Review: Thomas Simpson, AMERICAN UNIVERSITIES AND THE BIRTH OF MODERN MORMONISM

In his new book, American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism (UNC Press), Thomas Simpson’s thesis is simple: in the dynamic and evolving compromise between the Mormon Church and the American nation, where the former gave up its isolationist policies and outlook in return for the former’s acceptance, universities played a central role. Young Mormon men and women flooded eastern universities to gain an education in law, medicine, economics, and, later, history, philosophy, and religion. The participants were often exuberant but the results were at times dampened. The LDS hierarchy and Mormon educational institutions were thrilled with the opportunity to prove their intellectual chops, but they were worried when the newly-degreed students returned with unorthodox beliefs. At the heart of this story was the battle between faith, intellect, and authority.

The first crop of eager students who went east left with the express encouragement of Brigham Young during the final decade of his life. The goal in sending them to external institutions was, ironically, to be more self-dependent: men studied law so that the Saints wouldn’t have to rely on gentile lawyers, and women studied medicine so they wouldn’t require gentile doctors. But the ambition blossomed. New groups of LDS students, in increasingly diverse fields, continued to migrate to Michigan, Harvard, Columbia, and Philadelphian schools. For women, the experience was empowering. LDS newspapers published gushing letters about how these educational opportunities expanded their minds and built their confidence. The Church supported these initiatives, both financially and morally, even if they retained reservations of secular learning. The academic arena allowed Mormons to test out the American world into which they would soon be assimilating.

But the process was bumpy, and at times hazardous. Church leaders worried when their young academics flirted with unorthodoxy. Cycles of acceptance and rejection at BYU led the institution to at times hire these graduates and grant them surprising freedom, followed by moments of reversal when they forced them out of the university. This was not a slow trajectory of progress; rather, it was a roller coaster of assimilation and retrenchment. The LDS Church never, from the period of this book all the way to the present, fully accepted or rejected secular education, but has instead maintained a high-stakes tango dance that goes around, around, and around.

Readers will be introduced to a host of new and interesting characters. Besides the familiar James Talmadge and John Widtsoe, I loved learning about Ellis Reynolds Shipp’s quest to reconcile faith and intellect as well as Romania Pratt’s attack on simplistic populism. Benjamin Cluff was a paradoxical figure who enthusiastically pushed for higher education while simultaneously participating in post-manifesto polygamy. Karl Maeser appears as a frustrated villain who worries that the eastern universities would corrupt Utah institutions. Harvard President Charles Ellis was a surprising defender of Mormons in eastern universities. And of course we get our intellectual martyrs in the professors who were expelled from BYU in 1911. The book ends on an ominous note with J Reuben Clark’s “chartered” course, which rejected the “worldly” education of elite universities. Mormonism’s quest to Americanize was nothing if not uneven.

The story of the Americanization of Mormonism at the turn of the twentieth century is old hat. Thomas Alexander’s famous book, published a quarter-century ago, laid out the general contours of the framework. Yet Simpson adds a new prism through which to view the process. This is done by focusing on Mormon students and academic administrators. Typical characters in the well-worn drama of assimilation are reluctant pragmatists, polygamists who refuse to give up their practice until threatened with extinction or American politicians willing to challenge Mormon citizenship until they agreed to national standards. This may be a two-person dance, but it’s a dance full of angry participants who are only there because their parents forced them. In Simpson’s story, though, the participants are eager to get along. The students wanted a place at the academic table in order to gain respectability. The administers were anxious to welcome Mormons as a sign of American unity. These are people who want to be together and work things out. As Simpson himself wrote, the university provided a safe space for Mormon/non-Mormon diplomacy.

Further, Simpson’s Americanization process, which centered on the internal battle over secular knowledge, adds new wrinkles to the story.  The real conflict, he argues, came not between Utah and America, but within the Mormon community. LDS students had to spend more time defending their intellectualism to other Mormons than defending their Mormonism to other intellectuals. Indeed, it is on this point of internal conflict that Simpson offers his major historiographical revision: we typically see the transition period as one in which Mormons became more inclusive and ecumenical, but viewed from the academic perspective the first few decades of the twentieth century were a string of retrenchments. The trajectory to modern Mormonism was far from linear.

One impressive aspect about this volume is the archival research. The difficulty with a project that focuses on individuals is that you have to mine individual collections. Simpson, however, was able to track down loads of LDS college students and scour their diaries, journals, and other private writings. The mountain of material Simpson found, therefore, was astounding, and it enables us to see Mormonism’s transition period through the eyes of non-leaders. Another impressive element of the book is its length: excluding endnotes and the immensely helpful appendixes, the main body of the text runs less than 130 pages. I love short books. First, because you can read them in one or two sittings. And second, the book will work well in an undergrad class.

My only hesitancy with the book is the comfy reassurance it provides readers like me. As an academic, I love it when the protagonists are scholarly inclined, when academic institutions are the triumphant spaces, and when the heroes of the tale are martyred for a worthy cause. I sympathize with the modernists, therefore I mourn their expulsion. And as someone with a university education who teaches university education, of course I appreciate the idea of university education as Mormonism’s transformative pivot. But is the fact that the narrative is so appealing blinding my sight of other historical instigators? Am I less anxious to sympathize with the “populists” who serve the role of spoilers in this story? I don’t have definite answers to these questions, and therefore have limited critiques of the book, but I can’t shake these anxieties from my mind.

I enjoyed the book. It was readable and fascinating. And it gives context to the intellectual struggles that still persist today.

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6 Comments Add yours

  1. Gary Bergera says:

    Great, informative review, Ben.

    Like

  2. Matt Harris says:

    A nice review, Ben. The book looks promising.

    Like

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