Review: Blythe’s Terrible Revolution

A number of years ago, I wrote about the church culture of my youth: “I was born in 1976, the same year that President Kimball spoke with some measure of pride in General Conference about the “garden fever” that had infected many of the Saints. The church leaders of this period were raised when the Mormon culture region had primarily an agriculture-based economy (the farm-raised missionary remains legendary). Still, there is clearly more than a fear that the children of Zion be deprived home-canned peaches in President Kimball’s words.” We gardened like champs. We had food storage in case of emergency, but we were more proto-foodies (homemade bread and freezer jam, yes please) than end-time waiters. I remember the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction. We never did bomb drills at school, though, and we soon saw the fruits of glastnost. When employment brought my family to the Kansas City area in the early-1990s, we made jokes about “the gatherers”—fringe believers drawn to the area, and who were generally cuckoo for cocoa puffs.

I’ll readily concede the heterogeneity of lived Mormonism. When friends from Idaho were reading Tara Westover’s memoir, and finding resonances with their experience, I was completely mystified. I have thought I was a fairly representative Mormon—that is something that a lot of us do. Historian’s have used “lived religion” as a framework to approach and analyze their subjects for some time—Tona Hangen’s essay in the Oxford Handbook of Mormonism is a great place to start [n1]. A similar framework is “vernacular religion,” which Christopher Blythe wields to approach the intersections of Latter-day Saints and various ends of the world in his recently released Terrible Revolution: Latter-day Saints and the American Apocalypse.

Believers, whether newly minted or gristled with experience, translate their beliefs through vernacular articulations of actions, cosmologies, and intellectual assents. I’m not sure I completely understand the distinction between lived religion and vernacular religion, but it was easy to follow Christopher’s work. And in doing so, he showed me the diversity of Mormon belief in my lifetime—helping me contextualize my experiences within competing, or at least alternative cultures—and historicizing many news stories from the last two decades that seem just plain weird to so many (outside and inside the church).

Some people might wonder how Terrible Revolution relates to Underwood’s monograph The Millenarian World of Early Mormonism that is now pushing three decades old. It is no question that Underwood’s volume is still relevant and important. What Christopher’s work does differently is to bring those vernacular elements to the forefront, and analyze how they interact across the face of various Mormonisms (including fundamentalist groups) to the present. It is creepily timely with the schismatic apocalypticists and accused murders in Idaho predicting that the end of the world was supposed to arrive just last week! Christopher gives us some important context for their sickening spiral. As he writes on p. 175 most Mormons now share the situation of those outside of the nineteenth-century faith: “It was not the doom Mormons preached that was frightening to many Americans. It was the doomsayers themselves.”

There are a couple of things to get out of the way: 1) Christopher confesses to using lots of big block-quotes in order to let individuals speak for themselves, and that this might annoy readers. He is not wrong. 2) This is a hefty volume, coming in at close to 300 pp. I have had trouble concentrating while reading for the entirety of the lockdown. That being said, for the first half of the book, I frequently felt like I was getting lost in the weeds, and I don’t think it was my regular COVID-era distractibility. Christopher tightens things up delightfully in the second half. 3) Oxford categorized Terrible Revolution in their expensive tier, so it does not come cheap. With those minor criticism out of the way, we can focus on what is great, and there is a lot of it.

Some key work of Terrible Revolution is the documentation for and analysis of the shifting locus of eschatological destruction—from the United States, to the non-United States, and then to everywhere. In particular, I appreciate Christopher’s tracing of the belief in an indigenous revolution and redemption of Zion anchored in the Book of Mormon, and how it ultimately fell out of favor. It made me really curious about how people are currently reading the Book of Mormon in the church, or if like a quantum state, observing it will alter it. Between Hickman’s “Amerindian Apocalypse,” and now Terrible Revolution, it seems like there is a growing consciousness of these elements, at least in the scholarly literature [n2].

Apocalypticism also flourishes in persecution. Terrible Revolution is a contribution to the literature of the resulting symbiosis, while simultaneously elucidating some of the strategic and successful moves by church authorities to break the cycle at key points in the Latter-day Saint narrative. Having listened to at least a smattering of evangelical radio broadcasts treating the apocalypse while on long road trips, it gives me some measure of comfort as a practicing believer.

Christopher Blythe does good work with Terrible Revolution. I appreciate his feats of archival strength, with wide swaths of genre and source represented. He skillfully narrates, analyzes and contextualizes bits and pieces of the past that can seem at once absolutely peculiar, while also serving as the pedestrian grist of our shared humor. If the US constitution does end out hanging by a thread, even if only in the imaginations of the conspiratorially inclined, Christopher is the one mighty and strong, who set in order and explained what the crap everyone is so excited about.

____________________

  1. Ryan Tobler’s essay in Journal of Mormon History,Mormon History and ‘Lived Religion’” is also really great.
  2. I also love Mark Ashurst-McGee’s dissertation on some of this stuff.

Comments

  1. Wondering says:

    Thanks, J.
    Remembering SWK and 1976: “In the National Geographic magazine last month, we clipped a picture of a woman bringing bottled and canned fruit to her storage room, which was full of the products of her labors and was neat and tidy. That’s the way the Lord planned that we should prepare and eat our vegetables.”
    I wonder if someone will prepare a “Reader’s Digest” version for the apocalyptic conspiracy theorists and preppers among us.

  2. Thanks for the review, Jonathan. Most helpful. Though that $74 dollar price tag is a bit daunting.

    Three personal note:.

    1. I was born in ’53, and have vivid memories of bomb drills in school—though the teachers pretended they were “tornado drills”—and the Cuban Missile Crisis. After the Soviets and the U.S. stepped back from the brink, my father hired a contractor to build a bomb shelter in our basement, complete with an air filtration system. And this was East Central Illinois! Mercifully, it was only used for storage and a place where my parents could keep our Christmas presents under lock and key.

    2. On September 11, 1973, I was in Santiago, Chile, one-year into my mission, when two Hawker Hunter jets flew a few hundred feet above our fifth-floor apartment, next to the American embassy in Chile, en route to dropping multiple incendiary rockets on a massive government complex called The Moneda in the heart of city. We heard and saw the explosions (I have pictures). Shortly thereafter I remember hearing a General Authority say that the military coup in Chile was a definite sign we were in the Last Days. (“September 11,” by the way, means something altogether different to Chileans.)

    3. Whenever my father heard someone say in church that we were living in “perilous times,” he would simply smile. This was a man who lost his father to a bleeding ulcer at the age of 11, was raised by his mother who, along with her seven children, eked out an existence on a potato farm in Idaho during the Great Depression, and then served in the Army Air Corps. during the Second World War. Nothing much ever phased him.

  3. it's a series of tubes says:

    Ah, but did anything ever faze him?

  4. LOL. Sadly, homonyms trip me up more and more as I grow older. (I was thinking of defending my mistake by saying that I meant he had never been shot with a “phaser,” but I figured that wouldn’t fly.)

  5. nobody, really says:

    I remember a High Council speaker suggesting that we had no right to call ourselves Mormons if we didn’t till under our grass lawns and plant nourishing vegetables instead. Any yard space not used for gardening was robbing God’s Church.

    Same guy left his wife and four children about three years later and moved in with an 18-year old employee. He also tried to tell us that Gene Simmons had confided to President Kimball that KISS stood for Knights In Satan’s Service.

    That being said, there’s been some over-the-top food storage behavior over the years. My grandfather passed away with a good three tons of high protein weevil/wheat product in his basement, along with enough glass jugs of water to fill a Dumpster. Mom suspects he had several stashes of gold coins buried in Northern Utah, Northern Arizona, and at a few strategic locations on the road to Jackson County.

  6. JJohnson says:

    Great review. I’m obsessed with this line: “We had food storage in case of emergency, but we were more proto-foodies (homemade bread and freezer jam, yes please) than end-time waiters.”

  7. Dave B. says:

    So I asked the Google about “vernacular religion” and it thinks that’s the same thing as folk religion. From the first sentence of Wikipedia’s entry on “folk religion”: “In religious studies and folkloristics, folk religion, popular religion, or vernacular religion comprises various forms and expressions of religion that are distinct from the official doctrines and practices of organized religion.”

  8. Nice review J. My copy is on the way.

  9. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks, all!

    JJohnson, I have friends that variously sell homemade pickles on Etsy for $8 a bottle, make their own yoghurt, and bake their own granola (not to mention to the COVID sour dough revolution). We were just cool ahead of our time.

    Dave, I was talking to Christopher about this yesterday. Lived religion and vernacular religion are essentially doing the same work, the former by religious studies people, and historians, and the latter by folklorists. So that makes sense, though I think “folk religion,” has been somewhat complicated because the religious elite also experience religion in their vernacular.

  10. My wife and I grew to adulthood during the Spencer Kimball years. We grow a large garden today because we enjoyed the fresh produce during our childhoods. We eat far better than most. I suppose Kimball’s counsel created an environment for us to warm to the hard work gardening entails.

    Some ward members ridiculed us a bit for being “preppers.” We responded that we did not grow a garden because it related to church teachings… we just both enjoyed it. Others, in the true “prepper” category were bewildered to find that we were more than happy to discuss gardening, but discouraged or walked away from extremist discussions related to storing weapons and ammo for the last days, survivalist tactics and ultra-conservative politics. Count us firmly in the foodie camp.

  11. I would like to here more about the indigenous revolution/apocalypse stuff, it’d be interesting to see that gain traction again, especially when lots of white mormons nowadays are retrenching themselves in the white supremacy camp

  12. I feel like canning and food storage has kind of died out in the bubble (Provo-Orem area) among boomers and Gen-Xer’s (especially upper-middle class and above), my mother was gung-ho about it in the 90s, then in the 2000’s her interest waned quite a bit, especially as my family moved up in socioeconomic status.

    Most of the people I know doing it now are millennials which ‘rediscovered’ it through being foodies.

  13. Wondering says:

    “lots”? I don’t know any, but then I’m not in Utah, Arizona or southern Idaho, though I have relatives there who also don’t know any.

  14. J. Stapley says:

    Part of the realities of our modern economy is that home food production and storage is not particularly economical. If you’ve always had the garden, and have had the equipment for decades it is probably fine, but investing in a new garden, equipment, plus the time to grow and process generally can’t compete on a cash basis with a job and the grocery store. What that means is that it has become something of a luxury, with all of the attendant class dynamics associated with it.

    I am somewhat hesitant to quantify the number of church members who fall in the white supremacist camp as “lots.” There are some, for sure. The church has spoken out against it.

  15. Maybe they’re not overtly white supremacists, but I see far too many of my LDS friends on social media, (principally in the western mormon corridor) post or share content about BLM being a communist conspiracy, defending confederate monuments, blue lives matter, “but the loooooting” and all that kind of stuff.

    All of that being very dog whistle-y, they’re entrenching themselves in white supremacy whether they’re aware of it or not.

    White supremacy is more than just shaving your head and getting swastika tattoos and having overtly racist opinions, it’s perpetuating the status quo in the US of A that marginalizes and exploits POC, chiefly black and indigenous folks.

    It’s been at least a decade since I last read anything about the mormon situated indigenous revolution/apocalypse. Maybe Kimball was the last GA to talk about it? Anyway I seem to recall something about ‘the descendants of the Lamanites’ which they take to be indigenous american folks, rising up and reclaiming something or another, specifically at the expense of gentiles (whites). (BTW I’d like to see a BCC post in the future going over this).

    It’d be somewhat interesting for that to kicked around mormon circles today, I imagine the reaction would be much the same as it is now with BLM and the police brutality protests. Black liberation is seen as a threatening by a certain percentage of certain overlapping spheres of white folks (conservatives, Christians, etc) because it’s upending the status quo. An Indigenous cultural uprising would be much the same in threatening the status quo.

  16. Christopher Blythe says:

    Thank you for the review, Jonathan! Good news: Oxford is running a promotional discount for those purchasing the book from Oxford. The code is AAflyG6 and the book is being sold at $51.80. https://global.oup.com/academic/product/terrible-revolution-9780190080280?cc=us&lang=en&

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