The MHA conference this year had more than 700 attendees and (as usual) more fascinating sessions than it was possible to attend. Plus, our own Matt Bowman received the Juanita Brooks award for best graduate student paper for his paper on 19th century rituals to raise the dead. (Congratulations, Matt!)

Here’s a brief list of the highlights, in no particular order:

  • Helen Whitney did a session on her PBS documentary. It was fascinating to hear her talk about Mormons and Mormonism. It was perfectly clear how much she loves both Mormonism and the Mormons. She’s passionate about her work, and (as one of the follow up respondents noted) her documentary on Mormonism is the best documentary created about any religion ever. Sadly, several of the questions had a negative tone. Michael Van Wagenen asked the insightful question, “When you made ‘The Millennial Pope’, did the Catholics put you through the wringer the way the Mormons have?” Ms. Whitney’s answer: “No.”
  • Michael Young, President of the University of Utah, gave a brilliant keynote address on freedom of religion, noting that governments refuse to grant religious freedoms when they fear citizens whose loyalty lies with something other than the state. His analysis included a fascinating landscape of governmental religious intolerance and a candid question and answer session.
  • Meeting Margaret Young and Darius Grey was both exciting and edifying. Margaret is as warm and friendly and intelligent and open in person as she is online. And hearing Darius discuss his faith and his experiences converting to and practicing Mormonism before the lifting of the priesthood ban is among the most profound spiritual experiences I’ve had. Their documentary is going to be a must-see.
  • Jim Faulconer’s presentation on post-modernism was excellent. Dr. Faulconer allows my objection that post-modernism isn’t any different from modernism, because he places post-modernism squarely within the tradition of modernism. As a result, I’ve never been more confused about post-modernism.
  • Ardis Parshall’s presentation on Corianton, the early 20th century LDS play and movie created by a man with the unlikely name of Orestes Utah Bean. Ardis’s paper was very well written and thorough. She brought her sense of humor to bear on the issue in brilliant ways.
  • I met the Prophet, Frederick Neils Larson, descendant of Joseph Smith, and President of the Remnant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
  • Talking with Mormon studies celebrities like the following:
    • William D. Russell, CoC scholar and one of the prime movers in reforming the RLDS church.
    • Ron Romig, CoC archivist.
    • John Hamer and Michael Karpowicz, executive secretaries of the John Whitmer History Association who are among the up-and-coming young scholars on the Mormon Studies scene.
    • Newell Bringhurst, past president of both the Mormon History Association and the John Whitmer History Association.
  • Talking with Tom Kimball of Signature Books was a blast. He has such a comprehensive knowledge of the Mormon Studies literature. He is a great guy and does a terrific job representing Signature.
  • I got to see Mark IV again, who is fun to talk to and is just an all-around great guy.
  • I ended up being on the same flight into Salt Lake City as John Dehlin, and he was kind enough to buy me breakfast at O’Hare, where we spent the morning talking. For those of you who haven’t met John, you should. He’s not just a talented blogger and our ambassador to disaffected or inactive Mormons — he’s bright, engaging, and makes friends everywhere he goes.
  • I had a discussion with Alan Goff about post-modernism. Alan seems to be more of an anti-modernist than a post-modernist, opposing enlightenment-style modernity by imposing a taxonomy on it that’s every bit as stifling as the one he accuses enlightenment-style modernity of using. We ended up agreeing to disagree, but not before I was thoroughly impressed with his intellectual energy and the vigor of his critique of modern methodologies.
  • I met J Stapley and Kris Wright. J is a very nice guy. Unfortunately, I met Kris only briefly. Because there are too many fascinating sessions to make all of them, I did not make it to their presentation, but I look forward to listening to it on the CD that I ordered that has an MP3 of each presentation.
  • I had the opportunity of attending too many fascinating presentations to mention here.

Next year’s conference is on May 22–25, 2008 at the Red Lion Hotel in Sacramento, California. The theme of next year’s Conference is (quoting their call for papers) “Growth and Gateways: Mormonism in the Wider World,” specifically, “pioneer history in the broader context of the settlement of the American West, as well as twentieth century LDS expansion to California and beyond.”

It’s too early to register, but please set the time aside to attend. I promise: You’ll have a great time.