Title: The Man Behind the Discourse: A Biography of King Follett
Author: Joann Follett Mortensen
Publisher: Greg Kofford Books
Pages: 603 + xvi
Binding: Paperback (also available in Kindle [$9.95] and other ebook formats)
If you know even a little Mormon history or its theological underpinnings, you know the name King Follett. But what do you know about King Follett aside from the rather odd appellation?
American literary tradition sees biography in the larger context of history and I suppose there are many who prefer their history in biographical doses. I confess that I am not a great reader of biography. Not that I don’t like the personal in my historical perspective. But driving through the Civil War in the backseat of Abraham Lincoln’s carriage seems awfully confining. On the other hand, much of the primary source material I enjoy pursuing passes for personal accounts of events and expressions of perspective on those events. Surely the diary, contemporary autobiography, and the personal letter are among the most sought after tools in forming immediate authentic understandings of the persons, places, and things of the past. But now that I’ve admitted my uneven prejudice, what should a biography do? First, it should tell a story. Second, it should place that story in the flow of historical events, giving context to the forces and circumstances brought to bear on the subject. Explaining the subject is only part of the goal. We can never see the world through another’s eyes, and that brings us to another tool for the biographer.
Biography should help us to envision how *we* might have traveled the road of a Lincoln, a Joseph Smith, a Gandhi or perhaps, a grandfather. In Gandhi’s case, his early protests focused on the inequality between Indians and whites. He was blind or accepting of the gross inequalities among Indians. But slowly he came to see the importance of that. Decades later he came to identify with the aspirations of black Africans. Gandhi’s public life (among other things) makes it possible to draw such conclusions.
Now, what happens when a person leaves little behind in the way of personal observation in diaries or letters and whose life barely breaks the surface of the public record? How do we understand the acts, thoughts, fears, hopes, foibles, and dreams of such a person? Most of our visible ancestors were like this. We know little (if anything) of them beyond a name and a few places furnished by a meager paper trail that only allows for surmises and guesses. A superb genealogist might derive something from such a life: tax records, employment, war or other public service, property deeds, etc. From these, we may see some of the bones of a life skeleton. Perhaps there is a life of trouble or ease, even dedication peaking out from these map pins. But details, thoughts, motivations, and feelings escape through the large fissures in such a record. Only by smearing those boney fragments with the broad brush of speculation can we form a picture of such a life. We may discover something of our target’s streamline in the background flow of history if we are lucky. But satisfaction? No, we can’t get no. Satisfaction.
In Joann Follett Mortensen’s The Man Behind the Discourse: A Biography of King Follett we have just such an effort. Mortensen’s decades of research into her own far-removed sire brings us an avalanche of detail from aged public records and incidental mentions in LDS documents. The troublesome nature of such a project is clear. King Follett left behind little beyond his offspring. Many Latter-day Saints know his name from the now eponymous funeral sermon offered by Joseph Smith on 7 April 1844. The content of the sermon had little to do with Follett beyond its preamble. Follett’s name became associated with it in broad terms only years later. Indeed the preacher described it as a kind of mass funeral sermon and it was certainly no eulogy — and that was typical for what we know of Follett’s life.
Mortensen sometimes fills in the lacunae of Follett’s life by summarizing the history of Mormonism in the locations where her research suggests he lived, traveled and died. She gives us facts and figures about towns and counties and states, but we just don’t know if he was a leaf in the river or a vigorous swimmer, or something in between.
This book is family history. or perhaps more theoretically it is microhistory as opposed to standard biography. It is also devotional history: devoted not only to Mortensen’s ancestor, but to Mormonism in general. The author is not a professional historian and her use of sources is often uneven and unsophisticated, and she tends at times to scrapbook quotations without much analysis of their value. The book sometimes has a flavor of interstitial rewrites where new sources or references were found and shoehorned into the narrative. But that is beside the point for this book. The Man Behind the Discourse reveals something of the drive in all of us to know who we are. Of what we all want to know and can’t. It is very much the story of a search. And along the way it gives us hints and packets of information on a nearly invisible man whose name has passed our lips without a thought or reference to “the man behind” it. If you are a family historian, this book is worth your time as an example of how it’s done. If you’re just interested in the story of the man whose death brought us a remarkable sermon, then this book will introduce him to you. The book collates interesting data about the sermon itself, like the debate on where it occurred and reminiscent accounts of its circumstances.
Several appendices appear in the book. Mortensen reprints the Grimshaw version of the KFD as found in History of the Church in her appendix B. Other appendices give us Follett’s ancestry and an annotated account of his descendants. Another appendix contains a brief journal by his widow. Finally, a 37 page list of sources offers us a compact view of the material that helped generate the book and is a welcome addition (authors take note).
King Follett. A Danite? Yup.
 The only family diary of relevance comes from Follett’s wife, Louisa. Unfortunately, it does not begin until after Follett’s death.
 My sense of the composition could be a result of my own writing struggles.(g) The Joseph Smith Papers volumes are not referenced in the book, but there is frequent appeal to the History of the Church, something that should be done with due caution and even avoided in a scholarly work on Mormonism.
 This is an odd choice. A better version is Bullock’s original (not his ms, his Times and Seasons composition). Mortensen is familiar with this text as well as the 1978 Stan Larson reconstruction from BYU Studies, so I don’t understand the reasoning here. No value added.