I met Ron Watt as a novice researcher when I first entered the old LDS Church Archives. He joined the archives with Leonard Arrington and having toiled diligently for many decades has subsequently retired (though you will still find him in laboring in the new building). He is perhaps the best expert we have on the Brigham Young Office Files, truly irreplaceable. At the end of 2009 Utah State University Press publish his magnum opus, a biography of George D. Watt. It will surely win awards (it is remarkable in many ways), but perhaps more than most recent books, it captures the humanity of its subject and exacts empathy from its readers.
Ronald G. Watt. The Mormon Passage of George D. Watt: First British Convert, Scribe for Zion. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2009. ix, 294 pp. Illustrations, photos, maps, footnotes, index. Cloth: $39.95, ISBN 978-0-87421-756-8; digital version: $32.95, ISBN 978-0-87421-758-2
George D. Watt is an individual with which few Latter-day Saints are familiar. However, his influence on Mormonism and Mormon history outweighs that of most General Authorities. Watt seemingly grew up as a character in a Dickensian novel. Penniless, cast out, and bullied on the dank streets of Manchester, he traded up to the poorhouse and befriended a teacher. After working in various capacities, he found religion among the radical Methodists and then, when Mormon missionaries first arrived, literally ran to the water to be baptized, the first convert in Britain.
Using decades-worth of research–periodicals, journals, correspondence, reminiscences and more (many not generally accessible to researchers)–Ron tracks his subject through his beginnings to his end in a truly enlightening fashion. Would that all of history’s heroes had champions so talented. But Ron is aided by Watt himself, who, though not a prominent Church leader, was nonetheless involved in Church leadership and its vicissitudes. Watt was an early native missionary in Britain, an emigrant leader, and perhaps most notably the premier scribe in Zion. Watt appears in many records of the church, but the biography also is punctuated with the florid and detailed prose of its subject. Watt grew out of his illiteracy and burgeoned, much as his later garden in the Avenues, into a remarkably fluent gentleman. Some biographers are fortunate for one or two wonderful phrases; Watt left many.
Many readers are familiar with pioneer stories and even the Latter-day Saint experience in Nauvoo, Missouri or Kirtland. However, many of those stories began in Britain, and Watt is an important window to that time and place, as well as the connections between them. We see how he struggled to support a family and labor in the Church in England. We see how personal conflict rose and abated, how the new converts supported the missionaries, how they struggled with belief and practice.
The book is also an excellent introduction to Utah history as Ron contextualizes the formation of Utah Territory, the Utah Indian Wars and then the Utah War. In the latter, Watt hunkered in the mountains, facing his people’s doom. His letters are lucid examples of the feelings of many. When reading through the Journal of Discourses (JD) there is a bit of a break during the War. In the next chapter we learn why. It was George D. Watt who started the project. And with the recorder in the Mountains and the mail cut, there could be no communication to the printer in Liverpool.
Perhaps due to antagonists of the Mormon Church frequently using the JD as a weapon, some modern Saints are somewhat skeptical of its contents. Modern “Correlation” proscribes citations to it, instead pointing to the transcripts in the Deseret News. However, the JD are invaluable history and for decades the official publications of the Church. I have previously pointed to Ron’s article in the Utah Historical Quarterly describing the beginnings of the JD as essential reading . This chapter expands on that publication and alone makes the book worth reading. Having picked up shorthand in Britain, Watt carved out (though painfully) a way to support his family – through the verbatim reporting of church leader sermons and their publication in the Deseret News and in the JD. International publication of these sermons is an enormous legacy (though he transcribe only 20-30% of his extant reports!).
A student of language, Watt was intimately involved in the development of the Deseret Alphabet. I have perceived a fair amount of folkore about the Alphabet and Ron includes an entire chapter on the topic. It is a much needed and important study of Mormonism’s language reform. Another chapter that will be referenced in perpetuity.
Watt traveled through Utah reporting sermons and preaching, developed his skills playing the viola in the symphony, participated in the theater, became an extraordinary gardener and the territorial expert on sericulture (I’m sure Zina D. H. Young appreciated him greatly). Ron also describes in great detail his family life. While I believe that large studies focusing on polygamy are important to understand the dynamics in Utah, I also believe that polygamy played itself out in very, very diverse ways in different families. Ron’s account of Watt’s marriages is an important case study (though not framed that way). Whereas some polygamists openly disclaimed romantic love, Watt approached his potential wives in terms of both romance and duty. His experiences will make the modern reader uncomfortable; this is not our culture. But I learned a great deal.
Ron successfully helps us understand Watt and his sometimes abrasive personality. As he flinched then stiffened under the rhetoric and perceived injustice of his church leaders (also his employers and friends), we also flinch. In many ways modern readers are closer in culture to Watt than his perceived antagonists. In studying the grand themes of Mormon history it is easy to become detached from the individual and personal experience of people who lived the history. This biography has great value in contributing to our understanding of those themes; however, it is also a tender and sometimes discomforting immersion in the person.
Watt ultimately left Mormonism, but desired to associate with its people. Having lost his position of influence and any wealth, Watt is a tragic counterpoint to our tradition of optimistic pioneer success narratives. His final years of poverty and demise contrast his dapper years as the President’s man. He left a large family, but I found the final chapter’s discussion of their continuance heartwarming.
While there were a few occasions where I would have appreciated a more detailed reasoning behind some of the author’s conclusions (e.g., why he concluded that the “Young George” serials were autobiographical), this is a soled piece of research. The Mormon Passage of George D. Watt is an excellent and important biography. 
- Ronald G. Watt, ” The Beginnings of The Journal of Discourses: A Confrontation Between George D.Watt and Willard Richards,” Utah Historical Quarterly 75 (Spring 2007): 134-148. Available digitally here.
- Also, did you see that it had footnotes? Footnotes!