Mike and I are back home after another enlightening, productive, and thoroughly enjoyable conference of the John Whitmer Historical Association (JWHA). This was our third JWHA since Mike and I became the association’s executive directors, and the sixth I’ve attended in total.
The conference was held at the Alpine Valley Resort near Burlington, Wisconsin. In the winter, Alpine Valley is a ski resort of the kind we have in the Midwest. The hill is actually pretty good for the flat plain of Chicagoland, but because of its scant size relative to the Rockies we had to endure a lot of ribbing from our incredulous Utah cousins. Because it was summer, JWHA had the entire facility — including the hotel, conference rooms, restaurant, and bar — making socializing convenient.
I think our format this year also fostered interaction. We’ve settled on 90-minute sessions interspersed with 30-minute breaks. Each concurrent session had two 30-minute papers and 30 minutes for responses, questions, and answers. This seemed to be just the right amount of time to be able to give a substantive paper without going on so long as to tax the audience’s patience. On Friday, one conference attendee told me he’d made no less than six important connections that day where someone had either shared research with him or he had helped them. Fostering these connections tops our list of goals for these conferences.
The conference began with the association’s annual business meeting, where the committee chairs, officers, and staff give reports to the members, who then vote on proposals and new officers. Mike announced that operating budget had a surplus last year of a little more than $17,000 and that the operating fund had about $34,000 on hand. This represented a significant turnaround from the $10,000 annual deficit we inherited three years ago. The endowment fund has a little over $180,000 — having lost only $3,000 in the value of its investments during the current financial meltdown. The members voted Jeanne Murphey president-elect and added Craig Foster, Steve Shields, and Vickie Speek to the Board.
After the business meeting, the Sterling McMurrin Lecture was present by Roger D. Launius, a former president of both JWHA and the Mormon History Association (MHA). Roger is one of the great Mormon Studies researchers and writers of the past few decades, authoring or editing a string of books including Joseph Smith III: Pragmatic Prophet, Kingdom on the Mississippi Revisited, and Differing Visions: Dissenters in Mormon History. Roger’s presentation was a history of the wars over creationism and evolution in American history. As curator of the nation’s most popular science museum, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., Roger has a lot of firsthand experience with the way Christian evangelicals confront this aspect of science. Although LDS members by and large are scriptural literalists and although RLDS members used to be, Roger pointed out that both have always been much more willing to try to reconcile evolution with their faith than Christian evangelicals. Why? Although he raised the question, he did not have a conclusion, but the lecture led to a very lively opening discussion with the audience.
All day Friday and again on Saturday morning we had blocks of concurrent sessions between plenary sessions at lunch and dinner. One entire concurrent track featured new research on the Strangites, which will allow John Whitmer Books to assemble an articles compilation tentatively entitled The Strangites: Histories of the Great Lakes Mormons (to be published September 2009). The many interesting papers in the other sessions assure us that next year’s Journal will be another lengthy volume.
Lunch Friday was an “author meets the critics” panel reviewing the manuscript of Mark Scherer’s upcoming unofficial/official history of the Community of Christ, The Journey of a People, Vol. 1: The Era of Restoration, 1820-1844, to be published by Herald House by the end of the year. Interestingly, although the book’s intended audience is primarily members of the Community of Christ, the assembled critics were everyone else. Newell Bringhurst, a cultural Mormon, commended Mark for his openness and honesty, but criticized him for failing to consider issues such as race, gender, and ethnicity among the early members. Ron Esplin of the LDS Church Historian’s Department also praised the manuscript, but he argued that Mark was abandoning certain traditional narratives prematurely because Ron feels that much of the evidence supporting the new narratives is insufficient. Finally Roger Launius, a lapsed member of the Community of Christ, questioned the enterprise itself. Why does the church need a new official history? Roger also argued that the title “Journey of a People” did not match the content, because he felt that the focus rarely left Joseph Smith.
Our dinner on Friday began with the Awards. The Best Article Award was split between Erin Jennings and Robin Jensen for their articles in Scattering of the Saints: Schism in Mormonism. The winner of the Best Book Award was Newell Bringhurst and Craig Foster’s The Mormon Quest for the Presidency. I have nothing to do with the awards committees other than making sure the awards themselves are engraved, which is good because I had a lot to do with these books and articles. (I personally think they are great articles and a great book, but I have a fair amount of natural bias.) At our Sunday board meeting, board members expressed valid concern that the awards committees must remain impartial, despite the fact that the association is now publishing books and will publish three journals of articles next year.* The keynote address of the dinner was given by Mike Quinn on “The Ambiguous History of Us-Vs.-Them in the Mormon Experience.” Somewhat surprisingly, Mike explained that he had come “not to bury tribalism, but to praise it” — going onto explain how tribalism was an essential ingredient in constructing the Mormon identity. After dinner, we adjourned to the resort’s bar where we watched the first presidential debate. As is generally the case in both academic and Community of Christ† settings, the overwhelming majority of those assembled were strident Democrats already committed to Obama.
Touring Old Voree
The weather was perfect for our tour of Old Voree. Nearly every conference attendee packed into two buses that left the Alpine Valley Resort to visit four nearby sites. The Voree sites are located along Mormon Rd., on the western edge of Burlington. Most of the area is part of the Wingfield Watson Trust land. Wingfield Watson was Presiding High Priest (acting president) of the Strangite Church after the death of the last Strangite Apostle, Lorenzo Dow Hickey. Watson was responsible for saving and republishing much of Strang’s writings. The trust was set up for the benefit of the church’s mission, and is administered by trustees including Bill Shepard, the incoming president of JWHA.
The Hill of Promise site. David August gave a rare tour of the Hill of Promise, which is on the trust land and is not normally open to the public. The hill is where Strang and the four witnesses unearthed the Voree plates. Attached to a large boulder is a plaque commemorating the event. According to a revelation by Strang, the Biblical prophet Daniel will one day come to the hill to proclaim the kingdom of God. The same revelation called upon members to build a tower (known as the “tower of strength”) on the hill. Many members in Voree in the 1840s lived in temporary shelters on the hill because of their extreme poverty. David August also pointed out the location of the temple site across the White River from the hill (construction never proceeded beyond excavation and some work on the foundation). On the way back we saw the large quarry where the Saints excavated stone for their houses, the temple, and other buildings.
The Old Voree marker and homes. Vickie Speek and Mike Marquardt led the tour of the private park at the heart of Old Voree, at the corner of Mormon Road and State Highway 11. The Burlington Historical Society has set up a monument that includes a map of the Voree settlement — I haven’t yet evaluated how good this map is, but I intend to over the course of the next year. Across the street are two of the remaining stone homes, including the building that was the church’s print shop in the 1840s. This building is the traditional site of Strang’s death, but Vickie told us that he actually died in a house that used to exist behind the extant house. Neither this building nor its neighbor is owned by the trust, but the trust does own the third 1840s home located on Mormon Road as well as Wingfield Watson’s home.
The 1929 Church and artifacts. John Hajicek led the tour of the small Strangite meeting house built in 1929. (The church is no longer in use as the active congregation meets in a newer building a mile south on Spring Valley Rd.) In addition to being an independent researcher, John is a major collector of early Latter Day Saint papers and artifacts. He was kind enough to display a number of rare items from his collection, including copies for the Voree Herald, and photographs of Strang and Lorenzo Dow Hickey. (The Strangites are not all in communion with each other; John is an independent believer with a line of priesthood authority that is distinct from the Voree congregation. He also has a significant web presence and is the owner and operator of Strangite.org.)
Wingfield Watson and Ann Scott Davis graves. Bill Shepard led the tour at the Lyons cemetery where we visited the graves of Wingfield Watson and Ann Scott Davis. As mentioned above, Wingfield Watson was the Presiding High Priest of the Strangite Church after the death of Lorenzo Dow Hickey, and he can be credited with keeping the church alive to this day. Ann Scott Davis was an early Mormon who affiliated with Strang and later with the RLDS Church, where she became an editor of the RLDS Autumn Leaves periodical. She is best known for saving the manuscript of the “Joseph Smith Translation”/“Inspired Version” of the Bible, by having it sewn into her skirts during the exodus from Missouri.
Presidential Banquet and Sunday Hymn Festival
Our president this year has been Barb Walden, director of the Kirtland Temple. Barb’s address “Prophet, Seer, and Tour Guide: The Changing Role of Interpretation at Kirtland Temple,” was a comprehensive narrative of what people have encountered over the past 172 years when they’ve come to visit the first Latter Day Saint temple. After Barb finished her address, her final act as president was to transfer the presidential gavel to Bill Shepard. As he’d often joked, Bill took the opportunity to decree that Bill Russell could no longer refer to him as “B.S.” and must instead call him “President Shepard.” Alex Baugh, Greg Kofford, and Mike Marquardt retired from the JWHA Board with our great thanks.
The hymn festival the following morning took place in the Strangite church on Spring Valley Road, just a mile south of Old Voree. This is the last functioning congregation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Strangite), although there are other scattered members in communion with the church, and other independent Strangites. Because the Book of the Law of the Lord (which James Strang translated from the plates of Laban) explained that the sabbath is Saturday, Strangite services are not normally held on Sunday. The festival included the hymns I described in a previous post, and was a wonderful experience.
Our conference next year will be held September 24-27 in Independence, Missouri. The topic is “Race, Gender, Ethnicity, and the Restoration” and we hope it will be one for the record books in terms of participants and attendees. We’d love for you to participate. You can send proposals to submissions(at)JWHA.info. The deadline for submissions is Feb. 27, 2009.
* The three Journals will be the Strangite collection, Volume 29 of the JWHA Journal, and Volume X of Restoration Studies.
† I find that members of the Community of Christ are about as likely to be Democrats as LDS members are to be Republicans, but the observation is just anecdotal.