Attention readers: If you have the slightest interest in learning more about Mormonism, you really should attend one of the conferences by the Mormon History Association (MHA) and John Whitmer Historical Association (JWHA) — or even both. You’ll have a terrific time, you’ll meet great people, you’ll learn a ton, and you’ll come away with terrific memories. So if you’re looking to visit Independence, Missouri with your family some time in the near future, you might as well do it this September or next May, when these conferences will be taking place there. Drop by the conference, and you’ll be hooked for sure.
Attending the annual MHA Conference is like spending a single day at Disney World: You have a really great time, but you can only ever see a small fraction of what it has to offer. There are so many amazing and fascinating sessions that it’s difficult to choose which ones to attend.
I was excited to attend this year’s MHA conference in Springfield, Illinois. Here are just a few highlights of the conference:
- The session on mob violence, entitled, “Whatcha’ Gonna’ Do If They Come for You?” featured a fascinating analysis of the practice of tarring and feathering by John Kimball Alexander, detailing how it was used in America for more than a century as a ritual form of communal violence to enforce cultural norms. Debra Marsh, an expert on the composition of the Carthage mob, spoke in detail about the national, local, and personal influences that motivated the mobsters who murdered Joseph and Hyrum, and Breck England gave a powerful and bold comparison of the rhetoric of religious persecution as used against 19th century American Mormons and Catholics, as well as 20th century rhetoric used against Jews during the Holocaust — it was bone chilling to hear rhetoric from Nazis that so obviously resembled the words used by Mormon persecutors in Missouri and Illinois.
Many of you may be familiar with Shannon Tracy’s well-known conclusion that those who re-interred Joseph’s and Hyrum’s remains in 1928 confused the bodies, so that Joseph’s remains rest beneath Hyrum’s name and vice versa. I’ve seen Tracy’s analysis, and I was absolutely flabbergasted to watch Curtis Weber use science and forensics to demonstrate decisively that the 1928 experts properly identified the remains Joseph and Hyrum.
In that same session, Brian Cannon presented an history of the Carthage Jail that included more than an overview of owners and uses, but discussed the evolution of Mormon attitudes about the Carthage Jail from that of early members, who felt distaste and revulsion for the crime that took place there, to saints who were more removed from those events, who viewed it as a sacred spot where martyrs sealed their testimonies.
Of course, conversations in-between sessions are as often as interesting as the sessions themselves. It was great to meet John Hajacek who is as vigorously intelligent and engaging as his extensive online presence suggests. It’s always great to see John Hamer and Mike Karpowicz, the Executive Directors of the John Whitmer Historical Association, who had some great information to share about their upcoming book on the history of Strangite Mormons (followers of James Strang, whose rich history deserves much more attention than it has hitherto received).
Ron Romig, the current President of the Mormon History Association and the Archivist of the Community of Christ, is among the most accessible and welcoming scholars in the restoration tradition.
It was great to finally meet Deseret News columnist Emily Jensen, who was covering the conference for Mormon Times. I was happy to see her husband, Robin Jensen, who is an excellent example the bright new generation of scholars employed at the recently reinvigorated LDS Church History Department. It’s always great to see Jason Smith, who runs the Yahoo! Group called LDSGroups that discusses churches that sprung for Joseph Smith’s 1830 Church of Christ. Sterling Adams is a regular participant in Mormon Studies conferences, and he was their with his wife and children.
The banquets and luncheons are invariably a great place to socialize. It was amazing to meet Richard Turley — I sat next to him twice (I wasn’t stalking him, honest). He directs the LDS church history department, and his passion for LDS history is palpable and infectious. I was lucky to sit at the same table as Community of Christ scholar Bill Russell, who is exceptionally friendly and has a terrific sense of humor. Also at the table were Linda King Newall, coauthor of Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, the groundbreaking and definitive biography on Emma.
I was fortunate enough sit at the same table as Phil Barlow, author and past president of the MHA, who is constantly going out of his way to engage the MHA’s younger participants and takes a special interest in their work. It was also great to meet Douglas Major, a scholar researching Isaac Moreley’s continued attempts to build communities after converting to Mormonism.
- The MHA gives out numerous awards on the 2nd night of the conference, and lately the trend has been for the MHA to give out numerous awards to the Bloggernacle’s own Matt Bowman, whom the award giver dubbed “a dynasty.” If Matt keeps this trend up, the MHA will have to create an award in his honor for the winner of the most awards.
The “Exhibit” area, where booksellers are set up, is a great place to buy the latest books, or even those books that you’ve been meaning to buy for some time — I finally purchased copies of Massacre at Mountain Meadows and An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins. Tom Kimball and his wife Paige Kimball were there representing Signature Books. It was great to see them. They’re among the friendliest people you’ll meet, and Tom always has a wealth of information on LDS books and documents, both current and historic. Signature Books always provides a reprint of an historical document for free, and this year they gave away two: A replica of The Nauvoo Expositor and of “The Flying Roll” of Francis Gladden Bishop.
Alex Baugh was there representing The Mormon Historical Sites Foundation, which publishes the Mormon Historical Studies Journal, a superb Mormon Studies Journal, the current issue of which includes a fascinating article by Brian Hales on the question of Oliver Cowdery’s alleged polygamy and a very interesting photo history of the Temple Lot. Since Alex also teaches at BYU (ask him what he teaches, and he’ll answer, “Truth!” with a smile), and he also was the program chair for this latest MHA conference, and he also is a past-president of the John Whitmer Historical Association, it’s hard to imagine that he actually has time to sleep.
It was also great to see and talk with Greg Bragg and his family. Greg rents properties for use by visitors and tourists in Nauvoo, and he has interesting insights about the sessions and about Nauvoo.
- Margaret Young and Darias Gray were there representing their groundbreaking documentary, “Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons,” which was screened during a plenary session. Unfortunately, I had to miss the screening (the medicine I’m taking for my back pain tends to make me tired). But I’ve seen the documentary several times, so I concur heartily with the rave reviews I heard from conference goers. And it’s never disappointing to see to Darias and Margaret anywhere, but it’s especially nice to see them having fun at this type of conference.
The Bloggernacle was well represented, especially By Common Consent. Kevin Barney drove down from Chicago to attend. Kristine Haglund, was there representing the prestigious journal Dialogue, which she edits. Brad Kramer was there with his family. Kris Wright spoke on the many uses of consecrated oil (did you know that people drank it and used it as massage oil?), and J. Stapley gave a really strong presentation on collaborative, male/female healing. Mark Brown gave an excellent presentation on the growth of the LDS church in the south.
Christopher Jones of Juvenile Instructor presented a terrific paper on the religious habits Southern Mormons from 1875-1910, which I hope to see published somewhere. I was also able meet Edje, who stopped by to introduce himself.
I just wish I’d have had more time to spend with everyone.
- Kevin Bryant gave a superb presentation the history of Nauvoo after Illinois drove the Mormons from their homes, especially the civil war period. J. Taylor Hollist presented an interesting survey of events that led ultimately to the LDS church’s acquisition the Nauvoo Masonic Hall.
- Kathleen Flake is a celebrity in Mormon Studies for good reason. Her presentation on the meaning of Mormon temple sealings provided an insightful and profound analysis of sacred verbiage used in the Nauvoo sealing of Joseph Smith to Sarah Ann Whitney.
Most of the sessions at the conference are “concurrent sessions,” which means that they have several different sessions going on at once, so that you choose which session to go to the way that you choose among the very tasty entrees at an high end restaurant. This is a report on the slice of the conference that I was able to see.
I really hope that I’ve peaked your interest. In the past, I’ve provided these rundowns to give a summary for those who were unable to attend. This year, I hope that my summary motives readers to join the MHA or JWHA and actually attend their conferences.