In my eighth grade English class, we had to write an “I am” poem: this particular style provides a rather simple formula for composing self-reflective verse. In the first line, for example, the author lists two personal characteristics; they are followed by the identification of desires, dreams, beliefs, hopes, and so forth.
At the risk of revealing my lack of literary genius, as well as my inherent nerdiness, I will confess that my composition began as follows: “I am a Mormon girl who hates to be late.”
While my peers talked about being dancers, singers, athletes, and friends, I saw my religiosity and my precision as central to my identity. The subsequent lines revealed my love of reading and writing and hinted at my explicit and implicit academic goals. As a thirteen-year-old girl I had woven believing and thinking, the sacred and the secular, into a single worldview.
Five years later, as I entered the academy, I was introduced to the dichotomies of intellectual and spiritual life: many proposed either/or scenarios. Was I going to stand on the fringes of scholarship or on the fringes of belief? Although determined to cultivate academic and spiritual integrity, I had to wrestle with whether or not a woman of faith could also be a rigorous scholar.
During this time I became increasingly familiar with the nuances of Mormon historiography and the different conceptions of faith and history that spanned over one-hundred-seventy-years of interpreting what I believed to be a sacred past. On occasion, I found myself perplexed by the divisions I sensed: again, did I have to choose between intellect and faith? As I saw it, some implied that “objectivity”—to the point of ignoring faith claims, at least in a professional setting—was ideal. They suggested that scholars could not approach questions of faith; history, they seemed to say, could not be viewed through one’s personal lens of belief. But that didn’t work for me, at least not entirely. Others seemed to suggest that interpretation and analysis were secular tools, and that historical narrative should drip with the author’s testimony, and that every experience recounted should be positive and ideal. I wondered if claims of human perfection could really promote faith. That didn’t work for me, either. How could I claim a history that did not require a Savior? It was not LDS doctrine—and thus it seemed essential to not write accounts that crossed that line.
As I continued to reflect upon my choice to be a religious historian, on occasion tempted to choose a less complex path, I concluded that I wanted to be both intellectual and faithful. But, I didn’t want to define intellect or faith in the either/or ways I had observed; it seemed important to learn from and then improve upon past approaches.
Graduate study in religious history and women’s history made it ever clear to me that “objectivity” is unrealistic, and that secularizing the sacred is, in many cases, inaccurate. I cannot understand the lives of religious individuals without taking their spiritual experiences seriously. How they worshiped, what they read, how often they prayed, what they wrote in their journals, whom they interacted with, to what extent they shared their beliefs and served others—these things mattered to them. The daily as well as the weekly, the private as well as the public, the mundane as well as the momentous, impacted all aspects of their lives.
By studying nineteenth-century women, then, I finally recognized—really recognized—that I don’t have to compartmentalize my life, just as they did not compartmentalize theirs. Perhaps for the first time, I realized my intellectual queries are connected to my spiritual curiosity. My research interests are an outgrowth of my faith, and, in many cases, an answer to my prayers. God teaches me through the lives I study, through the topics I reflect upon, and through the questions I ask. Simply stated, my intellectual journey is an important part of my spiritual pilgrimage.
For example, because my research is focused on the lives of women who were spiritual seekers, my academic queries taught me to seek. When I entered my doctoral program, I was a believer, a doer, a participator. I understood and studied the gospel of Jesus Christ. I lived my religion. I abided by the rules, and repented when I fell short. But when I began to study the religious lives of nineteenth-century women (something some people warned me could lead me astray), I recognized the importance of constant change. The journals I read revealed beautiful examples of spiritual seeking, discovery, growth, and conversion. I saw myself in the experiences of other women; I felt connected to a group I had once known so little about. I was, in fact, discovering my own roots!
As a result, I came to see personal conversion in a different way: I recognized more completely that a testimony is the beginning rather than the end, that righteous living is about more than following all the rules in their most literal sense, and that the gospel is about continuous becoming. The Atonement became more meaningful and real. Life became more powerful and purposeful. My heart and mind aligned in ways I had never experienced before. Prayers that had been uttered for over a decade were finally answered. As I see it, academic study influenced the continuation of my own conversion process. Learning confirmed, enriched and deepened my understanding of truth; it didn’t obliterate it.
As I continue to move forward as a believing academic, I intend to grapple with questions about faith and history. It is possible to look through the lens of faith and rigorous academic inquiry simultaneously, and I must allow this combination to shape the types of questions I ask. I believe it is essential to focus on the personal and collective pilgrimages of the Mormon people, and to seek to understand how they viewed and grew into their relationships with God as they embraced their quests for salvation. I want to consider how those in the past understood what they believed to be true, and then analyze how that shaped and influenced their spiritual and secular lives. I think that story—just like my story—can and must become richer and deeper, more faithful and more scholarly.
Although I certainly did not know it at the age of thirteen, my “I am” poem was also an “I will be” poem. Indeed, the things I proclaimed still hold true: I am a Mormon, I am a woman, I am a scholar, and, perhaps less importantly, yes, I still hate lateness. Although I have encountered paradoxes along the way, I believe that the two aspects of my own consciousness, that of the believer and that of the scholar, have finally fused.
Rachel Cope received her PhD in American history (with an emphasis in antebellum American religious history and American women’s history) from Syracuse University, after having earned an MA and a BA in American History from Brigham Young University. Her dissertation, titled “‘In Some Places a Few Drops and Other Places a Plentiful Shower’: The Religious Impact of Revivalism on Early-Nineteenth-Century New York Women,” won the Outstanding Dissertation Prize from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. Rachel was the Research Editorial Fellow at BYU Studies from 2009-2010, and was a visiting fellow at the Manchester Wesley Research Centre during the Spring of 2010. She has also been the recipient of a New England Regional Fellowship Consortium, a Frederick B. Artz Summer Research Grant from Oberlin College, a Bridwell Library Fellowship from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, the Ruth R. and Allison L. Miller Fellowship from the Massachusetts Historical Society, and a Gest Fellowship from Haverford College. Each of these fellowships has enabled her study of women and conversion in the first half of the nineteenth century. At Brigham Young University, she teaches courses on the Doctrine and Covenants, Church History, and Mormon Women’s History, and pursues research into women’s religious experiences, conversion, revivalism, lived religion, print culture, sanctification, Methodism, and the connections between faith and history.
Posted January 2011