For a number of years, I thought it would be fun to get a sort of a book club together, where a group of interested folks would read a scholarly article about a Mormon History topic and then discuss. I finally got around to doing that this summer and we recently had our second meeting. My hope was to have a diverse group of people (older and younger, men and women). I fully understand that such things are no replacement for sincere participation in Church and personal devotion. I also realize that this sort of history simply isn’t interesting to some people. Still, so far, it has been fun. I thought I would write up some of my comments from the most recent readings for those interested outside of my neighborhood.
The most recent get together was a discussion of Paul H. Peterson, “The Mormon Reformation of 1856-1857: The Rhetoric and the Reality,” Journal of Mormon History 15 (1989): 59-87. The Reformation is a topic which ties into a lot of other things which happened during the early Utah settlement and it colors non-Mormon perceptions to this day. This paper is drawn from Peterson’s dissertation and is somewhat apologetic in tone; however, it is still a solid and important piece. Besides Peterson’s dissertation, perhaps the two most evenhanded recent treatments of the controversial aspects of certain consequences of the Reformation are included in: Mormon Convert, Mormon Defector (Review) and Massacre at Mountain Meadows (Review). Look forward to Steve Taysom’s volume this fall as well. As far as scholars go, the most antagonistic readings are by Bagley and Bigler.
Some of my notes:
p. 60. Millennialism is essential context for the Reformation (and early Mormonism generally). Peterson uses the word “chiliastic.” Chiliasm is the greek form of Millennialism. Notes that Mormons don’t fit neatly into standard American categories. Pre-Millennial or Post-Millennial? My question: What about today? There have been spurts of Pre-Millennialism in the church, but I tend to think it is a sort of hybrid that trends toward post. That is, Zion must be established before the Lord returns. See note 25 in the paper.
p. 61. Mormons could believe anything they wanted and apostatize, but they still had to live the Mormon way and not bother their neighbors if they wanted to be accepted. I think this is generally the same as today.
p. 63. The Saints arrive in Utah and in 1855-6, some really bad things happen. They have plagues and droughts and hard winters. They are starving. In the OT this was a sign of the Lord’s displeasure. Church leaders saw it the same way. I tend to think that today we would view it as the consequences of living in the desert. However, this is imperative context for understanding what is going on.
pp. 65-6. Rebaptism introduced. Important to note that rebaptism started in Nauvoo and that the Saints were rebaptized when: 1) arriving in Utah the first time, 2) going to the temple, 3) joining a united order, 4) subject to church discipline. Rebaptism was generally ended in the 1890s, though it lingered on for a couple of decades more in certain cases of church discipline.
p. 67. Blood Atonement. I think that Peterson rightly views the rhetoric as hyperbolic. But he also doesn’t convey the frequency and degree to which this discourse was employed during this period. I think Peterson is trying a too hard to soften the blow.
pp. 69-70. One of the big points was whether people were bathing at least weekly. Jeddie Grant harangues a group of bishops for it and it is included on the Reformation Catechism (the list of 27 questions each member had to answer in order to rejoin fellowship). I recently met Michael MacKay at the JSP who did his graduate work in medical history and he pointed me to some interesting work on 17th century discussions regarding baptism and therapeutic washing. The Reformation rhetoric, coupled with the requests to bath before coming to the temple and baptism for health provide some interesting parallels to look at.
p. 70. Reformation Catechism. All about what you do. Nothing about what you believe.
p. 71. Don’t imagine we’ll hear this hymn in Sacrament Meeting any time soon.
p. 72. Hannah Tapfield King (Wife of BY) writes of how traumatic it was to be catechized. Makes me wonder about the occasional calls for more probing interviews of the youth.
pp. 73-4 and 77. “Getting rid of incorrigibles.” See Polly Aird’s stuff.
p. 74. I had forgotten that Church leaders told members that unless they repented that “the higher priesthood would depart into the wilderness among either the Lamanites or the Ten Tribes, and the Saints would be left with the Aaronic (lower) Priesthood and the law of carnal commandments.”
pp. 74-5. Amnesty for sin. If the saints would repent all their sins would be forgiven through this process. I find this communal work of salvation really touching and the idea of amnesty quite beautiful.
p. 77. The sacrament is returned after 6 months hiatus.
p. 78. Peterson notes that the Reformation was possible as “For the first time in their history, the Saints were segregated from the outside world and insulated against interference and reprisal.” If we are going to take a Providential view of history and see the Natural disasters as God’s scourges, is it possible that it was also God’s will that the Army came to depose Young of his governorship as result of the Reformation (a la Elder Oaks on Polygamy)? So the Reformation was possible because of isolation, but the Reformation caused that isolation to be shattered by the Feds?
p. 79. Peterson notes that within a few years of the reformation, the positive results had largely wained and the Saints were back where they had started. Young is greatly disappointed. p. 80 includes an example of someone who got a divorce noting that his wife was scared into the marriage. Is this a lesson about the efficacy of the Reformation’s methods? It would appear that the modern church has a much higher success rate than the Church during this period. Why?