Behold here is the agency of man, and here is the condemnation of man: Because, that which was from the beginning is plainly manifest unto them, and they receive not the light.
-Revelation to Joseph Smith, May 6, 1833 (Doctrine & Covenants 93:31)
“Agency” is a buzzword prominent in both of the worlds that I, and other Mormon historians, inhabit on a day-to-day basis. Within the world of Mormonism, the word signifies a central tenet of Latter-day Saint theology, one that receives regular and sustained attention from church leaders and in Sunday School curriculum. In the historical profession, meanwhile, “agency” has been labeled “the master trope of the New Social History”—signifying the collective efforts of social historians to rescue from the dustbins of history the lives and stories of marginalized figures, including especially African American and Indian slaves, women from all walks of life, and others who left behind few written records and lived otherwise unremarkable lives.
Historians of American slavery thus often speak of their task as “giv[ing] slaves back their agency,” as they uncover the ways in which the enslaved asserted their own humanity, resisting and rebelling against the restraints placed upon them by a society which relegated them to (at best) second-class status. Historians of women do much the same, delighting in discovering examples of females from the past who challenged the sexist cultural mores of society in various ways. Most of this research is solidly-researched, interpretively sophisticated, and at times inspiring. Yet these efforts to restore historical actors’ agency is also problematic, as historians have more recently noted.
Writing on the subject of slaves’ agency, Walter Johnson thus pointed out that historians’ assumed definitions of “agency” are often “saturated with the categories of nineteenth-century liberalism, a set of terms which were themselves worked out in self-conscious philosophical opposition to the condition of slavery. … The term ‘agency,’” he continued,
smuggles a notion of the universality of a liberal notion of selfhood, with its emphasis on independence and choice, right into the middle of a conversation about slavery against which that supposedly natural (at least for white men) condition was originally defined. By applying the jargon of self-determination and choice to the historical condition of civil objectification and choicelessness, historians have, not surprisingly, ended up in a mess.
In order to “begin to sort this mess out,” Johnson proposed that historians “disentangle the categories of ‘humanity,’ ‘agency,’ and ‘resistance,’” and root their analyses instead in the day-to-day experience and understanding of the individuals and communities they study.
More recently, Phyllis Mack has argued that “liberal, secular thinkers” define agency in a manner that understands religion primarily “as a form of self-estrangement” and treats “the search for spiritual enlightenment as a secondary phenomenon.” In her provocative book on “gender and emotion in early Methodism,” Mack argues that we need to understand early Methodist men and women on their own terms and that in order to accomplish this, “we need a more complex definition of agency than the liberal model of individual autonomy used by most secular historians.” “Methodists and others,” she explains, “defined agency not as freedom to do what one wants but as the freedom to do what is right.” In short, for Methodists “‘agency’ implied obedience and ethical responsibility as well as the freedom to make choices and act upon them.” It also “implied self-negation as well as self-expression. The goal of the individual’s religious discipline was to shape her personal desires and narrow self-interest until they became identical with God’s desire, with absolute goodness. The sanctified Christian wants what God wants; she is God’s agent in the world.”
My sense is that many early Mormons inherited from their own religious upbringing and wandering a similar sense of “agency.” And my sense is that Latter-day Saint understandings of what “agency” means have changed repeatedly over the last 180+ years. And what I’d love to see is more attention paid to how Mormons have historically understood “agency,” how those changing historical definitions have influenced (or, perhaps a bit ironically, been influenced by) other developments in LDS thought and practice, and what that all means for Mormon theology and worship today. Any thoughts?
 Walter Johnson, “On Agency,” Journal of Social History 37:1 (Autumn 2003): 113.
 Johnson, “On Agency,” 114-16.
 Phyllis Mack, Heart Religion in the British Enlightenment: Gender and Emotion in Early Methodism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 9-10.