Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Blazing a New Trail: Doing History in the Age of the Internet
 


Blazing a New Trail: Doing History in the Age of the Internet

By: Ardis E. Parshall - March 30, 2012

My talk, given yesterday morning at:

Utah Valley University Conference
“Mormonism and the Internet: Negotiating Religious Community
and Identity in the Virtual World”

A minor Facebook meme this week offers mock warnings against the dangers of such activities as farming and philosophy, by playing off an old anti-drug campaign. My version of that warning would be:

“Parents, if you don’t talk to your children about Mormon history, who will?”

The answer is, everybody will. Everybody is. Mormon history is everywhere on the internet and is presented in every flavor imaginable, and in some flavors some of you may find unimaginable.

Users of the internet can find vast libraries of primary source material, scanned or transcribed and published by everyone from the Joseph Smith Papers project, to universities, to Google Books, to private individuals. If you’re looking for expert commentary on what it all means, you can turn to the pro-Mormon FAIR, at one extreme, or to the anti-Mormon Utah Lighthouse Ministries, at the other extreme. Signature Books has posted the full text of many of its publications, including histories, as have Mormon-themed periodicals like Journal of Mormon History, Dialogue, Sunstone, Mormon Historical Studies, and some of the newer university publications.

People who have left the Church, or are leaving the Church, or who want to remain nominally within the Church while sustaining themselves intellectually or socially among non-believers, have their blogs and discussion boards, very often citing historical issues as catalysts for their disaffection. The major genealogical networks host frequent discussions of Mormon belief and history when puzzled non-Mormon family historians wonder why the Church commits so many resources to genealogy. The tin-foil hat crowd is well represented with discussions of modern-day Danites and conspiracies of world domination. A white supremacy website recently scrutinized Mitt Romney’s British and German heritage, wondering whether the historical taint of Mormonism made him a “race traitor.” Mormon mothers on the “mommy blogs” occasionally discuss their faith and its history. Web pages are devoted to groups like the Mormon Women’s History Initiative, or to the promotion of individual works of Mormon history. Personal and family blogs, like Amy Tanner Thiriot’s “The Ancestor Files,” carry well-researched accounts of ancestors in the context of their Mormonism.

And of course there is the Bloggernacle, the network of Mormon blogs whose posts are aggregated at the website ldsblogs.org, and the other Mormon-themed sites that orbit the Bloggernacle and are often assumed by the press to be part of the same confederation.

Within the Bloggernacle you find history-themed blogs like Juvenile Instructor, hosting academic discussions of Mormon history and the perils and privileges of being graduate students in the field. There is my blog, Keepapitchinin, which is aimed at a more general Mormon audience, and leans heavily to story telling and to Mormon social history of the 20th century. Bruce Crow’s Amateur Mormon Historian is anything but an amateur study of the history of the Church in Tennessee. BOAP often features Bill Smith’s studies of the early sermon texts of Mormonism or of the development of various priesthood offices. Feminist Mormon Housewives has an ongoing series on the biographies of the wives of Joseph Smith. And the larger general interest Mormon blogs, like By Common Consent and Times and Season, very often post articles on historical topics that are enthusiastically discussed by legions of loyal commenters – as I was drafting this, By Common Consent addressed the BBC’s recent ambush-style program framing Mormonism in part against a highly colored version of Mormon history, while Times and Seasons featured a review of a new history of Mormonism in New Zealand.

And each one of these websites and discussion boards and blogs is the battleground for the ongoing negotiation of Mormon identity in the virtual age. These are not battlegrounds with only two contenders: It is not Mormon vs. non-Mormon, or active Mormon vs. less-active Mormon, or faithful Mormon vs. anti-Mormon, or Iron Rod Mormon vs. Liahona Mormon, or any of the other black-and-white divisions that we used to take for granted in the distant past of, say, the year 2000.

Today, the internet presentation of Mormon history and what it represents about Mormon identity is so vast, so contentious, so fractured, that each individual participant has the opportunity – indeed, can hardly escape the necessity – of negotiating an individual, highly personal religious identity. If two thousand Mormons participate in internet discussions today, there are two thousand distinct religious identities, informed to a greater or lesser degree by our history and our reaction to it. And however well we function in the real world as members of families and wards and businesses and nations, when we go online, we sort ourselves into communities that more or less support our views of present and past Mormonism – unless, that is, the clash between competing religious identities is what floats our boats, in which case there are communities that thrive on that very discord.

Keepapitchinin is, of course, the community that I know most intimately and that I will describe here. And while Keepa participants are, for the most part, believing Latter-day Saints who view with affection the church and the people we have been, I suspect the same rewards for participation – adjusted for attitude and affiliation – exist along the entire spectrum of the Mormon virtual world.

First, even a niche blog like Keepa has layers of participation, layers of community. The most obvious of these are the frequent commenters. We like to discuss our history, in both serious and light-hearted ways, with others who share our fascination for the Mormon past. Bloggers like me very much enjoy instant feedback to our ideas, and commenters, even occasional ones, enjoy the shared experience of discussion.

A handful have enjoyed the feedback so much that they have contributed excellent guest posts, some better than anything I could write, and one has even gone on to publish in a more formal venue and to speak for the first time at an academic conference, crediting the interest shown in his ideas at Keepa as one impetus to complete his research project. Even commenters who don’t go quite that far very often check their own resources and add details to a story I’ve posted – in more than one case, their contributions were far more valuable than the original post. I think Keepa’s commenters are the best in the Bloggernacle.

A closely related layer of participation consists of would-be commenters whose words do not appear publicly. Because Keepa’ninnies, as one commenter nicknamed us, are believers in the faith claims of the Church, we come under attack from time to time by visitors who want to tell us how naive we are about the history of the Church, who want to be sure we are fully informed about this or that out-of-context statement made by some past Church leader, and whose tone suggests that when we are as thoughtful and sophisticated as the commenter is, we, too, will have the scales fall from our eyes and see Mormonism for the historical fraud that it is. I screen those comments far more strictly than do most of the Bloggernacle blogs. There may be a place for those arguments, those negotiations of religious identity, but that place is not at Keepa. The vigorous rehearsal of a garage band may be just as valid a human activity as the quiet enjoyment of a favorite book – but they cannot coexist in the same time and space; one will drive the other out. The same is true of internet discussions – the atmosphere I cultivate at Keepa is one of affection, appreciation, and a shared recognition that what moves us religiously today is much the same as what moved the Saints in earlier decades. I will not allow the ugliness of internet trolling to drive away readers whose participation I value so highly. The same goes for partisan political commentary, and the perennial claims that “Utah Mormons” are inferior to Mormons who live as minorities within their real life communities.

But commenters, whether wanted or not, are hardly the only community at Keepa. For every reader who comments, my statistics page shows that 40 or 50 or 60 spent time reading the post without otherwise making their presence known. I do not know very much about these lurkers or what they want from Keepa; I can tell only that many of them come back very often, and they stay long enough to have actually read a post. Whatever the attraction, Keepa is evidently filling a need and serving that silent community.

And there is yet another community served by Keepa, one I am especially proud of attracting: These are the first-time, perhaps only-time, visitors who reach Keepa by Google or other search engines. These visitors are looking for material on very specific topics. Sometimes I Google their search terms myself, and discover that Keepa is the only place that really addresses their needs.

One constantly sought-out post, for example, concerns the bandlos that Primary girls and boys wore through much of the 20th century. My post illustrates the different styles of bandlo, and explains the significance of the various awards mounted on them. The perennial popularity of that post suggests that baby boomers are nostalgic for their Mormon youth, or that their children have recently come across their parents’ carefully saved bandlos, and they want to know what they mean. The sustained interest in posts on Gold-and-Green Balls, sacrament gems, M-Men and Gleaners, and early 20th century Beehive Girl activities spring from the same nostalgic craving. Often-read posts on Mormon visual arts, or music, or the tearing down of distinctive Mormon architecture, would seem to be in the same category.

Another oft-visited post is not really about Mormon history, but about Mormon culture. Several years ago I wrote about dressing my mother for her burial, describing the emotions of that day and offering some practical tips for others who face this responsibility and privilege. I think people must go looking for that information only when they need it; the comments added to that post long after its publication reveal an unexpected bond, a newly forged community, among Latter-day Saints of shared experience.

Other visitors Google the names of their ancestors and are astonished to find stories at Keepa, sometimes stories that haven’t been passed down in families, they often tell me in private email. My favorite posts to write are the accounts of Latter-day Saints, unknown outside their immediate families, who achieved something extraordinary simply by being who they should have been as Latter-day Saints. These posts are made even more rewarding when correspondence comes from people who have rediscovered their family history through Keepa.

Keepa is not, however, a world solely built on nostalgia and celebration. Because my readers and I share the world view that the Church is indeed what prophets and missionaries claim it is, we feel free to explore darker corners of our past. Examples of this are our several discussions of how our parents and grandparents thought about race. We have looked at poetry and stories and advertisements in our magazines and minstrel shows performed on our ward stages. Keepa’s readers have seen how bad the problem was, and have discussed its effects on the lives of real people, and, I want to believe, are less likely to perpetuate racism or to tell its victims to “just get over it.”

Finally, there is another Latter-day Saint community served by the discussion at Keepa – that is the Church as a whole. Conversations at Keepa have enabled me to put the Acquisitions Department of the Church History Library in touch with readers who are willing to share valuable materials from their family archives. These have included the earliest known recordings of Maoris singing LDS hymns in Maori; the minute books kept by a German high priest in Latvia dating back to before World War I; the minutes kept by a Swiss convert during World War II, who followed his business training and recorded Church meetings verbatim; and the photograph of an Anglo-Indian female convert who lived and died in Calcutta in the 1850s. These and other treasures would have remained unknown to the Church at large, had it not been for discussions that prompted a reader to ask, “Hey, do you think the Church would be interested in this …?”

“Parents, if you don’t talk to your children about Mormon history, who will?” Everybody, it seems, in such a bewildering variety of ways that I have no doubt some Mormons who would thrive on our discussions hesitate to join in, for fear they will land in the wrong part of town. For them, as well as for all the rest of us who have an interest in Mormon history, I’m sure one of the most popular destinations will soon be the new history domain of the institutional Church, history.lds.org, which has already launched with the simple announcement of an upcoming Church history lecture. The site will roll out more fully this summer, with early content to include:

  • A series on early sister missionaries
  • Information about historic sites
  • Interviews of Latter-day Saints, beginning with recent Relief Society presidents
  • The historical context of revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants
  • A series I’d like to think is patterned after what I do at Keepapitchinin: the stories of Latter-day Saints around the world, past and present

But whether your preferred source for Mormon history is history.lds.org, or the Bloggernacle, or one of the university sites, or a discussion board expressing your brand of heterodoxy, it’s all out there. The internet offers whatever you seek as you negotiate your own religious identity – the accurate and shoddy, the supportive and destructive, the genuine and deceptive. Keep your eyes open.



31 Comments »

  1. Thanks for posting this, Ardis. I enjoyed it.

    Comment by Amira — March 30, 2012 @ 7:47 am

  2. I would have liked to have heard you present this. It’a a very interesting topic.

    Perhaps an offshoot of this might be how internet sites like yours prompt further discussions of Mormon history/culture beyond Keepa. For example, I have e-mailed links of articles to friends and family members which lead to very interesting e-mail discussions about the topic. I don’t know how many times I’ve discussed Keepa posts with my wife and kids around the dinner table. So, in the final anaysis, you might not every fully appreciate the reach of Mormon history in the internet age.

    Comment by Steve C. — March 30, 2012 @ 7:58 am

  3. “affection, appreciation, and a shared recognition that what moves us religiously today is much the same as what moved the Saints in earlier decades”

    That’s what keeps me coming back. Thanks, Ardis.

    Comment by Grant — March 30, 2012 @ 8:31 am

  4. Ardis, thanks very much for this. It’s great and very important. I think we’re at a point where we ignore the web at our peril. keepapitchinin is one of the very few sites I consult daily and always find something unexpected and interesting.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — March 30, 2012 @ 9:00 am

  5. Thanks for posting this Ardis. You did not explicitly mention it but your description of, what seems to be a grass-roots movement of cyber-historians makes me wonder exactly where the Church institution fits into all this.

    Doing history of course is a very Mormon endeavour, but I still see a lot of tension between the official and the independent. (this as an amateur observer) Of course we’ve all heard the story of the ward member declaring Bushman’s RSR as “anti”. And, of course there is promising evidence that the Church is interested in the full disclosure of the historical record. The fact remains though: in many case the most faithful treatment of an issue would shock the average church member. Shock them in large part because of they’ve just never heard it before (in their many years in the church). FMH’s even handed series on the wives of JS is a case in point for me.

    You declared early in your presentation that the responsibility to know and teach our history rests upon us – which I tend to agree with. But,for the average non-historian, non-academic with barely enough time see the kids (let alone digest and contextualize volumes of history)the reading list of Mormon material is short (Ensign/Friend/Standard Works) If the institution can’t take the lead in the new era of internet saturated Mormon history (instead of leading from behind), I fear that rigorous and thoughtful blogs like yours, will continue to be one part of the intellectual echo chamber that the Mormon blogosphere often is – and have little effect on the world-wide community (which I think it should).

    Comment by Christian J — March 30, 2012 @ 9:36 am

  6. Ditto to what Steve said. We’ve had many interesting {and fun!} discussions at our dinner table prompted by what I have read here and at other sites. We are BIG history buffs at our house and enjoy learning all the stories about regular folks like us who stayed true to the gospel despite all the challenges they face.

    It was great seeing a face to go with the name too!
    http://www.deseretnews.com/article/765564192/The-Mormon-Internet-battleground.html?pg=1 :)

    Comment by Chocolate on my Cranium — March 30, 2012 @ 9:45 am

  7. Yeah, well, I apologize for that face; it’s the only one I have, unfortunately.

    Thanks for these comments, especially those that mention real-life conversations that are sparked by something here. I hadn’t thought about that variety of audience — should have, because I do love the occasional remarks letting me knkow that someone has used a Keepa story in a talk, or for FHE. *That* really feels good.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 30, 2012 @ 10:08 am

  8. I was hoping that you’d post a summary of your presentation. I enjoyed reading this.

    I think there’s another unspoken theme here, which is this: “Mormonism is unique in the degree to which the Mormon past affects testimony in the present.” Because of our doctrine’s emphasis on lines of authority, veneration of leaders (sustain the Lord’s Anointed?), and emphasis on obedience, history becomes far more problematic than in other faith traditions.

    Many of the thorniest issue–e.g. polygamy, race, gender restrictions–would be far easier to deal with if they weren’t hopelessly tangled up with how we would then view our inspired past leaders.

    Comment by The Other Clark — March 30, 2012 @ 10:13 am

  9. I feel smugly vindicated in my bandlo love…

    Comment by Mina — March 30, 2012 @ 10:22 am

  10. I will continue the praise of the previous comments. I love this blog. I am part of the “silent community” you discussed in your presentation. I keep coming back because of your consistently excellent content.

    I constantly worry about the anti-drug-ish question that formed your thesis. I have children and I want them to cherish the church the way I do, but I don’t want them to ever be able to accuse me of hiding anything from them. (I have taken this to the extreme: last summer on our drive back home to AZ from SLC I took my kids to see the MMM monument, which was way out of the way. My kids were 9 and 6 at the time, so I’m not sure they got it, but someday I think they will).

    Comment by Todd — March 30, 2012 @ 11:01 am

  11. I wish I could have been there yesterday to thank you personally for all you do, but getting to read your address was enjoyable also.

    Quoting from your text, this is exactly what I appreciate about this blog.

    “the atmosphere I cultivate at Keepa is one of affection, appreciation, and a shared recognition that what moves us religiously today is much the same as what moved the Saints in earlier decades.”

    A scholarly examination and respectful discussion of the facts is certainly warranted, but I don’t enjoy contention and disrespect of my heritage and beliefs.

    I especially like how you put the “flesh on the bones” of history to make it interesting and add depth.

    THANKS AGAIN Ardis for all your hard work researching, designing, composing, and moderating to educate and entertain us in the pursuit of truth and facts in Mormon history.

    Comment by Allison in Atlanta — March 30, 2012 @ 11:01 am

  12. I loved reading this, Thanks. I wish I could have seen it, but my day job frequently gets in the way. Do you know if it was recorded? What was the panel discussion like? and was there anything you would like to share that came up during that?

    An aspect of the online history community influencing the non-internet community was the use of posts as source material for Sacrament meeting talks and Sunday School lessons. I have had a couple of people ask for permission (sometime retroactively) to use material I post online. I know you have too.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — March 30, 2012 @ 11:22 am

  13. I have had many people ask me about LDS blogs and the only one I recommend to everyone is Keepa. In fact, I like almost everything you post in the bloggernacle.

    Comment by KLC — March 30, 2012 @ 11:29 am

  14. I wasn’t able to watch on-line yesterday, so thank you very much for posting this. It is brilliant. I’m very pleased that you participated in this.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 30, 2012 @ 11:35 am

  15. Todd: I feel the same as you about having frank discussions about LDS history with my children. I also was thinking about the MMM. A number of years ago we stopped at the site with my own children. What makes the very accute to me is living in Arkansas. My children were born here and go to school. My daughter came up to me once with her Arkansas history textbook which had a section in it about the MMM (it actually was farily neutral on the issue). My wife taking a college level Arkansas history course online also had an assignment to do on the MMM. Each of these incidents led us to open discussions about it which I think were very beneficial. Again, I took my family to the MMM site because we have not one but two connections with it.

    Comment by Steve C. — March 30, 2012 @ 11:38 am

  16. Loved it on livestream, love it here. Well done, Ardis.

    Comment by Ben P — March 30, 2012 @ 12:09 pm

  17. A big thanks for all of the time and effort you devote to this site, Ardis. It’s a truly great work.

    Comment by Matt — March 30, 2012 @ 1:16 pm

  18. Wonderful points, Ardis. Though I’m in the trenches frequently dealing with controversial statements/actions in LDS history, I sometimes struggle to teach it well and faithfully to my own children, one of whom has left the Church. His first steps out started with him telling me how much the anti-Mormons lied. “They actually said that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy, Mom!” I answered, “He did.” My son walked out the door. But even if I hadn’t told him, he would’ve found out, I’m sure. I love the intimate feeling of Keepa. And I love being in a place where faith is one of the foundations of the posts.

    Comment by Margaret Blair Young — March 30, 2012 @ 1:19 pm

  19. So glad you posted this, Ardis. I missed the bulk of the live feed conference yesterday.

    Great job!!!

    Comment by Sonny — March 30, 2012 @ 1:22 pm

  20. From Margaret “And I love being in a place where faith is one of the foundations of the posts.” Me too.

    Comment by David Richey — March 30, 2012 @ 1:35 pm

  21. Ardis, I’m like others who have shared links to various posts in emails to family and friends, and stories I’ve read on your blog (or some of the crazy sugar ads) at the dinner table.

    When I was studying theatre history at BYU, I privately made light of a classmate’s thesis topic (which was community theatre is some very small pioneer community; I don’t remember which), and my professor friend chided me and insisted that it was precisely the “small” stories that were so important to preserve. It is those individual, personal and sometimes almost private histories that I find so compelling at Keepa.

    (I also enjoy the photos, the humor, the fiction when I find time to read it — I confess I often wait ’til you’ve posted all the episodes of a serial then read them one after the other…)

    Thanks for sharing your remarks with us.

    Comment by Paul — March 30, 2012 @ 1:45 pm

  22. This was wonderful. And I loved how you put this: “Because my readers and I share the world view that the Church is indeed what prophets and missionaries claim it is, we feel free to explore darker corners of our past.” That unique dual nature — authentic, credible history combined with affection for the Church and its people — is what keeps me coming back to this place. Thank you.

    Comment by David Y. — March 30, 2012 @ 3:20 pm

  23. Tremendous, Ardis.

    Comment by Thomas Parkin — March 30, 2012 @ 3:40 pm

  24. I also would have loved to watch the livestream of this yesterday, but alas, I work so I can do Mormon history, and work always gets first priority. Unfortunately.

    You really put into words how many of us feel about the Keepa and its community when you said, as others have quoted:

    Affection, appreciation, and a shared recognition that what moves us religiously today is much the same as what moved the Saints in earlier decades.

    Thank you so much for the great service you have given here at Keepa. To paraphrase Joseph F. Smith, “Yes ma’am, I’m a Keepaninnie, died in the wool, true blue, through and through. Now don’t shoot me, please!””

    Comment by kevinf — March 30, 2012 @ 4:48 pm

  25. Ardis, you are beautiful in spirit, in mind, and in real life. Thanks for posting this.

    The Internet makes doing “real history” possible for those of us who live far from Salt Lake yet have been bitten by the bug. The history bug bit me later in life and I do believe the condition is more serious than had it happened years ago thanks to access to blogs like yours and the ones you mentioned.

    I hope parents do talk about history with their children. Today I happened to be thinking about my great aunt, who was the youngest daughter of Charles Penrose. How I wish I had been smart enough to pump her for stories about her childhood and her parents while she was still alive. I’m sure there were other relatives who could have given me some wonderful insights, but when I was in my teens and twenties, interviewing great aunts and uncles was not one of my interests. Maybe exposure to history will inspire our children to take advantage of such opportunities before it is too late.

    I haven’t been here at Keepa as faithfully as I had in the past. I’m working hard a paper to present at this year’s MHA conference–my very first history paper. So there–I owe you a lunch.

    Comment by Susan W H — March 30, 2012 @ 6:39 pm

  26. I’m glad you posted this; it’s full of interesting ideas and information. (Just like the blog–funny how that works.)
    Will the video of this conference be archived? Or transcripts published? I was only able to manage to watch about 45 minutes of a Q&A, and found it fascinating. I’d love to see more of what I missed. Though by the time I finish taking in General Conference, I fear this will be far downstream.

    Comment by Mommie Dearest — March 31, 2012 @ 1:37 am

  27. Excellent stuff Ardis. Thank you.

    Comment by Ben S — March 31, 2012 @ 10:46 am

  28. Once again, wish I could have been there; thanks for posting your text here so I could at least read what you had to say.
    PS I like the photo!

    Comment by Diane Peel — April 1, 2012 @ 4:28 am

  29. As an occasional lurker, I’d just like to add a hearty “hear, hear!” to this post.

    Comment by Austin — April 1, 2012 @ 9:42 am

  30. Ardis, another home run for you in the Keepa tradition! Thanks for posting this and even more thanks to the conference’s organizers for having the savvy to invite you to give this paper. BTW, do I fall into the “tin-foil hat” crowd or do you have me in another category?

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — April 1, 2012 @ 7:04 pm

  31. Thanks for putting your talk here; I missed this on the live feed, so it’s great to have the chance to read it on Keepa (which is it’s natural home really, I think!)

    Comment by Anne (UK) — April 2, 2012 @ 5:24 am

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