Edited by George D. Smith
Some Reflections on the New Mormon History
Robert B. Flanders
[p.35]In the last forty to fifty years a significantly different understanding of the Latter-day Saint past has begun to emerge in a series of books, journal articles, oral addresses at various conferences, and more informally, in a dialogue that has continued among the devotees of the inquiry. This significantly different understanding has been called the “New Mormon History.” It differs from the “Old Mormon History” principally in a shift of interest and emphasis from polemics, from attacking or defending assumptions of faith. It is a shift from an evangelical towards a humanistic interest. As Mormon historian Richard Bushman put it, it is “a quest for identity rather than a quest for authority.”
Historical studies embrace the most extensive, intensive, and well-matured of scholarly endeavors which have Mormonism as their subject. The paucity of critical writings in the various fields of theology and philosophy is by comparison especially striking. The phenomenon is understandable however. Mormonism as a religious culture is and always has been based heavily on a complex of histories—the histories of biblical peoples and of subsequent Judeo-Christian histories; the histories of pre-Columbian Americans; and especially the religious and secular histories of the United States. Finally the histories of the Latter-day Saints themselves and of Joseph Smith, the most important Mormon, have been crucial to all Latter-day Saint self-perceptions and to the images which they have attempted to present to the world. Of all these pasts, the most [p.36]accessible to writers are the most recent. The Great Revival of 1800, the world of Joseph Smith and his generation, the religious environment of the time, the first vision, the writing of the Book of Mormon, Kirtland, Nauvoo, Utah of 1857, 1869, and 1890, and so on, are not irretrievably lost in the mists of time and myth. Students are blessed (and sometimes cursed) with an abundance of written records carefully preserved. It has been and continues to be inevitable that almost everyone with an interest in the religion of the Latter-day Saints shall read—and sometimes write—Mormon history. The generalization may be reversed—historians of Mormonism have shared an interest in and often a dedication to religious concerns. So Mormon studies have tended to be historical studies of Mormons themselves. The New Mormon History is based in religious concerns but is at the same time different from and a necessary precursor to critical religious studies yet to be written.
Practitioners of the Old Mormon History usually had a clear-cut position on Mormonism, either for or against, and tended to divide into two types: Defenders of the Faith (whatever their faith might be) and Yellow Journalists. With few exceptions, nonMormon practitioners were anti-Mormon, and likewise with few exceptions, Mormons were pro-Mormon. Ex-Mormons often became anti-Mormon. The New Mormon History, on the other hand, exhibits different characteristics in both practice and practitioner. Most of the new historians are professionals whose work exhibits critical-analytical techniques. Many are Latter-day Saints in background or persuasion, but their work seems influenced by their literary or their historical training as much as or perhaps more than by their religious training. Their point of view might be described generally as interested, sympathetic detachment. One senses a shift in mood too from Victorian romantic sentimentality to a more realistic and tragic sense of the past. The fact that some New Mormon Historians are not Latter-day Saints is an exception which proves the rule. In sum the New Mormon History is a modern history, informed by modern trends of thought, not only in history but in other humanistic and scientific disciplines as well, including philosophy, social psychology, economics, and religious studies.
There is a temptation at this point to indulge a favorite pastime of historians and discuss the historiography of the New Mormon History—that is, the history of its development. For the sake [p.37]of conciseness in my primary purpose, I will forego that exercise. Suffice it to say that the trend under discussion is one in which the 1945 publication of Fawn M. Brodie’s No Man Knows My History was a landmark. Certainly not all of the work published earlier should be called “Old History,” and neither is the reverse true. However, Brodie’s famous and influential biography of Joseph Smith clearly exemplifies both Old and New, and so is a transitional work. A new era dawned with her book. All subsequent serious studies of early Mormonism have necessarily had Brodie as a referent point.1
A generation or two later it is useful to analyze some of the implications of the New Mormon History for Latter-day Saints whom it has already touched during that time, as well as some possible future implications. The following discussion of these implications is divided into three topics: 1. The New History as an existential history; 2. The New History as a political history; and 3. The New History as an ecumenical history.
1. The New History as an existential history: Although new historians are not necessarily existentialist in their philosophy, there does appear in the New Mormon History a tendency for which the word “existential” is the most descriptive. Existentialism, briefly, protests against policies of action in which individual human beings are regarded as the helpless playthings of historical forces, or as wholly at the mercy of the operation of natural processes. It emphasizes the dignity and uniqueness of the individual human personality against claims and demands of monolithic social systems such as church or state. So the existential situation of humanity is often described as a series of agonizing moral choices to be faced by people privately and alone. These choices appear as dilemmas where the possible consequences are hidden from view and may be equivocal at best.
By contrast in the Old Mormon History life is inclined to be depicted as a morality play, where moral choices are simply between good or evil, right or wrong. The choices divide the cast of characters into White Hats and Black Hats. The Old Historians are seldom comfortable until everyone in the cast has settled on one side or the other. Furthermore for pro-Mormon Old Historians, individuals win esteem not necessarily for the dignity and humanity with which they confront dilemmas of the Mormon experience, but for their piety, their orthodoxy, and the ardor of their fealty to church leaders. In [p.38]reality the first generation of Latter-day Saints included many followers whose hearts were melted by the prophet’s evangel but whose heads were skeptical of some of his policies. Their anguish, unless finally resolved in favor of a “sure testimony,” was likely to cause them to be ignored by Old Historians who desired to marshall a panoply of faithful witnesses and to consign doubters to the side of the enemy or to oblivion. (A number of names spring to mind in this regard: Oliver Cowdery, Warren Parrish, John Corrill, Thomas B. Marsh, John and David Whitmer, and William Law.) A special terminology exists in the Old History to describe their experience: they “break” with the church and become “apostates,” who cease to exist in the history. As an RLDS, I was fascinated in my student days to learn of this exercise, because in the Old Mormon History of the Utah church, the Reorganized Church and its generations of people have no existence and are not only unaccounted for but by definition cannot be accounted for. The Reorganized Church developed its own version of the same phenomenon, in which the vast majority of Latter-day Saints drop from serious consideration after 1844 and with their arch-villainous leader, Brigham Young, become stereotypical scapegoats.
In the old anti-Mormon history the church was a tyranny, and individuals within it were of little interest (top leaders excepted) until they “escaped” and “exposed” Mormonism. Ex-Mormons who escaped to the east, like ex-communists who escaped to the West a century later, were expected to write books detailing the horrors of their experience. They also were expected to reinforce rather than to alter significantly the existing stereotypes about the tyranny from which they fled.
The New Mormon History by contrast is interested in more than the narrowly sectarian experience of Latter-day Saints. More aware of and sympathetic toward the ambivalences of the human condition, it tends to be more patient with the “slow of heart.” There are fewer apostates, few Mormon dupes and villains, at least in the traditional sense of these terms. A “break with the church” is just as likely to be interpreted as a political, economic, psychological, or cultural phenomenon as it is a moral or spiritual failure on the one hand or as an escape on the other. The New History is rediscovering the lost people of the Mormon past—the ubiquitous dissenters and the “churches of the Mormon dispersion,” as Dale Morgan called the [p.39]splinter groups. There is even new interest in “enemies” of the church, who instead of being simply explained as the devil’s tools are now imputed with human characteristics, their actions described, and their motives analyzed. The New History senses the multiple influences which play upon individual and group decisions, and so it fashions a more humane, less doctrinaire history. The New History understands that the shortcomings of the Old History were not so much that the answers it gave were necessarily false but that the questions it asked were often incomplete.
In short the New Mormon History is an existential history because it perceives the Latter-day Saint experience as a species of history not unrelated to other species of human history—of people and groups acting and interacting in process, in time, in space, in culture. Latter-day Saint history in its early generations becomes an American history, a nineteenth-century history, a protestant-revivalist-restorationist history, a corporate history, a nationalistic history, a white, predominately middle-class history, a mid-west and far-west history. Therefore almost necessarily it becomes a political history. So to the second point.
2. The New History as a political history: At the outset Joseph Smith’s movement was essentially a kind of special religious revival containing restorationist, associational, and millennarian elements. It was no ordinary revival to be sure nor was Smith an ordinary revivalist. I use such a description to emphasize the religious character of the movement and of Smith’s religious role at the beginning. It was to this new religion that the majority of first generation Mormons was converted.
However as the policies of the kingdom of God began to unfold in practice and in doctrine, the movement and Smith’s role in it gained a political dimension with consequences which were both unanticipated and objectionable to some Mormon converts. This new politico-religious mix was evident in Missouri almost from the beginning of settlement in 1831, in Ohio at least from the mid-1830s, and in Illinois from 1840. In each case the Mormon corporation sought to influence and if possible to dominate the local power structure in regions which it colonized and finally to enlarge the parameters of its political action to include the state. In the “imperial” phase after 1842, the parameters were raised to the national and international level.
[p.40]The character of this political activity I call “utopian politics” or “apocalyptic politics.”2 The coining of such strange terms requires an explanation, for utopian or apocalyptic conditions imply the absence of politics or the struggle over power. It is just such a peculiar—one might even say bizarre—incongruity which marked Mormon politics. In practice the Mormon political process was characterized by a unique and potent blend of the following: a rapid increase in local or regional Mormon population densities through conversions and “the gathering,” a superior corporate organization with the operation of a pyramidal authority structure, a superior group discipline, a high degree of cultural homogeneity, a superior quality of internal communications, and sometimes a more rapid rate of economic development based on greater talent, motivation, and pooling of capital. Underlying these was a set of powerfully held faith assumptions centering around the notion that God was actively engaged in the work and would bring it to pass in apocalyptic fashion if necessary. “Men have a form of Godliness,” Mormons reminded themselves and others, “but deny the power thereof.”
Nevertheless everywhere the early Mormon political enterprises ultimately failed. They failed in part because the leaders, especially Joseph Smith, exercised unwise judgment and because the methods and objectives of Mormon politics were so radical—even revolutionary—that defection by Mormons from the enterprise was endemic and disruptive. But the greatest cause for failure before the move west was due to the fact that locals would not suffer Mormons to succeed. Gentiles responded to what they defined as “Mormon insurrection” with brutal, crushing, lethal overkill in the same way that they responded to black or Indian insurrections.
I mentioned that the political dimension of Mormons was in effect an unpleasant surprise for many Mormons. I do not mean to imply that political Mormonism was a sub rosa or underground movement cloaked in the guise of a religion, although this was a charge frequently leveled both at Smith and at Brigham Young after him. The doctrine of the political kingdom of God, including the notion of the union of church and state under the hegemony of the Mormon priesthood, was explicit well before Smith’s death. However, events moved so fast, and the many-faceted character of the Mormon experience was so engrossing—the very excitement and drama of the whole was so engaging—that the implications I have [p.41]described might well have been missed by individual Mormons until they were deeply involved in the enterprise.
Furthermore most Mormons were so captivated by Smith as a charismatic personality that they found it difficult to make a calculated assessment of his policies. (It is difficult for adherents of any radical reform movement to know how literally they should interpret the rhetoric of leadership. They assume that rhetoric to be exaggerated; but how much and in what areas? In the end Smith demonstrated that he had not greatly exaggerated his intentions.)
In any event the successive failure of the various early Mormon corporate enterprises through internal division and through what amounts to counter-revolutionary gentile vigilante actions was a double shock to Mormons. First, they suffered real and personal losses through lootings, burnings, and drivings. Second, they suffered from the realization that some of their faith assumptions about an apocalyptic kingdom triumphant might be faulty. The different ways in which Mormons reacted to these twin shocks were crucial determinants of the peculiar character of all subsequent Latter-day Saint sects.
One reaction was dissent from the doctrines of the political kingdom. Some Mormons gradually began to reject the notion of a literal, political kingdom of God. The Reorganized Church was the first large-scale expression of that rejection; but descendants of Brigham Young’s followers also abandoned the political kingdom ideal around the turn of the century. Finally all surviving Mormons have accepted some version of the standard American denominational settlement between church and state, which includes the understanding that churches abstain from politics. The common acceptance of this settlement by church managers and members alike is what tends to make American churches traditionally conservative in politics as well as in social and economic spheres. The Mormon movement, which began by rebelling against that settlement, finally joined it. For Latter-day Saints, “apocalyptic politics” changed to “survival politics,” which meant in effect the politics of accommodation.
It is ironic that Latter-day Saints have not only rejected the political kingdom but by successive acts of group forgetfulness have erased the matter from the traditions that they understand to be their history. Many Latter-day Saints know little or nothing of the political [p.42]kingdom idea and have not even heard of the Council of Fifty. In 1966 Klaus Hansen, writing of Nauvoo as prototypical of the Mormon political kingdom, said, “In many ways Nauvoo was less the prototype of the [Mormon] future than was the Mormonism of those who rejected all the city stood for. Today kingdom building is frowned upon not only in Independence but in Salt Lake City as well.”3
The New Mormon History has rediscovered the political dimension of early Mormonism. That dimension is now a main subject of at least three books (Leonard Arrington’s Great Basin Kingdom, my Nauvoo: Kingdom on the Mississippi, and Klaus Hansen’s Quest for Empire: The Political Kingdom of God and the Council of Fifty in Mormon History) and numerous essays. Consequently Latter-day Saints might well re-examine the bases of their self-identity, inasmuch as it is now clear that Mormonism was shaped early in a crucible of political conflict, rather than one of religious persecution alone. Equally important is the task of re-examining the terminology and ideology of the doctrine of the kingdom, which was in the first generation both literal and political.
3. The New History as an ecumenical history: Joseph Smith intended that the moral and spiritual chaos of the world should be resolved and replaced by one faith, one God, one church-state, in preparation for the Second Coming. That intention embodied a radical ecumenism to match in breadth and scope the secular and profane vision of Smith’s contemporary, Karl Marx. By another of the many ironies of Mormon history, Smith’s movement was nevertheless characterized by the tendency of members to split off and go their own way, a tendency brought about by an antinomian disposition within Mormonism which was difficult to control. This centrifugal tendency was a constant embarrassment and a real weakness which Smith inveighed against with only partial success. He became almost paranoid about dissenters; and indeed it was the great schism of 1844 that led indirectly to his death. That tragic event precipitated a succession crisis which brought the greatest fragmentation of all, a fragmentation which has continued to the present. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has done its best to ignore and even deny the existence of any devotees of Joseph Smith who are not in its own fellowship, while the Reorganized Church has achieved its traditional identity by the affirmation, “we are not Mormons.” In short the modern self-identities of most Latter-day Saints are based [p.43]in part on discrete sectarian polarities growing out of an historical fragmentation.
But sectarian grounds alone are inadequate for religious and cultural self-identity. Indeed in the world of the late twentieth century, all narrow self-definitions, whether sectarian, ideological, national, racial, or whatever, need to be superceded by more humane, more ecumenical self-definitions. The New Mormon History suggests the possibility that the sectarian self-identities with which Latter-day Saints of whatever denomination have had to live may become less exclusive and more inclusive. The New History urges upon the Saints the fact that all people of the Restoration movement have had a common past despite themselves. Saints have survived and endured even if they have done so separately. If an LDS asks an RLDS (or vice versa), “Is your religious history legitimate?” the proper answer should be, “My religious history is authentic.” Which is of course an answer to a different question. Like all peoples who have a rich heritage but suffer from cultural isolation or estrangement, Latter-day Saints need to discover authentic pasts other than their own. The New Mormon History is more diverse than the old but also more inclusive. All Mormons are there. So are non-Mormons and ex-Mormons. As a final generalization the New History attests that there is a common Mormon history that all Latter-day Saints share and that is indeed authentic.
Late one night several years ago, a new LDS friend asked me as a consequence of several hours of conversation about our common faith, “Do you think the two churches will ever unite?” My answer then was equivocal. But now with some additional understanding perhaps, I would answer that they will not and probably cannot given the fact that each rests upon the same institutional foundation of Joseph Smith’s doctrine of an exclusive authority structure. The question, “Will the churches unite?” should be superseded now by a different question: “Will each accept the other’s history, as well as the common history, and be informed by it?”
There is another dimension of the New History as an ecumenical history. Not only do Latter-day Saints have the framework within which to understand their past as existential history rather than as a branch of dogmatics and polemics, but interested people who are not Latter-day Saints and who do not share Mormon faith assumptions also have the opportunity to discover Mormon history [p.44]as a legitimate rather than an aberrant phenomenon in American culture. As a result of these two developments, a kind of new middle ground has been created between those with and those without LDS faith assumptions, with the accompanying possibility of communication between them that does not have to struggle with the a priori issue of the legitimacy of faith assumptions. Such middle ground is created when mutual interest in the existential history of the Latter-day Saints replaces mutual anxiety over dogma. Additionally it has provided a new location where “marginal” Latter-day Saints, who hold some faith assumptions but reject others or who are attached to Mormon societies or social networks but not to the religion per se, can share in the dialogue about the significance of the Mormon experience. The New Mormon History may enable such people to discover a more comfortable and acceptable definition of their situation vis a vis both Mormons and non-Mormons.
There is no doubt that the most profound dialogue now occurring between LDS and RLDS people goes on among those who are readers and writers of the New Mormon History (including a few non-Mormons). The dialogue is about history, but it is also very importantly about religion. It is a discussion of religious experience. But the dialogue has become a religious experience of Christian fellowship in its own right. The spring 1974 meeting of the Mormon History Association in Nauvoo was a memorable experience of probing, of sharing, of fellowship, of love. It was for many people both a culmination and a commencement. At the closing fellowship service, one participant said simply, “I walked at dawn today with my friends in the streets of Nauvoo. I thank God for my friends, and I thank God for the streets of Nauvoo.” So the dialogue proceeds in the classic manner of modern ecumenism. Viewed in the traditional sectarian frame, this New History dialogue is a threat to sectarian boundaries. The threat is real. At the same time the tendency is a conservative one—its ultimate purpose is to recover, to preserve, and to augment the faith of the fathers and the mothers. It lays the groundwork for a fourth history—a religious history.
History is one of civilization’s most important service enterprises. The ends which it serves shift according to the values of people. The New Mormon History is a response to such shifting values. Latter-day Saints, like people of different faiths and persuasions, increasingly seek the services of a history that will aid them in [p.45]ending their isolation; a history that will help dissolve arcane enmities and offer their children a tradition which is less parochial, less tribal, more humane, more universal. Here is the real meaning of the New History as an ecumenical history. It does not suggest that people of good will should not differ but rather that people of good will should seek a mature understanding of their differences and of their commonwealth.
ROBERT B. FLANDERS is professor of history at Southern Missouri State University in Springfield. He is author of Nauvoo: Kingdom on the Mississippi. “Some Reflections on the New Mormon History” first appeared in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 9 (Spring 1974): 34-41.
1. See Marvin S. Hill, “Secular or Sectarian History? A Critique of No Man Knows My History,” Church History 43 (Mar. 1974): 78-96, for an important discussion not only of Brodie but of many large issues in Mormon religious history.