The Future of Mormon History

Jeff NeedleMormon 15 Comments

This past Thursday, Claremont College hosted a very good panel discussion with Richard and Claudia Bushman and Richard Turley on the future of Mormon history.  I asked Claudia if she would e-mail me a copy of her talk, and whether I could distribute it.  Here it is, unedited, but with the typical Claudia Bushman flair, at the end, pure poetry.  I hope you enjoy it.

The Future of Mormon History, March 20, 2008, Claremont Claudia L. Bushman
It is a pleasure to have this opportunity to consider the future of the writing of Mormon History. It is a field with much exciting development, and for someone who has watched it for a long time, the future is very promising. What will happen in the future? Here is the view in my crystal ball.

First, we will have more and more published documents that will become more and more available. Our model here is the Joseph Smith Papers on which a large stable of editors is working night and day. You have here before you two of the gentlemen very much involved in getting those papers into print. The first of thirty or so volumes is close to going to the printer, and the manuscripts should soon be working themselves through the pipeline to provide two or three volumes a year. Amazing. And many many thanks to Larry Miller whose generous donation has made this excrutiatingly careful operation financially possible.

The Church Historian’s press, and we have here the new associate Church historian, has been created to publish the Smith papers and will be used for that and other projects. The next may be the Brigham Young papers, the publication of which will extend beyond all our lifetimes. The Church Historian’s press will turn out a steady stream of high quality documentary collections. I hear that the large collection of Relief Society foundational documents which have been some years in the editing, may well be published by this new press.

And speaking of women’s documents I see the same movement of providing documents just as they are in the Utah State University Press series of the Life Writings of Frontier Women. John Alley is now in the tenth fat volume of this open ended series, making the very interesting papers of many well and little known women available.

I would also note the huge number of documents that the Church has put onto discs and the series of documents that the BYU Library has made available online. Many of these are searchable as well as being shown in their original form. Carefully edited documents are springing forth in ever greater number.

The huge banks of genealogical materials online will be manipulated to answer new questions.

So what are the implications of all this primary material becoming immediately available.

1. Research will mean less searching and more thinking, interpretation, and analysis. When materials are plentiful, people will ask new questions.
2. I hope that future historians can say goodbye to that awful box, the microfilm machine.
The awful 4 x 6 cards historians once filled out by the yard are already history. With a computer and online documents a paperless research project becomes possible.

The second development I would note is related to programs of Mormon studies at secular colleges and universities, such as Claremont. Because we have schools like Claremont, there will be additional knowledge and interest by scholars in wider comparative works, asking Mormon questions of other religions and bringing together scholars from many traditions to discuss matters of deep importance. Most of the topics of a growing number of courses available at a growing number of schools will not be confined to Wasatch front Mormonism, LDS Christianity, or even North American religion. The papers written for those classes and by those students will be increasingly expanded in scope as LDS religion is considered in a broader context.
So what are the Implications here.
1. The end to tunnel history as we practice it, that is Mormon movements without considering the neighborhood or beliefs of the people around the Saints.
2. The end of the stereotype of the noble suffering pioneer, more on the social conditions that conspired to get him across the ocean and the plains.
3. The end of the Mormon of victim, the privileged position we have been able to maintain so long as we did not pay any attention to other people’s interests.
4. The growing awareness of others of Mormon history and the including it in more discussions in churches and university classes.
5. The growing interaction between LDS historians, teachers, and churchpeople with those of other denominations.

The ongoing and increasing dialogue between Mormons and others in periodicals, blogs, and newsmedia that opens LDS ideas to quick, easy, and frank discussion. Conferences serve this function in a more measured time frame.
Implications here.
1. A quicker dispersal of news. A greater sense of openness and debate.
2. Multiple outlets for statements and discussion. The recognition of emerging thinkers.
3. The encouragement for many to write who had not previously done so.
4. Rents in the veils of secrecy.

I will now engage in my speculative wishful thinking.

There will be greater interest in writing about lesser known individuals and groups. The light of the gospel will follow the plain man or woman rather than the prophet or star, illuminating new meanings and areas of Mormondom.
Implications here
1. A decentering of church focus to a broader field.
2. More research opportunities
3. More understanding of what the church was really like.

The availability and simplicity of recording experience on film will lead to working out that standard Sunday School allegory, when one’s life is filmed in its completeness. Every act will be recorded for future judgement by the angels above us who are silent notes taking. The same angels will set up booths on earth where the films are viewed and the subjects are interviewed about the completeness of their repentance. The films will then be edited in accordance with their reformed lives.
Implications here.
1. Men and women will be able to judge in advance their approval ratings and know to what kingdom they will be dispatched. They will then have the choice of heading to their heavenly level or volunteering to be reincarnated as small creatures.
2. This process will provide occupation for the multitudes of film makers who will never make films in Hollywood.

Everyone will write and publish at least one book. There will be a greater interest in writing personal scriptures. Mormons will see more value in writing their own stories, in observing the institution changing around them, and in comparing that to other times and places. They will write narratives of adventure, war service, religious enlightenment, miraculous experiences, and the indoctrinization of the young. The familiar genres will be continued: missionary journals, collections of letters, ancestor stories, and personal memoirs. Some housewives will relate how they have turned their housekeeping systems into science. Other housewives will organize collectives to share babysitting and cooking so that they will be able to write the Gothic romances of their fantasies. The Shakespeares and Dantes of Mormondom will arrive on the scene, welcomed and emulated. The bright young intellectual lawyers and businessmen who cannot leave Mormon history alone, will explore new systems of thought. Fiction, poetry, and belles-lettres will flower as never before.
Implications here
1. Despite a great past of personal writing in the past, there will be an even greater flowering of personal writing in the future, which because of the technical advantages of our age, can immediately be printed and bound for distribution to friends and family.
2. Complaints about how hard it is to write on the plates will be no more.
3. Each story will be placed in the context of time, of history, of other religious traditions, and other worlds. The great connections will be made as never before. While each small story shows like a diamond, it will be in the company of millions of twinkling diamonds in the black night sky
4. A new cave will be blasted in the Wasatch Mountains and all these documents will be collected there. A stone will seal them up for millenia to come. There through heavenly alchemy, our little journals and looseleaf binders will metamorphose into golden plates.

Women will cease to leave their monuments in bounteous feasts to be daily destroyed, in sewn goods to be worn out by lively families, or in icing sugar on ornamental cakes. They will follow the admonition given to Emma Smith, and their time will be given to writing and to learning much. They will each be given a golden pencil at birth to record their thoughts and experiences.
Implications here
1. Generations of wise women will arise.
2. No one will die unrecorded.

In short, a new world will be opened to us and everything will be possible.

Comments 15

  1. RE: “They will then have the choice of heading to their heavenly level or volunteering to be reincarnated as small creatures.”

    I’m a bit perplexed at this statement and I really do hope she isn’t seriously saying this is her belief. I really hope she said that in jest.

  2. Post

    Yes, she used some flowery language and tongue-in-cheek comments to liven up the subject. Her vision is vast, and I’m totally on board!

  3. What an incredible vision Claudia details. Her comments on the availability of primary sources is right on target. With the church and BYU digitizing the journals, diaries, and other historical documents and histories; the Utah History Suite by the State Historical Society; the New Mormon Studies by Signature Books; Mormon Parallels by Rick Grunder and the Utah News Paper project one can be in Antarctica and research almost any subject on Mormonism. I completely agree with Claudia’s comments on John Alley’s wonderful “Life Writings of Frontier Woman”. I would add a few others that are equally important “Kingdom In The West” series general edited by Will Bagley, Significant Mormon Diaries by Signature Books and “Early Mormon Documents” by Dan Vogel. We really live in a wonderful age for Mormon studies.

    A big that you to both Jeff and Claudia for sharing this wonderful paper.

    My only concern is the hype for the JSPP. I am skeptical because of the delays, the number of man hours and amount of money spent for a project that only has a fancy website to show for itself. When I hear people say or write that nothing can be written on Joseph Smith and early Mormonism without using these works I laugh. Are they kidding? Most of these papers are available and/or in print. One friend told me that maybe the legal papers may add some thing new to the discussion but even then we will have to wait and see. Who knows how long this wait could be? We have been hearing for years that volume one will be out this year. I keep expecting that volume to appear but my bookshelf slot is still empty.

  4. Michael and William both hinted at this. If the religion wants to curtail hyper- activity, the religion needs to change, not the people. The religion would still have a few hyper- actives, but then they would be the exception, not the rule. That’ s not to say that hyper- actives are the majority in the religion except among those who actually self- identify as Mormon and are active. Best estimates would put the inactives or non- identifiers at close to 6 million of the 12 million (see Rick Phillips’ s and…

  5. It will be interesting to see how non-LDS scholarship will affect LDS scholarship. I look forward to more open conferences that deal with the messier issues of Mormon history, as well as the white-washed pioneer stories.

  6. Hopefully, non-Mormon scholars will show some level of objectivity. Though, we found that many members can’t tolerate it (i.e. Whitney’s “The Mormons.”)

    Jan Shipps seem to be among those who can.

    I have the utmost respect for both Bushmans.

  7. I would speculate that things would also be much different once Christ comes and we all receive our own seer stones. I forsee the waning of intellectual Mormonism and the rise of more metaphysical and mystical experiences. I think we may have seen its Zenith. In a vacuum, we would probably continue on in a progressive fashion, detailing and outlining historical perspective in fascinating ways. Sticking this possibility into the continuum of current events and futuristic probability, I’m betting on a more mystisized Mormonism characterized by a disintegration of the central Church and a balkinization of its practices into regions.

  8. I’m no expert on mysticism, but I must disagree with Peter. I think mormons will follow the path of other religions. Intellectualism creeps into Judaism, Catholicism, or other religions, and I don’t think we’re at the zenith.

    Perhaps mysticism will also increase, but I think intellectualism has a long way to go before it declines.

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