July 9, 2012

Mormon History Association meeting recap

By Stan Thayne

This past weekend (June 28-July 1) the Mormon History Association held its annual meeting in Calgary, Alberta, Canada--a city that was getting all ramped up for their annual Calgary Stampede: a week of cowboy and cowgirl hats, boots, getup and rodeos that I unfortunately missed. (There were hay bales in the lobby of our hotel in preparation.) The conference's Canada setting broadened the perspective of Mormonism as, whatever else it is (see Laurie Maffly-Kipp's post), a movement of the North American West. Several sessions were focused on the church in Canada, where Mormonism has had a significant presence, particularly in southern Alberta, since at least 1895 when Charles Ora Card (whom one presenter referred to as a Canadian Brigham Young) led a group of Mormon settlers to Canada to escape the persecution of U.S. federal officials over the practice of polygamy. Though the mainline LDS Church has abandoned that practice, including those in Alberta, there is still a significant presence of "fundamentalist" Mormons in Alberta who have kept "the principle," as they refer to it, alive--a practice which is causing a lot of current controversy in Canadian courts, which was also the subject of some sessions. It is difficult to summarize the wide array of topics covered, particularly when I was only able to make it to a few sessions, but topics included the history of Mormons in high school basketball in Alberta, the mounted police and Mormonism, Mormon charisma, farming, and sugar factories in Canada, women's history, magic and the supernatural, the Cardston (Alberta) Temple, the growth of the church in Canada and a host of other topics. And topics were not limited to Canadian focused issues but ranged into the Pacific Basin, Asia, and Africa.

The Tanner Lecture (a plenary keynote session) was delivered by David B. Marshall, associate professor of History at the University of Calgary. In the talk he referred to what historian of Mormonism Jan Shipps has dubbed the "doughnut" phenomenon--the tendency of Western historians to write around Mormonism, leaving a void in the middle of the story. He suggested that the same is true of Mormonism in Canada--it is a story that remains to be written. But what he could do is provide some context for the story. He did so by addressing a secularization thesis of sorts, detailing the decline of religiosity in Canada since the 1960s. Accordring to census data, "no religion" is the third largest religious affiliation (or non-affiliation) in Canada--and it is the leading category in British Columbia--behind Catholicism (#2) and Protestantism (#1), which is in sharp decline, particularly in the mainline denominations. Mormonism has enjoyed steady if modest growth in Canada despite this decline and religious "turmoil"--though it is most concentrated in southern Alberta and remains less than 2% of the population in other parts of Canada. He accounted for the decline in religion in Canada to a number of demographic shifts and also to the influence of a document known as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms--a sort of Canadian Bill of Rights passed in the aftermath of WWII . This document, he suggested, led to further secularization of Canadian public institutions, most significantly schools. This aggresive separation of church and state, he suggested, was not only opposed by many Canadian Christians but also caused difficulties for non-Christian immigrants to Canada. He shared a number of anecdotes to demonstrate this and concluded with the results of a Parliament commissioned study into the issue--conducted by Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor--that concluded that an open rather than a closed secular model that seeks to instruct the public about religions (rather than separate them from it completely through ostensible neutrality) is the best solution to the problem. This, Marshall suggested, is the only hope for Canada's multicultural future. And as a student and hopefully future instructor in Religious Studies, I have to agree with at least that part of Marshall's comments!

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