For this week's online essay, go read Becoming the American Religion: The Place of Mormonism in the Development of American Religious Historiography, by Stephen J. Fleming. It appears in the Spring 2003 volume of Mormon Historical Studies, a journal published by the Mormon Historical Sites Foundation (thanks to Clark for the link). Mormonism now rivals Puritanism as the most studied American religious movement, and the author notes with some irony that "Mormonism's current status in American religious historiography is remarkable, given the religion's former position." I think this whole topic (how Mormonism fits into the field of American religion) will receive increased attention as "Mormon Studies" programs, run by scholars not parsons, are established at a variety of non-LDS universities.
Where exactly does Mormonism fit in the broad sweep of American religious history and culture? I take a look at every book on the history of American religion that I come across and read the chapter on Mormonism, and my impression is there is simply no consensus on how Mormonism fits. It is too broad -- some scholars lump it in with communitarian movements, others with premillenarians, others with Christian Primitivists, still others classify it as a reaction against revival entusiasm or as an expression of American folk religion and magic. Harold Bloom couldn't get over similarities he saw between Mormon ideas and seemingly parallel concepts in the Kaballah while describing Mormonism as an example of post-Christian American religion (as well as Southern Baptists and Pentecostals!). Mormonism simply resists simplistic classification. What Fleming's essay does is illustrate how the "post-Protestant" study of American religion has evolved in such a way that Mormonism is now a very interesting subject of study for scholars with a wide variety of research interests who were not initially inclined to study Mormon history as a subfield unto itself. Here's a teaser from the first paragraph:
[I]n the post-Protestant era of American religious historiography that has emerged since the '60s, Tolstoy's insistence on Mormonism being the American religion has begun to ring true in American academia. That is, Mormonism fits the paradigms of the New Religious History (the interpretive structure that emerged in the post-Protestant era) of being interpreted as an outsider to mainstream Protestantism, a manifestation of folk-intellectual undercurrents, a popular social impulse, and a new American religion, to the point that much of these vital aspects of American religion are understood through Mormonism. This factor . . . points to Mormonism as filling the position of orienting epicenter in American religious history -- the position formerly held by Puritans.