“Twenty years down the line, when there’s historiographical debates over the evolution of the field of Mormon Studies among other discipline subfields, the Mormon Studies Review is going to be the premier repository where people go to understand the development of the field.”
This year, Mormon Studies Review has published its tenth anniversary volume. Visit the Scholarly Publishing Collective to read the issue, listen to The UPside podcast episode with the journal’s editors, or read the interview below.
University of Illinois Press: I’m Michelle Woods, the Journals Marketing and Communications Manager for the Press, and today I’m excited to present an interview recognizing the tenth volume year of the journal Mormon Studies Review. We’ll be discussing the journal’s history, its impact on the academic field of Mormon Studies, as well as the editors’ personal experiences and collaboration.
Before we dive into our questions, could you please introduce yourselves and share a bit about your backgrounds and how you became involved with Mormon Studies Review?
Quincy Newell: Sure, I’ll go first. I’m a professor of Religious Studies at Hamilton College. I got into Mormon Studies sort of by a back door. I’m interested in religion in the American West and particularly in the experiences of marginalized communities. So, I started working many years go now on a project about 19th Century African American and Native American Mormons, which combines my interests in religion among communities on the edges and religions in the American West and happens to be a Mormon Studies project. That was my entrée into Mormon Studies. I found it to be a wonderful community and just a collection of really interesting people working on really interesting stuff. It’s been a great place to be doing scholarship for the last couple of decades.
Benjamin Park: I’m an associate professor of history at Sam Houston State University. I was a graduate student in 2013 when the Maxwell Institute at BYU was deciding to switch up its publications agenda and transform one of its journals that had been called the Mormon Studies Review. I just happened to be teaching at BYU over that summer and the director of the Maxwell Institute at the time invited me in—I still don’t know how he even knew who I was—and he asked me if I were creating a new journal, what would I do? I pitched him a review journal and it turns out that I was one of several that was giving him that idea over the summer. And then for punishment for expressing my ideas, I was asked to be an associate editor when it first launched for Volume 1 and fortunately, we had a stellar board of advisors that included Quincy. So, we got to work together for six years in that capacity and then after Volume 6, when there was a time for editorial transition, Quincy and I—ever the masochists trying to take on more punishment in our everyday lives—we decided to take on the co-editorship. So, Quincy and I have been involved with the journal from the very beginning and, speaking for myself, that friendship has been one of the highlights.
UIP: Great, thank you, and again, welcome. We’re so glad to have you here.
First off, we want to congratulate you on reaching the tenth volume of Mormon Studies Review! For those who are unfamiliar with the journal, the Review tracks the vibrant, varied, and international academic engagement with Mormon institutions, lives, ideas, texts, and stories. It chronicles and assesses the developing field of Mormon Studies with review essays, book reviews, and roundtable discussions related to the academic study of Mormonism. The Review offers scholars and interested non-specialists a one-stop source for discussions of current scholarship on Mormonism, ranging across disciplines and gathering voices from a broad cross-section of the academy, both LDS and non-LDS.
As editors for nearly half of the journal’s existence, and including your involvement prior to that, what can you tell us about how the journal has evolved and what significant changes you have seen in its content or focus?
BP: At its core, the journal has mostly retained the same vision since it was originally launched. It was meant to be this bridge between all this great work being done on Mormonism and the broader academy, people who might not be aware of, or interested in, Mormonism, and this journal takes the audacious goal to try to prove that Mormon Studies scholarship matters. I can even think back to the first time the editorial board gathered together to give us feedback, when I was merely an associate editor at the time, and our editorial team had pitched this idea of what our first roundtable was going to be like and, much to our chagrin, it was very insular looking. We were still having a hard time envisioning what it would look like to speak to the broader academy and our editorial board, including Quincy, was like “Hey this is smart, what if you took this further? And what if you actually invite people who may not be experts in Mormonism to speak on Mormonism?”
So, we try to be a one-place stop where scholars who might otherwise not know a single Mormon Studies book can go and see what’s working in the field, what’s not working, what books they should be reading, what they can be incorporating in the classroom, and whatnot. So, at the core, that vision has remained over ten years. We’ve nuanced and refined and polished some of our approaches. We have a much more interdisciplinary outlook now than we had before, I think. We have a much more ideological and embodied diversity among our authors than we might have before, but I think the core value, the core mission has mostly remained the same.
QN: I agree with that, and I especially agree with what Ben was saying—that the mission has been refined over time. We do try really hard to set up conversations that cross that border between Mormon Studies and non-Mormon Studies. So we frequently bring in reviewers for Mormon Studies books that are not experts in Mormonism but are experts in some other field that the book touches, because we are trying to create that conversation between Mormon Studies and the broader academy and get folks in Mormon Studies to be thinking about those broader audiences, but also to say to the broader academy “Hey, you know, there’s something here in Mormon Studies that might be worth thinking about and worth considering. As you talk about other communities entirely, Mormons might be a useful comparative case or might have some lesson for you in thinking about other cases as well.
UIP: Yeah, it’s great to hear about how it’s become more interdisciplinary and bringing in those outside voices. Now, given your history with the journal, can you share a few key milestones or memorable moments from the journal’s history so far?
QN: I think that the main milestone that stands out to me is the transition, both in the editorship of the journal and in the publishing of the journal. When it started out, the journal was published by the Maxwell Institute, which is a subsidiary, let’s say, of Brigham Young University and as such it had to be really careful about politics within the church and it had to be careful about what it was publishing in order to make sure that it continued to get funding and so on and so forth. Switching over from the church as its publisher essentially, to the University of Illinois Press has given us a lot more freedom in terms of the topics that we choose, in terms of what we are able to address and how forthrightly we address it. Since our transition to the University of Illinois Press, we have felt entirely free to have issues on sex and sexuality, on gender identity, on things that might be perceived as insiders in the church as somewhat critical to the church, and it’s been really lovely to have that freedom.
UIP: Great, thank you, Quincy. We’re so glad to hear that the University of Illinois Press has been such a positive influence on the journal. Moving on to talk about the thought-provoking content the journal has published over the years, can you tell us a bit about the forum included in the most recent volume, Volume 10, and why “Mormonism and Money” is an important topic for discussion?
BP: Yeah, I think the forum in this most recent volume is a great embodiment of this kind of broad array of scholarship that we’re trying to emphasize, that from this one topic, Mormonism and money, we can have such a different range of perspectives. We have a scholar who looks at Mormonism and socialism in 19th century France. We have a scholar who looks at Mormon fundamentalism and the politics of what it means to be poor in America. We have a scholar who’s an Economics professor who looks at the ethics of capitalism and how it meshes with an ethos of scriptural community. We have a scholar who is more forthrightly historical in nature and looking at the connections between Mormon conceptions of welfare and debates over the New Deal in 1930s and 1940s America. And so, we’re getting economic, sociological, ethnological, historical approaches on this topic from a range of different perspectives. So, you’re getting both interdisciplinary, you’re getting a lot of different denominations—because we’re looking at LDS, we’re looking at Fundamentalists, we try to look at the different denominational schisms within the church—and we’re also looking at international contexts, we want to know what’s going on outside of America. The scholar looking at Mormonism and capitalism is a scholar based in Japan, who is steeped in this much more global, capitalistic literature. And so, I think that forum really captures a lot of the key priorities that we’ve been trying to push in Mormon Studies Review.
UIP: I can definitely hear from what you said about those outside perspectives, the interdisciplinary, and global nature of the journal and how that’s contributing to the quality of the content in the journal. Some of the other recent volumes have had features on topics including Mormon constructions of gender, modern Mormonism and politics, and the mobilization of race in the Latter-Day Saints church. What led to these topics being chosen? Are there any particular themes or topics you believe will be prominent in the coming years?
QN: So, every year Ben and I meet with our editorial advisory board and, as Ben described at the top of this interview, we often bring an idea to the board and the board says “Yeah, no, not so much.” So, it’s brainstorming with our board that really helps us figure out what the topic of the coming year’s forum will be and all of these topics I think have come out of those conversations. We try to make sure that our board represents a broad range of folks, in terms of discipline, in terms of racial/ethnic identity, in terms of national origin and topics of study. So, we have a lot of people coming at Mormon Studies from a wide range of places and that leads to really rich conversations and a really good sense of what people might be interested in. Those conversations also help us brainstorm who might be good scholars to write for these forums and then Ben and I go out and start trying to recruit people to write for us. In terms of particular themes or topics that we think might be coming up down the road, I’m going to let Ben try his hand at the predictions there because historians, like me and like Ben, are always bad at that, so I’ll be curious to see what he says.
BP: Yeah, historians make horrible prophets. But I will say a few of the topics that we’ve been discussing as a board: this coming volume (Volume 11) we’re going to be looking at Sacred Space and Material Culture, looking at symbolisms and temples—whether it be Latter Day Saints or Community of Christ or Native American spaces and indigenous art. So, we’re looking at kind of the blend between material culture and sacred space. We’ve had a lot of discussion about television and mainstreaming religion and this convergence of entertainment and religion and performance.
One of the permanent focuses that we’re trying to do is this global context. I keenly remember a few years ago when we were thinking about doing a forum on Mormonism and race and Quincy and I, thinking we’re experts on the topic, come up with an idea of, like, different approaches that we could feature in this forum and we pitch it to the editorial board and they’re like, “Well, that’s cool. Why don’t you include the Pacific? Why don’t you include South America? Why don’t you include how these discussions are playing out in the world?” So, we’ve been able to look at race from a global perspective, we had a forum on Mormonism and politics from a global perspective. Seeing how Mormons have played an outsized role in New Zealand national politics in the early 20th century, these things that are an absolute surprise. And that’s why it’s so dangerous for us to expect future themes: we don’t know this. And when it comes to the broad variety of topics that are relevant to Mormon Studies in the academy, Quincy and I are experts on a very small sliver of that, which is why it’s important to continually be open to pitches from these other topics.
UIP: Thanks, Ben. I love hearing about how those global perspectives kind of come as a surprise! You don’t know exactly what you’re going to find until you do a deep dive into these topics. One thing that I know we’ve kind of touched on is the editorial board and everything that Quincy mentioned, but how do you ensure that the topics that you’re choosing contribute meaningfully to the field of Mormon Studies and engage with the broader academic community?
BP: There are two key priorities we keep to try to address that issue of relevance. One is that we try to keep a board of advisors, our editorial board, who have a broad range of interests. I mean, we try to map this out down the road, saying, “We have someone who’s an expert on European social history rotating of the board off in this year, who are some people who might be able to replace them? We’re lacking our coverage of the Pacific.” Or “We’re lacking our coverage of South America. We’re lacking coverage of someone who is an expert in Mormonism outside the Latter-Day Saint tradition. We’re lacking coverage of the anthropological perspective.” So, it’s important that we have an editorial board who can make up for our ignorance on a lot of these aspects of the field.
And second, we try to reach out to people who are writing either for our forums or our book reviews or our other essays, people who are experts in these broader topics who might not necessarily be experts on the Mormon aspect. And we approach them, and we ask them, “Hey, we know you’re an expert on media and religion. Here’s a book on Mormonism and media. We know this is a bit outside your expertise, but we want you to read this book and tell us and tell our readers: is this a book of interest to media scholars?” And if it’s not, that’s what our journal is going to do too. We need to be able to explain what books aren’t worth reading. And so, finding scholars to serve on our board of editors who’ll be able to keep our perspectives broad and then reaching out to authors who can keep us honest and who know these niche fields a lot better than us, I think that’s how we try to prove our journal’s relevance.
UIP: Hearing about the geographical diversity and even the experts in broader fields kind of leads me into my next question, which is can you provide some insight into how you identify potential authors? How do you ensure a diverse range of perspectives and voices are included in the journal?
QN: Very occasionally we get someone who pitches us an idea, but for the most part, it’s up to us to identify potential reviewers, potential authors. We do a lot of brainstorming with our board about who those folks might be and that’s partly why it’s so important for us to have international members of our board, not just folks based in the United States, because they’re going to be much more familiar with communities of scholars outside the U.S.
The other thing we do a lot is we rely on databases like “Women Also Know Stuff,” “Women in Mormon Studies,” I’m forgetting the history one right now but I can’t tell you how much time I’ve spent on those databases just identifying people who have said, “This is my interest, this is my expertise,” and finding the overlap there. As Ben said, we often reach out to scholars who would not identify as Mormon Studies scholars and we have several times had to say to folks, “We know you’re not a Mormon Studies scholar, we’ll help with the Mormon Studies side of things. What we want is to pick your brain on this broader field that you are an expert in. We want to know what you can say to folks in Mormon Studies about this book or this topic.”
So, we pay really close attention to the diversity of our potential authors. As we’re creating a list of people that we’re going to reach out to, we think really carefully about how many of these are straight, white, Mormon men who work for the church and how many of them are folks who identify in different ways. And because the field is dominated by straight, white, Mormon men, we try really hard to exercise a preference for people who do not fit those particular identifiers when we’re thinking about potential reviewers or potential authors. So, we tend to reach out to people who are different from that category first and default later to folks who fit that sort of norm.
UIP: Thank you, Quincy. Ben, I want to circle back to when at the beginning you were talking about pitching the idea for Mormon Studies Review. Given that the Mormon Studies Review features a variety of content including book reviews, why do you think it’s important to include book reviews in the journal?
BP: Yeah, as innovative as we’ve become over the years on focusing on different forums or disciplinary essays or review essays or, in some cases, book review roundtables, the book review section is the bread and butter of our journal. It’s the reason why it exists. I mean, it harkens all the way back to this journal’s founding to where we tried to be a clearinghouse to explain to the broader academy “here are the books in this field and why they’re relevant.” So, in many ways we’ve tried to be the touchstone, the gathering place where, if someone is interested in religion and race and they’ve encountered a book on Mormonism, we want Mormon Studies Review to be the journal they go to see if this is a book worth engaging or not.
So, I think those book reviews—it’s a way to chart the field. And I think if twenty years down the line, when there’s historiographical debates over the evolution of the field of Mormon Studies among other discipline subfields, the Mormon Studies Review is going to be the premier repository where people go to understand the development of the field. Because it’s impossible to read all the books, but it’s more possible to read what smart people have said about all these books. And so, even setting aside, of course we know that book reviews aren’t perfect, there’s always bias between authors. But being able to trace what these books have said, and therefore trace the development of this broader field is the key mission of the journal.
UIP: Speaking of books, both of you have contributed significantly to the field of Mormon Studies through your own publications. Could each of you please briefly discuss one of your own books and share some insights into the research and writing process behind it?
QN: So, my most recent book is a biography of Jane James, who was an African American woman who converted to Mormonism in the early 1840s. Jane has been known among scholars and historians of Mormonism for quite some time. She left a short autobiography that was published in a journal, Dialogue, in the late 1970s in the aftermath of the lifting of the priesthood restriction in the LDS church. So, people have known about her for a really, really long time, but nobody ever attempted a book length biography of her because, I think, for the most part, folks thought there wasn’t enough material to say much about her and so, a book length piece would be a very, very, small book. I was working on a project about 19th century African American and Native American Mormons and Jane just kept popping up in my research over and over again. It started to feel like she was kind of haunting me, and so I decided to write the biography and maybe that way she would leave me alone.
Her biography, like a lot of my projects, turned out to be what I call a needle in a haystack kind of project. I ended up working in a way where I was finding lots of little fragments of evidence. The historian Jon Sensbach describes it as “documentary shrapnel,” which feels like a really apt description. It was, you know, a half a sentence here, a photograph there, little bits and pieces. And so, sort of pulling all those together was the challenge and being able to tell a story. I really enjoyed writing a biography, because it felt like there was a sort of preordained structure to the book in a way that isn’t true to a lot of other scholarly, monographed kinds of work. And so, the research was the sort of challenging, like finding all the bits and pieces, and then the writing process was very much a sort of “how do I weave it all together, how do I fill in the gaps?” And filling in the gaps was a lot of finding analogous cases or contextual evidence that could suggest some possibilities of “here’s what it might have been like for Jane in this situation or that situation.” So, I leaned a lot on the techniques of Native American history and African American history, both fields where there’s not usually a lot of documentary evidence to work with. And that was what helped me sort of figure out how to put all of this together into a coherent story that actually said something worth reading.
BP: My most recent monograph from a few years ago was a book titled Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier, but I’m going to cheat and I’m going to talk about my book that’s coming out in a few months. I was fortunate to spend much of the pandemic working on a new history of Mormonism in America, that’s going to be published by W. W. Norton’s Liveright imprint in January, titled American Zion: A New History of Mormonism and that is a fool’s quest: to try to write that big of a book that covers so much material and tries to digest so much brilliant scholarship. And it was only made slightly less foolish by my privilege of working with this journal over the last ten years because I’ve been able to have this first person look at all this great scholarship being produced.
Even if I’m not able to read every book that’s come out in Mormon Studies, I’ve been able to read the reviews of every book coming out in Mormon Studies. And being able to converse with all these brilliant authors and every forum that comes out every year revises my interpretation of a key theme in Mormonism that is then reflected in the book. I mean, I remember just this last fall when we got page proofs for Volume 10, I immediately went to my manuscript, and I inserted page numbers for all these references from the forum on Mormonism and money because there were several essays that were fundamental to shaping how I understand some key components. And so, in many ways, my forthcoming work as a scholar is intimately connected to my work as an editor and was only made possible by my affiliation with the journal.
UIP: Thank you both, it’s so interesting to hear about your processes as writers and particularly Quincy mentioned the topic haunting you and Ben hearing about how the journal influenced your book, that’s really cool to hear. So, I want to talk about a bit more about your role as editors of the journal. Can you share some insights into how the editorial process works and how you work together as a team?
QN: So, as we’ve talked about, we solicit basically everything that goes into the journal. We get very little that is sent in cold to us for review. We are not a sort of standard peer reviewed journal; we don’t tend to send things out to peer reviewers. Instead, Ben and I work through everything that is going to go into the journal, every manuscript that gets sent in, and we edit it, work with the author to make it punchier, to make it stronger and better. If we have questions about a particular piece, we might send it to one or more members of our editorial board for their opinion as well, to draw on their expertise and get their sense of “what do we need to do here? Is this going to work for MSR?”
Ben and I, we trade off pretty seamlessly, I would say, as a team. So, he’ll take first crack at some of the manuscripts we get, I take first crack at others, then we trade and eventually, send things back, but both of us have worked through each piece before it goes back to the author for revisions. When we get to sort of putting together the package that we’re going to send to the press as the final manuscript for the journal, I think Ben tends to do sort of the more macro stuff. I tend to be very detail oriented. I’m like placing commas and footnotes and that kind of thing. And we both also work through page proofs and those sorts of things to make sure that everything gets taken care of and is as correct as we can make it.
We have different networks, I would say, as well, and that is a real strength of our partnership. Ben has deep connections within the LDS community and sort of the more straight up historical field. My training is in Religious Studies, I’m not LDS, and so I have more connections with non-Mormon folks and with folks in Religious Studies, defined separately as a field. So, we try to draw on those different networks and use our different strengths together to make the journal stronger.
UIP: Moving from how well you work together, what would you say has been the most challenging aspect of being an editor, and how have you overcome it?
BP: I think there are two primary challenges that we face. One is pretty common across all journals, which is just scholarly burnout at this moment, where lots of people have a hard time setting apart time to do uncompensated labor in the form of reading and engaging work which takes effort and, in a moment where academia is facing a lot of scarcity and precarious job situations for a lot of academics, it’s a big ask. And we know this when we reach out to people to review. I mean, it’s been a controversial topic just the prospect of doing free book reviews nowadays and we understand those issues. So that’s a general problem that we, along with every journal, face.
Another problem that might be a bit more unique for our world is, as mentioned before, proving the relevance of our journal to people who might not immediately see why this is a journal they want to review something for when we’re approaching someone who’s an expert in a field that Mormonism only peripherally touches and we’re asking them to donate their time and their brilliance to engage a book that’s not automatically germane to their interest. That’s a hard ask and we get told no a lot and that’s fine. And so learning to adapt, learning to move with the ebbs and the flows of academic labor, that can prove a bit tiring. I mean, Quincy could quickly tell you that I get worried every year that we’re going to have enough content for the issue, are we going to have enough books come out, are reviewers going to turn in things. And in turn, she’s the one that’s worried are we going to have enough content. We have problems that are both general across all journals, as well as some issues that might be unique to our enterprise.
QN: I would just add that there are a few things that are particular to working on Mormonism that are different from what every journal might face. One had been figuring out our language. The LDS Church a few years ago started saying, “Please don’t refer to us as Mormons or as Mormonism, we want to be the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, we don’t even want to be abbreviated as LDS Church.” We sort of looked at that, I think we were just going to press with a volume as that announcement came out and so, we weren’t able to really address it in that particular volume, but the next one we included an Editor’s foreword that sort of laid out what our policy was going to be because saying “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints” every single time is really clunky and it’s really hard for writers to sort of wrap their heads around that. And then thinking about okay, how do we use the term “Mormon”? How do we use the term “LDS Church”? Do we use the term “LDS Church”? Do we use the term “LDS” to describe people? All of those kinds of things have been specific language issues that we’ve had to really sort of think through and try to make clear for our readers and for our authors in ways that try to avoid offending anybody. We don’t want people to stop reading our journal because they think we’re using terms disrespectfully.
UIP: Thank you, Quincy and Ben, that was really interesting and insightful to hear about how there are situations that are particular to the field, particular to this journal, and even the terminology—that was a really interesting point. I have one last question for you, I want to wrap up on a high note here. What has been your favorite aspect of working on Mormon Studies Review?
QN: I think, honestly for me, working with Ben has been one of the highlights of working on the Mormon Studies Review. That and just getting to work with so many amazing scholars, who have written for us, who have served on our editorial advisory board, and being able to see the Mormon Studies Review as a place where we can nurture a wide diversity of voices in Mormon Studies and sort of welcome people into the field. That’s been my favorite part of the whole thing.
BP: Yeah, I guess working with Quincy has been okay. [laughing] No, working with Quincy has been phenomenal. It’s been the achievement of a lifetime, being able to have a working relationship with someone who has such great skills and brilliance has been great. Working with so many amazing authors who share their time and their brilliance with us, that’s a privilege that I don’t take lightly. And I’m an optimist who loves to be engaged in a big project that I believe means something and I really think that this journal means something to an academic community that is doing important things and we’re forcing that community to have sometimes difficult discussions, but necessary discussions, and academic engagement that might not be possible through other venues. And so, being affiliated with such great people doing important work, I mean there’s nothing better to do in an academic’s life.
UIP: Thank you for joining us today in celebration of the tenth volume year of Mormon Studies Review. To learn more about Mormon Studies Review visit go.illinois.edu/MSR.
For further reading, the University of Illinois Press is also the publisher of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, the Journal of Mormon History, the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, and American Journal of Theology and Philosophy. The University of Illinois Press has recently published three books on Mormon Studies: Irish Mormons: Reconciling Identity in Global Mormonism by Hazel O’Brien, Mormon Envoy: The Diplomatic Legacy of Dr. John Milton Bernhisel by Bruce W. Worthen, and Eternity in the Ether: A Mormon Media History by Gavin Feller. You can view all of those and more at press.illinois.edu.