Title: American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism, 1867–1940
Author: Thomas W. Simpson
Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
Genre: Religion / History
Year Published: 2016
Number of Pages: 229 + xiv
Reviewed by Jenny Webb for the Association for Mormon Letters
Thomas W. Simpson’s book *American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism, 1867–1940* is an important, well-written, and engaging volume that synthesizes significant original historical research into a convincing narrative regarding the formation of Mormon identity during the latter part of what is essentially its first century. Simpson situates his project within larger questions of minority religious culture and its relationship to other subcultures, pluralism’s role within faith, and the relationship between science and religion, but the clear focal point for his work lies in examining the gradual shift in Mormon identity from that of a somewhat cultivated “outsider” perspective to that of a quintessentially American religion. For Smith, the questions surrounding this shift are best addressed by examining Mormonism’s relationship with higher secular education.
Simpson argues that “modern Mormonism was born in the American university, and the Mormon path to citizenship—to a genuine, passionate sense of belonging in America—ran directly through it” (1–2). As the Mormon pioneers settled in the Great Basin area and the eventual surrounding (and far flung) Mormon colonies, they brought with them a strong sense that, in this migration, they were making a revolutionary rupture with the American political and cultural project. And yet, the time and space for an isolated western utopia had essentially passed: the transcontinental railroad is completed in Utah in 1869, and by this point, people begin to flow more readily between the east and west.
With this increased fluidity comes a simultaneous recognition that as the Saints move from a life of uncertainty and continual relocation due to religious persecution and towards a life of functional civic structures and institutions, their desire and even need for further education and training in fields like law, medicine, and education increases. Soon, young Mormon students intent on gaining skills to improve the community of the Saints as a whole are reversing the recent westward migration of the Mormon pioneers and trekking back to eastern universities.
This academic migration, Simpson suggests, played a key role in normalizing popular perceptions of Mormonism in that the universities provided a neutral cultural space in which Mormon students could establish relationships based on their academic work and ability to perform a normative role as a student rather than being required to completely occupy the space of cultural and religious other. And as the politics of American reintegration came into play within Utah, many Mormons saw education as the point through which they could safely enter into mainstream America.
Simpson makes a strong case that Mormonism’s own doctrine and theology paved the way for this increased valuation of education within Mormon life: Mormons have a God who values intelligences, truth-seekers, questioning, the positive role of doubt, etc. And therefore it is no surprise that there were many, such as Benjamin Cluff Jr. and John A. Widtsoe, who championed the role and potentially even salvific value of education, seeing it as an ethical and even faithful response to Mormonism’s call to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118).
I particularly enjoyed seeing how Simpson wove pioneering women such as Romania Pratt (who became a doctor) and Martha Hughes Cannon (also an MD, who became the first female US senator) into the narrative as examples of not just academic Mormon women, but as embodying and exemplifying a broader cultural enthusiasm for learning and education within Mormonism that provided faithful pushback against normative gender expectations.
These events, as Simpson takes care to develop, did not occur without opposition. There were concerns about secular contamination, about young students’ ability to maintain their Mormonism in significant cultural and religious near-isolation, and especially concerns regarding the Mormon ideals of unity and brotherhood. How, critics wondered, could the Church support efforts designed to heighten differences and promote discord in topics such as evolution? Eventually, through a series of subtly interconnected events, the pushback against the project of Mormon intellectual migration broke into a conservative rejection of intellectualism within Mormonism during the first decades of the twentieth century.
Simpson emphasizes J. Reuben Clark’s increasing reliance on fundamentalism and populism to combat what Clark viewed as the threat of an educative liberalism: for Clark, no amount of education or learning could trump the power and force of testimony, and his chosen solution to denigrate the value of secular education and question the validity of scientific learning left a legacy of suspicion and distrust surrounding Mormon academic projects that still resonates down to our present day.
Simpson’s research is grounded in untold hours of original research reading personal diaries and writings, and his care and thoroughness are aptly displayed in his ability to craft a clear, supported argument that is nonetheless entirely readable and even engrossing. The volume contains numerous helpful additions, such as a chronology, notes, a well-sourced bibliography, and index. Simpson also includes five fascinating appendices that catalogue all the Mormons studying “abroad” before 1890, all the advanced degrees earned by Mormons in religion, history, and the social sciences between 1920–1940, as well as Mormon populations at various universities during specific years. These appendices provide an excellent resource for future work in this area. And while I am not a historian, my own checking of Simpson’s sources and notes came back clean: Simpson has clearly put forth effort to be careful, accurate, and trustworthy.
I highly recommend this volume to anyone interested in Mormon history, but also to those interested in the development of Mormon doctrine and theology. Part of the real value here that Simpson provides lies in his ability to synthesize historical narrative within a broader theological framework that allows the reader to reflect not only on the history, but the religious context and interpretations at work behind that history. And it should go without saying that *American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism* should now be required reading for any Mormon academic, regardless of their field, who wishes to know and better understand the heritage that underlies the familiar push and pull between faith and the intellectual life so ubiquitous within the broader Mormon academy today.