Saints without halos

mormon historyIn a country where the only Mormon story reporters can conceive of involves Mitt Romney, Salt Lake Tribune religion reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack is a treat. It seems as if she’s one of the only reporters who doesn’t view Mormons as a monolithic group. This weekend she has a story on Mormons’ views about their own history.

A few months ago, Mormon historian Richard Bushman spoke with religion reporters at a Pew Forum. It was a fascinating discussion that we’ve already covered. One of my favorite excerpts was when he described how Mormons view some of their own history:

On the radical versus conservative question, Mormons actually love their radical roots. It’s like all these neo-cons that once were Marxist. (Laughter.) I think there is a feeling that somehow religion was more intense then. We were willing to give all, consecrate all of our property to the church. We were willing to give up respectability by practicing plural marriage. The plural marriage is sort of covered up by the church because it’s a public relations disaster, but in terms of Mormons themselves, they’re willing to honor those people as having done a lot.

So it’s sort of our glorious flaming youth when we did many daring things.

I thought of that when reading Fletcher Stack’s story. Bushman’s comments are good to keep in mind when writing about Mormon history. Whether or not it’s fair, certain historical incidents in the church have given it a reputation for not being forthright about its history or reputation. But there’s also a strong current of documentation in each Mormon family — not to mention the passion for genealogical research:

Now a new survey reveals many Mormons want accounts of their history “to be inspiring, but not sanitized,” says Rebecca Olpin, director of audience needs for the LDS Family and Church History Department. “They want it to be frank and honest. They are looking for the whole story, accounts of real people and a wider scope of history than early 19th-century pioneers.”

It’s not a trivial conclusion.

Mormons believe God commanded them to keep a record of their lives and actions beginning with the church’s founding in 1830 and continuing to the present. To them, history is a kind of theology, and writing it is a sacred responsibility.

That perspective long has put LDS historians and their scholarship at the center of controversy, as they tried to balance accounts of the miraculous with knowledge of human fallibility and flaws.

Fletcher Stack explains some of the back and forth about history writing, focusing on Leonard Arrington. The official church historian in the late 1970s unnerved LDS leaders for his approach, she writes.

The church surveyed 2,000 members who are active Mormons interested in genealogy. Many receive their history from novels or church-sponsored historic sites.

“I wish there were an easily accessible and authoritative source that would separate fact from speculation on true but troubling events in [LDS] Church history,” wrote one respondent.

Respondents also said they wanted to see official history expand beyond the church’s first decades to include family histories from more recent converts, pioneering Mormons in other countries and varied cultural traditions. They want to understand the lives and challenges of ordinary believers, not just celebrity Saints.

And they said they wanted it all to be easily available online, which neatly coincides with the LDS historical department’s goal to open its holdings to the public.

Fletcher Stack notes that some worry the church’s approach doesn’t help professional historians, non-Mormons and critics. And secrecy is still an issue, she says:

Though minutes of church meetings, disciplinary hearings, temple discussions and some diaries will remain off-limits, historical department researchers, staff and volunteers have digitized many microfilmed documents, including many pioneer family histories, and personal journals.

“Digitization really is going to be a liberator,” says [Jonathan] Stapley, an independent Mormon researcher in Seattle. “Entire collections have been restricted because of a single paragraph. Now the church can excise that and make the rest available.”

It does seem that the church is opening up a bit about its sometimes controversial past, and Fletcher Stack shows how this is being driven more by the membership than outside criticism. And we can be sure she’ll stay on the story.

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  • Clare Krishan

    Let’s hope the women’s point of view doesn’t get short shrift – how much fun it was to be “radical” when your husband’s friend climbs into your bed and says you have to surrender to polygamy might not have been all it was cracked up to be: after Smith was lynched in Nauvoo Mrs Harris became a Roman Catholic nun!

    Lucinda later divorced George Harris and according to one biographer, “Mrs. Harris afterward joined the (Catholic) Sisters of Charity, and at the breaking out of the civil war, was acting in that capacity in the hospitals at Memphis Tennessee…”.

    The wives of Joseph Smith

    I think the evidence points to the fascination with all things ancient and occidental having more in common with an 18th C preoccupation with a new-fangled enlightenment Weltanschaung (read, Freemasonry) than novelties embraced by colonial Christians.

  • Christopher W. Chase

    I agree that it would help to have more women’s views of early Mormon history. It would help dispel stereotypes and assumptions such as that made by the first commenter. Mormon women were some of plural marriage’s most ardent defenders. In fact, Utah was the first state to have its women disenfranched by an act of Congress as punishment for support of plural marriage. Emma Hale Smith, first wife of Joseph Smith, was an important early scribe for the Book of Mormon and publisher of the first hymnal, as well as serving as first President of the Relief Society and member of the “Anointed Quorum.”

    For their part in protecting polygyny, Mormon women held mass demonstrations against the 1870 Cullom bill, which lumped Mormons in with “Mohammedian barbarians” in their advocacy of plural marriage. The noted pro-polygyny activist Harriet Cook Young, during this series of protests, proclaimed:

    Wherever monogamy reigns, adultery, prostitution, free-love and foeticide [abortion], directly or indirectly, are its concomitants…the women of Utah comprehend this and they see in the principle of the plurality of wives, the only safeguard against adultery, prostitution, free-love, and the reckless waste of pre-natal life.

    Pioneer LDS Women had their own institutions, and as Leonard J. Arrington has shown, in many ways their lives were richer and more satisfying for those institutions, including plural marriage, women’s suffrage, the Relief Society, community-published magazines, journals and songbooks.

    One may debate about the merits and demerits of various family structures, but one cannot merely project and naturalize one’s own jealousy 130-40 years earlier onto a group of women at a completely different time and place. That is how bad history and bad investigative journalism is written.

  • Rathje

    Historical Mormon women have always baffled feminists.

    On the one hand, you’ve got this horrible icky polygamy thingy in which we all know that women are always oppressed, disenfranchised, chattels…

    But then you actually read about the women who were in these polygamous marriages and you find some of the most strong-willed, independent, and powerful figures in America’s female history.

    Something doesn’t add up.

  • Jon

    I’m kind of partial to this one (because she’s one of my great-grandmothers), but the Diarys of Patty Sessions in an interesting read. She was actually one of Joseph Smith’s wives (while she was married to another man – don’t know how that worked out) and she was a pioneer midwife and herbalist. Her diaries give some interesting insight into what Mormon and pioneer life was like for a woman. She was close to the church heirarchy, so you get a lot of information from that perspective also.

  • Joseph Fox

    Another perspective of women in a polygamous relationship was provided by the story of Ann Eliza Webb, a wife of Brigham Young, in “The Twenty-Seventh Wife” by Irving Wallace.

  • Ivan Wolfe

    The best fictional treatment of Joseph Smith’s plural wives can be found in Orson Scott Card’s Saints (aka A Woman of Destiny). It’s back in print, too.

    And even though Card is a practicing Mormon, this is not sanitized history – though it is humanized.

  • FrGregACCA


    Where can I find a discussion of Young’s “view on cooperative economics”?

  • http://none John M. Arrington

    Hi Ms. Peggy Fletcher Stack

    I define sanitization of genealogy from my own experience researching genealogy. Until about 1980, when I was 55, I had been given sanitized version of my family history. Arrington’s were prestigious coming from English Background. I couldn’t understand logically who was kin to who and how did it get that way. My 1st Grandmother was Irish, My 2nd Grandmother was daughter of a Rabbi, my Great Great Grandmother was Cherokee Indian. My Uncle had stolen horse and to keep from disgracing his family changed name to Jones. Found my best friend, who was black, bleed same color blood as I had. All this diluting my English background as told to me.

    None of my direct family had done any wrong in this world, but I knew better. My background had been meticulously sanitized.

    I started search for truth. Wrote lot of my history and found that many researchers before me had sanitized their product and I was just extending wrong conclusions.

    Learning that Leonard J. Arrington, historian for the LDS experienced sanitizing similar to my experiences. Leonard J. Arrington’s parallel to mine in that something was being held back denying others from knowing the truth.

    I am now putting my second book together. First book found to be of fiction and did not bring out the great family adventures that has made this Country great.

    My sanitizing has been a breath of fresh air. My relatives that had participated in sanitization, mostly by just not telling the truth, were relieved. Each person in family has been considered important and should be respected by us all.

    Hope to have my book published by Christmas and I have approached content in a factual way, by throwing out the window any suspicion of sanitization of my family story in America.

    John M. Arrington, Houston, Texas