Monday, September 14, 2009

Confessions of a Mormon History Geek

Hi, my name is Bruce and I am a Mormon history geek. [Hi Bruce] I got excited when I heard the Joseph Smith Papers were going to be published. My favorite Christmas present was a copy of Making Sense of the Doctrine and Covenants by Steven C. Harper. I have willingly spent many lunch hours at the Tennessee State Archives in front of a microfilm reader looking at newspapers printed over a hundred years ago, in the hope of finding a previously unknown reference to Mormons. The last daytrip I took my family on was to the site of the Cane Creek Massacre where four Mormons were killed while attending church in 1884. If you think I should get a life, my wife would heartily agree. [OK, that’s not really true. My wife is very supportive. But let’s not allow the truth to get in the way of a good story.]

Mormons love their history. Maybe it has something to do with identifying our ancestors for temple work. Maybe it’s because historical events define us as being different from other churches. The apostasy and the restoration are historical event s. The truth of the Book of Mormon rests on its being a genuine (if incomplete) history. And it doesn’t stop there. We believe in the literal resurrection of Christ. That Adam, Noah and Abraham were real people. Our religion is joined at the hip to the real world. Everything is spiritual, even our history.

But I’m not a real historian. I’m more like the football fan that plays in the Elders’ Quorum Thanksgiving morning mudbowl game. I’m an amateur. To make up for what I don’t know I troll Mormon History Blogs. My personal favorite is Keepapitchinin. It is well written but not over-my-head academic like [an unspecified blog I try to read and understand]. Plus it doesn’t have the drama going on at [a different unspecified blog I read only sometimes anymore]. I’d be embarrassed if someone tried to compare me to Juanita Brooks or Leonard Arrington. In fact, I have two secret fears when it comes to Mormon history.

My first fear is that the next time I ask for some rarely used manuscript kept locked up in the climate controlled vault the archivist is going to look me in the eye and “know” that I’m not a real historian. In that moment I will be judged “not worthy” to gaze upon the secret knowledge and I’ll hear the words “no book for you” just like the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld. Of course it has never happened. But it might.

My second fear is that people will find out I don’t really know that much about church history. Oh sure, I know a few things. Mostly stuff I found out when someone tried to shake my testimony by revealing some deep dark secret from church history. I could almost feel their disappointment as I would say “Really? That’s so cool!” Of course, the details I would dig up would never match the story I was just told. Well, almost never matched. Presentation is everything. If you’ve heard that I tell my kids about an elf named “Claws” that sneaks into our house at night once a year to hide black rocks in the clothes of my naughty children, you might not want to visit my home next Christmas.

So what is your fascination with Mormon History? Does it consume your life? Do you lose sleep at night worrying that Marlin K. Jensen will be released as Church Historian and we will go back to the days of ”some things that are true are not very useful”? Do you fret over having missed the in-person crossfire between Will Bagley, Forrest Cuch, and Richard Turley about the Mountain Meadows Massacre? [They were actually very polite] You know who you are. Stand up, tell us you first name, and say “I am a Mormon History Geek.”

[Bruce has been playing at historian since before high school. He prefers the word “amateur” to geek.]


Amy T said...

"My personal favorite is Keepapitchinin.... Plus it doesn’t have the drama going on..."


Keepa's my favorite, of course, as well as your blog and a couple of other blogs on the topic. I probably read about half of what's posted on JI (but everything by Edje!) and get a kick out of making comments on that site in my non-professional way, complete with my lack of "correct" historical analysis and terminology.

I have an undergraduate degree in history, but a lot of my upper level classes and papers were in family and community history. Land grants and tenure and estimating birth dates and deciphering Swedish parish records is dissimilar to what a lot of the professional historians are doing.

Not that I don't appreciate their work! I really do, particularly when it results in projects like the Joseph Smith Papers.

By the way, Hi, Bruce. My name is Amy. I go by "Researcher" on the Mormon-themed blogs. (That pseudonym has little or no connection to historical researching skills, or lack thereof. It refers to the fact that I was looking up how fast aspirin decomposes in water right before I needed to come up with a screen name.)

Thanks for the interesting post! And thanks for all your interesting posts. Your blog is one of the few I have on RSS feed.

And (one final note) -- oh, the blessings of a supportive spouse. My husband must have the patience of Job (or something close to it) for putting up with my hobby. :)

Ardis Parshall said...

Hi, Bruce. Hi, Amy. My name is Ardis. I'm a Mormon history geek. I'm looking for a 13th step to get deeper in, not a 12-step program to get out.

I've learned to live with the astonishment and suspicion on the faces of a few missionaries at the Church History Library who are both amazed the church would own some kinds of materials wonder why in the world I would ask to look at some of the stuff I read. They are not Mormon history geeks. They are missionaries. They will never understand.

I too live in fear that someday people will discover that I am a fraud, that I am not an historian but merely a legal secretary who couldn't stand going back to a law office for One More Day and decided to fool around with something I enjoyed while I was looking around for some other way to earn money. People started throwing money at me to do history and, well, I've never got around to finding a real job. But I know how woefully inadequate I am in too many areas, and I know someday somebody will discover the fraud. Some may already have done so.

And drama? I don't have the foggiest idea what you're talking about. There ain't never no stinkin' drama at Keepapitchinin.

Seriously, I do recognize and appreciate the lack of a formal education in history -- I'm reminded of that with virtually every JI post, never mind the professional journals. I don't always know what questions to ask, and certainly don't know all the questions that have already been asked and answered. But I've learned that history is one area where all of us amateurs can make a profound and lasting contribution, by patience and hard work and the ability to write a few coherent sentences. We may not ever address the really big issues that attract the pros, but the world of the past is so huge that the pros aren't ever going to get around to the corners that most interest us.

And I love history. I love us. I love finding out where we came from and why we are the way we are, and I especially love sharing the little discoveries with other people who enjoy them as much as I do. Who cares about the gatekeepers? who cares about being labeled a fraud? We know what we're doing, and why.

And we've got our little support group of others who understand. Hurray for us.

BruceAllen said...

Thank you Amy and Ardis. It is good to know I'm not alone.

You are, of course, right, Ardis. We don't need the professionals permission to do what we do. Just their tolerance. So long as they let me keep looking at original documents, I'm happy to stay in my target niche.

And you are right, Amy. It is a niche that the regular historians generally ignore.

If believe Bushman, it is hard for a historian to make a career of Mormon history. And harder still if you are Mormon. As an amateur, I don't have a career to ruin by being pigeon holed. I can do what I want.

Morgan Deane said...

Hi Bruce and everybody. I'm Morgan and I am a history geek as well. As somebody with some professional training I will let you in a little secret: everybody is insecure. I have published in a variety of places, have langauge skills, operate my own blog, and I still don't feel good enough. My tenured professors that have taught me say the same thing. There is always somebody out there with more- more letters by their name, more publications, a better pedigree, a better job etc.

At some point you need to stop worrying and simply do the best you can. Thats what I keep telling myself anyway after my classes got cancelled this semester due to low enrollment.

Thanks for the post and keep up the good work.

BruceAllen said...

Hi Morgan,

Thanks for that. It is realy encouraging.

Do you find subject experts who are protective of their turf?

Hunter said...

Hi everyone. I dare not induct myself into this great club of Mormon History Geeks. But only because I have not yet graduated into your group -- I am still a Mormon History Geek-Wannabe, otherwise known as a Mormon History Dilettante.

No matter our various gradations of expertise, though, I can say that I do share your love for our shared history. It's wonderful.

Thanks for calling this meeting to order!

BruceAllen said...

Hi Hunter,

Be not troubled about what you think you don't know. I originally thought about writing a post on "All I ever knew about Mormon History I learned by reading Keepapitchinin" but I've read a couple of real books now so I can't really claim that anymore. I've read Rough Stone Rolling and Great Basin Kingdom.

I'm sure each of us could tell you what we don't know that we think we should.

Jared T. said...

Keep up the good work, Bruce.

In case you missed it, see here.

Researcher, we're happy to have your participation. Like Morgan says, the self doubt doesn't end with getting a PhD (and yes, it starts much earlier than that).

I'm a little perplexed, though, by the amateur-pro dichotomy as presented in a few of the comments here. "Pros" do a lot of groundbreaking demographic work, the type Amy describes.

Regarding Ardis' comment about the corners that the pro don't get to vs the big issues they do, I think that this is less true today than in the past. In my experience, the pros strive not only to shine light into the corners (and do the type of demographics referred to above), but also to tie those corners and "minutiae" into larger issues.

In my own research into the Church in S. Texas, I'm finding that an astounding amount of professional historical work has been done on the Rio Grande Valley where I had thought this was only a "corner" that only "amateur" historians had been interested in. A great example is Revolution in Texas from Yale Press which takes a penetrating look at a little-known conflict in what is very much a corner (in many ways) of the country and tie it to larger themes. Those "pros" and all pros are always indebted to "amateurs" and I think pros often acknowledge the work of the "amateur." But this is standard fare in history. We all build on the work of those that come before us whether "amateur" or "pro." That I know of, no one has documented all the "mundane" details of the Church in S. Texas, who was bishop when of what ward, when so and so ward was organized, etc. I'm gonna have to do that. Had someone else, a local history buff done it, I would be breathing a sigh of relief and quoting them liberally and thankfully, not peering down my nose at them. Although, if you have a dramatic failure like this, then I might start to feel a little snooty about what certain "amateurs" do. And that, only to make it clear that work like that is not what I do. See my forthcoming reviews of When The Saints Came Marching In: The History of the Church in Denton, Texas and also Silencing Mormon Polygamy at the JI.

So, sit back, have a glass of your favorite beverage, and give yourselves more credit.

BruceAllen said...


Thanks. Your kindness does not go unnoticed.

Morgan Deane said...

Bruce: Most subejct experts I've talked to appreciate somebody else that is interested in the same things they are. Often there is so much specialization that its a real treat to find another person who likes to study pre modern Chinese military theory (for example). Then its even more of a treat when the person adds to the subject through sound research and writing. So in my expereince I haven't seen anybody jealously guarding their turf.

S.Faux said...


I am writing to confess. I am a severely addicted Mormon history geek. It's a problem because my training is in science, and my collection of Mormon history books is growing overwhelmingly large. In my home office my science books are diluted by the history books laying all around me. My history books have grown to the point where there is no space for them on the shelves. They collect in piles around my computer where I work.

People in my Ward think I know history. I know that I don't -- at least not sufficiently. People will ask me trivia questions: When did such and such happen in the Church? I will refuse to answer much of the time, because I cannot give an exact date off the top of my head. History requires exactness -- almost perfection.

Mormon history is my favorite subject. That is saying a lot, because I REALLY love science.

I read history critically, in search of truth. I realize that both General Authorities and professional historians are fallible when discussing Church history. I love to discover errors. It's addictive.

And here is the BIG confession: I realize, in my search for perfection, that I am NOT perfect. As I write history, I may be making errors, even when trying to be extremely careful.

I yearn to attend MHA, but I cannot get the time off. So much for academic freedom ... .

I am S.Faux. I am a Mormon history geek. I confess that I am NOT recovering. I want more.

Acegrace said...

Personally I am glad that the Lord raised up the historians we have had. Without "formal" training, my favorite, Wilford Woodruff did the BEST job at recording history as it happened.

Thanks for all you do Bruce and Ardis!

BruceAllen said...

That is good to hear. I had feared that the experts in my chosen field might not take to kindly to my disagreeing with long held beliefs. And maybe they still won't considering I'm just an amateur.

S. Faux,
I sometime wonder what my boss would think if she knew how much of my free time I spend on History. It isn't my career afterall.

I love Wilford Woodruff. Great material and none of the mistakes so commonly found in B. H. Roberts.

JonW said...

Hi everyone,

My name is Jonathan, I am a pseudo pro-temp historian...

I have a BA wanted the other letters too. Long story.

I love Mormon history. I have been fascinated by it since my mission. I have really found it incredibly fascinating to go into big and little corners.

I have read a few Mormon History books over the years and even own three books of edited journals.

I think being a history geek is incredibly important. I think people miss some critical understandings by missing history. I find myself more in love with it each day even if I am stuck in a world of politics.

I would love to do what Ardis does. Ah microfilm how thou torment me with your tendancy to not load in yet another new readers which is more complex than the last.

Bruce, we really need to start a group one of these days for AMHA ;).

Susan W H said...

Hi Bruce--I'm one of your earliest fans. I loved reading mystery books as a young teen--Nancy Drew and the Secret of the Lost Letter--Diary--Census Entry. Not having the temperament to be a real detective or a journalist, I now spend much of my time in looking for old diaries and lost letters. I was a fairly normal person until a few years ago when I in family history, which in my case is a lot of Mormon history.

I look forward to reading your blog as well as Keepa, JI and others. I have thought of starting a blog but then I would have to give up much of my blog reading time.

Fascinating characters abound in Mormon history and many deserve a biography--I'm thinking of John Nicholson, who you met giving his fiery speech about Cane Creek. There must be enough history to keep both professionals and amateurs busy for a few lifetimes.

I majored political science and am nearly-retired lawyer. I'm a two-year veteran of MHA conferences.

My own research has uncovered a few errors in the work of professionals. Definitely there is a need for careful, accurate research and reporting. Keep up the good work.

BruceAllen said...

Hi Jonathan,

I doubt the MHA will sponsor an AMHA. But a group amateur blog? Mmmmm. That might solve Susan's problem of not having enough time to both read and blog.

Hi Susan,

I really know what you mean about not having enough time to blog and read blogs. I'm down to RSS feeds on Keepa and checking in on other blogs like JI only once a week or so. And I don't even post daily.