Mormonism in Cultural Context: A Special Journal of Mormon History Issue in Honor of Richard Bushman
The last few years have been a coronation of sorts for Richard Bushman–and rightfully so. After a prolific and prestigious career, the American Historical Association devoted a session to his work, the Mormon History Association distinguished him with their Leonard Arrington Award, and a group of former students held a conference in his honor. (I wrote my reflections of the conference here.) The most recent issue of Journal of Mormon History includes many of the papers presented at that last conference, including several JIers. I just finished the entire issue last weekend, and concluded it was probably the strongest JMH issue in years, as nearly every article was at an exceptionally high level of academic standards.
(It should be noted, however, that the issue as a whole was strong in a few very, very narrow fields: Joseph Smith’s thought, Mormonism and political thought, and historical thought in general. See a pattern? Now this is primarily the result of the participants’ building off of Richard Bushman’s own work–a commemorative issue in honor of Jill Derr would probably look much different, for instance–so the lack of engagement with the 20th century, material culture, lived religion, or, gasp, women’s history can, at least partially, be overlooked. But since these themes tend to dominate Mormon history in general, I maintain the “partially” qualifier.)
The list of contributors is impressive, including Claudia Bushman, Stuart Parker (whose paper is brilliant enough to warrant its own post), Phil Barlow, Sam Brown, Patrick Mason, Mark Ashurst-McGee, Steve Fleming, Mauro Properzi, James McLachlan, Jordan Watkins, and Richard Bushman offering some powerful concluding remarks–a very, very stacked line-up. The entire table of contents can be found here. After reading the articles from first to last, several themes popped out concerning recent shifts in Mormon historiography that I felt worth highlighting–shifts in which Bushman was often a primary mover, or at least a potent example.
First, as the name for the special issue notes, Mormon history is all about contextualization now. Sure, broader context has been a mainstay in the discipline for several decades, but only inasmuch as it illuminates specifically Mormon topics; the result often remained quite parochial, with cultural connections often flimsy or narrowing. Mormonism’s surroundings were important only if they proved or rejected direct cultural “borrowing.” (Or, as it was often framed, “stealing.”) But Bushman’s work served to buck that trend and introduce a much more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of Mormonism’s relationship with its surrounding environment–after all, his Joseph Smith book was subtitled, “a cultural biography of Mormonism’s founder.”
These articles demonstrate that methodological shift, demonstrating that their topics are relevant only inasmuch as they can be grounded in broader contexts. The results are innovated, provocative, and enlightening. Phil Barlow argues what what is interesting about the Mormon Prophet “is not the simple fact that Smith appropriated elements from his culture, but rather the particular, radical, and synthetic ways that he interpreted and responded to the crisis and opportunity presented at least in part by American and existential freedoms” (35). McLachlan’s paper explores how comparisons to German ideals demonstrate both changes and consistencies throughout Joseph Smith’s theological career. Steve Fleming notices how, when compared to the Platonic ideal of a philosopher-king, Smith’s concept of religious and secular leaders take on a new light. But all of these comparisons and broader frameworks are meant to do more than prove intellectual bibliographies. As Terryl Givens points out in his contribution:
I want to position Joseph as a prophet caught up in, and yet resisting, certain developments called Romanticism in his contemporary cultural milieu. In spite of my focus on intellectual contexts, I am not going to make any claims about derivation, or influence, for two reasons. First, in Joseph own conception of prophetic vocation, he emphatically resists facile notions of originality or intellectual theft. His words make clear, I believe, that he considered restoration a process of inspired eclecticism and assimilation. And second, as Lord Acton said, ‘Few discoveries are more irritating than those which expose the pedigree of an idea.’ I set the stage, rather, that we may have a fuller appreciation of how Joseph’s religious conceptions represented a particularly prescient engagement with the shifting currents of his day. (150)
The second theme that stuck out to me is the nuanced treatment of Mormonism and politics demonstrated in contemporary scholarship–nuance that was often missing in previous works that either depicted Mormonism as the bastions of religious liberty or the dogmatic response against American pluralism. In a pair of articles that work wonderfully together, Patrick Mason and Mark Ashurst-McGee explore the complex, shifting, and fascinating evolution of Joseph Smith’s political thinking during his earliest years, primarily rooted around Mormonism’s expulsion from Jackson County. Mauro Properzi’s sweeping article looks at how the LDS Church has understood “religious liberty” from Joseph Smith’s era all the way up to Proposition 8. All three of these papers speak of Mormon thought as existing on a pendulum, speaking to various issues, and reacting to a dynamic environment; all offer acute lessons for today’s infatuation with church and state.
The final theme is related to the first, but takes the point a step further. In the introduction, the editors (Spencer Fluhman, Steve Harper, and Jed Woodworth) astutely point out Richard Bushman’s legacy: “Bushman’s work has evinced the best of its professionalizing trends: archival mastery, documentary precision, and an enhanced attention to context and historiography. Bushman has pushed still further, though, moving beyond framing Mormonism primarily as a feature of western history to more fully connect it with the pressing questions of American intellectual, social, and religious history.” It is this last point–the importance of using Mormonism as a case study to understand broader themes, ideas, and issues–that is the future of Mormon studies; Bushman specifically makes that point in his contribution, “After the Golden Age”: “Future scholars of Mormonism,” he argues, “will contribute to an understanding of the broader world, not of Mormonism alone.” This approach is seen through several recent works, though also in a few of these articles. For instance, Jordan Watkins, in his article exploring how early Mormons “radically re-enchant[ed] and re-theologiz[ed]” issues of historical consciousness in antebellum America, doesn’t limit himself to a mere Mormon lesson: “Because it emerged within Jacksonian American and re-enchanted certain of the era’s influential ideas about history and time,” Watkins tells us, “early Mormonism’s varied and often implicit approaches to the past serves as an ideal window through which we can better view the shape of wider antebellum historical consciousness” (189). Of such is Post-New Mormon History.
 Perhaps the best examples of this approach are Sally Gordon’s The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitution Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America (2001), Kathleen Flake’s The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle (2003), and Jared Farmer’s On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape (2008)–in my opinion, the three best books in Mormon studies.