Reflecting on MHA: Mormonism in Colonial Spaces, with a nod to our Series on International Mormonism
One of the questions that emerged out of this year’s Mormon History Association Conference was how we should think about Mormonism in colonial spaces. I had the pleasure of commenting on a session with Gina Colvin, Chad Emmett, and Russell Stevenson. Colvin began the session by exploring what it would mean to write Mormon history in a way that would take seriously the perspectives and lives of indigenous people such as the Maori. Emmett then detailed the lives of Mormon men and women living in Dutch Indonesia in the early- to mid-twentieth century. Stevenson rounded out the panel by exploring the meanings of conversion in British colonial India through the lens of the life of Mizra Khan, a wealthy Indian convert who wrote letters to church leaders about the legal and social status of his polygamous wives.
Taken together, the panel asks historians to think about the role of Mormonism in colonial spaces. In what ways was Mormonism complicit in the destruction of indigenous cultures? How did it allow for the preservation of cultural forms that would have otherwise been lost? What was the relationship between elite Mormon figures and the colonial regime? Colvin’s paper further asks Mormon historians to realize the politics of the histories they write and work to include indigenous voices.
Doing so is not easy. One of the things with which I have struggled in my own work is the lack of sources from which to include indigenous voices. Although there are a few letters and diaries from native Hawaiian and Maohi converts, they are far outnumbered by the sources produced by white Mormon missionaries. Furthermore, the standards of evidence of the historical profession militate against the use of certain types of sources that might be used to overcome this problem. Oral histories, although useful, are considered suspect by most nineteenth-century historians. As a result, historians are left using sources produced by white men and women and trying to reconstruct the histories and perspectives of indigenous people from. It’s a problematic endeavor, to be sure. It’s also one that historians working on the twentieth century – who are less allergic to oral histories and nontraditional sources – than historians working on earlier time period have an easier time dealing with.
In spite of the difficulties of incorporating indigenous sources, however, it’s something with which Mormon historians need to grapple. Writing histories that do not include indigenous perspectives and work entirely from the writings of white men and women is not a morally neutral endeavor. Instead, our choice of topics is a reflection of what and who we think are important. If we primarily write histories of elite, white men, then it suggests that it is their lives and experiences that we value. If we write mostly about people living in Nauvoo and Utah, then it suggests that their experiences should be normative and should be centered within church history. And, if we ignore the presence of non-white men and women in early Mormonism, then we suggest that they ultimately don’t matter.