From the (Historiographical) Archives: Mormon Historians “are still too much merely Sunday Christians”
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.
After outlining the basic post-structuralist critique of history that lambasts objectivity and acknowledges that “history is made by historians” (13), Bushman wrote this:
It seems to me that given these premises, the Mormon historian, if he is given to philosophising about his work, must ask himself what values govern his scholarship. What determines his views of causation, his sense of significance, and his moral concern? One might think that his religious convictions, his deepest personal commitments would pervade his writing. But in my own experience, religious faith has little influence on Mormon historians for an obvious reason: we are not simply Mormons but also middle class American intellectuals trained for the most part in secular institutions…
The secular, liberal, establishmentarian, status-seeking, decent, tolerant values of the university govern us at the typewriter, however devoted we may be as home teachers. Indeed, this viewpoint probably controls our thinking far more than our faith. The secular, liberal outlook is the one we instinctively think of as objective, obvious, and natural, even though when we stop to think about it we know it is as much a set of biases as any other outlook…
Now that we have abandoned the naive hope that we can write objective history, I think Mormon historians should at least ask how we might replace our conventional, secular American presuppositions with the more penetrating insights of our faith. (16)
And then included this in his conclusion:
There is a paradox in the very discussion of the subject of Mormons writing history. On the one hand, I wish to encourage Mormon historians, like Mormon psychologists and Mormon physicians, to think about the relationship of their faith and their professional practice. We are still too much merely Sunday Christians. On the other hand, I do not wish my categories  to be thought of as prescriptive…
The trouble with wishing to write history as a Mormon is that you cannot improve as a historian without improving as a man. The enlargement of moral insight, spiritual commitment, and critical intelligence are all bound together. A man gains knowledge no fast than he is saved. (24-25)
A few thoughts and questions to get a discussion going:
- If you haven’t done so, read Stuart Parker’s brilliant essay on Bushman’s “hermeneutics of generosity,” which is the best look at his historical methodology. (If you subscribe to JMH, which all of you should, you can download it here.)
- Do you feel Bushman followed this own approach in his scholarship?
- Do you think this is a fruitful approach to historical interpretation?
- And if you’d like to write my paper for me, then: why do you think today’s generation of Mormon studies scholars seem a bit less interested in taking such an approach?