Historical Paradigms in Conflict:
The Nauvoo Period Revisited
Historical Paradigms in Conflict: The Nauvoo Period
Reviewed by Glen M. Cooper
Rightly did Joseph Smith say “No man knows my history,” a statement that Fawn
Brodie considered disingenuous. Joseph’s observation, however, expresses a fundamental
truth: It is difficult to reconstruct “what actually happened” and why so-and-so
did such-and-such. In principle, these same difficulties face scholars trying
to write the history of any person. Joseph Smith was not special in this regard.
Since there exists more documentary material about his life than about most people,
contradictory statements and perspectives are inevitable. In addition, the controversy
that attended him and his deeds and the conflicting testimonies about him leave
us to discern the truth. Cultures in Conflict, however useful it may be as a collection
of source documents, is very poor as a work of scholarship. The historical commentary
that accompanies each primary source selection manifests prejudice, generalization,
poor evaluation, and tendentious misreadings of those sources. One editorial commentary
is in fact so agenda-driven that one even suspects that the choice of primary
documents is not representative.
Why begin a review of a book about Nauvoo with mention of Joseph Smith? Because
Hallwas and Launius treat him as the central figure in the Nauvoo “passion play.”
It is primarily Joseph Smith’s motives and mind that such historians attempt
to divine. Elden Watson, the author of a review of Cultures in Conflict that
appeared in an earlier issue of FARMS Review of Books,1 notes that
the portrait of Joseph Smith that Hallwas and Launius present is far from flattering:
Watson makes a case that the book is anti-Mormon because of its attack on the
character of Joseph Smith. While I acknowledge that the portrait of Joseph Smith
is uncomplimentary, I am not concerned with the status of this book as anti-Mormon.
Cultures in Conflict is presented as a serious work of historical scholarship,
and I evaluate it against standards appropriate for such a book.2
It is unfortunate, however, that reviewing this book requires an examination
of some rudimentary historiographical principles. Furthermore, since I suspect
that many who consider themselves Latter-day Saints would find nothing reprehensible
in Hallwas and Launius’s portrait of Joseph Smith, to call the book “anti-Mormon”
is both inaccurate and beside the point.
In preparing the present essay, I have had access to three previous reviews.
Since each review fails in one or more ways to do justice to this book, I feel
compelled to offer my own analysis in the form of a review essay. Several critical
issues require further development than is possible within the dimensions of
an ordinary review. Mine was mostly written before I read the others.3
I shall comment on the earlier reviews as necessary. The first chronologically,
by Glen M. Leonard, while making a few useful but diplomatic observations, ultimately
fails to grapple with the faults of the book.4 The next, by Watson,
almost completely misses the point of Cultures in Conflict as a work of scholarship.5
Ironically, therefore, he falls right into the caricatured pattern of myth and
belief that Hallwas and Launius describe, which I shall discuss below. Donald
G. Godfrey has written the third review, in my opinion the best of the three,6
but although he makes some accurate criticisms and his review should be read,
it is too short to be of any real use. I intend to demonstrate here that Cultures
in Conflict has major deficiencies when measured against the standards of serious
The title of the book accurately reflects the ethnic character of the Nauvoo
conflict, at least with regard to the Latter-day Saints, and the clash of incompatible
cultures, each with its peculiar way (or ways) of viewing itself and others.
The primary sources presented in Cultures in Conflict, some complete and some
excerpted, from parties both favorable and hostile to the Saints, vividly illustrate
this ethnic incompatibility. The nearly one hundred sources are arranged in
a logical order covering six periods in Nauvoo history (1839–46), beginning
with a section entitled “The Coming of the Mormons” and ending with “The Exodus
and the Battle of Nauvoo.” In addition, the editors offer historical commentary
and analysis of those texts. As I shall demonstrate via representative examples,
methodological flaws mar the editors’ description and treatment of these documents.
For example, the editors claim that not only were cultures in conflict (which
I accept), but that individuals, namely the Latter-day Saints, also were conflicted
within themselves. They therefore adopt a psychologistic scheme, complete with
psychoanalytic jargon, to explain both the large-scale, cross-cultural conflict
as well as an apparent disparity between Mormon beliefs and actions. Even if
it is true that the Saints were thus internally conflicted, simply too much
must be assumed a priori: The amount of theoretical reconstruction required
on the basis of the most tenuous evidence ought to make any rational person
consider this approach more in terms of what it tells us about two scholars
writing at the close of the twentieth century than about Latter-day Saint beliefs
and actions of the 1840s.
Furthermore, with reference to the title Cultures in Conflict, it is clear
enough that the Latter-day Saints constituted a new culture or ethnicity; however,
that those outside of Latter-day Saint culture were another unified “culture”
is doubtful. It seems that this latter group was unified only in its hatred
of Joseph Smith and Mormonism. So one group, the Latter-day Saints, constituted
a new culture that repudiated the values of the surrounding “culture,” and another
group, the hostile neighbors, in response to the (alarming) growth of the first,
polarized against it. To apply the term culture to this latter group in the
same sense as to the Saints is to commit the fallacy of equivocation.
Conflict in Illinois during this period involved large groups of people—the primary documents, some of which are reproduced by Hallwas and Launius,
amply attest to this. Of greater concern to me, however, is another conflict
involving the editors themselves, their treatment of this material, and the
methods of sound historical scholarship. I perceive two historiographical paradigms
in conflict: (1) the older approach to history that respects the validity of
a historical text and considers how its textual detail can contribute to a historical
picture, while reserving judgment about individuals and motivations per se;
and (2) the “psychohistorical” approach, which, although giving the illusion
of rational objectivity, reduces historical detail to generalities and produces
essentialized caricatures of agents, assigning their characters and motivations
to general types. The latter method, although generally decried by scholars,
is the one employed by Hallwas and Launius in their treatment of these primary
sources of Mormon history. This approach to historiography has been discredited
when applied to “serious” historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson (no matter
how well-written the works are), but religious figures, considered only liminally
rational or not at all, are apparently still considered fair game. (I am referring,
of course, to Brodie’s imaginative treatment of the life of Joseph Smith, which,
incredibly, is still regarded even by some educated people as Joseph’s definitive
In addition, although providing scholars ready access to relevant primary
documents from this formative period of Mormon history is praiseworthy, it soon
becomes clear that the selection and editing of these documents is driven by
the editors’ agenda of speaking for the (hitherto ignored) “non-Mormon” neighbors
and systematically deconstructing and discrediting Mormon accounts, employing
the slippery notion of myth. So caveat lector: let the reader be wary. The term
myth is used in this book to mean anything that is fervently held to be true
(but which is in fact false) by a self-deceived people, which shapes their thoughts
and actions for better or worse. Myth seems ultimately to mean what these editors
do not like. The result is a drastic and self-conscious revisionism—the editors
aim to demonstrate the presence of virtue in those who are not Mormons and the
lack thereof among the Mormons.
Perhaps the most innovative feature of Cultures in Conflict is its attempt
to speak for the other side. The editors observe that previous historians have
paid little attention to the perspective of those not belonging to the church,
so they will champion them. These earlier historians, mostly Latter-day Saints
for whom the Nauvoo period constitutes an important part of their sacred history
(and hence not part of “objective history”), have “failed to explore fully the
wide range of available documents” (p. 5). According to the editors, these scholars
have emphasized the victimization of their coreligionists without justly considering
the claims of their opponents. While speaking for those who have been ignored
seems a noble task, the approach rapidly becomes imbalanced in the other direction.
One virtue of the book is that it provides many neglected documents. It is to
be hoped, therefore, that historians will consider them in future histories
of Mormon Nauvoo. The editors’ specious arguments, however, must be countered
by meticulous attention to textual detail and sound reasoning, neither of which
graces the present book. Slipshod analysis and trendy conclusions must be defeated
by continually rereading the primary sources and discarding, as far as possible,
all a priori preconceptions. To do otherwise is to speak unfairly and misleadingly
for the dead, appropriating their suffering for the use of modern agendas.
The subject of the Mormon conflict in Illinois is extremely complex, and it
would be very difficult or altogether impossible to evaluate it fairly in a
brief introduction. Entire books could (and ought) to be written for this purpose.
Nevertheless, Hallwas and Launius essayed in a mere eight pages to provide comprehensive
conclusions about what happened and why. Thus they have reduced the complexities
of the conflict to superficial comprehensibility by invoking a trendy explanatory
notion: a simplistic and misleading notion of myth, which, as I indicated above,
is a facile psychological concept. They accuse previous historians of ignoring
“the crucial influence of myth on the attitudes, perceptions, actions, and interpretations
of the early Saints” (p. 5). Furthermore, they claim that since believing Latter-day
Saint historians belong to “the same interpretive community” (p. 1) as the Saints
in Nauvoo, they are thus incapable of assuming a historical perspective on their
coreligionists. This conclusion is doubtful since contemporary Latter-day Saint
historians have the benefit of a century and a half of subsequent experience
The editors’ usage of the term myth as an explanatory concept plays off uneasily
against current usage. In everyday parlance, myth has a negative meaning: a
fable or false account believed in by primitive, nonrational people. According
to these editors, who anticipate the reader’s negative response, a myth is “not
a fable or falsehood but a story or understanding about events and situations
that have great significance for the people involved.” But J. O. Robertson in
American Myth, American Reality is more to the point: “Myths are not deliberately,
or necessarily consciously, fictitious”;8 instead, they are unconsciously
fictitious, in other words, a kind of self-deception undermining the editors’
claim that such myths are not falsehoods. Pivotal to the Mormon mythos, according
to Hallwas and Launius, was the myth of “persecuted innocence,” whereby the
Latter-day Saints thought of themselves as inherently innocent because they
were God’s chosen people. This view implied that their opponents were inherently
guilty since any opposition to the efforts of the chosen people to build the
kingdom of God on earth was perceived as persecution by evil and conspiring
men. The other side, in this view, had its own countermyths—the “Gentiles”
saw themselves as patriots in the American myth of democracy and equality, defenders
of the democratic way of life against despotic religious separatists led by
their power-hungry prophet.9 Subtleties of belief and religious outlook
were irrelevant to them, since they saw their freedoms threatened by the growing
political and economic power at Nauvoo.
What may at first seem like a historiographically transparent notion is actually
a rudimentary psychoanalytical scheme: Myths, as the theory goes, are part of
the subconscious content that influences a subject’s conscious thoughts, intentions,
and behaviors. The situation in which a subject says or apparently intends one
thing but actually does something else has been of special interest to philosophers
and psychoanalysts at least since Freud for its supposed evidence of the actual
subconscious disunity of the human mind. The solution to the question of the
subject’s paradoxical intention, in this view, is to invoke supposed unconscious
motivations and desires. In the case of Joseph Smith and his followers, how
can the historian explain the apparent inconsistency between their professed
high moral values and the accounts that allege serious wrongdoing on their part?
Or, stated differently, how can a mass of conflicting testimonies be reconciled,
preferably without critically and painstakingly assessing each one individually
on the basis of its manifold textual detail? This is surely a daunting task.
One easy way is to adopt the ready-made theories of the psychoanalysts, as well
as the literary critics who have appropriated their jargon, and to resolve the
apparent paradox in terms of unconscious myths. The Nauvoo scenario would appear
as follows: The Saints, via conversion and membership in the same interpretive
community, invest themselves in the myth of “persecuted innocence” (p. 300)
by taking on the identity of the Lord’s chosen, which operates in their subconscious.
The result is that they understand themselves as innocent in whatever they do
to further the Lord’s kingdom. All who obstruct them are persecutors and thereby
are inherently guilty. The Saints’ own evil is thus projected onto their supposed
persecutors. Such is the superficial level of historical discussion once the
older and sounder philological methods of historical criticism are abandoned.
An example of how the editors use the concept of myth to elucidate an account
by psychoanalyzing its subject is furnished by a speech delivered by Joseph
Smith on 26 May 1844 in which he publicly denies “spiritual wifeism” (pp. 138–41).
The editors assume Joseph Smith was actually guilty of the adultery charges
to which he was responding, even though Smith insisted publicly on his innocence.
This apparent contradiction is read as an instance of the “myth of persecuted
innocence”: Smith is the Lord’s chosen prophet, so whatever he does, he is by
definition innocent. But, I ask, what if Smith were not actually guilty of adultery
but instead were following a program of legitimate, though clandestine, plural
marriage? Then he would have been truly innocent of the charge of adultery and
not just mythically so. Furthermore, what Smith denies is spiritual wifeism
and adultery, not polygamy or plural marriage. These are very different things;
spiritual wifeism is apparently the adulterous version of plural marriage luridly
depicted by John C. Bennett in his exposé and apparently practiced by
him.10 This may seem like quibbling over details, but often the details
undermine superficial explanations and suggest others not considered before.
But why should it be necessary to remind a scholar of this?
Nowhere do these editors consider the possibility that Smith or any of his
followers might actually have been virtuous, but every account of their supposed
crimes is given disproportionate credence. In statements calculated to offend,
Smith is everywhere contrasted with “men of integrity . . . such as William
and Wilson Law” (p. 112). Furthermore, with regard to the supposed misuse of
the law to free Smith from arrest,11 textual evidence suggests that
Smith and his followers truly misunderstood the habeas corpus provision of the
Nauvoo Charter and thought that it could legitimately be applied outside of
Nauvoo. Smith was no lawyer—his (mis)quoting of that portion of the charter
in a speech of June 1843,12 reproduced on page 96, suggests how he
truly understood it. Joseph Smith quotes it as follows: “The municipal court
shall have power to grant writs of habeas corpus arising under the ordinances
of the city council.” The actual Nauvoo Charter reads: “The municipal court
shall have power to grant writs of habeas corpus in all cases arising under
the ordinances of the city council.” This version contains the phrase in all
cases, and thus the meaning of the entire clause is significantly different.
Omitting the phrase that restricts the power of the Nauvoo City Council significantly
with regard to habeas corpus would rule out its application in arrests by federal
or state authorities, whether in Illinois or Missouri. Joseph Smith’s version
suggests that he thought that writs of habeas corpus are wholly within the authority
of the city council, whereas the actual passage indicates quite otherwise. If
this passage was truly misread, misunderstood, and misapplied, how tragic the
consequences! The question as to why people misread in this way is a question
for our would-be psychologists. (But since they seem not even to have noticed
the variant reading, I would not place much confidence in their answer.)
In their discussion of the resolutions of the Carthage Convention, which met
on 1–2 October 1845 to consider the Saints’ decision to leave Nauvoo the following
spring, the editors suggest that, in groping after the true reason for incompatibility
between the communities, the delegates lacked “a modern comprehension of myth,
or the vocabulary for expressing it” (p. 305). Would the resolutions of the
Carthage Convention have been stated more clearly if they had held the sophisticated
psychomythic perspective of these editors? This I doubt. Yet the editors want
to foist their own notions onto long-dead agents. The delegates had no need
of any “modern comprehension”—they understood exactly whom they did not like
and why, and who had to leave—namely, the Mormons.
Elsewhere in their analysis of a specific Latter-day Saint account,13
the editors proclaim, “The tendency of myth to gloss over the complexities of
history is striking” (p. 321). This could be read ironically. They mean those
who are self-deceived by myth, but the statement could also be read as applying
to those who employ the mythic concept in historical analysis. I would rephrase
it thus: “The tendency of those who employ a mythical paradigm to gloss over
the complexities of history is striking.” One of the dangers of using psychoanalytical
concepts in historiography is that it tends to reduce the detail of a subject’s
account to standard forms and archetypes.14 Critical detail is lost,
and the historian usually ends up revealing more about himself than about his
subject. That is the case here, and with much of the other commentary also.
Moreover, the editors attempt both to place a particular selection in its historical
context as well as to show how it proves their theory of Mormon vice and gentile
virtue via the intermediary myth. I find this explanatory theory to be inadequate,
as are all attempts to view historical data through the lens of a simplistic
a priori theory. The result is a loss of important detail and a distortion of
events, either in their content or significance.
Just how superficial an analysis is advocated by Hallwas and Launius may be
seen from this statement: “It is impossible to produce anything other than a
simplistic, inaccurate history if documents of the era are not evaluated critically
as expressions of myth and ideology” (p. 8). This is a very revealing declaration
since they unequivocally state their intention to read texts not for what the
texts can tell us but for what they want to find in those texts. This approach
biases the reading with imported concepts. Do the editors mean that all histories
written before these explanatory notions were invented are to be discarded?
Such a procedure privileges and prioritizes this particular theory to an unacceptable
degree. Documents (if they express anything at all) express intention that must
be understood against the sociolinguistic background of their time. A competent
historian must be thoroughly familiar with the idiom of the period under consideration.
Myth and ideology are modern constructs foisted upon these accounts, forcing
them to say things never intended by their authors. So, the result is that the
editors allow neither side to speak for itself but make both speak to the editors’
Furthermore, in their attempt to speak for the other side, Hallwas and Launius
dismiss the work of believing Latter-day Saint historians about their own religious
history, claiming that it is impossible for believers to understand the truth
about their own sacred history. This is another egregious fallacy, that of ad
personam, or dismissing a person’s statements or arguments simply because of
some personal feature of his character, instead of examining his words on their
own merits. The reason for this, they maintain, is that this very history is
central to the myths held by the believer that cannot, by definition, be false
for him. In this, Hallwas and Launius rely on the views of Jan Shipps: “By its
very nature [sacred history] can only be retold and defended; not reinvestigated,
researched” (quoted on p. 2).
An example of rejecting a work of scholarship on these grounds concerns a
landmark (and lengthy) legal study by Elder Dallin H. Oaks before he became
an apostle.15 The editors casually dismiss this thorough and fair
study, asserting that Oaks “has tried to pound a square peg into a round hole
in seeking to legitimate the clearly illegal act of destroying the Expositor”
(p. 9 n. 6). Oaks’s leadership role in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day
Saints is also mentioned, evidently intended to cast his scholarship into doubt.
But I ask: If the destruction of the Expositor were “clearly illegal” (as nonlawyers
Hallwas and Launius characterize it), then how could there be room for Oaks’s
extensive legal discussion? Nevertheless, Oaks is to be commended for the thorough
character of his scholarship in considering all perspectives in the Expositor
affair, doing so in the context, as far as possible, of the legal knowledge,
practice, and precedents of the time. He has thus exerted a much greater effort
to understand the complexities of these events than Hallwas and Launius seem
capable of doing. Furthermore, Oaks does not whitewash the Saints but criticizes
their deeds when appropriate. He clearly distinguishes which actions of the
Nauvoo City Council were legal and which were not, according to the legal practice
of the time. Rather than offhandedly dismissing the work of a scholar such as
Oaks, Hallwas and Launius could learn a sounder and more just way of handling
historical texts and issues, which approach is lacking in their present treatment.
In a description of their method in the preface, the editors propose to read
each account “as a symbolic structure, an expression of the author’s inner self”
(p. ix). This sounds less like historiography and more like an attempt at the
(pseudo-)objectivity of psychoanalytic “science.” Once again, this conceptual
importation is blatant. They continue to sound not like historians so much as
literary critics: “We would like to help historians . . . to read better, to
realize that nonfiction writing provides not just facts but fascinating self-revelations.”
As I stated earlier, the approach they take does produce self-revelations, but
of the historian’s self, not the subject’s. I cringe whenever humanistic scholarly
discussion degenerates into talk of symbols and universals because these are
several steps removed from direct evidence. I am usually uncertain what scholars
mean by these terms or how such concepts are more relevant to the subject under
discussion than to those doing the discussing. Symbolic structure and self-revelations
may be appropriate for discussing a poem in freshman English but are not suitable
for analyzing historical documents, at least among professional historians.
Consistent with their predilection for literary criticism, these editors seem
more interested in the writing per se, the style of a given account, and not
in its credibility as a historical source. Some sources are praised for no other
reason than being well-written (in the editors’ opinion), and others are criticized
for falling short of some unstated standard. For example, on pages 340 and 342
two accounts written by anonymous reporters describing Nauvoo in late 1846 are
praised for the quality of their prose. The first is called a “very effective
piece of writing,” and the second, “another well-written description of Nauvoo.”
On the other hand, the apparent misspellings in Vilate Kimball’s account (pp.
214–16) are taken as evidence of her lack of education. Thus the old stereotype
of the Latter-day Saints’ ignorance and gullibility is underscored. The editors
are apparently ignorant of the fact that English spelling was not standardized
until a later period. Who would take Shakespeare’s multifarious spellings, for
example, as evidence of a lack of education? The historian’s purpose ought not
to be to admire beautiful writing but to evaluate a source for its historical
value, a practice which is almost completely lacking in this book. A rhetorically
well-crafted piece of prose may be worthless as historical evidence; yet, if
we allow ourselves to admire its style, we may be prone to deception. One of
the conspicuous features of Brodie’s historical fiction that deluded many was
her fine prose style. (It truly makes a good read.) That a work of history is
well-written does not entail that it is soundly researched or carefully reasoned.
In analyzing so many personal historical accounts, Hallwas and Launius indulge
in a kind of crude psychologizing attempt to reveal the self behind the words.
Very often the editors claim to know what an individual was thinking or really
intended. On page 3, for example, while discussing the actions and motivations
of the dissenting Mormons who published the Expositor, they declare that “the
dissenters’ actual motive” was to reform the “Mormon church.” The editors do
not, however, explain how they are privy to this information. Was it divined,
or does it derive from their pseudoscientific psychologizing analysis? What
evidence is there on which to base any analysis, apart from the dissenters’
own statements? The dissenters’ actions and words suggest a far more complex
intention than simply to reform the church. A historian should show an awareness
that no bare facts can be extracted from an account: The truth of an author
depends on his rhetorical stance and purpose as depicted by the manifold detail
of the text, not by a hypothetical reconstruction of the contents of his inner
self. Motivation is not among the phenomena but must be rationally inferred,
and this is largely determined by the paradigm from which an author’s reasoning
The dissenters’ actions were, according to the editors (who accept their tendentious
statements in the Expositor at face value), “an ethical protest by some Nauvoo
church members against what they believed was oppression from an ecclesiastical
institution gone awry” (p. 111). How ethical was it to launch a slanderous attack,
filled with innuendo and obscene rhetoric, which they must have realized (and
even perhaps intended) would bring mob action against the church leaders as
well as possible injury to ordinary people? They probably realized there was
no other way to wrest control of the church from Joseph Smith than to generate
a popular uprising against the leaders. In addition, the editors make another
misstatement: The dissenters were not just “some Nauvoo church members,” as
Hallwas and Launius maintain, but high-ranking leaders in the church and community,
some of whom apparently had clashed with Smith (and perhaps others) over business
matters. Although Hallwas and Launius assert that “There is no evidence . . . that the dissidents wanted anything but the reforms they mentioned in their
newspaper” (p. 160), the rhetoric in the Expositor and the actions of the dissidents
provide abundant evidence to the contrary.
Attempts at mind reading are even more blatant in other passages in which
psychoanalytical jargon is used freely. In describing the deliberations of the
Nauvoo City Council against the dissenters, which occurred on 8 June 1844,16
the editors refer to the “inner tensions of the accusers.” And with Orson Spencer’s
remark about the dissenters being “covenant breakers,” we are told that he “unconsciously
put his finger on the repressed anxieties that haunted the Mormon mind” (p.
149). This is a great example of pretended historiography. The editors’ introduction
contains the following assessment of the conflict: “In psychological terms,
both sides repressed (and hence ignored) their own potential for evil and projected
it onto their ideological opponents” (p. 6). In describing an account by a former
member,17 the editors comment: “This letter reveals the inner state
of people who have rejected the core myths of their church” (p. 169). “Unconsciously”?
“Repressed”? “Projected”? “Inner state”? Please. These terms belong in the psychoanalyst’s
vocabulary, not the historian’s. Have we learned nothing from Brodie’s example
of how not to write history? Since the book under review is a collection of
primary documents, perhaps it would have been better served had the editors
simply provided the necessary historical background and withheld commentary.
The slipshod analysis that they do provide is worse than none at all.
If historical or textual analysis is to be included at all in a book such
as this, it should be thorough, at least in the case of the pivotal accounts.
Every historical document has a rhetorical purpose, for example, that a historian
should take into account. Furthermore, a historian must possess a command of
the way language was used in the particular period under examination. These
editors seem to be clueless as to the explosive power of the obscene rhetoric
of the Expositor in the linguistic context of the time. As mentioned earlier,
Oaks, in his thorough analysis of the legal aspects of that affair, shows a
keen awareness of such linguistic details. I add that, given its lurid content,
even the name of the paper is racy—”expositor” means “one who exposes, who
strips (something) naked.” Future historians ought to pay closer attention to
the details in the words themselves to avoid unwarranted conclusions such as
those of the present editors. One must be aware that English has changed since
the days of Joseph Smith—it is easy to read an account from that time and
think we understand it. Fortunately, reference works can provide clues as to
what various words meant then—the Oxford English Dictionary and the reprint
of the 1828 Webster dictionary ought to be basic tools for the historian of
Hallwas and Launius seem oblivious to the fact that certain sources are inherently
untrustworthy, something that can be ascertained from the texts themselves.
For example, one woman reports that she solemnly promised not to tell what passed
between her and church leaders but then proceeded to break her confidence in
the letter reproduced on pages 122–25.18 How can such a source be
trusted? She lied once—why not again? Furthermore, the testimony of the disaffected
from any group must be taken with caution by virtue of the fact that they are
disaffected. Similarly, an interview with Sarah Pratt (pp. 125–28), who became
estranged eighteen years earlier, is included in all its bitter detail, describing
events that supposedly took place over forty years earlier. (The amount of elapsed
time since the events described ought to be sufficient to render this account
suspect). The editors take particular delight in this account, which contains
details of Smith’s supposed adulterous encounters and John C. Bennett’s ameliorating
abortions that are found in no other source.19 Pratt’s report contains
details that surpass nearly all other sources and is replete with stylistic
details of disaffection that could be demonstrated by thorough textual scrutiny.
My scientific background predisposes me to prefer simpler explanations; it is
simpler to suppose that Pratt and Bennett had the adulterous relationship while
Orson was away on church errands than to hypothesize a broad conspiracy between
the leaders of the church and their married paramours. The possibility that
Pratt lied and had ample motivation for doing so, as the wife of a leading apostle,
is not even considered, although the editors are quick to impute deception to
other accounts that seem to favor the standard Latter-day Saint view of Nauvoo
polygamy. But these editors enthusiastically and uncritically accept such unfavorable
testimony as valid. In both cases, the responsible historian must assess the
author’s intention as manifest in her words, not from an a priori and anachronistic
Specific reports of Mormon vice are given disproportionate credibility without
considering the validity of the testimony. “The evidence of Mormon theft is
substantial” (p. 67). This assertion is supported only by a few anecdotes remembered
decades after the supposed events, which is hardly “substantial” evidence. Even
the minimal reported cases of theft may have been normal for neighboring populations
of the time and not due to any supposed condoning of theft by the Saints. This
possibility is not even considered—theft is explained through the mythical
notion of the Mormons’ “inherent innocence” and their arrogant belief in their
right to take whatever they pleased. I suspect the reason Hallwas and Launius
so readily accept these reports is their predilection for simple a priori theory:
They already know that the Saints were antidemocratic, self-righteous, deluded,
and dangerous fanatics, so they all too readily accept slim evidence that favors
this view, and any evidence to the contrary is simply false.
The most damaging criticism I have of this book is that the editors fail to
appreciate what religion is. This is a lethal flaw in historians who undertake
to write about the history of a religious group. They make the outrageous claim:
“The only documented case of out-and-out religious persecution enacted in Hancock
County” was the persecution of the dissenters and the destruction of the press
by means of which they “dared to point out Mormon shortcomings in their newspaper
and demand reform” (p. 6). In this view, the editors seem uncritically to follow
the resolution of the Carthage Convention: “We do not believe [the Mormons]
to be a persecuted people. We know that they are not; but that whatever grievances
they may suffer are the necessary, and legitimate consequences of their illegal,
wicked and dishonest acts” (p. 307). I point out, however, that religion is
more than beliefs and rituals, a fact that we tend to forget in our secular
society. It is an entire way of living. Latter-day Saints were trying to build
a community, as they and many other religious traditions—such as those of
Jews and Muslims—have sought to do at various times and places. Whatever outside
agency frustrates that purpose commits to some degree or other religious persecution,
whether an outsider would call it that or not. Religious persecution is thus
classified by those who suffer it. Nauvoo would not have existed in the first
place without Mormonism, and their neighbors outside that way of life well knew
that it was the religion that held the Latter-day Saints together as a people,
an ethnicity. In fact, there were, as is well-documented, numerous instances
of religious persecution directed against the Saints as a religious people.
At the very least, if compelling the Latter-day Saints to leave Nauvoo in 1846
was not religious persecution, I do not know what could be.
In conclusion, although the historical commentary is almost worthless (except
perhaps as itself a historical itself a historical curiosity for future scholars),
Cultures in Conflict should be read and compared with sounder scholarship,
or even serve as an invitation for other scholars to do better work. Future
scholars should employ time-proven methods of reading historical documents,
which are not as easy as invoking a theory such as myth or an ideology that
reduces all the details to a simple entity that can easily be dealt with. Such
methods are faithful to details of fact, circumstance, and rhetorical situation
and require genuine effort to employ them well. I trust that one day someone
educated in this more thorough method will produce a good history of the Nauvoo
period.20 I suggest that one can have a valid way of understanding
this period without believing that Joseph Smith was a “miserable impostor,”
that the Saints were his dupes, justifying evil through “myth,”
or that the opposition was a homogenous evil mob. But that historical treatment
is yet to be written. If Cultures of Conflict does make a contribution, it is
in showing how those not belonging to the Church of Jesus Christ had legitimate
concerns about their neighbors. But to champion them instead of the members
of the church is to commit the same error of which the editors accuse Latter-day
Saint historians. Lastly, I am disappointed that such low-grade history could
be published by a reputable academic press.
- Elden Watson, review of Cultures in Conflict: A Documentary History of the
Mormon War in Illinois, by John E. Hallwas and Roger D. Launius, FARMS Review
of Books 12/1 (2000): 355–70.
- I would apply the same rigorous criteria to all books, including those about
the history of my faith, in spite of the fact that I am a believer—a fact
that, according to Hallwas and Launius, renders my remarks dispensable.
- My review existed in penultimate form before I read the others. I was originally
requested to write a review of Cultures in Conflict for Dialogue. When my
review was completed, however, it was rejected. The reason proffered was that
the book had been published too long for them to print a review of it. I express
sincere gratitude to the editor of the FARMS Review of Books for providing
a home for this review essay.
- Glen M. Leonard, review of Cultures in Conflict, by John E. Hallwas and
Roger D. Launius, BYU Studies 36/2 (1996–97): 235–40.
- Watson, review of Cultures in Conflict.
- Donald G. Godfrey, review of Cultures in Conflict, by John E. Hallwas and
Roger D. Launius, Journal of Mormon History 26/1 (2000): 226–30.
- Fawn Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, the Mormon
Prophet (New York: Knopf, 1945).
- James O. Robertson, American Myth, American Reality (New York: Hill and
Wang, 1980), 5.
- In a review of Zion in the Courts: A Legal History of the Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830–1900, by Edwin B. Firmage and Richard C.
Mangrum, Journal of the Southwest 32/2 (1990) 241, Launius more clearly states
his views about the antidemocratic character of Mormonism, “a religious organization
whose views on government . . . run so contrary to the most cherished principles
of the United States.”
- John C. Bennett, The History of the Saints; Or, an Exposé of Joe
Smith and Mormonism (Boston: Leland & Whiting, 1842).
- The habeas corpus provision of the charter was used on several occasions
to free Joseph Smith from arrest, a practice which infuriated his enemies
and created new enemies, who cited this as evidence that Joseph considered
himself above the law.
- This followed Smith’s triumphal return to Nauvoo when he was freed after
having been arrested (or kidnapped) by a Missouri official.
- Joseph Lee Robinson (1811–90) left an account of the last days of Nauvoo.
But no date is given for this manuscript: how can we completely assess its
historical value? Hallwas and Launius are consistently careless about such
details. It would be useful to know since clues within the text suggest that
it was written near the end of his life, and if so, then some of the details
about Nauvoo polygamy found in no other source may be legitimately questioned
(because of faulty memory, etc.).
- Here the subject’s account is categorized as describing “an episode in
the cosmic struggle between God and the devil, good and evil.” I read the
account and see no such thing. I see, rather, a wealth of interesting details
about the man’s religious faith.
- Dallin H. Oaks, “The Suppression of the Nauvoo Expositor,” Utah Law Review
9/3 (1965): 862–903.
- This is the meeting at which the Expositor was determined to be a nuisance
that must be eradicated.
- Letter of Isaac and Sarah Scott, dated 16 June 1844, describing what they
object to in Latter-day Saint doctrine and practice.
- A lengthy letter written by Martha Brotherton at the request of John C.
Bennett, dated 13 July 1842; she was supposedly propositioned by Joseph Smith
with the connivance of other church leaders.
- Including how Joseph Smith supposedly frequented houses of prostitution,
had intercourse with married women so that the children of these illicit unions
would appear to belong to the cuckolded husband, and employed the expert services
of the abortionist “Dr.” Bennett.
- Perhaps the recent book by Glen M. Leonard is a step in the right direction.
Glen M. Leonard, Nauvoo: A Place of Peace, a People of Promise (Salt Lake
City: Deseret Book, 2002).