The last shall be first and the first shall be last: Discourse and Mormon history

Daymon Mickel Smith, University of Pennsylvania


The writing of history has been treated as a cultural practice. Yet what relation does historiographic practice have to historical process? To investigate that relation I reconstruct the uptake of modernity in Mormonism. I argue that an effect of transition into modernity is the use of distinct norms regarding discourse. Called "language ideologies," these norms reflexively shape interpretations of historical processes. In such ways history might be spoken, but not necessarily accurately retold. So historiography reflects historical process, though often by presupposition of ideology rather than by accurately reporting past practices. Such presupposition conceals transitions into modernity by mapping back its dominant view of language as a medium for expressing thought. Positioning one's reconstruction of historical process, however, within the contexts of entailed historiographic interpretations enables tracking of changing language ideologies. I argue that a dialectic approach to the history of modernity, which treats distinct historiographic practices as outcomes, alone can canvass the semiotic and discursive changes wrought by modernization. To support this claim I present four treatments of intertwined temporal swatches drawn from Mormon history. I first document how a Mormon Underground developed during the U.S. government's anti-polygamy raids of the 1880s. A space of resistance to federal intervention in Mormon plural marriage, theocracy, and communal economics, the Underground was built using discourse as a tool to misdirect investigation. Mormon resistance withered by 1910, however, and polygamy was officially abandoned. Second, I reconstruct the effects of the Mormon Church's justification for publicly renouncing polygamy. Church leadership distinguished between "belief in" and practice of plural marriage. The argument for jettisoning plural marriage entailed broad theological changes in Mormonism stemming from this uptake of mind-body dualism. Third, I recount responses to these changes among self-described Fundamentalists who claimed to preserve history by embodying it. Finally, I analyze bureaucratic shifts in the modern Church which presuppose mind-body dualism and write such into historiographic curriculum.

Subject Area

Religious history|Cultural anthropology|American history

Recommended Citation

Smith, Daymon Mickel, "The last shall be first and the first shall be last: Discourse and Mormon history" (2007). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3260993.