Before the back-issues of the Journal of Mormon History had been digitized and made available online and on DVD, I needed to track down a couple of articles. Unfortunately, none of the institutional libraries nearby carry the journal and while discussing the matter with the JMH staff, they suggested that I visit Polly Aird, who happens to live across the Lake from me and has an extensive back catalogue. I did not know, when I later walked into her home, that the first member of my family to join the Mormon church was also the individual who presided in the Ward that ran her ancestors from the faith (and State of Utah). Polly has been actively engaged in Mormon history circles as she has diligently researched the story of her ancestors, and published on various topics relating to their context. Happily our families have had something of a rapprochement; we are currently serving together on the JMH editorial board. And it is with great pleasure that I review the culmination of her work.
Polly Aird, Mormon Convert, Mormon Defector: A Scottish Immigrant in the American West, 1848—1861 (Norman, Okl.: Arthur H. Clark Company, 2009). 320 pp. Illustrations, photos, maps, footnotes, bibliography, index. Cloth: $39.95, ISBN 978-0-87062-369-1.
My family’s story, and the stories we retell in church are triumphs over oppression and persecution—stories of conversion and heroic perseverance in the faith. But these are not the stories of many of our people. Whereas we recount with miraculous awe the evangelical travails of Wilford Woodruff converting the British United Brethren in toto, we rarely mention that half of those 1,500 or so fresh Mormons later left the Church for generally unknown paths. Mormon Defector is a volume that offers a perspective into this other story, though not so simply reduced.
In many ways this book is a biography of Peter McAuslan, but as life writings are scant and as his story intersects with many important episodes of post-Nauvoo Mormonism, Aird employs a surprising array of sources to make vivid the environment and society in which Peter lived. Peter was a Scott and Aird carefully crafts chapters outlining the evolution from the McAuslan’s historic community to industrial urban life. Fickle markets and labor displacement led to deep resentment of the institutions of power and capitalism. The American Mormon missionaries found a ready appetite for their radical theology of liberty, community, and biblical supernaturalism. Many readers will find Aird’s work on Scottish Mormonism alone is a contribution worth the purchase price.
Aird’s discussion of Orson Pratt’s missionary prowess and description of Mormonism among the common believer is invaluable and must necessarily be repeated by other scholars in other geographies. Readers will sympathize with the band of Mormons as they save toward Zion and live their faith in the face of urban squalor and unemployment. They will also feel sucker-punched when polygamy was made public or when epic aspirations met pragmatic reality. Mormon Convert includes immigration accounts which are detailed and rich. Most readers will find more information and a broader perspective than they ever have had before on the docks of Liverpool, New Orleans, or St. Louis and in the boats and wagons of the Atlantic and America.
Once in Utah, Peter reunites with family just in time to face some of the most memorialized challenges to Deseret life—insect infestation and famine. He also came in time for the most infamous episodes of Mormon history—innocent blood shed. Peter moved South to Utah Valley and lived within miles of some of the most egregious failures of Mormon society to self-regulate. Aird recounts in detail the various murders. These are stories that must be told and every believing Saint should sympathize with the subjects. In contextualizing the life and decisions of a Mormon defector, Aird focuses significantly on those aspects which are most troubling and readers will generally benefit from reading other accounts of the Utah War and Massacre at Mountain Meadows, as well as histories covering the same time but which look at different aspects of Mormon society. There is no question, however, that Peter had every right to want to flee Zion and even fear for his safety.
With a US Army escort he packed his immediate family, leaving many relations in Utah, and pioneered on to California. He lived a full life into the twentieth century and was recognized by his community as a good and honest man. In the end Peter refrained from bitter feelings about Mormonism, and grew to hold spiritualistic ideas that integrated his early Mormon experiences (cf., recent biographies on George Watt and Amasa Lyman).
Peter McAuslin was not a great leader in the Mormon hierarchy, though he was a significant participant in many of Mormonism’s stories. Polly Aird has written a highly accessible and well documented account of Mormon life. Students of Mormonism will be well benefited with the various perspectives offered by one of our great authors.