I begin in the time-honored, much-ridiculed Mormon fashion of offering a disclaimer about my qualifications and a story about what happened when I was asked to give this talk.
The disclaimer: one of the great things about being an editor is that I never have to have any original thoughts. There may not be any good new ideas in this talk, in which case, all you have to do is submit some new papers to Dialogue so I can get my plagiarisms up-to-date. I’m also not trained as an historian, and the applicability of what training I have is highly questionable. I will therefore talk very fast so that we can get to the interesting part of the evening where you tell me about why I am wrong and what you are going to do about it.
And the story—Jared asked for a title before I really had an idea of what I might have to say, so I hastily invented a title, in hopes that, since Jared would be here with his laptop, he could just simul-blog something that would make me sound smart.
Nonetheless, I think there was a kernel of something useful in the title I made up. The idea came from something my father used to say to me all the time when he was trying to dissuade me from majoring music (in favor of something practical, like, say, German literature). He would always say that “music is too important to be left to professionals” and extol the joys of being an amateur (in the full sense of that word) practitioner. When he elaborated on the theme, he would note that amateurs have unmixed motives; regardless of their truly noble intentions, professionals’ motives inevitably become muddied with practical concerns. The heart of the amateur is no purer, but her love can remain unalloyed with vile commerce. The amateur also is in a better position to remember that music is not technique—it is a social act, it uses tools to communicate something essential about the human condition. Finally, the amateur intuits, and does not lose sight of, the truth that beauty matters, that its existence is vital.
I think without too huge a stretch, we can see how these qualifications might inhere in the amateur practitioner of Mormon history. First of all, Mormons are conditioned to regard recordkeeping, the preservation of history, as a religious duty. Besides journals, they keep histories as part of their religious history—visiting- and home-teaching reports, Sacrament meeting attendance tallies, Sunday School attendance records. Our most sacred liturgy requires literally a mountain of genealogical records . And our weekly Sacrament meetings, but most particularly testimony meeting, involve the oral transmission of historical narrative. Despite endless injunctions against storytelling, the bearing of testimony remains essentially the practice of collective oral history—situating mundane events of individual lives in a shared religious history and mythos.
And there is more subtle historiographical knowledge available to members of the church, as well. Either through the 7-Up-laced Hawaiian punch of a Mormon childhood involving lots of pioneer stories and circumlocutions around polygamy, or through the bile of the anti-Mormon tracts regularly supplied to converts by friends and relatives, most Mormons imbibe the notion that objectivity is impossible in the practice of history, that the ordering of events and emphasis of particular detail is fraught with subjective intent.
This subjectivity is often posed as a false dichotomy of faith-promoting history vs. anti-Mormon history , which is kind of a strange view of history, adversarial and binary. Still, it has both official authority and a good deal of cultural heft—many people think this way. Despite being oversimplified, it is a rudimentary statement of a fundamental historiographical principle, and it’s critical, I think, that Mormons are not totally susceptible to the notion that an historian can just say “what really happened.”
In fact, armed with the religious injunction to record history as carefully as possible and with the sense that “doing history” is a project with ethical implications, amateur Mormon historians have provided the raw material to keep a few generations of professionals happily occupied, and independent scholars have produced some of the most important and influential accounts of the Mormon past—Juanita Brooks on the Mountain Meadows Massacre, Lester Bush on the restriction of priesthood ordination, Linda Newell and Val Avery on Emma Smith, Todd Compton on Joseph’s other wives–being just a few of many examples that could be adduced.
Despite this long engagement with the past, the importance of history to the Church as an institution is retreating as it continues its transition from sect to creedal Church. For evidence of this (probably overly bold) claim, we might look at the most recent Sunday School manual for the study of “Doctrine & Covenants and Church History”—the material is organized by topic, rather than by chronology. There is little attempt at narrative history—instead, snippets and anecdotes from history are adduced to illustrate or emphasize doctrinal points or further devotional purposes. It’s not hard to see why this shift is occurring—we’ve moved from being a small, geographically isolated body to a large church, spread around the globe. The globalization of the church is disruptive, dis-unifying in ways we haven’t even begun to articulate, let alone deal with. Mormonism cannot be a tribe bound by shared history anymore—hence, the need for some sort of creed, for unity created by shared commitment to principles that can transcend national and cultural particularity. But, as the persistence of narrative in testimonies shows, such principles may exist more in theory than in practice; there is a very strong drive towards narrative, a need to fit the story of an individual life into something bigger. So, while the persecution-in-Missouri-trek-westward-Zion-in –the-mountaintops narrative is fading as a cultural signifier, it’s not yet clear what will take its place. It seems likely that many founding stories will be generated as the church flourishes in new geographies and cultures.
This is, of course, the moment where I invite you future professional scholars of Mormonism to ride in on white horses. Not (you’ll be relieved to hear!) to be Old Mormon History missionaries, or neo New Mormon Historians, or priests of proto-postmodern-post NMH Mormon Studies (or whatever it is the kids are doing these days). It won’t do for professionals to just do _better_ reconstructions of the past, with new documents and niftier theories; there is a much larger project that amateurs cannot do without teachers. It’s a building project, really –the construction of discursive spaces in which individual and local histories can speak, not just as anecdotes but as meaningful, important elements of a communally-discovered truth. I want to make a couple of tentative proposals about how that project can proceed.
First, Mormon Studies can begin to be less about time, and more about space. I’m thinking here partly about literal, physical space, following Foucault’s call for a history of space, and, even more, Edward Soja’s extension of that call:
So unbudgeably hegemonic has been this historicism of theoretical consciousness that it has tended to occlude a comparable critical sensibility to the spatiality of social life, a practical theoretical consciousness that sees the lifeworld as being creatively loated not only in the making of history but also in the construction of human geographies, the social production of space and the restless formation and reformation of geographical landscapes: social being actively emplaced in space and time in an explicitly historical and geographical contextualization.
So where are the Mormon geographers?? Our study of the spatial relations created by Mormonism is in its infancy (or maybe even its premortal existence). We’ve really mostly considered the vectors that spread out from here, from Utah. Even when we do history about people in the diaspora we do it along two axes—the chronological, and the one geographical line that goes to Salt Lake City. A Mormon Studies that paid attention to topology as well as chronology and narrative would make space for a thicker Mormonism, that more potential amateur Mormon historians could claim.
And it needs to be not just “how do we translate and explain American Mormon culture in new places”, but being willing to be influenced by the Mormonism that is created in other spaces. For instance, we should think not just about how to explain desert/springs to people in the rainforest, but how to understand scriptural metaphors of fecundity and lushness in the vernacular of the rainforest? What do we learn about creating space for families from European saints who have lived with a pluralistic family culture for decades? What can we discover about Mormonism from its different growth in its Midwestern iterations—the Community of Christ, the Strangites, etc.?
What professionals trained in critical theory and method can do that is more difficult for amateurs is to create discursive spaces, widening the borders of historical conversations from the reductionist “faith-promoting- vs. anti-Mormon” paradigm, with careful articulations of both historiographic methods and the larger discourse in which the practice of “history” takes place—the linguistic, metaphorical, and symbolic universe within which, and by means of which, a group of human beings understand themselves in relationship to one another and to the political, social and economic structures that define/constrain their experience.
It’s probably useful to first talk about some discursive spaces which are being abandoned. I’ve already mentioned one of the “ghost spaces” in Mormon discourse—the one in which the first vision was the first missionary discussion and many (most) Mormons had kinship ties within a couple of generations to Utah pioneers, and in which tribal and religious affiliations were virtually indistinguishable. We built a wing onto this space after the era of immigration to Utah ended, and emigrants from Utah joined local converts in the Mormon diaspora. But even with the addition, I don’t think it’s big enough any more. Another discursive space w was created by the New Mormon history (and its discontents). This space had windows on the past, but it was, in large measure, oriented towards its present. And it was situated in Utah, about halfway between BYU and the Church Office Building, I think. It was largely institutional history, or biography of church hierarchs. Although there were wonderful attempts to attend to previously neglected subjects, by defining “ordinary Saints” as not hierarchs, not bishops, for instance, or in constructing Mormon Women’s history as a special category, this kind of history inadvertently reproduced and reinforced some of the same power structures as the institutional church (neatly symbolized, I think, by the fact that the only time the Mormon History Association can manage to allot the Women’s History Initiative is a breakfast AT 6:30 IN THE MORNING ON A SATURDAY–Thanks—I needed to get that off my chest).
So, it’s all well and good and admirably jargon-y to talk about creating discursive space. But what in the world does that mean in this context? I don’t really know, but I can think of some of the rooms we need:
1) A room for talking about gender and family which doesn’t have masking tape on the floor for people to take sides in the mommy wars
2) A place to talk about church involvement in politics
3) A polygamy chat room
4) A theology workshop
5) A LOT more rooms with windows to other churches
6) A place to talk about the ideology of missionary work…
You get the idea. None of these rooms fit into the space of official or devotional history, or the New Mormon history, and they’re not the work of the sort of democratic history I suggested with my title.
However, what must be preserved from the “ordinary member”-created history I suggested in my title is the sense of history as an ethical project, which I asserted that Mormons possess to an unusual degree. This is something that scholars need to learn over and over from “ordinary” historians. So I want to talk for a bit about Mormon Studies as an ethical project, and a formidably difficult one, at that. In describing it, I want to turn to a couple of unlikely sources—
First, Talal Asad, in his essay, “Cultural Translation in British Social Anthropology.” He’s criticizing another anthropologist’s paper urging ethnographers not to be unduly charitable in interpreting the practices of their subjects for the British audience, that they ought to take a stand and go ahead and say they think a given mode of thinking or acting is primitive, or irrational, or simply bad. Asad (rightly, I think) points out that it is very strange to be publishing a moral judgment, either positive or negative, which the subjects of that criticism will never see and could not read.
Here’s the concluding paragraph I think might be relevant for us: He asks, rhetorically, why he has spent so many pages attacking Gellner’s work? And answers himself,
The reason is quite simple: Gellner and I speak the same language, belong to the same academic profession, live in the same society. In taking up a critical stance toward his text I am contesting what he says, not translating it, and the radical difference between these two activities is precisely what I insist on. Still, the purpose of my argument is not to express an attitude of intolerance toward an immediate neighbor, but to try to identify incoherencies in his text that call for remedy, because the anthropological task of translation deserves to be made more coherent. The purpose of this criticism, therefore, is to further a collective endeavor. Criticizing “savages who are after all some distance away,” in an ethnographic monograph they cannot read, does not seem to me to have the same kind of purpose. In order for criticism to be responsible, it must always be addressed to someone who can contest it.
Of course, trying to do Mormon history or Mormon studies involves power structures that are radically more complicated than the academic politics Asad addresses, and even than the problems of a hegemonic global North over the South which all social scientists have to reckon with somehow. Mormon scholars have very, very little power in relation to the institutional church, _especially_ if they are (and want to continue to be) also practicing members of that institution. And then there is the matter of how Religious Studies are situated in the academy, to say nothing of the harrowing problems of securing and maintaining employment, tenure, and collegial regard in an academic profession. But it is still largely a translation project, an attempt to mediate between “official” Mormondom, practitioners of genealogy and family history, independent scholars at various points along the spectrum of orthodoxy, and interested non-Mormon scholars of religion. Asad’s injunction, then, to address criticism to those who can contest it, might be one possible element of an ethics of Mormon Studies.
But how—the obvious target of some criticism is the institutional church, maybe the “Brethren” collectively or some few of them individually. They are surely in the best position to contest scholarly criticisms, but they do not engage the discussion, and, indeed, have sometimes tried to prevent it altogether. How can there be dialogue if only one side is willing to speak—how to construct a discursive edifice with half the building missing? I have no solution to this dilemma, except to say that I think it’s important not to deliberately exclude the objects of one’s critique from the discussion by acts of rhetorical hostility. Furthermore, I think critical work ought to be extended to consider the structures that constrain the subject position of institutional actors. Where they feel themselves sincerely constrained by the truth claims of the religion, or by the existential exigencies of a world-wide church and we ignore those forces while critiquing the effects of their choices or, worse, ascribing their actions to imagined motives of misogyny or greed or homophobia, then our scholarly competence as well as our ethics should be questioned.
I want to insert here an excerpt from an interview Dallin Oaks did with Helen Whitney, in which he explicitly addresses some of those forces.
It’s an old problem, the extent to which official histories, whatever they are, or semi-official histories, get into things that are shadowy or less well-known or whatever. That’s an old problem in Mormonism — a feeling of members that they shouldn’t have been surprised by the fact that this or that happened, they should’ve been alerted to it. I have felt that throughout my life.
There are several different elements of that. One element is that we’re emerging from a period of history writing within the Church [of] adoring history that doesn’t deal with anything that’s unfavorable, and we’re coming into a period of “warts and all” kind of history. Perhaps our writing of history is lagging behind the times, but I believe that there is purpose in all these things — there may have been a time when Church members could not have been as well prepared for that kind of historical writing as they may be now.
On the other hand, there are constraints on trying to reveal everything. You don’t want to be getting into and creating doubts that didn’t exist in the first place. And what is plenty of history for one person is inadequate for another, and we have a large church, and that’s a big problem. And another problem is there are a lot of things that the Church has written about that the members haven’t read. And the Sunday School teacher that gives “Brother Jones” his understanding of Church history may be inadequately informed and may not reveal something which the Church has published. It’s in the history written for college or Institute students, sources written for quite mature students, but not every Sunday School teacher that introduces people to a history is familiar with that. And so there is no way to avoid this criticism. The best I can say is that we’re moving with the times, we’re getting more and more forthright, but we will never satisfy every complaint along that line and probably shouldn’t.
So, of course we will have a different agenda as scholars, and will probably never agree that the Church shouldn’t be more forthright about sharing documents—we’re operating in a different universe, a different discourse, than church leaders are. But the passage above is remarkable, stunning, really, for its candor, its willingness to describe the position Elder Oaks inhabits. I think an ethic of Mormon Studies would have to start with that kind of honest assessment of one’s subject position and agenda—where do you locate yourself with respect to the institutional church? What motivates your research? What do you love and hate about Mormons? Who are you talking to? Why should your work matter, and to whom? Where are your loyalties divided? Are you writing to get a job, or keep one? Are you writing to persuade people not to be Mormons? Or to be feminists? Or to be more Mormon? That is, to whom is your critique (either explicit or implicit) addressed?
Besides this rigorous self-examination and articulation of one’s position in the various hierarchies and entanglements that are inevitable in the communal creation of knowledge, I think another maxim might be that one should, as fully as possible, imaginatively enter the space one’s subjects inhabit. I’d want to perhaps modify my title to say not just “Every Member an Historian”, but every member a subject of Mormon Studies. And I mean subject in its impossibly contradictory dual sense there—both as the subjects of your study and as the occupiers of subject positions in which they are architects of their own history and their own relationship to Mormonism.
This interdependence of professional historians and “Everyman” is elegantly articulated in a speech by Carl Becker in 1931, from which I unwittingly plagiarized my title (Carl Becker’s 1931 address to the AHA, titled Everyman his own Historian)
Played upon by all the diverse, unnoted influences of his own time, the historian will elicit history out of documents by the same principle, however more consciously and expertly applied, that Mr. Everyman employs to breed legends out of remembered episodes and oral tradition.
Berate him as we will for not reading our books, Mr. Everyman is stronger than we are, and sooner or later we must adapt our knowledge to his necessities. Otherwise he will leave us to our own devices, leave us it may be to cultivate a species of dry professional arrogance growing out of the thin soil of antiquarian research. Such research, valuable not in itself but for some ulterior purpose, will be of little import except in so far as it is transmuted into common knowledge. The history that lies inert in unread books does no work in the world. The history that does work in the world, the history that influences the course of history, is living history, that pattern of remembered events, whether true or false, that enlarges and enriches the collective specious present, the specious present of Mr. Everyman. It is for this reason that the history of history is a record of the “new history” that in every age rises to confound and supplant the old. It should be a relief to us to renounce omniscience, to recognize that every generation, our own included, will, must inevitably, understand the past and anticipate the future in the light of its own restricted experience, must inevitably play on the dead whatever tricks it finds necessary for its own peace of mind. The appropriate trick for any age is not a malicious invention designed to take anyone in, but an unconscious and necessary effort on the part of “society” to understand what it is doing in the light of what it has done and what it hopes to do. We, historians by profession, share in this necessary effort. But we do not impose our version of the human story on Mr. Everyman; in the end it is rather Mr. Everyman who imposes his version on us—compelling us, in an age of political revolution, to see that history is past politics, in an age of social stress and conflict to search for the economic interpretation. If we remain too long recalcitrant Mr. Everyman will ignore us, shelving our recondite works behind glass doors rarely opened. Our proper function is not to repeat the past but to make use of it, to correct and rationalize for common use Mr. Everyman’s mythological adaptation of what actually happened. We are surely under bond to be as honest and as intelligent as human frailty permits; but the secret of our success in the long run is in conforming to the temper of Mr. Everyman, which we seem to guide only because we are so sure, eventually, to follow it.
Neither the value nor the dignity of history need suffer by regarding it as a foreshortened and incomplete representation of the reality that once was, an unstable pattern of remembered things redesigned and newly colored to suit the convenience of those who make use of it. Nor need our labors be the less highly prized because our task is limited, our contributions of incidental and temporary significance. History is an indispensable even though not the highest form of intellectual endeavor, since it makes, as Santayana says, a gift of “great interests … to the heart.
I suspect those words are even more true of Mormon Studies—though your work will not be read by many, it can nonetheless offer gifts of great interest to the heart as it widens the sphere of Mormonism, makes room for more histories to become sensible in connection with a world that is bigger and more curiously wonderful than any of us can explain.
So–be wise, do good work, and publish it in Dialogue.