Sam is a BCC permablogger and author of In Heaven As It Is On Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death, a book that is by all reports excellent. He agreed to answer a few questions about the book, his writing and everything else.
1. How does your work as a physician affect your writing of history?
Intimately. I count it a great blessing that my job allows me to minister to people’s needs at time of crisis and that we now have technological solutions for many of the health conditions that once ended lives prematurely. Although there are certainly problems in our healthcare system, I still strongly encourage people to consider careers in healthcare.
There are two main aspects of my life as a physician that affect my work in history. Pattern recognition is fundamental to the ways that physicians make diagnoses. We intuitively see connections between apparently unconnected phenomena because we have experience with particular diseases and because we have a sense for the ways that the body’s organs interrelate. I find as I read historical documents that my experience in recognizing diagnostic patterns is a strength.
More importantly, though, I have personal experience with people struggling to see what religion can actually do, where it succeeds and where it fails on the ground. Observing and participating in these encounters have made me more aware of the strengths and limitations of religions within particular cultural moments. Much of the interesting religion-making occurs when people confront gaps or inadequacies in cultural systems, and the Latter-day Saints were clearly testing the limits of Protestantism, especially around the question of death. My experience with actual people trying to come to terms with actual misfortune has helped me listen more attentively when individuals from the past speak through documents and artifacts.
2. The book is written for a non-Mormon audience. Have there been issues with trying to write to different audiences at the same time?
I tried very hard to ensure that the book was written for a non-Mormon audience but could make sense to a Mormon audience as well. I wanted to be fair to the early Latter-day Saints, fair to interested outsiders, and fair to modern Mormons. One of the peer reviewers was bothered that s/he couldn’t tell whether I was Mormon, and since publication several readers have had the same question. I know there has been a push recently toward historians confessing their affiliations, I felt that strongly stating my affiliation would have embroiled the narrative in historic fights over religious truth claims. The book took a lot longer to write because of my desire to be fair to both sides, and I hope I accomplished that. I have already been decried, sometimes on the basis of the exact same piece of writing, as a shill for the Mormon corporate conspiracy and as an anti-Mormon. I think that probably means I’ve got the tone just about right.
3. Mormonism is in the media a lot now, and Mormons often feel forced to respond to increasing public scrutiny of their lives and beliefs. Do you have advice for Mormons reading non-Mormon accounts of their faith?
The first thing to remember is that most people aren’t really malicious. There are a few clueless journalists with a bit of an axe to grind, like Jon Krakauer or Sally Denton, but by and large people writing about Mormonism are genuinely reasonable and curious. But they also don’t want to convert, and they do not have a limitless capacity to learn about the intricacies of Mormon belief.
The second thing to remember is that we and our spiritual ancestors are human beings. We make mistakes, commonly. Sometimes those mistakes are minor, sometimes they are heinous. The Mountain Meadows Massacre should horrify all of us, and we should admit where the Saints went wrong and strive assiduously to avoid those sorts of behaviors in ourselves. When someone draws attention to our current or prior failings, we should generally pause long enough to consider whether we in fact could do better and whether we owe someone an apology. We do not need to be the whipping boy for every sectarian accident that occurs or has occurred, but we should be patient with our critics who are concerned over legitimate areas where we could and should improve as a people.
Third, remember that people see religion as an important part of life but not generally something that defines you out of society. So dealing with a religion like ours that erects so many barriers between itself and the host society can be a bit of a stretch. It’s worth being patient with outsiders who do not see religion in quite the same all-encompassing way. Some of the ways we believe and behave really are rather strange.
4. No offense, but what’s the point of this book? What is novel or interesting about In Heaven?
This is a fair question. There are a lot of books out now, and mine isn’t even obviously about vampires, though I do discuss zombies, sort of.
I started out trying to understand why Mormon angels are not like Jewish or Christian angels and to make sense of the observation that the deathbed is a crucible for religion, and I ended up with a new account of early Mormonism. Too often we have seen the early Mormons either described as straightforward biblical primitivists or a Protestant heresy, allowing the parameters of American Protestantism to define our interactions with the early Saints. Joseph Smith and his followers were clearly aware of Protestant theology and conventions and rejected many of them while embracing others. But they were not satisfied with merely protesting the Protestants. They were on a quest to reassemble ancient truths on the basis of fragments strewn across human history. And they did so successfully, not just on a theoretical level, but on a practical level. In the process of following Smith and his Saints on their quest, I found what I think are persuasive accounts of many of the oddities of early Mormonism—e.g., treasure hunts, Indianism, Freemasonry, polygamy, human deification. They all made new and expanded sense when viewed through the lens of the Saints’ sustained encounters with the specter of death.
5. What were you most surprised to discover during the research of this book?
I was impressed with how directly Joseph Smith and his earliest followers engaged many of the intellectual currents of their day and of prior generations. I think we’ve had an image of him as pure genius entirely unaware of his surroundings. He absolutely had genius, but his mind encompassed what he saw around him and what he saw in the history of Christian thought. It was interesting to discover just how many ideas and philosophical traditions Joseph Smith had something to say about.
I was also struck by just how powerfully death and the prospect of premature mortality affected the early Saints. They as many others quoted the Anglican Book of Common Prayer: “In the midst of life, we are in death” and knew intimately the grim visage of the King of Terrors.
6. It seems like life is pretty busy for you. How do you find the time to write cultural history?
I have to be very efficient because my first professional priority is absolutely my medical research and clinical care. I write much less history than I otherwise would in order to give my best self to my medical career. But you have to relax sometime, and the way I relax is to read and write history.
That said, my wife and children are very patient with me. Without their support and willingness to allow me to be reading and writing while we watch Netflix and other such indiscretions, I would never be able to write history. And I need to confess that I do end up feeling a little one-dimensional. I’m not good with vacations, I don’t follow sports or popular culture very ably, and I’m not physically fit. I don’t have a collection of music or videos that is the envy of anyone, and I don’t paint or write poetry or play basketball.