Thoughts on MHA: Mormon History, Succeeding Generations of Scholars, and the Need to Move Forward Together
At the Mormon History Association’s meetings two weeks ago (was it only two weeks ago?!), I attended several excellent sessions and roundtables. Each of the sessions I attended was worth the price of the conference registration—it was my favorite MHA I’ve attended so far. As usual, meals, hall conversations, and the student reception provided an excellent arena for sharing ideas about the research being presented, but also about the new developments in Mormon history and American religious history.
One session in particular seemed to spark more conversations than most. LaJean Purcell Carruth, Christopher B. Rich, Jr., and Paul Reeve presented on Orson Pratt and Brigham Young’s speeches on slavery at the 1852 Utah State Territorial Legislature meetings. LaJean, whose fabulous work is underappreciated, explained how these speeches were recently discovered and transcribed from Pittman Shorthand to readable English.[i] Rich, a graduate of the University of Virginia’s Law school (WAHOOWA), shared his research and findings on the legal precedents and definitions of slavery in the early 1850s.[ii] Finally, Reeve shared his research and analysis of the historical context of the two speeches—paying careful attention to the insight the newly transcribed speeches give to Mormonism’s understanding of race in the mid –nineteenth century. Reeve also described the problematic nature of Wilford Woodruff’s account (an account that has been used for decades as authoritative in Mormon history), and compared Woodruff’s account with the accounts transcribed by Purcell-which paint a much more nuanced view of Mormon leaders’ debates over slavery.
Rich’s somewhat controversial opinion is that Brigham Young’s rhetoric does not fall into the legal definition of slavery as was defined at the time. Young’s rhetoric, and the wording of the state legislature’s approval of impressed labor do not meet the terms of the legal definition of slavery. Reeve’s analysis also provoked discussion—he spoke on the context in which the speech was given and whether or not Young’s utterance should count as a religious statement with prophetic authority.[iii] Their respondent, a person that one person in the audience called a “patriarch” of the history of blacks in Mormon history, vehemently disagreed. The first questions from the audience also questioned Rich and Reeve’s findings.
As a person who agreed with the panel’s findings, and as someone getting their feet wet in the subject of Mormonism and race, I was somewhat concerned with the comments and questions that followed the paper presentations. Historians are accustomed to agreeing and disagreeing with each other, reaching different conclusions, and then publishing what our findings indicate. As new evidence is found and analyzed, the field changes and new avenues of research and analysis are opened and pursued. So it goes.
What I have just written is not particularly profound, but it raises the question—how do we as Mormon historians ensure that we build upon the work of prior scholars and not merely acknowledge them? Rich and Reeve’s work is not the first to be done on early Utah Mormonism and race, or Utah slavery, but it came to very different conclusions than the pioneering work in the field (some of which is nearly thirty years old). Rich’s legal training provided valuable insight—his work was discounted or not accepted by some who didn’t trust that particular approach. Both Rich’s and Reeve’s work complicate Brigham Young and racial attitudes in early Utah, ways that could be seen as “vindicating” Young, or simply arguing the semantics of what constitutes slavery.[iv] I hope that future research in Mormon history is not simplified into binary terms of “apologetic” or “non-apologetic”—but it seemed that in this particular case, some were inclined to see alternate views in these shallow, oversimplified terms. The reality of studying Mormonism in an academic sense guarantees that certain views and wide held conclusions will change over time. No field is immune from it; well, no field that thrives and becomes better, at any rate.
So how are the new generations of Mormon historians to build upon the work of the generations that have come before and made new contributions possible? If Mormon history is like any other academic area of study, there will be disagreement as the field matures. I hope/predict/beg that Mormon history (or the nebulous, much more broad subfield “Mormon Studies”) will become more theoretically savvy, where new conclusions will almost certainly challenge and alter the state of the field. Theoretically-driven work is not always as accessible to non-professionals, who will always constitute a significant portion of the cadre of historians of Mormonism; that isn’t to say that it will not be accessible, but I believe there will certainly be pushback on the new findings and their approaches. Pushback and disagreement is useful in academia—it’s how the field stretches and grows. We must be careful to frame disagreements in terms of evidence, theory, and approach rather than “that’s not the way I learned it” or “that seems to be too flattering/unflattering to the historical actors.”
I believe that it will take a lot of patience from the pioneers in the field, including mentorship of younger scholars and a willingness to publicly engage with the ideas on the terms in which new findings are presented. Those who study Mormonism have in the vast majority of circumstances been “most excellent” (in the spirit of Bill and Ted’s adventure) to those who are less experienced. Indeed, I believe it is one of the friendliest subfields in the academy. This means that there should be room for discussion and pushback—but I fear that too often arguments aren’t evaluated on academic terms. Work can and should be judged on more than just awards from MHA, book sales, or other arbitrary standards that may not indicate the value of the contribution (although these marks will continue to be influential). This will require the pioneering scholars to engage the younger generation on the research and quality of their analysis rather than whether or not it disagrees with their findings. Younger scholars will also benefit from seeking out the advice and mentorship of more seasoned scholars.
Mormon History will always owe an intellectual debt to folks like Leonard Arrington, Richard and Claudia Bushman, and other giants in the field—but the true measure of how we develop as a field will be the degree to which we can build upon their work and add new insight through research and theoretical models. This will require patience on both sides—BOTH those who built the foundation and those who want to build upon the foundation will need to cooperate with each other. It doesn’t matter if there are disagreements; it will only be productive if the different findings push research and discussion further than it has previously gone. I hope that each issue of JMH and each MHA conference can be called “the best yet” not only because of the quality of the research but the quality of the discussions that follow it.
How can we ensure that happens? We must not be afraid of disagreeing—although it can be deeply uncomfortable and is generally avoided in Mormon culture.
Following the Purcell/Rich/Reeve session, in hallway conversation and Facebook messages, many were excited about the trio’s findings. After the initial shock of hearing new information, many were excited to engage with the participant’s findings and incorporate it into their own work. I take this as a positive sign that Mormon History is maturing—I look forward to seeing the field’s development in the near future—and welcome suggestions on how different generations can speak to each other in the comments.
[i] An explanation of LaJean’s work can be found here.
[iii] To be brief, it’s problematic to say that Brigham Young thought he was speaking as a prophet. We all eagerly await the article highlighting this panel’s work in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Mormon History!
[iv] Again, I don’t want to give too much away since the session will be an article, but some audience members were concerned that the work was too “apologetic.” I didn’t feel that way, personally.