Q&A with Stephen C. Taysom, author of Shakers, Mormons and Religious Worlds: conflicting visions, contested boundaries (part II)
Below is part II of our q&a with Stephen C. Taysom.
5) Following that, let’s get into the meat of the work somewhat. Your work seems to understand Mormons and Shakers as two manifestations of a larger theoretical argument; these groups use similar strategies of space and embodiment and reformation to draw boundaries between themselves and the world. You spend little time on the quest that many historians of Mormonism embark on: the search for influence, for parallels or context, for the cross-fertilization of ideas between Joseph Smith and Lee/Swedenborg/Ethan Hunt/Thomas Dick/Abraham Lincoln/etc. Is this a fair characterization of how you conceive of the project? If so, would you ascribe the difference to your training in religious studies, rather than in history?
I would agree in general with that characterization, although I think that “context” is key to the project—at least in terms of contextualizing the Mormons and Shakers in space and time and culture. Beyond that though, you are correct. I have no interest in searching for the possible roots of Mormon or Shaker thought except in a very few instances where I note that one or the other group may be borrowing or expanding upon ideas already extant (the Shaker view of the body as evil, for example). I am not interested in the debates that always ensue when dealing with the origins of religious thought. I prefer to let others hash those things out. I’m not sure I agree with the idea that, in order for a work to be recognizably historical, it needs to try and answer the types of questions that you mention. I tend to think of this book as basically a work of history to which a variety of interdisciplinary tools from literary studies, philosophy, anthropology and sociology have been applied. Because religious studies is, by definition, inter-disciplinary, I am sure that I was more open to a variety of theoretical avenues than I would have been otherwise. I think, though, that most “history” written by academics today is also much more interdisciplinary than some historians would care to admit. Also, your question emphasizes the similarity of the Shaker and Mormon models of tension, but I think the real key to the book is to understand the differences—to see that “high-tension” groups display marked diversity when it comes to the types of tension that they cultivate.
6) Many of the questions from our readers focused on these sorts of questions: how the Mormons and the Shakers understood each other, what parallels or mutual influence exist in notions of the divine feminine or spiritual manifestation; what role D&C 49 played in how Mormons understood Shakers, and whether there is a Shaker equivalent to that passage. Would you care to address these?
This is actually a fairly easy question to answer. Anyone who has read section 49 of the D&C knows just about all there is to know about the interaction between Shaker s and Mormons in the nineteenth century. I have found very little in the Shaker documents to suggest that they had much of an opinion at all about Mormons. The Mormon view is simply that Ann Lee was a false messiah and that her teachings were likewise false. Mormon –Shaker interaction was minimal, in large part because the Shakers generally eschewed active proselytizing and so were not in competition with Mormons for potential converts. It does not seem that either group played a role in the mental universe of the other. They did not spend much time thinking of each other as allies or enemies—it seems that others filled those roles instead. A potentially interesting project could be found in attempting to account for why this general silence prevails, but I did not deal with it in the book. On the question of parallels and the divine feminine, there is also precious little there to use. For the Shakers, gender was ultimately mutable because God was an androgynous being that was neither male nor female but which could, and did, instantiate itself as both. The Mormon view of the “Heavenly Mother” is quite a different idea and it emerges from a very different theological matrix that involved more than one self-contained divine figure with (apparently) immutable gender characteristics.
7) Let’s look closer at your argument. One thing we’ve talked about a bit on this blog is the issue of periodization (here and here). It’s been common for most scholars, following Jan Shipps, to break Mormon history at the broadest into two halves, pre- and post- 1890. Before 1890, the Saints lived in a sacred world, marked by their attempts at isolation both spatially (in Nauvoo or Utah) and culturally (through the embrace of distinctive religious beliefs and practices, particularly polygamy). After 1890, according to Shipps, the Saints abandoned these collective boundaries and instead sought distinctiveness in personal codes of behavior, typified by increased emphasis on things like temple worship and the Word of Wisdom. Your work offers an alternative interpretation, and a different way of thinking about early Mormon periodization. How do you differ from Shipps, and what do you think about the traditional ways of dating Mormon history?
The most important thing to understand about any schema of periodization is that it is an artificial construct imposed by the historian, rather than a natural division rising from the sources. Once that is understood, it becomes possible to play with a wide range of periodization schemas in order to draw out or emphasize certain trends or motifs that one finds in the archival traces with which we work. Jan Shipps makes a convincing case for her division of Mormon history into pre- and post-1890 segments. I have tried to argue that other divisions are also possible and that these new ways of dividing up our stories of the Mormon past act as helpful heuristic devices by adding new angles of vision. For example, I take the theme of physical boundaries and I develop chronological segments tailored to that theme. I don’t think that periodization schemas in general are mutually exclusive. My discussion here probably betrays my affinity for post-modern theory, especially when it comes to notions of narrative. I have found in traditional Mormon historiography a driving positivist impulse that leaves me a bit cold. There is a sense in which the past has been seen as a jigsaw puzzle, with the historian acting as the hobbyist who is digging up the missing pieces from the archives. This model holds that if only we can find all of the pieces, we can recreate an accurate and uniform picture of the past. I reject that view for a wide variety of reasons, and I think that most historians working on Mormon topics today would not accept my description as accurately reflecting their views. Nevertheless, this ideological underpinning is evident, for example, in book reviews produced by certain segments of the Mormon studies community. Any book or article that seeks primarily to interpret, rather than “discover” and report data, tends to be viewed as suspect from some old guard and well-respected (and gated) neighborhoods of the Mormon studies community. My sense is that this is changing, and it is none too soon.
8) Following up on your answer to 5, one of the interesting arcs of this narrative is the way in which Mormon strategies of boundary maintenance seem more flexible and adaptable than that of the Shakers. Your discussion of celibacy and polygamy illustrates this nicely; while Shaker celibacy was “stable” and universal, it also led to stagnation and decline. Polygamy, on the other hand, forced Mormons into a nearly constant state of crisis management. Indeed, Mormons seemed to thrive on crisis so much that they occasionally generated them, as you argue about the Mormon Reformation. Do you think you’ve identified some patterns here about the success or failure of New Religious Movements?
I’m fairly circumspect about attempting to apply the patterns I found with Mormons and Shakers to NRMs as a group. In fact, I think one of the main subtexts of the book is that these religious traditions that are often thought of as sharing a taxonomical neighborhood by virtue of being in high tension with society is not nearly nuanced enough. So the last thing I really want to do is claim some sort of broadly applicable model or to claim that “successful” groups tend to do one thing while those that fail do something else. The different historical contexts of each group preclude such conclusions, in my opinion. However, I hope that the book leads scholars of religion to ask more questions about how groups all along the spectrum of tension continually evaluate that tension.
And do you think this pattern of crisis management applies to Mormonism after 1890?
I have not studied the issue closely enough to make an argument either way. So much changed with regard to Mormon ambivalence about the place of Mormnonism and the individual Mormon in American culture in the early decades of the twentieth century that I think one must bring a different mindset to the study of Mormonism in that period. I don’t know how to think about tension in the later era because I have not examined the sources with that in mind, but it is clearly a very different paradigm at work. However, should someone have an interest in answering that question in a comprehensive way, I think the obvious place to start would be the 1978 revelation. But I will leave that for someone else to sort out.
9) Finally, are there any questions which you wish people would be asking about this book? What do you think is most interesting or important about it?
This is a difficult question to answer. I have been pleasantly surprised by the things people have taken away from the book and the questions that I get—as far away as from Bulgaria!—things that I didn’t even think would turn out to be important. The Bulgarian question, for example, came from a priest/professor who is working on a book about Montanism, and he found my methodology and arguments sparked new avenues approach in his own work. And, I suppose, that is how I would answer the second part of the question: my fondest hopes for the book are that it opens new vistas for scholars in a broad range of disciplines while simultaneously helping those already familiar with one or both of these traditions to see them in a new light.