Is There a New Mormon History?

Joseph Smith Jr.

Joseph Smith Jr.

Is there a “New Mormon History?” D. Michael Quinn, one of the foremost practitioners of the type of work distinguished as the “New Mormon History,” certainly thinks so. He assembled more than two decades ago The New Mormon History: Revisionist Essays on the Past (Signature Books, 1992), a set of fifteen previously published essays and a short epilogue by B. H. Roberts, all demonstrating most ably the basic trends identified as “New Mormon History” (to Quinn a broadly descriptive rather than polemical label).

Quinn notes that this type of historical analysis seeks to attain a “functional objectivity” and avoid the “seven deadly sins of traditional Mormon history” (viii). Quinn’s prototype was Juanita Brooks’s Mountain Meadows Massacre (Stanford University Press, 1950), to whose memory, incidently, he dedicated the book. In characterizing that book, Quinn wrote in the introduction:

Brooks had not refrained from analyzing a controversial topic. She had not hesitated to follow the evidence to “revisionist” interpretations that ran counter to “traditional” assumptions. She had not used her evidence to insult the religious beliefs of Mormons. She never disappointed the scholarly expectations of academics. She never catered to public relations preferences. Finally she avoided using an “academic” work to proselytize for religious conversion or defection. (p. viii)

“New Mormon historians” have adopted these as cardinal points against which all historical writing must be measured.

The fifteen essays in this volume certainly rise to Brooks’s standards. One can quibble over the propriety of labels, but there is no question that something important happened in Mormon historical writing after The Mountain Meadows Massacre was published in 1950. Indeed, perhaps what has been taking place has been not so much a “new” approach toward Mormon history as the rapid and sustained professionalization of the field.

The distinguishing features of the “New Mormon History” had been present to some degree long before Brooks published The Mountain Meadows Massacre (most assuredly in the work of such early Mormon historians as E. E. Erickson, Joseph A. Geddes, or Nels Anderson) but emphasis on adhering to the “Brooks Rule” became dominant during the latter 1950s. Both the quality and the quantity of the publications taking this approach skyrocketed during the next three decades. This book puts between two covers some of the best of that work.

Quinn’s introduction briefly sketches these general trends in the text, and endnotes exhaustively reference historiographical trends. While a serviceable preamble to the articles that follow, the introduction could have presented a more substantial and philosophical discussion of the “New Mormon History” and its role in furthering an understanding of the Mormon past.

Quinn is especially well suited to analyze the New Mormon History’s importance and the response to it both within and without the Mormon movement. The essays follow in roughly chronological order, making the book a useful text for classroom use. Taken altogether, the fifteen essays, each written by a different specialist and originally appearing between 1966 and 1983—perhaps the golden age of the New Mormon History—represent a powerful explanation of the larger aspects of Mormon history from its origins.

Some narrow and others broadly interpretive, these essays include the first major reassessments of unique topics in the history of the Church. Many of these pathbreaking studies, however, have since been revised by other historians. With the exception of a couple of instances where the authors have inserted some historiographical discussion into their endnotes, the essays do not comment on specific debates over interpretations. This lack of historiographical context is unfortunate, leaving readers with little understanding of the historians’ differing perspectives.

Although each of these essays has stood the test of time and can be considered a benchmark study, like most collected works, this book suffers from uneven quality. Some essays are more challenging than others; I found particularly rewarding Thomas G. Alexander’s “’To Maintain Harmony’: Adjusting to External and Internal Harmony,” first published in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought in 1982; Ronald W. Walker’s provocative analysis of Mormon militarism, “Sheaves, Bucklers, and the State: Mormon Leaders Respond to the Dilemmas of War,” which first appeared in Sunstone that same year; and “A Demographic Portrait of the Mormons, 1830-1980” by Dean L. May, first published in 1983, which significantly revised early membership numbers and Utah migration figures.

In addition, the volume’s first essay, Leonard J. Arrington’s eloquent plea for serious, professional historical inquiry, “The Search for Truth and Meaning in Mormon History,” is an important declaration of intellectual independence that present-day historians of Mormonism should embrace just as fully as did those who first read it in Dialogue in 1968. His assertion that “historians ought to be free to suggest interpretations without placing their faith and loyalty on the line” (p. 5) is a central issue in the current restrictive environment. Arrington’s conclusion “that an intensive study of church history, while it will dispel certain myths or half-myths sometimes perpetuated in Sunday school (and other) classes, builds faith rather than weakens it” (p. 6) is especially germane to present debates over the faithfulness of Mormon history that strays from the agreed-upon story. With the current Latter-day Saint review policy, threat of censorship, and restricted access to the Church Archives, we would do well to listen to such past voices of concern.

Any essay collection of this type has built-in difficulties. Although The New Mormon History is an important work encapsulating Mormon history’s reinterpretation during the last generation, it views the Mormon experience only through the lens of selected events, institutions, and personalities, leaving huge gaps in the story of Mormonism and representing themes and events unevenly.

The Reorganized Church/Community of Christ experience, not even discussed in this work, deserves mention in a book such as this and could have provided a useful counterpoint for analyzing such themes as theological developments, political issues, relations with larger society, and organizational structures.

The collection also contains very little discussion of twentieth-century Mormonism. The era is ignored, with the exception of the Alexander and Walker essays, already mentioned, and some spillover of their subjects into the first part of this century in articles by Kenneth L. Cannon II, “After the Manifesto: Mormon Polygamy, 1890-1906,” and Klaus J. Hansen, “The Metamorphosis of the Kingdom of God: Toward a Reinterpretation of Mormon History.” Admittedly Quinn had much less to choose from for this field, although more than half of the Church’s history has been in the twentieth century. The volume would also have been enhanced had Quinn incorporated any of his own exemplary work.

Quinn anticipated some of these concerns in his introduction. “I can only apologize in advance,” he wrote, “for the omissions and acknowledge that others might choose differently” (p. x). No apologies are necessary. This is an excellent collection in spite of different choices that could have been made. In my recent correspondence with an individual interested in the Mormon past, I have been recommending readings and answering questions as best I can through the mail. I wish that The New Mormon History had been available when we first began corresponding. This book would have been one of the first I recommended as a starting place for exploring Mormon history.

No doubt this collection of essays provides a fundamentally useful work for scholars and general readers alike. It makes available between a single cover several classic essays—some of the best of the “New Mormon History”—and serves as a fine introduction to a complex and fascinating subject.

This entry was posted in History, Mormonism, Personal, Religion, Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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