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.