Non-Mormons Writing Mormon History

8 Oct

I have been meaning to write this post for a while, but life – moving, prelims, teaching, etc. – has always intervened.  Liz’s gentle nudging, however, has finally convinced me that I need to stop putting it off.

As most of you who have read the short biographies we wrote of ourselves for this blog, I am not a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  I don’t believe in the restoration or that Lamanites and Nephites once inhabited ancient America.  I see the Book of Mormon as a sacred text for others, but not for me.  In many ways, I am an outsider to the Mormon Church and write its history as such.

The act of categorizing people, however, is not so easy as it seems.  Although my mother raised me as a non-Mormon and I currently attend a Methodist Church, my family’s history is steeped in the history of the Church.  Like many people from Southeastern Idaho and the whole of Utah, many of my ancestors converted to the Mormon Church in the early nineteenth century.  I have great-great-great-great grandmothers who lived in Kirtland, ancestors who followed the initial wagon trains from Missouri to Utah, and aunts who joined in polygamous marriages with their biological sisters.

Writing Mormon history, then, is an interesting exercise for me.  Although I have no interest in reinforcing false pieties or in tearing down the Mormon Church and trying to disprove Joseph Smith’s prophetic status, my investment in Mormon history is deeper than that some of my classmates have in their topics.  I care deeply about the effect that polygamy had on women, partially because I know of stories within my own family of girls of no more than fourteen married on the same day as their younger sisters.  I also care about the way that Mormon women were portrayed in the nineteenth-century media.  I care about the disconnect between the stories that my own family tells of the bodies of children being put into root cellars because the ground was too frozen to bury them and the bravery of their mothers in dealing with the constant presence of death and the stories that women like Fanny Stenhouse wove about them.

In spite of these commitments, however, my presence within the academy is usually seen as a distinctively non-Mormon one.  The Mormon story according to most people is not my own.  Nor is such a categorization completely unjustified.  For most of my life, I felt ostracized from the Mormon majority in my hometown.  I felt a lot of the anger – and still sometimes feel the anger – that many non-Mormons in Utah and Idaho feel towards the church.  It’s an anger that born out of a sense of powerlessness and futility.  From my position as a young kid in Idaho, it seemed as though to be Mormon was to be middle class and to be a leader in the community, and to be non-Mormon was to be working class and to be surrounded by drinking and cigarettes.  Was it fair?  No.  Was it true? No.  Did it affect the way that I thought about Mormon history as a high school student and even into my undergraduate years?  Absolutely.

What does all of this mean?  It’s something that I am still trying to work out.  But, one thing that it does suggest to me is that the insider-outsider categories that we often try to build, whether we are talking about Mormon history, Jewish history, or Latino history, simply don’t work.  They cannot reflect the complexity of individual lives.  I write Mormon history as someone who is acquainted with its historical tradition and who considers who life to be deeply bound up in that tradition, but who has been around long enough to realize that she is still as much an outsider as she is an insider.

*Note: Kathleen Flake’s article in Jan Shipps and Mark Silk, eds. in Religion and Public Life in the American West (2004) is an excellent analysis of the relationships between Mormons and non-Mormons in Utah and Idaho.  When I read it, I had that shock of recognition, that feeling that says she gets it.

11 Responses to “Non-Mormons Writing Mormon History”

  1. Chris H. October 8, 2010 at 10:22 am #

    I think the outside voice is needed. This is not to say that you are a total and complete outsider, but you can approach the issue without having to overcome much of the rubbish devotional history.

    Where in Idaho?

  2. amanda5245 October 8, 2010 at 10:29 am #

    Blackfoot… I actually had a couple of friends try to convince me that I should go to Ricks (Ricks changed to BYU – I the year that I would have been a freshman in college).

  3. amanda5245 October 8, 2010 at 10:31 am #

    I think that most academic historians agree. What I discovered this summer at BYU, though, while doing the seminar is that the my non-Mormon status perplexes non-historians to the nth degree. There was still a question among undergrads and even some grad students as to how I could possibly know everything I knew about the church and not believe.

  4. Chris H. October 8, 2010 at 10:35 am #

    Cool. I taught at BYU-I for four years. During that time I commuted to Pocatello while doing my doctoral work at ISU. So, I have driven through Blackfoot a good bit. I also went to Ricks (though, it was my first time living outside of the Washington, DC).

    I like to think that Mormon culture can have a broad definition. For some, excluding those who are not members, or even inactive members, from being including as part of that culture has certain political functions. It think that growing up within the Mormon belt clearly puts you within that cultural framework.

  5. Chris H. October 8, 2010 at 10:38 am #

    “There was still a question among undergrads and even some grad students as to how I could possibly know everything I knew about the church and not believe.”

    That is funny. I am not sure if an academic knowledge really helps one “believe.” But…I better not get into that.

  6. ep October 8, 2010 at 7:57 pm #

    Thanks for sharing this, Amanda. I’m sorry you were hurt by your encounters with Mormon culture growing up. I know other non-Mormons for whom this is true too, and it grieves me. I’m peeved when Mormons pick on non-Mormons or levy harsh judgments against them. I am just disturbed by any form of religious bigotry. I’ve also discovered that I become defensive and feel hurt when people don’t respect my Mormonism. I think your point about neat categories being insufficient for description is perfect and a great approach to have in any discipline and in religious conversations in general.

  7. M October 9, 2010 at 12:15 am #

    I really enjoyed reading this post, and I think that we need more “non-Mormons” to write about Mormon history. As a historian, I think it’s important to try and get an objective opinion regarding history (at least, an opinion that can be as objective as possible, especially regarding religious history), and it’s good to have someone write about Mormon history who isn’t as “invested” in proving a theological point or reinforcing some doctrine. That being said, I know that there are also “non-Mormons” who are also “invested” in Mormon history (in the sense that they want to disprove theological points). It sounds, though, that your interests in Mormon history wouldn’t delve into that theological Pandora’s box – which is great! The historical discipline needs more people like you! I guess what I’m saying is this: I think that your special circumstance as an insider/outsider can be worked to your full advantage as a historian.

  8. Dallin October 10, 2010 at 12:37 am #

    Great post, Amanda. I think the “insider-outsider” distinciton emerges for Mormons especially because we still expect Mormon scholars to be “cheerleaders,” in one way or another. They may not be purely apologetic, but we expect them to come out on one side of the debate in the end.

    This might seem random, but your post reminded me of John Fitzgerald’s “Great Brain” series, books all about a Catholic boy growing up in a southern Utah community. There were, according to Fitzgerald, the “Mormons” and the “Gentiles” (as all non-Mormons were called). You’re right that these “insider-outsider” distinctions don’t fully work, but we sure do like them in the church. Which is partly why everyone assumes you have to convert if you learn this much about the church. If you’re this far “in,” you have to be totally “inside.”

  9. amanda5245 October 10, 2010 at 11:12 pm #

    Thanks for your comments, everyone!

    Chris H. — That comment never made much sense to me either. Most academics seem to have the opposite assumption: that learning about religion will make believers into atheists or at least agnostics. I do wonder, however, if the assumptions of a lot of believing Mormons that no one could know that much about the church and not be a member might have to do with the injunction found within the Book of Mormon that anyone who reads it with an open heart and seeks after the truth will discover the text’s authenticity.

    EP – I think you are right to point to questions about larger religious bigotry. I think that similar types of animosity found between a lot of non-Mormons and Mormons in Utah and Idaho can be found anywhere where one religious group dominates the spiritual and political landscape.

  10. amanda5245 October 10, 2010 at 11:19 pm #

    M – I certainly plan to stay out of the theological Pandora’s Box. Let’s hope I succeed.

    Dallin – Thanks for the comments. I’ll definitely have to check out that series. I think the problem even gets worse with older generations. I’ve never personally been called a Gentile (at least not to my face), but if you talk to people around my grandparents’ age, they still cringe at that word and speak angrily about they weren’t allowed to date or play with many of the kids in their neighborhoods. On the other side of the divide, my grandmother uses epithets to talk about the church that I would personally never use.

  11. Jess October 14, 2010 at 12:18 am #

    It’s an interesting perspective, and one I’ve found to be true in several different cultural sub-sets. I grew up the Mormon outsider in an overtly dominant Catholic community, and experienced many of the same issues that many others have with the Rocky Mountain Mormon community. I also lived in very rural New England as a ‘transplant’, and found my status as community member was very suspect, as I was from ‘away’. I would venture that there are dozens of places this phenomenon probably occurs given the very nature of cultural distinction. We do tend to define ourselves by certain criteria and then categorize the people around us as ‘in’ or ‘out’ of those criteria.

    It provides the basis for strong communities, and yet it ultimately will always leave someone ostracized from the full body of that community. I’m sure there are ways to embrace the strengths while eschewing the ‘elitism’ it often engenders, but I’ve yet to see it done!

    Good luck in your research!

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