Review: The Mormon Passage of George D. Watt

I met Ron Watt as a novice researcher when I first entered the old LDS Church Archives. He joined the archives with Leonard Arrington and having toiled diligently for many decades has subsequently retired (though you will still find him in laboring in the new building). He is perhaps the best expert we have on the Brigham Young Office Files, truly irreplaceable. At the end of 2009 Utah State University Press publish his magnum opus, a biography of George D. Watt. It will surely win awards (it is remarkable in many ways), but perhaps more than most recent books, it captures the humanity of its subject and exacts empathy from its readers.

Ronald G. Watt. The Mormon Passage of George D. Watt: First British Convert, Scribe for Zion. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2009. ix, 294 pp. Illustrations, photos, maps, footnotes, index. Cloth: $39.95, ISBN 978-0-87421-756-8; digital version: $32.95, ISBN 978-0-87421-758-2

George D. Watt is an individual with which few Latter-day Saints are familiar. However, his influence on Mormonism and Mormon history outweighs that of most General Authorities. Watt seemingly grew up as a character in a Dickensian novel. Penniless, cast out, and bullied on the dank streets of Manchester, he traded up to the poorhouse and befriended a teacher. After working in various capacities, he found religion among the radical Methodists and then, when Mormon missionaries first arrived, literally ran to the water to be baptized, the first convert in Britain.

Using decades-worth of research–periodicals, journals, correspondence, reminiscences and more (many not generally accessible to researchers)–Ron tracks his subject through his beginnings to his end in a truly enlightening fashion. Would that all of history’s heroes had champions so talented. But Ron is aided by Watt himself, who, though not a prominent Church leader, was nonetheless involved in Church leadership and its vicissitudes. Watt was an early native missionary in Britain, an emigrant leader, and perhaps most notably the premier scribe in Zion. Watt appears in many records of the church, but the biography also is punctuated with the florid and detailed prose of its subject. Watt grew out of his illiteracy and burgeoned, much as his later garden in the Avenues, into a remarkably fluent gentleman. Some biographers are fortunate for one or two wonderful phrases; Watt left many.

Many readers are familiar with pioneer stories and even the Latter-day Saint experience in Nauvoo, Missouri or Kirtland. However, many of those stories began in Britain, and Watt is an important window to that time and place, as well as the connections between them. We see how he struggled to support a family and labor in the Church in England. We see how personal conflict rose and abated, how the new converts supported the missionaries, how they struggled with belief and practice.

The book is also an excellent introduction to Utah history as Ron contextualizes the formation of Utah Territory, the Utah Indian Wars and then the Utah War. In the latter, Watt hunkered in the mountains, facing his people’s doom. His letters are lucid examples of the feelings of many. When reading through the Journal of Discourses (JD) there is a bit of a break during the War. In the next chapter we learn why. It was George D. Watt who started the project. And with the recorder in the Mountains and the mail cut, there could be no communication to the printer in Liverpool.

Perhaps due to antagonists of the Mormon Church frequently using the JD as a weapon, some modern Saints are somewhat skeptical of its contents. Modern “Correlation” proscribes citations to it, instead pointing to the transcripts in the Deseret News. However, the JD are invaluable history and for decades the official publications of the Church. I have previously pointed to Ron’s article in the Utah Historical Quarterly describing the beginnings of the JD as essential reading [1]. This chapter expands on that publication and alone makes the book worth reading. Having picked up shorthand in Britain, Watt carved out (though painfully) a way to support his family – through the verbatim reporting of church leader sermons and their publication in the Deseret News and in the JD. International publication of these sermons is an enormous legacy (though he transcribe only 20-30% of his extant reports!).

A student of language, Watt was intimately involved in the development of the Deseret Alphabet. I have perceived a fair amount of folkore about the Alphabet and Ron includes an entire chapter on the topic. It is a much needed and important study of Mormonism’s language reform. Another chapter that will be referenced in perpetuity.

Watt traveled through Utah reporting sermons and preaching, developed his skills playing the viola in the symphony, participated in the theater, became an extraordinary gardener and the territorial expert on sericulture (I’m sure Zina D. H. Young appreciated him greatly). Ron also describes in great detail his family life. While I believe that large studies focusing on polygamy are important to understand the dynamics in Utah, I also believe that polygamy played itself out in very, very diverse ways in different families. Ron’s account of Watt’s marriages is an important case study (though not framed that way). Whereas some polygamists openly disclaimed romantic love, Watt approached his potential wives in terms of both romance and duty. His experiences will make the modern reader uncomfortable; this is not our culture. But I learned a great deal.

Ron successfully helps us understand Watt and his sometimes abrasive personality. As he flinched then stiffened under the rhetoric and perceived injustice of his church leaders (also his employers and friends), we also flinch. In many ways modern readers are closer in culture to Watt than his perceived antagonists. In studying the grand themes of Mormon history it is easy to become detached from the individual and personal experience of people who lived the history. This biography has great value in contributing to our understanding of those themes; however, it is also a tender and sometimes discomforting immersion in the person.

Watt ultimately left Mormonism, but desired to associate with its people. Having lost his position of influence and any wealth, Watt is a tragic counterpoint to our tradition of optimistic pioneer success narratives. His final years of poverty and demise contrast his dapper years as the President’s man. He left a large family, but I found the final chapter’s discussion of their continuance heartwarming.

While there were a few occasions where I would have appreciated a more detailed reasoning behind some of the author’s conclusions (e.g., why he concluded that the “Young George” serials were autobiographical), this is a soled piece of research. The Mormon Passage of George D. Watt is an excellent and important biography. [2]

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  1. Ronald G. Watt, ” The Beginnings of The Journal of Discourses: A Confrontation Between George D.Watt and Willard Richards,” Utah Historical Quarterly 75 (Spring 2007): 134-148. Available digitally here.
  2. Also, did you see that it had footnotes? Footnotes!

Comments

  1. thanks, staples. i’m not a utah-period guy, but you may have tempted me into reading this book. and praise USUP for using footnotes.

  2. Thanks for the review, J. I look forward to spending some time with this book at some point down the road.

  3. Underrated things:
    1. USU, and esp USUP
    2. Footnotes

    Great review, J. I am one of those who knew nothing about Watt until now, although the name does strike me as oddly familiar. Is he a character in any well-known Mormon folk-stories?

  4. A very well-written review, J. I hope to pick this book up sometime in the future.

  5. Thanks. Scott, you are correct that USUP deserves great praise. They have done some extraordinary work the several years.

    Not too sure about Watt folklore. I’m not familiar with any. I think probably that when people leave the Church they take their folklore with them.

  6. Thank you for the review J. Ron is a true gentleman, and I look forward to reading his biography of George.

    You talk briefly of George’s involvement with the JD, and of his development with the Deseret Alphabet, but I think most of us know Watt for his superb shorthand transcriptions of Young’s and others’ sermons. If it will not give too much away, can you tell us whether Ron offers some insights into the question of why we have no JS sermon transcriptions by Watt, who was around for at least a small portion of the time in pre-martyrdom Nauvoo?

  7. Thanks for the review. Why did Watt leave the Mormon Church and how did that play out for him? If he was looking for something else, did he find it?

  8. Alex, you are exactly right, the JD grew out of Watt’s need to support himself while doing those verbatim shorthand reports and subsequent transcriptions. Those reports are Watt’s true legacy. The biography covers in great detail Watt’s growth as a reporter.

    Watt arrived in late April 1843 and taught some shorthand classes in Nauvoo. Ron curiously hints of his involvement as a scirbe, for example: “In in mid-April, Watt, perhaps because of his shorthand skills, attended a meeting with Smith, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and the Nauvoo High Council, where William and Wilson Law and Robert Foster, another of the dissidents, were excommunicated.” (47-8) However, Ron includes no source for the observation.

    Watt was part of the Presidential campaign missions, so was out of town for many of the last sermons (unfortunately so – how awesome would it have been to have a shorthand account of the KFD!). It wasn’t until January 1845, however that Willard Richards suggested to watt that he should try to make his living reporting on speeches and teaching classes.

    Most famously he secretly reported the trial of Joseph Smith’s murders and he began reporting on General Conferences in April 1845. Not all of Watt’s reports from that period have survived, unfortunately (52).

  9. J.,

    Thank you kindly. I am more intrigued than ever. The quote in your second paragraph has to be describing events of mid-April 1844 right? The 18 April meeting? Clayton was in attendance as well, which in my mind would argue against Watt being employed as a recorder or clerk at that meeting.

  10. That is correct, Alex. Makes me curious as well. Generally Ron was very good with sources. Also on a whim, I checked Quinn and he doesn’t list Watt as a C50 member, though I am not sure how complete his registers are.

  11. Missed you comment earlier Sanford. Watt had a falling out with with Brigham Young in the office. He also disagreed with Young’s economic policies and ultimately got burned by them. He dabbled in spiritualism and developed his own theological philosophy.

  12. Thanks for the delightful review. Though I am not the type to get into this sort of history, your review really brought out to me why it is worth getting into.

  13. Nice work, J. I’ll be looking to pick it up.

  14. I can always tell a review was good when I have fairly strong feelings about reading–or not–a book. Great job, J.

    PS I would read this book.

  15. Great review, J. The part about only 20-30% of reports transcribed almost made me fall of my chair. Wow. Hopefully we can get some of that recovered while we have people capable of recovering it. I know there is one shorthand expert at least that has been aiding the Church in shorthand. Self taught, I understand, but reliable.

    Kinda makes me wonder if the latest Brigham Young discourses offering from Smith-Pettit should have the designation “Complete”.

  16. I agree, Jared; that 70-80% is very intriguing. In one of the images in the book it looks like at least sometimes Watt included in longhand the speaker. If that was universal it would be possible to go back and at least see whose material is available.

    LaJean Carruth is the individual with whom I am familiar. She did the transcripts in this volume as well as the Mountain Meadows Volume. I don’t know whether that is her full time gig or not, but she has been very helpful as a consultant on some shorthand I was looking at not too long ago.

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