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.