Review by Spencer W. McBride
Spencer W. McBride is the author of Pulpit and Nation: Clergymen and the Politics of Revolutionary America (University of Virginia Press, 2017) and a historian and documentary editor with the Joseph Smith Papers Project, Salt Lake City, Utah.
At the core, Conversations with Mormon Historians, is a book that features historians speaking to historians about being historians. While books featuring discussions of historiography and the personal histories of historians are rarely found atop bestseller lists, for those pursuing a career researching and writing about the Mormon past, this book is an important resource for understanding how the field became what it is today.
Conversations with Mormon Historians spotlights sixteen scholars who have spent decades working in the academic field of Mormon history, including Thomas Alexander, Claudia Bushman, Richard Bushman, Kenneth Godfrey, Dean Jessee, Carol Cornwall Madsen, and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Each of the interviews is conducted by an early- or mid-career scholar. After each historian answers questions about his or her personal history, the recorded interactions delve into fascinating discussions of the field’s development, its highs and lows, its boons and obstacles, and its triumphs and defeats.
Consider, for instance, the interview of Richard Bushman in which he discusses with Jed Woodworth the popular reaction to Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling. It was welcomed by many as a humanized portrait of a complex man but critics—often Latter-day Saints—claimed that Bushman “sold out to the world by not coming down stronger on the Mormon side” and bearing testimony of Joseph Smith as a prophet (191). Similarly, Claudia Bushman reflects in her interview with Kristine Wardle Frederickson on the challenge of being a Latter-day Saint in academia. Bushman states, “People will always know you are a Mormon. It goes before you; it precedes you. People are suspicious of you and doubt that you can be trusted, . . . so you just have to rise above the suspicion” (176). Historians concerned with the ecclesiastical perceptions and ramifications of total transparency in writing about the Mormon past will be interested in Kenneth Godfrey’s reminiscence in his interview with Matthew C. Godfrey. The former recalls that when he was invited to join the original board of editors for Dialogue, two of his church leaders were uncomfortable with the idea, believing he would experience difficulties if the articles published in that journal were not “just right” (252). Add to this the bewilderment Laurel Thatcher Ulrich expresses in her interview with Nathan H. Williams over the mysterious circumstances that led to her inclusion on a list of scholars prohibited from speaking at BYU—a ban that has since been lifted (555–56). Readers are presented with multiple first-person accounts of the professional telling of its past and the past of its members.
Beyond the challenges of writing about the Mormon past as professional historians, several of the interviews in this volume illuminate the origins of now-prominent initiatives, projects, and organizations. For instance, Carol Cornwall Madsen recalls in her interview with Sheree Maxwell Bench the start and subsequent progress of the Mormon Women’s History Initiative (372–76). Similarly, Dean C. Jessee, in his discussion with Robin Scott Jensen, recounts how his work on the personal writings of Joseph Smith led to the creation of the Joseph Smith Papers Project (298–301). In addition, Thomas Alexander describes in his conversation with Dave Hall the formation of the Mormon History Association and the professional recognition and rigor Alexander and others hoped the organization would lend to the burgeoning field of Mormon history (13–17).
It would be easy for the casual reader to dismiss this book as historian navel-gazing, but it would be a mistake for professional historians to do the same. The history of our field, and the men and women who built it, is essential knowledge if we are to chart a course that moves the study of the Mormon past forward into new territory and present it to a more expansive audience than previously. Toward such an effort, Conversations with Mormon Historians makes a valuable contribution.