Though my first, and still primary, attachment to Mormon history focused on the movement’s first two decades, I originally became familiar with the field in the midst of the Mountain Meadows Massacre battles. The first decade of the twenty-first century witnessed several of the most significant books on the topic since Juanita Brooks’s classic 1950 work, and the conflicting interpretations were often explosive. Was Brigham Young responsible for orchestrating the killing of 120 unarmed men, women, and children? It was a hotly contested question. Though outside my field of study, I devoured everything I could on the topic, and attended a number of public lectures and debates while I lived in Utah. And anyone somewhat familiar with these developments would have been well-acquainted with Will Bagley, a western historian known for his dogged research, lively prose, and well, let’s call it “lively” personality.
I was intrigued, then, when I saw that he had written a memoir, River Fever: Adventures on the Mississippi, 1967-1971, that Signature had published just in time for this year’s MHA. Knowing I’d need some reading material for a coming trip, I picked up a copy and dove in.
Though my “to read” pile was already ridiculously high, I decided to move River Fever to the top of my list for two reasons. First, even when I disagree with Bagley’s conclusions, or am annoyed with his antics, I find him a fascinating character, and I, of course, know he’s a very talented writer. And second, having recently finished my book on Nauvoo, as well as being a longtime fan of Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, I’m always intrigued by any narrative of traveling the mighty Mississippi River. Happily, the memoir proved both entertaining and rewarding, and I devoured it in only a few sittings. Read More
Among the small number of African Americans who converted to the Mormon faith during the nineteenth century, Jane Manning James is perhaps the best known. Born free to a woman who had been born enslaved, Jane’s life exhibited many of the complexities associated with racial discrimination during the era. She joined the LDS church in Connecticut, migrated–mostly by foot–to Nauvoo, lived in Joseph Smith’s home as a housekeeper, and was part of the vanguard company that entered Utah in 1847. She did not die until 1908, which granted her enough time to leave several reminiscences of her unlikely life. By all accounts, her story is a hallmark of dogged faith and preservation.
Starting a couple decades ago, she began cropping up in many popular places, like the 2005 movie about Joseph Smith that played in LDS visitors centers, often in service of highlighting the founding prophet’s “progressive” racial views, given her insistance that she was treated like family in Nauvoo. And unlike Elijah Able, another early black convert, the fact she was a woman allowed story-tellers to subtly leave out the implications of the priesthood restriction, though her poignant appeals for temple blessings also became a common feature of her contemporary image. In short, Jane Manning James has become part of the modern Mormon psyche, even if she is typically found on the peripheries of traditional narratives, rarely challenging their typical themes and lessons. Read More
In 2016, the LDS Church released, for the first time, the minutes kept in the Council of Fifty. Known as the “kingdom,” the council was created by Joseph Smith in his last few months as a new political order that would return God’s rule to earth. Though the council has been long-known, its minutes have always been deemed confidential and sequestered from researchers. Their publication, then, allowed scholars to reconstruct one of the most audacious moments in Mormon history.
I was fortunate enough to get an early copy of the published volume, which allowed me to write an essay for Religion and Politics that was timed with the book’s release. But then I also got to work on two new scholarly projects. The big project was a book manuscript on Nauvoo’s political history, which should be released early next year by W. W. Norton/Liveright, and directed at a general audience. (More details soon!) The other was an scholarly article that contextualized the council for the academic community.
I’m thrilled to share that the article was just appeared Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture, a premier journal in religious history that is published by Oxford University Press and affiliated with the American Society of Church History. Here is the synopsis for the article:
This article contextualizes the origins and development of Joseph Smith’s secretive Council of Fifty, a clandestine assembly whose minutes were sequestered from public access since their creation in 1844 and were only made available in September 2016. Organized by Smith, the founding prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, only months before his death at the hands of a mob in June 1844, the council was destined to introduce a new form of world governance. Colloquially named the “Council of Fifty,” it blended democratic principles with theocratic rule. More than a significant moment in the development of America’s largest home-grown religion, however, Joseph Smith’s controversial organization and the ideals it represented hint at broader anxieties over the nation’s cultural disunity and democratic excesses in the wake of disestablishment. While many embraced the democratization of religious authority, the Mormons and some of their contemporaries countered that it only introduced cultural and political chaos. Examining how groups such as the Mormons grappled with these implications—through orchestrated electoral participation, appeals to higher laws, and revisions to democratized authoritative structures—sheds light on this dynamic challenge of political self-rule during America’s antebellum period.
Put simply, this article was a way for me to make the dense academic arguments that my larger book mostly sets aside.
If you have institutional access, you can download the article at this link.
Nauvoo is constantly on my mind. Has been for a while, actually. Before starting The Kingdom of Nauvoo: A Story of Mormon Politics, Plural Marriage, and Power in Nineteenth-Century America—which I’m pleased to share is moving along in the line-editing stage right now, with an early-2020 release date—I was a BYU student participating in their “Semester at Nauvoo” program. For four months I got to live fifty yards from the Nauvoo Temple, where I could learn about the city’s history while walking its streets, touring its homes, and enjoying its gorgeous sunsets. From then on, Nauvoo has always claimed a piece of my soul, which is partly why I jumped at the opportunity to write about it. Read More
Yesterday, the Joseph Smith Papers Project released their newest volume: Revelations and Translations, Volume Four: The Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts, edited by Brian Hauglid and Robin Jensen. The book is another hallmark for the project, as its deep research and exhaustive contextualization will add much to an already popular topic. There is material for scholars interested in all sorts of questions: what did Joseph Smith mean by “translation”? How were the Egyptian documents related to the Book of Abraham project? What do these texts tell us about modern definitions of “scripture” in America? And for those most dedicated to either proving or dismissing Mormonism’s truth claims, there will always be questions concerning historicity. Read More
When Elizabeth Bailey Seton arrived back home in New York in 1804, her life was akin to a maelstrom. She was returning from an extended trip to Italy, where she had hoped the temperate climate would heal her ailing husband. It didn’t work. William, her intellectual and spiritual companion, died shortly after their landing in Europe. His economic success had already died a couple years prior: he ran a successful trade with his father, but after his father’s death, William was unable to keep things afloat. So when he himself passed a couple days after Christmas, 1803, in a foreign land, he left his young wife without many prospects. She would have to find a way to scrape by with her five children, all under the age of ten. When she disembarked the ship after the long voyage, and was greeted with the four children she had left behind (only one made the trip to Italy), Elizabeth must have faced a number of difficult emotions.
Yet while her friends and family urged her to turn her attention to earthly matters, Elizabeth Seton could only focus on the heavenly. Her stay in Italy not only introduced her to widowhood, but also Catholicism. Always a religious seeker, and increasingly yearning for institutional stability, Seton was deeply tempted by the faith most Americans dismissed as “popish.” She was especially drawn to their doctrine of transubstantiation, a sacrament that fulfilled her wish for immediate access to the divine. The following months were a religious struggle as her Episcopalian priest fought to retain her soul. Reflecting the torn nature of her mind, she wrote passionate letters to a married Italian man to whom she held such a deep bond that she also felt guilty; to balance these conflicted effort, she simultaneously directed her soul-searching diary entries to his wife.
This accounts for just a small sliver of Seton’s engrossing life, all told in exhaustive detail by Catherine O’Donnell in Elizabeth Seton: American Saint (Three Hills, 2018). Read More
The confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh have reaffirmed something that has become standard today: America’s congressional system, included the senate, is a very partisan space. While the vote is expected to follow strict party lines, both sides have lobbied insults and accusations at one another, party leaders have used shady mechanisms to get their way, and opponents have declared the moral depravity of the other. But at least they haven’t started to throw swings at one another.
(Yet, anyway; if they ever do, then perhaps this is the realm where Jeff Flake’s training might actually come in handy.) Read More