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Secrets of the Mormons

Mormonism: The Story of A New Religious Tradition

by Jan Shipps
University of Illinois Press, 211 pp., $14.50

Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism

by Richard L. Bushman
University of Illinois Press, 262 pp., $17.95

Brigham Young: American Moses

by Leonard J. Arrington
Knopf, 522 pp., $24.95

History has always been central to Mormonism as a foundation of faith, a source of group identity, and a vulnerable target for heretical and Gentile attack. The historical consciousness of the Mormons is wholly different from that of such relatively modern denominations as the Methodists, Unitarians, and Christian Scientists. For Mormons the visions and revelations received by Joseph Smith, Jr., beginning in 1820, opened a new dispensation in human history and ended “the Great Apostasy” of some fifteen centuries, during which Catholic and Protestant churches had deluded the world and blocked the way to Christian salvation. The sudden intrusion of sacred power into mundane history led in 1830 to the restoration of the only true Church of Christ, later renamed the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and to the rebuilding of social and political institutions based on divine authority.

Traditionally, Mormon faith has rested on a belief in the literal historicity of sacred events. These include Joseph Smith’s vision of God and Christ as physical beings in 1820, the subsequent appearances of the Angel Moroni to Joseph Smith, and Joseph’s discovery and translation of buried golden plates containing lost books of holy scripture. According to Smith, the golden plates, after being translated into what later became the Book of Mormon, were taken up to heaven. The meaning of history was infinitely enriched by the great Mormon epic of persecution, the gathering of the Saints, the martyrdom of the Prophet, and the Mosaic-like exodus to a promised land. As Jan Shipps observes, “Today’s Saints live out their lives in a corporate community that still stands squarely and securely in the presence of the past.”

From the very beginning Mormon leaders saw the strategic importance of retaining control over their own history. Faced with doubt and skepticism even among his own followers, Smith sought divine assistance to persuade three disciples to bear testimony that they had seen the golden plates and heard the voice of God affirm that the translation was accurate. Soon thereafter Smith created another historical document in which eight witnesses testified that they had “seen and hefted” the golden plates. Oliver Cowdery, one of the three original witnesses and the scribe to whom Smith had dictated the last part of the Book of Mormon, became the Church’s first record keeper and historian. Soon after the founding of the Church, apostates and anti-Mormons accumulated their own historical evidence to challenge Mormon claims. But in view of the number of defections and the divisive struggle for leadership after Smith’s assassination by a mob in 1844, there were remarkably few leaks or recantations. Brigham Young, Smith’s successor as “Prophet, Seer, and Revelator,” was so fearful of the unauthorized use of a controversial text that he suppressed the first published edition of Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith, the Prophet, recollections dictated by Smith’s aged mother, which remains a prime source of information on the origins of the Mormon movement.

Authorized Mormon histories, including the indispensable seven-volume History of the Church attributed to Joseph Smith, have been written to propagate or reinforce Mormon belief. There has also been a continuing stream of anti-Mormon works, supplemented since the early twentieth century by many doctoral dissertations that have sought to apply to Mormonism the methods of social science. While outsiders have been eager to relate Mormonism to the social and intellectual environment of the Jacksonian period, they have seldom given serious attention to the movement as a distinctive religion. Mormon authorities, for their part, have been determined to prevent the records of God’s dealings with his chosen people from being put to sacrilegious use. Access to Mormon archives has traditionally been restricted and we still have no scholarly editions of key Mormon texts.

During the 1940s and 1950s several prominent Mormon writers and intellectuals left the Church or, like the historian Fawn M. Brodie, were excommunicated. Encouraged by the cultural ferment of the mid-1960s, groups of intellectuals who were also practicing Mormons sought a middle ground between faith and humanistic values. Leonard J. Arrington, who in 1958 had met the highest professional standards with his landmark book, Great Basin Kingdom, was involved in launching both the Mormon History Association and Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. The new journal, which had no connection with the Church, proposed to bring Mormon faith “into dialogue with human experience as a whole” and to encourage artistic and scholarly achievement based on the Mormon cultural heritage. Richard L. Bushman, the young editor of its book review section, pointed out that Mormon college students were frequently “overpowered by a secular culture that dazzles them with its splendors and seemingly puts Mormon parochialism in the shade.” A new intellectual dialogue would help young Mormons learn to live in the modern world.1 The first issues of the journal promoted open critical discussion and debate. The lead article on Mormon history was written by Mario S. DePillis, a young Roman Catholic scholar who had been trained at Yale.

During these same years the Correlation movement started by a Mormon reformer, Harold B. Lee, had been engaged in reorganizing and centralizing the Latter-day Saints’ bureaucracy. As Gottlieb and Wiley show in their new book, which is a useful and well-researched guide to the Mormon establishment (unfortunately written in the style of a journalistic exposé), this movement was basically a conservative reaction against secular erosion and was designed to strengthen the priesthood and above all the patriarchal family. But Correlation was also keenly attuned to public relations and professionalization. Lee and other leaders were eager to increase public respect for the Church and to place experts in specialized administrative positions.

In 1972 Leonard Arrington became the first professional historian to occupy the office of “Church Historian.” Under Arrington’s leadership, the Church staffed a new historical department with professionally trained scholars, commissioned a sixteen-volume history of the Church, considered editing authoritative editions of key Mormon texts, and made the archives more accessible to non-Mormon scholars. During the “Arrington spring,” as it came to be known, the historical department’s numerous publications addressed a wider academic and professional audience as well as church members who had previously been restricted to “salvation history.”

For Arrington and younger Mormon historians like Davis Bitton, Marvin S. Hill, and D. Michael Quinn, free scholarly inquiry could only strengthen faith among Mormon intellectual and professional groups exposed to the wider academic culture. Arrington himself had grown up outside the Mormon cultural community and had been deeply influenced by Santayana’s Reason in Religion before he thought seriously about the historical meaning of Mormon miracles. He finally concluded that “ultimate truths are often, if not always, presented artistically or imaginatively in a way suited to the needs and exigencies of the living community of persons.” Since God’s will could be revealed only to “those prepared, by intellectual and social experience and by spiritual insight and imagination, to grasp and convey it,” a “naturalistic” approach was not only valid but “makes more plausible” the truths that prophets attempted to convey. Arrington admitted in 1958 that a naturalistic method made it “difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish what is objectively ‘revealed’ from what is subjectively ‘contributed’ by those receiving the revelation.”2

This moderating position raises fundamental problems for a church that has always been literal-minded and intolerant of ambiguity. The optimistic liberals of the 1970s misperceived the Church’s aims and fears. The corrosive effects of naturalism had been all too evident in the writings of such ex-Mormons as Bernard DeVoto and Fawn M. Brodie. The Church harbors a deep suspicion of intellectuals; as the authorities concluded in 1983, there is “no need for innovation.” Having withstood all the twentieth-century forces of secularization, Mormonism remains the fastest growing religion in America. Thanks to a high birth rate and the extraordinary success of foreign missions, especially in the third world, church membership by the early 1980s passed five million. A vast business empire is complemented by growing political power, most recently evidenced by the crucial lobbying pressures of the Mormon church in defeating the ERA. The Church was instrumental in mobilizing anti-ERA forces in the Rocky Mountain West and also helped to coordinate fundraising and letter-writing campaigns concentrated on such pivotal states as Florida, Illinois, and Georgia. The main danger the Church faces, in the eyes of the leadership, is a “secular humanism” that would undermine faith, family unity, and obedience to authority.

In 1978 the Church began to demote Arrington and curtail the historical department’s projects. As the purge progressed, the surviving historical activities were transferred to an institute at Brigham Young University, and in 1982 Arrington was discharged from his ecclesiastical and bureaucratic positions. Ultraconservatives, such as Ezra Taft Benson, secretary of agriculture in the Eisenhower administration, Boyd K. Packer, and Mark E. Petersen, tried to launch a campaign to identify and root out unorthodox intellectuals. According to Gottlieb and Wiley, this effort has recently been restrained by Apostle Gordon B. Hinckley, an expert at public relations and the dominating figure in the First Presidency since President Spencer W. Kimball became enfeebled by age and ill health. Even so, Mormon intellectuals were deeply shocked and saddened by Arrington’s dismissal and by the new restrictive policies.

Scholars who are also practicing Mormons continue to speak out courageously; they write critical essays in such journals as Sunstone and Dialogue. Their position is complicated, however, by the activities of such anti-Mormon zealots as Jerald and Sandra Tanner. The Tanners are apostate Mormons and Christian evangelicals who during the past quarter-century have printed a large number of Mormon and anti-Mormon documents, some of them smuggled from Church archives, in an effort to expose the fraudulence of Mormon religious claims. The Tanners have supplied Mormon historians with rare and inaccessible texts, but they have also endangered the assumption that free inquiry will strengthen and deepen Mormon faith. In the eyes of anti-intellectual traditionalists, the Tanners and Arrington’s historical department were both responsible for a “New Mormon History” that subverted the faith. The discovery and publication of historical documents have been the battleground defining alignments both within and outside the Church.

This past spring the press has printed accounts of two important and recently discovered letters, one apparently written in 1825 by Joseph Smith, Jr., and the other in 1830 by Martin Harris, one of the original Mormon witnesses and a key figure in early Mormon history. While the Tanners originally suspected that the Harris letter was a forgery, it is almost certainly authentic. Together, the letters confirm the view that Smith was deeply immersed in the folk magic of the early nineteenth century and was first regarded as a remarkably successful practitioner of occult arts, especially those dealing with underground spirits that guarded buried money and other treasure. The Harris letter, which describes Joseph’s efforts to uncover the golden plates, makes no mention of angels or other divine figures but refers instead to a spirit that “transfigured himself from a white salamander in the bottom of the hole.”

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. 1

    Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 1/1 (Spring 1966), p. 12.

  2. 2

    Leonard J. Arrington, “Why I am a Believer,” Sunstone 10/1 (January 1985), pp. 36–38; Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830–1900 (Harvard University Press, 1958), p. ix. For a moving account of the “golden decade” from 1972 to 1982, see Davis Bitton, “Ten Years in Camelot: A Personal Memoir,” Dialogue, 16/3 (Autumn 1983), pp. 9–33.

  3. 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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