There’s been some discussion in my circles about the inadvisability of bringing personal judgment into Mormon studies. An historian’s status in or out of the Church could very well affect the tone of their piece, however one should address the arguments presented on their own merits. To accept or discount the work on the basis of whether a writer is member or non-member, active or inactive, correlated or uncorrelated is generally unprofessional and unhelpful. But moving past this, I’d like to discuss another tactic in Mormon studies that I have come to feel is objectionable. Let’s call it the “Moroni’s Toenails” approach.
The term comes from a FARMS book review from many many years ago of David Buerger’s The Mysteries of Godliness. The author accused Buerger of fabricating evidence, and his sole and only support for this conclusion was the following:
The caption under the fifth picture in the illustrations section of The Mysteries of Godliness is problematic. The picture shows an architectural drawing by William Weeks of the Nauvoo Temple’s weather vane and depicts a horizontal angel, holding a trumpet in one hand and an open book in the other. The angel is wearing a round cap and a long, flowing robe. According to the caption, the angel is also wearing slippers. This is simply not true. I have seen the original drawing in the LDS Church Archives, and the angel is plainly barefoot. If one looks closely enough at the picture in Buerger’s book, one can see the angel’s toenails. This example of “seeing things” should alert readers to the possibility that the author, or others who may have contributed to this book, might be seeing other things as well.
Now, I don’t think it was wrong to point out Moroni’s toenails. Historians adore discussing minutia, and I’m no exception. We need to get the details right, after all. I went to the architectural drawing and it’s obvious to me that he is not wearing slippers. (Sorry, I really can’t see the toenails.) Be that as it may, the angel is wearing a cap and robe which greatly resemble temple clothing. The detail of the slippers does not invalidate Buerger’s point. And it shouldn’t be used to invalidate any of the other conclusions that he makes in his book.
Mormon studies scholars, have you seen recent examples of this in our field?
In approaching to Mormon studies, do authors and critics focus on “Moroni’s toenails” when evaluating the work of colleagues, especially those with whom we disagree? It’s probably a step up from calling their Mormon credentials, or their scholarly chops into question. But how can we improve on this? How can we modify our tone to remain respectful and decent while discussing a subject around which there are so many emotions and deeply held convictions? How can we move past petty grievances to build on each others’ work and broaden our understanding of this fascinating subject?
Quiz time: Is Joseph wearing slippers in the pic below? Be a good little Mormon studies scholar and share your reasoning!