Review: Mormon Convert, Mormon Defector

Before the back-issues of the Journal of Mormon History had been digitized and made available online and on DVD, I needed to track down a couple of articles. Unfortunately, none of the institutional libraries nearby carry the journal and while discussing the matter with the JMH staff, they suggested that I visit Polly Aird, who happens to live across the Lake from me and has an extensive back catalogue. I did not know, when I later walked into her home, that the first member of my family to join the Mormon church was also the individual who presided in the Ward that ran her ancestors from the faith (and State of Utah). Polly has been actively engaged in Mormon history circles as she has diligently researched the story of her ancestors, and published on various topics relating to their context. Happily our families have had something of a rapprochement; we are currently serving together on the JMH editorial board. And it is with great pleasure that I review the culmination of her work.

Polly Aird, Mormon Convert, Mormon Defector: A Scottish Immigrant in the American West, 1848—1861 (Norman, Okl.: Arthur H. Clark Company, 2009). 320 pp. Illustrations, photos, maps, footnotes, bibliography, index. Cloth: $39.95, ISBN 978-0-87062-369-1.

My family’s story, and the stories we retell in church are triumphs over oppression and persecution—stories of conversion and heroic perseverance in the faith. But these are not the stories of many of our people. Whereas we recount with miraculous awe the evangelical travails of Wilford Woodruff converting the British United Brethren in toto, we rarely mention that half of those 1,500 or so fresh Mormons later left the Church for generally unknown paths. Mormon Defector is a volume that offers a perspective into this other story, though not so simply reduced.

In many ways this book is a biography of Peter McAuslan, but as life writings are scant and as his story intersects with many important episodes of post-Nauvoo Mormonism, Aird employs a surprising array of sources to make vivid the environment and society in which Peter lived. Peter was a Scott and Aird carefully crafts chapters outlining the evolution from the McAuslan’s historic community to industrial urban life. Fickle markets and labor displacement led to deep resentment of the institutions of power and capitalism. The American Mormon missionaries found a ready appetite for their radical theology of liberty, community, and biblical supernaturalism. Many readers will find Aird’s work on Scottish Mormonism alone is a contribution worth the purchase price.

Aird’s discussion of Orson Pratt’s missionary prowess and description of Mormonism among the common believer is invaluable and must necessarily be repeated by other scholars in other geographies. Readers will sympathize with the band of Mormons as they save toward Zion and live their faith in the face of urban squalor and unemployment. They will also feel sucker-punched when polygamy was made public or when epic aspirations met pragmatic reality. Mormon Convert includes immigration accounts which are detailed and rich. Most readers will find more information and a broader perspective than they ever have had before on the docks of Liverpool, New Orleans, or St. Louis and in the boats and wagons of the Atlantic and America.

Once in Utah, Peter reunites with family just in time to face some of the most memorialized challenges to Deseret life—insect infestation and famine. He also came in time for the most infamous episodes of Mormon history—innocent blood shed. Peter moved South to Utah Valley and lived within miles of some of the most egregious failures of Mormon society to self-regulate. Aird recounts in detail the various murders. These are stories that must be told and every believing Saint should sympathize with the subjects. In contextualizing the life and decisions of a Mormon defector, Aird focuses significantly on those aspects which are most troubling and readers will generally benefit from reading other accounts of the Utah War and Massacre at Mountain Meadows, as well as histories covering the same time but which look at different aspects of Mormon society. There is no question, however, that Peter had every right to want to flee Zion and even fear for his safety.

With a US Army escort he packed his immediate family, leaving many relations in Utah, and pioneered on to California. He lived a full life into the twentieth century and was recognized by his community as a good and honest man. In the end Peter refrained from bitter feelings about Mormonism, and grew to hold spiritualistic ideas that integrated his early Mormon experiences (cf., recent biographies on George Watt and Amasa Lyman).

Peter McAuslin was not a great leader in the Mormon hierarchy, though he was a significant participant in many of Mormonism’s stories. Polly Aird has written a highly accessible and well documented account of Mormon life. Students of Mormonism will be well benefited with the various perspectives offered by one of our great authors.


  1. Thanks for the review, J.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Nice review. I love the rapprochement line!

  3. esodhiambo says:

    Fascinating juncture.

  4. Mark Brown says:

    Thank you, J.

    I’m going to read this book.

  5. Polly Aird says:

    I’m glad, Jonathan, that you and I have been able to meet and work together in the interests of Mormon history even though our ancestors were estranged!

  6. Great review, J. I’ve been meaning to read this book, and you have given added encouragement.

    I’m especially interested in the Scottish scene while I am living out here in Scotland, so I need to read it soon before I move back to the states.

  7. I am actually giving a review of this book on Saturday.I am focusing on themes that the book brings out. Accurate review of the book.

  8. Angela, be sure to pass my regards along to Todd.

  9. Susan W H says:

    Thanks for the review. I bought the book when it first came out with the intention of putting it on the bottom of my current stack to be read. Before I did that, I opened it to take a look, and realized that this was the kind of book I really enjoy reading. I started reading it that same day and finished the next. Thank you so much, Polly Aird, for the background on the economic and history of the times.

  10. Polly Aird says:

    Glad you enjoyed it, Susan. The economic times were so hard in Great Britain that it makes you wonder why more didn’t convert!

  11. Good for you, J.

  12. Thanks for the review.

  13. One of the attractions of the Church has always been that it is an American religion. As such, Mormonism benefits from America’s promise for a new beginning.

    In the European imagination, America is about liberty, modernity, opportunity, and individualism.

    That created problems back then as well as today because Mormonism cannot always meet those expectations.

  14. I tend to think that it was modernity and/or individualism that the early converts were escaping.

  15. Polly Aird says:

    Let me add my two bits. America had been the economic safety valve for Europe, but particularly Scotland for the previous 200 years. Even the ancient Greeks had looked to the golden west! So I would weigh in heavily on the idea of opportunity. Also they were escaping the old order of class and money, a rigid system from which it was nearly impossible to escape one’s status as “working class.” Individualism? Well, they wanted to make choices for themselves. Modernity? The Industrial Revolution, with its ever increasing machinery, was making for a miserable life. So they wanted to escape that kind of modernity. And then there were the concepts from the Scottish Enlightenment that were embodied in the formation of the United States, and that was an enormous appeal. Okay, I’d better stop and get going to the airport to fly to Claremont for Sunstone West!

  16. I’m curious about Polly Aird’s last name. Ard is my family name, and I’ve never known whether it was from Scotland or Ireland. It’s relatively rare, and I know it comes from the word for land or earth, though I don’t know if it’s meant for the owner of the land (the Laird) or the ones who dig in it. I believe Aird is perhaps how our name was spelled in Europe, but may have changed on the move to America. We pronounce ours to rhyme with “hard” or “card”. How does Polly say her last name? Is it said like “air” with a D? Or like my “Ard”? Or some other way? I’m very behindhand on doing my family history, and I’m the first convert in my family. So I’d be grateful for any information. Thanks!

  17. Polly Aird says:

    Tatiana, The Airds that I’m descended from came from the Kilmarnock area in Scotland–south of Paisley. My understanding is that “Aird” means a high, windy place. “Aird” is pronounced “air” with a “d”. I do know that there is a place in northern Ireland named Aird–it is a high promontory on the coast, but I don’t any more about it. Since all the Scots originally came from Ireland in about 700 AD (I think I have that right), so it’s probable that “Aird” was common to both countries. I’ve never come across “Ard” in Scotland, but that doesn’t mean too much. And it could easily have been changed by the immigration officers when your family arrived in America. I’m afraid this isn’t too much help to you.

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