Todd Compton is an independent historian, having published many articles and books. He is perhaps best known for writing In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith. He has two forthcoming volumes; the first, co-authored with Leland Gentry is due out soon: Fire and the Sword: A History of the Latter-Day Saints in Northern Missouri from 1836 to 1839 (Kofford Books). The second volume is a biography of Jacob Hamblin. This review was originally given by him at Sunstone West, March 27, 2010.
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. See also Stapley’s review here.
I have to apologize: this response will be less an exhaustive review of this book than it will be a meditation on two issues that this book raised for me.
Mormon Convert, Mormon Defector is a straightforward biography of Polly Aird’s Scottish great-great-uncle, Peter McAuslan, who converted to Mormonism, gathered with the Saints in Utah, but became disillusioned with Mormonism for various reasons, among which were murders of ex-Mormons as they tried to leave Utah, specifically the Parrish-Potter murders in Springville. As a result, Peter left Utah for California with a military escort in summer 1859.
Let me say at the outset that this is a wonderful book, beautifully written, exhaustively researched, extremely involving. If you don’t know Polly, she’s non-Mormon, but she became immersed in Mormon culture and history while researching and writing this book, and she almost seems to write from a Mormon viewpoint at times.
In some stories or books, you know where the moment of high drama is—in this case, when Peter becomes disaffected from Mormonism, is alarmed by unexplained murders against ex-Mormons in his neighborhood, and “escapes” from Utah after the Utah War. In many cases, the story leading up to such dramatic moments can be predictable and less than gripping. However, as I read this book, I was surprised how much I enjoyed reading the Scottish chapters, with their account of Peter’s struggle for economic survival in nineteenth-century industrial Scotland. Crossing the ocean and crossing the plains, again, can be formulaic in many Mormon biographies, but Polly has done a superb job of bringing those experiences to life. I believe that anyone who reads these chapters will be stimulated by them, and learn from them. I’m writing a biography in which my subject, Jacob Hamblin, crosses the plains, and reading Polly’s treatment has already improved my chapter on the overland trail.
One of the problems that most historians face is elucidating events or people who don’t happen to have plentiful primary documentation. Cowardly, lazy historians—like Leonard Arrington in his biography of Brigham Young or Thomas Alexander in his biography of Wilford Woodruff—select figures who wrote extensive diaries, and figure in the diaries of many other prominent people. (I’m joking of course; such subjects are difficult in different ways.) However, when you try to write the biography of an ancestor who didn’t leave plentiful diaries, or any diaries, you must piece together what puzzle pieces you have and add social history, or the histories of people who were fellow-travelers, when available, to fill out blank spaces. Polly has done a superb job of filling in the gaps in the fairly meager writings of Peter McAuslan. When we tell the stories of rank and file people, we usually will not have the exhaustive documentation that an institutional leader like Wilford Woodruff had. But rank and file people are important, and, Polly shows, their experiences can be extremely involving.
I don’t have major negative criticisms of the book; however, occasionally I would have made minor stylistic changes. For example, on p. 168, she writes, “Raleigh described in his journal”—it took me a few minutes to piece together who this Raleigh was. I would have added, “Bishop Raleigh” to help the reader place him and his context. On p. 285, she states that Peter was not an “apostate,” using the word in the sense of someone who “actively battles” against a former religion. I don’t think that regular Mormons use “apostate” in this sense—they would consider anyone excommunicated to be an “apostate.” I realize that there are technical definitions of apostate that she is using, but believe that such over-technical definitions are not applicable here. The roots of the Greek word are “away-stand”—to stand away from a group.
I have a number of other question marks in the margins of my copy of the book, but they’re all very minor, just like these two stylistic issues.
I will now turn to two issues that reading this book caused me to mull over.
While I was attending UCLA, one day I was in the bookstore and saw a book of interviews with Wallace Stegner, and looked through it. I found that there was a whole chapter on Mormons and Mormonism, not surprising given than Stegner had written two books on Mormons, and had grown up partly in Utah. Stegner naturally had positive and insightful things to say about Mormonism and Mormon culture. But one point that he made really struck me, and it was surprising to hear it from a writer so sympathetic to Mormons, concerned violence in pioneer Utah.
The interviewer asked, “What kind of lessons can (or could) Mormons learn from their history?” Stegner replied,
If they really learn from their heritage, I suppose they would learn some other lessons that might not sit quite so well with the hierarchy. For instance, they could learn that the theocracy in Utah was a police state with a secret police and all the rest of it, which most won’t grant. If they do grant, they just sort of wave it away, cover it over with dead leaves. But it’s a very early example of a theocracy ruled by priesthood. Existing on the frontier as it did, it had relative freedom of action for ten years or so in Utah, which gave it a pretty stiff and rigid form, and it was hard to resist. The gentile literature about the destroying angel and the rest of it is lurid and exaggerated, but it’s not based upon myth. It’s based upon a fact. There was such a guy as Port Rockwell.
Stegner went on to state that Brigham Young, as a successful, practical colonizer, was a favorite of his friend, historian Bernard DeVoto, but Stegner felt that Young
is the one who is to be charged with all the secret police activities, with the destroying angels, possibly with the Mountain Meadows Massacre. A lot of things in Brigham’s management of the Mormons after he got them to Utah don’t stand too close examination. Admiration has to be tempered all the time, I think, by a certain scrupulousness, which doesn’t … unless you can admire murder, and he was accused of being accessory to a good many… So my admiration of Brigham Young is mixed, and my admiration for Joseph Smith is likewise mixed.
But he preferred Smith to Young, he said.
This is not an anti-Mormon like Sandra Tanner or Ed Decker speaking. This is a friend of the Mormons, a great novelist and a fine historian. This struck me forcibly, and I realized that the mysterious murders of non-Mormons, liberal Mormons, or ex-Mormons in Utah in the years before and during the Utah War were a serious issue that Mormons needed to face. As Stegner put it, the story of these murders were an important “lesson” that Mormons needed to come to terms with. For Mormon historians, of course, this period of violence should be something they need to write about, and write about carefully and honestly.
Stegner mentioned the difficulty of finding the complete truth about these murders. That is the common lot of history. He also mentioned two extremes of inadequate ways of dealing with these issues: anti-Mormon sensationalism, on the one hand, and “wave it away, cover it over with dead leaves,” on the other. Following this latter route, you ignore the issue, treat it like it is unimportant; if you deal with it at all, you deal with it in a facile, shallow way—which is simply a way of perpetuating the coverups that have followed these murders in Mormon culture from the earliest times.
Have mainstream Mormon historians looked at these events seriously and responsibly? What Mormon historians have concerned themselves with the Parrish-Potter murders, the Aiken murders, and other less-known murders? For the Aiken murders, Harold Schindler wrote a good biography of Porter Rockwell that deals with the subject, followed by a good article by David L. Bigler—neither of whom is exactly a BYU history professor. For the Parrish-Potter murders, the best scholarly treatments are now both by Polly Aird—this book, Mormon Convert, Mormon Defector, and her 2004 article “‘You Nasty Apostates, Clear Out’: Reasons for Disaffection in the Late 1850s,” which won the J. Talmage Jones Awards of Excellence from the Mormon History Association. Polly, as I’ve mentioned, is a non-Mormon.
Two recent important articles dealing with Utah War violence are Ardis Parshall, “‘Pursue, Retake and Punish’: the 1857 Santa Clara Ambush,” Utah Historical Quarterly 73 (Winter 2005): 64-86, and William P. MacKinnon, “‘Lonely Bones’: Leadership and Utah War Violence,” Journal of Mormon History 33 (Spring 2007): 121–78. Parshall I would call a moderate Mormon; MacKinnon is another non-Mormon.
Two Mormons who have dealt with violence in nineteenth-century Mormonism are Juanita Brooks, in her famous The Mountain Meadows Massacre, but also in her important edition of the diaries of Hosea Stout, and D. Michael Quinn, in Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power. Juanita Brooks was a historian who lived on the periphery of her culture, literally and figuratively. In Mike Quinn, we finally do have a BYU history professor, though, of course, he was in effect fired from BYU and later excommunicated for writing history that was viewed as heretical by conservative church leaders.
(This is not meant to be a complete list, but these are some of the most important works on the subject.)
From mainstream Mormon historians, little serious work has been done. However, I’m pleased, and Wallace Stegner would be pleased, that some scholars are starting to look at the subject seriously, without sensationalism and animus, on the one hand, and without whitewashing, oversimplifications, and sentimentalism, on the other.
I would like to emphasize that while the Parrish-Potter murders are an important moment in the psychic odyssey of Polly’s protagonist, Peter McAuslan, they, and similar violence, only take up a chapter or two in her 250 pages of text. But her treatment of the violence accompanying the Reformation and Utah War is excellent; matter of fact, not sensationalized, yet not whitewashed. I suppose that the unspoken response of conservative Mormons would be that murders like the Parrish-Potter murders were unsolved, or the regrettable actions of local Mormons. However, Polly makes the point that in many cases, these murders were not even investigated by Mormon church leaders or the civil government controlled by Mormon leaders. When non-Mormons tried to investigate after the Utah War, Mormons did all they could to impede the investigations. In addition, these were not murders on the periphery of Mormon Utah, that can be blamed on local leaders far from the church hierarchy. Stegner, for one, believed that Brigham Young might have to bear responsibility for some of them.
Second, I was struck by how often Peter McAuslan accused the Saints of not thinking for themselves. Peter wrote to his sister that being A “true faithful saint in the Mormon Church consists of:…to have no mind of your own….Practical Mormonism means, on the part of the subjects, Blind obedience, unquestioning submission to authority.” It made me wonder: if you have a prophet whom you accept as receiving revelation directly from heaven, does that allow you to disagree with the prophet, and to what extent can you disagree with him? While in church we emphasize the doctrine of following a living prophet, is it a necessary corollary of that position that when the prophet speaks, we must agree? Can we thoughtfully, carefully examine and weigh his statements, accepting some things as inspired, and disagreeing with other things?
Last year, as we were entering the election season, preparing to vote on November 10th, our church president and his two counselors sent a message to all church members in California, instructing us to support Proposition 8, which would make marriage of homosexuals illegal in a civil setting. President Monson and his counselors asked for as much financial support for Prop 8 as possible, and for Mormons to actively go door to door seeking turnout of conservatives to vote for the measure.
I disagreed with Prop 8 for a number of reasons. First, I have never been able to follow the logic that says that allowing homosexuals to marry somehow detracts from full marriage rights for heterosexuals. Second, I was and am a committed Democrat, and Democrats tend to view this issue from the perspective of civil rights; given that perspective, we tend to feel that homosexuals should have full civil rights, including the right to marry. Third, I saw that making support for Prop 8 the official church position would cause some LDS members who might be wavering between Democrat and Republican, to vote Republican. Karl Rove pushed opposition to gay marriage as a Republican get-out-the vote issue during Bush’s last election. Fourth, I have a lesbian friend who, with her partner, is raising children. She is a wonderful mother. Simply knowing someone like that makes you see the issue differently.
I could go on, but that will give you an idea of my views on the subject.
Here are some related experiences I had last year. I remember a member in my ward giving a talk, and saying that formerly he had been a “live and let live” kind of guy, and would not have voted to ban gay marriage. But, he said, when the message of the First Presidency was read in church, he realized that “he needed to repent.” There was no detailed, convincing argumentation from the First Presidency that won him over. Instead there was simply a brief message directing Mormons to vote a certain way, and he quickly changed his point of view.
After hearing the First Presidency’s message read in my ward, I sent my stake president an email, asking if it was possible for a church member to thoughtfully and respectfully disagree with the First Presidency on this issue. I mentioned some of the political ramifications of the issue, told him of my Democratic background. I asked him if church leaders above him had given any guidance on whether church members could, based on deep convictions, not follow the church position seeking to ban gay marriage. I hoped that he would send me, in writing, what the church policy might be on that issue.
I sent the email. For a long time, no response. Finally, I got a call from him; he was very non-confrontational and kind, but he did not directly answer my question. Instead, he tried to convince me that voting for Proposition 8 was what the brethren had asked for, and was therefore right. I’m summarizing here, but that was how I remember the conversation. I thanked him for getting back to me and let the matter drop.
In retrospect, I might have pursued my actual question further. But then it struck me that I might have been naive in asking the question in the first place. The instructions to support Prop 8 had come as a message of the First Presidency; how could a member disagree with a message of the First Presidency?
I hope, if the church takes a political position again, that it handles the situation differently, allowing typical Democrats and others some room to disagree, and still feel comfortable in the Latter-day Saint community.
So this issue from the experience of Peter McAuslan—are Mormons allowed to think for themselves in a culture in which a prophet heads the church—is with us still.
In conclusion, I am depressed by the fact that not many Mormons will read this wonderful biography, while hundreds of thousands of Latter-day Saints are reading whitewashed versions of Mormon history. But I encourage everyone here to help remedy that situation, by reading Mormon Convert, Mormon Defector yourself, and then recommending it to friends.
- Wallace Stegner and Richard W. Etulain, Conversations with Wallace Stegner on Western History and Literature (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1983), 105-6.
- Stegner and Etulain, Conversations with Wallace Stegner, 110.
- Harold Schindler, Orrin Porter Rockwell (SLC: University of Utah Press, 1966); David L. Bigler, “The Aiken Party Executions and The Utah War, 1857–1858,” The Western Historical Quarterly 38.4 (Winter 2007): 457-76.
- “‘You Nasty Apostates, Clear Out’: Reasons for Disaffection in the Late 1850s,” Journal of Mormon History, vol. 30, no. 2 (Fall 2004), 129-207, 173-91.
- This was reprinted in MacKinnon’s At Sword’s Point, Part 1 (Norman, OK: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 2008), 295-328.
- Hosea Stout, On the Mormon Frontier, edited by Juanita Brooks, 2 vols. (SLC: University of Utah Press, 1964).
- D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power (SLC: Signature Books, 1997), 226-61. See also The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power (SLC: Signature Books, 1994), index entries for Danites, Dissenters.
- Mormon Convert, 192-93.