It's Time for Mormon History to Come into Its Own

Roundup: Talking About History

David Clark Knowlton, associate professor of anthropology at Utah Valley State College, in the Salt Lake Tribune (Feb. 29, 2004):

The controversies stemming from the University of Utah History Department's attempt to fill the position vacated by the untimely death of Dean L. May raise issues of consequence to all of us. While the members of that department have to make the often-difficult decision of who to hire, all of us have a horse in this race.

    The Salt Lake Tribune paraphrased a professor in the department saying that"anyone who studies the history of the American West can teach Utah history." It also quotes the department chair, Eric Hinderaker, on the need to"differentiate between Mormon history and Mormon studies."

    Of course we in Utah, no matter our religion or ethnicity, have an interest in how the history of our state and region is taught in the state's flagship university. The extent of our interest is informed by discussions underlying the perspectives of the aforementioned scholars.

    So-called Western history has tended to be the hegemonic story of the expansion of the dominant U.S. society over the territory of the American West. As a result, until recently, as Professor Patricia Limerick of the University of Colorado notes, it has not taken account of other peoples inhabiting the region and their stories. Thus it did not grasp the story of Utes, Paiutes, Shoshones, Cheyenne, Hopis, Navajos, etc., in their struggles with the national economic and political project.

    It did not include Hispanics, even though this land was part of Mexico and numerous people were forcibly joined to the U.S. when their homes became part of this country.

    It has tended to not see half of the mainstream population, women.

    Similarly, Western history tends to be a discourse with a missing center, a doughnut, to paraphrase Indiana historian Jan Shipps. It has ignored one of the most densely populated areas of the region along with its people's social dynamics and concerns. Both Shipps and Limmerick claim it substantially ignores the Mormons.

    The Mormon culture region does present some complications. The main one may stem from the fact that Mormons are both a people and a religion. Thus someone who can decipher this increasingly important corner of the American tapestry must have skills that join religious history with the more standard approaches of social, political and economic analysis.

    For too long, Mormon history has been relegated to a ghetto called Mormon studies. Mormons are an increasingly important component of our national society. The influence of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is growing in the U.S. and abroad. Its members are prominent in many fields of endeavor and, especially, in national politics. Even American history is becoming increasingly difficult to narrate without some understanding of Mormons.

    Unlike standard Western history, Mormon history requires international skills. Whether because of the migration of large numbers of Welsh, English and Danes (on which Brigham Young depended for survival and which gave this region a distinctive population) or because more than half of all Mormons now live in other countries, a Mormon historian must have an awareness of international issues.

    Standard Western history is simply not an adequate disciplinary base from which to study or teach about this people. Mormon history is broader than Western history. Furthermore, Western history increasingly needs Mormon history to come out of its ghetto and broaden the story of the American West.

    This matters to all of us. It is not simply something for academics to argue about in dusty journals or at some academic coffeehouse.

    A quality public university such as the U. has a dual mission. It must house representatives of the range of academic concerns that crisscross the globe with abandon. It also, for reasons of political survival if for no other, must represent the life and concerns of its host society in its research and teaching.

    To be sure, the U. continues a tradition of positively engaging its local hosts, as I experienced when I was a visiting professor there. However, much still needs to be done.

    It is not my place to intervene in affairs internal to the U.'s history department. However, as the discussion has become public, it is appropriate to weigh in. I feel strongly that Dean May should not be replaced by a mainstream Western historian. Such hegemonic history would break a relationship between the history department and its hosts. This is not about religion. It is about good, professional history and its relationship with a people.

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