Review: A Peculiar People, or How Protestants Viewed Mormons in the Nineteenth Century

So I finally got around to reading J. Spencer Fluhman’s book “A Peculiar People”: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America. I was expecting another account of “beat up the Mormons” episodes in the 19th century. Instead, it was an entertaining and informative review of how informally established Protestantism worked in the 19th century (hence my subtitle to the post). The focus is not so much on Mormonism as on how everyone else, in particular the Protestant majority, reacted to Mormons and their religion in 19th-century America.

Here are a couple of lines from the opening of the book that lay out that idea.

In the newly disestablished United States, not all religious claims were created equal. The young nation had a host of them to survey as new theologies, new rituals, and new charismatic leaders glutted the public sphere. In this cacophony, anti-Mormonism supplied a focused social enemy for a public divided by sectarianism and wracked by economic and political instability. (p. 9)

We are still, alas, “a focused social enemy” for many Americans, which is what makes the book so relevant for 21st-century readers despite covering events and developments of over a century ago. A few years back I might have said “a focused religious enemy” since the LDS Church had achieved a goodly measure of social acceptance outside Evangelical circles, in which the animus was largely based on religious differences. But in the wake of Prop 8 and the hardening of the LDS religious and political position against gay marriage and anything associated with it (gay people, gay children, children of gay people, relatives of gay people who say nice things about the hopes and dreams of their gay relatives, etc.) we have lost ground. For many Americans, Mormons are either a social enemy, a political enemy, or both.

The body of the book traces the changing views and criticisms of Mormonism expressed by religious speakers of the day across the 19th century, from (1) imposter (Joseph Smith as a religious fraudster), to (2) delusion (religious enthusiasm gone awry, not an explicit fraud), to (3) fanaticism (adding a political element to the threat of Mormonism), to (4) barbarism (in the wake of the public acknowledgement of the LDS doctrine and practice of polygamy), to, finally, (5) heresy at the dawn of the 20th century as polygamy was gradually abandoned. Ironically, to get to mere heresy was something of an achievement for Mormonism.

Here is just one example, from the delusion chapter, showing the difficulty anti-Mormons of the day had in criticizing Mormon religious claims and experience without, at the same time, discrediting Protestant claims and experience.

Anti-Mormons thus inherited a sensitive problem. They felt to discredit radical expressions on the religious fringe but had to do so without disgracing religious experience generally. They, like their antienthusiast predecessors, found tools in the Enlightenment narratives but learned to wield them gently so as not to touch the validity of biblical miracles or more conventional religious experiences. (p. 55-56.)

Fluhman sees the end of this chain of shifting anti-Mormon justifications with the public abandonment of polygamy in 1890, Utah statehood in 1896, and the Reed Smoot hearings in the first decade of the 20th century. Only well into the 20th century had the animus really mellowed: “A more favorable public image did not emerge until after the slow death of polygamy and Mormon displays of military patriotism in the wars of 1898 and 1914-18” (p 141).

Additional commentary on the book is available at an excellent Juvenile Instructor Q&A with Fluhman posted in 2012, including the author’s reflections on how anti-Mormonism has evolved in the 20th and 21st centuries.

2 comments for “Review: A Peculiar People, or How Protestants Viewed Mormons in the Nineteenth Century

  1. Great review. The point about religious experience and the thin line some protestants walk is interesting. The stereotype Mormons used to have of Protestants in the 19th century was much more the “unenchanted” more Hegelian style. Charles Dickens critique of Mormons, “angels in an age of railways” got brandied about quite a bit when I was young. But of course Dickens is hardly representative of American Protestantism.

  2. I’d love to see a volume two, looking explicitly at the parallel you draw to the 21st century.

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