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Patrick Mason answers your questions

By: matt b. - March 24, 2011

Thanks to Matt and everyone at JI for this opportunity.

For those of us who are interested in Mormon history, particularly in graduate school or the early years of our academic careers, the question of how to position oneself is always a vexed one. I was one who very consciously did NOT want to write a “Mormon dissertation.” That’s why I chose a comparative topic: violence against religious minority groups in the postbellum South. Mormons were one of these groups, but at the time of my dissertation proposal I thought they would represent only a minor aspect of the study. I was as surprised as anyone when they turned out to be the best part of the story, and got twice the coverage in the dissertation and eventually became the centerpiece of my book.

Shortly after finishing my dissertation, I was contacted by an editor at a very good university press—in fact, my original “first choice” press—who asked me to submit my manuscript. I was thrilled, but told her that I hadn’t even touched it. She assured me it would be fine, and encouraged me to submit it as-is, which I naïvely did. It was promptly rejected, with one reviewer being rather scornful in his/her judgment. Getting the reviews, and being dropped by the press like a rock, was probably the most depressing day of my professional career. Moral of the story: never submit an unrevised dissertation to a publisher. I knew better, but was flattered by the invitation.

The only glimmer of light was that even the most negative review said that the Mormon material was original, and good. So despite some advice otherwise, I decided to focus my book on anti-Mormonism in the postbellum South. I spent another summer doing intense archival work. Then I rewrote the whole thing from scratch (though obviously incorporating some of the original dissertation). It was something of a gamble, because I was losing the comparative aspect and potentially branding myself as “just” a Mormon historian. But the more the manuscript developed, the more I was convinced it did in fact make a significant contribution—not only to Mormon history, but also to southern history and American history. Oxford UP had just published Massacre at Mountain Meadows, with considerable success, so I figured if there was ever a time to submit another manuscript on Mormonism and violence, it was then. Never underestimate the power of good timing.

In my early years on the job market I did my best to position myself broadly. This was partly tactical but it was always sincere – from the moment I stepped foot in graduate school, and still today, I consider myself an American historian in general, and an American religious historian in particular, with a special interest in Mormonism. Of course, my new position will give me tremendous opportunities to pursue Mormon studies, and I will take full advantage of it, but I wouldn’t have been offered the position at Claremont unless I had bona fides as a scholar of American religion more generally. It’s tough to tell, pre-Claremont, how potential employers viewed the Mormon scholarship on my CV. It obviously didn’t prevent me from getting two good jobs (at the American University in Cairo and back at Notre Dame). But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some search committees, or at least individual members of search committees, saw my work in Mormon history and held it against me. On the flip side, others might have been intrigued. I made sure that any Mormon scholarship I did was outweighed by other things, and so I think my CV, if looked at objectively, is one of a scholar who is interested in the broader story of religious minorities in America, though with a special interest in Mormonism.

It’s too early to tell how my book has been received by scholars of southern history; academic reviews take months and usually up to 2-3 years to come in. Frankly, I’ll be disappointed if the book is ignored completely, as I wrote the book with southern historians as one of my key audiences. I have gotten some good informal feedback from colleagues in American religious history. One bit of validation was getting my article, “Opposition to Polygamy in the Postbellum South,” published in the Journal of Southern History (August 2010). It distills some of the main arguments of the book specifically for southern historians, and was enthusiastically accepted by the journal’s editor (and a leading southern historian), John Boles, who also graciously wrote one of the blurbs for the back cover of the book. I’m convinced that this needs to be one of the futures of Mormon studies – reaching out to and being published in the premier journals of various non-Mormon, and even non-religious, subfields. The fact is that it’s mostly Mormons who read Mormon-themed books, no matter the press, but getting into a “secular” journal guarantees (or at least suggests) a somewhat wider readership.

Now that I have the freedom to do even more work on Mormonism, I’ve got a couple of projects in the hopper, although they are both still in infancy. One is a book on Mormonism and peace, coming out of an article I published in Dialogue several years ago and building on the really outstanding conference we just held at Claremont on the topic. Another project, which will be years in the making, is a full biography of Ezra Taft Benson. Why Benson? For one, I want to push Mormon studies more into the 20th century. Even more, Benson is not only a pivotal figure for late-twentieth-century Mormonism but also a key player in the ideological and organizational origins of modern American conservatism. Although I’d love to have the book out by the Republican primaries next spring, don’t expect to see anything soon—I’m just now starting to read up on the topic. (I’ll just cross my fingers that we have Mormon presidential candidates again in 2016.)

What do I envision for the Claremont Mormon Studies program? I’m fortunate to be building on a strong foundation laid by Richard Bushman, with assists from Claudia Bushman and Armand Mauss. I plan to maintain the current emphases on Mormon theology (as well as history) and women’s history. But I also want to use the program there to push Mormon studies into the twentieth century, as well as paying more attention to international Mormonism, especially given southern California’s strong connections to both Latin America and Asia. Claremont has a new MA program in religion and politics, so I could foresee that becoming an area of strength, particularly as I get further into my Benson research. For instance, I could easily imagine putting on a conference next spring on religion and American presidential politics, with Mormonism either at center stage or occupying a significant supporting role. The wide range of interests among the many graduate students at Claremont who are interested in Mormon studies will be one of the primary determinants of what I hope is a vast array of topics we cover in the classroom, in conferences, and beyond.

Which brings me to the question of the Hunter Chair’s relationship to the institutional church. Officially, there is no relationship. The Howard W. Hunter Foundation has no formal connection to the Church; it is made up of Latter-day Saints from around southern California acting as individuals, and is organizationally and financially independent from the Church. It was clear from the beginning that in order for the university to sponsor the endowed chair, the person filling the position would have complete academic freedom and not be beholden to the Church or even the foundation. However, the members of the foundation are faithful Saints who care about the Church as well as advancing Mormon studies at Claremont. Their investment in this endeavor is a significant trust that I do not take lightly. Without wanting to sound naïve, I am confident—or at least hopeful—that there will not be any significant difficulty in navigating my overlapping identities as a faithful Latter-day Saint and as a serious, credible, even critical scholar. Although not without some trepidation, I welcome the visibility that will come with the Hunter Chair: I am one who believes that scholars should generally be more (not less) engaged as public intellectuals, though always taking care to speak cautiously and responsibly. Nevertheless, the role of the scholar—no matter his/her personal temperament or relationship to the Church—is not to tell the Church what it should or should not do, but rather to provide thoughtful, informed, and considered analysis. Thankfully, I believe we are in an era in which significant portions of the Church hierarchy, and certainly the Church History Department, understand the valuable role that highly trained and independent scholars can have in helping us all better understand the Mormon experience (historical and contemporary) in all its richness and complexity.

Finally, a word on Mormonism and Catholicism, given my lengthy tenure here at Notre Dame, first as a grad student and now faculty. To some degree, it’s hard for me to say how much I have been formed by the Catholic character of Notre Dame, precisely because I’m still swimming in it. One of the things that I deeply admire about this place is its ability to be big-C Catholic and small-c catholic at the same time—that is, committed to both the particular identity of the Church as well as a universal, cosmopolitan outlook in line with the highest values of the academy. This is not always an easy paradox to live out, but in my mind it is a highly fruitful one. Perhaps this is my greatest takeaway, that the tension between particularism and universalism can be a productive one. Going with President Hinckley’s appropriation of an older mistranslation, hopefully we can forge an identity that is at once big-M Mormon and small-m “more good.” Furthermore, while I appreciate all the theological and historical work that has been done on Mormonism and evangelicalism in the past couple of decades, it’s time we shed our inherited anti-popery and start looking seriously at our Catholic counterparts as well.

After all, in the coming years Notre Dame football will be winning national championships while BYU is still hoping to get into a real conference. And I’ll be in southern California enthusiastically cheering against USC no matter who they play.

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22 Comments

  1. [...] Mason burns his bridges with BYU at Juvenile [...]

    Pingback by The Ridiculous and the Sublime – March 23, 2011 « The Ridiculous and the Sublime — March 24, 2011 @ 8:21 am

  2. Fantastic responses, Pat. Thanks for taking the time to answer each question. I’m just beginning to dive into your book, and am thrilled to hear about your future projects–especially the ETB bio. That’s quite the task, and I really look forward to seeing what you do with it. Best of luck as you begin as Claremont and congratulations again!

    Comment by Christopher — March 24, 2011 @ 8:43 am

  3. Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions, Pat. Can I just say you have the Mormon studies dream job? You get paid to actually teach Mormon history from an academic perspective without having to look over your shoulder or worry if teaching about seer stones or polygamy could get you fired. Too bad there are only 1 or 2 of those jobs out there right now. And thanks for the insights on your decision-making process for choosing your dissertation and transforming it into a book. Oh, and I’m also very interested in the ETB bio.

    Comment by David G. — March 24, 2011 @ 9:15 am

  4. Thanks! I eagerly look forward to see what you build!

    Comment by TT — March 24, 2011 @ 9:26 am

  5. This is fantastic, Pat; thanks for participating and offering such insightful answers. I just picked up your book two days ago so I look forward to reading through it.

    Comment by Ben — March 24, 2011 @ 9:29 am

  6. I researched ETB for a while with the intent of writing my dissertation on his political thought. However, I decided not to write a “Mormon Dissertation.” I do hope to write about him…maybe I will just do a review of Patrick’s book.

    Comment by Chris H. — March 24, 2011 @ 10:12 am

  7. Great responses, Pat. Have you talked talked with Gary Bergera at all? He has done a tone of work on ETB and I had just assumed that he has a bio in the queue, but I don’t actually know if that is the case. Part of the challenge for doing 20th century Mormonism is the Church’s better control over sources. Do feel that you might be able to gain access to materials that would otherwise not be available to scholars?

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 24, 2011 @ 10:16 am

  8. 20th century history! yay!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 24, 2011 @ 10:23 am

  9. “Part of the challenge for doing 20th century Mormonism is the Church’s better control over sources.”

    This is true, but I think that President Benson lived a much more public life than most 20th century leaders.

    Bergera’s recent article in Dialogue on Benson are very good.

    Comment by Chris H. — March 24, 2011 @ 10:36 am

  10. Thanks for the comments and well wishes, everyone. Gary certainly has the jump on me on ETB research and publishing, but we had lunch a few weeks ago and he was very supportive. He may or may not write his own biography, but certainly Benson’s life is rich enough to bear multiple treatments (including yours, Chris, if you decide to continue in that vein), and I suspect we would come at it with somewhat different lenses. Chris is right, that Benson was such a public figure that one could do a solid biography just based on public sources. I do hope to get access to some private and family papers, but am confident that a good book could be written regardless.

    Comment by Patrick M. — March 24, 2011 @ 10:49 am

  11. Patrick made his mark here at Claremont over the weekend by helping organize a wonderful conference on Mormon perspectives of war and peace. The entire conference is available online here: http://vimeo.com/album/1556999.

    Comment by the narrator — March 24, 2011 @ 11:15 am

  12. Great work and great news.

    Comment by smb — March 24, 2011 @ 11:35 am

  13. Pat,

    While an undergrad at BYU, I wrote a History 490 paper that dealt with the Southern States Mission — particularly violence and hostility directed at the missionaries. I based much of it on the journals of two of my great-grandfathers who served in the SSM during the 1880s and 1890s. I’ve alway wanted to do more with it, but never have. Clearly I am going to have to read your book.

    Comment by Dale Topham — March 24, 2011 @ 12:08 pm

  14. Dale, feel free to get in touch if you decide to do more with your 490 paper and want some friendly advice or feedback.

    Our conference on war & peace really was terrific — one of the most stimulating conferences I’ve been to (and I’m not just saying that because it was mine!). I think all the participants felt like we had a robust and productive conversation.

    Comment by Patrick M. — March 24, 2011 @ 12:26 pm

  15. “my great-grandfathers who served in the SSM during the 1880s and 1890s”

    That must have been when Mormons were democrats.

    Comment by TT — March 24, 2011 @ 12:35 pm

  16. A cousin and I have been doing some work the last few years on the history of our common ancestor, John Morgan, and his family. One of the major failings we have found in looking into his time as President of the Southern States Mission is the lack of a good comprehensive history of the Mission — it has been a continual surprise and source of some dismay that the materials on my blog are one of the top resources available online about the Southern States Mission.

    Your dissertation and book which I am currently reading have been wonderful resources and have supplemented an otherwise surprising dearth of published materials on the topic of the history of the church in the Southern States.

    I was hoping that as your career progresses, you would continue to have an interest in the history of the Southern States Mission. If that is not the case for whatever reason, perhaps you could encourage students and colleagues in developing an interest in the subject.

    Congratulations on your new position at Claremont and best wishes for a successful time there.

    Comment by Researcher — March 24, 2011 @ 1:21 pm

  17. The Mormons weren’t necessarily Democrats in the 1880s…but they definitely weren’t Republicans!

    I don’t plan on writing a history of the Southern States Mission, or even doing a whole lot more with that material in the near future. But I do agree that a good study is needed. The sources are incredibly rich, and I will definitely send any students who might be interested in that direction. It really is amazing how Utah-centric our studies of the late 19th century are, especially when there was so much going on outside the territory.

    Comment by Patrick M. — March 24, 2011 @ 2:01 pm

  18. My guess is that TT was making a veiled reference to a more contemporary meaning of the acronym “SSM.”

    Comment by Christopher — March 24, 2011 @ 2:50 pm

  19. Nothing to add except for my congratulations to Patrick.

    Comment by BHodges — March 24, 2011 @ 3:05 pm

  20. Pat, this is an excellent write up. Thank you for sharing the challenges and lessons learned in the process of publication. Like the rest, I’m excited to hear of your work on ETB and in seeing the program out there grow under your direction.

    Comment by Jared T — March 24, 2011 @ 4:23 pm

  21. Thanks Patrick, this was excellent.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — March 24, 2011 @ 4:24 pm

  22. After I read the review of Mormon Menace at By Common Consent, I had hoped to know find out more about the book and its author. And then I see this post here! Wonderful. Thanks, JI and thanks Patrick Mason.

    Comment by David Y. — March 25, 2011 @ 10:03 am