Author Spotlight: Jessie L. Embry June 14 2018
Conversation with Jessie L. Embry
Jessie L. Embry is a former associate director of the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies and an instructor of history at Brigham Young University. She is the author of several books and over eighty articles dealing with Mormon, western, and Utah history. She is currently the editor of the Journal of Mormon History.
Q: Can you give us a little background into your academic training and your interest in Mormon studies?
A: When I graduated from high school, I thought I would become a secondary school history teacher. After a number of twist and turns, I ended up as Brigham Young University majoring in history with a goal to study Native Americans and teach college. Ted Warner told me that I was right gender but wrong color. Still, he mentored me through a senior seminar paper on Indian relocation. He also gave me a scholarship for a master’s program. Then Tom Alexander hired me as a research assistant to study Wilford Woodruff. As we read books about spiritual experiences and Woodruff’s diaries, I learned research skills. Also as a graduate student, I took an oral history class from Gary Shumway. When I could not think of a thesis topic, Leonard Arrington suggested Relief Society grain storage. It sounded boring, but I learned that it was the perfect case study to learn about the changing roles of women in the LDS Church. After a mission (that I went on because I could not find a job), James B. Allen hired me to work on the Genealogical Society history. Following an Utah State Historical Society preservation internship, Tom hired me to direct the oral history program at the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies. He supported my efforts to plan oral history projects and write books and articles. Lavina Fielding Anderson helped me become a better writer. And James B. Allen allowed me to teach history classes and other department chairs continued to assign me classes.
That is the long answer. The short answer is I stumbled into history and Mormon studies, but my great mentors peaked my curiosity and taught me the value of understanding the LDS past.
Q: You have written books and articles on a wide variety of topics from Mormon polygamy, race and Mormonism, Mormon studies historiography, regional histories, and more. If you were given unlimited research funding and open access to the archives, what topic would you pick and why?
A: Sometimes people ask me what my favorite project is, and my answer is the one I am working on. Kent Powell told me that I could take the most boring subject and make it interesting. As with my master’s thesis, I have been open to suggestions and then dove in. At times in my career unlimited research funding would have been great, but that is not a problem any more. And while open access would always be nice, I am not sure that there is always the information that I would want to find.
But to answer the question, I would like to research why changes have taken place in the LDS Church and what motivated those changes. Along the same lines, I would like to know if there is a cause and effect between what happened and what was going on in the United States and the world. Since that is pretty abstract, let me give some examples. I researched LDS recreation programs which included all-church sports tournaments and dance festivals. I learned a lot about how those programs developed and why they were discontinued. I learned how the programs affected the buildings. I have some answers of why the changes, but I wish I had more. When I worked for Gordon Irving and the James Moyle Oral History Project in the late 1970s, I interviewed women about their reactions to the Women’s Lib Movement of the time. I would like to know more about the reactions of Church leaders and members to that movement. And that is my current project.
Q: As the current editor of the Journal of Mormon History, you have come across articles by numerous up-and-coming scholars of Mormonism. What trends are you seeing emerge from younger scholars and where do you imagine the future of Mormon studies to be headed?
A: I am trained as a historian, but I also learned from other disciplines. That is what I taught BYU students, and it is very gratifying to see former students become great historians. Many of them and the younger scholars are more focused on Mormon studies/religious studies than just straight history. I think that Mormon studies will include more comparative studies and focus more on theories. I hope in that change that young scholars remember that history is stories. I hope they will gather the stories and then look for the theories that might work rather than trying to make the data fit the theories.
That being said, I am excited that there are so many young scholars interested in the Mormon past. I started my career during the New Mormon History period. Because of the negative reactions, I believe that we lost a whole generation of people studying Mormon history/Mormon studies. It is refreshing to know that we can overcome what Roger Launius called the graying of the Mormon History Association. It is good to see new faces, and I look forward to publishing these scholars in the Journal of Mormon History. I learn so much from them.
Mormon Polygamous Families: Life in the Principle
By Jessie L. Embry