Know Your Archives: The Next Generation of Mormon Studies



3 comments
Today's guest post is from Tom Simpson, who holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Virginia. He teaches religion, ethics, and philosophy at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire. His most recent published article is "The Death of Mormon Separatism in American Universities, 1877-1896" (Religion and American Culture), and his forthcoming book is entitled Authority, Ambition, and the Mormon Mind: American Universities and the Evolution of Mormonism, 1867-1940.
 A little over a decade ago, as I was preparing for a doctoral exam in U.S. religious history, I started wrestling with some of the questions that have animated Mormon Studies for decades. Mainly, I wondered: after years of principled, costly resistance to federal authority, how could Mormons, seemingly overnight, embrace so many of the institutions and values of their tormentors?

The question lingered, and before long, I had decided to make a dissertation of it. It started in the stacks of my university library, thousands of miles from Utah, with Davis Bitton's extraordinary Guide to Mormon Diaries and Autobiographies. That opened worlds, eventually leading me to a project that would captivate me for years.

My first sojourns in Utah introduced me to a wealth of material housed in the state, church, and university archives of Utah. With some critical financial support from Brigham Young University's Charles Redd Center for Western Studies and (former) Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History, I could work extensively in the archives with a team of expert archivists and scholars, who responded incredibly thoughtfully to my work and invited me to present my research in seminars and at major conferences. In the end, what has kept me coming back to the work, and coming back to Utah, has been the relationality of the work, the chance to do meaningful, collaborative historical research in state-of-the-art facilities. 

Still, too few non-Mormons (like myself) take advantage of the resources available. The recent establishment of positions in Mormon Studies at Utah St., Claremont, and the University of Virginia bodes well for the future of Mormon Studies, but the field still needs—and deserves—a larger and more diverse cast of characters. In a recent conversation, J. Spencer Fluhman—associate professor of history at BYU and the author of A Peculiar People: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America -- told me that this is indeed "a golden age at the LDS archives….It's a good time to be interested in Mormon history." Here's hoping that the field's real promise is realized in the decades to come.

The major LDS archives in Utah are housed in the LDS Church History Library, the Utah State Historical Society, and the special collections departments of Brigham Young University, the University of Utah, and Utah State University. All photographs by the author.        



3 comments:

AdamjPowell at: December 16, 2013 at 7:57 AM said...

Thanks for the post, Tom. As a non-Mormon myself (who just finished a dissertation on Mormonism), I have to agree with the basic message. However, I have experienced a certain degree of alienation as a non-Mormon in Mormon Studies. There is still much progress to be made!

tomsimpsononline at: December 16, 2013 at 6:53 PM said...

Thanks so much for your comment, Adam. There's no question: the cultural politics of non-Mormons writing Mormon history are real and complex--a dance at best, a minefield at worst. But I'm convinced that persistent, humane crossing of boundaries is the essence of the best professional history. If we give up, parochialism is all we have left. (Forgive me--now I'm just telling myself what I need to hear. Take this for whatever it's worth!) Cheers--

tomsimpsononline at: December 16, 2013 at 6:55 PM said...

Thanks so much for your comment, Adam. There's no question: the cultural politics of non-Mormons writing Mormon history are real and complex--a dance at best, a minefield at worst. But I'm convinced that persistent, humane crossing of boundaries is the essence of the best professional history. If we give up, parochialism is all we have left. (Forgive me--now I'm just telling myself what I need to hear. Take this for whatever it's worth!) Cheers--

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