As Chris Gehrz discussed in a recent post, his students — and most publishers — think that a “biography is a book written about a significant individuals.” Most of those individuals happen to be men in positions of political power. Presidents, kings, businessmen, and a few religious leaders thrown into the mix.
This problem exists, but somewhat differently, within the subfield of Mormon history. Because Latter-day Saints believe in modern-day prophets, Joseph Smith and his successors loom very large. Those are the best-selling biographies and memoirs at Deseret Book.
This dynamic is complicated, however, by the fact that Latter-day Saints must tread carefully when writing about such figures. Witness both the runaway success and controversy surrounding Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling.
Also, because so many nineteenth-century Mormons kept missionaries diaries and wrote autobiographies, it has been quite possible for their ecclesiastical descendants (and other interested parties) to write well-sourced biographies of men and women removed from the top echelons of power. Witness recent biographies of figures ranging from Hosea Stout to Peter McAuslan. Those interested in studying the lives of non-elite church members have a wealth of resources at their disposal, whereas sources for high-ranking twentieth-century leaders are often closed to researchers.
So who matters? The simplest answer is that, as Chris suggests, everyone matters. Not simply because they were made in the image of God, but because at least in the case of nineteenth-century Mormonism, everyone’s life was tumultuous, challenging, and fascinating. That’s true of Joseph Smith, but it’s also true of the tens of thousands of men and women who left their homes to gather with the Saints, who endured persecution, who lived their religion in circumstances they never could have imagined.
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich well captures these not-so-ordinary women (and men) in her A House Full of Females, which I reviewed recently for the Los Angeles Review of Books. She argues that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was full of and built by women:
Ulrich shows that, whether on the trail west or in houses and church buildings across Utah, Mormon women gathered — often without their husbands or male leaders — and found spiritual ecstasy with each other. They made what Eliza Snow termed “heavenly music.” Women knit more than quilts together. “Latter-day Saint women built the Church that claimed their loyalty,” Ulrich concludes.
Ulrich demonstrates that there are many ways for women to make history. “My pen is my only weapon,” wrote Augusta Adams (a plural wife of Brigham Young) when her husband would not see her in person. The women of A House Full of Females knew how to wield that weapon, and in stitching their stories together, so does Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.
We could bewail the fact that publishers churn out books about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln (and perhaps I should mention that I’ve written two biographies of men), but we should also recognize that presses will also publish Pulitzer-Prize biographies of Martha Ballard and composite biographies of Mormon women. Certainly, it’s tough to outsell GW and Honest Abe. At the very least, though, we are living in a golden age of historical writing about non-elite figures in the history of American religion: about Esther Wheelright, Rebecca Protten, Catherine Tekakwitha, and Mormon women from Emma Smith to the many women of Laurel Ulrich’s book. There is no shortage of well-written, scholarly biographies full of insight about the American past. It’s our job to read them and introduce them to others. They matter.