Seth Perry: An Outsider Looks In at Mormonism

[Seth Perry is a Ph.D. student in the history of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School.]

People often assume I'm a Mormon. I study the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and as a vanilla-white, clean-cut Midwesterner, I fit pretty well into the average person's mental picture of what a Mormon looks like. The response I get when I explain that my interest is purely academic and accidental — I really just stumbled onto the right book at the right time — depends on the person I'm talking to. Both non-Mormons and Mormons are intrigued: the former by the church, the latter by my interest. Non-Mormons often become conspiratorial, ready to get answers to everything they've always wanted to know about the secrets of Mormonism but were afraid to ask. Mormons assume that I have a leaning toward conversion, or at least a desire to celebrate their faith. Rare is the interlocutor who assumes an unvarnished academic interest.

From where I stand, as a graduate student hoping to be part of Mormon studies in the future, such encounters appear as a microcosm of the field. The academic study of religion is itself relatively new, beset with a number of interpretive problems that have not been fully sorted out — issues of faith and scholarship, of the status of insiders and outsiders, of the parochialism that religion often brings out in scholars as much as in everyone else — and those problems are displayed in particularly stark relief with respect to the study of Mormonism.

I came upon Mormonism as an undergraduate, when I was looking for a subject in American religious history for a senior thesis. The first serious book I read on the subject was Fawn Brodie's biography of Joseph Smith, No Man Knows My History (Knopf, 1945), which is widely recognized as an abysmal piece of historiography (Brodie, a dissenting Latter-day Saint, handles the prophet with the abandon of an armchair psychologist). It is, however, an exquisite piece of writing, and I was hooked on the story Brodie wove. Peeling away the eccentricities of her book and of so many others, one recognizes that the Mormon story needs no embellishment, that the facts of Smith's life and the subsequent development of the religion he created are compelling enough as they stand....

The continued classification of Mormonism as a religious oddity carries over into scholarship to a surprising degree. In a class I took last year, we read the most well-known one-volume histories of religion in America and saw how, from Robert Baird in 1844 (Religion in the United States of America) to Sydney E. Ahlstrom in 1972 (A Religious History of the American People), historians have lumped Mormonism into a category of "religious outsiders" that implies preconceived notions about their behavior and belief. Ahlstrom's primary discussion of Mormonism, for example, comes in a chapter called "The Communitarian Impulse." Somewhat unusually, he chooses the early church's attempts at economic collectivism (never fully realized) as its defining mark, and so Mormonism ends up in a category with Brook Farm, the Oneida Community, and the Shakers. Like Wiccans and Scientologists, those groups are coded in a certain way. Consider how differently Mormons (and the other groups noted here, for that matter) would appear if they were under a heading such as "Christian Developments of the 19th Century" and classified by theology next to, say, Methodists, a classification that at least is no less defensible than "communitarian."

Other disciplines, as well, have a complicated relationship with Mormonism. Sociologists, for example, looking to test their theories, have not always treated the Mormon religion with the same sense of care employed in the study of other faiths. Students of non-Western religions have long dealt with a sort of essentializing, or caricature, and by now are profoundly sensitive to it. But the degree of sensitivity accorded non-Christian religions in the West seems to be proportional to those religions' proximity to Christianity and Judaism, the de facto points of reference for the vast majority of Western scholars. It seems easier to approach different religious points of view when they are far away, the experiences of an alien history and culture, rather than an "odd" arrangement of the features of a known world....

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