Attention Readers: If you enjoy mormon-themed posts on blogs or visiting restoration historical sites, then you should attend the JWHA Conference, the MHA Conference, or the Restoration Studies Symposium. You’ll love it. Ask Mel Selcho and Randy Butterfield, two well-known bloggernacle participants who attended the JWHA for the first time just this year. It was great to see them there, and best I could tell, they had a blast. Here’s the schedule for next year’s events:

Set aside the time and make the plans now.

I had a great time attending my favorite historical conference, the John Whitmer Historical Association annual meeting. As usual, attending it was an amazing experience.

The conference began with a screening of Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons, the groundbreaking documentary on African Americans in the LDS church by Darius Gray and Margaret Young (reviewed on this blog by Devyn S). I’ve seen it several times before, but never with an audience like the one at the JWHA. Connell O’Donovan described how Jane Manning James was forced to stand outside the Salt Lake City temple while she was sealed by proxy to the family of as Eternal Servitor of Joseph Smith. Linda King Newell described doing the temple work for Jane Manning James that had been denied her by LDS church leaders when she was still alive.

It was great to see Robin Jensen of the Joseph Smith Papers project at registration. He had brought with him the new Facsimile Edition of the Revelation and Translation series of the Joseph Smith Papers. Weighing in at 8+ pounds with beautiful, full color illustrations on clay-finished paper, it’s a gorgeous volume that really does justice to the mountains of scholarly research that went into it.

David Howlett is one of the brightest up-and-coming Community of Christ scholars and a blogger at Saints Herald. He was able to give me a preview of the topics to be discussed at the plenary sessions.

The JWHA conference has amazing papers and top-notch tours, but the best part is meeting and discussing history with the scholars — the celebrities of Mormon studies. Brent Metcalfe was kind enough to invite me to spend time with him, Erin Jennings, and Connell O’Donovan (and with Wayne Mori, Felix, and Jim Crooks, rare book dealers at the conference), where we had a blast discussing Brent’s current projects and the latest developments in Mormon studies. We even talked politics, and everybody had excellent things to say. Brent also shared the story of his church discipline. It was, I believe, a mistake on the part of LDS church leadership, because it’s a tragedy for our church to lose such an intelligent and energetic scholar who contributes so much to our understanding of Mormonism, its history, and its scriptures; meanwhile by-the-book members twist the LDS church for their own personal gain by treating their callings as rungs on the way up their church career ladder.

I had the privilege of chairing a session, which included papers by Jason Smith and Jean Addams. Jean discussed race and gender in the Temple Lot church, while Jason’s paper covered Pauline Hancock, whose “Basement Church” attracted independent restoration religionists, including Gerald and Sandra Tanner for a time. In addition to the substantial preparation that Jean and Jason put into these outstanding papers, this session was special because Church of Christ (Temple Lot) apostle Roland Sarratt attended. Jean passed me a note identifying Elder Sarratt and urging me to introduce him, which I did. Elder Sarratt’s presence really impacted the spirit of the questions. Instead of treating the Temple Lot church as an object of idle curiosity, questioners engaged it on its own terms as a significant religious tradition. It was a powerful demonstration of how important it is for church leaders to engage scholars in discussions concerning their faith traditions.

I was able to discuss Joseph Smith’s descendants with geneticist Ugo Perego and talk to Connell O’Donovan about his latest research on Joseph T. Ball, an African American who was ordained to the office of High Priest by William Smith, making him the 1st African American High Priest of the Restoration. Connell’s research is fascinating, and his strong passion for it comes through in everything that he writes and presents.

I also got to talk to Craig Foster about his review of George D. Smith’s book on Nauvoo Polygamy, as well as the recent work that Craig’s done with Newell Bringhurst (who was unfortunately unable to attend) on Mormons in politics.

Tom Kimball was there for Signature Books. It’s always great to see Tom. He does an outstanding job representing Signature, connecting with the folks who attend, and communicating the value of the many outstanding books that Signature publishes.

I don’t know Greg Kofford of Greg Kofford Books as well as I know Tom, but I enjoyed seeing him and talking with him, and I’m anxious to get a copy of his 6 volume Book of Mormon commentary, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual. Jim Faulconer raved about it in his review.

Lunch on Friday was one of my favorite parts of the conference. Six female priesthood leaders of the Community of Christ spoke of their experiences in the RLDS and Community of Christ priesthood, including members of the 1st Presidency, Quorum of the Twelve, and standing High Council. Every time I hear women of the Community of Christ speak about their journeys in their church’s leadership, it underscores for me how important it is that we put women on equal footing in our own church by giving them the priesthood. The speakers were Barbara Howard, Barbara Higdon, Marge Troeh, Stassi Cramm, Becky Savage, Gwen Hawks Blue.

John Hamer and Mike Karpowicz presented papers on the Strangite church, covering its history from the death of James Strang until today. They imparted a ton of information but still left the audience wanting more. Luckily, they’ll be publishing their research along with essays by other authors in the forthcoming book, Strangites: The Great Lakes Mormon Experience (edited by John Hamer and Vicki Cleverly Speek).

John and Mike were much honored at this conference, and rightly so. I was sad to see them step down from being the Executive Directors of the JWHA. During their tenure, they not only breathed new life into the organization, but they expanded its reach and its impact on Mormon Studies in numerous ways, including the creation of a new publishing arm (John Whitmer books), reviving the Restoration Studies journal, and re-publishing early JWHA journals to ensure that they find places in libraries and archives. Everyone with an interest in Mormon Studies owes John and Mike a debt of gratitude. They also did an execellent job organizing the conference along with the program chair Jeanne Murphey. Sherry Mesle-Morrain and her husband Tom Morain are the new Executive Directors, and a separate position of treasurer has been created, with Lew Weigand serving.

Kevin Bryant (another up and coming Community of Christ scholar, who also happens to blog at Saints Herald) presented an excellent paper that added historical perspective to the early Mormon persecution, settlement, and migration by comparing it to the experiences of Afrikaaners settling South Africa. Kevin’s analysis was inventive and illuminating. Not only does Kevin do good research, be he has superb speaking skills and is an engaging presenter.

John Glaser gave the annual Sterling McMurrin Lecture, which was a critique of current interpretations of the Book of Mormon based on their tendency to lead believers to engage Hispanics and Native Americans on an asymmetrical moral discourse — a very challenging and intensely interesting argument.

On Friday night, Brent Metcalfe and Erin Jennings invited me again to join them, and Vicki Cleverly Speek, author of the recent acclaimed biography of James Strang, God Has Made Us a Kingdom, joined us with her husband. We had a very moving discussion sharing stories about our journeys through the Mormon faith.

Mark Brown of BCC made it for the Saturday morning session, and it was a lot of fun to see him and exchange ideas about the different sessions.

I had signed up for the tour of Far West and Haun’s Mill. John Hamer gave a very strong performance conducting the tour, dubbing us “The Fun Bus,” which we surely were, though he said “The Grouchy Bus” was the one led by Mark Scherer, which is very funny precisely because it’s not plausible. On the way up to Far West, I got to get to know bloggernacle participant Reed Russell, whose son Eric I’ve long admired for his contributions to the bloggernacle.

At Haun’s Mill, I had the opportunity of talking to Jan Shipps. I’ve read her works, seen her speak, and even met her at the 2005 MHA conference, when she introduced herself while we were talking with Dan Vogel. Even so, I’ve never wanted to intrude; there must be so many, many people wanting to talk to her. Imagine my surprise when she approached me, and we spoke for about 20 minutes. She’s warm and friendly and funny, and now I’m somewhat embarrassed that I’d imagined that I’d have been intruding to talk to her.

On the bus ride back, I was lucky enough to sit next to John Hammond and Bill Russell (no relation to Reed that I know of), and we had an awesome conversation. Bill Russell is another Mormon Studies celebrity, and he is among the most engaging people I’ve ever met. He’s a serious thinker who loves to laugh. Bill is undoubtedly one of the smartest people wherever he goes, and he’s especially fun to talk to.

Bill Russell presented a very interesting paper on William Blue, the black pastor of a segregated RLDS congregation. Hearing of the treatment that William Blue and his family endured was moving. William Blue’s daughter, Gwen Hawks Blue, told one of the most profound stories at the previous day’s luncheon, and she added some personal stories to the session with Bill’s paper. When people asked William Blue why he could tolerate the attitudes that he encountered in a predominately white church before the civil rights era, William Blue responded to the effect, “This church is as much mine as it is theirs.”

The presidential lecture from Bill Shepard was on Wingfield Watson, who took up the task of preserving the Strangite tradition of Latter Day Saint worship after the death of James Strang and the emergence of the RLDS church. As someone who’s recently come to have tremendous respect for the place of Strang and his followers within the restoration movement, I found Watson’s devotion to his prophet and his efforts to preserve the church after his prophet’s death to be historically interesting, powerful, and a bit tragic.

Saturday night, John Hajicek invited me to his home with a few others to see some of his collection, one of the finest private collections of Latter Day Saint documents anywhere in the world. It includes numerous first edition Book of Mormons as well as scriptures owned by Emma and Hyrum. We saw some of John’s latest acquisitions (which I won’t discuss in detail — I feel bound by an informal NDA, because I don’t want to steal John’s thunder). We also saw John’s collection of Joseph Smith depictions, including his collection of originals by Nauvoo portrait artist Sutcliffe Maudsley (if you don’t know who Maudsley is, then check out this site). All the while, John and Robin Jensen shared with us their insights on the impact that the various documents and artifacts had on the development of Mormon history and our understanding of it. John also talked to us about the ins-and-outs of document collecting and the dilemmas posed by the competing priorities of being a collector, investor, archivist, believer, and historian — that was fascinating.

Sunday morning featured an Emma Hale Smith Bidamon hymn festival in the sanctuary at the Community of Christ Temple. The Community of Christ Temple is a strikingly magnificent building with a wonderful feeling about it, and I encourage anyone who visits Independence to take a tour of it. As a result of the hymn festival, I have a new favorite hymn entitled “The Old, Old Path.” It was written by Emma and Joseph’s granddaughter, Vida Elizabeth Smith, and it beats the heck out of “I Believe in Christ.”

So that’s the summary. As usual, the papers and the tours rocked, but the highlights were the people. Evenings with Brent Metcalfe and Erin Jennings were a blast — those alone would have made the conference. It was amazing to spend time getting know Vicki Cleverly Speek, John Hajicek, Bill Russell, Jan Shipps, Jean Addams, Greg Kofford, and Connell O’Donovan. Meeting and making the name-with-a-face connection with Mel Sancho, Randy Butterfield, and Reed Russell was awesome. And reconnecting with David Howlett, Jason Smith, Tom Kimball, Mark Brown, Darias Grey, Margaret Young, Robin Jensen, Craig Foster, John Hamer, and Mike Karpowicz made the conference feel like something of a reunion, and each conference gets more enjoyable.