Review: Mason and Turner, OUT OF OBSCURITY

A vast majority of work on the history of Mormonism focuses on the nineteenth century. (Guilty as charged!) And those few books that do creep into the twentieth typically focus on the first few decades as the church transitioned from a parochial and polygamous sect to a patriotic and integrated institution. Part of this trend has to do with sources. The few books on post-1930 Mormonism, with few expectations, were the result of individuals gaining possession of the private writings of church leaders like David O. McKay and Spencer W. Kimball. Official records for other prominent figures in the century are notably restricted.

But that excuse portrays either a lack of imagination or ambition on the part of the scholar. Yes, more sources would be nice, and yes, access to crucial material is limited, but there is plenty to work with on a myriad of twentieth-century topics, especially for the historian who shifts their gaze from elite male leaders. And this new collection of essays, Out of Obscurity: Mormonism Since 1945 (Oxford UP), edited by established historians Patrick Mason and John Turner, lay a foundation for a future generation of scholarship. Mason notes how odd it is that the Mormon period least understood by religious scholars is also the period of the church’s “greatest growth, acceptance, and success” (3). And though it would be impossible for an edited collection to be comprehensive, this volume boasts a number of important elements that should shape the field’s future: a global scope that identifies Mormonism’s international reach while still acknowledging its nationalist imprint, a diversity of disciplinary approaches and methodologies, and a variety of voices and background that put to rest myths of Mormon homogeneity.

It is a fool’s errand to attempt a comprehensive overview of a collection of multi-vocal, multi-disciplinary, and multi-topic essays. So I’ll briefly spell out one consistent theme found throughout the volume. Most dominant among the lessons of modern Mormonism, to my mind, Is the Church’s encounter with pluralism. If Mormonism was especially parochial during their pre-WW2 period, entrenched in their Rocky Mountain refuge and free to experiment with their unique practices and beliefs, then the second half of the twentieth century forced Mormons to cope with broader communities, ideas, and polities. Nathan Oman demonstrates how international missions nuanced LDS perceptions of the secular state. John Turner explains the many clashes over institutional and academic histories, drawing on lessons from Evangelicalism’s encounter with biblical criticism. JB Haws explores how elite Mormon men navigated evolving political parties. In many instances, the LDS tradition became more integrated into the Age of Pluralism. Coming “out of obscurity” implied embracing modern notions of heterogenous societies.

But as one of the best historical studies on twentieth-century Mormonism has argued, there were always simultaneous waves of assimilation and retrenchment that forbade the pendulum from swinging too far in one direction. At several critical junctures, Mormons and Mormon leaders recoiled in response to this new world they were experiencing, even as they adopted the tools, ideas, and practices of this “fallen Babylon” for their own purposes. Patrick Mason’s chapter argued that just as Ezra Taft Benson became involved with wider conservative circles, he redoubled back with this newfound political discourse that he could then mix with a new anti-communist reading of the Book of Mormon. Neil Young’s chapter connects the Mormon opposition to the ERA to their later protest against same-sex marriage, a political mobilization effort that exemplified the newfound power of the Religious Right. And in some cases the coalescing tensions were especially acute: Amanda Hendrix-Komoto fascinating study highlights how the Polynesian Culture Center, which displayed the performance of indigenous communities, was created at the very same time as a formalization of modesty standards back on the mainland. They celebrated diversity just as they they fled away from it.

These are just a few tastes of the exceptional essays. All of the chapters—each of which are published here for the first time—provide sophisticated nuance and provocative arguments. They possess both breadth and depth. And even if the overwhelming focus remains on the American context, it at least points toward a more global approach. (The field-defining compilation of Mormonism outside of the United States, which will do for that topic what this volume does for post-WW2 Mormonism, has yet to be produced.) But the contents of this text will shape the discussion of the modern LDS Church for quite some time.

I’ve previously written about the preponderance of edited collections in Mormon studies. There’s a reason why other fields have mostly dropped the genre: a lot of them are forgettable. Perhaps most. Sure, there might be an article or two worth remembering, but in total a compilation of works-in-progress is often a fleeting snap shot of a field just before it transitions into something else. But that is not the case with Out of Obscurity. Like a handful of other volumes that attempt to pave new roads rather than extend paths already in existence, Mason and Turner’s book should serve as a platform for chartering a new historiographical course. We will hopefully see a string of monographs that bring to blossom the ideas that are only now beginning to sprout. More, I could see this book being used in undergraduate classrooms not only dedicated to Mormonism—though the book should certainly be a staple in those—but also in classes focused on American religious history more generally. That achievement not only brings Mormonism “out of obscurity” in relation to its post-World War II presence, but also reaffirms the sub-field’s importance to the historical community writ large.

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