LDS scholars mourn the death of a ‘generous’ groundbreaking sociologist who guided generations of Mormon academics

(Photo courtesy of Ed Mauss) Armand Mauss speaks at a Claremont Graduate University conference in 2013.

Armand Mauss was one of the most prominent scholars of Mormonism — even though very few members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would recognize his name.

That’s not so surprising, given that, though Mauss was born in Salt Lake City, he spent most of his life and career on the West Coast. Plus, his acclaim emerged from the relatively small world of Latter-day Saint independent thinkers, rather than as a spiritual or ecclesiastical leader.

Still, when Mauss died Saturday at 92 in his home in Irvine, Calif., accolades came pouring in across social media platforms from every corner of the Latter-day Saint intellectual community in the U.S. and abroad.

The large man in his signature Hawaiian shirt and neatly trimmed beard was heralded as a preeminent social scientist for his groundbreaking research on the LDS Church’s cycles of accommodation and retreat and on race and lineage. He was praised for helping to found the Mormon Social Science Association, for his visionary leadership on the board of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, his long career as a sociologist, his teaching on Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University, and his support for rigorous, independent research on the faith — and for mentoring generations of academics.

“Better than any scholar I know, Armand was able to balance church and scholarship,” said Matt Harris, a history professor at Colorado State University-Pueblo who corresponded with Mauss nearly every day for the past year. “He wasn’t an apologist, but he loved the church dearly and felt inclined to defend it when it needed to be defended. On the other hand, Armand knew the value of writing good, honest scholarship. He wasn’t afraid of the truth, and he didn’t think that writing the truth would harm the church in any way.”

He had that rare ability, Harris wrote in an email, “to walk a fine line as a believing Latter-day Saint and as a committed participant of Mormon studies.”

But the word that came up the most frequently to describe Mauss was “generous” as students, friends and colleagues described the sociologist’s willingness to share his research, time and expertise, his voluminous correspondence, his evenhanded comments on others’ ideas, his encouragement of fresh thinking — and even his regular financial support of friends and projects.

“I wrote him out of the blue in 1987, asking if he’d be willing to read a book manuscript [on Mormonism and music] I had just written,” recalled Michael Hicks, a recently retired professor of music and Brigham Young University. “I wanted his sociological expertise and he kindly assented. A few months later, he sent me this detailed, extraordinarily thoughtful review-essay on what I’d written.”

From then on, Hicks said, Mauss “went out of his way to greet me at Sunstone [symposiums] and other venues, write me when he wanted a perspective, quote me now and then, and in every regard be solicitous in a way that made me feel a curious mixture of friendship from him along with a kind of duty to support my work as I did his.”

The music teacher summed up what so many others were saying as well: “I have not known another scholar with that same mix of intensity and warmth.”

20th-century Mormon diaspora

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Claudia Bushman speaks at Benchmark Books in Salt Lake City in 2018.

Some of Mauss’ ability to strike a balance likely came from spending his career outside what is sometimes referred to as the Mormon cultural region.

“California Mormons, and I am speaking of California Mormons of our time, are more independent than Utah Mormons; they were grateful for the distance that separated them from Salt Lake City,” historian, editor and scholar Claudia Bushman wrote in Dialogue’s memorial profile of Mauss. “They paid less homage to old church families. They were less pious, less judgmental, more aware of living in and negotiating with the secular world. Mormons, being rarer away from our prime Zion, clung together.”

Mauss grew up in Oakland, graduating from high school there, then serving a church mission to New England from 1947 to ’49. Just as he was about to enter the University of California at Berkeley, his parents were called to serve as mission presidents in Japan, so he went along and ended up staying for five years. In 1954, he earned his undergraduate degree in history and Asian studies from Sophia University in Tokyo, met and married his wife, Ruth, and began their family. The couple and their two kids — they would eventually have eight — returned to the U.S., settling within a year in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Mauss got a master’s degree from Berkeley in history, Asian studies and sociology in 1957.

It would be another 13 years — juggling work as a night watchman and a janitor, and later teaching middle school, high school and junior college while taking graduate courses, navigating a growing family life and fulfilling responsibilities in a Latter-day Saint bishopric — before Mauss gained his doctorate from Cal with a thesis on “Mormons and Minorities.”

Mauss accepted a position teaching at Washington State University in Pullman, where he spent the next 30 years cranking out scholarly articles, many in the field of sociology of religion.

Mauss’ seminal work, “The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation,” was not published until 1994, when the scholar was 66, but the volume was an instant hit in the independent Latter-day Saint community.

Mauss detailed the faith’s seesawing between an emphasis on the “angel,” representing its distinctive supernatural assertions, and the “beehive,” the ability to succeed by American society’s standards.

Throughout the 20th century, the Utah-based faith worked to maintain a balance between what Bushman called “the church’s serial magnetic attraction to two opposing forces: the need to remain true to the church’s mystical, sensational history and to adapt to the modern world.”

The book “is arguably the most insightful and influential book ever written,” Harris declared, “on the LDS Church bureaucracy.”

For 25 years, “The Angel and the Beehive” has been “the best comprehensive work on 20th-century Mormon history we have,” said Matthew Bowman, who directs Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University, a program Mauss helped create. “It managed to both be among the first thorough works on the topic, but also to set the parameters and narrative arc that have structured nearly all work on 20th-century Mormon history since.”

Pioneer on race

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo)This June 5, 2013, photo shows Darius Gray, co-founder the Genesis Group.

In 2003, Mauss published “All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage,” based on his dissertation and decades of research on the faith’s traditional teachings about Mormons as literal Israelites, with its implications for beliefs about Jews, Native Americans and Black Africans — including its by-then defunct priesthood-temple ban on Black members.

It was, Harris said, “one of the most important books ever written on race and lineage within the Latter-day Saint tradition. Along with Lester Bush and Newell Bringhurst, Armand Mauss is one of the pioneers in Mormon racial history.”

Darius Gray, a Black Latter-day Saint and one of the founders of the Genesis Group, did not know Armand when he joined the church in the 1960s and began his own study of church history.

“Fast forward a few decades and I was fortunate to get to know this good man, so willing to share his knowledge and do it in a nice, temperate way, not being preachy, just willing to share,” Gray said. Mauss “led the way for me and countless others, and I, for one, am eternally grateful.”

It wasn’t just talk.

Religion News Service columnist Jana Riess said what became her book “The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church” was possible “in no small part because of Armand’s willing assistance with many aspects of the project, as he offered feedback on early drafts of survey questions … and read and commented on two chapters in progress.”

He also contributed his own money to the project.

“At that time I still needed to raise nearly $5,000 more to cover the costs of the national survey,” Riess recalled in the Dialogue tribute. “Armand said that he couldn’t manage that entire amount, but he was happy to ‘cover a big fraction of it’ should the eleventh hour find me short of the necessary support.”

When she got that message, Riess said, “I actually sat down on the sidewalk for a moment and cried.”

Latter-day Saint writer Devery Anderson considered Mauss a close friend for 31 years.

“He was my first guest at a study group in Washington,” Anderson recalled on Facebook. “Armand supported me when my [Latter-day Saint] stake president later tried to shut it down.”

Beyond that, the faithful sociologist “constantly advised me and was there when I had questions,” Anderson said. “Armand offered financial help when I was going through a divorce and never wanted anything in return or to be paid back.”

Several of Harris’ writings bear Mauss’ “strong, incisive influence,” the historian said, particularly the younger scholar’s research on an older generation of church leaders.

“When we discussed Joseph Fielding Smith, John A. Widtsoe and B.H. Roberts, it’s as if Armand knew them personally,” Harris recalled. “And, of course, I couldn’t resist a good ribbing, telling Armand that he probably did know them personally.”

To that, Mauss would reply, “I’m not that old” — which showed Harris that the affable scholar maintained his “marvelous sense of humor — to the very end.”