Review: The Nauvoo Legion in Illinois

Mentioning the Nauvoo Legion often conjures images of a uniformed Lieutenant General Joseph Smith, bicorne chapeau, golden epaulettes, and perhaps drawn sword. The conflated roles of religious leader, civil governor, and military commander have been a source of fear and antagonism for 170 years. This new volume, authored by three BYU professors, is billed as a revisionist history, a new look at the old Legion and an effort to see the regional army in terms of its real context.

Richard E. Bennett, Susan Easton Black, and Donald Q. Cannon, The Nauvoo Legion in Illinois: A History of the Mormon Militia, 1841-1846 (Norman, Okl.: Arthur H. Clark Company, 2010). Illustrations, photos, tables, footnotes, bibliography, appendices, index. Cloth: $39.95, ISBN 978-0870623820.

The authors of The Nauvoo Legion apparently divided the book into three sections. They confess at the beginning that there are various “interpretations of Smith and the Nauvoo Legion” between them, though they “do not see discord” (18). Regardless of relative harmony, there does appear to be distinct voices in the text.

The first, and I believe strongest, section of the book treated the military context of the Legion. The first two chapters describe the history of militias in the United States and Mormon experiences in military (or para-military) conflict. Generally relying on secondary sources, the authors give a helpful understanding of the topics and a robust bibliography for further study. Regarding the Missouri Mormon War, they definitely favored the analysis of Alex Baugh over Stephen LeSueur and generally overlook Gentry. On early Missouri, the authors liked to reference Warren Jennings’ dissertation (1962), with which I am not familiar. I appreciated the frank characterization of Danites in Missouri, even if the attempts to distance Joseph Smith from their actions seemed at times, over stretched. They state: “Whatever the case, if Joseph Smith knew of the Danites, he should have restrained them much earlier—and if he did not know of them, as a leader, he should have.” This sort of editorial judgment is present throughout the volume and in the later chapters becomes generally partisan.

Another, perhaps related, trend in the volume that starts early and increases as the chapters continue is the uncritical use of the History of the Church. I view this as perhaps the major weakness of the volume. Long sections of the narrative are simply pulled wholesale from it. Other sources in the later chapters are often Mormon reminiscences. Annotation is generally consistent; I only found a couple of mistaken (e.g., 107n17, 137n43) or ambiguous (237n43) notes.

The volume does a nice job of describing the formation of the Legion and determining its legal status. There should not be much question now as to whether the group was extra-legal. The difference between the Nauvoo Legion and other Illinois militias, was one of demographics and politics. The authors’ argument for this is a nice example of their respectful revisionism (94). The explication of Legion activities and their dynamics is also clearly written. The chapter on Legion demographics and enrollment is strong in data, but dry and analytically weak. The mining of Legion records not previously used by other scholars adds important depth, but also perhaps fed a temptation to simply recount facts.

A couple of the chapters seemed genuinely superfluous. Chapter 5 on Joseph Smith as military leader was a rehash of earlier information and general fluff and the bulk of chapter 9 was a list of criticisms levied against the Legion, with one paragraph apologetic responses. There is a sort of odd tone in the later chapters, perhaps exemplified in an editorial comment about John C. Bennett: “The unscrupulous Bennett will ever pose a challenge to faithful Mormon scholars” (186). My first thought was, “Really?” While the authors do discuss topics that some view as sensitive like polygamy in Nauvoo, they generally eschew any real contextualization of the degree to which the institutions or issues functioned in Mormon society. The treatment of the Law brothers and the Council of Fifty are good examples of this missed opportunity.

The Council of Fifty is also an area where a defense was made without outlining the perceived original problem and then taking the most simple or facile analysis possible. The authors argue that without further documentation (read, the minutes being made available), most all commentary is simply speculation. Moreover there is no explicit mention of any relationship in extant documents. Saying that there is no evidence that Smith used the Council in connection with the Legion doesn’t answer the question of what it meant to be an anointed Prophet, Priest and King over the whole world at the same time as being Lieutenant General over the local militia (let alone other individuals with various institutional overlapings).

The chapters are organized well with strong introductions and conclusions. The authors present new information and they incorporate many source documents and demographic data in appendices for future study. The volume is handsomely crafted and the prose is accessible to general audiences.

Comments

  1. Thanks for the review, J.

    Another, perhaps related, trend in the volume that starts early and increases as the chapters continue is the uncritical use of the History of the Church. I view this as perhaps the major weakness of the volume.

    This seems to me downright lazy and largely inexcusable in light of the several excellent documentary collections of primary source material available today, not to mention the general understanding of History of the Church‘s several shortcomings as a reliable/accurate source.

  2. Agreed Christopher, strange.

  3. Thanks for this thoughtful and helpful review, J.

  4. Thanks for the review, J. Good observations. I don’t think you can use HC without looking hard at it, and then justifying that use. Even in devotional literature, you should be careful about it.

  5. Timely review. My wife found a copy in our library and I just finished reading it. My first real journey into LDS history.

    I found the background information on the history of militias very interesting and for me added greater understanding why the Second Amendment is worded as it is.

    My first visit to Nauvoo was in 1962 when there was still rubble on the temple lot. I remember during subsequent visits, the tension between the Saints and locals was generally explained as difference between the relatively better off, better educated members of the church and the poorer, less educated inhabitants. This book sheds light on deeper tensions and for that I found it interesting.

    Any one have any idea if there is a connection between one of the authors, Richard Bennet, and John Bennet?

  6. J., did someone else write that concluding paragraph? ;)

    Thanks for the review.

  7. Now, now, Blair. I highlighted a lot of good things about the volume.

    Greg J, I agree that this would be eye opening context for most readers regarding the second amendment. And there is a lot going more than economic disparities, for sure (though at the time of Joseph Smith, it was the Latter-day Saints who were the poor). I don’t believe that there is any relationship between the author and John C. Bennett.

  8. You realize, though, that for devotional uses the HC represents the work of general authorities, called of God, etc. I think use of HC is a shibboleth for those who hold to a JFiS/BRM view of ecclesiastical history vs. those who do not. That will need to be cleared up. Greg J, John Cook Bennett is a fascinating character, whose biography Saintly Scoundrel you should read once you’ve read more in church history to get your orientation (it may be pretty disorienting if you haven’t read and digested, e.g., Rough Stone Rolling first). I doubt that any of JCB’s descendants are within the Utah LDS church (or any Mormon Church for that matter).

  9. (7&8) Thanks for the clarification and note on the author. I looked for a ‘no relation’ type of comment, and I doubted a connection considering JCB’s history.

  10. Researcher says:

    Interesting review. Have you ever written anything about the uses and misuses of the HC, J.? Is the problem one of sources, or of documentation, or of interpretation? Are there sufficient and readily available alternate sources to replace the narrative in the HC? Are there any other works of similar scope and detail?

  11. Researcher, that is an important question, which could require a quite lengthy response not particularly feasible in this format. As others noted above, there really is no good reason to use the History of the Church, in scholarly history. For a brief introduction to some of the issues, the appendix of the Joseph Smith manual used last year in Church has some information.

    For a more substantive review, Howard Searles’ dissertation and Dean Jessee’s articles in BYU Studies are a good start. Most of all the sources have been identified and been made available – I understand that JSP edition of the “Manuscript History,” from which the HC is taken will include annotation regarding sources. I’m not sure about Vogel’s forthcoming edition, though I would suspect so.

    I believe that the responsible path is to always check the sources, and if those are unavailable then check the “Manuscript History” (and depending on the date the various manuscripts). If using the “Manuscript History” then care and qualification should be made.

    For a quick example of the evolution of one of JS’s sermon texts, see here.

  12. Thanks, J.

  13. Nice review. And I share the perplexity you and others have expressed at the uncritical use of the HC materials.

  14. Joe Geisner says:

    J,

    Very nice review. Your comments reflect what I have heard from others.

    I understand Vogel’s work will be eight volumes. They should or will be the go-to source when it comes to the History of the Church.

  15. As I understand it, JSP will reproduce the MHC and Vogel’s will reproduce the “History of JS” from the Times and Seasons/DN/MS, but both editions with identify sources and annotate.

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