August 26, 2013

Call for Papers: WHA

Editors' Note: In a continued effort to increase discussions of religion at WHA conferences, we highly recommend that the readers of this blog submit paper proposals to the WHA conferences. We both have participated in past conferences. It is a welcoming, small and friendly place to present your work. Consider using the comments section of this post to pull together possible collaborations with fellow readers!

2014 Call For Papers

54th Annual Conference of the Western History Association

15–18 October 2014, Newport Beach, California


The 2014 Program Committee invites proposals that consider the relationship between the West and the world. What forces have connected the North American West with other peoples? Consider, for example, the international links forged by catastrophic events: the fur and hide trade of the 18th and 19th centuries; the mining extravaganzas ranging from the California gold rush to the Klondike; the detonation of atomic, then hydrogen bombs; the end of the Cold War, which allowed indigenous Alaskans and Siberians to reestablish contact; the tsunami of 2011; and the climate change now known as global warming. All of these events have reinforced ties between peoples of the West and their counterparts around the globe.

The Program Committee also invites proposals drawing on vibrant comparative indigenous and borderlands scholarship that explores similarities and differences between the North American West and similar regions (other “Wests”) across the planet. As we gather in Newport Beach, California, on the eastern shore of the Pacific Rim, we are reminded that the West isn’t always geographically west, yet we also find ourselves asking, “What makes it a particular place? What sets it apart as a unique region?”

Perhaps the answer to those questions lies in how the world’s peoples have perceived the West. Have the once romanticized impressions spun by Alfred Jacob Miller and, decades later, members of the Taos Society of Artists been overtaken by 21st-century features such as Starbucks, the City of Las Vegas, and Alaska’s Sarah Palin? In the early years of the second millennium, visitors to the West from Japan, China, and Europe might offer intriguing contemporary responses to resolve that conundrum. Have the earlier perceptions of the North American West changed or do they continue to prevail among outsiders who are intrigued by this unique region of the earth? We look forward to hearing proposals that respond to some of these puzzles regarding the West and the world.

The Program Committee strongly encourages full panel submissions and will consider single papers only when they can reasonably be matched with other panels or papers. When submitting an entire session or panel, include a brief abstract (250 words) that outlines the purpose of the session. Your designated contact person should submit the proposal. Each paper proposal, whether individual or part of a session, should include a one-paragraph abstract and a one-page c.v., with address, phone, and e-mail for each participant. Indicate equipment needs, if any. The committee assumes that all listed individuals have agreed to participate. Electronic submissions are required and should be sent, with supporting materials, as a single document (PDF) to THE SUBMISSION DEADLINE IS September 1.

August 23, 2013

Church Signs on Hwy 371 in New Mexico

State Highway 371 in New Mexico, between Farmington and I-40, skirts right along the eastern edge of the Navajo/Diné Nation. I drove it this summer and stopped several times along the way to take pictures of church signs. Here are a few of them, for your casual Friday viewing pleasure.

August 19, 2013

Mormons and the New York Times

by John-Charles Duffy

On July 21, the New York Times ran a front-page story about Mormons grappling with doubt as a result of discovering uncomfortable aspects of their religion’s history through online sources. The story was built around the experience of Hans Mattsson, a Swede who served in church leadership at the regional level but has now gone public with his skepticism. Other Mormons quoted in the story include well known scholars Richard Bushman and Terryl Givens, both of whom could be described as intellectually sophisticated, moderately orthodox Mormons—the Mormon equivalent of a Mark Noll, maybe, for those who know the evangelical Protestant world. In the article, Bushman and Givens refer to their own efforts to help their coreligionists come to terms with jarring aspects of the faith’s history by discussing these more frankly than has been (or is still) customarily the case in church publications. The story also cites a study conducted by a Mormon doctoral candidate John Dehlin of over three thousand doubting Mormons; Dehlin is also the founder of a podcast, Mormon Stories, that provides a forum for discussing controversial questions in Mormon history and teaching.

The appearance of this story on the front page of the NYT intrigues me. The story was not news to me: I move in or around Mormon circles where these discussions are occurring. I’m not too surprised that NYT religion reporter Laurie Goodstein would find these developments worth writing about. Mormons have been in the news quite a bit over the past few years (they’re “trending,” I believe the young people say these days?), and I can identify various angles of potential reader interest in the story Goodstein has put together. I am wondering, though: What does it mean that this story start on the front page of the NYT? Why did editors think the story was that important or potentially attractive to readers?

Let me tender three hypotheses—“interpretations,” as we call them in the humanities. I’ll save the one with the strongest “religion in the American west” bent for last.

Hypothesis 1. This story isn’t just about Mormons, it’s about modernization. In other words, this story is about a particular instance of a broader phenomenon: modern advances eroding the plausibility of traditional religious claims. The story ran under the headline “Some Mormons Search the Web and Find Doubt”—a headline which struck me as giving more prominence to the Internet than the story itself did. So from the get-go, we are being invited to read this as a story about what happens when religious beliefs collide with modern media. Charles Dickens had a quip about how incredible it is for Mormons to preach angels in the age of railways. The NYT has updated that sense of incongruity to: How can Mormons—alternatively, plug in the traditionalist religion of your choice—go on believing what they do in the age of the Internet? With difficulty, according to this story. And the trend, at least as painted in the NYT, is for the religious to painfully adapt.

This way of reading the story could dovetail with another media narrative I’ve been noticing more often lately—a narrative postulating the resurgence of liberal versions of traditional religions (Christianity is usually what’s being discussed), especially among millennials, the latest model of “the modern generation.” I have been surprised to keep encountering this narrative, because I’d become so accustomed to the narrative that “conservative religions are the ones that are growing,” coupled with the narrative that “young people are becoming seekers or nones.” Perhaps I’ve been reading more Rodney Stark than was good for me. At any rate, the NYT story on the Mormon doubters could be read as a distinctively Mormon iteration of the metanarrative that “people today want a more liberal version of their religion,” namely, a version more appropriate to the modern Web-surfing age.

Hypothesis 2. This story culturally marginalizes Mormons by reminding readers of an elite newspaper how incredible their beliefs are. This reading of the NYT story is influenced by my perception—which I have documented elsewhere—that quite a bit of scholarly and journalistic discourse about Mormonism since the 1980s has “exoticized” the religion—this after a period at mid-twentieth century when Mormons enjoyed media representations that painted them as model Americans. A lot of talk about Mitt Romney’s Mormonism during the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns likewise had this function, because exoticizing Mormonism served the interests of various political players who wanted to alienate voters from Romney.

In the musical The Book of Mormon, we’re given a humorous send-up of exotic Mormon beliefs, in the song “I Believe”: I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America. I believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob. I believe that God’s plan involves me getting my own planet, and that Jesus has his own planet as well. The NYT story focuses on a different set of Mormon claims, but the subtext is much the same: Who could possibly believe this? Joseph Smith dictated the Book of Mormon while peeping at a rock in the bottom of a hat? He was commanded by God to marry 14-year-old girls? God wanted Mormons to exclude black men from priesthood ordination? No wonder Mormons are grappling with doubt. Readers are meant to be sympathetic, I presume. Simultaneously, though, the story reminds readers that despite Mormons’ social conservatism, despite their presence in mainstream arenas such as business and government, their tradition makes claims that belong on the fringe. Don’t lose sight of that, dear reader, especially the next time you see Mormons running for high political office or professing to defend traditional values.

Hypothesis 3. With this story, an eastern establishment is—still—trying to mold Mormonism according to its own lights. The “still” in that last sentence points back to the nineteenth century, when Protestant reformers, determined to civilize the trans-Mississippi west, used eastern newspapers to rally citizens and lawmakers in the fight against Mormon polygamy and theocracy. Mormons had to be made to embrace proper American values, and they were quite literally denied citizenship (voting rights, statehood) until they did. In their crusade, reformers publicized Mormon or former Mormon voices that represented the appropriate values: the voices of polygamous wives, for example, who had seen the light and left.

This is the most suspicious of my suspicious readings—i.e., I’m hedging my bets—but it looks to me like something a little similar might be happening in this NYT story. Work with me here. We have here an article on the front page of one of the elite of the elite eastern newspapers. (They would probably prefer that I drop the qualifying “one of.”) This article provides a platform for various unofficial Mormon voices who represent a slightly more progressive approach to this religion. An approach that says: We need to be less defensively dismissive of criticism. We need to acknowledge fallibility and wrongdoing on the part of our past leadership. We need to stop being so literal-minded in the way we invest our scriptures with authority. We need, in effect, to be Mormon in a different way. We need to reform Mormonism.

It’s never put that bluntly in the NYT article. But that’s the resonance I pick up as my reading of this article crosses sound waves with the echo of eastern reform-minded journalism about Mormonism from the nineteenth century. Look! the editors of today’s NYT are saying to their readers—a more progressive kind of Mormonism! Mormons are starting to see the light! And that, evidently, for the editors of this elite eastern newspaper, qualifies as front-page news.

Call for Papers

Editors' Note: This call for papers might interest some of you!

The interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary journal, Environment, Space, Place (ZETA Books), is under new editorial direction and is looking for articles from contributors that make the ‘geographical turn’ in their research by framing, or making thematic, the spatial/placial component of the earthly/worldly phenomena. The journal editors are currently reviewing submissions for the Fall 2013 edition.

The journal is published in collaboration with the International Association for the Study of Environment, Space, and Place (IASESP) Also note that annual conferences are held in the spring–2014 will be held at California Institute for the Arts. Please contact Troy Paddock, for more information concerning submitting to the journal, or send your article to him for peer review.

August 5, 2013

Mormon Handcarts: A Symbol that Perseveres

by Jennifer Polopolus-Meredith

Pioneer Day in Salt Lake City, Utah is important. It includes fun filled activities such as fireworks, parades, and a rodeo. A state holiday, Pioneer Day commemorates the passage of Mormons into Salt Lake Valley where they would settle permanently. It is the culmination of the long dangerous trek to find the sacred place for their Zion. Proud of their pioneer past, the remembrance of the trek to Utah has shaped Mormon identity as it has come to embody and promote values important to their community. Within the mythos of the journey to Salt Lake valley, travel by handcarts has become central to the story. 

It is easy to understand the attachment and romanticizing by modern Mormons to those who trekked by handcart. It provides a heroic image of faithful pioneers walking over a thousand miles from Iowa City to Salt Lake through rough terrain pulling their possessions behind. Barely 3000 traveled by handcart, less than 10% of the total migration. Despite the low percentage, those who went by handcart have become the symbol of the journey. Handcart pioneers symbolize the courage, perseverance and dedication of Mormons to their faith and each other. Mostly the poor traveled by foot as covered wagon proved to expensive, but they chose the arduous path rather than stay behind. Faith in God’s plan for them as a community gave them courage and perseverance to cross the dangerous West.

Add to the story of courage elements of tragedy, heroics, and sacrifice and the symbol grows in strength. While mostly poor Mormons pulled handcarts, some voluntarily relinquished the comparative comforts of a covered wagon to walk. Francis Webster and his wife Betsy heeded the call from Brigham Young to help finance other Mormons by traveling with handcarts and donating the savings to the Perpetual Immigration Fund (PIF). In turn, PIF offered loans to less fortunate Mormons so they could also migrate. The Websters declined easier passage because their faith commanded sacrifice for their community. They wanted to help their fellow Mormons to build a stronger society. Modern Mormons also value sacrifice as they sacrifice time and money by paying tithes, volunteering in the church and community and participating in missions that spread the Mormon faith and ethos.

Unfortunately, over 200 died walking to Salt Lake Valley. Leaving late in the season and being caught in early blizzards led to some Mormons freezing, sickness, and starvation. While the deaths may have been avoidable, the tragedy adds to the significance of the handcarts. The early blizzard trapping the handcart companies demonstrates the pioneers at the mercy of the environment. It confirms the danger of the trek West and the courage and sacrifice of those who undertook the journey, especially on foot. Without that element of danger and loss the trek would lose some of its impact. Mormons might have built a myth of God’s protection if all had come through unscathed, but the tragedies highlight the willing sacrifice and depth of faith as people continued to travel by handcart after the events. Even setbacks could not shake their faith in the rightness of their plans.

From the tragic stories of death also come the tales of heroics by Mormons. Mormons searched for those lost in the early blizzards and carrying everyone from the Martin Handcart Company across Sweetwater. Mormons also donated food and other provisions and opened their homes to the handcart pioneers. The story of the rescue at Sweetwater has reached mythic proportions with three Mormons supposedly carrying everyone from the company safely across the river. While not entirely historically accurate, as Chad M. Orton has shown, Mormons did launch heroic rescue efforts to save their imperiled pioneers. Today, Mormons continue to help those endangered and less fortunate with their welfare system and humanitarian aid. While God did not prevent all tragedy, the story takes on a mythical note that only three men saved the whole company. They must have had help from God to carry and protect everyone. In this sense, the tragedy seems proof that God led their journey and watched over their people.

The handcart trek has become the dominant narrative of the pioneer trek to Salt Lake Valley. It has the elements of tragedy, heroics and sacrifice that create an exciting meaningful narrative. It also portrays the important values of sacrifice, hard work, and the centrality of community essential to the Mormon ethos. This is evident in the popularity of handcart treks taken by youth groups and entire wards. Mormons can follow in their ancestor’s footsteps, literally, by renting handcarts and pulling them for a weekend over part of the trail. They learn the history while feeling first hand the hardship and perseverance of their ancestors. Some wards go all out and make their own clothes, walk for ten hours a day, and try to authenticate as closely as possible the experience. They find out first hand, the sacrifice, perseverance, and hard work of their ancestors. Others take a less strict path and dress in modern clothing, and have more of a camping experience using tents and not walking as long. However, they still learn the history and the experience strengthens the bonds of community in the wards and also the youth groups. Fittingly, the handcart has become the symbol of the Mormon migration to Salt Lake Valley.