Seeing Early Mormonism through Newel Knight’s Eyes

KnightIf Latter-day Saints are a record-keeping people, then Mormon studies scholars are document-crazed researchers. The advent of the academic study of Mormonism’s past, known as New Mormon History, was driven by archive-hounds, largely enabled by a period of openness at the LDS Church archives. And that fascination has endured ever since, even as the field has become more theoretically rich and interpretively adventurous. Perhaps the most common expression of this obsession is the large number of documentary history volumes published nearly every year, enough so that both the Mormon History Association and the John Whitmer Historical Association have awards dedicated to the genre.[1] Even in the age of digitization, and when most university presses shy away from documentary editing, there are often close to a dozen titles that appear each calendar year, from a variety of different presses.

The most recent addition to this growing corpus is The Rise of the Latter-day Saints: The Journals and Histories of Newel Knight, edited by Michael Hubbard MacKay and the late William G. Hartley. Knight was one of the earliest converts to the Mormon faith, and was involved in a lot of “firsts”: he was one of the first outside of Joseph Smith’s family to hear the message, one of the first baptized, recipient of the first miracle, and the first person to be married by Joseph Smith. He traveled with earliest communities from New York to Missouri, from Missouri to Ohio, from Ohio back to Missouri, and then to Nauvoo, where he was part of the first migrant companies to leave in early-1846. After being appointed over a transient Mormon community in Nebraska, he died in early 1847 at the still-young age of 46. Given his long and close relationship with Joseph Smith, he was witness to a number of important episodes, especially early on, and his accounts are an immensely important source for reconstructing the young faith. Read More

Mormonism, Gender, and the Tangled Nature of History

PrinceFew topics have dominated modern Mormon discourse as much as those related to homosexuality. The issue has certainly framed my own experience with the LDS church over the past decade. I was in my final year at BYU when Proposition 8 took place—more on this below—and the episode was formative in how I see Mormon culture; seven years later, the “November policy”—also discussed below—was another transformative moment. Yet so many events preceded 2008, and things have seemed to only escalate since then, that it can be impossible to keep track of the larger story. The world has long-needed, then, a meticulous history of all the institutional decisions that brought us to this point, especially if it contained insider information that could flesh out traditional narratives.

Fortunately, we finally have a book that fulfills that need. Gregory A. Prince’s Gay Rights and the Mormon Church: Intended Actions, Unintended Consequences (University of Utah Press) is a nearly-exhaustive collection of institutional deliberations and actions over the past few decades, often buttressed by interviews and correspondence that have been previously unaccessible to scholars. Read More

The Mormon Diaspora: Remarks from MHA 2019

BickertonRecently, someone noted how Amazon has changed its category title from “Mormonism” to “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” This was, of course, in response to LDS leaders’ request that we phase out the use of the term “Mormon” when referring to the faith, its members, and particularly the institution. (See this excellent podcast discussion on the topic.) I’ve tweeted about this broader name dilemma in the past—see here for the academic context, and here for the cultural issues—but this particular twist raises another point: it further marginalizes religious traditions that trace their heritage to Joseph Smith but are not the LDS Church. That is, Amazon’s “Mormonism” category used to include books on various schisms and figures outside the mainstream, but now they are pushed aside into a different, and profoundly smaller grouping. Given Amazon’s various digital tools, especially the “suggested books,” I worry this will lead to fewer people being exposed to excellent scholarship.

This topic has been at the forefront of my mind because I had the privilege of participating in an author-meets-critics roundtable at the Mormon History Association conference on Daniel Stone’s recent book, William Bickerton: Forgotten Latter Day Prophet (Signature Books, 2018). Below I’m pasting the final portion of my remarks, which aim directly at why it is important to study figures like Bickerton, and why I’m nervous about any policy, approach, or digital algorithm that marginalizes non-LDS movements.
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Narrating America’s First Saint

SetonWhen 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

Mormonism’s Expanded Canon

Expanded CanonOne of the most famous elements concerning the Mormon faith is its belief in an expanded scriptural canon. Besides the Bible, members of the church believe that the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price are holy texts that contain the word and commands of God; more liberally, and abstractly, Mormons also believe that the words uttered by leaders today are, at least in some form, scripture, even if the official canon has been functionally closed for some time.

A new collection of essays, titled The Expanded Canon: Perspectives on Mormonism & Sacred Texts (Kofford Books, 2018), explores many of the tensions related to Mormonism’s scriptural corpus. Most of these chapters are drawn from a conference hosted by Utah Valley University’s Mormon Studies program a few years ago. Indeed, this volume is the first in a collaboration between Kofford Books and UVU, which will serve an important service for the field by reproducing some of the more provocative and smart proceedings in Mormon studies today.  Read More

William Smith’s “The Plural Marriage Revelation” and Nauvoo’s Legacy

It all started with a domestic dispute.

Okay, so it was more complex than that, and there were certainly many layers behind the origins of Joseph Smith’s polygamy revelation, but for the sake of my point let’s just say one of the most controversial documents in Mormonism’s history was meant to solve a marital spat. Because, in some ways, it absolutely was. The setting was summer 1843 in Nauvoo, Illinois. Joseph Smith’s zealous and devoted brother, Hyrum, had just embraced the doctrine of polygamy. This was no simple conversion: he had been one of the most outspoken critics of what many called the “spiritual wives” doctrine that was secretly being taught in the city, allegedly promulgated by the disgraced mayor and serial adulterer John C. Bennett. Joseph, knowing that Hyrum held such strong feelings concerning the rumors, was cautious to teach him the concomitantly controversial and secret theology of plural marriage. But once he heard and accepted the practice—a story worthy of its own post—he became one of its most ardent defenders. And now he was ready to proselytize one of his fellow colleagues in the anti-polygamy crusade: Joseph’s wife, Emma. Read More

Review: Moss and Baden, BIBLE NATION

Within a few minutes’ walk from the United States Capital in Washington DC, a visitor might stumble upon an impressive eight-story structure dedicated to “reacquaint[ing] the world with the book that helped make it.” The Museum of the Bible opened just last month after several years of anticipation. In some ways, it is similar to other recent Evangelical enterprises, like the Ark Encounter in Kentucky, which seeks to guide Americans back to their biblical roots and avoid the secular perils of modernity. Yet it is also somewhat unique: it frames itself as a non-sectarian establishment focused on merely presenting the “facts” of the Bible. But as Candida Moss and Joel Baden outline in their new and riveting book, Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby (Princeton UP), this is merely the latest step in one wealthy family’s attempt to help America become a “Bible Nation.”

Most Americans know the David Green family for two things: their ownership of Hobby Lobby, and their Supreme Court victory over Obamacare, the latter of which allowed them to refuse contraceptive medicine to their employees. They might also be known for their devoted evangelical and philanthropic initiatives, including Steve Green’s founding of the Museum of the Bible. But many were surprised when the Greens were in the news a few months ago after federal prosecutors accused them of illegally importing 5,500 ancient artifacts. But you know who wasn’t surprised? Moss and Baden have been breaking news on the story for several years. Indeed, their Bible Nation is the result of several years of research into the Green Family’s Bible project, an endeavor that not only includes a museum but also an extensive amateur archival collection, robust scholarship initiative, and earnest curriculum proposals.

Each of the four chapters in the volume focus on one of these aspects. The first chapter dives into the world of artifact sales, an arena filled with strict laws, legal loopholes, and shady deals. When the Greens decided to enter the artifact game, they hired a series of collectors to act on their behalf. Many of the earliest purchases—they eventually came to acquire around 40,000(!) artifacts—had murky backstories and sketchy provenances. (The cuniform tablets that got the Greens in trouble were bought during this period.) Moss and Baden skillfully demonstrate how these activities affected the broader market, implications of which we are still dealing with today. The Greens, the authors explain, seem to “underestimate the degree to which provenance matters, and the real-world ramifications of the illicit antiquities trade” (44). The actions of reckless buyers and sellers jeopardizes real-world conditions, especially in the Middle East.

But what do they do with the material once they are collected? The Green Scholars Initiative (GSI) is a program in which the foundation chose academics—often at religious schools, and nearly always with little background in papyrus scholarship—to work on individual projects, along with student researchers. The theoretical goal was to produce published volumes in which ancient papyri are translated, transcribed, and introduced. While senior scholars would serve as mentors—and the list of GSI mentors became quite impressive—most of the work was done by people with little training in the field. The results were mixed. Nearly all who participated, including the students, were forced to sign non-disclosure agreements, which allowed the GSI to control the information stemming from the various projects. (While a common practice in the business world, it is unheard of in academia.) Moss and Baden hypothesize that those documents or ideas that would challenge traditional evangelical narratives were sequestered. The main story the Greens wish to prove is the Bible’s consistency and supremacy, and any challenges to that story gets relegated to the background.

There was a financial aspect to the Green’s archival collection and scholarly initiatives, and Bible Nation carefully spells out a potentially materialistic explanation for the whole initiative. When the Greens’ representatives originally purchased the artifacts, they were often relatively cheap due to an artificially controlled market and the items’ sketchy provenance. Yet by putting the materials through the rigors of scholarly analysis improves their relevance and increases their monetary value. The Greens could then get the documents newly appraised and then donate them to a non-profit organization—namely, their own Museum of the Bible. Whatever value the donated document, which is often far greater than the original purchase price, can now be used as a tax deduction. Through interviews, Moss and Baden were able to trace how the Greens expected to get a particular monetary reward over the years in order to assure a financial gain.

This places scholars in a difficult predicament. Research in the Green collections risks validating their questionable purchase history, a modern-day act of colonialism that the federal government is still trying to investigate. And participating in the GSI adds value to the Greens’ overall project. Even though it is tempting to provide students with much-needed research experience—though the experience is mostly rooted in using computer transcription tools to decipher digital scans—the requirement of non-disclosure agreements precludes them from even explaining their research background in graduate applications. Through this ingenious system, the Greens can doubly profit off of scholarly participation: academics both validate their evangelical agenda and aid their financial reimbursement. As Moss and Baden put it, “the Green Family will profit from the research of those in their organization, and they are able to control the way information about their holdings is published and disseminated” (97-98). From the Green perspective, it’s a win-win.

The family’s overall evangelical agenda is the focus of the final two chapters, each of which focuses on a different proselytizing initiative. First is the Greens’ semi-aborted education push in which they sought to implement a particular curriculum package across public schools. America’s education system had strayed away from biblical principles, the Greens argue, and they are anxious to reintroduce those elements into the public sphere. While their attempt to infiltrate Oklahoma City’s school district failed, they have seen success selling their materials abroad, in Israel, as well as at home, with American homeschoolers. In perhaps the most in-depth analysis in the entire book, Moss and Baden dig into the curriculum in order to display “an ongoing lack of self-awareness” within its pages. Though the Greens wish to appropriate secular—or, “sectarian”—methods, their message is still rooted in a particular evangelical reading of the Bible.

And then there’s the museum. Unfortunately, in order to capitalize on the site’s opening this Fall, Moss and Baden completed the book before the museum was actually finished. This makes sense sales-wise, but a decade down the road readers might wish the authors were less anxious and willing to wait another year. But the authors were able to dissect the Greens’ traveling Bible shows over the past few years, as well as extensive interviews with those involved putting together the project. Though the Museum of the Bible claims to present a non-biased history of the sacred text, Moss and Baden demonstrate how its very framing reaffirms, once again, a particular evangelical story: the Bible’s coherency, consistency, divinity, and importance. The very act of “letting the Bible speak for itself,” a common refrain of the Greens, is a Protestant notion—and a fundamentalist one at that. When it comes to the “impact” of the Bible, another key feature of the museum, they amplify and exaggerate its good influence, while marginalizing the bad (like slavery) as mere “misuses.” A common story, indeed.

While the Greens are the main characters in Bible Nation‘s narrative, I found their depiction somewhat inconsistent. There are parts of the book where it seems Moss and Baden are bending over themselves to present the Hobby Lobby owners in the best light. It’s a common scholarly paradox: how do treat your subjects charitably while still capturing the depth of their problems? “Part of what makes the Greens so compelling,” the authors explain, “is that they are both transparent in their essential faith commitments and at the same time often unable to see the assumptions they bring with them to this project and the impact that those commitments have on the projects they pursue” (19). This, then, is a common thread throughout the book: the Greens are “naive,” they “underestimate,” and they lack “self-awareness.” It’s not until the book’s conclusion that Moss and Baden finally spell out a full condemnation.

Despite the story’s importance and author’s skill, there are a few elements of Bible Nation that make it more journalistic than academic. This is to be expected, I guess, given it is covering a contemporary issue and grew out of a series of op-eds. But there are certainly some consequences that stem from this approach. The writing at times feels rushed, and there are several sections that are repetitive—two features that are natural in a co-authored volume. (For example, the book explains what the Greens mean by “sectarian” at least a half-dozen times, sometimes with the same quotes.) Further, the historical background for the Greens and modern Evangelicalism can be flat—mostly relying on Molly Worthen, George Marsden, and Mark Noll—and the narrative’s lessons focus on the Greens rather than their larger context. There are moments the book feels more like a 200-page essay rather than a scholarly tome.

I also could never fully grasp the ideal audience for the book. The general public will certainly be entertained with the riveting story, and the lessons of Bible Nation‘s tale are definitely crucial for our contemporary culture that is still debating whether America is a “Christian nation.” But there are portions of the text that also seem directed at the academy—and a particular sliver of the academy, at that. The chapters on the Greens’ archive and scholarly initiative, especially, seem meditative on the craft and ethics of research and publication, a chance for the field to genuinely debate how to handle the Green dilemma. And I couldn’t help but feel that Moss and Baden were, at times, quick to bundle what they call “Christian scholarship,” which is rooted in a particular devotional framework, with the Greens’ project (115). It seemed to reflect certain debates I hear in the halls of the annual meetings for American Academy for Religion and Society for Biblical Literature. Are faith claims truly antithetical to critical scholarship?

But I imagine those questions are just what Moss and Baden hoped to raise with this fascinating volume. I came away from reading it not only with a stronger knowledge of the Green evangelical empire, but also questions concerning both the practice and research of religion in modern America. Bible Nation is so captivating you’ll want to finish it within a few sittings, but so provocative that its argument will stick with you for much longer.