We’re happy to present Kurt Manwaring’s interview with Benjamin Park. He’s a professor of history at Sam Houston University and has been a visiting fellow at the Maxwell Institute. He just had published American Nationalisms: Imagining Union in the Age of Revolutions. He’s been working on research on the political culture of Nauvoo in the 1840’s. You can read the full interview with Ben at 12 Questions. We’re including some relevant excerpts here that hopefully will engender some discussion. I’ll add some comments at the end.
Kurt Manwaring: What research advantages do you expect to find working on site at the Maxwell Institute? Do you anticipate you will leave with any new research questions?
Benjamin Park: The Maxwell Institute provided two things that I needed: space and time for writing the book, uninterrupted, as well as a vibrant environment to discuss my ideas with other scholars. It has been a dream to spend all day working on the book, and then going out to lunch with other brilliant BYU employees/fellows to bounce off my crazy ideas and determine what, exactly, has merit.
I hope to leave with a better sense of how various audiences will receive my book’s arguments.
Kurt Manwaring: What responsibility do historians have in the age of social media to be able to communicate their research to a mass audience? Who are some of today’s historians you look to as examples for making solid history accessible to the masses?
Benjamin Park: I don’t know how to gauge the responsibility of all historians to speak to a broader audience—I think it varies by person and position—but I view my personal role as tethered to a public voice. We live in an age of historical amnesia at the historical level, and due to my privileged position as an academic professor I feel the obligation of validating my profession by helping alleviate that problem. I can’t complain about America’s inability to comprehend the significance of the past if I am not working to solve the problem myself.
Kurt Manwaring: What are some of the obstacles to doing research of Nauvoo in the 1840s?
Benjamin Park: There’s an obvious problem of trying not to place contemporary ideas and assumptions on those of the past—as a historian, I am tasked to reconstruct a lost world that can be quite different from our own—but I’ve found other issues, as well. Most scholars of the 1840s struggle to find enough sources, but I have the opposite problem: I sometimes have too many! Mormons were excellent record keepers, so it is nearly impossible to be comprehensive in research, but those records can often be slanted, incomplete, and narrow.
How do I properly dissect those sources while keeping in mind that they only provide a partial picture?
Kurt Manwaring: How do you think Joseph Smith would perceive modern political extremism—either liberal or conservative?
Benjamin Park: Like all people, Smith was a product of his time, and he reflected an age of political agitation. On the one hand, he—like nearly every political candidate in American history—denounced party-ism and political division. His refrain that what we need is not a “Democratic” president or a “Whig” president, but an “American” president, is reminiscent of recent campaign slogans.
But Smith was also quick to denounce political opponents as wrong-headed and dangerous. He described Martin Van Buren as a “huckstering politician,” for instance, and he exchanged rather testy letters with John C. Calhoun. As much as we wish we could return to a “golden age” of American politics that weren’t divisive and extreme, I’m afraid there was never such a point.
Kurt Manwaring: Are there any ways in which the Church’s political endeavors today mirror that of the Church in the 1840s?
Benjamin Park: I think there is a crucial tension, or paradox, that you find in both modern and Nauvoo-era Church ambitions: on the one hand, they want to be left alone and merely afforded the rights of any church body; simultaneously, they also want to express their opinions on certain matters that they feel are crucial to society.
While today’s church is far less likely to immediately intervene in political matters—like when Smith would encourage saints to vote for a particular candidate—they are willing to speak out when they feel an issue has moral implications, like what they’ve done just this year on marijuana legislation. To outsiders, these moves are sometimes interpreted as testing the boundaries between Church and State.
I hope everyone reads the full interview. Ben’s an important voice in this new generation of Mormon historians. I think he touches on an important point that there’s an intrinsic tension between wanting to be left alone and wanting to speak on what are seen as important issues. I’d add that Ben’s point about the significance of the past is important as is the question of to what degree we judge people as a product of their time and place. That latter point has been a point of big discussion the past week. After the MHA in Boise many questioned how to judge the racism of the 19th century. To what degree are people to be seen in their time – especially when others in that same time argued for positions we today see as correct and ethical. It’s a tricky question. Grappling with it is important – especially in these times when ignorance of the past is so high.