MHA Casper Day One

I flew into Denver yesterday, and was supposed to have a connecting flight to Casper. But it was a hot day, and with Denver’s high altitude and the plane being a prop, they put a weight restriction on the plane and kicked 10 of us off of it. So I had to rent a car and drive (a little over four hours at 80 mph). (My friend Sue Schwendiman had a similar thing happen to her on Wednesday, and so she ended up renting a car and driving the last leg up to Casper, too.)

Anyway, I thought I’d post a brief report of today’s action. We started at 8:00 a.m. with a plenary session, a panel discussion examining the causes of the Willie and Martin handcart company tragedy. The history is actually very complicated, and Bill Hartley, who was chairing, passed out a sheet filled both front and back, single spaced, with possible factors. But the overriding factor was Franklin D. Richards’ decision to send them too late from Liverpool, and a lot of things dominoed from there.

At 10:00 a.m. was the first concurrent session. This is where you have a half-dozen options, and have to pick your poison. I went to one with three really interesting papers. The first, by Ardis Parshall, was entitled “The Qmlbwpnygax Eujungec Have Not the Power to Kigjie the Wzznlhmpygrg: Codes and Cipers in Mormon History.” She started with the famous code names in the D&C, then talked about codes and ciphers used mainly in correspondence with the east (which was sort of like the internet; it was a fair bet that others were reading the correspondence along the way, unless it was hand delivered by an LDS messenger.) Some were simple letter substitution ciphers (replace A with Q, etc.), but some were more elaborate codes that would be very difficult to break. Of course, they were often difficult to read, even with the key. Some were not hard core codes, but the use of other languages and scripts. One guy would write in Hawaian, knowing Joseph F. Smith would be able to translate it. And Parley Pratt left some letters using the Deseret Alphabet (not normally meant as a code), which eventually were deciphered and instrumental in his murder.

Patrick Bishop then talked about his efforts to authenticate a daugerrotype (sp?) of Oliver Cowdery. It’s a good looking picture, and I think he may have something there.

Then Blair Van Dyke talked about the 10 apostolic dedications of the Holy Land after Orson Hyde’s. I thought that was very interesting, so I ordered the book he coauthored with LaMar Barret (sp?), Holy Lands: A History of the LDS in the Near East.

Then we had a luncheon, where Richard Francaviglia talked about 19th century Mormon cartography, with lots of interesting pictures of Mormon maps.

For the next session, I attended the annual Rick, Ron and Glen show on MMM. This is always packed to the rafters, so you’ve got to come early to get a seat. I think these guys are really, really good, and I’m looking forward to their book, which they now swear is nearing completion and will come out in 2007. Ron Walker gave a preview of some of their conclusions, which I tried to jot down quickly:

1. The Baker and Fancher parties were allied, but not a single group.

2. The conflicts were not unique, but common on both the southern and northern trails. What is unique here is the massacre.

3. The southern Utah LDS conflated a half-dozen different events in their accounts of what happened.

4. The Utah War was very important in the calculus. Both sides came to see the other as an enemy.

5. The group psychology that led to the massacre similar to other religious group atrocities committed in times of war.

6. In the 1850s and 1860s, Utah had the same kinds of extralegal violence as existed elsewhere in the west.

7. Although Brigham helped to create a climate of violence, there is no direct link between him and the massacre.

8. The immediate spark was when the Arkansas men came into town a week before.

9. Isaac Haight bears the lion’s share of the blame, then John D. Lee, then another guy whose name I can’t read in my notes. (There were a few other conclusions, but I have to rush through this; I’m typing in the hotel computer room, and other people want to get on).

I just now came from a session of three papers on the 1847 trek.

There are close to 600 people here (still no Ronan sightings though!). This evening is the awards banquet. If I get a chance, I’ll write more later, but not promises.

Hugs and kisses from Casper,



  1. Thank you…I am now officially jealous.

  2. Kevin,

    I too drove from Denver yesterday, but for some reason was so knackered that I didn’t make it to Casper last night (staying instead in a hotel somewhere in southern Wyoming). Then, on the drive up here this morning I decided to take a detour (!) through the Laramie mountains that ended up taking all morning. (Call it an English lowlander with mountain envy, but they upgraded my rental to a Jeep so I just had to. Said Jeep, however, got a flat, but it was the most picturesque and lonely tyre-change one could imagine!)

    So all in all I arrived late but caught the MMM session. I would have liked more questions; isn’t the real reason people are into MMM nowadays (I mean non-Mormons) because of Krakauer and the 9/11 coincidence?

    Anyway, I’m emailing you. Let’s meet! (I’ll be wearing a yellow Mormon Archipelago shirt at the student gathering tonight. Perhaps poke your head through the door.)

  3. Julie M. Smith says:

    knackered? tyre?

    Speak English, dangit.

    P.S.: What is the 9/11 coincidence?

  4. Julie M. Smith says:

    never mind

  5. Elisabeth says:

    Thanks for the report, Kevin! Glad to hear you made it okay. I see a plot here for a movie along the lines of “Best in Show” or “Waiting for Guffman”.

  6. Seth R. says:

    Watch out for icy roads on the way back. You never know in Wyoming …

  7. Eric Russell says:

    Those are some valuable points about MMM, no doubt all of which will be overlooked in the upcoming September Dawn.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Ah, Ronan, that explains why I haven’t seen you yet.

    Elisabeth, it’s terribly funny that you should mention Best in Show. I took two fellow strandees with me in my rental car (they weren’t going to MHA, just to Casper). One owned a sporting goods store in New Mexico, going to visit his son. The other is a woman who is a professional judge for dog shows, and she was on her way to one in Casper. During the ride, I asked her about Best in Show, which is pretty much my limit of knowledge on that subject. But if anyone watches dog shows on Animal Planet, the judge who shaves his head is Irene from Dallas’ husband.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    I just came from the awards banquet. Richard Bushman won the best book award for RSR–surprise, surprise. He said that it was an injustice that the old guys win the big money ($2000) and the young guys win the little money (the best first book award is $1200), and he said that he wanted to formally suggest that it be reversed….starting next year. He also graciously said that it is a great embarrassment since writing this book for people to say that he knows more about JS than any one alive. He says that’s a manifest falsehood, that a lot of people, including at least a dozen in the room, know more about Joseph than he does. I thought it a very gracious speech.

    Greg Prince and Gary Topping won an award for their article on DOM and Duane Hunt, on a quarter century of Catholic-Mormon relations. As Greg tells it, there was all of this great stuff about Duane Hunt in the Middlemiss papers, but he could tell it wasn’t the whole story. So he made a copy of it and sent it off to the archivist at the Catholic diocese; he didn’t even know who it was. He was seeking the Catholic side of this.

    So Gary Topping ironically had just read a paper in a Catholic forum on the Catholic side of their relationship. He gets back to his office, and there’s this wonderful packet of stuff from some guy he’s never heard of, Greg Prince. So they pooled their resources and collaborated, and this was the resultant article.

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    Oh, yeah, I was going to do some name dropping of all the cool people I’ve been talking to, but I don’t want to make J. envious. But it is a riot to come here and see all of the people who have been writing the books and articles you’ve been reading in Mormon studies.

  11. Jerk.

  12. Costanza says:

    My dissertation director is giving the Tanner Lecture. How’d he do?

  13. Sounds awesome. I wish I could have made it there.

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    Stephen Stein? Don’t know yet; that’s in about a half an hour from now.

  15. Costanza says:

    I will await your report Kevin

  16. Elisabeth says:

    That’s great, Kevin! I love those dog shows. By the way, just out of curiosity, how many women go to the MHA meetings?

  17. Deseret News coverage of MHA panel discussion on pioneer handcart companies is predictably titled, Historians fault leaders in LDS handcart tragedy

    Though I’ve never been inclined to attend such social gatherings (too shy and retiring), news coverage has always fed my idle curiousity. Is it just somehow impossible for people who think of themselves as “historians” to ever come up with a positive revision of any historical event? I confess to a strong predisposition toward the dark and dismal. But my view seems to be awfully rose-colored compared to with the picture the MHA group commonly and consistently paints.

    In my cynical bent, I surmise that these are people who most of all want to sell their own books — therefore, they feel compelled to generate sensational and scurrilous stuff that will appeal to the vulgar crowd.

    Or is it just me?

  18. Kevin Barney says:

    Elisabeth, it seems to me about half and half, or maybe 60/40 men to women.

    Costanza, I just came from the Tanner lecture, and he did a fine job. He talked about eschatology, and he distinguished the historical future, which is that future which is of the same type and has a continuity with the past and present, with the eschatological future, which is the future following some dramatic event (in our case, the Second Coming).

    He put our views of eschatology in context with other 19th century movements, such as the Shakers (on which he is the leading expert), the Millerites, the SDAs and the JWs.

    Five observations:

    1. Eschatology appeals to the desire to know the future.

    2. Esch. texts have amazing elasticity, can be interpreted in myriad ways.

    3. Esch. pronouncements usually not tentative, but characterized by confidence, urgency, and some defensiveness.

    4. Usually derivative and reliant on very old texts.

    5. But new texts can also drive the eschatology (as in Mormonism).

    In preparation for this, he spent time with Grant Underwood visiting with profs at BYU and GAs in SLC. He noticed a differing perspective between the two groups. The historians thought that eschatological concerns had waned somewhat in contemporary Mormonism, which is more focused on the here and now and driving the agenda of today. The theologians and GAs, in contrast, seemed to be of the view that the Church is just as much driven by eschatological interests and concerns as it ever was. (Personally, I would agree with the historians.)

  19. …seemed to be of the view that the Church is just as much driven by eschatological interests and concerns as it ever was.

    Wow. That is perhaps, on of the most interesting perspectives I’ve heard in a long time. As far as I can tell, it is demonstrably false. I haven’t read Underwood’s The Millenarian World of Early Mormonism, though it is on my list. Anyone have an oppinion on it?

  20. Aaron Brown says:

    Does MHA ever come to Seattle? Why not?

    Aaron B

  21. costanza says:

    Stein’s a good guy. I’m glad his presentation went well. I know he was a little worried about it.

  22. While Stein is clearly quite intelligent and a wonderful scholar of American religion, I think he was put in an odd situation by the lecture, which was fine but not groundbreaking by any stretch. There are eschatological elements even in contemporary Mormonism, which was his point basically, and whether you choose to embrace them or not defines in part how eschatological you think contemporary Mormonism is.
    Re: Underwood’s book, I don’t know that I’d recommend it, though it’s a quick read. Millenarianism was clearly important to early Mormonism, but I didn’t find Underwood’s book all that sophisticated analytically.

    I have two favorite images of Mormon millenarianism:
    1. Benjamin Johnson’s almost sheepish statement that (in paraphrase) “[we thought the end was a lot closer back then]”.
    2. An elderly Idahoan male slipping out from behind a shelf at a tiny Mormon bookstore in Kaysville Utah and began to exclaim to me the proximity of the end times, urging me to take greater interest in eg “Brother Skouzen’s inspired work” on the subject. I kept waiting for a reptile to burst out of his head, Athena-like, and roast me with great tongues of flame.

  23. oh, PS, in an act of blatant self-promotion, might I propose that you should not miss my talk at 3.30pm today on “corpses, relics, and interment” in early Mormonism? I will be presenting a re-analysis of the intellectual context of the treasure quest and Indianism, with some seerstones and Zelph thrown in for good measure.

  24. Kimball L. Hunt says:

    Julie: MMM took place Sept 11-12ish.

  25. Kevin Barney says:

    SMB, as it so happens your session is on my list. See you shortly.

    Stein mentioned that he was apprehensive. It is always difficult for the Tanner lecturers, who are not experts in Mormonism and come in to lecture a group of people including many such experts.

    This morning I went to the roundtable on RSR. It was tilted towards more critical commentators. First was Bill Russell, who put notes in his margin of the book, either an H for honest or a FH for “faithful history.” So he went through some of those, and was pretty balanced. Although I found it incredibly odd that several times he said Richard should have relied more on Grant Palmer’s Insider’s View (which is a popularization of certain New Mormon History and a secondary and derivative work).

    Gary Topping gave the most negative critique. He felt that Richard didn’t engage the controversies (EG was the BoM authentic, and if not, what was Joseph doing?)

    Dan Vogel was somewhere inbetween Russell and Topping. He felt the irenic approach has serious limitations. For instance, Richard portrays the 1832 FV account as abbreviated, as opposed to later accounts as expanded.

    Marti Bradley-Evans gave a more sympathetic review. (I was amused that on three occasions she lapsed into a Freudian slip: “Rough Rolling Stone”)

    Richard, again, was both funny and gracious in his response. (He got up and said “Well, that wasn’t so bad! When he won the book award last night, he had quipped that he was going to be toasted that night and roasted the next day.) He made the interesting point that in retrospect, he should have made more of the fact that he was a believer, and was clearly writing from that perspective, and indeed really could do no other.

    At the luncheon there were charming reminiscences of the early days of MHA and of Leonard Arrington.

    I just came from Ronan’s paper on the Gadfield Elm, which BCC readers got a glimpse of in a post here, and a paper on the repairs to the Kirtland Temple in the late 19th and early 20th century. Ronan did BCC proud; he was funny and charming, and I thought his paper was terrific.

    Well, I need to run to the next session.

  26. Kevin, thank you very much for the real time reviews. A very, wonderful service!

  27. Costanza says:

    Grant Palmer’s Insider’s View is not only secondary and derivative, it is also atrociously written and intellectually vapid.

  28. Kevin Barney says:

    I just came from the last concurrent session.

    Our own smb gave a paper on geonecromancy, suggesting that we need to reexamine these sources (scrying, Indian relics and the like) through the prism of Joseph’s intense concern with and regard for death, corpses, burial, entombment and so forth.

    Then Philip Ellsworth gave a paper on the JS Papyri. This was a deeply problematic paper, and I disagreed with almost everything he said. (It’s a bad sign when he is quoting James Clark and alluding to Deveria instead of more recent scholarship.) He seemed to be of the view that there were facsimiles penned by Abraham, and Joseph was describing those, but what we have in the BoA are substitute facsimiles, which is why the interpretations don’t exactly match. He championed the idea that the originals were literally autographic, drawn by Abraham’s own hand, etc. I will simply refer those interested to my essay, which is in sharp contrast to these ideas, “The Facsimiles and Semitic Adaptation of Existing Sources,” in Papyrus, Astronomy and Covenant, which is vol. 3 of the FARMS Studies in the BoA series.

    The third paper was on the “waters are cursed” idea from D&C 61. The background on the idea was ok, but then the presenter lapsed into what I thought a bizarre apologetic, focusing on steamboat accidents. I don’t feel the need to legitimate this as a broad doctrinal principle that we should be paying more attention to today.

    The commenter sort of rambled through these disparate papers. I did learn that the original printing plates for one of the Facsimiles has been found, and is in a private collection.

    (They tried to put too many sessions together. There wasn’t enough time for each one to really breathe.)

    Tonight is the presidential lecture and banquet. Then I’m off to home tomorrow morning.

  29. Costanza says:

    Thanks for the report Kevin. Sounds like the last session you attended was mixed at best. I have been to plenty of those. I have to say though that I am impressed with your ability to pay close attention. I am usually bored out of my skull at professional conferences, especially when I am presenting!

  30. Great reviews, Kevin. I caught smb’s paper. I really like the hat-as-tomb metaphor (as in Joseph’s hat and seer stone). I confess to having sneaked off today to watch the DaVinci Code. Maybe it was the talk of Abraham’s facsimiles that put me in the mood for some conspiracies. Terrible movie, but I knew that. I kind of wanted pop-terrible. Oh, and hi to all the lurkers I met: Jed, Matt, Rob, Jenny and others.

  31. #28 Grant Palmer’s Insider’s View is not only secondary and derivative, it is also atrociously written and intellectually vapid.

    Despite its literary shortcomings, there are thousands of Mormons who found Grant Palmer’s book liberating.

    Though the chapter about parallels between ETA Hoffmann’s Golden Pot and the Joseph Smith story is original research, you are right, Costanza, that Palmer has created a grand synthesis of Mormon studies. That’s a genuine contribution in any discipline.

    It’s usually the syntheses that reach the broader public and refocus research agendas because they create meaning by providing context. Other examples, of successful synthesizers might include Samuel Huntington in political science and even Jared Diamond political geography.

    Of course, Grant Palmer is not Jared Diamond. That’s because there is much less demand for Mormon Studies in the marketplace of ideas. There are not enough resourcers to sustain and attract genius yet.

    Palmer is an amateur. He researches for love and made a contribution not only to the discipline but his writing is actually relevant to real people. That’s more than many tenured researchers can claim.

    It’s important that we criticize each other’s work. I am afraid, however, that your characterization of An Insider’s View as “intellectually vapid” neither does Palmer nor yourself justice.

  32. Costanza says:

    Nothing wrong with studies that synthesize past work per se. However, I guess we just disagree with the intellectual value of Palmer’s study. The fact that “there are thousands of Mormons who found Grant Palmer’s book liberating” is irrelevant to the point I was making.

  33. Kevin Barney says:

    Just a quick note to let you know that I made it home safely. I’m sure you were on pins and needles.

    Phil Barlow’s presidential talk was on Mormon understandings of time. It was highly literate, but too complex a weave for me to hope to be able to summarize quickly.

    Ronan and I sat together for the dinner. We had a good time hanging out; he’s a great bloke.

    I loved MHA. I learned a lot, as I always do, especially since I don’t really think of myself as a Mormon historian (I am more a consumer of the history than a producer of it). But even more than that was the opportunity to catch up with so many old friends, and to make new ones. To cite just one example, I sat with a woman during a Saturday morning session and the Saturday luncheon named Francesca. She’s a professor at Northeastern Illinois University, which is how we got talking. She’s not LDS and knows precious little about the church, but she’s beginning to research a book on the history of genealogy, and realizing that the Mormons are a big part of that she very adventurously trekked all the way out to Casper and the MHA to start to get a feel for things. I was very impressed with her.

  34. “I sat with a woman during a Saturday morning session and the Saturday luncheon named Francesca.”

    Francesca Morgan.

  35. Francesca stopped by the Dialogue table and chatted with Armand, whose work she knew, and me for quite a while. The only Mormon she knew before MHA was Richard Bushman as she earned her PHD at Columbia. Consequently she was favorably disposed and openminded toward us. Her first book is out from U of N Carolina press and is a history of Women in Patriotism, her title. (ex: the DAR, civil war organizations) Kevin’s right: she was delightful and very interesting. If you’re into genealogy, you might keep an eye out for her book in a few years.

    For $60, MHA will send you an mp3 CD of all the sessions–a really good deal.


  1. […] Kevin Barney’s eyewitness report from the first day of MHA meetings can be read here. (He doesn’t mention that he drove right by Ronan who was stuck on the side of a desolate Wyoming road trying to change a flat tyre.) […]

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