The delicious detail of Benjamin Park’s book The Kingdom of Nauvoo

I recently read (okay, listened to) Benjamin Park’s book Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier. Park has produced a rich piece of scholarship with fascinating details about the period, some of them from documents released just in the past few years. Much of what I enjoy from these histories are the rich detail they provide of both important and quotidian events. For example, here’s a depiction of the first baptism for the dead:

“The first vicarious ritual, which saw [Jane] Neyman baptized on behalf of her son in the Mississippi River on September 13 [1840], was haphazardly done. The man performing the ritual, Harvey Olmstead, made up the rite’s wording on the spot; the woman serving as witness, Vienna Jaques, rode into the water on the back of a horse so that she could hear what Olmstead said. Many others followed suit.”

While not a surprise, it’s useful for me to remember how many of the practices that today seem so carefully regulated had more spontaneous origins. (Park talks more about the first vicarious baptism in a blog post.) Here’s another detail that I enjoyed. In 1844, Joseph Smith and others sent an emissary to speak with Sam Houston to discuss potential settlement in Texas:

“After recording portions of the conversation in Smith’s diary, Richards took care to cross out the reference to Texas and Houston and instead wrote the names backward as ‘Saxet’ and ‘Notsuoh.’ It was a crude encryption, but one that captured their earnestness.”

This isn’t a crucial piece of information, but it fills in a picture of these earnest seekers taking their work as seriously as they could.

Overall, I learned a lot from Park’s book, but I wouldn’t call it a balanced picture of Joseph Smith Hpesoj Htims. If you read just this volume, you might find yourself scratching your head as to why all these converts found Joseph’s message so compelling in the first place. (Park doesn’t ignore this, but he doesn’t dwell on it.) I had the chance to ask Park about this recently, and I found his answer illuminating. Here’s my paraphrase: If you want to read a book that explains why people followed Joseph Smith, Richard Bushman wrote that book, and it’s called Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. What this book (Kingdom of Nauvoo) does is explain how and why people outside (and some inside) of Nauvoo came to view Joseph Smith and his people as a political threat and how that perception played out.

I found this a useful book to read about Joseph Smith. But I wouldn’t make it the only book you read about him.

Update: If you’re interested, Ben Park lays out in his own words how different questions defined his approach and Bushman’s (and why there is space for both).

14 comments for “The delicious detail of Benjamin Park’s book The Kingdom of Nauvoo

  1. Thanks for sharing this, David. I especially appreciate your sharing the paraphrase of the response Benjamin Park gave to you about not focusing on Joseph Smith’s message being compelling. I look forward to reading this book, and that is definitely something to keep in mind when I have the opportunity to do so.

  2. I read most of the book. It helped to remind that Joseph Smith was also learning and interfacing with many different personalities. He also was trying to process and apply ongoing revelations from Heaven . Building physical cities jealousies of opposing settlers with differing views. It is amazing how any survived and continued to rebuild.

  3. I read Ben’s book, and heard him speak on it when he was in Provo just before COVID broke out. I thought it was terrific–it’s as much about American frontier politics in the 1840s as it is about Joseph Smith. A major theme of the book: both Mormons in Nauvoo and nonMormons in the surrounding areas thought the U.S. Constitution & legal system had failed them.

  4. Thanks everyone for sharing your perspectives. I agree with Frederick that it’s not fundamentally a book about Joseph Smith, but of course he figures heavily.

  5. I loved the insight from Park’s astute political analysis, and as Dave says, “the delicious detail.” In particular, he humanized Nauvoo’s neighbors—and above all Gov. Ford—in a way I hadn’t seen before.

    Personally, however, I don’t think historical analysis divides up quite so cleanly as Park claims. Yes, different framing questions lead to different books. As Nauvoo’s violent neighbors adamantly pointed out, however, Joseph’s Smith’s doctrines and overall understanding of the Restoration are part of what drove him to the specific radical actions he took; and if all you understand is how mob violence was inspired by such doctrines/politics—and not, say, how an educated John Taylor or Eliza Snow were utterly compelled to sacrifice their lives for it (in ways that go well beyond the material power they gained as part of the community)—than we don’t really understand Joseph’s radical politics.

    Just as importantly, as Park notes in his tweet, we don’t write histories in a cultural vacuum. Bushman also emphasizes this point, noting that we don’t write new biographies of Lincoln every generation because we discover new material, but because a new and different generation needs to understand Lincoln from its own vantage point. Park really did have lots of new material (huzzah!), but I think he was also right to reference #MeToo; and collectively our people have a long way to go to grapple with both our history and our present sexism and the harm it’s done. Just as potent, however, is an incredibly ascendant but dehumanizingly simplistic story of how faith communities are established and maintained—a Richard Dawkins-esque story about ignorance, superstition, and the reality of zealotry as a fact of human psychology. It’s a simplistic myth with a great deal of cultural power both outside and and inside the church. I’m not sure Park’s book does much to dispel this myth, and I worry that to some degree it actually supports it.

  6. I keep seeing posts and comments on LDS church history that indicate to me that we have forgotten all the most important parts of that LDS church history. If we generally find church history incomprehensible, it is exactly because of our overwhelming “presentism” attitudes. Those presentism attitudes should not be all that difficult to overcome, but we don’t seem to have ANYONE working on that problem.

    As James Olson observes on this thread:

    “As Nauvoo’s violent neighbors adamantly pointed out, however, Joseph’s Smith’s doctrines and overall understanding of the Restoration are part of what drove him to the specific radical actions he took; and if all you understand is how mob violence was inspired by such doctrines/politics—and not, say, how an educated John Taylor or Eliza Snow were utterly compelled to sacrifice their lives for it (in ways that go well beyond the material power they gained as part of the community)—than we don’t really understand Joseph’s radical politics.”

    Based on my own personal studies of LDS church history, most of the people in the United States, and especially in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois, cared barely a whit about what the Mormons believed about religion. The only thing that mattered was that this group of Northerners and foreigners was against slavery, and would vote against it if given the opportunity. In that pre-Civil War setting, that was a good enough reason to kill them all, but especially their “abolitionist” ringleader, Joseph Smith. Of course, Joseph Smith was not an abolitionist in the sense of other Northerners who were willing to start a war over the slavery issue, but his beliefs and policies had almost the same effect. If we don’t understand that situation, then almost anything else we say about early LDS church history is just silly. The many Mormon people who were directly killed or died from exposure, died because of their opposition to slavery, not because of the Book of Mormon.

    For some reason I don’t understand, Mormons insist on flattering themselves that they have such a unique understanding of religion that that must be the reason why people hated them and tried to kill them and drive them out. I believe that is our own conceit, not the logic of their “old settler” neighbors.

    For example, large numbers of the people coming from the UK to join the Saints in the United States, were leaving a kind of semi-slavery imposed upon them by the British class system. They would quite naturally be against slavery for that and other reasons. And, we might recall, that the Southerners were working towards turning the entire United States into a slave country, including suggesting that the factory workers in the North, regardless of their color or heritage, ought to become slaves as well. These evil southern slaveholders came much closer to accomplishing that goal then anyone seems to want to admit.

    Certainly, the last thing which the southern slaveholders wanted to see was 30,000 Mormons moving out into the Western territories and effectively precluding those territories from ever becoming slave areas through their voting power. That possibility was plenty of reason for multiple attempts to kill or scatter the Mormons.

    And then, as another dose of “presentism,” someone has convinced most of the church membership today that all the early church leaders were total racists who hated blacks and loved slavery. That is so horrendously wrong that I can hardly abide the thought. The Mormons, like John Brown, were part of the early soldiers in the Civil War to free the slaves. That is not why they went to Missouri, but once there, they were up to their ears in slavery politics, and it got many of them killed. To now call them racists, those who suffered and died to help free the slaves (and keep themselves from becoming slaves, as the Southerners had hoped), is just bizarre.

    It is only through extreme mental gymnastics that one can attempt to explain how we got to our typical church attitudes today (which are exactly backwards from the truth). Here is the best I can do: Joseph Smith and all his followers were aggressively supporting freedom for themselves and everyone else, and it was THAT attitude and belief which got them continually in trouble with everyone else, especially in Missouri where a vote by sufficient Northerners, including the Mormons, could change Missouri from a slave state to a free state. With many slaves already working on plantations in Missouri, that would’ve been a catastrophe for the slaveholders, and they were willing to do anything, literally anything, to get those kinds of people out of Missouri, or simply kill them (has anyone ever heard of an extermination order?). As those exact same slaveholding Missouri people tried to do in bordering “bleeding” Kansas a little bit later, they were always happy to kill a few hundred people if that would settle the slavery issue in their favor. Has anyone ever heard of “Beecher’s Bibles” (Sharps powerful long-range sniper rifles) used in Kansas by “free-soilers” to stave off the Missouri proslavery intruders into Kansas?

    Today, it is very inconvenient for the LDS church to promote freedom anywhere in the United States or in the world, because that would put them in conflict with almost every government in the world, where those governments, almost without exception, work very hard to limit freedom for the benefit of those in power. Therefore, logically, the church today cannot be heard to say that Joseph Smith and his followers were freedom fighters. (I believe they rarely directly chose that role, but once it was thrust upon them, they didn’t retreat.) That might make Mormons everywhere in the world seem like they were very dangerous people because, given the chance, they would vote against oppressive governments. That would limit the number of places where the LDS church could go as a formal institution, so the church has blotted out that “freedom fighter” episode from our history. I happen to think that is a terrible idea, but that seems to be the truth of it.

    We might notice that the Mormons would almost certainly never have made it to Utah if they had not been driven there by their proslavery persecutors, and even once there, other attempts were made to scatter or kill them. What I’m saying is that the Mormons never would have made it to a safe place in Utah, an eminently defensible place, if they had not been forced against their will to leave the organized states of the United States and go into the wilderness. It seems like an unpleasant thing to blame the heavens for putting the Saints in that very dangerous situation where they had no choice but to go through extreme hardship to achieve freedom, but that also seems to be the truth of it. The Mormons did the right thing because they had no choice. They could stay in Nauvoo and dissolve or die, or they could remain intact and go to Utah. Those are painful choices. Some did dissolve, some did die, and many went to Utah. I believe those were far more desperate times than we ever imagine today.

  7. Student, you might find reading Terryl Givens’s Viper on the Hearth insightful as well as Paul Reeve’s Religion of a Different Color.

    Monocausation is generally a poor approach to explaining history–usually there is a whole complicated mix of causes that result in things happening. For example, pinning all persecution on the fact that most Mormons had northern/British tendencies towards being against slavery doesn’t hold up in all situations. It is a major factor in the Missouri experience (so you’re right that we need to keep that in mind in understanding what happened there), but there were other reasons (fear of religious fanaticism, including a belief in revelations and prophets, was another of the reasons Missouri residents listed for not wanting Mormons as neighbors in Jackson County, for example, among other reasons). In addition, Nauvoo was not in a pro-slavery state, so your explanation fails to cover why Illinois residents came to fear and expel Latter-day Saints from that state.

    As far as racism goes, you do bring up a valid point in that we too often approach the issue with presentism. For the most part, Latter-day Saints were on par with their neighbors on racism. By today’s standards, pretty much all of them were racist (including Joseph Smith), but they were pretty normal and sometimes even progressive for their time (though Mormon slave owners like Abraham Smoot were obviously not progressive). There is also the issue that you have to take into account that things were dynamic, not static with that subject for people in the Church, and people’s views were not always consistent over the course of their whole lives.

  8. One of my sources of personal irritation is that the church’s enemies and detractors have won the long-term propaganda/mind-share argument on many important historical and doctrinal points. It would take a whole series of books to explain that statement so I won’t try that now. But I do want to begin to chip away at some of these issues.

    I would put the slavery issue at 95% as explaining what happened in all the major steps of the early church migrations. There were surely other things, but in comparison, they were minor.

    I have read Terryl Givens’ book Viper on the Hearth, and I want to add three of his pages to the discussion on the topic of race relations. It bothers me that there are people who constantly claim that all the early Mormons were racists, “just like everybody else.” That is nothing but “fake news,” as we say today – it could not be more wrong. As Givens points out, the Mormons would probably have welcomed in free blacks in Missouri if it were not illegal. As you might note, that is one of the most horrible and politically damaging charges that could be made against the Mormons at the time – that they would be willing to treat blacks as equals. Notice also the extreme efforts the church members went to to reach out to the Native Americans to try to honor them and raise them up rather than treat them like inconvenient animals as did the rest of society. After you read Givens’ material, do you still want to call all those people racists? The Mormons were persecuted and killed exactly because of their stout resistance to racism, so I think we have almost an entire generation of church members today who will need to apologize for their foolishness when they meet their ancestors.

    3 pages from Viper on the Hearth–scan0002-ocr.pdf?dl=0

    You say that Illinois was not a slave state. That may be legally, technically true, but meaningless in the context. Perhaps you’ve heard of the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 that went on in Illinois. Here was the senator from Illinois who (later) ran against Lincoln to be president, who was arguing with all his soul that slavery was right, the best possible thing, and something which should be continued and expanded throughout the entire nation. It was that same Douglas who at first befriended the Mormons and then became their worst enemy, trying to get them killed or scattered on more than one occasion. Illinois was always colluding with Missouri to get Joseph Smith killed there or removed to Missouri where he could be killed. I believe it is accurate to say that the Carthage Grays were with the Missourians in spirit, if they were not Missourians in fact, as they killed this person who was resisting slavery in their state and throughout the nation.

    “Lincoln argued in his House Divided Speech that Douglas was part of a conspiracy to nationalize slavery. He said that ending the Missouri Compromise ban on slavery in Kansas and Nebraska was the first step in this direction, and that the Dred Scott decision was another step in the direction of spreading slavery into Northern territories. He expressed the fear that the next Dred Scott decision would make Illinois a slave state. [along with all other northern states]”

    “A statue of Stephen Douglas in Springfield will be removed from the Statehouse grounds because Douglas once owned slaves. SPRINGFIELD — Statues of two slave-owning men with historical ties to Illinois will be moved from the Statehouse grounds in Springfield to a secure storage site, a panel of four officials voted Wednesday morning.”
    Douglas, Menard statues leaving Statehouse grounds,a%20panel%20of%20four%20officials%20voted%20Wednesday%20morning.
    Douglas owned and managed, directly or indirectly, until he died,
    “a 2500 acre cotton plantation with 100 slaves on the Pearl River in Lawrence County, Mississippi.”,and%20events%20over%20the%20rest%20of%20his%20life.

  9. Student, I’m not really looking to hijack David’s OP with an in-depth discussion on this right now, so I’m not going to comment any more on this post. My main point was that I feel like you have latched onto part of the picture, but that there’s more to consider. I’m willing to have more discussion with you on the issue another time, but not here and now.

  10. Thanks, Chad. Good perspective. Things are always more complicated than we like to believe. The situation in Nauvoo, in particular, was extremely complex, with many factors coming together to turn the locals against this new group that they had initially welcomed. Sometimes it’s wise to look inward also to understand what the Saints did or did not do to bring upon themselves such opposition.

  11. I have been out of touch for two days, but it looks like I didn’t miss any important conversations. :-). If I live long enough, I will write a book about all of that.

  12. Good luck with your theses, student of history. They’re not particularly defensible. For example, it would help your credibility if you took into account the Southern converts and their enslaved people in Nauvoo.

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