Embracing the Chaos and Diversity of Mormonism’s Past: Laurie Maffly-Kipp’s MHA Presidential Address

Laurie Maffly-Kipp is one of the foremost scholars of American religious history, so it was a big win for the field of Mormon studies that she’s spent so much of her energy, especially in the last decade, dealing with the LDS past. Besides producing the Penguin Classics edition of the Book of Mormon, along with series’ edition on American Scripture (which also features Mormonism), she has published u number of important articles. A book that narrates a general overview of Mormonism and American life is forthcoming from a trade press. As president of the Mormon History Association last year, she delivered her presidential address at the 2016 annual conference in Snowbird. It is now published in the just-released issue of Journal of Mormon History, so I thought I’d highlight some of my favorite points.

In her address, “The Clock and the Compass: Mormon Culture in Motion,” Maffly-Kipp encourages historians of Mormonism to consider our organizational principles. She focuses on two metaphors that symbolize how scholars approach their subject: centripetal and centrifugal forces. A majority of Mormon histories fall in the former category, as they feature characters and ideas cycling inward toward an institutional center. That is, the gravitational pull remains the LDS Church. “It is tempting to overemphasize the centripetal tendencies of groups,” she explains, “to focus attention on how and why people come together, internalize a set of beliefs and practices, and create a distinctive sense of time and place” (15). Mormonism revolved around the gathering, after all. Such is the dominant narrative in the field.

But it doesn’t have to be. Maffly-Kipp models how historians can also highlight the centripetal forces that push Mormon culture away from the institutional Church. Such a perspective not only would capture the numerous schismatic expressions of the faith–she highlights James Brewster as just one example–but also the many historical characters who refused to be defined by institutional commitments. “Stories such as these,” she writes, “are instructive for what they suggest about the gap, for many nineteenth century Mormons, between the Church as an institution and mormonism as a religious movement” (14). This is an important point. I try to get my undergraduate students to capture this idea by reading Robert Orsi’s exquisite Madonna of 115th Street, which explores how Catholics in Progressive Era-Harlem experimented with ritualistic and liturgical practices that transcended their local diocese. That’s a story that needs more telling within the Mormon studies community.

How do we tell such stories? Most pressingly, “we need to pay close attention to the potential chaos within the first few decades of the Mormon movement” (6). Early Mormon converts lived in a world in motion, often transgressing boundaries both geographical and intellectual. They also did not march toward a teleological conclusion that birthed the Modern church. By destabilizing the institution, scholars can capture both the vast diversity of the faith’s past as well as its many unexplored roads. At every point, there were a multiplicity of options not realized.

One reason I really like this model is that it gives meaning for today. In an era where church attendance is slipping even while spirituality remains constant, we need more historical genealogy for the “spiritual but not religious” mentality. This is not something completely new. It also proves that diversity is not a modern product. These are stories that not only better capture the reality of the past, but also offer more relevance for the present.

Maffly-Kipp closes her address by admitting that, despite all all this talk of diversity and centrifugal forces, “maybe I am a gatherer, too.” In her synthetic history, she hopes “to gather…an account of human beings, flawed and sometimes feeble, as they wrestle to reconcile competing impulses, contradictions, and mistakes” (19). That’s a story we can all look forward to.

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