How to Survey a Religion:  Mormonism and the Challenges of Generalization

Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp | Fall 2014

I need to start my remarks with a confession.  I don’t recall ever being assigned a textbook or survey in college, and certainly not in a religious studies class.  I attended one of those liberal arts colleges where we read almost all primary sources, for good and for ill.  As a result, I learned to read primary texts very closely.  But, I gained little insight into how scholars construct larger arguments, make generalizations, and pull together the odds and ends of their data in order to fashion a coherent argument.

Nonetheless, several years ago I set out to do just that, and I did so in large part because I began in 1999 to teach a one-semester course on Mormonism to students at the University of North Carolina, a school with (at the time) a relatively small number of real live Mormon students, in a state with (at the time) a fairly small number of Mormon adherents.  And I quickly realized the utility of the survey, the one book that could cover a sweeping expanse of material with facility and relatively inexpensively.  I tended to use lots of primary sources—which were all fine and useful—but I felt that my students came away knowing a lot of great details.  Meanwhile, I was using much of our time in the seminar answering the many questions that arose from those details, as well as making timelines and graphs to clarify the broader contexts for these statements.  

I also used a few truly outstanding interpretive pieces, such as Jan Shipps’ over of Mormonism.  But my undergraduates found that book, for all its virtues, a tough go, one that focused their attention so much on the theoretical apparatus of religious studies as a discipline that they still couldn’t make the connections to the primary sources.  (graduate students loved it, by the way).  In desperation, I turned to a tradebook, Richard and Joan Ostling’s Mormon America, a text written by non-Mormon journalists that managed, in one well-priced volume, to tell a story and simultaneously to summon up some of the worst stereotypes about Mormonism—its creepy secrecy, its lockstep, militaristic adherents.  By the end of the semester, my smart students even began to complain about its bias, which I took to be a sign of the success of the course.  [I was not bribed to say this, but I should also add, as an aside, that the one book I have used successfully every time I teach this class is Kathleen Flake’s case study of the trial of Reed Smoot, The Politics of Religious Identity.  It is the very best kind of historical case that provides both specificity about a singular event and context that establishes clearly why this one case has much broader significance.  So, perhaps if Kathleen writes about 7 more such books covering all of Mormon history it will quell my desire for a single survey text.]

After about five years of this, I’m afraid, hubris set in.  I thought to myself, I could do this better than anything I’ve read thus far.  Drawing on my class notes, I assumed I could narrate a survey that would weave together the strands of history and the thematic elements to create a clothesline on which students could hang the voices and experiences of Mormons.

I should back up here to say something about how I teach this course.  The first half of the course is essentially a historical journey through the origins of Mormonism in upstate New York in the 1820s, the growth of the movement in the 1830s and 1840s as it grew institutionally, scripturally, doctrinally, and ritually more elaborate, the split within the church after Joseph Smith Jr’s death in 1844, the movement to Utah and the society that grew up there.  We also spend a good deal of time discussing anti-Mormonism, the development of plural marriage and other temple rituals, and the shifts within the church after 1900.  That’s all in the first 6-7 weeks.  The last half of the course shifts to a thematic focus, where we explore some of the better-known or more distinctive elements such as health codes, understandings of marriage, gender and family as eternal, Mormon missions, fundamentalism, and understandings of race (and especially the proscription on the ordination of African American men prior to 1978).  We also make passing glances at diversity within the tradition (including the dozens of schisms over the years, some of which have resulted in quite sizable churches), and at the growth of the church outside of the United States.

My conceit, then, was that I could just write this up as a book.  And I must admit, it looked really good in the form of a proposal.  It followed the first rule of textbook writing that I discovered in a “how to” article in the Chronicle of Higher Education:  “Rule #1: Original ideas are messy for students, teachers, editors, and writers. No one really wants them, only the appearance of them. Simply blend a teaspoon of originality into a bucket of the same old thing. Imitate top-selling texts shamelessly.”

So, there I was, heading down the road to selling my soul to the publishing house.  Fortunately, I was saved by two circumstances.  First, Mitt Romney decided to run for president in 2008.  That fateful circumstance made Mormonism, a tradition that, up until then, had been relatively neglected outside of the Mormon world, suddenly very sexy.  Imagine!  Where once I had been one of perhaps a half dozen non-Mormons attending the Mormon History Association meetings, the world was suddenly filled with journalists, graduate students, and faculty who had discovered Mormonism and were writing about it (not to mention many Latter-day Saints themselves who were moving out of BYU and into non-Mormon settings to write about the tradition).  The Mormon moment had arrived.  Books appeared in abundance—most, but not all, of them written by LDS church members.  Matt Bowman’s survey of the tradition, The Mormon People, probably came closest to the ground I had planned to cover if not the interpretive slant I would take.  But there were now books like Mormonism for Dummies, A Very Short Guide to Mormonism, and others that gave skeletal introductions to Mormonism.  I didn’t have to write those books. 

Second, though, and more importantly, I was learning a lot more about Mormonism myself, and I found that the generalizations that I thought I could make about Mormon beliefs and practices were disintegrating before my own attempts to narrate a single story.  Writing a survey, I discovered, was not the same as teaching a survey (at least for me it wasn’t).  The narrative form, wedded as it must be to an unremitting linearity, exists in some tension with the dialogical style I had cultivated in the classroom (I mean dialogical here in at least two senses:  first, the ongoing conversation among members of the seminar, in which one could move back and forth among ideas, recalling concepts from weeks earlier or even revisiting them through new eyes based on incoming information; the second kind of dialogue, for me as a historian, is the dialogue between past and present, the necessary ways in which we examine the flow and development of idea and experience over time).  How does one narrate religious experience as it changes over time?  Or, (and I finally realized this was true), does one need to reconceive the task entirely when one writes a book?  The good news is that this realization has freed me up to explore some of the areas that I’m most interested in—especially the themes of lived religious experience, variety among the branches of the Mormon family, and the international growth of the LDS Church.

So, this is my extended preface to the challenges of generalization. And to some of you this may all seem quite obvious.   I still think the survey is important and valuable—and even possible!  One of my closest colleagues once said to me:  “I would love it if you could explain to me what makes Mormons tick.”  He didn’t want simply a history or a list of doctrines or rituals or leaders.  He wanted to understand the tick.

I want to use the rest of my time today to spark some discussion (and shamelessly plead for conversation!) about these challenges.  While formally they are different from the ones we face in the classroom, they do bear some family resemblances; and they should resonate for all of us who set out to study religion from an academic perspective.  So let me highlight several that have stood out as my biggest challenges.

First, and this gets back to the “tick,” I want to convey to readers something of the textures and variety of religious experiences among garden-variety Mormons.  The LDS Church, in particular, is a fascinating mix of formalized structural hierarchy and individual discernment and agency.  Yet the histories, inasmuch as they have been written thus far mainly by people working for the church in some capacity, tend to emphasize leadership as the driving force.  I liken the state of Mormon church history to American Catholic History before Robert Orsi came along and began talking about the centrality of religious experience in the home, the neighborhood, and the family.  I have had more than one LDS church member tell me that they joined the church because they loved the community in their local ward, or they appreciated the activities encouraged within the family.  These elements are not simply a side effect of the teachings of church leaders—they are, for many people, the lifeblood of what keeps them in the Mormon fold.  Some faithful members are even bothered by church leaders’ decisions—in other words, there is a world of religious experience that does not revolve around goings-on in Salt Lake City or among church leaders.

Now, one can overstate this—and I daresay my own upbringing in a very low church Protestantism predisposes me to see religious authorities as only occasionally necessary.  The trick, here, is to try to describe in rich detail the multiple roles played by the church as an institution without centering one’s story around changes at the top:  this is especially difficult in a church that has tried very hard in recent years to control its message, and in which a history of persecution inclines followers to not want to openly contradict that message.  Social media is very quickly changing dynamics around what gets spoken aloud; has provided virtual communities for feminists, gays, and others who previously might have remained silent or much more isolated, and this is emboldening people to speak out in ways that they might not have done 20 years ago.  So, even the politics of history as it pertains to the institutional church is shifting as I write.

Yet pieces of the history are still very hard to get away from.