Since the publication of Leonard Arrington’s Great Basin Kingdon, the writing of Mormon history has largely been professionalized. The major players in the field are no longer autodidacts like B.H. Roberts or Joseph Fielding Smith. Rather, they are by and large university trained historians, generally with an emphasis on 19th century American history. So here is my question, if we think of ourselves not as Mormons but as students of history, has the “New Mormon History” (if I may use that now loaded phrase) taught us anything? My answer: Not much.
Obviously, we have a whole bunch of fun stuff that we have learned about Mormonism, but my question is has the study of Mormon history taught us anything about history in general? It is not clear that it really has.
Consider for example two pillars of the New Mormon Historical establishment: Leonard Arrington and Michael Quinn. Arrington was originally an ecnomic historian and Great Basin Kingdom was an economic history. However, by economic history Arrington meant something like the study of church businesses and Latter-day Saint commercial activity. What he offers us is a compilation of facts and a vaguely articulated vision of Brigham Young as a kind of proto-New Dealer. If you weren’t interested in Mormon history per se it is not clear that you would learn much of anything about economic history by reading Arrington. There is no new theory of economic change or the role of economics in history in Arrington’s book. Indeed, there is almost no theory of any kind. Compare this kind of economic history, with say Douglas North, Structure and Change in Economic History, which offers a model why you see economic and political change overtime. This may not be an entirely fair comparison, Doug North got the Nobel Prize in economics and the so-called New Institutional Economics that he pioneered didn’t exist when Arrington was writing. Arrington would have had the rather vapid tools of classical microeconomics and Keynsian Macroeconomics, neither of which is much use in studying LDS economic experience. On the other hand, why has no Mormon tried to use the NIE to discuss Mormonism? Where is our imagination?
Next consider Michael Quinn. In a back cover blurb for his book Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, R. Laurence Moore says “Impressive . . . Quinn’s argument . . . has implications for cultural interpretation that go well beyond the origins of Mormonism.” And what exactly are those implications? You would read Quinn’s book in vain to find them. What Quinn offers us is a truely hurculean bit of archival research. His book is vast, glorius, bubbling mass of fun and wierd facts. He makes a nod toward synthesis in his opening and closing chapters, but only to offer a couple of types and theories which he almost immediately abandons in his orgy of footnotes and sources. In short, Quinn’s book is a gold mine of material, but you would be hard pressed to generalize from it. What does it tell me about the contested catagories of “magic” and “religion”? What theoretical insight can I take from this book and use in other contexts? Quinn, alas, doesn’t have much to say on such subjects.
In part, I suspect that the problem is disciplinary. Historians claim to have a distinct methodology, but what it amounts to is the ability to reconstruct narratives of events on the basis of archival material. If you compare the explanations of events offered by historians with those offered by social scientists, you will notice that historical explanations are dramatically under theorized. Again, compare Arrington’s economic history to North’s. The other problem is that to the extent that Mormon history becomes theoretical or self-reflective it becomes all inside baseball all the time. Thus, we get arguments about loyalty to the truth vs. being faith promoting, or spend a great deal of time wringing our hands about why church instructional materials don’t properly document nuance, conflict, and unseemly events. Notice, however, that it is doubtful that the resolution of any of these arguments is going to produce much of anything that is generalizable beyond the realm of Mormonism. The result is that Mormon studies gets ghettoized, and for professional reasons it is a realm that many of the best LDS scholars can only afford to visit on the weekends, if then.
UPDATE (Feb. 4, 2005): Re-reading it, this post is harsher than it ought to be. Alot of Mormon history is very good, and some Mormon writers make a real effort to connect their history to bigger themes. Kathleen Flake’s recent book on the Reed Smoot hearings, I think, is an excellent example of this sort of thing. Still, when reading some Mormon history I can’t help but think of the comment made (I think) by Ronald Coase — another nobel prize winning economist — that without a theory we are left with nothing but a pile of facts waiting for the match. I am no fan of book burning, but I do think that Mormon history runs the danger or sliding into the mindless accretion of additional facts. We can do better than that, I think.