Announcing the publication of W. Paul Reeve and Ardis E. Parshall, eds., Mormonism: A Historical Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-Clio, 2010. 426 p. ISBN: 978-1-59884-107-7.
An announcement like this comes with a lot of emotion: Relief that the work is done, pleasure that it’s out there (hey, look! my name is in print!), anxiety (did I misspell that name? what will people say? what if nobody says anything?), and steeling for the inevitable criticism (you forgot to include this! you’re nothing but a goody-two-shoes apologist!). But for today, at least, the chief emotion is gratitude, to Paul for inviting me to work on this with him, and to all the contributors – many of them bloggers, including a few whom you won’t recognize, since they blog under pseudonyms but use their real names in the book. I’ve posted a list of the articles and contributors for you to look for familiar friends.
ABC-Clio publishes reference books. Mormonism: A Historical Encyclopedia is the first volume (the only volume Paul and I will work on) in a new series on the histories of world religions. That’s a bit of good news, I think, that they think we’re interesting and significant and hot enough to want to start their series with us.
Warning: There is some seriously self-indulgent navel gazing ahead. Proceed with caution.
Because this is part of a series, and because the publisher has such a well-developed sense of what they want in a manuscript, this book is not entirely of our own design. That is, the publisher specified that it wanted so many biographies averaging such-and-such a length, and so many entries of this other length exploring the major issues of historical and contemporary Mormonism, and so on. Within that template, though, we were entirely free to choose the topics covered, and the voice, and the scholars who contributed.
That posed some challenges that you might want to think through yourself: If you were telling the history of the church and needed to choose 40 of the most important or most representative (or whatever other criteria you used) people, who would they be? We thought it a natural that each president of the Church be covered – a decision that made things a little more complex when President Hinckley died and President Monson was sustained midway through work on the book. That also took roughly a third of our slots right off the top. Who else to include?
We chose a number of general presidents of the women’s auxiliaries (Relief Society, MIA, and Primary), in part to be able to include women and address the issues that interested women during their administrations, and in part to give us more coverage of those auxiliaries when we couldn’t fit articles on each of them into our carefully rationed topic list. We chose Patty Bartlett Sessions and Martha Hughes Cannon as sort of representative every-women of the Church, although their accomplishments make them stand out from the crowd (otherwise, to get a true every-woman, we’d have had to profile our grandmothers, I suppose). Because the encyclopedia was historical, we included historians like B.H. Roberts, Juanita Brooks, and Leonard Arrington. Lowell L. Bennion represented the Institute program and gave us an excuse for talking about the development of a formal teaching program and manuals in the Church. James E. Talmage and Bruce R. McConkie represented the apostles of this dispensation – not-so-coincidentally allowing us to comment on the development of formalized theology at two different periods of our history. Other choices had other reasons – they gave us excuses to work in topics that otherwise would have been overlooked – but our reasons for choosing the subjects will probably not be obvious to anyone except Paul and me.
We got a little sneaky, too, including collective biographies – all the witnesses tot he Book of Mormon covered in a single entry, brothers Parley P. and Orson Pratt addressed together, and the Smith Family entry to discuss Joseph’s family members who had important roles in the Restoration but to whom we simply could not dedicate separate slots.
The “Events” category posed similar challenges. Many of our choices could not be properly called “events” – the Book of Mormon, Correlation, Youth Programs – but there was no other convenient place to address those topics that we thought were important to include. We also included some entries in this section that might seem to duplicate material in longer essays (Priesthood Revelation of 1978, or United States v. Reynolds) or which might seem relatively trivial (Seagulls and Crickets), but there were reasons for those, too – we wanted to highlight them with their own entries rather than make readers search for them in broader essays, or they were keywords that we thought readers might specifically hunt for.
The issues essays were among some of the most fun to design, and then to read what was contributed by our authors. This section of the book makes the Encyclopedia different, we think, from other available reference books. These essays are long enough to go into some depth about their topics, but are meant for the general reader, not the Mormon scholar – the kind of reader who might watch “Big Love” or read some wacky political commentary about Mitt Romney or by Glenn Beck, and care enough to pick up a library book to read something just a bit more reliable, and bit calmer.
And this book really is geared toward the general reader, not the scholar and not necessarily Mormons, although I think a lot of Mormons not deeply familiar with Church history could find helpful articles that organize and put into perspective the odd bits of history they have picked up over the years. The entries are meant to explain our history in an easy to understand format – the era essays pull things into chronological order; the issues essays explore interconnected ideas; the other entries, short and to the point, could define for readers with fuzzy memories who Smoot was and why his hearings were important, why there was a group called the Nauvoo Legion in Utah, and briefly who and what and when the Mormon Battalion was.
Scholarship is current, and although we don’t generally break new ground – the point of the volume is to help general readers understand our history, not dazzle professional historians – I think we do have some entries that organize ideas in new ways: Chris Jones’s article on the “Ungathered” (a term he coined, I believe, and that we wanted to promote) reminds readers that there have always been large numbers of Mormons who did not live in the central gathering places. The essay on “Mormonism and Men” by Jeffery O. Johnson and W. Paul Reeve looks at how the lives of men, their goals and the definitions of their success, is different within the Church than without.
There are some essays that will challenge some Mormon readers, if they take the time to read them. Robert H. Briggs’s essay on “Mormonism and Violence” looks at Mormon perpetrators of violence in our past, as well as the times we were the victims of violence. Andrea G. Radke-Moss has contributed a wonderful essay on “Mormonism and Women” that will probably not be adopted any time soon as the reading for your Relief Society book club – but maybe it should be. Armand Mauss contributed an essay on “Mormonism and Race” that is a sort of umbrella to other essays on “Mormonism and Blacks” (by Margaret Blair Young and Darius Aidan Gray – who else?) and “Mormonism and Native Americans” by Sondra Jones. And Kathryn M. Daynes and Lowell C. “Ben” Bennion go into greater detail about “Polygamy” than many Mormons have made the effort to understand. (Stop me before I list every article in the book!)
And of course now that the book is in hard covers, I can’t help but think about what we would have liked to have included but could not, either for reasons of time or space or lack of the right author to address them. I wish we had been able to include an essay on Mormonism and the Fine Arts, in part because I think we have such a history, and in part because I think other volumes in the series will address the arts in other traditions. I wish we could have given greater (any?) coverage to international Mormonism – but with the dictated space limitations, we had to focus on the “firsts” and on the points that set the patterns and exerted the influences, and in too many instances that meant overlooking the world wide Mormonism that came relatively late in time. And I suppose some critics will fault us for not including their revisionist claims – although in fairness to us, such critics should acknowledge how very many places our contributors acknowledged the existence of other arguments, other interpretations, while choosing to narrate history according to the theories our scholars do endorse.
First and last, thanks to both the acknowledged top-notch scholars and to the up-and-comers who contributed entries and essays to this volume. There’s not a single one of them that Paul and I aren’t proud to have included. Thank you. (And I haven’t run this announcement by Paul. Whatever is stupid, ugly, or of poor-report or fault-worthy, is my responsibility. Not his.)