Family History and Mormon Scholarship

I recently read an article on Joseph Smith’s legal battles in a well-respected Mormon history journal. It was interesting and well-researched. Its main thesis, however, was that certain previous authors about Joseph Smith’s legal troubles had been “lying” (the author’s word not mine) about his trials, and Joseph Smith could have avoided martyrdom by behaving with more integrity. I read a fair amount of legal history, and suffice it to say that these are not the sorts of arguments that one sees in say Law & History Review. Folks accuse of others of getting things wrong or misinterpreting the sources, but short of scandals like the Michael Bellesiles debacle few scholars accuse one another of lying. Likewise, Monday morning quarterbacking of lawsuits that were concluded more than a century and a half ago happens from time to time — particularly in what is know derisively among legal historians as “law office history” — but by and large unless the quarter-backing is linked to a larger historical thesis such an argument is not regarded as particularly interesting or valuable. So what gives in Mormon history? Why is it that I often get the feeling that I have entered an alternative academic universe?

For a long time, I thought that what I was seeing was simply the large number of buffs and crackpots who are attracted to Mormon studies. “Fair enough,” I thought. “Hopeless dilettante that I am, I ought not to complain. Besides, the buffs and the crackpots are what give the field such energy. One doesn’t get this sort of passion reading prose churned out for the tenure committee.” More recently, however, I have decided that this explanation doesn’t go deep enough. Rather, I think that a big part of what makes Mormon history intellectually odd is that — all intellectual chest beating aside — the ultimate ur-structure of most Mormon history is not academic history but family history.

When recounting stories about great aunt Ethel at family reunions, no one thinks that talking about great aunt Ethel needs to be justified in terms of her relationship to some broader historical narrative. Rather, those of us interested in great aunt Ethel are interested because she is our great aunt. She is us, and we want to learn about her because we want to know about our family, about ourselves. Furthermore, the fact that great aunt Ethel’s story is told within the context of the family creates all sorts of emotional commitments. Some of us want to defend Ethel because we remember what a sweet old lady she was, and how she used to give use homemade candy when we came over to visit. Others are frustrated with a lifetime of the family’s conspiracy of silence about great aunt Ethel’s drinking problem — which she passed on to cousin Elmer, who everyone pretends doesn’t exist after he crashed Lizzies wedding wearing a pink leather body suit. Meanwhile uncle Jim takes it as a point of pride that Ethel once worked as a secretary to Calvin Coolidge, a story that he endlessly repeats. However, Jim’s brother Delbert — who has been sore at him ever since Jim talked him into investing his savings in Jim’s failed Edsel dealership — is just pleased as punch to have learned that actually Ethel never worked for Calvin Coolidge. Her boss was actually Jarvin Coolidge, who was no relation to Silent Cal. And so on.

It seems to me that the strange quality that one feels in some Mormon academic writing comes from the fact that — despite the trappings of scholarly apparatus — we are doing family history. At the end of the day, we find the Mormon past interesting precisely because we are Mormon, and we get excited about it — and uncle Delbert’s interpretation of it — precisely because we feel implicated by it. We aren’t disinterested intellectuals mining the past for insight. We are members of a family fighting over the triumphs of our clan and how best to deal with its dirty laundry.

13 comments for “Family History and Mormon Scholarship

  1. February 6, 2008 at 9:04 am

    Nate, I agree. Joseph and Brigham and all the rest, in a very important way, “are us” and it seems nearly impossible to approach Mormon scholarship without “all sort of emotional commitments.” I’ve been thinking about this in relation to RSR. While I think Bushman did an admirable job of approaching Joseph objectively, it must have been so difficult to know that everything Bushman wrote impacted both his own religion history and that of the many many Mormon who would read the book. I don’t mean to suggest that Bushman slanted his narrative accordingly, but only that such considerations do, in fact, seem nearly inescapable.

  2. Kristine
    February 6, 2008 at 10:18 am

    Nate, I think hardly any history is done by “disinterested intellectuals mining the past for insight.” It’s just that scholars’ emotional commitments are harder to map out if they don’t belong to some obvious group. But, as Laurel’s recent book shows, women’s history (for example) is rarely undertaken without complicated personal agendae. The study of German history is certainly fraught with tangled emotional investments. Mormonism is just more obvious. And Mormon historiography is young–there has been less time to develop theoretical mechanisms which can create distance or give the appearance of distance.

  3. February 6, 2008 at 11:15 am

    Kristine: You are probably right, but there is a strange dynamic in Mormon historical writing that I don’t see elsewhere. Maybe it is because the only other field of history I read in regularlly is legal history, which is well established and hence has a thicker patina of theory. Of course, it is not as though folks don’t get into heated debates over legal history as well, but for whatever reason I just don’t see them as being quite as personal. Perhaps I am wrong here. I would object however to any suggestion that theoretical mechanisms exist merely to give the appearance of distance. If well executed and well used theoretical mechanisms actually end up giving us more understanding than accusations that some other writer was “lying” to cover Joseph Smith’s faults or that the author could have played western Illinois politics in the 1840s better than the Council of Fifty.

  4. Jed
    February 6, 2008 at 11:16 am

    “The ultimate ur-structure of most Mormon history is not academic history but family history.”

    Isn’t all academic history family history? The question is how widely our family commitments range. The larger and more inclusive they become, the less likely we are to argue that issues about academic integrity (“lying”) are the most important point to be made. We may believe the author is fudging on evidence, but the rules of etiquette demanded by our larger circle of commitments demands that we blunt our criticism and locate significance elsewhere.

    It also helps to have a scholarly reputation to lose. Your Law & History Review friends have it. Many writers in the Journal of Mormon history do not. People whose peers have control over their job prospects write more circumspectly about those peers than otherwise.

  5. February 6, 2008 at 11:30 am

    “such considerations do, in fact, seem nearly inescapable.”

    I think that is right.

  6. tiredmormon
    February 6, 2008 at 1:59 pm

    Well, said. I have often fallen into thinking that Mormons will defend anything, just because it is THE church. But I like your insight; there is also a family connection there we are all trying to preserve.

  7. February 6, 2008 at 2:30 pm

    I am not normally one to go around accusing people of lying. But I have to say that I have seen A LOT of lying in scholarship related to religion and religious history, Mormon and otherwise. Religious studies differ from other disciplines in that scholars\’ loyalties to the credibility of their subject matter often trump their loyalties to the truth and to earnest research. And since most religion is basically indefensible, one can\’t have one\’s cake and eat it too.

  8. manaen
    February 6, 2008 at 4:26 pm

    Interesting posting, but I wish you’d use fictional examples instead of dipping into The Manaen Family History that went on-line last year. Ethel was a fine old woman, regardless of that business about

  9. February 6, 2008 at 4:45 pm

    Great post Nate. I’d not thought about it quite like that. But you’re absolutely right.

  10. February 6, 2008 at 4:48 pm

    To add – I think it goes both ways. You have the defenders of a happy narrative trying support their favorite uncle. Then you have those pissed at the uncle who are focused on a different narrative and perhaps as much focused on pissing off the others at the family reunion.

    I’d add that I think the biggest problem in Mormon history is less lying than it is omissions. And that definitely goes on in both camps a great deal.

  11. Aaron Brown
    February 7, 2008 at 12:55 am


  12. Joel
    February 7, 2008 at 1:44 am

    There have been some very insightful comments already in this post. Nate has tied the polemic of Mormon history to the importance of Mormon identity–especially in the context of a family. I think that some very insightful comments have been made about Mormon history flourishing mostly outside the constraints of conventional academic historiography and discourse. This outsider status makes ad hominem attacks much less risky than those made in conventional scholarly journals Also, historians generally try to give each other the benefit of the doubt because we know of the horrible barriers that must be crossed to obtain a PhD in history today (Sorry, I’m working on my prelims in History right now).

    Yet I would argue that meta-narrative is the factor that plays the largest role in creating the contentious nature of Mormon history. Most faithful Mormons believe that the Church holds some level of God-given “Truth.” Thus, the underlying narrative of believing Mormon history must run teleologically..Many believers, even scholars, assume that historical discovery will ultimately demonstrate that God is in control and that he guides the affairs of men. This core assumption of believing history contrasts drastically with the humanistic nature of disciplinary history which requires that humans direct the course of history. Current Historical methods allow no room for the quantification, analysis, or recognition of Divine intervention in the affairs of men. Nevertheless, believers must acknowledge the hand of Divine interventions, at least in a few specific circumstances–think the First Vision, Resurrection, stuff like that. The meta-narrative undergirding all believing scholarship is that God directs the affairs of men, while the meta-narrative guiding conventional history is the contradictory assertion that humans or chance must be responsible for all historical development. The New Mormon History advocated placing this meta-narrative of faith in the background of scholarship in order to more easily communicate with professional historians and hopefully capture a more “objective” view of historical events. In the process of obscuring the meta-narrative, some repudiated it outright. I would argue that most of the greatest disagreements in Mormon history actually develop out of contrasting views, whether real or perceived, about the Mormon meta-narrative regarding the “Truth” of a God-directed course of human history–especially in the case of the restoration. Just my own two cents.

  13. giggleman
    February 7, 2008 at 2:49 pm

    Terryl Givens has made the point in a few different places (most recently in a talk at Boston Univ. last Monday), that Joseph Smith and the first Mormons used the BOM more as a signifier than a signified to point to his position as a prophet and leader of the Church. In a more contemporary setting, missionaries are often told that one of the most effective and powerful tools to teach others is the power of bearing their own testimony. It seems to me that these facts have a bearing on this discussion; given that our faith is so new (relatively speaking), and that our religion/culture has such a strong communitarian-type emphasis, might it be that we are deeply invested in the characteristics of our forebears (spiritually, physically, or both) because that is one of the prime sources of our own faith? In other words, the spiritual qualities of the early leaders of the church were what motivated new members at the time to join the Church, and so on down to today, so perhaps we are interested in such family history because their spiritual strengths and weaknesses are intimately connected, in some sense, to our own, and serve to reflect our own character in some way, if only darkly.

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