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The Burden of Church History and its implications for Mormon History

By: Christopher - January 08, 2013

For those unable to attend this year’s annual American Historical Association held in New Orleans last week, Twitter is a godsend, and on Saturday night, the site was all abuzz as Laurie Maffly-Kipp, professor of Religious Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, delivered the presidential address at the annual meeting of the American Society of Church History.[1] Entitled “The Burden of Church History,” Maffly-Kipp’s address was a call to members of the ASCH to not abandon church history as the field of American religious history moves further away from institutional histories in pursuit of histories that analyze spirituality and deconstruct the meaning of religion.[2] I’ve yet to read the entire address, but Elesha Coffman has posted a helpful summary and insightful response at Religion in American History that I encourage all to read.

There are two things in particular that I thought might be of interest to readers of JI and historians of Mormonism. In calling for something of a return to church history, Maffly-Kipp was not (as far as I can gather) pressing for the sort of old-school, narrowly-focused denominational histories penned by scholar-pastors of yesteryear.[3] Instead, she was reminding 21st century historians witnessing an abandonment of traditional churches in preference for either irreligion or more generic and consumer-oriented spirituality in contemporary society that institutional churches are fundamental to understanding prior generations. As Coffman summarizes, “Historians who view the past with today’s skepticism toward churches, denominations, and institutions of any sort simply aren’t going to get the story right.”

I’m hardly worried that historians and histories of Mormonism are ignoring the importance of institutional Mormonism. Rather, I’d argue that historians and histories of Mormonism often ignore the importance of other Christian institutions in describing the culture in which Mormonism emerged and developed and to which it spoke. Closer attention to the nuances of institutional Protestantism and its theological debates, church governments, ritual liturgies, and social composition is crucial to understanding who and what it was critiquing Mormonism and who and what it was to which Mormons were responding.

The second point raised in the address is more straightforward in its implications for Mormon history. According to Coffman:

Maffly-Kipp did not only call for more church history in a traditional vein. She advocated comparative and international work, with a nod to the growth of Christianity outside the United States and Europe, and she also exhorted the ASCH to embrace a broader range of traditions, particularly Roman Catholicism and Mormonism.

Such a call is hardly surprising coming from Maffly-Kipp, whose own research on Mormonism is well known and highly respected and who has advised a number of PhD students writing on Mormonism. But it is significant, coming as it does from the President of the premier research organization in the field of American religious history at its annual meeting. To be sure, Mormonism has hardly been absent from recent meetings of the ASCH and its quarterly journal Church History has featured a handful of excellent articles dealing with Mormon History, including one by our own Steve Fleming. On a more personal note, I’ve found the ASCH to be a wonderfully welcoming and collegial organization, especially for young graduate students, and look forward to the next opportunity I have to attend one of its meetings.[4]

I wonder, though, if it is appropriate to read Maffly-Kipp’s call as not only a challenge for ASCH members to pay more attention to Mormonism (and Catholicism) and consider how each might speak to and challenge traditional narratives of church history, but also as a challenge to historians of Mormonism (that’s us, folks) to bring our work up to a level where we can more regularly and fully engage with historians of other Christianities. Perhaps the Mormon moment isn’t quite dead yet.

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[1] Okay, maybe it was just my twitter feed, full as it is of other historians of American religion. The Winter meeting of the ASCH is held annually in conjunction with the AHA.

[2] Or at least, that is my sense based on the live tweets posted by John Fea and others, and on Elesha Coffman’s report of the address.

[3] Just to be clear, that is not intended as a knock to those histories or those historians. I’ve found many such histories incredibly helpful in my own research.

[4] In 2009, I presented a paper at the Society’s Spring meeting in Montreal on a panel featuring fellow JIers Stan Thayne and Matt Bowman. It was one of the first conferences at which I presented a paper and received wonderful feedback from attendees and enjoyed getting to know others in the field in between sessions.



3 Comments

  1. I think that Mormon Historians should also respond to the call to treat Church History like a “society with the soul of a church.” (Quote is from tweet cited below) I think this is one of the better ways of explaining that the past is a foreign place, and so is any institution (including any church) in a different time period.

    This highlights the need for coming to grips with the implications and practice of new methods in history and religious studies, like Taysom highlighted earlier this week, and Bushman/Orsi have highlighted in Dialogue and other places.

    https://twitter.com/JohnFea1/status/287725441513553922

    Comment by J Stuart — January 8, 2013 @ 10:18 am

  2. Great stuff, Chris. Agreed on all counts.

    Comment by Ben P — January 8, 2013 @ 11:49 am

  3. Chris, this is great stuff! The call for historians to take seriously the joy in comfort that people found in their face and in there institutional churches is specially important. As a non Mormon, it can be easy for me to overlook or dismiss the real comfort Mormonism offered to believers.

    Comment by Amanda HK — January 8, 2013 @ 12:01 pm