Richard Bushman was gracious enough to respond to twelve questions about Rough Stone Rolling.
But first, here’s my very brief review of RSR for the general reader:
Rough Stone Rolling is the definitive biography of Joseph Smith for this generation. Bushman does an able, if not artful, job of telling the prophetâ€™s story. His reading of Josephâ€™s use of seer stones, of his troubled relationship with his financially unsuccessful father, of the Book of Mormonâ€™s countercultural take on Native Americans, and of the changing place of women and blacks in unfolding LDS theology are gems. But Joseph Smith, in this book, is not a majestic, triumphant, haloed, barely-mortal dispensation head. He is, by Bushmanâ€™s portrait, a flawed manâ€”one making many mistakes and subject to many weaknesses. His straightforward style might be a little jarring to those used to sanitized Church history, but this book is and will be the benchmark biography of the founding prophet for a long time.
And now for the questions:
(1) By way of prefacing the book you write: “For a character as controversial as Smith, pure objectivity is impossible. What I can do is to look frankly at all sides of Joseph Smith, facing up to his mistakes and flaws. Covering up errors makes no sense in any case.” This is, obviously, not the approach of official, correlated Church history. What are the benefits and drawbacks of your approachâ€”and what would you say to a Church member whose faith has been jarred by the disconnect between what s/he learned about Joseph Smith in Sunday School and what s/he learned from reading your book?
I believe the disconnect can damage young Latter-day Saints who learn later in life they have not been given the whole story on Church history. They are tempted to doubt the credibility of their former teachers; what else are they hiding, the shocked young people want to know? On the other hand, are we obligated to talk about Josephâ€™s character defects in Sunday School class, or his thirty wives? That may defeat the purpose of Sunday School or Institute. I am hoping that a book like mine will help to introduce all aspects of Josephâ€™s life into common lore about the Prophet the way most people know he had a seerstone. These now disturbing facts will become one more thing you accept along with visitation of angels and gold plates. People will wonder, question, and eventually assimilate.
(2) Thereâ€™s been a flurry of news stories recently about some newly rediscovered arrest records for Joseph Smith. Have you been able to examine these? Is there anything of interest in them?
We now know Joseph Smith was involved in over 150 law suits. He had a court case hanging over him virtually every day of his life after 1830. Individually, the cases do not reveal surprising new aspects of his character or his thought, but as a whole they are a new factor to be weighed. When the legal and business volumes of the Joseph Smith Papers are published we will have a better sense of how constant litigation bore on the Prophet.
(3) It seems paradoxical that Joseph translated from physical objects (plates, papyri) when he didnâ€™t technically need (or in some cases even look at) them while translating. Were you able to get a sense of what purpose these physical objects served?
The question is a good one, but we can only speculate about the technology of translation. I have lamely likened the plates to a computer, a physical object that gives us access to large bodies of information.
(4) Your characterization of Joseph Smith, Sr. as an inadequate provider is full of sympathy and sadness. You trace some ways in which Mormonismâ€”particularly its concept of priesthoodâ€”compensated for his failings. Is there any evidence indicating that his fathering affected Joseph Smith as a father?
Joseph, Jr., was not a failed father like Joseph, Sr. He was eminent, confident, commanding. On the other hand, he did not leave his son much of a worldly estate either. He intended to leave him priesthood as his patrimony, which eventually Joseph III accepted. For all his lacks in providing for his children, however, Joseph, Sr., did not fail in the affection department. He was the one Joseph, Jr., turned to for comfort during the leg operation. Joseph the Prophet gave the same kind of affection to his wife and children.
(5) A perpetually busy Joseph Smith devoted quite a bit of energy to learning Hebrew, which seems odd given his gift for translation–when he didn’t know the original language. Why did Joseph Smith study Hebrew?
He studied German too and was fascinated by all languages, except the most obvious ones, Latin and Greek, which were associated with the classical civilization that he bypassed entirely. His willingness to engage a Hebrew teacher is some indication Joseph recognized that the word â€œtranslationâ€? for his dictation of the Book of Mormon was a misnomer. He knew his mode of translating was different from the scholarsâ€™. He wanted Seixas to teach him the other way. I interpret the Egyptian Grammar as a failed attempt to bring the two processes together, that is, to learn Egyptian while he was translating by inspiration.
(6) Why do you think the history of the reception of the Melchezidek priesthood is unclear, especially when compared with the Aaronic priesthood?
I am not sure the history of the reception was clear to Joseph either. He was able to give a clear account of the Aaronic Priesthood when he wrote his history in 1839, but not of the High Priesthood. His records actually note three occasions for bestowal of the Melchizedek Priesthood: Moroni said Elijah would reveal the priesthood; Josephâ€™s history said God commanded him to ordain Oliver an Elder; and Joseph and others said he bestowed the Melchizedek Priesthood for the first time in June 1831 when he had himself ordained too. The scriptures say that Peter, James, and John bestowed the apostleship, not the Melchizedek Priesthood. I do not know how to bring clarity to this picture. Our own presuppositions also hinder us from reading the record. We think Joseph had to have had the Melchizedek Priesthood before organizing the Church, and we believe that ordination had to be by the laying on of hands. Those presuppositions add to the difficulty of interpreting a confused record. My tentative conclusion is that Joseph saw the restoration of the priesthood as a cascade of keys, bringing one authority and power after another, not a simple one-two punch of Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthood restorations.
(7) You write of Joseph Smith â€œengaged in a series of small quarrels, domestic disturbances, and squabbles. He did not rise above the fray in the serene majesty of his calling.â€? The Joseph Smith who throws a bugle in a fit of rage and who signs letters â€œwith utter contemptâ€? doesn’t remotely fit a 21st-century Church memberâ€™s conception of what a prophet should be. What are your thoughts on this?
I hope these descriptions will help us expand our ideas of prophetic character. We are so wedded to the nineteenth-century idea of the feminine Christ, soft, gentle, forgiving, that we lose track of the more fractious and demanding prophets of the Old Testament. I rather like the idea of a rugged prophet with sharp edges and fierce reactions.
(8) Do we know if the writings of Joseph of Egypt were translated? If they were, do we know where they now are?
(9) A major tenet of the Church today is that the prophet will not lead the Church astray. Contrast that with John Corrillâ€™s explanation of why he left the Church:
“When I retrace our track, and view the doings of the church for six years past, I can see nothing that convinces me that God has been our leader; calculation after calculation has failed, and plan after plan has been overthrown, and our prophet seemed not to know the event till too late. If he said go up and prosper, still we did not prosper; but have labored and toiled, and waded through trials, difficulties, and temptations, of various kinds, in hope of deliverance. But no deliverance came.”
You then write, â€œEverything Corrill said was true. The great work had met defeat after defeat.â€? How do you reconcile Josephâ€™s mistakes with the idea that the prophet will not lead the Church astray?
There is a difference between leading the Church astray and keeping the Church out of trouble. The early Christian apostles could not end opposition to and persecution of the primitive Church. Sometimes doing the right thing leads to suffering and death.
(10) There are only a handful of majestic, powerful images of Joseph Smith in this book, such as the scene where he orders the prison guards silent on pain of death lest they continue their blasphemy, obscene jests, and filthy language. Why are there not more â€œfaith-promoting storiesâ€? in Rough Stone Rolling? Are they not substantiated by the historical record? Are they not germane to your portrait?
I did as a policy avoid stories told long after Josephâ€™s death. There are so many reasons to exaggerate and distort that it complicates the writing terribly to enter all the qualifications necessary to evaluate these posthumous accounts. Actually I felt there was plenty that was inspiring in the materials I was more confident of. I find inspiration in prophetic sorrow and defeat as well as in triumph.
(11) In the context of the revelation commanding polygamy, you wrote, â€œThe possibility of an imaginary revelation, erupting from his own heart and subconscious mind, seems not to have occurred to Joseph.â€? But it apparently occurred to you. For some members, what is most troubling about pre-Utah polygamy (besides, of course, the practice itself) includes the secrecy, public disavowals, and the fact that many of Joseph Smithâ€™s wives were already married to other men. How do you make sense of the Churchâ€™s history of polygamy?
I sense two related questions here. One has to do with the possibility that Joseph was misled; the other about the miseries and deceptions following from plural marriage. I donâ€™t think Joseph entertained the possibility of self-deception. He knew all too well the horrendous consequences for the Church and himself personally in instituting plural marriage. Though usually punctilious in obeying the commandments, he delayed nearly a decade (save for the unhappy experiment with Fanny Alger) before complying with this one. Once into plural marriage, he found himself ensnared in all the convoluted activities you name. The expediencies he adopted made him and lots of other people unhappy. I donâ€™t know anyone who can make real sense of this. All I can say is that the practice did result in the creation of a powerful culture in fifty years. The descendants of the people who came through those times are the core of faithful members today. In actual fact, plural marriage did raise up a people to the Lord.
(12) Your epilogue begins with the famous statement from Joseph Smith: â€œYou donâ€™t know meâ€”you never will I donâ€™t blame you for not believing my history had I not experienced it [I] could not believe it myself.â€? After researching and writing this book, you come closer to experiencing his history than most of the Saints. Do you feel that you know Joseph Smith?
Only in part. There are too many veils between us and Joseph Smith. I am pretty sure there were struggles and sorrows in his life we know not of. Were there visions and glories too? Probably. I do know he was an exceptionally strong man who could bear defeat and discouragement without giving up. Courage may have been one of his strongest traits.
(13) Melissa also asked: Do you think this is the sort of book that, had you written it as a young scholar, would have negatively impacted your career? In other words, do you think that the fact that you are retired gave you some freedom to write a book that you couldn’t have written if you were trying to get tenure?
I donâ€™t think writing about Joseph Smith would have counted against me so long as the scholarship was sound. My historical colleagues respected my first book on the Prophet which contains all the really demanding episodes, save for plural marriage. It was published five years before I was offered the job at Columbia.
Having Sunday School on the one hand and RSR on the other sounds just about ideal. Hopefully next time we do the D&C/Church History, Sunday School teachers will tell folks that this book is a good source.
As I think there’s a copy of this book under our Christmas tree, I’ve not decided whether waiting is really a virtue (in this instance, that is).
I’m only half way through the book (I waited and waited for it for a Birthday present – but it never came! Found it two weeks ago at a Maryland B&N).
The main issue I have is one of expectations. This book has been talked up for years but it just doesn’t come close to the insights in Givens’ “By the Hand of Mormon” for example.
Perhaps I’m a sucker for Church History trivia but there is really nothing new that I have read. It does an excellent job of bringing together all of the disparate elements and sources for a story (e.g. Lucy and family leaving Vermont, Joseph’s operation). But it also avoids some of the most interesting details of some stories (e.g. Alvin’s portended role in obtaining the plates, various descriptions of the plates). But these are minor criticisms. It is a definitive resource.
I think one of the main problems is that the book lacks any sense of climax. Chapters do not seem to end with any suspense, major milestones in the book are passed by at a sprinter’s pace (e.g. obtaining the plates, restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood.) Rather, it seems almost encyclopedic in nature. Perhaps that is purposeful. I think sometimes Bushman suffers from trying too hard to be “fair and balanced”.
The key indicator for me is that it is taking so long to read the book. I’m a fairly speedy reader but I have to almost force myself to read it. It just isn’t gripping enough for a biography.
The descendants of the people who came through those times are the core of faithful members today.
As a Gentile-blooded mission-field Mormon, I would beg to differ on this one! Still, it does the raise the question of the legacy of polygamy. Jan Shipps is keen on drawing a distinction between “Mormon as ethnic bloodline” (through polygamy), and membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As a second-generation British Mormon, I do not think that I can ever be ethnically Mormon. Whether this is a good or bad thing I will not say (!), but I wonder whether you think Joseph wanted a people or a church, and what role polygamy may have played in creating a “people” rather than just a “church.”
Fascinating, Ronan. May I ask why you can’t “ever be ethnically Mormon”? Is it because you won’t–its too alien or uncomfortable for you? Or is it because you can’t–ethnic Mormons won’t let you or its impossible for some other reason?
And given all that, what’s your attitude towards the ethnic Mormon phenomenon? Do you find it to be ‘a bug, not a feature’?
As a second generation member; I don’t see how _any_ member can not be “ethnically” Mormon. Even those that reject certain Utah trads will follow others and create their own that others adopt.
Look at the last sentence of page 83. How can you ask for more of a cliffhanger?
This book is outstanding.
Please hang around and check out Nate Oman’s review, which will be posted on Friday: he and Bushman discuss issues very pertinent to your take on the book: that is, the question “what’s new?” You’re right that a lot of excitement was built up in the waiting for this book; I think a lot of us wanted to see some definite answers about various hitherto unanswerables regarding Jospeh, the evolution of the priesthood, polygamy, etc. The fact that there are climaxes and answers in the book, but not necessarily the one’s we hoped for or expected, tells us something about the limits of Mormon history–or at least that was Nate’s conclusion.
How much time do you have?
Really, I need to do some yoga on a mountain to make sense of what my feelings are on this issue. May Wilfried can help. Here are some of the issues (which I am unable to make sense of right now):
1. Am I a British Mormon, or a Mormon Briton?
2. How much is my world-view influenced by my Mormonism and how much by British culture and values?
3. What constitutes Mormon ethnicity? Pioneer blood? Deep geographical ties to Deseret?
Let me take a stab at your questions:
Is it because you wonâ€™tâ€“its too alien or uncomfortable for you?
Maybe. Inasmuch as Mormon ethnicity is bound with a Rocky Mountain worldview. Can you imagine how far apart Lehi, Utah and Malvern, Worcestershire are in cultural terms? Quite far.
Or is it because you canâ€™tâ€“ethnic Mormons wonâ€™t let you or its impossible for some other reason?
Inasmuch as ethnic Mormons demand a Utah-centric world view as a pre-requisite for admission I am doomed!
And given all that, whatâ€™s your attitude towards the ethnic Mormon phenomenon? Do you find it to be â€˜a bug, not a featureâ€™?
Dunno. It exists, sure. How else do we know Napolean Dynamite is Mormon despite never mentioning it?! Yes, it’s set in Idaho, but it is more than that.
I think, in short, that I am beginning to understand that my Mormonism is different to many others’ on some cultural level. That the core Gospel remains the same, without alienating non-Americans, is the great challenge of the Church right now. I live in America and frankly feel like a stranger in a strange land at church sometimes. But other times it’s utterly familiar. On balance, I’ve enjoyed church in Europe more.
Sorry if that is not very substantive. To return to Professor Bushman’s role here, I wonder, again, what he thinks Joseph’s vision for the Church was as it grew. Would he have expected/tolerated a scattered, non-“ethnic” Zion as we now have it? Or was it all about blood (as I think polygamy wanted)?
I’ m sure that Richard is NOT saying that descendants of 19th C polygamous Mormons are better or more important than newer converts. However, clearly Joseph had in mind a larger project than simply establishing a new religious denomination. Joseph built cities, not chapels. I am rather confident that he would have answered in the affirmative if you could have asked him if one of is objectives was to establish a righteous people. We probably can never say whether he would have thougth that the actual western American Mormon ethnic group that resulted from his mission fulfilled this objective.
However, the issue goes beyond Joseph’s own intentions. One result of RSR that I am already seeing both in personal encounters and in the Bloggernacle is that it is forcing modern Mormons to deal anew with the fact of plural marriage in our past. In his response, Richard invoked Jacob 2:30 and I think that is the most productive ground to look for a way of understanding this history. How was the restored kingdom to survive? The fact is that the geographical isolation and cohesion that came from moving west and the social isolation and cohesion that came from practicing polygamy did result in the creation of a people who preserved and prospered Joseph’s visions. It should be noted that it was always understood that new members would be always be being assimilated into this people. In the contemporary church we are exploring whether a sense of “peoplehood” can be preserved while transcending the Utah Mormon ethnic group.
Does raising up this people (seed) justify this divine exception to the law of monogamy? That can be debated endlessly, but at least it offers modern Mormons an intellectual framework to understand the practice in the context of the larger restored gospel.
I hesitate to have this thread veer further into polygamy when Richard had so many other interesting things to say, but I note that what actually resulted was preferable to two other alternative paths followed by other new religions of the time. These are the mellow assimilationism of Christian Science or the fanatical fundamentalism of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
With regard to Justin’s comment, I must say that one of my favorite parts of the book is the very end (which Justin may not have reached yet). The abruptness with which Richard deals with the martyrdom powerfully evokes the abruptness and shock with which the people of the time received the unexpected news of assasination. The last chapter provides a wonderful climax if some of the other chapter endings do not.
I wouldn’t worry about it if we have Dieter F. Uchtdorf in the Quorum of the Twelve.
I hadn’t planned on reading the book until I read this interview. I am not a historian by any means and haven’t read much church history. I think I’m going to start here.
I understand the point Richard was making: that polygamy and its descendants helped create and fashion the core Mormon “people.” We are now (and have been for a while) seeing that core expand and convert others, who, according to Shipps, do not become “Mormon” but “members of the Church.” I think I understand the difference. I only wonder what Joseph had in mind, and what he would have thought of people like me who considers himself (wait for it….) British first and Mormon second.
I should qualify that. If by “Mormon” we mean a kind of caricatured western American ethnicity then I am not that. If by “Mormon” we mean someone who understands himself to be a son of God and priesthood bearer, then I’m that and I think Joseph would be pleased. The Church may have needed polygamy to pass on that legacy (debatable); I, however, did not.
Ronan: Thanks for your comments. For myself, I think of myself as “Mormon” first and American second. I do, however, think that this is problematic. I don’t think that we can have a church of people like me, nor do I think that we would want one. Furthermore, my sense is that institutionally the Church no longer sees people like me and our identity as its primary concern. In other words, I suspect that as someone who sees himself as British first and “Mormon” second you are much closer to the core of the modern church than I am. In the end, I think that this is for the best. However, I am left to wonder what to make of my own “ethnicity” if you will. I don’t feel entirely comfortable as an American, yet as an ethnic Mormon I realize that within modern Mormonism I am something of an anachronism. It is an odd position to be in.
Of course, all of this may simply be a way of saying that — at the end of the day — I am an American. After all, being a member of an ethnic and cultural minority that has a love-hate relationship with America and an ambivalent attitude toward assimilation puts me firmly in the mainstream of the American experience!
So what you’re saying, Nate, is that you’re a frumpy old git stuck in your Mormon Shire, and I’m at the vanguard of the kingdom of God as it pushes into the 21st century. Cool. I can live with that. (Insert smiley, winkey face.)
Something like that ;->….
Of course, my Mormon Shire consists of northern Virginia and K Street, which lacks a certain Acadian quality, but you take what you can get…
I think, Nate Oman, we have to embrace our ethnicity without worrying too much about the ethnic identity of our co-religionists. The problem is, though, that our ethnicity, our peoplehood, is so tied up with the church that it sort of falls apart when the church turns its back on it. Frankly, I would prefer to convert souls to the gospel and also assimilate them to our people, but God does not will it.
“There are only a handful of majestic, powerful images of Joseph Smith in this book, such as the scene where he orders the prison guards silent on pain of death lest they continue their blasphemy, obscene jests, and filthy language. Why are there not more â€œfaith-promoting storiesâ€? in Rough Stone Rolling?”
Bullying and death threats by Joseph are “majestic” and “faith-promoting”. Yikes!
It is odd to think that those of us with this “Mormon ethnicity” really are not only a minority in America but also in the Church itself. After all, Ronan’s great, great, great, great grandparents (is that too many greats?) were literally neighbors to mine and Allison’s (assuming that his ancestors were in the Birmingham/Malvern area at that time. Allison’s and my ancestors converted back then, came across, suffered the horrible persecutions and abuse at the hands of the Americans, were forced out of their homes, made the trek across the plains, and were either polygamous apostles or the wives of such (Charles C. Rich on Allison’s side and Franklin D. Richards on my side) and settled in the Arcadia Nate refers to, i.e. what they refered to as their Zion in Deseret. Ronan’s family found the church in his own generation. Now we are both members of the same Church but have necessarily very different perspectives about what LDS identity means. I readily admit that I cannot fully understand what it must mean to him or the majority of Church members who are like him, and I guess that means reciprocally that they do not and cannot know what it means to this dwindling minority (although I would assume it is still rather substantial) who would have to admit that they are ethnic Mormons in addition to being Latter-day Saints. And yet none of this inhibited Ronan and his family and my family to experience the ties of the Gospel itself as we lived in the same ward. As Adam alluded to above, it is this tie to the Gospel itself that truly binds us to each other, rendering the issue of Mormon ethnicity irrelevant in a doctrinal sense, even if it is interesting anthropologically (although I highly doubt that).
Sorry to have encouraged what might look like a thread jack here, folks, but I am genuinely interested in how Joseph would view the evolution from kingdom to church.
John, I don’t think you’re a minority, either in terms of active members, or in terms of general leadership and influence. This is still the Church of the Pioneers and will remain so for a while.
“rendering the issue of Mormon ethnicity irrelevant in a doctrinal sense”
I don’t see it, John Fowles. Maybe you’re just saying that the Gospel doesn’t require us to be the Church of the Pioneers (as Brother Ronan puts it). But the Gospel does require us, sooner or later, to be a people.
Ronan, I do think that people with this Mormon ethnicity are in the minority, when considering that more members live outside the US than inside. It might be a substantial minority, but a minority nonetheless.
Adam, I agree that we are required to be “one people.” But this unified identity can indeed transcend blood and border. When Ronan and I were in the same ward, we were truly “a people” together with the other members of the ward, but that doesn’t mean that someone like Ronan could possibly fathom what it means to someone like me to hear discussion of topics like polygamy and the miracles experienced by the early church. It is merely an issue of experience, but one that is non-essential to Gospel membership. The important thing is that we follow the mandate of the BoM to remember how merciful God has been to our ancestors, and no blood tie is required for that.
I hope this adds an interesting spin on the conversation:
My parents are deaf and consequently I am proficient at sign language and served an ASL mission from ’00-’02.
As the district leader for 6 ASL missionaries, I was often faced with the challenge of resolving disputes between hearing and deaf missionaries. These disputes were typically sparked by lack of understanding/appreciation by both missionaries of either “Deaf Culture” (which is exteremely important to many deaf people) and “Hearing culture” (which we often don’t realize is also extremely important to hearing people, they are just rarely confronted with a situation in which that aspect of their lives is challenged).
My counsel to these missionaries, in various ways, was that when we are serving as missionaries our cultural preferences always come second to the gospel and being obedient to our leaders. The problems always arose when one missionary would insist on doing things his or her way because that was their cultural norm.
Example: Our MTC district was extremely tight knit and went through our 9 weeks with wonderful associations. The one great divider and worst cause of contention was when the hearing missionaries insisted on *speaking* to each other instead of using sign language all the time so that the deaf missionaries did not feel excluded. Unfortunately the hearing missionaries were too attached to their culture of speaking and hearing conversations that the problem was never resolved before the end of our time and I suspect some of our district members still feel bitter about the experience.
Reverse Example: Deaf missionaries would start to bad-mouth the Mission President when he would not approve their recommendations regarding how the work should be done in their area. The mantra being “He doesn’t understand deaf culture, let’s just do it anyway”. I can’t imagine that the Lord was either pleased or supportive of the work when it was being done contrary to the direction of the Mission President
Ever since my mission I have concluded that man-made cultures are highly overrated and often lead to the obstruction of the Lord’s work
Thanks for referring to me, Ronan (9), for trying to help understand… I certainly can concur with what you say about cultural identity in the Church, but I have no more answers than you have. The problem is complex, intercultural, international, political, value-laden. Interesting debate on this at BCC “Why the Church is More True in Argentina”, with reference to Van Beek’s recent article in Dialogue: “Mormon Europeans or European Mormons? An â€œAfro-Europeanâ€? View on Religious Colonization”. I think at present and in theory the Church wants to be supranational, devoid of politics, ethnic-independent, truly international, but the social and cultural reality shows we are still far away from that ideal, if feasible and desirable. How did Joseph Smith view the future of the Kingdom? Perhaps ethnic, but probably not American. But we will have more occasion to discuss this when Van Beek’s review of RSR will appear later this week. It tackles that issue.
“Can you imagine how far apart Lehi, Utah and Malvern, Worcestershire are in cultural terms? Quite far.”
Yes, but only if you imagine the poetry of William Langland and Garth Brooks to be “different” from each other somehow.
“But this unified identity can indeed transcend blood and border.”
But only because it creates a new blood, John Fowles, by adopting us all into the house of Israel and tieing together the loose strands on the family trees through sealing.
Admittedly, I may not have your knowledge of church history. Still, I’m in the middle of the first year of medical school and I find I have to force myself to put the book down to study anatomy. While I admit the narrative may lack urgency, I find the analysis breathtaking. I think the book is a treasure not so much because it gives definitive answers but because it asks such important questions. Even some of the greatest “cultural historians” (a la Tocqueville) are remembered more for asking than answering. Also, as has been mentioned, the very fact that such a prominant historian writes such a believing book, while still leaving room for paradox, is confirming and encouraging.
I have memories of Virginian Saints echoing many of Ronan’s concerns, not wanting to be morphed, culturally speaking, into “Utah Mormons” — and just about every non-Utahan in every BYU singles ward will fervently tell you the same thing. Please do not assume we accord deeply with the pageantry of the 24th of July, etc. — California and Arizona, not to mention New York and Boston, are a far far cry from Utah and Idaho. But still, Adam’s point about “a people” is made whenever you sit down in any LDS congregation anywhere and the lay bishop finishes the announcements and the (very) lay priests stand up to break the bread. I personally do not care for a lot of what is (rightly or wrongly) associated with the pioneer heritage of the Church, which is only saying I don’t care for Utah and Idaho culture generally. But a short car ride will take me to something utterly different and yet, in the loveliest of ways, utterly the same.
Continuing the threadjack, I caught a few minutes of Lynne Cheney on CSpan the other evening, describing the conversion in Wales (Carmarthanshire or Cargarbledupshire) of a young woman and her family, the deaths by cholera of her child and husband somewhere on the Missouri River, her trek alone to Salt Lake City, her remarriage and birth of a son “who was my great-grandfather.”
Does Mrs. Cheney consider herself an “Ethnic” Mormon because of that part of her background, I wonder? I haven’t heard any suggestion that her connection to the church is any closer than that.
Actually, I wasn’t really implying that this “ethnically Mormon” term was synonymous with “Utah Mormon,” although I can see why some here are taking it that way. I was referring to a blood tie that reaches back in time, and not one that spreads geographically. One could be “ethnic Mormon” based on this and have nothing at all to do with Utah or Idaho Mormon sub-culture, whatever that is (it just means whatever the particular speaker doesn’t like about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). One could be an ivy-league sophisticate who lives in the northeast and would never dream of serving jello and funeral potatoes (assuming, arguendo, that this is the crux of what people refer to as Utah culture–that and having the audacity to participate in Sunday School lessons in wards that are not their homewards) and have this blood tie. In theory, someone like Ronan could fully succomb to the horrors of Utah or Idaho culture and serve jello and funeral potatoes every Sunday but still would not be ethnically Mormon based on this blood tie. Making jello and funeral potatoes is not a requirement for belonging to “this people” and neither is being an “ethnic Mormon.” Likewise, making jello and funeral potatoes is not a requirement–or in any way related–to being an ethnic Mormon, I would suggest. And I would also suggest that being an “ethnic Mormon” doesn’t have any value in and of itself (thus, noone could ever say, I am somehow better than you because of this blood tie that I have that makes me an ethnic Mormon). It is only a footnote, nothing more. The more important thing is assimilating into the covenant people under the unifying principle of the Gospel, and hopefully of Zion, in which the new blood Adam mentions is created. I think there is room here to differentiate between speaking of blood in a spiritual manner, and just referring to literal, physical blood that is running in people’s veins.
“Please do not assume we accord deeply with the pageantry of the 24th of July, etc. â€” California and Arizona, not to mention New York and Boston, are a far far cry from Utah and Idaho.”
Kingsley, you don’t much about the Saints in Arizona. They’re not Utah Mormons, but they are deeply, truly part of the Mormon heartland. We celebrate the 24th with a parade down main street, at least in the small town I come from.
“Mormon ethnicity” is not the same thing as “genetically descended from early Utah pioneers.”
So you’re saying it is jello and funeral potatoes after all?
Wearing a yarmulke and tifillin don’t make me ethnically Jewish and speaking fluent German or even living in Germany according to German customs doesn’t make me German. The blood that flows in the veins determines ethnicity.
Ronan’s contrast of Lehi, Utah, and Malvern, Worcestershire, illustrates how much our pioneer ancestors left the world to gather with the saints.
When the Butler family left Redbourn, Hertfordshire, could they have imagined St. Johns, Arizona?
Is the “move” that a 20th or 21st century convert makes at all comparable? If not, will the church succeed in making us all one people?
I’m actually not all that convinced about Ronan’s contrasting of Lehi and Malvern. It is true that the houses look different and the food is different (though not by that much, actually), and the landscape is very different, but they are both small towns and I am willing to bet that, even if Ronan can’t really see it, Malvern is probably just as provincial and narrow-minded as he is implying that Lehi is.
“Wearing a yarmulke and tifillin donâ€™t make me ethnically Jewish and speaking fluent German or even living in Germany according to German customs doesnâ€™t make me German. The blood that flows in the veins determines ethnicity.”
This is one concept of ethnicity, but its not the only one. America is clearly a nation, not just a state, but one can become an American without necessarily being ‘of the blood.’ That’s a national concept we clearly reject.
In fact, that purely genetic basis for determining ethnicity is particularly inappropriate for Mormons, since are ethnicity is created. The pioneers did not come to Deseret because they had a common ancestor. I would suggest that common culture and a shared heritage, not trivialities like jello, (though they’re part) define ethnicity.
Kingsley: “But a short car ride will take me to something utterly different and yet, in the loveliest of ways, utterly the same.”
There have been Sabbaths that I’ve made the 16-mile car ride to attend services in both the Watts (South Central LA) branch and in the Palos Verdes (top of the hill, big $ sign in the sky) Stake. Your description captures the jarring similarity of the restored gospel as practiced by the Saints in those groups. The similarities and contrasts taught me much of what is the gospel and what is culture. As you said, the similarity/gospel is the love-liest. Love for God and for each other is what both groups have, channeled by testimony, priesthood, and doctrine.
Malvern is probably just as provincial and narrow-minded
Wrong. Can’t actually speak for Lehi, but Malvern is a wonderfully erudite, sophisticated little town. Well, mostly. Visit me there some day. (It’s where CS Lewis went to school, btw. And where Elgar wrote his music.) It’s also only 10 miles from Gadfield Elm (Wilford Woodruff-United Brethren territory). Mark is right, those English Saints gave up the most beautiful corner of England for Zion (these weren’t the urban poor – John Benbow was a wealthy landowner). Such was the call in their hearts, not for a culture of the desert or of jello, but the kingdom of God.
“Such was the call in their hearts, not for a culture of the desert or of jello, but the kingdom of God.”
Indeed. On the other hand, their experience transformed them. They ceased to be English in some sense, but they didn’t become Americans. They became a new tribe; a fact that the Indians recognized by distinguishing between Americans and “mormonis.” We do a disservice, I think, when we reduce the people that experience created to jello and funeral potatoes alone. I don’t think that Mormonism, the Restoration, or what it means to be a Latter-day Saint should be defined by reference to the people created in the crucible of the 19th century Mormon experience. Like any other semi-isolated tribe they have their odd traditions and their own narrow-minded prejudices. Their culture cannot be identified as a universal revelation from God. Nor should we think of them as an elite within the Kingdom or a core against which the periphery should be judged. Yet their culture was a tool that God used in his work, even though it is one that he (thankfully in my view) seems to be discarding more and more.
Nate, #14: “I donâ€™t feel entirely comfortable as an American, yet as an ethnic Mormon I realize that within modern Mormonism I am something of an anachronism. It is an odd position to be in.”
Nate, #37: “[Mormon] culture was a tool that God used in his work, even though it is one that he (thankfully in my view) seems to be discarding more and more.”
Is there an inconsistency between these two statements, Nate? Or just evidence of unresolved allegiances and feelings? On the one hand, you lament that your abiding sense of attachment to ethnic Mormonism makes you an odd duck in the Mormon church today, which has (arguably) accomodated itself entirely to the individuations of modernity; on the other, you express thanks to God for the fact that He is, in your view, encouraging exactly that. I guess this is hardly a new question between us, but since you’ve brought it up in this thread once more, I’ll ask it again: are you pleased that Mormonism, in your view, has become liberal? Or do you view it as kind of a bummer?
Russell: I am pleased that Mormonism is adapting in ways that make it possible to bring the Restoration to the world. Part of what that means is that the ethnic identity that I have as a Mormon will become increasingly marginal not only within the larger society but also within the Church itself. Since the Church more or less created this identity and it flows from the Church, the fact that I think that it will become increasingly marginalized within the institution that gave it birth will leave it in an increasingly awkward position. Hence my primary form of ethnic identity is, in some sense, becoming increasingly ridiculous, even (or especially) to me. Of course, I am talking about long term trends here. As I am sure that Ronan and Wilfried can testify, it is not as though the Church as an institution isn’t still involved in the valorization the history that gave rise to Mormon ethnicity, or as though the “pioneer stock” doesn’t continue to have a huge amount of cultural and institutional influence in the Church. My point, however, is that over the long haul all of the indicators point toward the increasingly marginalization of this form of identity. Since it happens to be the identity that I was born with and that I identify with more powerfully than national citizenship, the fact that as a historical matter I see it as a doomed enterprise makes me a little wistful. In the end the Deseretites never got their nation and I think that increasingly the Church is leaving them behind as it transforms itself from the institutional manifestation of failed nationhood into the institutional manifestation of a global faith. In the end, all that the Deseretites will be left with that is truely their own is Utah, and even that they will have to share with Park City and Rocky Anderson. It is a little sad.
On the other hand, I believe in creative destruction. If the attenuation, dilution, and marginalization of my ethnic identity is necessary to create a Church that converts and holds on to the Ronan Heads and Wilfried Decos of the world, then in my view it is no contest: Take the Mormon ethnic identity out behind the barn and shoot it…
You can see this strange tension of ethnic vs. traditional vs. liberal in this article I posted today on Harry Reid, Mormon Anomaly:
It is interesting to note that sometimes people seem to assume that, because I am Belgian and belong to the “international Church”, I would automatically be in favor of some kind of Mormon cultural diversification and de-Americanization or de-ethnicization of the Church. On the contrary. For years I have consistently emphasized that we are not only not ripe for that course, but that it is not advisable. The Church is still very young, much of the leadership abroad still inexperienced, and converts with their own religious and cultural backgrounds keep joining in still immature branches. For the sake of unity, to counter the risks of alterations and division, we need to continue to impress some kind of universal Mormon identity across the world. Yes, correlation helps here. This does not mean that we can avoid surface differences, which at times can be surprising or even irritating, but there is a core which makes the Church, in essence, the same all over the world.
However, to determine the difference between the core and temporary, marginal things, is not always easy. For example, when I read (in Van Beek’s recent article in Dialogue) that European stake presidents do not care to work against legislation that allows SSM, is their attitude a core problem or a marginal matter?
If anyone wonders if this is continuing a threadjack, the topic was actually started by Richard Bushman when he stated in his response to question 11: “All I can say is that the practice did result in the creation of a powerful culture in fifty years. The descendants of the people who came through those times are the core of faithful members today. In actual fact, plural marriage did raise up a people to the Lord.” From there we went on discussing the relation between present-day “ethnic Mormons” (the faithful core) and “gentile convert Mormons”. Of course we then should also discuss to what extent the present “ethnic” generation is a pure continuation or at least a true reflection of 19th century Mormonism – without plural marriage. I think the topic is part of Van Beek’s upcoming review of RSR.
Last night I listened to the first few minutes of a BYU talk by David O. McKay. He started with a funny story of him and Stephen L. Richards traveling together to Malad, a Welsh town in Idaho. In the story McKay clarifies to Richards that he is not only Scottish, but also Welsh on his mother’s side. Richards expresses doubt that McKay can make so grand a claim until McKay rattles off the complicated phonemes describing where his mother came from. The story ends with McKay imitating the accent of an old woman in Malad accepting him as one of their own.
Do you have a link to that?
Nate and Wilfried,
If we can define what we mean by core ethnic identity, then we will understand each other better. The “myth” of the Pioneers should and indeed must become a part of collective Mormon indentity, whether you are from Utah or Uzbekistan. Judaism has survived because be they Ashkenazik or Sephardic, they were all at Sinai. There are ways of celebrating this: down the road from my parents is the newly restored Gadfield Elm chapel. It’s as English as you can get, and local Saints embrace it as their own as part of English Mormon history. But the displays at the chapel, and the pageants that take place there, still point to the Trek and to Zion. Somehow it works. The Saints feel connected to their own land and its spiritual heritage, and with the wider Church. (This, btw, is the topic of a paper I have proposed for the MHA conference.)
I made a mistake in my above comment. The President Richards in McKay’s story was not Stephen L. Richards. It was William H. Richards, president of the Malad Stake. I found a text of the talk here.
Ronan, if you want to hear “ClneydyfagwyrCefn Cold Cwmer, near Merthyr-Tydfil, South Wales, and her name is Evans” in McKay’s voice, that’s here. It’s at the very beginning of the MP3, no searching necessary. I recommend it.
I think that the gospel transcends cultural issues if we will let it. I think I have far more in common with Thulani Thusi on of my Zulu mission buddies then I do with the non-LDS car salesman next door. Thulani and I speak the same gospel language have made the same covenants and have the same idea about families. Thulani is a convert and he is Zulu but he is my brother in the gospel first and a Zulu next.
I also feel closer to Ronan with his Britishness then he realizes. Some of my people joined the church thru John Taylor and then emigrated. If we do our family history I bet we can eventually find the links.
I guess maybe I am overly confident that the divisions between the US Church and its international members is not as large as some posters would have us believe.
As for me I am a combination of the Ethnic core(polygamists Palmyra etc) and more recent converts from Polish Catholicism. I think over the generations the lines between the “Ethnic core” and the others tend to blur in the US.
“The â€œmythâ€? of the Pioneers should and indeed must become a part of collective Mormon indentity, whether you are from Utah or Uzbekistan.”
This I agree with. And this is mostly what I mean by Mormon ethnicity–taking the Pioneer history as part of your history.
“The Saints feel connected to their own land and its spiritual heritage, and with the wider Church.”
Ronan, can you recommend any good reading material about British spirituality pre-1837?
Adam, you’re right, I don’t know all that much about Arizona Saints, but the few I’m aquainted with have seemed just as anxious to maintain an identity apart from the “Utah Church” as their brothers and sisters in exotic-er places.
Just a couple questions for clarification, if I may: Is there anything beyond believing the doctrines of Christ and doing one’s honest best to live them that one must do in order to be part of the Zion people?
Second, do you see anything particularly problematic with people who are believers that live the doctrine, but identify primarily with some other group? For example, I think of myself as an American and a Sooner (and probably as a liberal Democrat) more than I think of myself as a Mormon. I don’t see any level of obedience or faith that I can reach that will change that. Thoughts?
Just a couple questions for clarification, if I may: Is there anything beyond believing the doctrines of Christ and doing oneâ€™s honest best to live them that one must do in order to be part of the Zion people?
I think so. If you are really living the gospel of Christ, in a community that is doing the same, you will be making the sorts of connections with your fellow Saints that in time will transform you into a people, with culture, history, common references, etc.
Second, do you see anything particularly problematic with people who are believers that live the doctrine, but identify primarily with some other group?
Not at the present, no. The Church is content to be a church, and not a kingdom, for the forseeable future. But ultimately, yes.
Adam, sensible points. But then the following questions are raised:
Should the connections necessarily happen on the basis of white America? The majority of Latter-Day Saints are not American, do not speak English, are not white, etc. I’m not saying that you make this argument explicitly, but your comment above that you’d like to see assimilation of converts into “our people” indicates that to a degree. Well, in view of the expansion of the Church, can we say what “our people” are in any sense beyond a common doctrine? Clearly, we can all claim the pioneer myth, Church history (the faithful version), etc. Claiming that, however, does not necessarily create a common culture any more than being an Oklahoman is able to unite gay Oklahomans, straight Oklahomans, black Oklahomans, white Oklahomans, urban, rural, etc. We’ve got Alfalfa Bill, the Grapes of Wrath, the wind sweeping down the plain, et cetera. It still isn’t working. So I think it’s legitimate to ask: if you want unity as a people, why should we defer to Utah as the basis for that when it’s just not the dominant culture in the Church today? (Or, if I’m misreading your argument, what would you propose?)
Put another way: if I develop connections with fellow Saints in Oklahoma, I might be a certain way as a result of those connections. That way would be quite different if I moved to a ward in Ghana. Same interactions, different results. Simply put, I don’t see how your standard of interactions as central to righteousness leads to Church-wide unity. At best, it leads to Mormons clustering around a regional culture rather than a global model.
If my argument that a common culture can’t develop is correct, how does that apply to your answer to my second question? When will cultural allegiance, above and beyond doctrine, be pertinent to salvation? Apart from possibly the Millenium, I don’t see a problem with saying “I love you, and I’ll help you, and I’ll keep the commandments, but I’m still more at home in a non-Mormon context.”
Sorry that there are thousands of questions there, but I do think that this is a matter worth some significant exploration.
But it’s not “Utah Mormons” that define ethnic Mormonicity. It’s the descendents of the Mormon Pioneers–whether they ended up in Utah, Arizona, Nevada, or in Colonial Juarez (maybe especially Colonial Juarez). Arguably this is irrespective of their standing as members in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
On the question of Mormon ethnicity, where do you put someone like me who is a third generation member of the church but whose family does not live in the U.S.? (My grandparents joined the church in Europe in the early 20th century and I live in Canada.)
For more than fifty years prophets have been counselling members who joined the church outside the U.S. to stay in their home countries and to build up Zion. Yet it seems that more often than not, when church members are characterized, they are divided into either descendents of the pioneers or brand new converts.
This seems to be a bit of a slap in the face to those who were obedient to the prophetic counsel to stay in their homelands (as many of my relatives did), for the rest of the church to act as though they don’t exist. Not to mention not in accordance with reality. (I was grateful to Elder Uchdorf at the most recent General Conference when he put the number of Saints in Europe at close to half a million — once again, probably not all brand new converts.)
As for myself, I don’t feel a particular connection to either the culture of the intermountain west or the pioneer history. This does not keep me from having a profound sense of gratitude for the sacrifices that were made by those who laid the foundation of our faith. But when I hear people talk about how “we are all pioneers” I just want to wince. This is an example of the Utah Mormon culture being superimposed and it feels forced. I am not a pioneer. I am just living my life.
There really shouldn’t be a dominant culture. That’s not what it’s about. The things that unite us are the principles of the gospel. If you don’t believe me come to my urban ward one Sunday and see people from literally all over the world who have nothing else in common but the gospel all getting along. This is the face of the future of the church.
I agree with Nate in #40. Take the Mormon ethnic identity out behind the barn and shoot it. As far as I’m concerned, the sooner that happens the better.
Two things to consider in this prolonged discussion of Mormon ethnic identity. First, JS himself was never a Utah pioneer; the ethnic background of the early Saints was primarily New England, supplemented by early European converts. This mixture was more similar to the current situation than the subsequent isolation in Utah was. This suggests that, as alternative cultures gain more prominence, the pioneer culture itself could be transcended. I’ve attended LDS churches all over the world, and I agree with those who would like the pioneer ethnic to subside in favor of local cultures. I’m not sure what would replace it, though. The only comparable cultural identity I can think of is that which arises from multi-national corporations, which have in some cases created a common identity across multiple cultures. In the meantime, the pioneer culture at least serves as a form of identity. As an alternative, it might be interesting to see if the culture Richard describes in RSR would be worth revisiting.
My second point suggests that, like it or not, the pioneer ethnic is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Several posts have noted that the majority of LDS are outside the U.S. That may be true in raw numbers, but it is far from true in terms of activity levels. When a missionary from South America tells me he attended a ward that had around 120 people attend each Sunday, while the membership of the ward on the records was over 1,500, he’s relating something to me that I don’t think exists in the U.S. So long as membership, in terms of actual activity, continues to center in the Western U.S. in terms of Stakes and Temples (as many temples in Utah as in all of South America), which reflect activity better than raw membership numbers, it is not surprising that the pioneer ethnic identity retains its dominance.
In my experience, the Church has made a major effort to include other cultures. Not just in magazine articles, but in reality. There is plenty of reaching out from Utah to the rest of the world, for example. I’m not aware of any population of a size comparable to Utah’s that has as many people who have lived abroad, and in as many diverse places. I’m currently a service missionary in a Spanish branch, comprised of members from many countries, but the branch exists largely to help those members preserve their local cultural identity.
What I’m interested in is the impact of RSR outside the Utah area. People in Utah deal with polygamy on a daily basis; little in RSR on that issue is “new.” But have LDS outside the U.S. been familiar with the “controversial” aspects of JS that RSR describes? I don’t know whether RSR has been translated in Spanish, for example; if it is, and if people in Latin America read it, what will their reaction be? What about the French, or Germans, or Japanese? Is RSR likely to move the LDS in other countries closer together in terms of culture? Outside the U.S., especially in non-English speaking areas, what is the “common lore” about JS that Richard referred to?
Excellent point about RSR translation, JN. Inasmuch as Mormon scholarship is overwhelmingly English, and because the only Mormon materials really available to non-English speakers are correlated, is there an intellectual division in the church? Sure there is. (That said, most “foreign” intellectuals also read English.)
Like Ronan, for instance.
Thank you Ronan. Fascinating discussion. I would like to comment on it and on Nate’s post (#40).
I understand Nate’s ‘wistful’ thoughts and have felt some of them myself. However, I think his comment and some others are subconciously conflating the The Church of Jesus Christ and the Mormon ethnicity while consciously drawing a line between them. The “dilution” of your ethnic identity has never been necessary to bring the Ronan’s and Wilfried’s into the Church. They all joined for other reasons (and maybe inspife of any ethnic identity). Those who join the church always do so for spiritual reasons, and there has never been a moment when the church wasn’t growing or prosyletizing around the world. Frankly, I don’t think there was ever a Utah “Isolation.” Instead, it was a Utah gathering.
I think the Pioneer ethic (which I also seperate from Mormon ethnicity) is relevant for all Latter-day Saints. Our faith is still extremely new on the world scene, and as the world’s values rapidly change, both 5th Generation Mormons and first genetion converts will find themselves “pioneering” simply by navigating through the spiritual wilderness of the “world”.
As for the particular “ethnicity” of the Mormon Colonies (Canada to Jaurez in Western N. America). I do not think that culture is dead yet! It is very strong, but continues to be influenced by outside factors such as in-migration etc. It is simply one culture (similar to the progeny of non Mormon ranchers, miners and other pioneers in the Western U.S.) who have a certain way of speaking, a “rock-ribbed” ethos of indpendance and discernable political views (all over simplifications of course, but you get the point). Of course, the ones who are Mormons have been tremendously influenced by the Church and polygamy. Similarly, I think we will find that Latin American Latter-day Saints in a generation or two will have been profoundly influenced by the Perpetual Education Fund in ways that young LDS from France or the U.K. will not. Over time, local cultures will continue to be influnced by the Church in uniqe ways and will also being influenced by Globalism in general as well as always retaining many distinct traits.
#18: It’s too bad…no one is on this thread any more, but I feel compelled to respond to WendyP #18.
Joseph Smith was in squalor in a small jail, living in refuse. His captors had tried to feed him human flesh. As I remember the incident, the guards profanity had reached fever pitch but the Prophet remained silent. The gaurds began speaking of evil deeds, and rape of the Latter-day Saints sisters in the presence of the Prophet. Finally, when he could bear it no more, he said something to the effect of “silence ye fiends…cease such talk or you or I die this instant!”. This is hardly an act of bullying (they were prisoners) or an unrighteous death threat. It has been a while since I read this story (I think in the Autobiography of P.P. Pratt) but I heard it often as a youth. Are you not aware of it? If God holds the key to death and judgment, then his sevants do also–but even so, this event is grossly misconstrued if called “bullying” and “death threats”.
Has no one considered the thought that the identity that should matter the most should be the one that lasts the longest?
So whether you are Utahn first, British first, black woman first, New Yorker first, concealed weapon-carrying conservative first (or the many other zillions of possiblities), and a child of God second, how will you feel when you leave this life, and discover that those things no longer matter or even exist? (See #14) Although it is true that the church will not exist as we know it in the world to come, the lifestyle of living the gospel will probably be the most important culture.
Perhaps that was a little too serious a comment for this conversation…