Summer seminar focuses on history of the Mormon family

07.07.2014 | The Maxwell Institute

In this guest post, Claudia and Richard Bushman discuss the 2014 summer seminar on Mormon culture: “The History of the Mormon Family.” The seminar began on June 15 and concludes on July 26. The seminar is being held here at the Maxwell Institute with support from the Mormon Scholars Foundation and the Jack and Mary Lois Wheatley Institution. In the next few weeks I’ll be highlighting several current participants here on the blog and in an episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast. Watch this space for updates on the current seminar, including introductions to some of this year’s seminar participants. —BHodges

This year, the seventeenth annual summer seminar on Mormon Culture, funded by the Mormon Scholars Foundation and hosted by the Maxwell Institute, is working on the history of the Mormon family. Over the years, the seminars have focused on topics including Joseph Smith’s cultural context, Mormon thought in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the history of Mormon theology, priesthood and spiritual gifts, and the cultural history of the gold plates. These topics, stimulating as they have been, have slighted women and ordinary life. Only one seminar, taught by Claudia Bushman in 2007, has been devoted to Mormon women. This year’s seminar on the history of the Mormon family is an attempt to redress this imbalance. More than half of the dozen participants this year are women.

We are hoping to combine theoretical perspectives on family history with close-up examination of real families. Before they arrived, the participants were asked to read a theoretical study, choosing from three classic works:

John Demos, Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony
Philippe Ariés, Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life
Philip J. Greven, The Protestant Temperament: Patterns of Child-Rearing, Religious Experience and the Self in Early America

We are finding, of course, that no theoretical frame does justice to the complexity of actual families. We need only look at our own families to see how unruly real life is.

The seminar is bravely attempting to cover the entire span of Mormon family history, beginning with Lucy Mack Smith’s Biographical Sketches and the correspondence of Joseph and Emma Smith and coming down to contemporary Mormon advice literature.

One of the highlights of the seminar is the array of visitors who will come to discuss their work. On plural marriage we have invited Kathryn Daynes, whose work has illuminated the actual practice as much as anyone’s, and Andrew Kimball, the noted biographer of Spencer W. Kimball who is now preparing a study of “Heber’s Children,” the offspring of Mormon apostle Heber C. Kimball. At the other end of the time spectrum, we will hear from faculty from BYU’s School of Family Life and from Richard Eyre who with his wife Linda have lectured, written, and trained on family living.

Fun as our discussions have been thus far, the payoff will come with the papers that have to be written for presentation at the end of the six-week seminar period. The topics are still being formulated but they are likely to include everything from birthing practices and sexual attitudes to pro-natalist literature and Mormon singles. We have reason to believe even now that we have struck a rich lode and hope that the seminar will spark greater attention to a neglected topic.

—Richard and Claudia Bushman