1890 is a date that looms large in American history, thanks largely to Frederick Jackson Turner, who famously declared in 1893 that the frontier had “closed” three years earlier, and with it, a distinctive element of American identity had closed as well. Turner’s 1893 essay revolutionized how historians thought about the American past, as he pointed to the process of westward movement as being the core of American distinctiveness. The frontier was where civilization met savagery and the wilderness, where Europeans became Americans, marked by values of individualism and democracy. Turner’s essay also had the curious effect of creating a significant rupture localized at the year 1890, a chasm that left historians with few conceptual tools with which to frame the history of the American West during the 20th century. If American exceptionalism died in 1890, was there anything worth writing about after that date?
Gradually, during the 20th century western historians began to write on contemporary topics, but due to the inherited framework that dominated the profession, scholarship on the 20th century West didn’t really “fit,” and was therefore seen as a marginal field of inquiry. Although the seeds of a paradigm shift can be traced to the 1960s, it was not until Patty Limericks’s 1987 Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West, that a widely-accepted replacement for Turner’s frontier thesis emerged. Limerick’s subtitle indicates the thrust of her argument-that western history did not end in 1890, but rather most, if not all, of the themes important to the contemporary West had pre-1890 origins. Her contention was that there was continuity between the 19th and 20th centuries, and historians should cease envisioning a bifurcated past.
Coincidentally, Mormon history also has a significant rupture localized at the year 1890, around which historians artificially construct the past. Despite efforts by Grant Underwood to “revision” the Mormon past, and in the process transcend the artificial 1890 barrier, historians continue to concentrate most of their research in the pre-1890 period. It could also be argued that a similar rupture exists around the year 1844, or perhaps 1847. My own tally of important works on Mormonism confirms in my own mind that most of the work on Mormon history looks at the period from 1820-1844/47, while a smaller number of works examine the period from 1847-1890, leaving only a handful of publications on the 20th century. A glance at any schedule for the yearly Mormon History Association conference likewise indicates that most historians today emphasize the early period over the later period.
I won’t pretend here in this post to produce a Limerickian paradigm shift that opens up a new framework within which we can imagine the continuities that transcend 1890. If Underwood’s article couldn’t produce that kind of conceptual transition, no blog post can. I suspect we’ll need a book as cogently argued as The Legacy of Conquest to do that. But let it suffice to say that I don’t believe that fewer historians are writing on Mormonism’s second century simply because it’s more recent, and that once we’ve covered the 19th century we’ll get to the 20th. Like western history, our bifurcated past is the product of deeply ingrained frameworks that we’ve inherited, and that at some point, need to be rethought at a very basic level.
But here are some thoughts I have on how historians have begun to transcend the 1890 barrier. All the works I’m about to discuss deal with the 20th century, but can, I think, be shown to have roots in an unbroken past. The most important works on the 20th century, in my opinion, have concentrated on three themes-identity, race, and gender/sexuality. In terms of identity, Kathleen Flake’s The Politics of Religious Identity traces the painful efforts of church leaders to move into, and be accepted by, the American mainstream. Armand Mauss’s The Angel and the Beehive likewise examines Mormon identity in relation to the mainstream, and provides a useful model for understanding the boundary maintenance strategies of a marginalized group. Jan Shipps’s forthcoming work on Mormon identity post-1945 promises to open up important avenues of research on how we’ve moved from seeing ourselves as a people to seeing ourselves a church. Lastly, the forthcoming work on Mormon migration out of Utah should likewise be a promising start to what doubtless is a central theme in 20th century Mormon history.
For race, Armand Mauss again has played a key role in helping us to understand the place not only of African Americans in Mormonism, but also Latinos and Native Americans in his monumental All Abraham’s Children. Although it is not widely available, Newell Bringhurst’s Saints, Slaves, and Blacks remains the best single volume history of Mormonism and blacks. R. Warren Metcalf’s Termination’s Legacy: The Discarded Indians of Utah (which I will be reviewing in a multi-post series shortly) contains the best examination of the role played by Mormon attorneys and politicians in the ill-fated federal termination policy for Native Americans of the 1950s (to be clear, treaties, not the Indians themselves, were terminated). Jorge Iber’s Hispanics in the Mormon Zion, 1912-1999 remains the best analysis of Mormon Latinos in the U.S.
For gender and sexuality, Martha Sontagg Bradley’s Pedestals and Podiums is the best look at the role of Utah’s women and the church in the battle over, and eventual defeat of, the Equal Rights Amendment. Brian Hales has produced the best, even if it’s not as scholarly as we’d like, analysis of Mormon Fundamentalism, in Modern Polygamy and Mormon Fundamentalism.
There are a few important works that span several decades, such as Tom Alexander’s seminal Mormonism in Transition, Ethan Yorganson’s Transformation of the Mormon Culture Region, and D. Michael Quinn’s Extensions of Power. Also, biographies of Heber J. Grant, David O. McKay, and Spencer W. Kimball remain important contributions to our understandings of the 20th century. Other related areas of 20th century Mormonism have been the topics of book chapters and graduate theses, such as Mormon anticommunism, Mormon involvement in the MX missile crisis, and Mormon interactions with the academy and secular education. In terms of the international church, I think we’re still waiting for our first really solid scholarly work (hurry up, Reid!), although there are scattered works on the church in Mexico, Canada, and other places outside of the United States. I’m still waiting for a thorough discussion of Mormon connections with the Religious Right and the Moral Majority. I suspect we’ll be seeing a book in the near future, from D. Michael Quinn, on Mormon anti-gay rights activism (or, if you will, pro-family activism). I’ve also neglected works on other Restoration groups, such as the Community of Christ, but I suspect that there are important works there to be named.
I imagine I’ve missed some important works, but that’s what the comments are for, right? What other books and themes can be fruitfully used to illuminate Mormonism’s second century? Perhaps more importantly, what new frameworks can we identify that will transcend the 1890 rupture?