usually implies those published by university presses, though we also often engage the many top-rate amateur books that make our field so lively and exhaustive. These are the type of books that are directed at the audience with which we are most familiar: either the small group of people especially interested in Mormon history in particular, or the broader academic community interested in religious history more generally.

But I’d like to spend a post, and hopefully a discussion, on the popular. (more…)

Previewing 2014: Looking Ahead to Forthcoming Books in Mormon History

By: Ben P - December 10, 2013

Last week I highlighted noteworthy books and articles in Mormon history from 2013. But today, I’m not here to talk about the past. Continuing a tradition from last year, this post highlights forthcoming scholarship slated to appear in 2014.

This is not a comprehensive overview; for that, we can only hope that Jared T. continues his prestigious and exhaustive series at his blog. (I will include a link to his post if/when it shows up.) These are merely those works that I’m personally excited for, which obviously reflects my own interests. I encourage you to share your own additions in the comments below. And just like any year, some of these volumes may slip out of 2014 and appear the following year; but at least they are nearing arrival. (more…)

Mormon Studies Weekly Roundup: “Today We Renounce” Edition

By: Ben P - December 08, 2013

So the ‘nacle is abuzz with discussion of past mistakes, historical distance, and leadership mistakes. But enough about the woeful judging at the “Beardliness is Next to Godliness” competition, which robbed our own Jordan W. as well as a few others who were more adventurous than the boring Heber J. Grant-style.

Beyond the always-crucial discussion of beards, I guess race was also an important talking point this week. (more…)

2013 in Retrospect: An Overview of Noteworthy Books and Articles in Mormon History

By: Ben P - December 02, 2013
The last few years have been good for Mormon history.

The last few years have been good for Mormon history.

This is the fifth annual installment of my “Retrospect” series here at JI, in which I offer an overview of scholarship in the field from the last twelve months. (For previous installments, see, in reverse chronological order, here, here, here, and here.) I always enjoy these posts, as it not only allows me to keep track of everything that has been done, but also see broader trends in the field. And to better accomplish that latter goal, I include articles from the last twelve months as well, since that gives a broader understanding of the current historiographical interests and movements.

As always, while I aim to be broad and liberal in scope, I am still human with my own interests and biases. Thus, it is very likely I overlooked some important books and articles, so it is your job to fill in my gaps in the comments. And just like last year, at the end of the post I will offer my own picks for MHA’s awards, and encourage you to do the same.

Also, remember that you can find the best and most in-depth tracing of Mormon studies at the recently launched Mormon Studies Review! (more…)

Bloggernacle, Meet The Mormon Studies Review

By: Ben P - November 25, 2013

(Cross-posted at By Common Consent. Also, the first three paragraphs should be read in the voice of Billy Mays, and taken in the spirit of the “Tribute to Doin’ It Wrong” video. The pdf of the inaugural Mormon Studies Review‘s Table of Contents can be downloaded here.)

Do you suffer too many sleepless nights, wondering if Mormonism can add anything to the study of ethics?

Do you suffer too many sleepless nights, wondering if Mormonism can add anything to the study of ethics?

Struggling to keep up with developments in the seemingly always-nascent (sub)field of Mormon studies? Do you ever walk through the book aisle and think, “holy fetch, when did that book come out?” Have you ever found yourself wondering, “what the heck is Mormon studies, anyway?” Or, does a sleepless night rarely go buy without you asking, “well, how does the study of Mormonism illuminate the translocative elements of religious studies?” Well, you are not alone! (more…)

New Mormon Studies Book Series: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press

By: Ben P - October 25, 2013

FDU

(Cross-posted at By Common Consent.)

Did you hear? Mormon studies is so hot right now. This semester witnessed the start of the Richard Lyman Bushman Chair in Mormon Studies at the University of Virginia (held by Kathleen Flake), next month will see the innaugural issue of the newly re-launched Mormon Studies Review (be very, very excited), and several new and exciting books are about to hit the shelves. And all this on top of the other Mormon studies programs that have been launched and the flood of excellent books that have been published in the last few years.

And now, there is a new book series at an unexpected university press. (more…)

Measuring Scholarship: The Size and Shape of Books

By: Ben P - October 15, 2013

Forgive this post for being more of a smattering of ideas than a cohesive analysis. I’ve recently been considering the size and importance of books, both in the academic field of history in general and Mormon studies in particular. This reconsideration was inspired by an essay in Perspectives on History, the magazine for the American Historical Association. (I strongly recommend reading it before reading this post.) (more…)

MHA Odds and Ends: October 2013 Edition

By: Ben P - October 09, 2013

As crazy as it sounds, the year is coming to a close. Fall Semester is well underway (except out here in Cambridge where it is only beginning), the leaves are changing colors, and my bike ride is getting colder. Also, MHA just released its fourth and final newsletter for the year, so it’s time to keep our tradition alive of highlighting news-y things for our audience. In the words of The O’Jays and, more recently, Jalen Rose, we “gotta give the people what they want!” (more…)

Scholarly Q&A on the Succession: Christine and Christopher Blythe

By: Ben P - September 09, 2013

(The following is a give-and-take with Christopher and Christine Blythe, graduate students in American religious history who specialize in the many divergent forms of Mormonism. Christopher attends Florida State University, where he is nearing completion of his PhD, and Christine recently started a master’s program at Memorial University of Newfoundland. A couple weeks ago, I highlighted two of their recent articles; today, they answer a few questions presented to them by the JI cabal. The Blythes have a documentary history of the succession period due to be published by Kofford Books next year.) (more…)

Mormon Studies Weekly Roundup (August 25, 2013)

By: Ben P - August 25, 2013

‘Nother week, ‘nother roundup. Let’s do this.

I don't think these two would have cleared Pres. Hinkley's "raised bar."

Not to be confused with the Army of Helaman.

First up, the LDS Church reached a milestone by surpassing 75,000 missionaries. These two should not be counted among them.

Exciting news in Book of Mormon Studies: the Maxwell Instute has appointed Brian Hauglid as editor, and Joseph Spencer and Mark Wright as associate editors, of the re-named Journal of Book of Mormon Studies (previously named Journal of Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture and Lots of Other Names That Made this a Ridiculous Journal Title Studies). I think they should recruit this guy to write their first lead article. (more…)

Responses: The Blythes Take on Succession

By: Ben P - August 22, 2013

First of all, we hope you enjoy JI’s new look. And yes, we are aware that the “music notes” can easily catch your attention.

If the recent resurgence in Mormon schism studies did nothing more than give room for John Hamer's phenomenal images, then it has served a noble purpose.

If the recent resurgence in Mormon schism studies did nothing more than give room for John Hamer’s phenomenal images, then it has served a noble purpose indeed.

But the blog is not the only thing that was in need of a facelift recently–so was the historiography surrounding the “succession crisis.” One of the popular topics that was repeatedly researched during the rise of New Mormon History, the story of how Mormonism became/remains so prone to schism has received a lot of attention. Historians like Michael Quinn, Andrew Ehat, Ron Esplin, and many others laid the archival groundwork for much of the narrative—and that’s just for the period immediately following Joseph Smith’s death. The John Whitmer Historical Association, which sponsors an annual conference as well as a biannual journal dedicated to the various traditions that race their roots back to Joseph Smith, continues to pump out fascinating scholarship year after year. And most of the major works in Mormon history now realize they must address these schism issues—think of the recent biographies of Parley Pratt and Brigham Young—it has begun to infiltrate the mainstream of Mormon studies.

But just like any topic within the wild and still inchoate (sub)field of Mormon history, its approaches have continued to evolve. In the beginning, very few works, besides that of Danny Jorgensen, invoked a theoretical methodology in tracking what Jorgensen called “Mormon Fissiparousness.” Rather, most narratives, while grounded in ground-breaking archival research, relied on basic teleological trajectories and focussed on seemingly objective tools like facts, dates, names, and words. (more…)

Guest Book Review: Seth Perry, “Mormons and the Bible: A Classic Gets a New Edition”

By: Ben P - August 05, 2013

[Today's book review comes from JI's good friend Seth Perry, who recently completed his PhD at the University of Chicago's Divinity School, where he wrote a dissertation on the Bible in early America, and will be a Visiting Professor of American Religion at Indiana University this fall.]

coversSince it was Philip Barlow’s Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-day Saints in American Religion (1991, 2013) that taught me to read paratexts, it seems fitting to approach Oxford University Press’s new and expanded edition of the book through the materials that frame it.

The back-cover blurbs attached to the new edition include these lines from a 1995 Dialogue review written by Scott Kenney, co-founder of Signature Books:

There can be no question that as a work of Mormon intellectual history this is a seminal – and eminently readable – work….Mormons and the Bible has all the markings of a Mormon classic.

OUP likes the quote – it also appears on my 1997 paperback. Characteristic of the genre, though, the blurb misses all of the subtlety of what Kenney was actually saying about the book. (more…)

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