CASPER, Wyoming — In contrast to the green mountains of Vermont, the arid prairie of Wyoming served as site for the annual meeting of the Mormon History Association this year as more than six hundred historians and history buffs converged on Casper, Wyoming’s second largest city, May 25 to 28. Registrants came from many states in the United States and from Germany, Holland, and elsewhere.
With a half dozen or more concurrent sessions at most hours, it was impossible to attend the entire proceedings. Plenary sessions, lunches and dinners brought everyone together. Others who attended different sessions would have a different report of this convention, but perhaps my observations will give an idea of what went on.
The Mormon History Association is not sponsored by the Church. From its inception, it has welcomed participation by historians from other branches of the restoration, other faiths, and no faith at all. The criterion of participation is interest in Mormon history and a willingness to treat it in a responsible manner.
Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, which received the best book award, was the subject of a panel discussion, showing the strong feelings still aroused by the Prophet.
Carol Madsen’s new public biography of Emmeline B. Wells was commented on by three panelists, who all agreed on its importance to an understanding of both women’s history and political history from the 1870s to the early twentieth century.
Since this year is the sesquicentennial of the 1856 Willie and Martin handcart companies, they were the subject of several papers, including a panel discussion entitled A Whose Fault Was It?. Program chair Michael Landon saw to it that several papers discussed different segments of the trail followed by pioneers in their trek to Utah. An original concert opera by Harriet Petherick-Bushman, drawing its text from diaries, provided a moving musical setting to the experiences of the handcart pioneers.
The resourceful Ardis Parshall astutely discussed the codes used in correspondence by church leaders in the 1850s and beyond. Jeffery O. Johnson examined and refuted the claim that probate judges in territorial Utah were always the local bishops. Drawing from his University of Texas dissertation, Richard Ouellette examined the legal context of the Temple Lot Case. Richard Francaviglia, of the University of Texas at Arlington, who has long been interested in the cultural meaning of geographic space, evaluated the work of several able pioneer Mormon cartographers.
Using the diaries of two young teamsters, a Mormon and a non-Mormon, Edwina Jo Snow analyzed the interaction of teamsters and emigrants, as well as accompanying soldiers, in the eight wagon trains that carried goods to Utah in 1855.
Richard Turley, Ronald Walker, and Glen Leonard reported on their comprehensive study of the Mountain Meadows Massacre and, if I heard correctly, promised that it would be turned over to the publisher in time for publication in 2007, the sesquicentennial of that tragedy.
The ambitious Joseph Smith Papers project moves ahead. Aspects of that project having to do with the year 1837 and Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo diaries were reported upon.
This year’s Tanner Lecture, entitled “Historical Reflections on Mormon Futures,” was given by Stephen J. Stein, professor emeritus from Indiana University. Philip Barlow, MHA president, entitled his well-received address “Toward a Mormon Sense of Time.”
As always in conventions like this, a major part of the experience was not formally structured, consisting of meeting old friends, making new ones, and holding private conversations.
As time passes, more and more of our Mormon history extends beyond the nineteenth century. Several papers told of developments in the twentieth and even twenty-first centuries. Focusing attention on twenty major cities where they have collected more than 450 oral history interviews, G. Wesley and Marian A. Johnson reported on LDS outmigration of the twentieth century. Historical development in Brazil, the Bahamas, Mexico, and Africa reflected the expansion of the Church outside of the United States.
Reflecting the intense interest in Mormon history and culture, there are new programs in Mormon studies at Utah State University and Claremont Graduate School. Recipient of the Thomas L. Kane award (presented to a person outside the Mormon community who has made a significant contribution) was Elizabeth (Liz) Dulaney, who has spearheaded the a long list of scholarly books in Mormon history at the University of Illinois Press.
Others would describe this gathering differently than I have done. Much of one’s experience in events like this depends on your choice of sessions, the individuals and groups you talk with, and of course your own values and predispositions. Based on what I saw and heard, I am hoping to give some idea of the buzz and excitement of an MHA convention.
The single word that best describes the spirit of Mormon history, it seems to me, is vitality. While older historians continue to do research and writing, a new generation is entering from stage left. I was struck by the caliber of many young historians pursuing undergraduate or graduate degrees or just entering the profession.
On Sunday morning, as people left to return to their many different homes, a devotional meeting was held about fifty miles from Casper at Martin’s Cove. Documentary producer Lee Groberg told of the inception and completion of Sweetwater Rescue, a one-hour documentary on the Willie and Martin handcart companies scheduled to air on PBS toward the end of this year. All were touched as a choir of convention participants directed by Glen Leonard sang “Hard Times Come Again No More” and “If the Way Be Full of Trial, Weary Not.” Indeed.
Next year’s meeting of the Mormon History Association will take place in Salt Lake City. Those interested in learning more about this organization, its publications and meetings will find relevant information at its web site, www.MOHA.org.