The Terrible 90’s for Mormon Scholarship

The Terrible 90’s for Mormon Scholarship May 13, 2008

I suspect that sometime in the next few decades, historians will look back on the 1990’s as the worst period for Mormon studies. In fact, they may even say that it was so bad that it destroyed an entire generation of young Mormon scholars. This decade may have even set Mormon studies back a few decades from its entry into mainstream academic circles, erasing the progress made in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. I think that there were several factors, but our biggest enemy was definitely ourselves.

First, the prominent excommunications of many LDS scholars wiped out a certain generation of scholars, but more importantly had a chilling effect on scholarship. The boundaries of how hard one could push were still being drawn, and many young faithful scholars were either pushed out or decided to play it safe and avoid any controversial topics altogether. The stories and effects of these excommunications and disciplining are well-known and need not be rehashed.

These excommunications were part of larger trends in this decade, including the implicit and explicit discouragement of scholars to participate in Sunstone and Dialogue. This had a effect of radicalizing these publications for a brief period because the moderate voices stayed away. This also had the result of producing amazingly narrow research into Mormonism, focused on historical wrangling over Joseph Smith and Book of Mormon origins, leaving most of the rest of the other periods and disciplinary approaches practically untouched.

Another major factor in disrupting LDS scholarship in the 1990’s were the FARMS-Signature wars. While in many ways the 1990’s were the most productive times in Mormon scholarship, the productivity was often fueled by animosity and contention that is uncharacteristic of normal scholarly feuds. Perhaps this antagonism can be traced back to the 1991 review of Vogel’s The Word of God (Signature, 1990) in the FARMS Review of Books which escalated into publication and counter-publication for the remaineder of the decade. I think that this level of aggressiveness of both sides of this debate drove out moderate voices and scared off non-LDS scholars who had no intention of intervening in this internecine conflict.

In many ways, these factors continue to affect Mormon studies into the new millennium. There is still open hostility in the water. I remember a few years ago seeing a prominent FARMS writer ask a very prominent Old Testament scholar who had been invited to speak on the Book of Mormon if “he was under the delusion” of some such thing. Speaking this way to non-LDS scholars is not likely to garner interest or sympathy from the academic elite.

But perhaps the biggest set back was the chilling effect that these three trends produced. Young (and old) scholars were scared away from Mormon studies by the threat of discipline and intense ideological boundaries. I think that this decade left a major hole in the scholarly chain, leaving very few scholars who finished their degrees in the 1990’s or early 2000’s with a desire to pursue Mormon studies. Between Bushman, Givens, Barlow, and Flake, there is a virtual desert until you get to young scholars in their early 30’s.

Ironically, the highly charged environment of the 1990’s inspired many of the upcoming generation of Mormon scholars to enter into the field. With the naivety of undergraduates who often fail to see the stakes of an academic carreer, to many young LDS scholars going to college in the 1990’s the spirited debates were exciting and inspiring, prompting many of them to pursue scholarship as a career. But the romance soon wore off for many who after entering into graduate work, found that the stakes of Mormon scholarship were perhaps higher than they bargained for.

Of course, the boundaries of the 1990’s are not hermetically sealed. One can point to episodes in the 1980’s and even earlier that may have mimicked all of these events in the 1990’s. But what I find most interesting is the lacuna of mid-level scholars working on Mormonism. The field seems to be dominated by very senior scholars, and young scholars, and I can find no other explanation for this gap than the tumultuous effect the 1990’s might have had on the young scholars from that time.

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