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Secrets of the Mormons

According to Harris, the spirit also insisted that Joseph bring along his older brother Alvin, who had recently died. There are reports that the Church possesses an early manuscript history written by Oliver Cowdery, who asserts that it was Alvin, not Joseph, who first found the golden plates and was prevented by a “taunting salamander” from digging them up. The Church, which originally denied ownership of the 1825 Smith letter, has refused to say whether the Cowdery history is locked within the First Presidency’s vault. For Mormon historians the recent controversies raise two questions: How can one reconcile trickster spirits with traditional accounts of divine revelation? How can historians write confidently about Mormon beginnings if they are denied access to crucial sources? If the first question is resolved in a way that sustains faith, there may be hope that the “Arrington spring” set a precedent for freer access and open inquiry.

Richard L. Bushman interprets Joseph Smith’s ties with necromancy in a way that should satisfy all but the most intractable Mormon fundamentalists. Bushman, a professor of history at the University of Delaware, is a highly respected American colonial historian and is also a devout Mormon. He shrewdly anticipates the unbeliever’s amazement that a Harvard-trained scholar who is so obviously intelligent and well informed could believe that the Book of Mormon is the authentic word of God. One senses that Bushman’s book, which covers only the first twenty-five years of the Prophet’s life, is a personal testament designed to reconcile the author’s secular profession with his strong faith. His attempt to address non-Mormons on the sensitive question of Mormon “beginnings” is an act of courage that commands respect.

Bushman avoids homilies and adopts the behaviorist approach of trying “to relate events as the participants themselves experienced them, using their own words where possible.” But this technique leads to a curious combination, often within a single paragraph, of critical analysis of the socioeconomic details of early nineteenth-century life and an un-questioning acceptance of Mormon religious testimony and canonical texts. Because Bushman refuses to establish any critical distance between himself and his key sources, his voice and criteria for selection often merge with official Sunday school history. When he writes, concerning Joseph Smith’s first vision in 1820, that “a new era in history began at that moment,” he mixes his own assertion with Smith’s later understanding of the event.

Yet Bushman vividly reconstructs the family and social background of the Mormon prophet. He can investigate objective social origins precisely because he assumes that God could be expected to work through various worldly instruments and to prepare the soil for a new revelation of his will. Bushman also implies that one should expect God to address the common people and to make use of vernacular culture, including occult representations of the supernatural. Recent students of Christian and Jewish history have shown that sublime conceptions of divinity were long intermixed with folk magic and cabalistic arts. It was Enlightenment rationalism, Bushman emphasizes, “with its deathly aversion to superstition,” that leached official Protestantism of any respect for the miraculous except for the miracles that ceased with Christ’s Apostles. As the mainline churches disdainfully dismissed witchcraft, visions, healing, and speaking in tongues, the occult was driven underground or lived on among plain farmers and mechanics who thirsted for some living contact with the supernatural.

Joseph Smith grew up within a rural culture that still combined magic with an unquestioning faith in the Bible as the revealed word of God. As Bushman skillfully shows, young Joseph’s personal search for buried treasure and religious truth was part of a family quest for meaning and security that arose from two generations of uprootedness and economic adversity. These secular conditions, Bushman suggests, can be understood in two ways: for nonbelievers they help to explain Mormonism’s “origins,” a word Bushman eschews for the more neutral “beginnings”; for Mormons they can be studied as divinely contrived preparations for the dawning of a new era.

But Bushman, for all his strictures on Enlightenment rationalism, sees no glow of divinity in Joseph’s occult arts. He is determined to show how Joseph, as the human vehicle of God’s purpose, outgrew his culture and led the way to a wholly independent creation, a church that broke free from the corruptions of its secular preconditions. Bushman’s book may help fellow Mormons come to terms with the worldly setting from which their church arose. But his portrait of young Joseph as a reluctant money-digger increasingly at odds with his father’s superstitions conflicts with the evidence, especially the recently discovered letters. Although Bushman presents useful criticism of the standard secular readings of the Book of Mormon, his study is not as challenging intellectually as some of the recent articles by younger Mormon historians. Ultimately he fails to find a common ground for addressing Mormon and non-Mormon readers.

On this score Jan Shipps, professor of religious studies and history at Indiana University-Purdue University, who is not a Mormon, is far more successful. Bushman himself is quoted as saying that Shipps’s short collection of essays “may be the most brilliant book ever written on Mormonism,” a judgment I am inclined to share even though the essays are somewhat repetitive and lacking in overall coherence. Mormon intellectuals long ago adopted Shipps as an “insider/outsider” and “den mother” of historians, in part because of her political tact and in part because her efforts to fit Mormonism within a comparative religious scheme confirm Mormon claims to being a chosen, unique people. Without involving herself in the methodological problems that bedevil Bushman, Shipps feels free to compare Joseph Smith’s religious experiences with those of Jesus and Paul and to discuss the Book of Mormon as an example of sacred literature.

Fawn Brodie pictured Mormonism as a new religious creation, departing as radically from Christianity as Christianity had departed from Judaism. Shipps develops this insight with admirable skill. Mormonism, she shows, did not seek to reform Protestant Christianity or to purify Christian traditions. Smith’s divine revelations signified an abrupt break from the fraudulent churches of the past, a release from secular history and time. Although Mormonism in its early years contained elements of primitivist Christianity, resembling other contemporary movements to restore the original church of the Apostles, this New Testament emphasis on repentance and baptism was soon outweighed by Smith’s claim of literally restoring ancient Israel.

Christianity had of course appropriated and transformed a Judaic heritage. But Mormonism, as Shipps points out, appropriated not only the Christian version of Judaism but also the Hebraic covenant of the Old Testament. The Mormons thought of themselves as reliving Old Testament events. The Prophet restored the priesthood of Aaron and Melchizedek, reestablished the temple and secret temple ordinances, and enabled Saints to trace their lineage to ancient Hebrew tribes. The re-creation of Israel’s patriarchal age, with such appropriate institutions as polygamy or plural marriage, overlapped moves to prepare the way for the political Kingdom of God. Shipps stresses that as the Mormons moved to Kirtland, Ohio, and then founded a city-state at Nauvoo, Illinois, they kept replicating “experientially” the stories of the Old Testament. Like the first Christians, they thought of themselves as fulfilling Hebrew prophecy, though in a far more literal way.

The strong drift toward preexilic Judaism increasingly alienated early converts who had wanted simply to restore the apostolic Christian church and who opposed such innovations as plural marriage, temple ordinances, baptism for the dead, and the political Kingdom of God. This intrachurch conflict exacerbated the struggle for succession after Smith’s murder in 1844, a subject muted in official histories and even in Leonard Arrington’s new biography of Brigham Young. The dissidents who refused to accept Young’s leadership and to join him in the exodus to Utah finally gravitated for the most part to the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints led by the prophet’s son, Joseph Smith III. Shipps suggests that this division made the Utah Mormons even more literalminded and committed to Old Testament precedents.

Between 1847, when Brigham Young led the main body of Mormons to the promised land, and 1890, when President Wilford Woodruff chose to repudiate polygamy in the interest of political survival, the Saints lived in a theocratic and corporate community that channeled all energies into “building a counterpart of the Hebraic kingdom with Solomon’s temple at its center.” Shipps sees 1890 as a crucial dividing line marking the Mormons’ entrance into “linear, profane time.” Responsibility for maintaining the boundary between Saints and Gentiles shifted from the corporate community to individuals, who were expected to internalize a distinctive code of behavior. Shipps dramatizes the differences between Saints of today and of a century ago. In the pioneer world, she writes, the sacred and not sacred were wholly merged and the essential worship “was building up the kingdom and inhabiting it.” A Mormon of today returning to Utah in the 1880s would be “astonished to find so few Saints at Sacrament Meeting, because the twentieth-century Sacrament Meeting is a visible worship sign, whereas in the pioneer era more expressive worship signs were irrigation canals, or neatly built and nicely decorated houses, or good crops of sugar beets.”

This last point becomes the central theme of Arrington’s Brigham Young: American Moses. For Young there could be no separation between Church and state, between spiritual and temporal affairs, between material and immaterial being, or between Church funds and his own growing fortune. Beginning his career as an uneducated carpenter, printer, and glazier, Young found in Mormonism the divine energies that enabled him to develop his practical talents as a colonizer, territorial governor, entrepreneur, empire builder, and ruler, by the time of his death in 1877, of 125,000 brethren in his Great Basin kingdom. Under God’s direct guidance, worship became fused with human exertion to build the Kingdom of God on earth. During the fall of 1856, for example, Brigham defined the “text” of his religion, when addressing several thousand Saints, as the duty to send out hundreds of teams carrying food, clothing, and blankets to assist before snowfall the Mormon emigrants who were trekking across the plains with handcarts. The Mormon mission tested what Brigham proudly called his “grit.”

Long troubled by the religious uncertainty generated by America’s competing sects, Young joined the Latter-day Saints only after a year and a half of study and investigation. All the members of his immediate family, including nine siblings, also became devoted Mormons. Young soon developed an intense loyalty to Joseph Smith, struggling within the Church against members who resisted the prophet’s temporal innovations and dutifully leaving his destitute wife and four young children for a twenty-one-month mission to England. Although Young acquired increasing responsibilities, such as organizing the Mormon evacuation from Missouri in 1838 and 1839, there is little in his first forty-three years of life to suggest the kind of leader who could manage twenty-four plural wives and fifty-seven children while counseling thousands of followers on the most minute financial and marital problems and successfully colonizing a region extending from San Bernardino, California, to southern Idaho.

Arrington’s subsidiary themes concern Young’s efforts to separate God’s chosen people from the corrupt Gentile world and to build a self-sufficient society based on economic cooperation, as opposed to the individualism and privatism of American society at large. The quest for self-sufficiency originated in Joseph Smith’s revelation from the Lord that the children of Israel should “never do another day’s work, nor spend another dollar to build up a Gentile city or nation.” Savage persecution widened the breach between Mormons and American society, encouraging Young to think of himself as a new Moses delivering “the only true Israel” from bondage. Young was remarkably successful in colonizing and irrigating the desert, defying federal authority, and insulating Mormons from the corruptions of Babylon, even while he eagerly built railroads and agreed to construct the segment of the first transcontinental telegraph from Wyoming to the California border. Despite the influx of Gentile merchants and continuing federal harassment on the polygamy issue, Young preserved the distinctive cohesiveness of the Mormon community. He also promoted the ideal of highly organized communitarian settlements, built on the model of an expanded family. But he became increasingly frustrated by his failure to extend the cooperative system beyond a few communities like Brigham City, St. George, and Orderville. Mormons retained a certain spirit of communal enterprise but soon turned away from their own traditions of radical experiment and innovation.

In 1966 an English historian, writing for a special issue of Dialogue edited by Arrington, predicted that a satisfactory biography of Brigham Young would never be written. Among the obstacles he cited was the difficulty of penetrating beneath Young’s public image and gaining access to uncensored sources.3 Arrington would like us to see his new book as evidence that the Church has “come of age” and is prepared for objective appraisal. Although even as Church historian Arrington was denied access to several key documents in the First Presidency’s vault, he and his “associates in Camelot” cataloged an extensive collection of Young’s diaries, office journals, letter books, speeches, and sermons that were mostly unavailable to previous scholars and that require seventy single-spaced pages even to list in a register. Arrington’s prodigious research was aided by a large staff of scholars and encouraged by two presidents of the Latterday Saints, though he insists that the Young biography was “a private, not a church project.” The book is a considerable achievement that will doubtless stand for many years as the most objective and authoritative biography of Brigham Young.

Nevertheless, the biography is also disappointing. Except for interesting details, it adds surprisingly little to what we have learned from other works, including Arrington’s masterful Great Basin Kingdom. Arrington describes Young’s multifarious activities, but we seldom glimpse his interior motives, feelings, moods, anxieties, or aspirations. This limitation may be inherent in the records that have survived. But Arrington also glosses over numerous controversial subjects, avoids apostate and non-Mormon sources, and adopts in the later chapters especially an apologetic tone that blunts his insight into important issues, such as Young’s challenge to democratic institutions. These faults are minor, however, when held against the model of professionalism that Arrington has set for Mormon historians. As Mormons achieve a clearer perspective on their own past, we will all learn more about the nature of American dissent, pluralism, and accommodation.

  1. 3

    P.A.M. Taylor, “The Life of Brigham Young: A Biography Which Will Not Be Written,” Dialogue, 1/3 (Autumn 1966), pp. 107–110.

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