Compton Reviews Mormon Convert, Mormon Defector

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.

Issue 1
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.[1]

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.[2]

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.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5] 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,[6] and D. Michael Quinn, in Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power.[7] 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.

Issue 2
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.”[8] 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.


  1. 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.
  2. Stegner and Etulain, Conversations with Wallace Stegner, 110.
  3. 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.
  4. “‘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.
  5. This was reprinted in MacKinnon’s At Sword’s Point, Part 1 (Norman, OK: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 2008), 295-328.
  6. Hosea Stout, On the Mormon Frontier, edited by Juanita Brooks, 2 vols. (SLC: University of Utah Press, 1964).
  7. 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.
  8. Mormon Convert, 192-93.


  1. My recollection of the direction we were given on Prop 8 is that we were explicitly informed that you didn’t have to fall in line on that issue to be a member in good standing.

  2. Thanks for the review, Todd. There is (was?) an MA student at BYU, Scott Thomas, who’s doing some fantastic work on violence in Utah territory within the scholarly framework of violence studies. Since he’s primarily talking to scholars outside of the Mormon history bubble, his work has the potential to remove the debate out of the current framework, which as you note tends to define historians as polemicists or apologists, and into the realm of academic discussion that emphasizes reasoned comparisons and contrasts with other western territories.

  3. Thanks for the essay, Todd, and I agree that this should be widely read.

    Regarding Mormons coming to terms with frontier violence, I think the MMM volume is important and Walker’s piece in BYU Studies about what we as a people should learn from the tragedy, is key. I would also simply call Ardis a good historian (I’m not sure what “moderate” means).

  4. I’m curious about the “co-authoring” with my cousin Leland Gentry, who died several years ago and was incapacitated for many years before that. Did Leland actually agree to and work with Todd on editing his old work, or has Todd simply taken Leland’s work and updated/edited/rewritten/repurposed/whatevered it?

  5. @GST – the explicit information about going your own way on Prop 8 was not generally handed out to the public until October 24th (a couple of weeks before the election) when Peggy Fletcher Stack wrote in the Salt Lake Tribune, “Latter-day Saints are free to disagree with their church on the issue without facing any sanction, said L. Whitney Clayton of the LDS Quorum of the Seventy. ‘We love them and bear them no ill will.’ ”

    Up until that time, it was not transparently obvious to members in California that it was possible to be a member in good standing and also disagree with church leaders regarding involvement in Prop 8. And, as discussions have ensued on the internet since that time, there is a prevailing opinion from members that Mormons need to oppose same-sex marriage any time it comes up.

  6. Todd, asking LDS leadership whether it’s kosher to disagree with the First Presidency during a political campaign in which the LDS Church actually wants to WIN strikes me as a case of bad timing. If you want to understand the boundaries of acceptable dissent from the Brethren — and you want the Brethren’s own views of the matter to inform that understanding — better to ask in a moment when the Church perceives the stakes in answering your question to be lower.

  7. By the way, I’ve spent a while now considering whether to say anything at all, and whether to label it as surprise or dismay or insult, or just what, at being called a “moderate” Mormon. I think of myself as being as flaming conservative both-feet-in-the-kingdom TBM as they come — except that I don’t find it necessary to demonstrate my loyalty by distorting the past. I believe it is necessary to tell as close to the absolute truth about the past as is possible, given incomplete records and human frailty, and I believe that the church and the gospel both will survive that scrutiny.

    If by “moderate” you mean that quality of intellectual fairness, I’ll accept the term with thanks. But if by “moderate” you are referring to my membership status or loyalty or conviction — as you would seem to be doing by using “moderate” for me in the same breath as “non-Mormon” for Bill MacKinnon — then please know that there is nothing moderate about me. I’m completely one-sided and standing at the far end of the scale.

  8. I can vouch for the fact that Ardis is steadfastly loyal to the Church and committed to getting the details right about history. I’m not persuaded that “moderate” is the right adjective to describe her approach.

  9. I appreciated this essay and realized I have a lot of reading I need to do.

    I have to admit, I found the use of the term “moderate” to describe Ardis as intriguing. My sense of it is that he’s using the term to mean “reasonable”. Since Compton repeatedly identifies himself as a democrat and is into less-than-flattering church history, he may consider the “typical Mormon historian” to be a conservative, apologetic, obfuscating opponent. If Ardis didn’t didn’t strike him that way, she therefore must be moderate. I’ll bet conservatives say the same thing when they hear a democrat say something they agree with — “oh, that guy’s a moderate.” I think it’s meant as a compliment. The intriguing part is that it implies that, in general, historians like Ardis aren’t generally reasonable, and that those that are, are generally non- or former Mormons.

  10. Supporting Compton’s point about non-flattering church history being covered with dead leaves, I personally had never heard of the Parrish-Potter or Aiken murders, and I think I’m better versed than the typical Mormon.

  11. Thanks for the review, Todd. I agree that the book is excellent, but since I have a forthcoming review of it for Dialogue I will save my other comments on the text for that venue.

    Regarding your second point, Matt Bowman has an excellent article on that tension of intellectual dissent in a Dialogue issue from last year.

    As for describing Ardis as “moderate”–I may be mistaken, but I interpreted that term to mean what Ardis spelled out in the first sentence of her second paragraph. (therefore, a compliment.)

  12. Latter-day Guy says:

    Moderation, a monster so frightful of mien…

    #10: Ditto.

  13. Bill MacKinnon says:

    Hmmm, at least Todd didn’t call ME a — gasp! — “Gentile”…heh, heh. Personally, I rather think of Ardis as, uh, “immoderate.” Sort of like the famous Barry Goldwater comment during the 1964 presidential campaign: “Extremism in defense of Liberty [or was it Freedom?] is no vice.” Returning to what was suppose to be the subject of all this, my favorable views on Polly’s book are set forth in its Foreward, which has been translated from the original Gaellic dialect peculiar to the Inner Hebrides.

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    Todd can speak for himself, but I’m pretty sure he meant the term “moderate” of Ardis in the former, complimentary sense, in the same sense in which he himself is a “moderate.” It may not be the right label, but I’m confident it was meant (very) positively. I’ve used that label of myself, so naturally I perceive it in positive terms.

  15. Ugh. Surely there’s more to talk about in this thread than Todd’s use of one little word.

    (though I think it’s reasonable for Ardis to ask for clarification)

  16. Susan W H says:

    Thank you so much for publishing Todd’s review. Long before Polly’s book was published I looked forward to reading it. I wasn’t disappointed–the biography was even better than my already high expectations for it. It is definitely worth reading.

  17. Todd, both of the issues you raise are important. I think I have tended to look at the violence in our past as more a reflection of the American culture of the 19th century. The difference may be that the violence of 19th century seemed to be more of a grass roots kind of violence that benefited from benign indifference from institutions of power in the name of “popular sovereignty”, whereas the Mormon violence of the 1850’s does seem to reflect a benign indifference on the part of the Saints in the name of obedience and submission to authority. But in both cases, there was a general acceptance of violence as a means of discouraging non-conventional beliefs, lifestyles, or political ideology, it appears to me.

    And speaking of Ardis, she gets my respect as the Godzilla of “moderate” Mormon history.

  18. Mommie Dearest says:

    This was fascinating. Just from this review I learned much that I did not know, and perspectives that I hadn’t been exposed to before. I spent much of my blog-reading time on this, with good reward.

    Just for the record, the author was not found at Deseret Book, the book is in stock at Amazon, and is discounted until the end of August (!) at the publisher’s link in the OP. I look forward to reading it someday, right after “in Sacred Loneliness.”

    I appreciated the discussion of your experience with the First Presidency instructions regarding Prop 8, which added to my journey of figuring out what position to take on that question.

    And if one can do their own thinking, and be both moderate and steadfastly loyal, count me in that group.

  19. StillConfused says:

    I learned of the murders and such on this very site. It was very devastating to me as I felt I had been mislead during my formative years. I would like to see more honesty and acknowledgement of the questionable stuff that happened in the beginning of the church.

  20. While I 1) view the violence during this period as a dramatic failure of Mormon society to self regulate, 2) think we all should all be cognizant of such episodes, and 3) empathize with folks that are struggling with new information that is not consistent with their world view, I think that it all generally makes sense when you look at the context of what happened (not that it was a good thing).

  21. This sound like a very interesting book. Thank you for reviewing it, I wouldn’t have known about it without BCC.

    It is a tough thing to look at history in a non biased way..facts are facts, but a book can only include so many..and sometimes the choice of which facts to include is problematic in itself. I love a historian who admits a bias up front..then tries to edit thoughtfully and listen to other opinions with an open, generous mind.

    I’d rather have a historian admit his opinion than to present their conclusions as fact without recognizing options.

  22. All of those who look for this book on Amazon___tell the you want it on Kindle (for me). Thanks!

  23. All of those who look for this book on Amazon___tell them you want it on Kindle (for me). Thanks!

  24. I’m going to have to get around to reading this – I have an ancestor who basically, as I understand it, had to flee the aftermath of the Potter-Parish murders. He ended up moving from Springville to Fayette, Utah.

  25. I thoroughly enjoyed Mormon Defector. Nice to see it getting some well-deserved attention.

  26. The Springville museum has some books with basic information on the Potter-Parish affair. I would like to read something that puts the information more into historical context, as I also have an ancestor that was there at the time.

  27. Todd Compton says:

    Ardis, as one who has been subjected to negative labeling myself, I’m sorry if you feel the term “moderate,” applied to you, is potentially misleading. I meant it entirely positively. In my view, being moderate encompasses elements of conservatism. I’m well aware of how complex we all are – and how difficult it is to describe anyone briefly. For instance, I have some friends who call themselves fiscal conservatives, social liberals. Are they conservatives or liberals? I consider myself conservative in some ways.

    Moreover, these terms can be relative. I have a friend who has been part of FARMS for a long time, and he was talking with one of the members of the BYU Religion Department, and FARMS came up, and the religion teacher, perhaps not knowing that my friend was a long time FARMS contributor, told him that he considered FARMS to be the “hellenization” of the true gospel – in other words, he viewed FARMS as the liberal fringe at BYU, intellectualizing the gospel in a quasi-apostate way. (My friend was slightly taken aback at this characterization!) Of course, people at Signature Books usually do not think of FARMS people as liberals.

    You could say that the terms conservative, moderate, and liberal are meaningless. I don’t go that far. I tend to use those terms—I think there is a continuum—but I realize that the reality of where someone is on that continuum is extremely complex.

    This is one of the reasons that ad hominem attack does not work. By the way, I do not use the term conservative as a negative term. Any historian is by definition a conservative, in the sense that he or she wants to conserve, preserve, knowledge of and experience of the past.

    I can see why you might want to clarify where you stand, and I found your clarification really interesting. Would you please write a 30 page memoir expanding on your clarification? I’d love to read it.

  28. Todd Compton says:

    Some people (kevinf, J Stapley, David G.) have mentioned Western violence as a context for the kind of violence discussed in Polly’s book. I think that is an important avenue for understanding violence in Utah. Of course, in some ways we will fit into the context of violence in the West; in other ways, our unique religious views and social setting will set us apart from typical western violence. I look forward to Scott Thomas’s work, David G.

    LRC: On Prop 8, that was a remarkable quote from Whitney Clayton; but how many Mormons in California were aware of it? How many Mormons in Utah (since apparently it was published only in that heretical paper, the Tribune)? I wish my Stake President had known about it, and shared it with me.

    I should add that our local leaders knew about my point of view, on this subject, and my wife’s views, and were extremely kind and nonjudgmental toward us.

    Aaron B.: for me, asking my stake president about that matter was a practical issue, and it had to be asked at that time.

    Martin: I wouldn’t characterize myself as “into less-than-flattering church history” – when there are problems in church history, they need to be dealt with in a balanced, non-sensational way. The problems are part of the whole, and are part of the marvelous, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes inspiring, tapestry of Mormon history and western history. In addition, if you read In Sacred Loneliness, you’ll find a lot there that is just standard biography of early LDS women. Even the sections on Joseph Smith’s polygamy are not meant to be “less-than-flattering”—they’re my attempt to document what happened.

    Bill: they let heathen Gentiles on this blog? Where do I register my complaint? By the way, I went to Ireland on my mission, so know some Gaelic. (I memorized exactly two sentences of it.)

    Ardis: on the Gentry book, my understanding is that Greg Kofford and Leland Gentry agreed to republish the book, and that Greg would get someone to update it. Greg asked me to. I wish Leland could have done it himself, but I was told that his health was very bad.

    My approach was to leave Gentry’s text pretty much alone, except for minor stylistic editing. (Also, when Gentry quoted something, and better texts were now available, as in the Jessee Papers of Joseph Smith series, I used the newer texts.) Then I added Addenda at the end of each chapter, explaining how the scholarly debate had gone back and forth since the thesis was originally completed. I added my point of view on some issues (but only in the Addenda, and in the footnotes, set off by slashes). Lavina Fielding Anderson was working actively on this, and her editing greatly improved what I contributed.

    I came to have enormous respect for Gentry’s thesis as I worked with it over the years. It is really a remarkable book.

  29. Thanks, Todd. Nobody should ever make the mistake that I’m only “moderately Mormon,” but I’m pleased to be recognized as moderate when that means I’m not a polemicist, or that I’m willing to look squarely at historical questions.

    (And while I very much appreciated the assurances from so many commenters that you recognize me as solidly in the Mormon camp, Aaron is right — please don’t let me continue to be a threadjack here. Thanks.)

  30. Thanks for the download, Todd. I’m looking forward to your volume with Gentry.

  31. Todd, a great review. Thanks to BCC for giving it air time here.

    One additional data point with respect to Whitney Clayton’s quote. I actually had occasion to discuss this quote with my bishop, who in turn (according to my bishop) called Elder Clayton to seek further clarification. My bishop’s understanding of what the quote means, after having talked to Elder Clayton, is that members are in fact free to disagree with the church on this point, but that if they take a stand publicly opposing the church’s point of view, local leaders are free to take whatever disciplinary action they think appropriate.

    In other words, you can believe what you want, just don’t act on those beliefs in a public way. Frankly, I find that position rather unsatisfying.

  32. Does anyone else catch a wiff of dissonance about holding the Church hierarchy to some degree culpable for events that occurred in pioneer Utah while in the same breath asserting one’s desire for their own actions to be considered separate and independent of leadership direction?

  33. Mark Brown says:


    No. It’s called agency, or being a grown-up.

  34. 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

    Political affiliation supercedes personal morality? I think you’ve got this backwards. I would much rather see a vote influenced by a moral code developed through religious participation than bend one’s personal ethics to benefit a particular political party/ideology.

  35. Mark Brown,

    “It’s called agency, or being a grown-up.” I agree, did I say something that suggests otherwise?

  36. MAC,
    I think the difference articulates closely with the culture of obedience and deference. The question “can leaders in an authoritarian culture be held accountable for the actions of rank and file individuals or groups?”—in particular when the actions of the rank and file are carried out in deference to social authority and conformity to community norms—is fundamentally different from “is it okay for individuals to dissent from leadership imperatives in an authoritarian culture?”

  37. In other words, “are Church leaders to be held responsible for the existing and painful, if unspoken, divides that run through so many CA wards in the post-Prop-8 landscape?” is not the same as “was it okay for such-and-such individual to disobey the FP and still remain in good standing?”.

  38. Brad, 36,37

    That is all well and good, if the original post was confined to that idea, but it wasn’t. It intentionally makes connection between pioneer era murderers and those members of the Church who supported Prop 8, who by they way aren’t capable of thinking for themselves. Also, if the best arguments that can be made for maintaining that painful divide (from one side anyway) are 1) I don’t follow the logic of the other side, 2) I have been a Democratic for a long time, and 3)The actions of Church leaders may influence the unthinking hoi palloi to cling to the Republicans, maybe the divide isn’t really worth maintaining. In truth, I haven’t had to make a decision because I don’t live in California, but I lean towards pro-Prop 8 and I think *I* could come up with more valid reasons against that proclivity.

    I enjoyed the first part of the article and it made me aware of things that I wasn’t familiar with, but if Todd started out painting with a fine brush he ended up throwing paint bombs.

    I get the distinct impression that a lot of these types of posts get the accolades-all-around treatment based on their eloquence and appeal to the political leanings of many bloggernacle regulars, not necessarily on the strength of their arguments.

  39. John Mansfield says:

    MAC, the seeming equation of murder and supporting the First Presidency on Prop. 8 seemed overblown to me, too, but then I consider how one reason we care about such events from the past is their illustrative value. In any number of LDS Sunday Schools this past summer, there were lessons about David killing Uriah, and what led to it, and what can we do to not fall into sin? Not because the temptation to murder is something that most of us will need to conquer, it’s just a useful example.

  40. John Mansfield,

    I had actually typed the word “equate” and then replaced it with “makes connection.”

  41. MAC,
    I don’t think that 19th century Mormon murders, including mass murders, can be reduced exclusively to something like “blind obedience.” That’s simply not how human nature works or how real human beings typically govern their behavior. We all ignore the prophets, disobey their directives, or comply in a slipshod, halfassed manner on a regular basis. And when we do follow their lead, the reasons are almost always more complicated than simple compliance with authority. That was as true of folks in Cedar City circa 1856 as for folks in CA circa 2008.

    The problem typically is that even people who choose to obey this or that directive from leaders—undoubtedly for a complex variety of reasons (we almost never act on the imperatives of a single principle, taken alone in a vacuum)—will use obedience to proper authority as a flog to try to illicit the compliance of their peers. So the decision of an individual to murder Fanchers, abandon plural marriage, oppose the MX missile system, or support Prop 8 flows from a number of complicated factors that have emerged and coalesced over time, including prophetic injunction; yet, where possible, it’s entirely likely that the same individual, when suggesting to others the need to adopt the same position, will articulate that appeal largely in terms of submission to prophetic authority.

    The question of what degrees and what kinds of dissent from or non-adherence to counsel from Church leaders—particularly the First Presidency—is profoundly salient for Mormons today, whether the counsel in question involves the taking of innocent life (or the covering up thereof) or the ideological and material support of this or that particular political proposal.

  42. clarkgoble says:

    Let me second J’s comments in (20). I think analyzing Utah violence ought be made comparing surrounding regions not to mention the quasi-war (or outright war) footing at that time. Throw in the memories of Missouri and Illinois and I personally find it surprising there wasn’t more violence.

    That doesn’t justify it all, especially not the MMM or that apostate compound in SLC that was taken down with artillery fire. (Nearly as reprehensible as the MMM in many ways) But I think it contextualizes things in a way that I think far too few do.

  43. clarkgoble says:

    Todd, that’s a funny comment about FARMS and the Religion department. I suspect many at FARMS have less than flattering views of many in the Religion Department. I know at one time many did, although I’ve heard the composition there has changed a bit. I vaguely remember comparisons to the Rabbis who put up the hedge and created the Talmud.

  44. The question of what degrees and what kinds of dissent from or non-adherence to counsel from Church leaders—particularly the First Presidency—is profoundly salient for Mormons today

    Thank you for your reply Brad, I understand it better.

    But the idea that it is MORE salient for a Democrat than for a Republican is still stuck in my craw.

  45. Todd et al.

    Thanks for the review of Polly Aird’s book and for your thoughtful commentary on what it brought up for you. As a great grandnephew of William Rice Parrish (who was murdered by local Mormons as he tried to get himself and his family out of Utah), it would mean so much to me and to all Parrish family members to receive acknowledgment and an apology from church leaders for such a tragedy to happen in a theocratic state.

    This has led me to begin my own research and writing on early Utah violence, and I had the honor of giving my paper on the theocratic murder of African-American Mormon, Thomas Coleman, in Utah in 1860 . Although his murder was made to look like it was racially motivated (a note was pinned to his butchered body that read “Let this be a warning to all Niggers – leave white women alone”), after careful examination of all the evidence, I came to the conclusion that Coleman had actually witnessed three Salt Lake policemen (and “good” Mormons) killing a non-Mormon critic in cold blood. Coleman was then murdered to keep his mouth shut. And it was made to look a like a “blood atonement” ritual murder for committing the abominable and detestable crime of interracial congress.

    True, most other “frontier” communities had more violence. But I see two problems with that as a response. First, Mormons as a community prided themselves on not being typical frontiersmen. And in fact, they were generally upwardly-mobile, lower-class New England Yankees, with all the puritanical mores intact – especially in public. Second, Mormons felt they were engaged in the holiest of tasks: building the kingdom of God to prepare for Jesus’ imminent return. That violence and murder were used to maintain communal purity becomes hypocrisy, no matter how Levitical you may wish to appear. Nothing justifies taking away the free agency of dissidents or non-believers.

    That leads me to Prop 8. As a Gay man who suffered horribly for 10 years at the hands of well-meaning Mormon leaders and therapists, I had to leave Utah and Mormonism to regain any sense of normalcy and self-worth. Two suicide attempts were two too many and so I moved to California to escape LDS influence on my life. Then came Prop 22 and later Prop 8.

    As I recall from LDS theology, Mormons believe that in the “Council in Heaven” Jesus and Lucifer offered two plans for the salvation of humanity. Lucifer’s plan was to force and coerce human obedience to divine law. Any breach of the law would lead to immediate judgment, condemnation and merciless punishment. Jesus, however, offered a plan of mercy and compassion; humanity would be given our free agency. Paraphrasing Joseph Smith, we would be taught correct principles but then left to govern ourselves. God’s infinite and abundant mercy would be able to cover our missing the mark. And that was the plan of salvation that was chosen.

    But now, which of the two plans of salvation does Prop 8 coincide with? Does it stand on the side of mercy, free agency, and self-government? Or does it stand with judgment, coercion, and condemnation?

    Again, I reiterate: NOTHING justifies taking away the free agency of dissidents or non-believers. Or of believers for that matter.

    Connell O’Donovan
    Santa Cruz CA

  46. Todd,
    Excellent and thoughtful piece, and thanks for that wonderful quote by Wallace Stegner.

    I experienced my first bout of cognitive dissonance while reading Schindler’s biography of Porter Rockwell back in 1971 and first learning of the Aitken party murders which do seem to have Brigham’s fingerprints. I wondered who was this Schindler guy, some kind of anti-Mormon? And why was I able to find such obvious lies in a book sold at Deseret Book?

    Nevertheless, the documentation of the incident appeared to be solid, and it planted the first doubts in my mind that my hero Porter Rockwell, who I saw as a real life John Wayne character, may not have had such clean hands. That first exposure to true Mormon history set me on a life long devotion for learning all the truth bout my religion.

    Again, well done, and if not for this review I probably would have had no interest in “Mormon Convert, Mormon Defector”. I have now.

  47. I read this review, and then two days later, I found it in the Redmond library for checkout! Imagine my excitement! I’ve read through halfway and I’ve enjoyed it so far! Thanks for highlighting this book so that I’d recognize it while perusing my local library’s contents.

  48. I have never been able to follow the logic that says that allowing homosexuals to marry somehow detracts from full marriage rights for heterosexuals.
    And I have never been able to follow the reasoning of waving this red herring; this was not claimed by Prop 8’s proponents. We said it was about “defending marriage” the institution.
    Please consider:
    * 44% of the graduating class of an ivy-league school some years ago had a 4.0 grade-point average,
    * Jerry Rubin, the 60’s activist, appeared for trial in a judge’s robe claiming that was all it took to be a judge,
    * Several English knights resigned their knighthood when the Beatles were knighted.
    The “A” average of someone in the top of their class, the judgeship of the legally-appointed judge, and the knighthood of the earlier knights were not damaged by the offending actions so a protest would be to defend the institutions of “A” grades, legal judgeships, and knighthood. So it is with Prop 22, Prop 8, and whatever’s next.
    On Prop 8, that was a remarkable quote from Whitney Clayton; but how many Mormons in California were aware of it?
    I live in California. In the broadcast from SLC (mid-year), we were asked to consider what we heard, to pray about it, and then act according to our belief. I was surprised by how strongly I felt to support Prop 8 after doing this. However, it never occurred to me that acting in a personal belief different from the direction we were asked to take would cross some line.
    Because of this instruction in that broadcast, I was not surprised when a brother in my ward was allowed to drone on in our high priests’ group about his opposition to Prop 8 uncensured and uncensored and then called to be our Sunday School’s President shortly after the election.
    Polls showed that 10% of us Mormons in CA opposed Prop 8. I disagreed with them but understood they could have decided to do so by following the broadcast’s directions to act according to their beliefs.

  49. It's a series of tubes says:

    45: You said:

    “But now, which of the two plans of salvation does Prop 8 coincide with? Does it stand on the side of mercy, free agency, and self-government? Or does it stand with judgment, coercion, and condemnation?”

    In your eyes, which “plan of salvation” (I’ll play along with your incorrect characterization of Satan’s “plan”, despite the fact that it would have saved none) do any proscriptive laws coincide with? Are laws against theft, for example, anti-free-agency? What about laws which require you to have a license to operate a vehicle, or the speed at which you drive said vehicle? Aren’t you being coerced to behave a certain way?

    More broadly, if you are trying to characterize LDS doctrine in an attempt to support your chosen position, you might want to consider how certain portions of our canon might undercut your position. For example, see Alma 1:17-18; 30:7-11, etc.

  50. #49,
    I’ll let brother O’Donovan speak for himself, but I didn’t read his post as an attack against proscriptive laws, per se, but rather against proscriptive laws that focus on personal behaviors which do not infringe upon the rights of others. You can’t reasonably argue that proscriptive laws against homosexual relationship fall into the same category as laws proscribing theft or even speeding. Laws are primarily about coercion, which is why the Law is powerless to save. But laws that prohibit gay relationships are more akin to laws that prohibit interracial relationships, growing mustaches, or infant baptism.

  51. It's a series of tubes says:

    Brad, thanks for your comment. What then, do you make of Alma 30:10 re laws against adultery? Do you view such as “against the plan of salvation” as brother O’Donovan appears to do? Many would argue that one’s selection of intimate partner (spouse or otherwise), is a “personal behavior which does not infringe the rights of others”…

    Also, let’s be accurate in describing the scope of Prop 8. It is not, as you state, a “proscriptive law against homosexual relationship[s]”; as you are no doubt aware, individuals in California are free to engage in such relationships without state interference, and to have such relationships granted certain state recognitions and priviliges under the auspices of a civil union.

  52. Todd Compton says:

    MAC: My issue 2 had nothing to do with the violence discussed in issue 1. My issue 2 dealt only with that quote from McAuslan, not with violence in Utah during the Utah War. I think it is an interesting question: Joseph Smith said that a prophet is not always a prophet; only when he was acting as such. (I’m quoting from memory, someone correct me if that’s wrong.) When he is not acting as a prophet, clearly it would be possible to disagree with him. When is he giving revelations that can’t be disagreed with, and when is he giving advice and counsel that is not necessary revelation? This is a big issue, and is too big to be resolved here. (It deserves a long essay, or a book.) But it came out strongly in Polly’s book, and I wanted to discuss the issue briefly.

    By the way, I disagree with some of Stegner’s characterizations. I don’t think Utah was a “police state” in the same sense that many totalitarian governments have been. Also, I think it’s possible that when we examine some of this violence carefully, we will find that Brigham Young wasn’t directly involved with it. That’s part of my argument that these issues should be examined carefully by good conservative historians.

    However, Stegner was far from anti-Mormon, and he had those views — which shows that this is an issue that needs to be dealt with seriously, not ignored.

    There’s a lot on Prop 8 in these responses, and again that’s a bigger issue than we can deal with adequately here. Manaen, my local leaders were great to me and my family during Prop 8. However, I wish some kind of statement like the public one by Clayton had been included with the First Presidency statement. (Thanks for your comments, LRC and Randy B.)