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Revisiting: Mormonism in Transition: a history of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930

By: matt b. - June 18, 2009

This post inaugurates a new series at the Juvenile Instructor, featuring brief conversations reassessing the significance of major works of Mormon history.

In this post, matt b and Christopher discuss Thomas G. Alexander’s 1986 book Mormonism in Transition: a history of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930.


matt b
: In the first paragraph of Mormonism in Transition, Alexander recalls two problems that he confronted when he began work on the book. One was the torrent of sources – magazines, diaries, minutes, letters, and the like the period 1890 to 1930 presented him with. The second problem was less practical, and therefore, for our purposes, more interesting. Alexander notes that “there was no narrative base from which to began.” (ix) He credits Allen and Leonard’s The Story of the Latter-day Saints with providing “some additional detail,” but, overall, concludes that the sheer “scope” of the period lacked conceptual clarity until he found some threads with which to pull it tight. And those threads are rationalization, organization, clarification, explication. This was the period, according to Alexander, in which the Church was standardized. Note, for instance, that the title of his chapter on doctrine includes the words “definition and explication;” the sense here is of finality, that the “transition” in question was from chaos to the order of today.

The first question I’d like to kick around, then, is about periodization. It seems to me that thanks to Alexander and more recently Greg Prince’s McKay biography, we generally chop Mormon history into four quadrants: Joseph Smith, the territorial Utah period, and finally a transition period that begins in the 1890s and at some point around World War II, turns the church into “international” or “global” Mormonism. Is that your sense? Is “transition” a good way to describe this period? While certainly there were changes going on at the time, the very word “transition” seems to describe a period betwen two more important points – namely, I guess, the polygamist theocracy and our own time. And I wonder what things this highlights and what it downplays. Work in other disciplines – for instance, Mauss’s The Angel and the Beehive – suggests other ways to think about dividing up Latter-day Saint history.

Another thing that strikes me about the schema is how closely it parallels larger narratives of American history. Alexander’s book is one of the great monuments of the New Mormon History, itself a product of the social history of the 1960s and 1970s, and it reads like it – the work orbits around organization, institution, policy, and economics; there’s not much of a hint of the cultural history that was becoming popular even as Alexander was writing. His monograph resembles no other work of history so much as Robert Wiebe’s 1966 The Search for Order, which describes the American progressive era as the work of a burgeoning middle class interested in replacing Victorian gentility with “continuity and regularity, functionality and rationality, administration and management.” (146) Thusly did Americans born in a rural world of small towns and face-to-face communities based around familial connections create a modern technocratic society; thus did Mormons leave their agrarian theocracy behind for integration into this professionalized nation.

And, of course, as we are as much the products of our own period as Alexander is of his own, we see the gaps that we have been trained so see. Just as historians have largely moved past Weibe’s work in favor of interpretations of progressivism that emphasize cultural transformation, so do we want Alexander to provide deeper color in his meticulous and detailed accounts of policy and governance. On page 296, for instance, Alexander credits the decline of Pentecostal spirituality in the Church to the rationalizing effects of policy reform and doctrinal clarification. This strikes me as more or less a good argument, but I’m interested in other questions as well – did local Saints shrink meekly before First Presidency letters? How widespread was the doctrine that Talmage and Widstoe proposed – which Alexander suggests downplayed “supernaturalism” – accepted? Indeed, the deep success that the decidedly supernatural, “neo-orthodox” doctrine of the next generation’s leaders Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie achieved suggests that perhaps the “rationalization” Alexander proposes was not as deeply effective as, say, the cultural notion of respectability, a concept that has recently gained greater traction in cultural accounts of the progressive era.

Now, to be clear, we owe Alexander a great debt; this book is seminal and will not be going away any time in the future. I am, though, interested, as Alexander himself was, in how we might use the work he’s done for us to reconceptualize an era.

Christopher: Great thoughts, Matt. I think your observation that Alexander’s work fits squarely within the tradition of the social history of the 60s and 70s is key to understanding it (and the New Mormon History in general), and helps make sense of the framework which Alexander utilizes to make sense of progressive-era Mormonism. The parallels to Wiebe’s work are especially revealing on this point. Your point about periodization is also apt. Critiques of such an approach to the Mormon past have been leveled before (and as early as 1986). Grant Underwood published a piece in the Pacific Historical Review at the same time Mormonism in Transition was going to print that pointed out some flaws of the way we narrate Mormon history by distinct periods. I summarized Underwood’s arguments and some of its implications in a blog post in 2007 (see here). Much like Underwood’s article, though, my post fell on deaf (or uninterested) ears and received virtually no response. In another post more recently, David G. discussed some further implications of such a framework (namely, that it has led historians of Mormonism to ignore 20th-century history).

I’m curious as to the reasons why such a framework persists in reconstructing the Mormon experience. It’s worth noting that Mormonism in Transition came in third in the recent JI poll of the “Top Books in Mormon History/Studies.” Is it because Mormon historians (most of whom are Mormon) find that such an approach helps make sense of Mormonism today? Since you critiqued the use of the word “transition” to describe the period, let me offer my own thoughts on the potential inaccuracy of the word Mormonism in Alexander’s title. Don’t get me wrong; the people and events described by Alexander are clearly a significant part of the Mormon story. But Alexander’s book is focused almost exclusively on Mormonism in Utah and Utah Mormons. It ignores, for instance, the experience of the 10,000 Latter-day Saints in the U.S. South in the first decade of the 20th century, who did not directly experience the effects of “administrative modernization” and “new directions in church administration” that Alexander describes. All of this relates, I think, to the questions you pose regarding how local Saints received letters from the FP, how long supernaturalism persisted, and how significant (or effective) the rationalization of Mormon doctrine Alexander describes actually was. Saints in even the peripheral regions were perhaps even more immune to and unaware of such changes. As I recently argued at MHA, worship among Mormons in the South during this era maintained a continuity with Mormonism from the 1830s and 40s and such patterns did not change until at least the mid-twentieth century. In what sense, then, can we accurately describe Mormonism (collectively) during this era as being in a state of transition? It seems that further research into the lived religion of rank-and-file Saints living in both the ecclesiastical center and peripheral regions needs to occur to more fully flesh out some of these questions.



25 Comments

  1. I look forward to the balance of this series. I think the volume is popular, because the description of transition from cultural folk constraints to bureaucratic constraints is so helpful in making sense of what is going on in the modern Church. I’m not as certain as Alexander (at least in his volume) that the cultural constraints of the 19th century worked, but the bureaucratization is evidenced in most aspects of lived Mormonism today. The Canadian glossolaliacs by comparison, have less of an obvious contemporary imprint. The volume has been helpful in a number of projects that I have worked on or am working on, but as you say, the fact the a certain aspect of the church was systematized, doesn’t necessarily explain why it was so, or how the people in the Church reacted.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 18, 2009 @ 3:36 pm

  2. Two intellectual stalwarts addressing a truly important monograph–these are some of the reasons I love this blog.

    I think you both bring up great point. Specifically to me, I am interested in how this constructed “narrative” that Alexander presents has influenced later histories. For instance, Kathleen Flake’s Politics of American Religious Identity seems to follow the thesis of this being a period of professionalization and explication, focusing specifically on the first decade of the twentieth century–would she have assumed this to be as clear-cut had Alexander’s book been seen as the measuring stick of the era?

    The thing about “inventing the wheel,” so to speak, is how that wheel is constantly used long afterwards, especially if it was originally found as effective. Small corrections and nuanced interpretations may come, sure, but rarely is such a seminal piece overwhelmingly challenged (at least for a generation or two). I wonder what it would take to replace this type of book (not that it needs replacing). Perhaps it’s the growing cultural history that both of you point to that may force us to re-view the period.

    Comment by Ben — June 18, 2009 @ 3:50 pm

  3. Aside from Flake, Ethan Yorganson’s Transformation of the Mormon Culture Region and Tom Simpson’s work on Mormons studying abroad do a lot to fill in and illuminate gaps in Alexander’s work. Neither really challenges the overall interpretration of the era put forward in Mormonism in Transition, although both tinker a bit with the starting and stopping dates of the period. Both affirm that the period is defined, at least in part, by transition.

    But, as I argued in the post Chris linked to above, there is a great deal of continuity that cuts across 1890, especially in terms of race. I think the best way to change or alter periodization is to produce quality studies that, well, do it.

    Comment by David G. — June 18, 2009 @ 4:09 pm

  4. It should be noted that Alexander is currently working on a biography of a stake president during this transition period to see how these themes he pointed out in Mormonism in Transition played out on a local level.

    It is, however, still a white relative to Church leaders who lived in Utah, but it should still be informative.

    Comment by Ben — June 18, 2009 @ 5:08 pm

  5. How many projects does Alexander currently have?!

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 18, 2009 @ 5:11 pm

  6. What else is Alexander working on? When I asked him what his current project was, all he mentioned was this biography.

    Comment by Ben — June 18, 2009 @ 5:48 pm

  7. I understand a BY bio and a revised edition of Mormonism in Transition.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 18, 2009 @ 7:48 pm

  8. It’s obvious how to relate to 19th-century LDS history: origins, Joseph Smith, migration, Brigham Young, plural marriage, and the conflict with the federal government. But 20th-century LDS history doesn’t come with such ready-made categories. Superficially one can talk about growth and quote statistics about membership, number of stakes, and missionaries serving, but that storyline contributes little to understanding what was really happening.

    So I think what MIT did (the secret of its success) was to provide new and useful themes for the reader: development of doctrine; normalization of relations with the government; new social boundaries (the Word of Wisdom); professionalization (or bureaucratization) of LDS administration. It’s a well-organized book that helps the average reader make sense of the Mormon 20th century. I’m pleased to hear that a revised edition is in the works.

    Comment by Dave — June 18, 2009 @ 10:36 pm

  9. #1:

    Who are these Canadian glossolaliacs?

    Comment by Confused — June 19, 2009 @ 10:02 am

  10. Glossolalia persisted in the Canadian colonies (e.g., Cardston) quite a bit longer than the bulk of the Church. Mostly women, but some men as well.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 19, 2009 @ 10:29 am

  11. Matt and Christopher-

    Thanks for the post. You raised some interesting issues/topics that I’d never thought of.

    You especially got me thinking more about periodization, and how our current tendencies in that regard are likely heavily influenced by Mormonism in Transition’s publication. This all makes me want to engage in a little thought exercise and ask: what are the possible alternatives for periodizing Mormon history?

    I also thought the parallel between Weibe’s Search for Order and Mormonism in Transition was provocative. So thanks again.

    Comment by Brandon — June 19, 2009 @ 11:04 am

  12. Everyone knows why the book is in a period format, right?

    Brandon,

    I would not give Mormonism in Transition to much credit on this periodization idea. The entire 16 volume project was set up for the American church (particularly church headquarters) to be done in periods. Other books would look at the church outside church headquarters. Alexander was following the format he was told to by Leonard Arrington and co.

    Comment by Joe Geisner — June 19, 2009 @ 12:01 pm

  13. I think the “four periods” taxonomy can be dangerous at times. But so long as you realize it’s a general category and recognize that lots of interesting narratives and analysis can be done which doesn’t fit into that taxonomy then there’s nothing wrong with it.

    Comment by Clark — June 19, 2009 @ 1:23 pm

  14. Joe – while what you say is true, I’d note that 1) Alexander chose to characterize the period as he did; this post is discussing the impact of his characterization and 2) since the larger project (which was to include overlapping periods) was never completed, we were left with what we have.

    Clark – Sure, but the problem is, I suspect, that quite frequently we’re left stuck in your first sentence; it’s the default, and many stories of church history (such as, say, the Whitney documentary and most single volume narratives) do not even try to transcend it.

    Comment by matt b. — June 19, 2009 @ 2:15 pm

  15. I would like to echo Brandon’s question. What are the possible alternatives are there to the type of periodization offered by Mormonism in Transition?

    One possible way to answer this question would be to look at what the theme of transition in conjunction with the traditional periodization in Mormon history has caused us to gloss over. In his post, Christopher suggests that thing that is overlooked is the continuities in worship styles in the South during the early twentieth century with styles found in the 1830s and 40s. What else has been overlooked?

    Once we identify these things, it’s possible to suggest alternate periodizations and move beyond Mormonism in Transition as the default way of thinking. If we don’t do these things first, however, I think we are going to find the “‘four periods’ taxonomy” in place for a long time to come.

    Comment by Amanda H. — June 19, 2009 @ 3:17 pm

  16. Wow… sorry for the typos… I thought I had proofread until I posted it and noticed there were so many (Blushes in embarrassment) typos.

    It should be “What are the possible alternatives to the type of periodization offered by Mormonism in Transition?”

    And “Christopher suggests that one thing”

    Comment by Amanda H. — June 19, 2009 @ 3:20 pm

  17. Thanks Matt. I appreciate Christopher and your willingness to discuss this important book. I agree with your two points.

    I find it interesting to see how a book came about. I think it allows us to think critically about the work. The genesis for the sixteen volume history began in 1965 at a meeting with a who’s who of Mormon historians at the time. By 1979 Alexander had turned in his manuscript along with four other authors. In 1977 Arrington held a Symposium at BYU and it is the only place I know that each of the authors gave reasons for writing their particular volumes. Alexander gives a good summary as to why he wrote what he did. I would suggest reading the entire symposium transcript to anyone interested in the vision of Arrington and the authors who wrote for the historical department.

    Comment by Joe Geisner — June 19, 2009 @ 3:36 pm

  18. Proposed periodization for Mormon History:

    Joseph Smith (1820-1847)
    Territorial (1847-1890)
    Transition (1890-1945)
    Global (1945-2009)

    Traditional periodization for 19th- and 20th-century U.S. History:

    Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)
    Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877)
    The Development of the Industrial United States (1870-1900)
    The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)
    The Great Depression and World War II (1929-1945)
    Postwar United States (1945 to early 1970s)
    Contemporary United States (1968 to the present)

    It is worth noting that two-thirds of the chapters (1 through 14 out of 21) in the revised edition of The Story of the Latter-day Saints deal with only the first half of Mormon history up to that point in time (1820-1907 out of 1820-1992).

    Maybe we need think more carefully about the periodization of Mormon history in the twentieth century. This might help explain why that century has suffered from relative neglect in Mormon historical scholarship.

    Comment by Sterling Fluharty — June 19, 2009 @ 9:15 pm

  19. Every effort to periodize will be imperfect, if for no other reason than that the creation of “history” from the raw materials of the past is, at its most basic level, an imposition of intellectual and narrative structure on an essentially structureless mass. I am resistant to the quasi-positivist approach that argues that, somewhere, the correct schema exists (no one here is arguing this, I don’t believe). Mixing and matching different organizational schemas is helpful though. I think it is useful, for example, to acknowledge that a thematic approach to taxonomy yields a cyclical, rather than a linear, pattern. Emphasis on the Word of Wisdom, the School of the Prophets, the Relief Society, the frequency of second anointings–all of these came and went and came again during the 19th century in ways that both cut across traditional chronological periodization and point up the fluidity within each traditionally-defined period.

    Comment by SC Taysom — June 19, 2009 @ 11:11 pm

  20. Thanks, all –

    Amanda – I think Taysom offers some useful ways to think about this, as does David. The narrative of ‘transition’ seems primarily about institutional change and its ramifications. I suspect that if we overlay other narratives onto Mormon history – for instance, racial ones – a new story might complicate things.

    Comment by matt b — June 21, 2009 @ 12:15 am

  21. Great post Matt and Chris. I agree with your assessments and I’m excited for further work on the periphery of Mormonism and studies closer to the grassroots that will nuance our understanding of Mormon history and its organization.

    Comment by Jared T — June 21, 2009 @ 12:32 am

  22. One quick question for Matt. Your phrase “the cultural notion of respectability” sounds technical, but I’m not familiar with it. What does “respectability” mean here?

    Comment by Dane — June 21, 2009 @ 7:04 pm

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