Review: Hearken, O Ye People

I’ve often thought that the food at the Bishop’s Storehouse should be rebranded “Kirtland Select.”

Mark Lyman Staker, Hearken, O Ye People: The Historical Setting of Joseph Smith’s Ohio Revelations (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2009. xlii, 694 pp. Images, maps, chapter notes, bibliography, index, appendices. Cloth: $34.95; ISBN: 978-1589581135. Errata available here.

Mark Staker recently published his history of Kirtland and it is one of the more difficult books that I have ever reviewed. Billed as the context for Joseph Smith’s revelations, Staker leverages his vast familiarity with primary documents in an important volume that will undoubtedly be useful to all students of early Mormonism. Hearken is not, however, an unalloyed success. Just as it has great strengths, there are invariably associated weaknesses.

Staker opens up his volume with a discussion of Black Pete, an early Mormon and former slave. I appreciate the desire to integrate Pete and African-American religion into the context of Mormonism, but I found that the evidence was generally thin and over-extrapolated. Staker appears to have appreciated Taves’ Fits and Trances but the analyses that followed weren’t convincing. This is especially the case with regards to enthusiasm, and glossolalia in particular. Staker claimed that black people were the only tongue-speakers in America from 1800-1850 and that Mormon enthusiasm was directly tied to the influence of early black members. I’d be interested in Staker’s view of the Irvingite enthusiasts who started tongue speaking and healing in 1830 as well (but in Scotland). The Shakers, in particular were documented tongue speakers and tongue singers (just like Brigham and Elizabeth Whitney) and the slaying power was common in all-white settings.

As a researcher at the LDS Historical Department, Staker was deeply involved with the Historic Sites’ archeological investigations at Kirtland. He has poured through documents, Mormon, civil and Campbellite and brings them together in ways that illuminates the doings of early Mormonism in ways previously unappreciated. Importantly, he takes sources antagonistic to Mormonism seriously. Still, I don’t understand why Staker used the History of the Church uncritically, sometimes quoting it as if it were Joseph Smith’s words. Inexplicably, there are a few references to Teachings of the Prophet for Nauvoo sermons and I found one reference to McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine to explain a 1832 era doctrine. Fresh transcriptions of Utah sermon shorthand added some interesting new depth; however, there was no criticism of these sources either. Generally, however, source use is judicious. For example, the discussions of the communal Morley farm and the extended section on the Kirtland Safety Society are excellent. An example of paired strengths and weakness is the explication of the first endowment in Mormonism–the June 1831 conference. Staker synthesizes the various sources and richly describes the dynamics of priesthood and enthusiasm in early Mormonism. In doing so, however, Staker misses equally important connections with charisma the later temple endowment of power (liturgy in general is barely treated in the volume). He also ignores controversy over angelic priesthood ordination (see, e.g., Bushman) and office ambiguity.

Staker repeatedly emphasizes the Stone-Campbell movement and appropriately highlights important relationships between it and Mormonism. As stated, this dynamic has been under-appreciated; but this context is often to the exclusion of other Antebellum Christian movements. Methodism of all sorts in particular gets short-shrifted. Moreover, in at least one case, Staker completely misreads Campbell’s writings–his discussion of “The Vision.” Campbell wrote about three kingdoms of God; but only one was a heavenly kingdom (the others were the ancient kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Christ on earth as represented in Campbell’s view of true religion).

Staker’s observations are frequently systematic and exhaustive. At the risk of hypocrisy (a reviewer of a recent article which I co-authored responded simply: “this is a small book”), I often approached exhaustion myself in observing. There are frequently large tangents and pages detailing points which will likely not seem important to many readers. As such, for the topics treated, this book will be the starting point for decades of research. But I found it odd that what I view to be some of the most important revelations found very little setting. That said, I did glean some wonderful bits along the way, which I surely wouldn’t have otherwise found.

This work is especially strong in economic matters and Kirtland communitarianism. Every once in a while, Staker made a claim that left me scratching my head (e.g., no seer stones were used to translate after the nominal 116 pages were lost) and a few comments were stridently devotional. However, I generally found Staker insightful, even handed and scholarly. This volume will also hopefully lay to rest some prevalent folklore (e.g., Symonds Ryder’s orthographic apostasy and the whole china grinding for the temple). It is difficult for me to imagine who the intended audience of this volume is beyond the standard historiographically obsessed set; but maybe that is who it is for. Hearken is finely constructed and represents a step up for Kofford Books. Plus, there are Hameric maps.

Comments

  1. What!?! Symonds Ryder and china-grinding aren’t true?!?! Well, there goes MY testimony….

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful review, J.

    Staker is, no doubt, among the most thorough (exhaustive is an apt description) historians of Mormonism, which is to be commended. But it’s that very thoroughness that makes some of his claims and omissions all the more curious. It highlights the point, I think, that those studying early Mormonism need to be as familiar as possible with the larger religious world of the early Republic/antebellum America in which Mormonism emerged.

  3. Considering the anecdote about the Saints being called to sacrifice their fine china is in next month’s Ensign, no, that one’s not going away any time soon.

  4. Thanks for this, J. I echo Chris’s comment.

  5. The Kofford site linked in the article is not yet active. The book (which is almost 4 separate books) is available 34% off at Amazon though: Hearken, O Ye People: The Historical Setting of Joseph Smith’s Ohio Revelations

  6. “stridently devotional.” An excellent and apt phrase for many things Church-related.

  7. Christopher: absolutely. J: I haven’t finished the book yet, but your points tend to jive with my reading. Not sure why Staker cites HC but that may just be a personal reflex since I’ve spent some effort deconstructing it. But have I not looked at his HC citations to see where they came from. But I’m leery of quoting from it without doing a little source criticism.

    As far as his emphasis on Campbell-Scott and co, I found it refreshing, but as you say, there could have been some more contextualization based the New Yorkers and Methodism, etc. On the other hand his chapter on pre-Kirtland Mormonism does pay some homage to the Methodists.

    I have nothing against devotional language. But this book seems a bit schizoid sometimes. It is clear that the author is sympathetic to the cause. No problem with this, since I am too. But the tone does seem uneven at times. I excuse this kind of thing based on the largeness of the undertaking. Perhaps some prepublication readers were influential on these points.

    I felt the Black Pete thing was very good, but Staker seems to want to turn him into a kind of Mormon thermometer, a continual tie back point to evolution of the faith at least in the early parts of the book. I am not convinced that Pete was as pivotal a figure as Staker seems to suggest, at least I found the evidence pretty thin as you did. But his filling out details of the late 1830 early 1831 period is remarkable. And the June 1831 conference/high priests stuff is very cool.

    Anyway nice review J. Thanks. I’ll be looking for things you mention.

  8. Thanks, J. this is helpful.

  9. Oh yeah. What *was* the deal about his treatment of seer stones?! I just don’t get that.

  10. Thanks for the comments, all. I forgot to link to your review, Ben; sorry about that.

  11. Great review. I just finished the book and feel to echo some of the comments here. Also, the book seemed a bit thematically disjointed at times. Any writer has to select different points of emphases of course, but sometimes I was puzzled about what Staker focused on at the expense of other options. For instance, I wished there was more about the Kirtland temple and temple theology generally. Instead he focused mostly on financial and practical aspects of its construction. That’s fine, but I think it could have been trimmed a bit to allow for further investigation of temple liturgy. The book says it is contextualizing the revelations received during the period, I think much more analysis could have been done in that regard however. Sometimes a large context was outlined and then a revelation was mentioned in one or two sentences without dissection. Granted the book was long enough, but perhaps some of the more mundane stuff could have been curtailed to allow for more interaction with JS’s revelations. Also, there were times my eyes began to glaze over when several pages in a row were devoted to listing various names, places, and family relations so rapidly that it was difficult to keep people straight. And there were bits that were repeated, sometimes within one or two pages, which made the going a bit more rough since it felt like such a long book. Overall, I think the book is a good contribution, a ton of work must have gone into it. Like JStap said, it suggests a ton of avenues for further research.

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