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.