Book Notes: Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy

07.25.2014 | Blair Hodges

In my estimation, Standing Apart is the most important Mormon studies book since Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling. In terms of genre, the books could hardly be further apart—Bushman’s is a narrative biography while Wilcox and Young’s is a collection of independently written papers once delivered at an academic conference. But in terms of cultural work, the biography and the collection of papers both use scholarly tools to reconfigure modern Mormon understandings of crucial elements of their religious history. Standing Apart has the potential to do for Mormon narratives of the “Great Apostasy” what Rough Stone Rolling did for Mormon understandings of the prophet Joseph Smith—complicate, nuance, and strengthen. Brigham Young University should be proud of its efforts to encourage and facilitate the production of this book. ((The book carries the typical disclaimer that it represents the views of its writers and not that of BYU or the LDS Church (ix). But the editors benefited from an Eliza R. Snow Faculty Grant from BYU, and the symposium itself, “Mormon Conceptions of the Apostasy,” was held at BYU’s Harold B. Lee Library in March, 2012. Co-editor Miranda Wilcox is associate professor of English at BYU, three other contributors are professors at BYU, and one other is a professor at BYU-Idaho. Wilcox reflects on the creation of this book at By Common Consent.))

Without objecting to or affirming all of the many, many specific claims these landmark books make, it’s enough here to recognize what these books themselves signal: the increasing acceptability and even desire to bring careful scholarly work to bear on Mormon history and thought. ((This open attitude to academic studies is also manifest in the impressive Gospel Topics essays periodically being added to LDS.org and in the Church’s own Joseph Smith Papers project (to be reviewed by Mark A. Mastromarino in the forthcoming issue of the Mormon Studies Review).)) This is a complicated way of saying something simple: When Mormons make claims about historical events, it becomes them to be as accurate as possible. The tools of scholarship can be used to assess and help refine LDS claims about history—in this particular case, about the “Great Apostasy”:

Were all the Jews corrupt at the time of Jesus? Did the New Testament churches resemble present-day LDS structures? Were the Dark Ages a moral morass devoid of religious inspiration? 

These are just some of the more specific questions addressed in individual chapters, and contributors frequently overturn generally shared assumptions about questions like these. The authors aren’t shy about respectfully challenging claims made by LDS leaders as well as prominent LDS scholars. The Introduction carves out three interconnecting roles in LDS narrative formation: LDS leaders, apologists, and specialists, the latter of whom can contribute to the overall well-being of the Church by bringing their expertise to bear on historical claims: ((Of the book’s fifteen contributors, all but two hold PhDs or ThDs from non-LDS universities, and the remaining two are doctoral candidates. This triad of leaders, apologists, and specialists is more complicated, of course, than discussion here allows. One can imagine these roles being alternately played by the same individual, for instance, or there might be a successful blending of any of them.))

Instead of defending the tradition of the Great Apostasy [as understood by a number of LDS leaders and apologists], we critically examine its development in church discourse and imagination over the last two centuries, and we suggest ideas for renewing the narrative tradition with greater inclusivity and generosity both to the past and to those of other religious traditions” (9).

So although the individual chapters in the book focus on rather limited time-frames and questions, the book as a whole brings home at least two much broader, more contemporary points. First, it outlines in detail the fact that the LDS Apostasy narrative has changed over time, and that Mormons thus have options for how they want to think about this foundational element of their tradition. ((The book includes a chapter by Eric Dursteler that highlights some of the problematic historical claims made about the apostasy by past LDS leaders like James E. Talmage, B.H. Roberts, and Joseph Fielding Smith. You don’t have to wait to get the book to read this one, either. This chapter was originally published as “Inheriting the Great Apostasy: The Evolution of Mormon Views on the Middle Ages and the Renaissance” in Journal of Mormon History 28, no. 2 (Fall 2002): 23-59.))

A second, broader point the book makes is that the way we think about our predecessors says a lot about the way we think about ourselves. In the words of editors Miranda Wilcox and John D. Young, the Apostasy and Restoration narrative “stands at the root of Mormon perceptions of history,” and such historical narratives as this are what communities use “to construct, maintain, and remember their distinctive identity” (2–3). By challenging aspects of the Church’s “Apostasy” narrative the authors recognize they are in essence challenging important aspects of Mormon identity. In other words, this book is made up of historical work that also performs theological work. A different understanding of Apostasy necessitates a different understanding of Restoration. The most proactively theological piece in the collection is the Epilogue wherein Terryl Givens suggests that today’s widely accepted Apostasy-to-Restoration narrative has diverged from Joseph Smith’s understanding of the historical scene in crucial ways. ((The Epilogue is a trimmed-down version of what Givens will soon present in the first of his two-volume study on the “foundations of Mormon thought.” See Terryl L. Givens, Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity (New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2014). Suggesting its importance to Givens’s overall project, the book’s first section, “FRAMEWORKS,” reframes the Apostasy/Restoration narrative.))

The collection’s editors justify their bold move in a thoroughly LDS way. They affirm that treating the history of Christianity with greater respect than we have thus far is an important part of fulfilling Malachi’s prophecy that the hearts of the children will be turned to the hearts of the fathers in the last days: “Turning our hearts to the past with love is a sacred responsibility for Latter-day Saints,” they argue (13). As you’ve noticed by now, I haven’t really spoiled any of the book’s particulars in this little review; you’ll need to get a copy of the book and read it for yourself to see if I’m overhyping it. It remains to be seen how seriously such a work will be taken by the institutional Church, but its being published by Oxford University Press suggests that it is more than a haphazard collection of speculations. It deserves to be engaged by Mormons but will also be of interest to scholars of religion more broadly who value sensitive but critical interreligious engagement.

I give Standing Apart my highest recommendation. You’ll never look at the apostasy narrative the same again.

Miranda Wilcox, John D. Young, eds., Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), xii+364 pp.

A full review of Standing Apart is forthcoming from the Mormon Studies Review