Dale Morgan on Early Mormonism
John Phillip Walker, editor
4. To S. A. Burgess
26 April 1943
[p.41]Dear Mr. Burgess,
I have no doubt that you will be surprised, even confounded, that it should have taken me this long to reply to the kind letter you wrote me last August. A thousand times since then I have thought about writing, but a combination of pressing circumstances has always intervened, and for various reasons I have been unable to write you until today. I hope that this long delay will not make my letter any the less acceptable.
Your letter reached me when my affairs were in a particularly tangled condition. I had resigned my job, effective the first week of October, and was moving heaven and earth to get things straightened [p.42] out for the Writers’ Project so I could turn things over to my successor and come East with some peace of mind. At the same time, I was working every possible minute to finish my research in the Mormon archives in Salt Lake, and to put the manuscript of my book, THE HUMBOLDT: HIGHROAD OF THE WEST, in shape to mail it to its publisher. Under such circumstances, I had to put off a number of things I should have liked to do.
I had hoped that I might be able to come East through Independence, and stop off en route to see you and make your personal acquaintance, but I had to come by train and direct through Omaha and Chicago, so that pleasure was denied me. Then, after reaching Washington I had to locate a place to live, a job, etc., not to speak of making final revisions of my book so it could go to the printer. There have been plenty of other troubles, but even so I should have written earlier had I not mislaid your letter of last August, which somehow disappeared among my papers. It was not until yesterday, when I ransacked the place, that I turned up the missing letter, and now I do myself the honor to address you again.
Now that I am free of my book on the Humboldt River, which will be published in a few weeks, I have freed myself for the more important books I wish to write about the Mormons. The big book on this subject, one I hope will have real claims to definitiveness, I shall commence to write about a year from now. At the moment I am preparing to write a preliminary book dealing with American society between 1800 and 1861, which will constitute a background study of American social life and the forces operating on that life—a very relevant approach to any broad study of the Mormons, as I am sure you will acknowledge. This work is tentatively called This Was America, and I have contracted to deliver it to my publishers a year from this coming July. While I am engaged on writing this book, I expect to complete my research for THE MORMONS.
I have studied rather exhaustively the Mormon archives in Salt Lake City, and have copies of all or most documents of major interest or importance in those archives, I think, so that I have ample materials to write the history of the Utah church (of course, that material must be supplemented by other material from government archives, newspapers, books, etc.). However, I feel that I must conduct a search, as exhaustive in its way, for materials bearing on the other subdivisions of Mormonism than the Utah church, before I shall be in a position to evaluate properly the Mormon experience as a whole. You may be able to give me signal aid in calling to my attention materials relating to the Reorganized Church which you feel to be important to a study of Mormon history.
I don’t know whether any comprehensive bibliography of “Josephite” literature has ever been published, or compiled. If one has, I should appreciate your telling me where I can find it. If not, I wonder whether you would undertake to give me a list of works that you feel to be basic to a study of Mormonism from the viewpoint of the Reorganized Church? While, of course, I shall arrive at my own [p.43] conclusions about Mormon history, as a whole and in part, I should like first to think that I have fully comprehended the view that each segment of the Mormon church entertains concerning itself.
I should appreciate it, also, if you could give me a general description of the holdings of the Emma Hale Memorial Library—published works, including important and rare periodicals and newspapers; and manuscript works (particularly this latter). I should also like to know whether it would be possible to arrange to view any of the holdings of this library at a distance—for instance, by interlibrary loan through the Library of Congress—or whether these materials can be consulted only by coming to Independence in person.
Having discussed these points, let me turn to some matters you brought up in your letter of August last. First, as to myself and my background:
I was born of orthodox Mormon parents, and was baptized into the Utah church. As I grew up, however, and as my education progressed, my views inclined to agnosticism, or perhaps even to passive atheism. By “passive,” I mean that I feel no compulsions to convert other people to what I think; my point of view is that other men are free to believe what they will about themselves, about life, and about religion, so long as they permit me the same freedom in my own living. Religion for me has nothing to do with the concept of God, but is a personal code only; on the other hand, I have nothing to say against, and even sympathize with, those who find that religion gives a higher meaning to life.
From this outline of my views, it will be understood that my approach to Mormon history is what we might call naturalistic, i.e., disbelieving in the concept of God, I do not accept ideas about Mormon history that are fundamental to the Mormon viewpoint on that history—the immediate intervention of God in Mormon affairs. While for my part I think that my examination of Mormon history will be “objective” and “unbiased,” I realize that from the Mormon point of view this examination will exhibit bias in a basic characteristic—the disinclination to accept the idea that the evidence in Mormon history confirms the intervention of God in this history. However, as a practical historian, one must take the standpoint that causes and effect proceed directly out of human behavior, that men’s difficulties are occasioned by human inadequacy, not by any special favor or disfavor granted to individuals by “God.” So my viewpoint about Mormon history is that of the sociologist, the psychologist, the political, economic, and social historian. I do not expect that the average Mormon will accept in its entirety the evaluation of Mormon history that I shall make, but I do expect that he will acknowledge my integrity within what he regards as the limitations of my understanding, or point of view. On such a basis we can get along very equably, and we may find that my interpretation of Mormon history will not, after all, do such violence to Mormon ideas of that history.
[p.44] I do not think that my early associations with the Mormon church have any effect on my thinking about Mormon history except to make me understand how the Mormon mind functions—what the Mormon way of life is—to know that the generality of Mormons are good and solid people, and that for the most part they always have been; and to know, finally, how and wherein non-Mormons have misconceived Mormons and their religion. At the same time, the development of my personal views has given me an intellectual detachment concerning the Mormons and Mormon history. It is in this that I consider myself especially fortunate, and more than usually well-fitted to examine Mormon history: I have an emotional understanding of the Mormon way of life, and an intellectual detachment concerning that life that enables me to examine it with what I feel to be a scientific attitude.
Polygamy has been injected into our correspondence, especially my point of view toward it, and yours. My paternal grandmother is a daughter of Orson Pratt, but otherwise all my ancestors are of monogamous origin. I have no prejudice about polygamy one way or the other; and my viewpoint about it does not, as you ventured to suggest, proceed out of any imbibition of the Utah point of view, but from certain basic conceptions of human behavior. I do not see things in black and white; rather, I am sensitive to the shades of gray. I am not one of those who think that you can prove anything at all about the integrity of Joseph Smith’s character by proving that he did or did not conceive and promulgate polygamy; this ties in too closely with the old ideas, still implicit in Mormon exegesis, that Joseph Smith must be accounted either the blackest villain or the purest-hearted saint who ever lived, depending on whether Mormonism was or was not an “imposture.” I don’t think he was either. I think he was a man subjected to a singular environmental pressure, and that his behavior must be interpreted as the effect of this pressure upon distinctive psycho-physiological components of his character. It seems to me a fundamental weakness of most Mormon thinking, in any broad sense, that it tends to exhibit this either-or attitude, which really reflects a viewpoint of theoretical ethics, not of personal and social psychology.
As to polygamy conceived as an institution, apart from questions about its origin in Mormon history, I would not argue that it was as desirable as monogamy. At the same time I would point out (I have in the past and will do so hereafter in my writings) that it was not the hell-on-earth that popular prejudice has conceived it. It was a way of living together—in some ways, a more difficult way of living together—and whether that way was successful boiled down in the end to human beings and how they were able to get along together: a never-ending problem for the human race, and not in marriage only.
It will be seen that by reason of my point of view (as to God) many points of argument between the Utah church and other branches of the Mormon organism strike me as virtual irrelevancies in connection with Mormon history. (I have reference especially to [p.45] controversies over the true succession published around the turn of the century by Roberts and others.) There is a lot of hair splitting over unnecessary points—unnecessary, that is, to one not emotionally involved, and much of this kind of controversy will be quite beside the point as far as my own study of Mormon history goes. However, I will not develop this point further at the moment, though I may venture to take up some angles of it with you at a later date, as my book progresses, especially some questions as to Joseph Smith and polygamy.
For the present, however, my primary concern is with the gathering of facts, and in particular, facts from the sources. It is my experience that if you gather enough facts, and organize them properly, they provide their own conclusions. I wrote a long monograph last year on the [phonetic] Deseret Alphabet, which I imagine will be published in due course by the Utah Historical Quarterly, and the pattern of fact here was sufficient almost to say everything that needed to be said about the Alphabet; this is a useful case in point. Right now I am anxious to gather all the material I can about the Reorganized Church, and about such Mormon sects as the Reorganized Church may possess. I am not fully acquainted with what you possess, and therefore am not sure as to developing means of access—particularly while we have a world war on our hands—so that any sort of catalogue you could give me would be most serviceable in my work.
I venture also to ask you again for the name of the person in Independence who owns a collection of material relevant to Lyman Wight. Wight’s Texas venture requires careful study, in my opinion, and I have already gathered a variety of material about it without, however, getting my hands on source documents that would illustrate Wight’s own point of view. I am particularly desirous of obtaining information about his movements from the fall of 1844 to the end of 1849—how he traveled south, problems of establishing his colony, etc. While I have many odds and ends enabling me to get a rough idea as to all this, I cannot feel that I have as yet got at the heart of Wight and his enterprise. If I could possibly borrow, or obtain photostatic or typewritten copies of source documents bearing on him, his colony, and his point of view, I should be very pleased, and any help you can provide in this respect I shall appreciate very much.
This letter is one written in general terms, very general terms indeed, but I am sure you will understand what I am saying. And I hope that I may turn to you again as from time to time I am faced with problems where your help will be fruitful for me.
Dale L. Morgan [p.46]
5. To Fawn Brodie1
10 September 1943
I would say I was highly amused by the tale of your misadventures, [but I do not want] to put too great a strain on your sense of humor. With the McKay angle brought up the way it was, I am not in the least surprised at the outcome of your relations with the Church Historian’s Office. For the fact is, anybody who becomes an Apostle becomes a prospective President of the Church, and I think regards himself, and conducts himself, accordingly. I think [LDS apostle] David O. [McKay2] really was thinking that it would be a hell of a note to be uncle to a naturalistic biographer of the Prophet; it would be a reflection on him. If he couldn’t keep the members of his own family converted, what future was there for him as President of the Church? Etc., etc.
Reminds me of a session I had with [A. William] Lund in the spring of 1940, which gave me a curious insight into the churchly mind. As a consultant he had been asked to read the MS [i.e., manuscript] of the monograph I wrote for the Utah Historical Quarterly on the State of Deseret. If you have read that monograph (published in 1940) you will agree that there are things in it which one would imagine would fall strangely on the ears of orthodoxy. To my everlasting astonishment, however, Lund passed by all those things (and fortunately asked me no embarrassing questions about how certain extracts from the Journal History had turned up in this essay without the excerpts being approved by him when originally copied) and argued about the most inconsequential things you could imagine. Anyway, in one section I had a trivial remark on the subject of how the assumption of authority by the Twelve in 1844 had been a turn for democracy in the church (as against the divine right and patrilineal succession ideas) because, said I, any man presumably could become a member of the Quorum of the Twelve and so could aspire one day to be president of the Church. Lund shook his head gravely over this. It wasn’t true, he said. If a man aspired in his heart to be president of the Church, he wouldn’t be selected as an apostle in the first place! (Idea, God chose His servants from among the meek and humble of heart.) I gaped at Lund for a minute, wondering if he could [p.47] possibly be serious, wondering if he had no better an insight into the nature of man than this. But he was eminently serious, so I made a minor change in that sentence to obviate his criticism. Lurid was always an instructive character for me; I never ceased to marvel at the way his mind worked.
I am interested to know that I haven’t yet been read out of the Church. I have astonished everybody except myself in this respect, and maybe it’s just my naivete that has preserved me from that astonishment. However, the really acid test will come when I write a serious monograph on the Danites, something I hope to do this fall. Maybe I’ll publish it in the Pacific Historical Review or the California Folklore Quarterly. An objective study of that subject has long been needed, and I don’t require much more material to be able to write it. If they still love me after that is published, I guess we’ll stay happily wedded the rest of our natural lives.
It is something that you were permitted to see the Wasp and the Nauvoo Neighbor. I understand that sometimes now even orthodox church members are not permitted to examine those files. I never asked to see them myself, as I thought it more important to occupy myself with manuscript material while I could. I never saw a copy of either paper, in fact, until I examined the partial file in the New York Public Library a month ago.
What you tell me about the Reorganized Church being so poor surprises me but by no means astonishes me. If you saw some of the letters Burgess had written me, you would understand. They look as though they had been typewritten by a half-blind stenographer. I thought they had a more imposing establishment than you describe, however. I certainly hope an opportunity will offer for me to spend some time there before Burgess dies. I have heard of the William Smith pamphlet you mention, but have never inquired after it. It, or some excerpts from it, was published in the anti-Mormon press in Illinois after Smith’s death, if the thing I have in mind is the same as that to which you refer.
The Book of Mormon you bought was a reasonable, though not sensational bargain. It ordinarily sells at about $25 or $30 a copy, I think. The really rare edition of the Book of Mormon is that of Kirtland—1837, I think—which is the second. Professor [M. Wilford] Poulson of B[righam]. Y[oung]. U[niversity]. a couple of years ago showed me this, one he had just bought. He has a collection of the various editions of the Book of Mormon. I think one of these days I’ll drop him a line prodding him further about that [James] Strang monograph he has worked at for some years.
I’m glad you met Juanita Brooks. I had a letter from her a couple of weeks ago, mentioning her trip to Salt Lake, but she didn’t say she’d met you. I’m rather fond of her. She looks like the meekest kind of member of the [LDS women’s] Relief Society, but she has a keen mind, extraordinary energy, and great independence of outlook. In fact, she is the only professing Mormon for whom I have any respect as a historian, and Juanita has her fears about just how [p.48] orthodox she really is. Between us, we have been working on the M[outain] M[eadows] M[assacre] for a couple of years. We have exchanged quite fully our information on that. Ultimately Juanita will write a special piece on the subject, and still more ultimately I’ll write a full treatment of it in the larger frame of Mormon reference. Charles Kelly has also been engaged on this subject, for ten years and more; he considers that the book will be his master-work, and he is patient enough to wait years for little odds and ends of his picture to be filled in. He has shown me his MS, but didn’t offer to let me read it, and I certainly did not ask. (You know, Hoffman Birney’s Grim Journey, a novelized version of the Donner affair, was stolen from a MS that Kelly had entrusted to Birney for the purpose of finding a publisher! I’ll tell you what I know of the story sometime. Anyhow, that understandably has made Kelly a little cautious, and under such circumstances I would never ask to see what he was doing.) So two independent investigations of the MMM have been going on, that by Kelly and that by Juanita and me.
When you are feeling better, I suggest that you and your husband come over to my place some evening for supper (note that I don’t say dinner, as I don’t get home until about 7, usually). We could arrange the date if you would call my office. Rosemary Reich, the secretary of our branch, is very good about accepting telephone calls for me. The number is Republic 7500, Extension 6855. I know that your baby presents a problem, but if you could bring him along too, he would be no less welcome. My place can be reached either via the Rosslyn streetcar (No. 10), or via bus. By streetcar, you catch #10 anywhere along Penn. or M Street in Georgetown, and cross the Key Bridge to the loop on the other side of the river which is the end of the line. Walk straight south, up Moore Boulevard, for two of the short blocks, then (with service stations on both corners) go west along this street two short blocks. Key Boulevard begins there, the natural continuation of this street. It curves slightly, then climbs a hill about a block long, and then levels off. Half a block beyond there it levels off; on the south side of the street is a group of three apartment buildings, and my apartment is in the westernmost of these.
To reach my place by bus, take any of several busses [sic]which have “via Wilson Boulevard” on (they leave from 11th and E in town, but come out through Georgetown, and have a stop in Georgetown just west of Wisconsin). This bus crosses the bridge and goes straight up Moore Boulevard to Wilson, which is the street just above this one. It climbs the hill west, and the second stop after turning into Wilson Boulevard is in Colonial Village, almost in front of the Wilson theater. A street goes south, between an apartment building on the west and a schoolhouse on the east, and one block down it runs into Key Boulevard, just half a block west of the apartment buildings in which I am located.
Most of my books on the West are here with me now, though the great majority of my Mormon books are in Utah. However, [p.49] you might find useful those that I do have here. They include my copy of [William A.] Linn [The Story of the Mormons, from the Date of Their Origin to the Year 1901, 1902], a copy of [I. Woodbridge] Riley [The Founder of Mormonism; A Psychological Study of Joseph Smith, Jr., 1902] which I found in New York last month, the 7 volumes of the Joseph Smith history of the Church edited by [B. H.] Roberts, a file of the Millennial Star running from July 1844 to December 1855, the last volume of the Times and Seasons, vol. 4 of the Journal of Discourses, and a few others like Figures of the Past, Ferris’s Utah and the Mormons, etc.
with best wishes,
1. Fawn McKay Brodie (1915-81), author of the 1945 biography of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, No Man Knows My History, was the daughter of LDS leader Thomas E. McKay and the niece of future church president David O. McKay. Following the publication of her Joseph Smith biography, she was excommunicated from the LDS church for apostasy in 1946.
6. To Juanita Brooks
9 December 1943
We have lately come to exhibit a remarkable, if not a fatal, capacity for writing each other at identical times. I believe four of our last five letters have crossed in the mails, and let no one tell you that isn’t eccentric, as we have both written at irregular intervals. You probably received my last within a day or so of the time you mailed your note of the 30th with the extraordinary [Mary Elizabeth Rollins] Lightner1 material.
I am indeed sorry to hear that you have been ill again. It really must have been something, if it paled an appendectomy. You are cryptic, not to tell me about it. I am glad to hear, though, that you are on the way to recovery. Please take proper care of yourself, for our sake if not for yours.
[p.50] I have been wondering through the day whether we have a malaria case out at my place. You know, my small niece, Anne, picked up some malaria in Trinidad in 1941, which did not break out until she got back home in January 1942. She was doctored for a while and apparently rid of it, but a few months later there was a recurrence of the chills and fever. She was doctored again, and this time we hoped it was gone for good, as over a year has passed with no further signs of the disease. However, last night about 7 she had a chill, followed by a fever which shot up to 105, and if there is another chili in 24 or 48 hours, the likelihood is that the malaria is back again. I hope it will turn out to be something else—there is a good deal of mild flu around here at present, and this kind of flu would be easier for her to take than malaria. Anyhow, I’m anxious to get home from the office today to see how she is getting along. I am damned glad she and Ruth are at my place instead of at a hotel, if she is going to be ill in any way.
Within a few days, when I’ve finished proofreading it, I will ship you some mss. [i.e., manuscripts] that will interest you even if they don’t have anything to do with Jacob the Hamblin. I guarantee! Beyond that, I will say nothing, so as to screw up your anticipation a little.
The Lightner material, you may be sure, is highly interesting to me. I am as greatly interested in any phase of Mormon history as any specialist in that phase; I consider myself, indeed, a potential specialist, at least, anywhere I happen to be in Mormon history. So you can be sure I will always be grateful to have copies of things like this.
Mrs. Lightner’s claim to have been sealed to Joseph brings up that old puzzler. Personally, Juanita, I am fully convinced that Joseph took all these wives the Utah Mormons have credited to him. But in view of [Joseph’s first wife] Emma’s children, how are we to explain the barrenness of all these other wives? It is inconceivable that all could have been barren in relation to him; some of them bore children to other men. And I can’t exactly couple Joseph with contraceptives; neither does it seem likely to me that he practiced what John Humphrey Noyes’s Oneida colony called “male continence”—that is, a deliberately arrested intercourse in which the male remained quiescent, short of orgasm in either man or woman. Noyes’s community was able to exercise considerable control over childbirth through this mechanism. But even if he knew about this land I haven’t checked dates; I am merely feeling my way along in my thinking as I write this), Joseph to me seems too much an egocentric type to concern himself greatly about the physical consequences that might attend intercourse with any woman he desired.
Well, it is a great puzzle, and I have turned it over in the back of my mind for several years, without however investigating the circumstances too closely, being sufficiently occupied with other things. Fawn [Brodie] was told by LeRoi Snow of the [LDS] Historian’s Office that, according to a tradition in the Snow family, Eliza [p.51] [R. Snow, another of Joseph Smith’s plural wives,] had a miscarriage when pushed down a flight of stairs by Emma [Smith]. But he had only the tradition for this. And such tradition must be regarded with due suspicion.
While we’re on the subject of plural marriage, things certainly have been popping in Utah lately. I don’t know how much truth there is in the rumor, but I hear that [LDS apostle Richard R.] Lyman had had three wives for years, but recently took a new one 30 years old, which became so widely known that he was thrown overboard [i.e., excommunicated].2 This is too bad; I respected Lyman more than many of the other apostles. If I had to pick out anybody for the heave-ho, I think it would be [LDS apostle and official Church Historian] Joseph Fielding Smith!3 There is a good deal of the bigot in him, and I don’t go much for bigots, in churches or out.
Yesterday at the Library of Congress I had a look at a new book by Paul Bailey called Sam Brannan and California Mormons. It gave me a more discouraged feeling about Mormon scholarship than I’ve had for a long time. For hell’s sake, Juanita, what is the matter with these young Mormon scholars? Are they all imbeciles, or just what is wrong? I made only an incidental investigation into Brannan’s life for my own book, but even so I learned enough to know that Bailey bowdlerized some original sources, misquoted others, badly misinterpreted others, didn’t even trouble himself about others, and emerged with a pseudo-documented rehash that was a disgrace even to the pages of the Improvement Era [official organ of the LDS church], where the piece seems to have been originally serialized. Books like this are assuming a regular pattern; there are a quantity of them being turned out, also, in the U of Chicago’s Divinity School, as masters’ theses. They have the forewords by [LDS apostle John A.] Widtsoe, who doesn’t know what he’s talking about but unfortunately thinks he does; they have the professional form; they deal in more or less unused materials. But third-rate merchandise is what is being produced. It would be in the interests of the Mormon Church to train a consultant who would bring to bear upon such manuscripts the most rigorous critical standards. The literature that would result would be less extensive in dimensions, and less eulogistic in purpose, and the church would not always appear as a shimmeringly holy thing; but it would be literature having a chance of enduring, and it would establish a confidence in the integrity and honesty of the church such as will never result from a thousand tons of this Bailey bilge.
Are you still with me?!
I haven’t heard any reports on the progress of the U[tah]. H[istorical]. Q[uarterly]., but hope Marguerite [Sinclair] pulls herself together and gets it out soon now. I guess they need a little more system in the Historical Society, so as to get out the annual volume by October, at least. I’m curious to see what finally was done to or with your fine piece.
[p.52] Time has been marching while I have worked on this, and the office is about to shut up shop for the day. So, as an interim letter only, I’ll ship this along and hope it will suffice to amuse you through five minutes of any day. Remember, Juanita, take good care of yourself. We have a right to expect this of you.
2. Richard R. Lyman (1870-1963) was appointed a member of the LDS church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1918. On 12 November 1943, he was dropped from the quorum and excommunicated from the church for “violation of the Christian Law of Chastity,” or adultery.”