I am going to discuss Jan Shipps' essay "Remembering, Recovering, and Inventing What Being a People of God Means: Reflections on Method in the Scholarly Writing of Religious History," chapter 8 in her Sojourner in the Promised Land: Forty Years Among the Mormons (U of Illinois, 2000). While there are scattered comments relating to LDS history in the essay, it treats the writing and framing of religious history in more general terms. Although it is not hard to apply it to LDS history, I'll save most of the "Mo app" for a second post. Here, I'll just summarize two or three of the concepts Shipps develops in the essay. Sorry, couldn't find an online version of the essay. Someday everything will be online, but for now you'll just have to find the book to read the essay in full.
How Better History Made Believers Unhappy
Shipps starts by pointing out there are two audiences for religious history: one is "the members of communities of believers" and the other is the general public as generally represented by the academy. But prior to WWII, historians writing for both groups shared a view of civic and religious history that focused on the clergy and on religious institutions, with mainstream Protestantism dominating the narrative and non-Protestants pushed to the margins along with women and ethnic minorities.
But in the early '70s, the secular or critical approach to history started to apply the developing tools of social history to tell a much different sort of religious history. "It would be an overstatement to say that church historians suddenly discovered power, money, and social class" where before they contrasted lay versus clergy, piety with apathy, and church participation to inactivity. But social class, ethnicity, and the place of women in the story suddenly received serious coverage in religious historical narrative. It is worth observing that the "New Mormon History," which moved LDS history in similar directions, was thus largely a reflection of developments in religious history as a broad category rather than a development within just the field of Mormon history.
Two results of this fairly recent development were (1) a shift away from denominational identity as the organizing principle (or at least as the only organizing principle) of religious historical narrative, and (2) a focus on cultural themes that, combined with social facts, even moved the focus of academic religious history away from what Shipps calls "the fundamental question of religion." While the academic audience applauded these developments, the faith communities were rather unhappy with the new approach. Citing the reaction of senior LDS leaders to the New Mormon History as an example of how faith communities responded to the new approach, she noted that
the change in the way professional historians were beginning to write religious/denominational history proved much less satisfactory to the faith communities whose histories were being written than to the scholarly community ....
Stuck in the Middle
With that as a setup, you can guess where this leaves scholars who want to write denominational or religious history that keeps "the fundamental question of religion" at the center of the narrative. It becomes very difficult for a historian to write for faith communities (who demand that religious questions be given serious coverage as religious questions rather than as social or cultural ones) in a way that is deemed acceptable or "scholarly" by their academic peers (the folks who grant tenure, approve promotions, award grants and prizes, etc.). Hence an outpouring of methodological reflection designed to salvage an updated form of traditional denominational history.
This isn't just a problem for scholars, it is also a problem for us, you and me. The problems that are presented to scholars of denominational history also face most readers of denominational history (a genre which includes all the LDS history books that line the shelves at your favorite LDS bookstore). What if you no longer find Essentials in Church History (1922) and A Marvelous Work and a Wonder (1966) to be credible historical narrative, but at the same time you aren't quite ready to swallow whole the critical perspective of O'Dea, Leone, or Vogel? Is there a middle way or narrow path for history that retains the traditional faith perspective but does so using legitimate scholarly rigor and objectivity? Remember, this is not a problem facing only LDS historians and readers. Believers in all denominations have had to deal with a similar problem, although I believe the central role of history in grounding Mormon faith claims makes the problem more pressing in the LDS case.
The Narrow Path
The balance of the essay gives Shipps' suggestions for how religious historians can apply her version of faithful history and walk that narrow path. Summarizing mercilessly:
- Refer with specificity to myth (as embodied in scripture and in stories), institutional structure, doctrine, ritual, and social and experiential factors; use this descriptive specificity to build categories that speak to both the academic audience and the faith community.
- Use those categories to examine scripture, history, and faith, recognizing that early histories of the faith by or about the founders are not held to be ordinary histories, they often acquire something like scriptural status.
- This process of canonizing history in the faith community is a fruitful subject for denominational historians to examine.
- The canonizing process is easier to observe in faith communities like the LDS Church that have well-defined boundaries and can illuminate parallel but less observable processes in faith communities with weak boundaries.
- Consider the role of ascribed versus achieved status in faith communities. So if you're BIC, your Mormon-ness is ascribed and can't be easily set aside, whereas a convert achieves her Mormon-ness by voluntary choice, making her Mormon identity somewhat more malleable. (My apologies to any sociologists who are reading this post.)
- Churches with tight boundaries are "particularly vulnerable to apostate accounts [of history] and exposé"; leaders often respond by "countering negative renditions of their history by issuing histories that are subsequently recognized by the communities as their offical (that is, canonized) histories." Often such canonized histories are reissued in more accessible formats.
- Become (or adopt the perspective of) an inside-outsider or an outside-insider.
I don't know how well I summarized, but two points really jumped out as insightful. One is the claim that early historical narratives by or about founders aren't really histories. That is, they are not really open to amendment by the faith community when better facts or perspectives emerge. This relates to Shipps' discussion of canonization. The other point is the distinction between ascribed and achieved membership (which may be overlapping) in faith communities with tight boundaries. Not all Mormons are equal; some are more Mormon than others.
[Note: You can read one of the more interesting paragraphs from the essay as the epigraph to this FARMS book review. However, I'm not sure I agree with the author's application of that paragraph to Grant Palmer.]