I spent this last weekend at the annual American Historical Association meeting and since the American Society of Church History is an affiliated organization and holds its meeting concurrently, I was able to sit in on the Mormon History Association panel entitled “Teaching Mormonism in the Digital Age.” What follows is a summary of the presentations given. Jan Shipps chaired the panel with Kathleen Flake, Patrick Mason, and Peter Thuesen participating. Jonathan Moore was supposed to participate, but ultimately was not able to make it. Dr. Flake tried to incorporate some aspects from his paper into her own. For me, the most exciting part of the panel involved the glimpses of Dr. Flake’s upcoming work which looks to be groundbreaking. This rather long summary is from handwritten notes, so I make no claims to it being a perfect representation of the presenters’ ideas. Any mistakes are my own. I hope you enjoy.
Dr. Flake began with a presentation she entitled “Gendering the Study of Mormon History.” It sounded like the presentation involved some observations stemming from research for a future book about gender and the Mormon experience. She stated that her purpose was to interject women into the story of Mormon History without simply focusing on their oppression.
Before moving to her thoughts on gender, she spoke briefly about the question that Moore’s presentation was to have addressed on the pitfalls of popular culture in teaching about Mormons. Dr. Flake began by arguing that the media has become a powerful competitor in framing Mormonism, and she feared that Trey Parker and Matt Stone (of South Park and Book of Mormon Musical fame) have become the chief interpreters of Mormonism for students age 18-25. While some historians might say that such issues should be relegated to those in religious studies, Flake made the case that media portrayals can make serious historical consideration impossible for undergraduates. She then moved to the South Park episode on Mormons as an example of the powerful ways that such parody can frame Mormon history and thought. She used the example of the telling of the Joseph Smith story with a background track of “dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb.” She argued that the episode told the facts in a fairly straightforward and correct way, but that the events were painted as absurd through caricature. She stated that teachers of Mormon history face the problem of trying to retell the story of these events without the same soundtrack of “dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb” in the students’ heads. In short, the main problem is that students might know the facts about Mormon history, but they cannot understand them in their proper context.
She offered that one solution to this problem is to teach students religious humility and reflexivity by showing them how all religions have ridiculous stories that have only become accepted through age and acculturation.
Flake continued by offering that her own answer to the problem of inaccurate media portrayals of the Mormon story is to invite students to do “good old fashioned history.” She prefers to focus on the history of Mormon women. She informed the audience that rapid digitalization has given teachers many digital resources for this endeavor. Introducing primary sources will give students context by letting them see history from the point of view of women who lived it.
She proceeded to show how some of these resources might be used. She said that old political cartoons could be utilized to highlight how South Park is similarly a cartoon which will permit students to understand its construction as a parody. She showed a cartoon that portrayed Mormons with harems in 1884.
She suggested another resource might be old photographs of Mormon women which can be found at the Utah State Historical Society and in the near future from the Church Historical Department. These photos show serious women in serious families.
She finally pointed out that students could read the voices of women from the first generation of Mormonism in their diaries available in various sites on the internet. She stated that such stories would bring these women to life through their first-person accounts. She also gestured toward the Women’s Exponent as another excellent resource for finding women’s voices. She suggested the Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book at the Joseph Smith Papers Project website as another excellent resource. She actually had a handout with a wide variety of digital Mormon resources.
After addressing the value of primary sources she turned to the question of gendering Mormon history. She stated that the primary sources help recover the role of women in the Mormon story, but that gendering required showing how relationing the roles of women and men in the church changes the historical narrative or story. She began with the example of Emma Smith and her experiences as a transporter of the plates, the first scribe of the Book of Mormon, and a witness of the plates’ veracity. She also utilized the quote about Joseph not knowing about the wall around Jerusalem to show how Emma had acknowledged her educational superiority over her husband.
Emma was given ecclesiastical duties including that of expounding scripture and exhorting the saints. Her role was much different from the role of other Victorian women that became involved in religious organizations. She was not self-called, but she was set apart to a public function. Thus, the order of the priesthood, while attempting to be proscriptive, also created a legitimacy to women’s place in the church that rarely existed in other religious traditions. Emma was eventually called to preside over the Relief Society which was not simply about benevolence. Joseph instructed the women that they should organize in the same manner as the priesthood. Their work should be modeled after the Savior himself. They should be a society of priestesses with keys to the kingdom that ultimately were expressed in temple rites. Flake argued that the formation of the Relief Society with such authorization destabilized the patriarchal structure of the church as Emma wielded her authority against her husband to combat plural marriage.
She continued by pointing to Eliza R. Snow as another great subject for gendering Mormon history. When Brigham Young disbanded the Relief Society in order to quell the growing power of women in the church, the institutional power of the Relief Society was carried informally to Utah. When the organization was reconstituted in the 1880s in Utah it once again created strains. She pointed to passages from the Women’s Exponent which sought to upend Victorian companionate marriage. Mormon women wanted the vote and to participate in society. They did not want to docilely sit at home catering to their husbands’ every need.
Flake then turned to the question of whether such ideals were ever enacted. She argued that the questions needs further research, but that titles given to Eliza R. Snow such as presidentess and prophetess were signs of women investing themselves with the power of the equivalent male callings. Sister Snow was to the women what President Young was to the men.
Flake outlined a final example of gendered power in the Mormon retrenchment movement. Brigham Young empowered the women to help keep Mormons from becoming dependent on popular consumption from the East. They created their own enterprises and stores.
Flake argues that such women’s sovereignty continued through the first third of the twentieth century. She then reiterated her argument that historians need to study Mormon gender relations, which this means not downplaying women’s oppression in the church, but also focusing on moments of empowerment. She felt that such revisions could also be effective in helping combat popular misconceptions about Mormon history.
Peter J. Thuesen from the University of Indiana-Purdue University Indianapolis then gave a presentation entitled, “’A Bible! A Bible! We Have Got a Bible’: The Challenges of Teaching the Book of Mormon.” He began by admitting that the Book of Mormon is difficult to teach to undergraduates because it is daunting and complex. He also added that the same was true in Victorian America where Twain famous compared the book to chloroform.
Thuesen had recent taught a class completely centered on the Mormon experience. His initial offering attracted twenty students—two of which were LDS. He said that Romney and the impending Indianapolis temple had pushed the numbers up substantially for the winter semester.
Thuesen continued by outlining what he sees to be the four principle challenges of teaching the Book of Mormon: the Chloroform Challenge, the Evangelical Challenge, the Historical Challenge, and the Technological Challenge.
To combat the chloroform challenge, Thuesen suggested utilizing recent academic books that help break down the book’s plot and content. He suggested Terryl Givens’s Very Short Intro to the Book of Mormon and similar works of Grant Harding and Jana Riess. Such accounts can help students grasp the truly epic level of the book’s narrative.
Thuesen argued that the Evangelical challenge is quite a bit more difficult. He stated that he had read the account in 2 Nephi 29 attacking Sola Scriptura in favor of continuing revelation and had been corrected with Revelations 22:18. He said that many Evangelicals cannot get past the idea that Joseph Smith will be permanently condemned by God for his changes to the canon of scripture.
Thuesen then proceeded to outline the Historical Challenge. By this, he was referring to the tendency to try and judge sacred texts as history. He argued that students mistake the Book of Mormon’s history-like qualities with an actual history. Thuesen preferred to invite his students to read scripture story as story. This can be difficult because the Church makes historical claims about the book. When students come to think that Book of Mormon does not mesh with any part of “real history,” then they dismiss the whole undertaking. Thuesen points out that this tendency is not a uniquely Mormon trait and that the overall problem is that belief frames the way that everyone reads anything purported to be scripture.
Thuesen’s final challenge involved technology. He pointed out that Mormons have embraced both tactile and technological medias. This makes it easier to abstract specific Mormon scripture and take it out of context. It also means that Mormon messages get out to more people, but that more people also react to these messages in disparate ways. He stated that more arguments exist about Mormonism today than at any point in the religion’s history.
Patrick Mason concluded the panel presentations with a paper called, “What the ‘Bloggernacle’ Means for Mormon Studies.” He argued that in today’s world social media has become ubiquitous, and that this has resulted in Mormon themed and authored blogs collectively known as the Bloggernacle. Mason’s information came from a poll he took of current graduate students solicited on 4 major Mormon blogs. He received 113 responses. Respondents were three times more likely to be male than female. Most were in their late twenties to mid-thirties. His respondents read 86 different Mormon blogs, but only five had more than 20 mentions. The five were (from largest to smallest) By Common Consent, Times and Seasons, Feminist Mormon Housewife, Juvenile Instructor, and Faith Promoting Rumor. To give the scope of some blogs’ popularity he shared that BCC had received over 2 million visits in 2011.
Mason then proceeded to share what many respondents felt the Bloggernacle offers. Overall, most felt that it offered a space that fulfilled unmet needs for intersection between the intellectual and spiritual. Others felt it offered a sense of community, a space for critique, and a manifestation of the heterogeneity of Mormonism. A few graduates students felt that the Bloggernacle actually Balkanized Mormons by created very small and distinct spaces for specific kinds of thought and discussion.
Mason then offered some thoughts on what the Bloggernacle and its adherents mean. He pointed out that 83 percent of the graduate students reading these blogs have no training in Mormon History or Religious Studies and 75 percent had not ever engaged in original historical research on Mormons. He thus posited that the Bloggernacle works, in part, as a distraction and a way to maintain Mormon identity in the sometimes fraught world of academe. He argued that the Bloggernacle teaches students how to explain religious concepts in a secular way which in turn offers non-Mormons an easier access point into contemporary Mormon thought. He also feels that the Bloggernacle might represent Mormonism’s entry into modernity—the idea that religion cannot be the same totalizing force that it once was.
Mason then expounded some of the effects of Bloggernacle as observed by himself and his graduate respondents. He argued that the blogs sometimes enforced patriarchy by becoming “boys clubs.” He also posited that they might result in the dilutions of Mormon Studies into a forum for “glorified naval-gazing.” He thought that the Bloggernacle sometimes creates too many “arm chair” Mormon experts and can wield too much influence and authority amongst its adherents. Yet he also pointed out that no Mormon Studies book will come close to approaching 2 million reads. He also liked the democratizing attributes of the blogging community. He ended with a call that Mormon Studies should seek to harness the Bloggernacle’s positive attributes for classroom discussion.
Dr. Shipps then rose to field questions for the panel. She began by suggesting Kathleen Flake’s “Translating Time” article in the Journal of Religion as critical tool for professors trying to understand Mormon scripture. She also pointed out that she had taught a class called religions in the making which examined the origin stories of many different religious traditions. She thought that religious parody diminished when placed alongside similar traditions. She also stated that when she was elected as president of the Mormon Historical Association she was appointed the presidentess and that she finally understood what that really meant. Finally, she pointed out that the problem with pointing students to the Bloggernacle is that they will also find anti-Mormon sites.
Dr. Sally Gordon commented that the real difficulty in her classes on religions is ignorance about all religious traditions. Dr. Thuesen commented that endemic ignorance on religion is the fundamental challenge of Religious Studies discipline.
Dr. Flake took the conversation in a different direction by questioning if Mormonism’s newness creates a particular problem. She stated that antiquity conveys legitimacy. She stated that she the history of religion in America as one of constant innovation of which Mormonism is one strain.
Dr. Reid Neilsen asked what to do about Mormon students in class.
Dr. Thuesen answered that Mormons often have no real knowledge about the particularities of Mormon history.
Dr. Shipps stated that Mormons know how to tell what it means to be Mormon, but shouldn’t be relied on to recount Mormon history.
Another questioner suggested the Skousen edition of the book of Mormon for teaching about the Book of Mormon He also argued that having students read it out loud helps. Dr. Flake stated that facsimiles the 1830’s edition also can be helpful in that respect.
Another questioner asked if there is a place for the humor of South Park in class. Dr. Flake stated that she used humor a lot, but that the key is to always ask the students why they are giggling about religious subjects.
A final questioner asked again about how to deal with Mormons when they become hostile to the history that might be different from the story taught in Sunday school. Dr. Thuesen suggested teaching Dr. Shipp’s Journal of American History article to show that there are many strains of Mormon thought. Dr. Shipps suggested her “Prophet Puzzle” article to show that there are two ways to see everything. Finally, Dr. Mason suggested that teacher employ a heavy dose of primary sources. The underlying idea was to use Mormon’s trust of authority to see things in different ways by introducing them to the original authorities. Another audience member suggested that it might be good to give students articles written by members of the church that try to reconcile problems–though this was rejected by Shipps. A final audience member commented that the key is to get back to exploring what history is. There are no methodologies for evaluating faith or belief. Historians look at sources and they put the story together based on their readings of these sources.