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Elon anthropologist explores Mormon revelation

Associate professor Tom Mould's latest book examines sacred stories that LDS members share as an expression of their faith.

Associate professor Tom Mould

Receiving guidance from God in response to prayer is one of the most divine moments for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Sharing the content of those personal revelations, however, requires the Mormon faithful to strike a delicate balance between humility and devotion.

As Tom Mould describes in his new book, Still, The Small Voice: Narrative, Personal Revelation, and the Mormon Folk Tradition, it’s often the context, not the content, that shapes the way revelations are described aloud. Five years spent collecting stories from Latter-day Saints in North Carolina, combined with extensive archival research in Utah, allows the associate professor of anthropology to demonstrate how narratives of personal revelation “become social agents confirming the tenets of the religion.”

“It is the most central narrative tradition that Latter-day Saints have,” Mould said. “The idea that God is looking out for you in these tangible ways? That’s powerful.”

Published this fall by Utah State University Press, the 464-page book views Mormon revelations through an anthropological and folkloric lens, and it represents one of the first works of its kind completed by a non-Mormon. Mould’s work goes beyond a look at Mormon culture to answer broader folkloristic questions, such as those related to performance, genre and personal experience.

“By sharing these stories, people invite the Holy Ghost into their lives again, edifying themselves and their audiences,” he explained. “These stories can be as mundane as praying for guidance about finding one’s lost keys, and as dramatic as hearing the voice of one’s unborn child asking to be brought into the world.”

Mould presents hundreds of narratives in his book where he contrasts different emphases LDS followers place on their revelations. In one instance, a woman at church explained how the Holy Ghost instructed her to take her mother home from the hospital against the doctors’ warnings. Her mother recovered, and the story served as a way to illustrate the value of hope and the power of faith in God.

A few days later, the woman told the same story in far greater detail to a small gathering of family in her home. This time, with a new audience, her narrative centered on the close relationship she shared with God, rather than the abstract concept of hope.

Though the narrative content remained fairly consistent, Mould said, the shift in the focal point of the story serves as a classic illustration of the tendency to remain humble in larger public settings where such narratives can be viewed not so much with skepticism about their authenticity, but about the pretentiousness and self-righteousness that such grand pronouncements could engender.

“Many people turn to God through prayer for decisions about their lives, from what school they should send their children to, to what job they should take and who they should marry,” Mould said. “No decision too big or too small is inappropriate for prayer and for response through personal revelation. Sharing these stories provides a regular reminder to each other to turn to God for all things.”

Scholars have offered praise for Still, The Small Voice. “Tom Mould is a remarkable scholar. This is an excellent book—wonderfully researched, engagingly written. His work will make a substantial contribution to Mormon folklore studies, and to Mormon studies as well,” William A. “Bert” Wilson, a leading folklorist on Mormon culture, said in a testimonial he writes for the book.

Distinguished Professor Emeritus Richard Bauman of Indiana University agrees: “Mould's book is a singular contribution not only to Mormon studies, but to religious studies, folklore, and performance studies more generally."

Mould joined the Elon faculty in 2001 and has taught courses in video ethnography, folklore, North American Indian cultures, and cultures of the U.S. southeast, among others. Mould’s research interests include oral narrative, prophecy and sacred narrative, identity construction, expressive culture, and ethnography.

In addition to serving as social sciences director of the Elon College Fellows Program, Mould directs Elon University’s PERCS: The Program for Ethnographic Research and Community Studies.

Mould graduated in 1992 with a Bachelor of Arts in English literature from Washington University. After working for the Department of Social Services, he earned his master’s degree in folklore from Indiana University in 1998, and by 2001, had completed his doctoral studies.

He is the author of two previous books: 2003’s Choctaw Prophecy: A Legacy of the Future was based on his doctoral dissertation, and Choctaw Tales, published in 2004, is a collection of tribal stories told by Choctaw storytellers. Mould co-edited another book, The Individual and Tradition: Folkloristic Perspectives, which also hit bookshelves this fall.

Eric Townsend,
10/10/2011 4:30 PM