The Author’s Corner with Benjamin Park

CoverBenjamin Park is Assistant Professor of History at Sam Houston State University. This interview is based on his  new book, Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier (W.W. Norton/Liveright, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Kingdom of Nauvoo?

BP: While I was a student at Brigham Young University, I had the chance to spend an entire semester in Nauvoo as part of their “Semester Away” program. While there, I fell in love with both the city and with history in general; it was that semester that I changed my major from pre-medicine to English and history. While my interests took me elsewhere for my dissertation and first book, I was drawn back to Nauvoo in 2016 when the LDS Church published the detailed minutes for the “Council of Fifty,” a clandestine and scandalous organization that Joseph Smith created the final year of his life with the intent to become the new world government. I decided that now was the time to use my new historical tools on my old fascination, and the book was born.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Kingdom of Nauvoo?

BP: We now take the concept of democracy for granted, but we often forget what a new and scary concept it was in the early nineteenth century. The story of Nauvoo—a city that appeared on the swampy shores of the Mississippi River in 1839 and grew to over twelve thousand residents within five years—reveals a moment when the democratic system failed, as both those within and without the city turned to extralegal and, in the end, violent measures to preserve the peace.

JF: Why do we need to read Kingdom of Nauvoo?

BP: Mormons are often treated as outliers to the American religious and political story—quixotic curiosities rarely deserving prolonged attention. But Kingdom of Nauvoo aims to show, through a fascinating story of political intrigue, sexual rumors, and conspired murder, that the story of Nauvoo tells us much about the central issues for understanding antebellum America, as well as the democratic legacies that remain with us today.

JF: Tell us a little bit about the primary sources you used for this project.

BP: Mormons were a record-keeping people, and this was especially the case in Nauvoo. I was fortunate to have hundreds of contemporary sources ranging from letters, diaries, and newspapers that flesh out the story of the thousands of people who lived in the city. Many of these, including the Council of Fifty minutes, were unavailable to historians until very recently, making this a story that could only now be fully known.

JF: What is your next project?

BP: I am privileged to be the editor of Blackwell’s A Companion to American Religious History, which features chapters from thirty brilliant scholars that demonstrate religion’s centrality to American history. The volume will be available at the end of this year. I am also just starting on a book about the role religion played in the rise of militant abolitionism during the decades leading up to the Civil War.

JF: Thanks, Ben!

The Complex Nature of Mormon Politics

15f54-mormon-moment

I haven’t seen this much writing about Mormons since Romney ran for president in 2012.

Over at NBC News,  historian Benjamin Park puts Mitt Romney’s impeachment trial vote to remove Donald Trump from office into some historical and religious context.  Here is a taste of his piece, “How Mitt Romney’s Impeachment Vote Was Influenced by His Mormon Faith“:

Members of the Mormon tradition once refused to fit into traditional political boundaries: Early members of the church typically threw their votes behind candidates on a case-by-case basis, predicated upon pledged support. And when political circumstances looked dire, they were not afraid of bold actions. Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of the faith, ran for president in 1844 and, once the church was settled in Utah, they formed their own political party in opposition to the national establishment. It was only in the 20th century, when the church and its members yearned for credibility and acceptance, that they embraced America’s two-party system.

But as the decades evolved, Utah’s vote transitioned as well. While the state at first featured two vibrant parties, after World War II — and especially following the culture wars of the 60s and the 70s — the “Mormon vote” became more or less synonymous with the “Republican Vote.” This was primarily due to a vocal LDS leadership who echoed anti-communist policies and anti-liberal social ideas, but it was also rooted the demographic makeup of Utah that positioned them with similar red states in the post-war era. Pew polling even revealed Mormons to be the most Republican religion in the nation.

So the fact that entrenched dissatisfaction with the current Republican establishment among the Mormon population has continued well into Trump’s administration is not surprising. A number of Trump’s most prominent Republican critics — including Romney, McMullin and Flake — are Mormon. And polling demonstrates that support for Trump continues to lag among Latter-day Saints voters compared to other Republican constituencies. It appears Mormons are less likely to simply overlook the morality issues that other white Christians broadly ignore, and less willing to make a pragmatic, silent sacrifice of principles for party unity.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Quincy Newell

Your Sister in the GospelQuincy Newell is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Hamilton College. This interview is based on her new book, Your Sister in the Gospel: The Life of Jane Manning James, a Nineteenth-Century Black Mormon (Oxford University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Your Sister in the Gospel?

QN: The most immediate spur was a conversation with a staff person at the LDS Church History Library. She knew I was working on nineteenth-century African American and Native American Mormons, and she told me that she had recently run across a mention of Jane James in the diary of one of Brigham Young’s wives. The diarist recorded that Jane James had stopped by and that told her that Isaac James (Jane’s husband, another African American Mormon) had left Jane for a white fortune teller. My jaw dropped—all I wanted to do for the next three days was scour the Salt Lake newspapers to see if I could figure out who that fortune teller was! That was the rabbit hole that finally convinced me I should write Jane James’s biography: I kept trying to write about African American and Native American Mormons more broadly, and I kept getting sucked into Jane James’s story. I joke that I made a deal with her: I would write her biography, if she would leave me alone. We’ll see if she keeps her end of the bargain!

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Your Sister in the Gospel?

QN: Your Sister is a biography and might best be classified as narrative history, so there is not an overt argument in the text. The implicit argument, though, is that racial identity, gender identity, and religious identity all shape one another in powerful and often underappreciated ways, so we have to keep all of these aspects of identity (and more) in mind in order to understand the past.

JF: Why do we need to read Your Sister in the Gospel?

QN: First of all, Jane James is a fascinating historical figure in her own right. So you need to read it because her life is just so interesting. My hope is that it is a relatively easy read—I wrote it for a broad audience with the aspiration of producing a book that might interest general readers, not just my academic colleagues.

But aside from having a good story, the book helps deepen our understanding of American history in four ways. First, it illustrates some of the less-frequently-trod paths open to African American men and women in the nineteenth century. Jane James lived in places that didn’t have large African American populations—rural Connecticut, western Illinois, Utah. And she joined religions that we also don’t typically associate with African Americans—Congregationalism and then Mormonism. Second, it helps us think in a more nuanced way about American religious history: James’s story gives us a totally different perspective on the development of Mormonism than the standard narrative, which takes the white male subject as normative. I sometimes explain James as “the Forrest Gump of nineteenth-century Mormonism” because she knew all the important people and was in the background for many of the most important moments. Because she was black, though, her experience of those events gives us a new angle of vision on them. Third, James’s life broadens our sense of nineteenth-century American women’s lives. James’s entire life was shaped by her identity as a woman and the struggle to conform to the gender norms of her community. Her experience demonstrates how those norms constrained her opportunities and made her vulnerable to attack, even as they offered some kinds of support and community not available to men. And finally, James’s story improves our understanding of the history of the nineteenth-century American West by increasing our knowledge of African Americans’ lives in the region. Grappling with James’s presence in Utah also helps us acknowledge the ways race shaped western societies: her experience demonstrates that even when those societies were overwhelmingly white, they still wrestled with the construction and meaning of whiteness and other racial identities.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

QN: I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the early religious history of Oregon, and I think it was that experience that really gave me the religious history bug. I vividly remember sitting in the Oregon Historical Society reading room, plodding through 1830s Methodist meeting minutes. I couldn’t believe that the OHS would let me touch these—they were over a hundred and fifty years old!—but I was also incredibly bored. The minutes were handwritten, sometimes barely legible, often badly spelled, and just plain tedious. But then I got to the bottom of one page and found a doodle: an elaborately drawn hand, in a frilly cuff, pointing to the next page. I realized that the poor guy taking the minutes was just as bored as I was reading them—and something about that connection, that shared boredom across the centuries, got me hooked on archival research.

JF: What is your next project?

QN: I’m getting back to the project from which Your Sister distracted me: an examination of the religious lives and experiences of nineteenth-century African American and Native American Mormons. W. Paul Reeve has shown quite convincingly in his Religion of a Different Color that the LDS Church was “struggling for whiteness” in the nineteenth century; I want to understand what it was like to be a Latter-day Saint of color during that time period.

JF: Thanks, Quincy!

Mormon Church Donates $2 Million to Help African Americans Trace Family History

IAAM

Read all about it at the Atlanta Black Star.  Here is a taste of Tanasia Kenney’s report:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced this week that it’s donating $2 million to the International African-American Museum in Charleston, S.C., to create a Center for Family History aimed at helping Black Americans trace their genealogy.

The church made the announcement on Feb. 27 during the annual RootTech genealogy summit in Salt Lake City, Utah, local station KUTV reported.

More than half of the enslaved Africans brought to America came through Charleston and the majority of them disembarked at Gadsden’s Wharf, “taking their first steps into this country at the future site of the IAAM,” according to the museum.

“We want to support the museum and the Center for Family History because we both value the strength that comes from learning about our families,” said Elder David Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the LDS Church, who presented the donation.

“The museum will not only educate its patrons on the important contributions of Africans who came through Gadsden’s Wharf and Charleston,” he added, “it also will help all who visit to discover and connect with ancestors whose stories previously may not have been known.” 

Read the rest here.

 

Conference on Faith and History Session: “The Bible in American Cultural and Political History”

BibleEarlier today I chaired a session titled “The Bible in American Cultural and Political History.” It was co-sponsored by the American Historical Association and the Conference on Faith History.

In recent years, several important monographs have been published examining the role of the Bible in American culture and politics.  In 2015, Oxford University Press released Mark Noll’s In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783, the first book in his projected multi-volume work on the history of the Bible in America.  In 2017, Oxford also published The Bible in American Lifethe culmination of a four-year interdisciplinary study by the Center for the Religion and American Culture at IUPUI.  The study focused on Bible-reading as a religious practice.  Two of today’s panelists–Amy Easton-Flake and Emerson Powery–contributed to this volume.

The editors of The Bible in American Life–Philip Goff, Arthur Farnsely, and Peter Thuesen–write: “According to Gallup, nearly eight in ten Americans regard the Bible as either the literal word of God or as inspired by God.  At the same time, surveys have revealed–and recent books have analyzed–surprising gaps in Americans’ biblical literacy.  These discrepancies reveal American Christians’ complex relationship to Holy Writ, a subject that is widely acknowledged but rarely investigated.”

The panel I chaired today reflected on the history of the Bible in American history with four scholars who have contributed to this ongoing conversation.  I asked each panelist to take a few minutes to describe their ongoing work.

Daniel Dreisbach of American University talked about the challenges–both real and imagined–of writing about the Bible’s contributions to the American founding.  He is interested in the question whether the Bible’s contributions are sufficiently significant that it merits mention alongside other intellectual influences on the founding, such as British constitutionalism, Enlightenment liberalism (in various forms), and classical and civic republicanism.  He also addressed criticism that some of his work has been used by the defenders of the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation.

James Byrd of Vanderbilt Divinity School focused on the relationship between his book Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution and his current book project, “The Bible and the American Civil War.”  Byrd is particularly interested in the ways the Bible was used to justify and explain war.

Amy Easton-Flake of Brigham Young University spoke on women’s deployment of the Bible in late nineteenth-century America.  She used three case examples: the portrayal of Latter-Day Saint women in the journal Women’s Exponent, Harriett Beecher-Stowe’s portrayal of biblical women in her Women and Sacred History, and the Suffrage Movement’s use of the Bible in Revolution and Women’s Journal.

Emerson Powery, my colleague at Messiah College, offered a few thoughts on the integral use of the Bible in arguments surrounding slavery during the antebellum period, especially from the perspective of those whose bodies were most affected.  His way into this discussion was through the voice of the formerly enslaved though the so-called “slave narrative.”

It was a lively session.  I encourage you to explore this subject further by reading the books and articles of these panelists:

Dreisbach, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers

Byrd, Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible in the American Revolution

Easton-Flake: Mormon Women’s History: Beyond Biography

Powery, The Genesis of Liberation: Biblical Interpretation in the Antebellum Narratives of the Enslaved

Fea, The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society

The Author’s Corner with Max Mueller

C7ntXjAUwAAmfNwMax Mueller is Assistant Professor of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. This interview is based on his new book, Race and the Making of the Mormon People (University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Race and the Making of the Mormon People?

MM: I’ve always been fascinated with Mormons as a people who have become the “stand in”—a synecdoche, if you will—for “American”—family oriented, patriotic, conservative in comportment, dress, speech, and often in politics, industrious, white, and often wealthy. But the church as an institution (as J. B. Haws has argued) is still seen as an outsider—even suspect—organization. I wanted to explore this paradox.

But I also wanted to explore how non-white Mormons—and yes, there have always been some (including Mormons of African and Native American descent)—have grappled with Mormon conceptions of whiteness, and whiteness as close to “godliness,” or better put, whiteness as signifying humanity in accord with God’s plan. Such an exploration must begin with the Book of Mormon, Mormonism’s foundational text. At its heart, the Book of Mormon is about how sin within the human family leads to schism, and schism manifested as curses of blackness/darkness. In 1830 when the Book of Mormon was first published, this view of race was (and, alas in some corners, still is) the dominate view of how the “black” and “white” races came to be, based on the standard interpretations of biblical curses (see Cain and Abel; Noah and Ham), which arose to justify the enslavement of people of African descent. (It’s key to note here, that the Book of Mormon, however, contains neither “white” Europeans, nor “black” Africans in its narrative, though it’s often been read as such. Instead, at least according to its “translator, Joseph Smith Jr., and earliest adopters, the origin story of America’s pre-Columbian Native peoples). But where Mormonism parts with the standard biblical hermeneutic, is that the movement’s earliest leaders taught that since race was not of God’s design—but the result of human family—race could be overcome and nonwhites could restore themselves to the original white (as in raceless) human family.

That’s the start of Mormon story with race—a story of (relatively) radical racial universalism, at least for the 1830s, which most people don’t know about. Due to internal and external pressures, within a few decades of the church’s history, what began as “white universalism” quickly became the sole purview of “white” Mormons. But fundamentally, my purpose was to move beyond the history of this “declension narrative” by focusing on how non-white Mormons participated in—fought against, accepted, acquiesced to—the evolving Mormon theology of race. So I try to highlight the histories—and as best as possible, the words of—the few African and Native American Mormons for whom we have records, to show how they negotiated living within—and also helped shape intentionally or not—this highly racialized community.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Race and the Making of the Mormon People?

MM: That the history of “race” in America begins first from the written word—notably written scriptures—and then gets read onto flesh and bone bodies. Race requires narration, an origin story of how different races came to be.

 JF: Why do we need to read Race and the Making of the Mormon People?

MM: There has been a lot of great scholarship on race and Mormonism as of late. But my book, I hope, makes two key contributions:

First, instead of looking at how “white” Mormons responded to outside pressures—especially non-Mormons’ racialization of Mormons as something less than white (the legacy of the fight over polygamy), and did so to assert their superior whiteness—my book examines how race emerges internally from Mormon theology and history. And, again, that begins with a careful reading of how the Book of Mormon shaped early Mormon conceptions of race.

And second, my book centers non-white Mormons’ stories to show that they aren’t peripheral to this history, but central to it (and often so in ways that are tragic). 

 JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

MM: Frankly, I cannot remember when I wasn’t going not to be one (save when I was in second grade and was going to be the first left-handed second baseman for the Cubs, save and a summer—not too long ago—when I was without an academic job and sending applications out to consulting firms…). I love American history, in large measure because I believe in this country’s exceptionalism—but (a version of) the exceptionalism that John Winthrop first articulated on the Arabella, in which the success of America’s experiment was conditional on its people’s the pursuit of justice. I’ve always been fascinated with how outsiders to the American mainstream (from Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, Jarena Lee, William Apess, and Frederick Douglass, to Malcolm X, Caesar Chavez, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Ta-Nehisi Coates) have been the most cogent articulators of this American exceptionalism and the fiercest critics (in the Jeremiad tradition) to how much America is failing to live up to it.

 JF: What is your next project?

MM: My next project is Wakara’s World, a material-culture biography of Wakara (1808-1855), who was a central figure in my first book as he was ordained a Mormon elder in the early 1850s, but then later went to war against his Mormon brethren when they began to destroy his people’s sacred lands and disrupt his most profitable endeavor: trafficking in Indian slaves. During the mid-nineteenth century, when he and his pan-tribal cavalry of horse thieves and slave traders dominated the Old Spanish Trail, Wakara became one of the U.S. Southwest’s most influential settler colonialists, capitalists, and statesmen. Yet in most historical narratives, Wakara has been reduced to the epitome of the incorrigible savage “Indian” in what Richard White calls the theater of “inverted conquest.” Wakara’s World is an attempt to recover the environmental, cultural, and political worlds of Wakara and his people by exploring material archives along with written ones. Each chapter of the biography focuses on one material object—from “Wakara’s Fish,” the sacred foodstuff of the chief’s tribe that was decimated by the arrival of the Mormons’ irrigation ditches, to “Wakara’s Skull,” which late nineteenth-century ethnologists from the U.S. Army Medical Museum dug up from the chief’s elaborate burial site in order to compare its cranial volume with other races.

JF: Thanks, Max!

The Author’s Corner with John Turner

image001John Turner is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at George Mason University. This interview is based on his new book, The Mormon Jesus: A Biography (Harvard University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write The Mormon Jesus?

JT: For years, I’ve been fascinated by the fact that many Christians insist that Mormons are not Christians even though Latter-day Saints so consistently and fervently demonstrate their devotion to Jesus Christ.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Mormon Jesus?

JT: Rather than a “new religion,” Mormonism is a vibrant new branch of Christianity. In visions, revelations, scriptures, hymns, doctrine, rituals, and artwork, Latter-day Saints have imagined and encountered a Savior who is both distinctly Mormon and utterly Christian.

JF: Why do we need to read The Mormon Jesus?

JT: I try hard — albeit without much success — to teach my daughter the differences between “needs” and “wants.” You don’t need to read this book, but you should want to because in its pages you’ll find men and women seeing Jesus Christ in visions, listening to their Savior’s words, wondering if they are his biological descendants, and creating beautiful paintings and statues of him.

One also has to consider the reasons for the LDS Church’s survival and growth. In part, it’s because Joseph Smith and his successors addressed questions of longstanding concern to many Christians: which is Christ’s true church? Does Jesus Christ, or does God, still speak to his church? How? What did Jesus look like? When will Jesus return?

Certainly, the Latter-day Saints introduced beliefs and practices that set them apart from their surrounding Protestant religious culture. Still, thinking about Mormonism as a new chapter within the longer story of Christianity opens up new ways to understand the LDS Church’s past and present.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JT: Due to deficiencies in talent and height, professional tennis did not pan out.

I fell in love with history gradually. Thinking back, my attraction to history began through the narratives of the Bible, which were far more interesting than the sermons I heard in church. I also had great history teachers in both high school and college, and they introduced me to books — such as Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand and Peter Brown’s The Cult of the Saints — that in turn stoked my imagination. In terms of my focus on U.S. History, I had great professors who wove together literature, history, and theology in their own study of the American past.  

JF: What is your next project?

JT: I’m working on a history of Plymouth colony. Having started my career with a study of post-WWII American evangelicalism, I’m hoping to get to late antiquity or so by the time I retire.

JF: Thanks, John!  Great stuff.

 

Mormons Reject Trump; Embarrass Evangelicals

YoungNeil J. Young, author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics, offers an interesting take on Utah’s repudiation of Donald Trump in Tuesday night’s caucuses.

Mormons are disgusted with Trump and they showed this disgust on Tuesday night. Trump (14%) finished third behind Cruz (69%) and Kasich (17%).

Evangelicals, on the other hand, continue to support Trump in droves.  Is this embarrassing for evangelicals? The answer should be yes.

Here is a taste of his piece at Religion Dispatches:

That Mormons have so thoroughly repudiated Donald Trump while American evangelicalism wrestles with its complicated relationship with him only elevates evangelical leaders’ concerns about the strength of their faith. Rather than seeing Mormon opposition to Trump as a moment to celebrate, evangelical leaders may understand it as an embarrassing exposure of the messy matters within their own fold.

Read Young’s entire piece here.

Mormons Defend Religious Liberty

Yesterday I wrote a post about Ted Cruz and his new Religious Advisory Committee.  You can read it here.

In that post I suggested that Cruz and his committee’s view of religious liberty was too narrow as it focused solely on the religious freedom issues faced by evangelical Christians.

Now the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Days Saints, otherwise known as the Mormon Church, have come out with a strong statement of religious liberty drawing from the words of the church’s founder, Joseph Smith.

It is a much better statement than the one Cruz’s committee put together.

Ironically, Cruz won the Utah caucuses.

Here is a taste of an article on the statement at Deseret News:

SALT LAKE CITY — The LDS Church issued a strong statement on religious freedom and pluralism Tuesday as debate raged in American presidential politics about Donald Trump’s call to ban Muslims from entering the United States.

The church’s statement did not refer to the presidential candidate, but it drew on two statements by church founder Joseph Smith to reaffirm its longstanding position of support for religious pluralism.

“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is neutral in regard to party politics and election campaigns,” the statement said. “However, it is not neutral in relation to religious freedom.”

It said the two statements by Joseph Smith are consistent with the church’s position.

In 1843, Smith said: “If it has been demonstrated that I have been willing to die for a ‘Mormon,’ I am bold to declare before Heaven that I am just as ready to die in defending the rights of a Presbyterian, a Baptist or a good man of any denomination; for the same principle which would trample upon the rights of the Latter-day Saints would trample upon the rights of the Roman Catholics, or of any other denomination who may be unpopular and too weak to defend themselves. It is a love of liberty which inspires my soul — civil and religious liberty to the whole of the human race.”

In February 1841, the residents of Nauvoo, Illinois — then the headquarters of the LDS Church — elected a city council that included Joseph Smith. A month later, the council passed an ordinance on religious freedom.

“Be it ordained by the City Council of the City of Nauvoo, that the Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Latter-day Saints, Quakers, Episcopals, Universalists, Unitarians, Mohammedans [Muslims] and all other religious sects and denominations whatever, shall have free toleration, and equal privileges in this city…”

Muslims are the New Mormoms

Mormon pioneers heading to Utah, circa 1850s

John Turner of George Mason University explains over at The Anxious Bench:

Those rightfully appalled at Donald Trump’s insistence that all Muslim visitors to the United States are potential terrorists and should therefore be banned from entering the country should remember that anti-religious bigotry was woven into the fabric of nineteenth-century American politics and culture. The vitriol that late-nineteenth-century politicians of both parties employed against Mormons far exceeded what Donald Trump uses against Muslims today. And such ideas touched not only Mormons, but Catholics, Jews, and other groups as well. The free exercise of religion in American history has been contested, sometimes violent terrain.
Read Turner’s entire post here.

Mitt Romney Is Not Running for President in 2016

I am sorry to hear this.  Romney would have made the GOP race so much more interesting. Mormons may have a second “moment” and there would be more space for conversations (and blog posts!) about religion and politics in America.

From the Huffington Post:

Former Massachusetts governor and 2012 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney said he will not run for president in 2016.
Hugh Hewitt posted text of the remarks Romney was to make on a conference call with donors discussing his 2016 plans on Friday.
“After putting considerable thought into making another run for president, I’ve decided it is best to give other leaders in the Party the opportunity to become our next nominee,” the prepared remarks say.

Brigham Young and the American Bible Society

Some of the good folks at The Juvenile Instructor are interested in my reference to Brigham Young in the caption for update #57 of the American Bible Society project.  In that caption I wrote “Brigham Young requested Bibles from the ABS.”  Allow me to clarify things:

The reference comes from an entry in the Bible Society Record (the official periodical of the American Bible Society).  The Corresponding Secretary of the ABS notes that he has received a letter from “Governor Brigham Young of Utah” acknowledging “the receipt of a donation of Bibles from the Society, and requesting more.”  I have not looked for the actual letter in the archives, but it just might be there.  The reference appears in the September 1853 issue of the Bible Society Record.

I hope that helps.

Mormonism at the New York State History Conference

The Way of Improvement Leads Home is everywhere.  If there is a conference devoted to American history going on somewhere, there is also a good chance that we will be there, in one form or another, to cover some of it.  Last weekend Elizabeth Covart was at the Annual Meeting on New York State History in Poughkeepsie and has registered this report from a session on Mormonism.

Liz, a former student of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Alan Taylor, has been doing some very innovative work at the intersection of American history, digital history, public history, social media, and platform building.  I highly recommend her website.  She is no stranger to the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  You may also recall that she did some writing for us at the 2014 meeting of the American Historical Association.  –JF

Here is her post:

On Friday, June 13, 2014, Gerrit Dirkmaat (Joseph Smith Papers Project) and Michael Hubbard MacKay (Brigham Young University) presented “Mormonism and the Empire State,” a panel at the 35th Annual Conference on New York State History. Together these scholars analyzed Joseph Smith’s interaction with the scholarly and print culture of 1830s New York to demonstrate the connection Mormonism has with the state.

Michael Hubbard MacKay argued that Mormonism was “ensconced” in New York culture because Joseph Smith connected the religion with the state’s scholarly community. The Mormon tradition holds that in 1823, an angel visited Smith and directed him to a stone box buried on a hill near his Manchester, New York home. Inside the box, Smith found golden plates. The plates contained many cuneiform-looking characters. As the angel instructed Smith not to show the tablets to anyone, Smith kept the plates hidden and transcribed their symbols on to paper.

The symbols on the golden plates formed the basis of the Book of Mormon. However, neither Smith nor anyone else could understand what the Book of Mormon said until they deciphered the characters. Smith sought translational assistance from scholars around New York State.

A letter from Joseph Knight Sr. shows that Smith wanted a learned man to translate the symbols from the plates. Smith’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, confirms this idea when she wrote that her son transcribed the “characters Alphabetically and sen[t] them to all the learned men that he could find and ask[ed] them for the translation of the same.” Smith worked with his friend and follower Martin Harris of Palmyra, New York to find a scholar who could help them.

As one of the richest men in Palmyra, Martin Harris had connections. Harris made use of his personal network to connect Smith with Luther Bradish, a scholar in Albany who had an interest in the Egyptian language. Smith traveled to Albany via the Erie Canal, but Bradish could not help him with a translation.

Harris and Smith contacted other scholars around the Empire State, but no one could make sense of the cuneiform-looking characters. Eventually the symbols made their way to Charles Anthony at Columbia University who said “I cannot translate it.” Anthony’s response prompted Smith to embrace the task of translating the characters himself.

Over sixty-seven days, Smith dictated the 588 pages of text that comprise the Book of Mormon. Smith translated the characters with seer stones that he had placed in the bottom of his hat. The darkness provided by the hat allowed Smith to see the words the seer stones showed him. MacKay stated that the act of translation imbued Smith with priestly power.

MacKay argued that Joseph Smith’s attempts to have a scholar translate the symbols on the golden tablets demonstrates the importance of education and learnedness to New York culture. Smith wanted a scholar to imbue his text with legitimacy by providing a translation. Smith reasoned that if a scholar could translate the characters then they would also link the Book of Mormon to an ancient culture. Only when the learned community failed to supply a translation did Smith undertake the challenge of deciphering the characters, which ultimately prompted Smith to fulfill his Isaiah-like prophecy.

Gerrit Dirkmaat continued MacKay’s story of the Book of Mormon’s connection with New York State. Dirkmaat connected the Book of Mormon with New York print and political culture by exploring Smith’s quest to find a printer to publish his translation.

Smith wanted to print his translation before someone altered his dictation. Martin Harris agreed to pay for the printing of the first 300 copies of the Book of Mormon. Smith and Harris approached Harris’ friend E.B. Grandin, printer of the Wayne Sentinel. Grandin refused. Dirkmaat believes that Grandin declined for two reasons: First, the cost for the editions stood near $5,000, equivalent to approximately $140,000 today. Grandin did not believe that the book would recoup its printing costs. Second, Grandin and Harris were friends. Grandin did not want to take his friend’s money. Unable to convince Grandin to reconsider, Harris and Smith approached the other Palmyra printer, Jonathan Hadley.

Jonathan Hadley printed the Palmyra Freeman, a newspaper that promulgated his anti-masonic viewpoints. Hadley refused to print the Book of Mormon because he believed the book espoused mysterious, superstitious, and strange rituals and beliefs—rituals and beliefs as strange and mysterious as those practiced by the Masons. Hadley printed a scathing article about Smith, his book, and beliefs. The article appeared in the August 11, 1829 edition of the Palmyra Freeman.

Rebuffed in Palmyra, Smith and Harris traveled to Rochester, New York. Smith and Harris attempted to get Thurlow Weed, printer of the Rochester Telegraph, to print their book. In 1845, Weed recounted his negotiations with them. Weed referred to Mormonism as a “delusion” and as a “mental disease.” He explained that “Harris mortgaged his Farm to raise the money required for the temporal support of the Prophet, and print of the ‘Book of Mormon.’” Weed refused the job, but for whatever reason he sent Smith and Harris across the street to the print shop of Elihu F. Marshall.

Smith and Harris found a willing partner in Marshall. Dirkmaat stated that although we cannot know why Marshall agreed to print their book, he suspects that it has to do with Marshall’s radical views on religion. Raised as a Quaker, Marshall had strong views that everyone should be able to hold whatever religious beliefs they liked.

Delighted that they had found a printer, Smith and Harris returned to Palmyra. For whatever reason, both men wanted the first copies of the Book of Mormon to be published in their hometown. Armed with the knowledge that Marshall would print their book, the two men approached E.B. Grandin a second time. Grandin relented and agreed to print it. Although Grandin had declined their first request because he did not want to take his friend’s money, he agreed on their second appeal because Harris was determined to print the book and someone else had agreed to take his money. Grandin accepted the job and profited between 33 to 55 percent per copy.

Dirkmaat concluded his presentation by situating the Book of Mormon in New York History. He posited that *Smith and Harris had a difficult time finding a printer to print the first copies of the Book of Mormon because they had sought to do it at the height of the anti-masonic movement. Jonathan Hadley and Thurlow Weed had refused to print the text based on their anti-masonic sentiments. E.B. Gradin had refused on the grounds of friendship, but relented when Elihu F. Marshall agreed to take his friend’s money.

One audience member asked Dirkmaat and MacKay how the culture of New York determined anything for Joseph Smith and Mormonism when Smith had lived in New York for just fourteen years. Both scholars replied that Smith had his divine visions while living in New York and that most of his converts and funding came from the state. They also pointed out that Joseph Smith had acknowledged the importance of the state. Smith admitted that the culture of the ‘burned over district’ had prompted him to ask the questions about faith that led to his angelic visitation and his discovery of the golden tablets.

Thanks, Liz!

Evangelicals at BYU

Richard Land at BYU

The warm feelings between evangelicals and Mormons are growing stronger.  According to Adelle Banks’s article at Religion News Service, leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention (Richard Land and Albert Mohler) and the Assembly of God Church (George O. Wood) have recently delivered lectures at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.  Evangelical apologist Ravi Zacharias is also scheduled to speak at BYU.

This developing relationship is historically significant.  For most of the twentieth century evangelicals thought the Church of the Latter Day Saints was a cult. Many evangelicals still think this way, as we witnessed during the Romney presidential runs.  If you type the words “Mormonism is” into Google, the top hits are “a cult,” “not Christianity,” “fake,” “false,” and “stupid.” Most of these hits will take you to evangelical websites by organizations such as Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry and the Christian Broadcasting Network.  In the early 1990s, when I was a student at the decidedly evangelical Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, “anti-cult” groups would come to campus and stand at their tables in the lobby of the Chatlos Memorial Chapel to warn us against the threat of Mormonism and seek our support in the cause of exposing its false teachings.

It does not seem that the evangelicals mentioned above are willing to use the label “Christian” to describe Mormons, but they are definitely willing to work with them to advance certain moral issues. In the 2012 election cycle Land made it clear that Mitt Romney (a Mormon) was not a Christian, but a member of a fourth Abrahamic faith.  In 2007 Mohler said that the Latter Day Saints taught a “sincerely false gospel,” but still make good neighbors.  Zacharias is not new to the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City.  He spoke there in 2004 along with then Fuller Theological Seminary president Richard Mouw and evangelical recording artist Michael Card.  Wood has been taking some heat for his visit. Of course evangelical-Mormon cooperation on moral issues is not unique to the present moment. Mormonism was part of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority coalition in the late 1970s and the LDS leaders continued to stand alongside conservative Protestants as the so-called culture wars heated up in the 1980s and 1990s.

Meanwhile, Mormons have been making efforts to be a greater part of the American religious mainstream.  It should be noted that it was BYU who initiated the meetings with Land, Mohler, Wood, and Zacharias.  The meetings have been centered around faith, family, and religious freedom. 

I am curious what some of the Mormon readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home think about these developments.  Here is a taste of Banks’s piece:

The outreach has gone both ways. In September, Taylor joined two members of the LDS church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles at the Washington installation of Russell Moore, who succeeded Land as head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
“It’s clear where we disagree, but we’re standing together in the public square for religious liberty,” said Moore, who has recently spoken with Mormon officials about military chaplains’ religious rights.
As Mormons continue to work toward greater acceptance and visibility — from Mitt Romney’s White House bid to a category of questions on “Jeopardy” — they are more likely to have tangible benefits from this engagement, said Stephen Webb, author of the new book “Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn from the Latter-day Saints.”
Bob Millet, a BYU religion professor who suggested the evangelical visitors to LDS officials, said the rapprochement helps Mormons, “a sample of the population that’s not well-understood and highly misunderstood.”

Addendum:  Since I wrote and scheduled this post Thomas Kidd has posted something similar at The Anxious Bench.  Check it out here.

John Turner: What Explains the Evangelical "Silence" on Gay Marriage?

In a masterful blog post weaving Civil Rights history and contemporary moral debates, John Turner tries to understand why evangelical leaders have been so silent lately about the topic of gay marriage.  Here is a taste of his argument:

Relatively few evangelical leaders (not to mention the Catholic Church) have changed their opinions about the desirability of same-sex marriage. And certainly some, such as Albert Mohler and Mike Huckabee, remain resolutely opposed. Outspoken evangelical opposition to same-sex marriage, however, has cratered since 2008. Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, Tim Keller, Philip Yancey. These are individuals that many evangelicals respect, yet my impression is that these leaders have been mostly quiet on issues surrounding gay rights. In general, evangelical opposition has become much more careful and muted.

Now, there are many reasons for that. Issues of marriage aside, many evangelicals came to a much-needed realization that the evangelical treatment of gays and lesbians has been deeply hurtful, destructive, and sinful. Thus, one reason for what I’m terming relative “quiet” is a repentance for the church’s past (and, in many cases, present). That would actually be a very charitable explanation, but I think there is some truth in it. Undoubtedly, evangelical leaders want to do a better job of modeling Jesus’s love for all people than did their predecessors in the 1980s.

Beyond that, what explains the “quiet”? A sense of same-sex marriage’s inevitability? A desire to not alienate young evangelicals (and potential converts)? A fear of being labeled bigots by the media (and by potential converts)? There are probably many things at play. It’s interesting to speculate whether the changing opinions of young evangelicals explain this relative “quiet,” or whether the relative “quiet” of many evangelical opinion-makers helps explains the changing opinions of young evangelicals. What seems certain is that when the standard-bearer opponents of a cause became squeamish and uncertain in their opposition, their cause is certainly doomed. Even if the earlier decades of debates over gay rights proceeded against a background of stalwart religious opposition, that opposition partly collapsed after 2008. That collapse certainly does a great deal to explain the recent successes of the movement to legalize same-sex marriage. Even more so than was the case with segregation, if opposition to same-sex marriage does not firmly have religion on its side, it certainly is doomed to a quick collapse.

The Books of the "Book of Mormon" in 50 Words or Less

A couple of months ago, John Turner wrote a post at Religion in American History about his experience reading the Book of Mormon in fifteen days.  In a more recent post, Turner offers summaries of all the books in the Book of Mormon, and he does each book in 50 words or less. He  concludes:

Any scholar of nineteenth-century Mormonism would be well served to read the BOM in its entirety. I should have done so long ago. It would have helped me more fully understand certain terms (such as the Liahona or the Gadiantons). It’s one thing to read explanations of such terms. It’s another thing to read them in context. And perhaps I’ll have some recollection of the narrative when I see artwork about BOM stories or references to BOM figures. I’m trying to gain a better understanding of recent and contemporary Mormonism, and it’s worth keeping in mind that the LDS Sunday school curriculum takes members through the BOM in its entirety once every four years. [The other three years are devoted to, respectively, the Old Testament (including the books of Moses and Abraham, which Joseph Smith brought forth in the 1830s), the New Testament, and the Doctrine & Covenants]. Thus, active Latter-day Saints today probably have a much higher level of familiarity with the BOM than their nineteenth-century counterpart.


Of course, if you have a passing interest in things Mormon or teach it occasionally as a subject, it might make more sense to read portions in order to better explain the scripture in class. I’ve used portions of 1 Nephi, 2 Nephi, and 3 Nephi, and Moroni for that purpose. I also found Ether’s account of the Jaredites an interesting case study of the BOM as a whole. It contains an ocean crossing, some interesting points of doctrine (spirit body of Christ, as mentioned above), record keeping, an emphasis upon Jesus Christ, and the extinction of a people.

E-Book: A History of Mormons in the Media

More and more established scholars seem to be publishing e-books.  The latest is by award-winning historian Jared Farmer.  Check out his free Mormons in the Media, 1830-2012.   I just downloaded it and was blown away by the images. The book includes chapters with the following titles:

“Founding Impressions”
“The Whiteness of Mormons”
“Utah’s Americanization”
“Mormon Villainy”
“Mo Mockery”
“Strangely Normative”
“Secretly Sensational”
“A Mormon President?”

Thanks to John Turner for bringing it to my attention at Religion in American History.

Here is the description:

Welcome to Mormons in the Media, a free educational e-book archive of nearly 500 images about Mormons and Mormonism in U.S. politics and the public sphere, from Joseph Smith to Mitt Romney. Select one of the two formats, and click on the appropriate icon to begin downloading. (Please note that these large files may take several minutes to load.)

This unique visual collection comprises magazine illustrations, book covers, photographs, political cartoons, movie posters, film stills, sheet music, broadsides, advertisements, postcards, websites, and other ephemera. Mormons in the Media considers both outside views of Mormons—including historic anti-Mormon propaganda—and media images promulgated by Latter-day Saints themselves. This topical reference work also features a preface, a fact sheet, a list of suggested readings, and bibliographic citations.

Your curator is Jared Farmer, professor of history and prize-winning author of On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape (Harvard, 2008).

The Book of Mormon Girl on "The Daily Show": The Inside Scoop

Perhaps some of you saw Joanna Brooks, “The Book of Mormon Girl,” on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart last Thursday night.  (Actually, Brooks is a prolific blogger, author, and professor of English and comparative literature at San Diego State University).

If you liked the interview, then you will love reading Brooks’s description of her experience on the show.  Here is a taste:

Then, it was my turn.  The producer materialized at the door, smiling.  The make-up lady put one more dash of powder on my face and we started down the long and winding hallways through the Daily Show offices and sets.  Halfway to the stage, we encountered a dog—the Daily Show is the dog-friendliest workplace in the world, they say, with lots of staffers bringing their dogs to work.  Here was this darling black terrier-border collie mix, just standing there in the hallway, and being a dog person, I gave it a big pet and tried to absorb that canine calm.  We continued on down the hallway, and as we rounded the corner I saw the red and blue lights of the set, and heard and felt the energy of the crowd.  He had a big rocking Nickleback (I think) song pumping, and the energy was intense and masculine.  It was nice to have a crowd there.  I lecture to 200-person halls all the time on my day job, and I enjoy the give and take of the energy.  It’s so much better being able to feel and read that energy than being in an oddly quiet studio with a host and a camera, and cameramen counting down, and invisible television beams shooting out across the miles.  Too quiet!  I like human crowds better.

And so BAM! He’s back from break, and he’s reading my short bio!  And all of the sudden, I’m walking across the stage with a big smile and taking my seat at his desk. There are about 215 people in the audience, including a posse of Mormon friends, and as I walk out I am trying to look out at the audience for my friends.  The energy is so positive and enthusiastic, I want to wave and make goofy peace signs and say, “What is up, everyone!  CAN YOU BELIEVE A REGULAR MORMON GIRL IS DOING HER THING ON THE DAILY SHOW! This is just CRAZY!”  But instead I concentrated on making it to the chair. I did not trip!  I did not hurl!  Hallejullah!

Journal of Mormon History Honors Richard Bushman

I only met Richard Bushman once.  In 1998 he responded to a paper I presented on the “rural Enlightenment” at the 4th Annual Omohundro Institute Conference in Worcester.  Not only did his comments that day affirm much of the argument that would eventually find its way into The Way of Improvement Leads Home, but he also gave me some encouragement in private after the session was over.  As an insecure graduate student, his words really meant a lot to me.

Sometime later, I heard him speak on a panel at the annual meeting of the American Society of Church History that focused on writing religious biography.  I was writing The Way of Improvement Leads Home at the time, so I asked a question about how much a biographer should leave his or her subject in order to place the subject into the proper historical context.  Bushman said that one should not get too sidetracked when writing religious biography, but context was important.  He thought that if a biographer left the subject for more than 6 or 7 pages it was too much. I must admit that I did not follow his advice. But his remarks did remind me to return from my historical jaunts into the social world of the Enlightenment and American religious history so that my readers did not forget about Philip Vickers Fithian.

I don’t know if Bushman remembered our meeting in Worcester when my editor, Jana Riess, asked him to write a blurb for Was America Founded as a Christian Nation.  But once again his endorsement of the book meant a lot.  Here is what he wrote:

With careful research and judicious scholarship, John Fea has produced a remarkably useful guide for navigating the arguments about America’s “Christian” origins. His reluctance to dictate conclusions is a measure of his evenhandedness.

Believe it or not, Bushman has had an indirect influence on all three of my books.  In addition to his helpful comments on The Way of Improvement Leads Home and his blurb for Was America Founded as a Christian Nation, his life as a man of faith in the academy has always been a model to me.  I cannot speak for the other two editors of Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation, but I often thought of Bushman as I edited my part of the book.  I wondered what he, as a Mormon and a historian, might think about what we were doing.

Finally, I found his recent On the Road with Joseph Smith to be quite inspirational.  This book inspired me to keep a journal as I travel to promote Was America Founded as a Christian Nation.

Thanks, Richard Bushman.

Ben Park, writing at The Juvenile Instructor, provides  a glimpse of The Journal of Mormon History Bushman festschrift.  Here is a taste:

The last few years have been a coronation of sorts for Richard Bushman–and rightfully so. After a prolific and prestigious career, the American Historical Association devoted a session to his work, the Mormon History Association distinguished him with their Leonard Arrington Award, and a group of former students held a conference in his honor. (I wrote my reflections of the conference here.) The most recent issue of Journal of Mormon History includes many of the papers presented at that last conference, including several JIers. I just finished the entire issue last weekend, and concluded it was probably the strongest JMH issue in years, as nearly every article was at an exceptionally high level of academic standards.

Mormons and American History

Yesterday’s New York Times has a piece on the way Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign has brought Mormon history into American historical mainstream.  It references a host of historians–some young and some old–who are writing well-respected books on the relationship between Mormonism and American culture. 

It seems as if Richard Bushman and Jan Shipps are no longer carrying all the water for historians of Mormonism.

Here is a list of the movers and shakers mentioned in the article:

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (Harvard):  Writing a book on Mormon women.

Patrick Mason:  Chair of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University and author of Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South (Oxford)

Spencer Fluhman: BYU professor and author of A Peculiar People: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in 19th-Century America (North Carolina–forthcoming).

Matthew Bowman, religion professor at Hampden-Sydney and author of The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith (Random House)

John Turner, religion professor at George Mason University and author of Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet (forthcoming, Harvard)

Kathleen Flake of Vanderbilt, author of The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle (North Carolina, 2003) and an influential lecture on the Mormons and plural marriage.

Anne Hyde of  Colorado College, author of the Bancroft Prize-winning Empires, Nations, and Families: A History of the North American West, 1800-1860.

Here is a small taste:

The Mormon studies boom, many say, also represents a lifting of the intellectual chill that descended in the 1980s, when the church clamped down on access to its archives, and a number of scholars were forced out of Brigham Young University, a church-owned institution, and even excommunicated.
The church history department, which manages the archives, has hired increasing numbers of Ph.D.’s and begun publishing a scholarly edition of the Joseph Smith papers, projected to run to more than 20 volumes.
“These are all signs of a new openness,” said Matthew Bowman, an assistant professor of religion at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia and the author of “The Mormon People,” published in January by Random House. The church, he said, “is pushing for detente with historians.” 
Mormon history is hot right now.  Many of its practitioners are Mormons (and many of them are young Mormon historians at the beginning of their careers), but some of them are not.  This new interest in Mormon history leads to a few random questions/comments:

1.  How much of this surge in Mormon history is related to the Romney campaign?  I know that the Mormon Church has been more liberal with access to its records of late, but I wonder if this article would appear in The New York Times if we did not have a Mormon running for president?
2.  The renewed interest in Mormon history reminds me a lot of the rise of the history of American Evangelicalism in the 1980s.  Scholars such as George Marsden, Mark Noll, Harry Stout, Grant Wacker, Joel Carpenter, Nathan Hatch and others emerged at a particular political and cultural “moment.”  They helped us all understand the rise of the Christian Right as a significant force in American life.  Most of these evangelical historians were “participant-observers.”  They were evangelicals trying to make sense of their own tradition while at the same time showing the historical community that evangelical religion was important to the larger story of American history.  It seems as if something similar is now going on with the new Mormon history.
3.  Perhaps the most intellectually engaging book on Mormonism I have ever read (although I love Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling) is John Brooke’s The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844 (Cambridge, 1996).  I don’t hear a lot of discussion about this book any more.  I wonder what the Mormon Church and some of the Mormon historians mentioned above (or others) think about this book.  I seem to remember that Mormons were not particularly happy about Brooke’s treatment of early Mormonism, but I could be wrong about that.
I am sure that some of these topics were discussed, either formally or informally, at the recent Mormon Historical Association meeting in Calgary.