Still, the Small Voice: Narrative, Personal Revelation, and the Mormon Folk Tradition
By Tom Mould. 2011. Logan: Utah State University Press. 460 pages. ISBN: 978-0-87421-817-6 (hard cover).
Reviewed by Jill Hemming Austin, Indiana University
[Review length: 1001 words • Review posted on November 7, 2012]
In a moment when all things Mormon draw public attention, the publication of Tom Mould’s Still, the Small Voice offers a markedly sincere and timely treatment of one aspect of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) culture. Targeted to scholars in such fields as folklore, anthropology, narrative studies, and religious studies, Still, the Small Voice takes on the original and ambitious task of analyzing the LDS narrative tradition of personal revelation stories. Mould clarifies personal-revelation stories as narratives that demonstrate divine involvement and intervention in everyday, instrumental ways for keepers of the LDS faith—times when “the still, small voice” speaks to an individual’s consciousness: protection from danger, guidance in life decisions, promptings to act or pursue a particular path. Mould distinguishes these often subtle and nuanced spiritual promptings from related revelatory moments of spiritual enlightenment or increased understanding of religious tenets. This distinction narrows his focus to a manageable amount of material. It also allows him to foreground the interior lives of his storytellers as they turn daily experiences into the foundational texts of their faith biography.
In his introduction, Mould lays bare his allegiances, interests, and methods. As a non-Mormon, he declares his intent to neither promote nor vilify the LDS church. As a folklorist, he embraces core ideas in the field—performance, tradition, genre, and community. As a student of narrative, he furthers the work on personal narrative as a distinctive form of communication with recognizable forms, contexts, and functions. This intentional transparency builds trust and background understanding for a wide range of readers, as well as makes the book methodologically useful. Whether a student, professor, lay reader, or someone seeking to improve their own ethnographic practice, the book models careful, self-reflexive scholarship.
Not since Glenn Hinson’s Fire in My Bones have I seen such an attentive and genuine collaboration with a faith community. Basing his fieldwork on ethnographic inquiry with active LDS in Burlington, North Carolina, and on a careful survey of archival and other published material, Mould relies heavily on the interpretive view of his friends in Burlington to define the genre and its characteristics. In fact, he acknowledges his movement from his own interest in “apocalore,” or stories of Apocalypse, to the study of a topic “far more relevant to the people I was meeting, far more interesting to them personally, socially, and culturally” (7). The result of his sensitivity is a wealth of oft-compelling and entertaining accounts that can be real page-turners. Mould has wisely included his participation, retaining his own questions and prompts in the transcript. As a reader, we get a feeling for the performance context and the relationship between participants.
In many ways, Mould’s work answers the call of LDS scholar William “Bert” Wilson to move LDS narrative studies beyond a long-seated tendency to focus on the supernatural or more titillating aspects of a group’s tradition. Often, scholars look for dramatic manifestations or colorful stories. This tendency derives from the same impulse to study snake handlers and charismatic churches over Anglican liturgy or Baptist foot washing. Wilson’s charge was to reconsider what constitutes the core of LDS religious life. Burning bushes do appear on mountains, but more often than not, people’s religious lives are far more a matter of quiet observances, small acts of devotion, and less dramatic brushes with the holy. As a practicing member of the LDS faith, I concur with Mould that to overlook this dimension of religious tradition is to overlook what lies at the heart of religious commitment.
Mould acknowledges this need for a course correction and offers his book as evidence that Mormon personal-revelation narratives constitute “a distinct, emic category of experience and narrative that should be addressed as a coherent system” (23) that can withstand close analysis and generic exploration. Mould seeks to explain how the narratives exist within a larger cultural framework of social values and expectations, including insider ideas about personal agency, righteousness, and stewardship. He analyzes contexts and norms for performance and the interaction between oral and written tradition. He also carefully examines narrative structure and convincingly shows how the interpretation of spiritual experiences is built into the narrative structure itself. How to recognize and feel the guidance of the “still small voice” is built into the stories as a way to guide others how to recognize and interpret for themselves—a helpful tool in a church that relies entirely on non-paid, lay leadership for all local religious administration and teaching.
What Mould does not attempt is placing this particular tradition within the overarching trajectory of Christian thought on revelation and communion with the divine. He also does not treat the wider context of Mormonism in America. Considering the book runs four hundred and forty-eight pages, this tight focus is probably a good thing. Mould does, however, suggest several future areas of scholarship that could build on or complement his own work; and at the end of each chapter, he considers theoretical issues that surround his case study as a means of situating his work within the larger scholarly dialogue.
Perhaps the most significant contribution of this book ties into the wider question of how to study supernatural or spiritual experience in general. Mould rightly acknowledges that the religious memorates people share with him represent “arguments for belief” (181). Approached from a secular rationale, such manifestations immediately raise suspicions about the source. However, rather than getting hung up on questions of psycho-social influences and feeling the need to make a judgment call on verity, Mould gives the narrators the authority of validation and interpretation.
This interpretive authority does present problems. Considering the limited geographic distribution and small number of Mould’s Burlington storytellers, follow-up work would require attention to the complexity of a fourteen-million worldwide membership. Mould would certainly concur. Time will tell, but I suspect that this narrow but thoughtful collection and analysis of LDS personal-revelation stories will be a catalyst for fresh perspectives on LDS culture and narrative, offering an impressive model of responsible scholarship for those who come after.