Directions for Mormon Studies in the Twenty-First Century

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Editor(s): 
Patrick Q. Mason
  • Salt Lake City, UT: 
    University of Utah Press
    , May
     2016.
     288 pages.
     $29.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781607814757.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Arising from a 2013 conference honoring sociologist of religion and Mormon intellectual Armand Mauss, Directions for Mormon Studies in the Twenty-first Century collects twelve interdisciplinary essays intended to advance the academic subfield of Mormon studies. Conference organizer Patrick Q. Mason (Claremont Graduate University) edits the collection and contributes an illuminating introduction in which he chronicles the emergence of Mormon studies and the current state of the field.

Mason traces three generations of scholarship on Mormonism: church history, new church history, and Mormon studies. Mormon studies emerged in the third generation as scholars oriented themselves towards academic questions rather than theological ones. As Mason phrases it, “church history primarily faces inward, Mormon studies primarily faces outward” (2). According to Mason, intellectual interest in Mormonism dates back to Fawn Brodie’s biography of Joseph Smith (No Man Knows My History, Alfred A. Knopf, 1945), and continues through the remainder of the twentieth century in the scholarship of Thomas O’Dea, Juanita Brooks, Leonard Arrington, and others. The first generation of scholars was comprised of passionate insiders bent on documenting institutional history. As this church history gave way to a new church history in the later twentieth century, scholars unbound by institutional orthodoxies offered revisionist interpretations of early Mormon history (from Mormonism’s origins up to 1890). This second generation of scholars—most of whom were still insiders within the religious tradition—suffered from efforts by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ [LDS] authorities to discipline or silence them. Mason asserts that the current third generation of scholars is unscarred by that past, and increasingly directs its scholarship toward broader disciplinary audiences beyond the practitioners and institutions of Mormonism. The current breadth and depth of the subfield is reflected in the institutionalization of Mormon studies in secular academic programs, increasing numbers of doctoral students, the expanding number of academic presses with active Mormon studies series, and the proliferation of high-quality scholarship by new and established scholars in diverse disciplines.

The twelve contributed essays are organized in five sections. Parts 1 through 3 feature topics that Mason claims are at the leading edge of Mormon studies scholarship in the early twenty-first century. Part 1 includes two chapters reassessing twentieth-century Mormonism. Matthew Bowman argues against a standard interpretation of the priesthood correlation movement—a structural reorganization of the LDS church that occurred in the 1960s and early 1970s—as a conservative retrenchment. For Bowman, correlation is better understood as an alignment with progressivism’s positive evaluation of individuals and institutions. Jan Shipps traces the shift in Mormon ethnicity from reality to metaphor as the new religious movement became assimilated into the broader American culture.

Part 2 includes three chapters exploring Mormonism in the global context. Shinji Takagi analyzes the Japan Mission of 1901-24, exploring mission success in relation to the local religious and intellectual climate. Walter E. A. van Beek looks at the challenge of importing the unitary organization of LDS Mormonism into the culturally diverse context of sub-Saharan Africa. Wilfried Decoo offers a survey of possible research topics that could expand our understanding of global Mormonism.

Part 3 focuses on race. Quincy D. Newell uses the life of nineteenth-century African American Mormon Jane Elizabeth Manning James to challenge the traditional narrative about Mormonism and race. W. Paul Reeve, drawing on political cartoons from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, explores the transition from depictions of mythic, mixed-race, polygamous Mormon families as racially suspect to the modern impression of monogamous Mormons as overwhelmingly white and racially “pure.”

The last two parts of the book showcase work in areas that have, as yet, received insufficient attention by scholars. Part 4 includes three chapters that diversify theoretical models for the analysis of Mormonism. Michael McBride offers an economic (or rational choice) theory of authority in Mormonism. Gary Shepherd and Gordon Shepherd advocate for statistical content analysis of large sets of historical documents to aid in the interpretation of broad trends. Richard Lyman Bushman offers an argument for both nomothetic and idiographic approaches to historical questions, suggesting that the interpretive work common among historians can be expanded to a larger context by drawing on social scientific theories in comparative religions.

The two chapters in Part 5 explore scholarly possibilities in the historical and literary analysis of autobiographies and memoirs. Levi Peterson analyzes the posthumous autobiography of Wayne Booth (My Many Selves: The Quest for a Plausible Harmony, Utah State University Press, 2006) for its substantive content and literary style. Jana Riess begins by describing the rich record-keeping practices of Mormons, then argues that Mormon memoirs are middle-ground stories that span common tensions between personal identity construction and public witness.

The volume concludes with a coda by Claudia Bushman, offering an appreciative biography of Armand Mauss framed by her respect for his sociological insight in The Angel and the Beehive (University of Illinois Press, 1994). Mauss recognizes that Mormonism is socially constructed; he can write as both an insider and outsider, apologist and skeptic. His ability to cross boundaries mirrors the emergence of Mormon studies as an outward-facing subfield of academic scholarship in the twenty-first century.

Readers should not expect a comprehensive, systematic research program for Mormon studies to be laid out in this book. As Mason concedes, he was intentionally selective in inviting participation in the 2013 conference. He chose to focus exclusively on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to the exclusion of other Mormonisms. Moreover, invited scholars represented the disciplines of American history, religious studies, economics, literature, sociology, linguistics, and anthropology; but Mason did not include scholars in ethics, theology, political science, and philosophy. Finally, while three essays address Mormonism in areas outside North America, more global voices would be needed to balance the geographic representation. Nonetheless, Mason’s introductory essay is exceptionally helpful in tracing the emergence of Mormon studies, and his approach provides a model for analyzing the emergence of other interdisciplinary academic specialties. While selective rather than comprehensive, the twelve essays documenting distinct topics of interest and diverse methodological approaches to scholarship are informative in the subjects they do cover, and are likely to inspire and invite additional theoretical and methodological diversification in Mormon studies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nancy Menning is Assistant Professor of World Religions at Ithaca College.

Date of Review: 
November 7, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Patrick Q. Mason is associate professor of religion, chair of the Religion Department, and Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University. He is author of The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South and coeditor of War and Peace in Our Time: Mormon Perspectives.

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