Ben has a bachelor's degree in English and history from Brigham Young University, a master's degree in historical theology from the University of Edinburgh, and a master's degree in political thought and intellectual history from the University of Cambridge, where he is currently a PhD student in history. His interests include American intellectual, religious and cultural history, primarily in a transatlantic context, during the 18th and 19th centuries. He lives in the outskirts of Cambridge with his wife and two children, and currently serves on the editorial board for Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. His top posts include "A New Framework for a New Generation of Mormon Studies", "Jesus College, and Ashamed Faith"; "Historical Fundamentalism and Mormon History"; "Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson, and Mormon History"; and "Joseph Smith, Thomas Dick, and the Tricky Task of Determining Influence." His work has also appeared at Patheos (see here , here, and here). More background can be found here.
[Another contribution to our Many Mormon Images series. David Walker (PhD, Yale University, 2013) will be joining the faculty at UC Santa Barbara, this fall, as Assistant Professor of Religious Studies. His dissertation focuses on intersections of religion, settlement policy, tourism, and technology in 19th-century Utah. His ongoing research projects concern theories of religion, citizenship, and historical progress formed through Gilded Age bureaucracies, land grant disputes, P. T. Barnum’s circuses, and Harry Houdini’s magic shows.]
This is a brief story about the religion of railroad guidebooks. More specifically it is a tale about railroad agents’ efforts to re-imagine – to package, promote, and to prescribe – ‘Mormonism’ in the late-19th-century American West. Railroads, often in collaboration with LDS leaders, designed templates of national intelligibility for Utah and its Mormons, even while U.S. marshalls raided Utahn homes, businesses, and churches. (more…)
[Part of the Many Images of Mormonism series.]
In one of my favorite images, published in 1884, the decaying tree of American democracy features the branch “Mormonism.”
It has become a common refrain to refer to Mormonism as the “American religion.” Leo Tolstoy supposedly said it, Harold Bloom definitely said it, and religious historians often repeat it. It is meant to invoke the fact that Mormonism was born and raised on American soil, embodied many of the cultural elements found in its surrounding culture, and remains a focal point of America’s religious history. (For the most recent look at this idea you can look, ahem, here.) While this is all well and good, a new theme has also cropped up in recent historiography: the importance of anti-Mormonism in American religion.
While there were earlier precedents, it could be argued that Terryl Givens’s Viper on the Hearth (1997, but recently re-issued) started the systematic study of American (negative) perceptions of Mormonism; indeed, it was the first to invoke a sophisticated analysis in using anti-Mormonism as a case-study in the construction of heresy. A decade later, Givens was followed by three books that built on his work and appeared in quick succession: Megan Sanborn Jones’s Performing American Identity in Anti-Mormon Melodrama (2009), Patrick Mason’s The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South (2011), and Spencer Fluhman’s Peculiar People: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America (2012). Each of these books looked at perceivable the same topic through different prisms—theater, southern violence, and the nebulous concept of “religion”—but each shared a common assumption: that how Americans treated and understood Mormons reveals a significant lesson about the development of America’s religious history. (more…)
[Based on the success of previous themed months (February as Black History Month, and March as Women's History Month), as well as the month-long series of posts on John Turner's Brigham Young biography last October and November, we at the JI have decided to run a thematic series of posts every month. There will, of course, always be posts not related to that month's theme, but this approach allows a more efficient stream of content and excuse to invite more guest posts. Future months include themes like "International Mormonism," "Mormonism and Politics," "Mormonism Post-WWII," and even "Mormonism and Childhood." Each month is directed by two JIers and includes most other permabloggers as well as a slew of guests. This month's theme, led by Cristine Hutchison-Jones and yours truly, focuses on images of Mormonism both at home and abroad.]
Did someone say something about a “Mormon Moment”? (more…)
A couple months ago, BYU and the LDS Church History Department put on a fascinating conference titled, “Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith’s Study of the Ancient World.” Thanks to the wonders of technology, most of the presentations are now available as youtube videos, which you will find below.
While there are many papers that I strongly recommend, those given by Bushman, MacKay, Heal, Wright, Holland, Bowman, and Grey were some of the highlights for me.
(Note: in the first four sessions, the last paper of each session is combined with the panel’s responder.) (more…)
Though the weather refuses to acknowledge it, at least here in New England, spring has arrived. Among other things, this typically means new issues from academic journals. And since we are your trusted friends and colleagues here at the JI, and we hate to see you get bogged down and fall behind the ever-proceeding deluge of Mormon historical scholarship, we have a roundup of recent articles that deserve your attention. (more…)
Desperate times (the expected dearth of posts at the end of the semester) call for desperate measures (narcissistically posting about our own scholarship).
Parley Pratt, whose theology was as rugged as his looks.
In summer 2009, I participated in the Mormon Scholars Summer Seminar, that year led by Terryl Givens and Matt Grow, where I had the opportunity to study the writings of the Pratt brothers. While my seminar paper was on Parley Pratt’s theology of embodiment, which soon evolved into a larger article on early Mormon theologies of embodiment in general, the topic with which I became particularly transfixed was how Joseph Smith’s teachings were adapted and appropriated during the first few years after his death. At first, I was interested in the very parochial nature of the issue—the specifics of theological development, who said what and when, and what ideas were forgotten, emphasized, or even created anew. But I then became even more interested in broader questions: how were Smith’s ideas interpreted in the first place within a specific cultural environment, and how did Smith’s successors utilize that environment when molding their own theology? And further, what does that process tell us about the development of religious traditions in general, and the progression of religion in antebellum America in particular? (more…)
This is the part of the year when posting slows down here at JI, as the end of another semester–and the prospect of final papers, grading, committee duties, etc.–cuts into our precious blogging time.
But scholarship still presses forward! This week, I received a review copy of Matthew Kester’s new and exciting Remembering Iosepa: History, Place, and Religion in the West, just released by Oxford University Press. Kester, a professor and archivist at Brigham Young University-Hawaii, explores a group of Hawaiin converts who joined the Mormon church, immigrated to Utah, established their own community in the middle of Deseret’s desert, yet eventually moved back to their homeland after the Laie Temple was built. I remember first hearing about this story when working on the Church’s Historic Sites Committee, and Benjamin Pykles, who also works on Mormon notions of space and has written an excellent book on Nauvoo, gave a presentation on the topic. Just the image of native Hawaiins building their own oasis in the desert is fascinating, and the story becomes even more interesting as you peel back the layers. (more…)
Whether for good or ill, blogging has become a public facet of the academy in general, and Mormon studies in particular. We at JI are proud to be the first blog exclusively devoted to the scholarly study of Mormonism, though we are pleased when we are joined by others. Last year, we welcomed Worlds Without End; this year, we welcome Unusual Excitement. While the former is an eclectic group of friends and scholars distributed throughout the nation, the latter and most recent blog is centered in one of the field’s center locations: Claremont’s Mormon Studies Program. (more…)
If you haven’t noticed, we have a proliferation of Mormon history journals. So much so, in fact, that it is difficult to keep up. (One way to stay on top of things: the forthcoming Mormon Studies Review!) That’s where your friends at JI come in with our journal recaps.
One journal that unfortunately is often overlooked is Mormon Historical Studies, edited by Alex Baugh. This is unfortunate, because it is often the most “nerdy” and over-specialized of the journals–and I mean that as the highest compliment. When it comes to straight history, this journal often carries strong work, and its pages often smell of archival research. The most recent issue is no exception; in fact, it is perhaps one of the strongest issues they have published to day, partly because it is a combined issue for the entire 2012 year (they often publish two issues a year). Below are the contents, with a little commentary by yours truly. (more…)
Great news today from the Maxwell Institute. For their announcement, hosted on their new blog, see here.
The emerging (sub)field of Mormon studies has proven to be as multivocal as it is diverse. Though history has long been the dominant discipline of Mormon academic research, other fields are finally staking their claim. Interdisciplinary journals like Dialogue and BYU Studies Quarterly are featuring provocative works in theology, literature, musicology, and political science. There have been an explosion of journals covering the field, to the point that one could say there is more quantity than quality. We have seen an increase in quality books, with many more to come. There are conferences throughout the nation (and lately, to a very limited extent, world), and academic chairs and programs cropping up at prestigious universities. Even the New York Times is catching on to the game. Sometimes it can be easy to get lost in such a worldwind. (more…)
Historian/Documentary Editor, Joseph Smith Papers
The Joseph Smith Papers seeks a full-time historian/documentary editor with the academic training, research, and writing skills to edit Joseph Smith’s papers. The Joseph Smith Papers is producing a comprehensive edition of Smith’s documents featuring complete and accurate transcripts with both textual and contextual annotation. The scope of the project includes Smith’s correspondence, revelations, journals, historical writings, sermons, legal papers, and other documents. Besides providing the most comprehensive record of early Latter-day Saint history they will also provide insight into the broader religious landscape of the early American republic. (more…)
After the battles over New Mormon History in the 1980s and early 90s, Mormon historians (and I mean historians who are Mormon, not just historians who study Mormons) have been hesitant to discuss the relationship between faith and history. Or so I argue in a paper I’m presenting this weekend at the Conference on Faith & Knowledge (schedule here). In preparation for my paper, I’ve revisited a number of classic historigraphical texts from decades ago, and have been surprised by two things: 1) the amount of attention this thorny issue was given by earlier scholars in the field, and 2) the lack of engagement to a similar degree by today’s generation. There are, I think, several reasons for this, which I attempt to outline in the paper. But in this post I merely want to present a couple quotations from Richard Bushman’s classic essay “Faithful History” (pdf here), published almost five decades ago, and invite discussion. (more…)
“Beyond the Mormon Moment: Directions for Mormon Studies in the New Century”
A Conference in Honor of the Career of Armand Mauss
Claremont School of Arts & Humanities
Department of Religion
March 15-16, 2013
All sessions will be held in Albrecht Auditorium at 925 N. Dartmouth Avenue. (more…)
For those who, you know, do the communal studies thing, these might be of interest. (more…)
Over at The Junto Blog, there is a solid discussion on cover letters and CVs. (Go join the discussion!) Lots of good suggestions about how to prepare oneself for the captivity of the academic job market, which is good because there are a lot of obstacles to hurdle. Beyond the philosophical issues of how to present yourself, there are also lots of technical minutia that seem trivial but maintain a significant role in how you are presented to hiring committees. (more…)
Thanks to our great contributors and fabulous online community, Juvenile Instructor is stronger than ever. To perpetuate the “Era of Good Feelings,” we are thrilled to welcome two new permabloggers: Saskia and Natalie R.
Both have guest-blogged with us before, and have been active in the comments. For a refresher, here is how the introduce themselves.
Saskia Tielens earned her BA and MA in American studies from Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands. She is in her second year as a PhD student in Dortmund, Germany, and is writing her dissertation on the ritualization of Mormon history as well as teaching various courses in the American studies department there. Most recently, she was a participant in this year’s summer seminar on Mormon culture, led by Richard Bushman. Saskia particularly enjoys coming at Mormon studies as a non-Mormon, and considers the concept of funeral potatoes to have enriched her life.
I am a doctoral candidate in American history at Michigan State University. Prior to my time at MSU, I received my B.A. and M.A. in women’s history from Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. My dissertation examines the disjunctures between how Mormon leaders and young women envisioned ideas of a “Mormon girlhood” from 1869 to 1930. I analyze how the LDS leadership and influential church members created and presented their own ideas of an appropriate childhood and adolescence through church organizations and publications. Though many young women upheld these ideals, I argue that they used private writing, such as correspondences and daily journals, as a space to question, challenge, and often accept the leadership’s shifting attitudes toward women’s place and participation within the church. I am also interested in how Mormon conceptions of childhood and adolescence fit into more mainstream conversations about age and lifespan during the turn of the twentieth-century. After finishing a six-month research stint in Salt Lake City and Provo, I am finally starting to write my dissertation. I eagerly look forward to contributing to the Juvenile Instructor.
Please join me in welcoming these great additions to the JI community.
From our good friends at BYU and the Church History Department. You can follow up-to-date changes at the conference’s website.
Joseph Smith’s Study of the Ancient World
CHURCH HISTORY SYMPOSIUM
March 7-8, 2013
Jointly Sponsored by
The Department of Church History and Doctrine, Brigham Young University
The Church History Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (more…)
January means a lot of things. For me, it means biting cold and a desire to never leave the house.
But it also means new stuff from the Mormon History Association, which is a bit better news than the weather. First, the new issue of Journal of Mormon History was released. (Amazingly, with no letters to the editor!) You can find the full table of contents here. Articles include an examination of John D. Lee’s trial, a fascinating look at Mormon redress petitions in Nauvoo by new JSP editor Brent Rogers, and an article by myself and fellow JIer Rob Jenson on what a particular debate in 1846 between a Strangite and Brighamite tells us about the succession crisis. There are also, as always, a good mix of book reviews to keep you up to date on developments in the field. If you don’t already, make sure to subscribe to the journal, especially now that you can have immediate electronic access to new issues.
MHA also uploaded their January newsletter (pdf here). Here are a few of the highlights: (more…)
From our good friends at the MHA:
Dear Colleagues and Students:
I serve as chair of the Mormon History Association’s best undergraduate and graduate student papers awards committee. Each year we solicit nominations from students for these awards. Students may make one submission by sending me an electronic copy no later than February 15, 2013. The undergraduate award carries a prize of $300. The graduate award carries a prize of $400.
To be considered:
- the work must have been completed in 2012
- an electronic copy of the paper must be submitted to email@example.com by the due date
- the submission must include a cover letter which provides the student’s name, school, status, major, contact information (phone and street address), and e-mail address
Additional information can be found at:
Winners in each category will be contacted prior to the MHA annual conference, June 6-9, 2013, in Layton, Utah.
Please encourage your students to make submissions, and feel free to send this information to others who might be interested.
Weber State University
Ogden, UT 84408
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If you don’t subscribe to Dialogue yet, repent now and change your ways before the day of judgement arrives.
In case you missed it during the business that is the holiday season, the winter issue of Dialogue appeared on its website. As its lead article, our own Steve Taysom offers a fabulous look at one of the new and provocative theories in religious studies: Robert Orsi’s “abundant events.” This theory should be familiar with Mormons studies practitioners and Dialogue readers since Orsi, Richard Bushman, and Susanna Morrill did an interview about it in Dialogue‘s fall 2011 issue. Put simply, Orsi’s theory starts with the problem that plagues many scholars: what does one do with supernatural events that are claimed by the religious people one studies? Or as Steve summarizes, “how do scholars of religion account for experiences that are simultaneously irrational and real?” (4-5) Orsi’s response is to construct a conceptual category that both avoids the reductionism of skeptical scholars while still providing a framework in which the importance of the claimed experience can still be analyzed. Taysom examines the theory and sees how it works when applied to the study of Mormonism’s gold plates.
To summarize Steve’s fantastic article, I’ll gist his main argument, critiques, and conclusion, and then highlight what I think are the two most important aspects of the work. After giving a helpful summary of both the academic summary of religion as well as Orsi’s theory of “abundant events,” Taysom engages the benefits and pitfalls of such an approach. The biggest benefit, according to Taysom, is that “Orsi is attempting to create categories that bring religious experience into the ‘real’ world rather than attempting to fence them off” (5). But Taysom’s biggest critique is that Orsi never really explains whether it is the event or the narrative of said event that carries so much weight within a faith tradition. He is not willing to agree with Orsi that “abundant events…seem to exist and act independent of mundane historical agents” (9). For Taysom, it is the later narratives of the event that influence how people act and react, not the original event itself. “I can conclude,” writes Taysom, “that Orsi’s theory of abundant events is useful to the study of religion in general, and Mormonism in particular, only to the extent that it recognizes, accepts, or explains, in an explicit and clear manner, the role of narrative in the process of making the events ‘real’” (10). (more…)