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.

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…)

Guest Post: Brittany Chapman on Ruth May Fox, Mormon Women, and Political Rights

By: Ben P - July 25, 2013

[Today's contribution to this month's Mormonism & Politics series comes from Brittany Chapman, who basically runs the Church History Library nowadays.]

 “Stronger than my political convictions,” wrote suffragist Ruth May Fox, “was my belief in the political rights of women.”[1]

RMF_MiddleAgeSuffrageKCI’ve been thinking lately about how women view themselves, and the seeming monumental change in that perception since the nineteenth century. Often when we speak of women in politics during that time period, we instantly mark “suffrage” as one of woman’s greatest achievements. Our nineteenth-century heroines are those who touted women’s advancement in the public sphere—education, employment, and, most heralded, the vote. Rightly so.  Now four or even five generations removed from that innovation, the value of universal suffrage is obvious and marginalizing woman’s voice at the ballot box is unthinkable. It is easy to assume the value of the vote was always obvious and that every woman always wanted it. But alas, such was not the case for hundreds of thousands of women. So, who were the women who did not want the vote, and why? What were they saying? And, at the root of it all, how did they view themselves?

There is a fascinating piece by Susan Fenimore Cooper (the daughter of novelist James Fenimore Cooper) entitled “Female Suffrage: a Letter to the Christian Women of America.” Cooper, well-read and well-bred, represented a preponderance of women when she argued that they should not have the right to vote. In the same breath, she advocated women receiving higher education, equal pay for equal work, and other basic equalities. How did these seemingly inconsistent ideas of equality co-exist? (more…)

Call for Papers: “The Book of Mormon: Americanist Approaches”

By: Ben P - July 22, 2013

Editors:
Jared Hickman, The Johns Hopkins University
Elizabeth Fenton, The University of Vermont

Screen Shot 2013-07-22 at 14.05.46Over twenty years ago, Nathan Hatch highlighted a gap in the study of American religion, noting that, “for all the attention given to the study of Mormonism, surprisingly little has been devoted to The Book of Mormon itself.” Though scholars of US religion and culture have produced a wide range of work on Mormonism, its history, and its peoples in the past two decades, Hatch’s assertion remains largely true. In the field of US literary studies particularly, The Book of Mormon stands as a telling absence, perhaps because questions about what it is and where it came from have overshadowed discussions of how it works and what it does. This essay collection begins with the premise that, whatever else it may be, The Book of Mormon is a significant, world-altering literary text that should be studied as such.
(more…)

Hot off the (E-)Press: Latest Issue of Journal of Mormon History

By: Ben P - July 18, 2013

JMH SummerThis week, the summer 2013 issue of Journal of Mormon History was uploaded to the journal’s USU website. I’m pleased to say that it is a very solid issue with several provocative articles from up-and-coming scholars. You can see the full table of contents at the site, and everything is worth reading, but allow me to highlight four articles I particularly enjoyed (which also happen to be the first four in the issue):

1. Lee Wiles, “Monogamy Underground: The Burial of Mormon Plural Marriage in the Graves of Joseph and Emma Smith.” This fun, important, and smart articles examines the narratives Mormons told of their founding prophet’s marriages, and offers yet another sophisticated take on the changing perceptions within LDS memory. Along with Steve Taysom’s article along the same lines, we can easily see this dynamic tradition of interpreting the past in a way that embodies the present.

2. Christine Elyse Blythe, “William Smith’s Patriarchal Blessings and Contested Authority in the Post-Martyrdom Church.” I’m biased, since I research both the succession as well as patriarchal blessings, but this fills an important niche within both fields. Christine uses the robust body of patriarchal blessings given by William Smith during a short period of 1845 in order to examine the mercurial figure’s relationship to and position within a church in transition. (more…)

“The World Needs More Books Like…”: Jon Butler Reviews Spencer Fluhman

By: Ben P - July 09, 2013

FluhmanWe’re taking a break from our politics theme to highlight a recent review of Spencer Fluhman’s Peculiar People: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill, 2012) by Jon Butler. Fluhman, who teaches history at BYU, is, as many of our readers know, a mentor to most JIers, and a leading voice in the new generation of Mormon scholarship; he is also the new editor of Mormon Studies Review, which releases its first issue in December. Butler, recently retired at Yale, is considered one of the deans of American religious history, and whose books have worked to shape the field. (I recently attended his retirement conference and wrote a recap at The Junto.)

The review is found at the Journal of Interdisciplinary History, and starts with gushing praise: “The world needs more books like Fluhman’s deft account of nineteenth-century anti-Mormon literature and the fascinating American dialogues about religion that anti-Mormonism produced. Interdisciplinarity and historicity thrive simultaneously in A Peculiar People, and Fluhman’s marvelously succinct book as much elevates him as a historian of synoptic breadth as it uplifts his subject.” Butler also calls it “the quintessential history book.” High praise, indeed. (more…)

The Political Culture of Mormon History

By: Ben P - July 05, 2013

[This is the first post in our "Mormonism & Politics" series for the month of July; it also repeats and expands articles from a roundtable on "The New New Political History," hosted at The Junto in January.]

This political sketch of Joseph Smith leading a Nauvoo Legion filled with women embodies the intersecting categories of gender, power, and politics of political culture.

This political sketch of Joseph Smith leading a Nauvoo Legion filled with women embodies the intersecting categories of gender, power, and politics of political culture.

Methodological and historiographical trends tend to lag behind in Mormon scholarship, but many new theories typically do end up taking root and making an impact. The New Social History move of the 1970s became nearly synonymous with New Mormon History, post-structuralism influenced discussions of Mormon founding narratives, and phenemonological approaches have recently taken hold of projects that attempt to capture the lived experience of Latter-day Saints. These methods have all enriched the scholarship on the pages of Journal of Mormon History and enlivened the halls of the Mormon History Association, though incorporation remains stagnant and uneven, primarily due to the mixed nature of the field. The further progression of Mormon scholarship within the broader academy will depend on its ability to better appropriate these and numerous other methodological tools in order to produce a more sophisticated corpus. (more…)

July Theme: Mormonism and Politics

By: Ben P - July 03, 2013

[This post is co-authored by Ben Park and Joey Stuart, the two conveners for this month's topical series.]

In the 19th Century, Americans feared foreign "reptiles" like the Mormons and Catholics would infiltrate national politics.

In the 19th Century, Americans feared foreign “reptiles” like the Mormons and Catholics would infiltrate national politics.

Tomorrow, we celebrate the Fourth of July. In certain ways, the celebration embodies many aspects of our historical memory: the focus on the decisions made by white men separated from combat instead of the individuals who had risked their lives in battle for over a year, the sacralization of ideals that remained divorced from reality for many decades, and, most importantly, the emphasis on political language and principles over the practical ramifications and cultural experiences that resulted from those decisions. The document, words, and ideas of the Declaration of Independence are important, of course, but our narrow focus on a simple parchment written as a de-facto justification for actions that had already been taking place for months before, and would continue for years after, on our celebration of the nation’s “founding” highlights the limited nature of not only our historical memory, but also the way in which we define “politics.  (more…)

A Photographic Tour of JI at MHA 2013 (Plus Tweets!)

By: Ben P - June 10, 2013

First, this link will take you to a storified post that includes a majority of the tweets from the conference. The format is obviously brief, but it helps capture immidiate reactions and poignant ideas. I have tried to both keep them chronological as well as organize them whenever they get too populated. And as you can see, the tweets slow down rather quickly after the first day.

I’m not offering any cogent thoughts on the conference—on the best papers, the biggest ideas, the common themes—mostly because my brain is still recovering from lots of great discussions and brilliant presentations. (Hopefully we’ll have more reflective posts in due time.) But for now, I can share pictures with brief captions. We sadly don’t have pictures of every JIer—but we came close. And all the great quality pictures come from Andrea RM; the crappy quality pictures come from my phone. (more…)

Guest Post: David Walker, “The Mormon Image and Railroad Guidebooks”

By: Ben P - May 24, 2013

[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…)

Anti-Mormonism as the American Religion

By: Ben P - May 09, 2013

[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."

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…)

Series Introduction: Mormonism’s Many Images

By: Ben P - May 03, 2013

[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…)

Videos Available from the Joseph Smith & Antiquity Conference

By: Ben P - April 30, 2013

JS AntiquityA 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…)

Mormon History Journals Roundup, Spring 2013

By: Ben P - April 23, 2013

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…)

New Article: “Early Mormon Patriarchy and the Paradoxes of Democratic Religiosity in Jacksonian America”

By: Ben P - April 17, 2013

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.

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…)

New Book Notice: Matthew Kester, Remembering Iosepa

By: Ben P - April 11, 2013

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.

IosepaBut 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…)

Welcome to a New Mormon Studies Blog: Unusual Excitement, a Claremont Production

By: Ben P - April 08, 2013

claremontWhether 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…)

New (and loaded) Issue of Mormon Historical Studies

By: Ben P - April 03, 2013

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…)

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