Stanley J. Thayne and Dr. J. Spencer Fluhman; Church History and Doctrine
Since Mormonism’s exodus from New York and Pennsylvania, due to what Joseph Smith described as a “spirit of persecution” in the area, popular perceptions among many locals have been anything but positive. “It is a fact, of which we are not particularly proud, that Susquehanna County harbored such a madman as Joe Smith,” wrote Emily C. Blackman in her 1873 History of Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania. Negative perceptions were perpetuated throughout the twentieth century through continually recited folklore, often printed in newspapers and county histories, and even manifest itself in occasional hostility toward missionaries. More recently, however, popular attitudes to Mormonism seem to have ameliorated in Susquehanna County, particularly in the towns of Susquehanna and Oakland (formerly Harmony). This shift in attitude seems to have begun with the organization of the Susquehanna Branch in 1999 and was aided by the subsequent organization of an annual pageant held at the Aaronic Priesthood Restoration site, which included community activities and service projects. Many locals eagerly anticipate future developments at the Aaronic Priesthood Restoration site because of the economic advantages tourism could bring to the area. Overall, locals seem optimistic about Mormon developments in their county and Church members are in harmony with their neighbors in the area.
In order to document this transition, which I began to notice while serving as a missionary in Susquehanna County in 1999, I have returned twice to the area to conduct interviews and do further documentary research in local historical societies. The funding I received from the Neal A. Maxwell Institute of Religious Studies has allowed me to cover many of my expenses for materials and travel, which has been a great blessing and asset. With my interviews I was able to document popular perceptions of local Mormons and local non-Mormons about Mormon developments and their reception in the area. I also documented the details of the organization and development of the Susquehanna Branch—the first LDS branch in Harmony since Joseph Smith left in 1829. Through my research at local historical societies I was also able to document twentieth century perceptions as reflected in newspaper articles, county histories, and other print sources.
My goal for the project was to present a paper at a conference and to have an article published. This goal has been successfully achieved. I was able to present my research at the Mormon History Association’s 2006 annual conference in Casper, Wyoming, where it was received by a significant audience, some of whom were able to suggest further avenues for research and study. Lavina Fielding Anderson, editor of the Journal of Mormon History, expressed interest in the paper and it is currently in process of publication in the Journal, forthcoming in the Summer or Fall edition of 2007.
The ORCA scholarship I received has definitely been a great asset for this study and has been one of the most influential factors in the development of my academic career. It has allowed me to travel and do extensive field research in the Pennsylvania area. It has helped me to establish a working relationship with several other professional and independent historians and with historical societies. It has given me greater direction in my academic career path. It has already provided opportunities to present and publish my work and promises to continue to do so. All of these factors should help me to get into a good graduate program and to someday obtain a professorship in a discipline that includes Mormon studies.
My mentor throughout this project, J. Spencer Fluhman, has been a tremendous asset in providing direction and counsel. I began working for Brother Fluhman as a research and teaching assistant two years ago. During that time he has been a great source of counsel regarding my plans for graduate school and career, and has offered valuable professional advice on my research and writing. During my ORCA project he did several reads of my presentation and has guided my through the revision process for my Journal submission. He continues to be a great friend and mentor.
Finally, I would like to thank those whose financial contributions fund the ORCA scholarship program, particularly the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Studies, who sponsored my project. Your generosity has been a great blessing to my life and has greatly contributed to the development of my academic career. I hope that my work has proved your donations to be a worthwhile investment. Thank you.