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Is Mormon History American History?

By: Christopher - October 30, 2007

David’s recent post, coupled with a review of a new book by John Turner over at Religion in American History, has caused me to reflect on the place of Mormonism in larger narratives of American history.  Recent historians of the Jacksonian Era have taken different approaches to the subject of Mormonism.  Charles Sellers, in his 1991 The Market Revolution, spent nearly nine pages of his chapter on “God and Mammon” explaining and interpreting early Mormonism.  Though his interpretation that “this patriarchal utopia arose from male panic [in which] the manhood of a generation of young fathers was threatened by inability to meet traditional family obligations” seems problematic and insufficient in explaining Mormonism, and in spite of careless mistakes in his discussion of the Book of Mormon (he repeatedly calls the Lamanites the “Amanites”), it remains significant that Sellers spent 1/3 of the chapter on religion on Mormonism.1

Sean Wilentz, in his more recent The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (winner of the 2005 Bancroft Prize and Pulitzer Prize Finalist), spends only one paragraph of the 800-page book on the Mormons.  He offers little-to-no interpretation of the movement, simply noting that Mormonism was one of the most successful and “by far the most daring . . . of the spiritual enthusiasms that swept through the Yankee Northeast in the 1820s and 1830s,” and that Mormons in Utah practiced polygamy.2

At first, it might seem easy to explain the strikingly different takes on Mormonism in each of the books by looking at each author’s interpretive framework.  Whereas Sellers sees “the Market” as the driving force of all aspects of American society during this era (a framework which popular religion fits easily into), Wilentz seeks to reassert “the importance of political events, ideas, and leaders to democracy’s rise” in contrast to “the importance of religion” (among other things) in the grand narrative of antebellum history.3  However, John Turner noted his pleasant surprise at “the amount of scholarship on evangelicalism and other religious movements that Wilentz digested and incorporated into his synthesis of the Early Republic.”4

I have yet to read Daniel Walker Howe’s new book What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (part of the award-winning Oxford History of the United States series), but it appears that Howe spends some time discussing millennial belief of the era, using the Millerites and Mormons as two prominent examples.  The new book has also received praise from religious historians Mark Noll and Paul Harvey, so my hopes are high that religion (and Mormonism) will be addressed at some length.

All of this leads to the question: how significant is Mormon history to the larger narrative of American history?  Is Wilentz right in granting Mormonism just one paragraph in a 800-page book on antebellum American history?  Or is Sellers (and possibly Howe) more accurate in devoting more time to Mormonism’s place in American history? 

 _________________

1 Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 217-226.

2 Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005), 634-635.

3 Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy, xx.

4 John Turner, “Wilentz, God, and What Hath God Wrought, Part II,” at Religion in American History, October 29, 2007.



14 Comments

  1. Sellers not only grossly misreads Mormon theology (and he does, even past ‘Amanites’), he grossly misreads American religion in general. Flawed, flawed book.

    I think Wilentz – though his treatment of Mormonism is sketchy – actually better characterizes the era, and thus better demonstrates the ways Mormons are representative of the larger scope of American history by more or less echoing Nathan Hatch. Hatch is a bit reductive, but he nails it when he points to the fundamental impulse toward personal empowerment and participatory religion.

    Comment by matt b — October 30, 2007 @ 3:06 pm

  2. To be fair to Wilentz, I must confess an error in my post on his book and allow that Mormonism briefly surfaces again in a second paragraph on the “twin relics of barbarism.” However, he doesn’t mention the Utah War, which probably deserved at least a word or two in his coverage of the Buchanan presidency.

    This, however, illustrates the difficulty of the question. How much space should Mormonism (or, specifically, Nauvoo, the Utah War, or the Mountain Meadows Massacre) receive? I can hardly blame Wilentz for instead writing about Dred Scott and Kansas.

    On the other hand, I think Mormonism is absolutely essential for discussing certain aspects of American history and identity during the 19th century. For instance, was the United States a “Christian” or “Protestant” nation? How did the United States treat religious minorities: Catholics, Mormons, and otherwise?

    Good to see your blog!

    Comment by John Turner — October 30, 2007 @ 4:04 pm

  3. […] Trinity Seven – SEO Blog wrote an interesting post today on Is Mormon History American History?Here’s a quick excerpt David’s recent post, coupled with a review of a new book by John Turner over at Religion in … and insufficient in explaining Mormonism, and in spite of careless mistakes in his discussion of the Book … ), spends only one paragraph of the 800-page book on the Mormons.  He offers little […]

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  4. One interesting thing about Sellers’ gender critique of Mormonism is that Bushman echoes it to a lesser degree with his discussion of Joseph Smith, Sr. Bushman does not go as far as Sellers by arguing that more men converted to Mormonism than women, but he does conclude that Mormonism was empowering for displaced males.

    Matt: I agree that that Sellers missed the boat, but I agree with Chris that the significance lies in the space dedicated to Mormonism in the interpretation of the period, not in the content.

    Comment by David Grua — October 30, 2007 @ 6:45 pm

  5. David: Does Bushman cite Sellers in his notes?

    Comment by stan — October 30, 2007 @ 6:47 pm

  6. Bushman doesn’t include The Market Revolution in his Works Cited, but he does cite two other works by Sellers. I find it unlikely that Bushman is unaware of Sellers’ argument in MR though.

    Comment by David Grua — October 30, 2007 @ 7:07 pm

  7. John, thanks for stopping by and commenting. I was aware that Wilentz mentions that “Mormon polygamy” was slavery’s twin relic, but because he didn’t expand on that, I didn’t feel it was worth mentioning.

    Matt, David is right in pointing out that I’m not necessarily interested in how Mormonism is situated in these narratives, but rather how much it is situated.

    Comment by Christopher — October 30, 2007 @ 7:07 pm

  8. I flipped through Howe’s latest to find two main sections that discuss Mormonism, one in the chapter on millennial beliefs and one in a chapter on westward expansion. Each section runs about eight pages. The first section chronicles the beginnings of Mormonism, including Joseph Smith’s visions and the emergence of the Book of Mormon, through events leading up to Nauvoo. The second section covers the events of Nauvoo and the exodus and settlement in the west. There are a handful of other scattered references in the book.

    Among other sources, I recall that Howe cites the Papers of Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling, Arrington’s BY bio, Millenarian World of Early Mormonism, No Man Knows My History, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, LeSueur’s Missouri book, and Cultures in Conflict.

    Comment by Justin — October 31, 2007 @ 7:40 am

  9. Justin, thanks for checking that out, and providing the mini-review. It sounds like Howe discusses Mormonism even more than I anticipated, which is great.

    And I think I’m even more excited about the sources used than about the amount he explores Mormonism in relation to the American experience.

    Comment by Christopher — October 31, 2007 @ 12:15 pm

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  11. […] I have mentioned previously that Howe discusses Mormonism (and religion in general) at greater length and more in-depth than do any of the historians who have previously treated this era of U.S. History at length. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Charles Sellers, and most recently, Sean Wilentz, have discussed religion to varying extents, but none as thoroughly as Howe.  […]

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  12. […] to know all the details. What is important is where they place us.” Similarly, a year ago Chris wrote a post on Charles Sellers’ The Market Revolution, in which Chris argued that the value of […]

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  14. […] by Charles Sellers and Sean Wilentz in each of their respective books on the era at hand, see here. Feel free to offer any reflections on any and all of those posts in the comments […]

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