Monday, September 18, 2017

Book an overview of Joseph Smith's legal encounters


The interest in “Sustaining the Law: Joseph Smith’s Legal Encounters,” edited by Gordon A. Madsen, Jeffrey N. Walker, and John W. Welch, BYU Studies, 2014, depends on the depth and breadth of your interest in Mormon history.
Some will find this volume of 18 essays — that includes a list of all legal events Smith was involved — dry and just plain boring. Others will delve into the minutia until the wee hours of the morning. I fall somewhere in the middle but give the collection a thumbs up.
The essays provide by-the-numbers appraisals of various legal matters and explore the strengths, and weaknesses, Smith possessed in cases.
The essays, most of which have been published before, are a diverse collection, which include Smith’s witness participation in a routine lawsuit over the sale of horses, to a “disorderly person” charge against Smith, the Book of Mormon copyright, the failure of the Kirtland Safety Society, habeus corpus law, a charge of adultery against Smith in Nauvoo, and the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor newspaper, an act that led to Smith and his brother Hyrum being murdered by a mob. Although the book is favorable to Smith’s religious beliefs (at times the essayists precede his name with “the prophet...”) the legal issues are analyzed — appropriately — from secular perspectives.
In what may be the collection’s biggest strength, the legal issues of the cases are placed in the context of the times they occurred. This is an important distinction, because it allows for legal conclusions that may surprise us today. In the essay, “Legally Suppressing the Nauvoo Expositor in 1844,” by church apostle Dallin H. Oaks and first published almost 50 years ago, he makes a detailed case that the destruction of the press was more or less legal in that time period. Oaks points out that it wasn’t until 1931 that the U.S. Supreme Court reverses a Minnesota court ruling that actions such as the suppression of media by local authorities was unconstitutional. In the 1840s, it was not uncommon for local authorities to take action against entities which were defined as “public nuisances” without judicial approval.
In fact, prior to Joseph and Hyrum Smith being taken to Carthage — with a promise of safety by the governor — and subsequently being murdered, Smith had been acquitted by a non-Mormon judge in regards to the press’ destruction. The pair were unable to be bailed in Carthage only because a charge of “treason” was added. According to Oaks, the only legal blot against Smith in the Expositor case would be the destruction of the press, which would be considered “overkill” as the printed newspaper, and not the printing machine, was the “nuisance.”
Despite the legal introspection, it’s clear that the arbitrary destruction of the press by Nauvoo authorities was a deadly mistake by Smith and other Mormon leaders. Besides the outrage generated by suppressing the press, it provided the means necessary for enemies to get the Smith brothers into a jail, with a feckless governor’s sanction, and eventually murder the pair.
Some of the more interesting essays are “Being Acquitted of a ”Disorderly Person“ charge in 1826,” by Madsen, which argues that Smith was acquitted of charges that were likely related to “glass looking” or claiming to see through a stone. While the subject can be dry, essayist Nathaniel Hinckley Wasdworth in “Securing the Book of Mormon Copyright in 1829” makes the interesting observation that Smith, although obtaining a legal victory that denied a publisher the right to serialize the Book of Mormon, probably didn’t have sufficient copyright claim to win the case. Two essays, “Kirtland Safety Society,” and “Defining Adultery” take charges associated with Smith involving accusations of banking fraud and immorality. In both essays, arguments in favor of Smith’s legal positions rely on what the law’s intentions were in that time period, rather than relying on general disapproval. Another essay by Madsen points out bench mistakes and failures in a court presided by anti-Mormon Austin King that preceded a long jail stretch for Smith and others, including Parley P. Pratt, in Missouri.
In “Defining Adultery,” discussing adultery charges brought against Smith regarding Maria Lawrence, by apostates William and Wilson Law, essayist M. Scott Bradshaw notes that “under Illinois law, enacted in 1833, only open cohabitation of a man and woman not married to each other was punishable by law.” As Bradshaw adds, “Joseph’s relationships with his plural wives did not meet this definition (open).”
Besides the chronology of cases at the end of the book, there are short biographies of judges associated with cases and a glossary of legal terms. As mentioned, the chief strength of “Sustaining the Law ...” is its dispassionate look at the legal realities of the cases examined and its reliance on secular arguments — standard to the era — to overview the cases. The essays argue the law, not doctrine.
-- Doug Gibson
This post was originally published at StandardNet.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Assassination of Joseph Smith takes narrative approach to history


The Assassination of Joseph Smith: Innocent Blood on the Banner of Liberty,” (Cedar Fort, 2015) takes a narrative approach to the murders of Mormon church founder Smith and his brother Hyrum, in 1844. Author Ryan C. Jenkins, a  former Davis County resident, now lives with his family in Columbia, Missouri.
The book tackles roughly the final five years of Joseph Smith’s life, beginning with his imprisonment in Missouri and eventual escape to Illinois. As events draw near to his martyrdom, the action passes in days, and sometimes hours. Jenkins’ pace of the book is brisk and there is tension and emotion as Illinois mobs, enabled by a weak governor, draw closer to the Smiths in a Carthage jail. In fact, the novel-like format reminds me of the series of “Killing Lincoln, ... Kennedy, ...Jesus and ...Patton” books, co-written by commentator Bill O’Reilly, that are popular. However, Jenkins’ “Killing Joseph Smith” is far more spiritual than O’Reilly’s books.
The narrative format defines historical characters more sharply, and more easily maintains a consistent point of view. “The Assassination of Joseph Smith” is written by a staunch Latter-day Saint who presses the point that the murders at Carthage were the inevitable result of a prophet being killed by wicked enemies, sealing his testimony with their bloodshed. 
A strength of the book is its ability to effectively portray the noose of murderers that led Joseph and Hyrum Smith to a a poorly secured room in Carthage jail. The quick action of mobs, once Illinois governor Thomas Ford abandoned the Smiths in Carthage, is a quick, violent account. Like Richard Bushman’s “Rough Stone Rolling,” the anarchic lawlessness of frontier Illinois in 1844, and mob demagoguery— including newspaperman Thomas Sharp, arguably chiefly responsible for the murders — is conveyed.
Jenkins has made some interesting points, some I agree with, others I believe are debatable or not historically definitive. His claim that Nauvoo’s habeas corpus option preventing Smith from out-of-area arrest warrants prolonged his life for years is accurate. He implies, however, that Illinois Governor Thomas Ford was complicit in the martyrdom of the Smiths. I have little use for Ford. He was a political hack, but I don’t think murderer or even associate to murder can be tagged to his name. He was a ridiculous blowhard, loudly scolding the Saints in Nauvoo as the murders occurred, and deserved his obscure future.
Likewise, Jenkins accuses prominent Mormon apostates William and Wilson Law, and others of planning the death of Joseph Smith. His chief sources are two young Nauvoo Mormon men who claimed to hear of the plot while assigned by Smith to secretly infiltrate the group. The Law brothers and others, including Charles and Robert Foster, Chauncey and Francis Higbee, and others became severe enemies of Smith and Mormonism, and provided rhetorical ammo for men capable of murder, such as Sharp and militia members, but I think it remains inconclusive on whether these particular apostates were plotting Smith’s murder.
Jenkins portrays Smith as a man resigned to a violent death, and chiefly concerned that his brother Hyrum avoid the same fate. There is poignancy as Joseph Smith listens to brother Hyrum’s ill-fated optimism as their lives wind down in Carthage. Smith was perceptive enough to realize that apostates — those who had accepted the faith and then turned from it — were his most dangerous enemies, as actions against them were used by Sharp and others to inflame passions.
The destruction of the apostates’ press, “The Nauvoo Expositor,” was a crucial error by Smith. It allowed his enemies to whip enough emotion to force the Smiths from the safety of Nauvoo. Jenkins notes there was council opposition to this action being taken, adding that destroying a press was not unusual in that era. Nevertheless, it was as deeply unpopular then as it is today, and a fatal decision for Smith. A better way of muzzling the Expositor would have been, as suggested, to fine it into bankruptcy.
Jenkins’ book is interspersed with day-to-day activities of the Mormon prophet in Nauvoo, and his opportunity to greet various dignitaries, including scions of prominent politicians. He paints probably an accurate picture of the LDS founder, a gregarious, confident, assertive leader, of athletic build, combative at times, but with a forgiving nature after a dispute. Smith’s introduction of polygamy is covered. In what may be considered ironic, characters such as William Law are criticized as “adulterers” by the author, the same charge that Law accused Smith of.
An interesting overview of Smith’s concept of “theodemocracy” is provided. It’s a democratic government that sets as its standards those established by God. “I teach my people correct principles and they govern themselves,” is a quote from Smith in the book. A portion of the book also deals with Smith’s presidential candidacy, ended by his death, in 1844. I’m not as optimistic as Jenkins on how well Smith would have done had he lived, but I do believe his vote tally would have exceeded five figures.
The book also covers various doctrines Smith revealed, particularly as his death neared. For example, the King Follett sermon, in which the nature of God to man was explained, is covered in detail. 
“The Assassination of Joseph Smith” is a strong addition to faith-promoting accounts of the Mormon founder’s life. As mentioned, its narrative style makes for an interesting, quicker read. Although there is a bibliography and a note that author Jenkins will provide citations upon request, the book I read needs an index; perhaps another edition will include one. Author Jenkins has a website here. I interview him here.
-- Doug Gibson
This review was originally published at StandardNET.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Mormon folk tales regarding Cain, Bigfoot abound


As Abel's murderer, Cain was commanded to wander the earth in punishment, a tradition arose that this punishment was to be forever, in a similar manner to the (much later) legends of the Flying Dutchman or the Wandering Jew.
Here’s the best-known LDS folklore regarding Cain as a monstrous figure roaming the earth. In 1835, LDS apostle David Patten was riding a mule in Tennessee. “I met with a very remarkable personage who had represented himself as being Cain … I suddenly noticed a very strange personage walking beside me … for about two hours. … He wore no clothing but was covered with hair. His skin was very dark. … I rebuked him in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by virtue of the Holy Priesthood, and commanded him to go hence and he immediately departed out of my sight.“
Patten was killed a few years later fighting anti-Mormons. This account is secondhand, from LDS apostle Abraham O. Smoot. Nevertheless, it is accepted Mormon lore, included in the late Prophet Spencer W. Kimball’s book, “The Miracle of Forgiveness.” That lends it credibility in LDS circles. I recall hearing it often on Sundays as a child. In fact, those outside the LDS Church don’t know that Cain plays a bigger, more malevolent role in the LDS scripture “Pearl of Great Price.”
I read a fascinating essay, “A Mormon Bigfoot: David Patten’s Cain and the Conception of Evil in Mormon Folklore,” by Matthew Bowman in the Signature Books’ anthology “Dimensions of Faith: A Mormon Studies Reader.” Patten’s account is not the only instance of Cain appearing in Mormon folklore. Another incident, as late as 1921, E. Wesley Smith, president of the Hawaii temple, told future church Prophet, apostle Joseph Fielding Smith, “A man came through the door. He was tall enough to have to stoop to enter. His eyes were very protruding and rather wild-looking, his fingernails were thick and long. He … wore no clothing … (I) commanded the person in the name of Jesus Christ to depart. … on being commanded to leave, he backed out the door.” Fielding Smith told Wesley Smith that it was Cain who visited him.
Also, in the 1920s, missionaries in Mexico encountered a large, dark, hairy creature who said he was Cain. Later in the 20th century, missionaries in Georgia were attacked by “a huge black negro,” who chased them away. They were told by their mission president it was Cain.
As Bowman writes, “It is true that the single most frequent use of the word Cain in the legends and folk doctrine has been in association with the concept of a “curse” of dark skin, a mark of spiritual inferiority, and until 1978 the inability to hold the priesthood.” This begs the question, are the accounts of Cain apparitions an extension of the priesthood-banning prejudice against black skin? Bowman includes a poem that Mormon poet Eliza Snow wrote in 1884: “As seen by David Patten, he was dark – When pointing at his face of glossy jet – Cain said, ‘You see the curse in on me yet’ – The first of murderers, now he fills his post – And reigns as king o’er all the murd’rous host.” In the 19th century, some Mormons believed that the skin of apostates darkened when they renounced the church.
As Bowman explains, a walking “Wandering Jew” type of Cain would seem natural to 19th century Mormons, who saw evil as tangible, walking the earth and combating the Saints. An example cited by Bowman is the discourses of early LDS leader, Heber Kimball, who described his battles in England with “legions of wicked spirits,” with accounts that rival scenes in modern films, such as “The Exorcist.” Kimball added that Joseph Smith told him of Sidney Rigdon being “pulled out of bed three times in one night” by Lucifer.
This yen for the supernatural has not left the culture of the LDS Church. Talk to a dozen long-time, temple-attending members and at least half, if not more, will confidentially, or publicly recount an instance of a spiritual vision or feeling — usually positive, but still occasionally a battle with evil. (I must confess that I am not immune from claiming a positive experience).
However, as Bowman notes, in the past generation-plus there has a move away from a dark Cain and the emergence of film footage of a creature called Bigfoot, or Sasquatch, who replaced the “huge black man” as Cain in many LDS circles. It’s reasonable to assume that the end of policy-driven LDS priesthood and membership prejudice against blacks have soured the previous concept of Cain among many Mormons.
As Bowman recounts, one of the first “Bigfoot” visions occurred in the Top of Utah in 1980, when a South Weber teen and her cousin both reported seeing a large black “creature” or “figure” in the fields. Huge prints were discovered in the snow. The story was pursued by the Standard-Examiner. At that time, Cain was not associated with the sightings, but within 10 years, South Weber residents “had begun associating these local sightings of Bigfoot with Cain.” A 1997 story tells of Boy Scouts in Utah who claimed they were chased by a big hairy man they called Cain who yelped in pain when he climbed through a lit chimney. Another, 1998 story, tells of an animal-like “Cain-beast” who chased two Mormon elders to a car.
Bowman writes that besides the disappearance of being dark or a negro, “Cain’s new activities of stalking barns and running through fields seems far less satanically malicious than Elder Patten’s Cain or the gigantic demon that stalked E. Wesley Smith. … Cain, rather than a supernatural fiend, is more the stock monster of a campfire tale. He is less a damned soul and more Bigfoot.”
As racism seeped out of the Latter-day Saints’ Cain legend, so did much of the malice. Indeed, the idea that Cain wanders the earth is a 19th century one. However, the appeal of adversaries who defy us on the earth has not departed from many Latter-day Saints so long as Bigfoot remains to personify Cain.
This column was previously published as a StandardNET blog.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Freemasonry and Mormonism have had a contentious history


Michael W. Homer is the author of “Joseph’s Temples: The Dynamic Relationship Between Freemasonry and Mormonism.” Published by University of Utah Press, it covers the contentious history of Freemasonry and Mormonism that lasted well more than 150 years. It’s been a history of twists and turns, strategies, claims and counterclaims, with the establishment Freemasonry long having the upper hand in repudiating the Mormons, who were of course unpopular for scores of years. However, as society moved closer toward the 21st century, anti-Mormon Freemasons become more scarce, and bans on Mormons being masons eventually ended.
It’s a colorful, self-serving and sometimes even tawdry history of the conflict between Mormons and Freemasons, and Homer’s scholarly book lends the subject more dignity than it probably deserves. It is certainly an interesting historical tale. Despite a century-plus of “this opinion, that opinion, denials and complicated explanations,” it’s pretty clear that Mormonism and Freemasonry have similarities, particularly in the church’s temple endowment ceremonies.
It’s worth noting that Homer explains that the Mormon ceremonies evolved toward more similarities as the church moved to Nauvoo. By the time that Mormon leader Joseph Smith was murdered by a mob, Nauvoo had a large Freemason presence, one which slowly but consistently was denied certification by non-member Freemason leadership in surrounding areas. After Smith’s death and the eventual Mormon migration to Utah, it became the standard practice of Freemasonry to bar Mormons from the group. What seems ironic at first glance to me, a novice on this subject, is that the most fierce anti-Mormon Freemason organization was its Utah chapter, which banned Mormons well into the deep 20th century. But Homer’s book also details a Freemason hierarchy in Utah that effectively was a branch of Utah’s anti-Mormon presence in the early days of the state. 
This Freemason opposition to the Mormons stemmed, of course, from the practice of polygamy, but also from the Mormon’s temple endowment ceremonies, which were regularly “exposed” — not often accurately — in the 19th century. One objection that likely had teeth was that ceremonies could be construed as hostile to the U.S. government. Another objection against Mormons by Freemasons was that the LDS temple ceremonies included women.
But, reading the book, one gets the impression that Mormonism was so unpopular 100-plus years ago that it was simply a mainstream position to damn the faith when opportunities arose. Homer’s book links the Mormonism and Freemasonry contention to events such as the federal government’s efforts to wrest control of Utah territory from Brigham Young and even the U.S. Senate hearings in the early 20th century over Reed Smoot’s effort to gain acceptance into the Senate.
As for the Mormons, Homer’s research includes an interesting history of the LDS Relief Society’s beginnings and its eventual decline in prominence under Smith’s successor, Brigham Young. It’s a valid question as to whether Smith had a larger ecclesiastical role intended for Mormon women which might have included blessings and priesthood-like authorities. He does add, though, that these questions remain speculation, and cites early Mormon leaders who seem to have agreed with Young on women’s roles in the church.
As the 20th century approached, the Mormon Church leadership, perhaps stung by the hostility from Freemasonry, began to downplay its Nauvoo-era interest in Freemasonry, arguing instead that any elements of temple ceremonies that appeared to be similar to Freemasonry was instead evidence of Freemasonry’s corruption from its original origin, which came from the days of Solomon’s temple. In other words, Mormons argued that its prophet Joseph Smith had received the proper endowments and procedures for temple ceremonies — via revelation — from heavenly visitors. Advocates of this position included Mormon intellectuals B.H. Roberts and Hugh Nibley. Mormons also taught that Freemasonry belonged to an unrighteous category of secret and oath-bound groups, and discouraged their members’ participation as masons.
However, in the last few generations or so, Mormonism has acknowledged a connection, albeit superficial, between Freemasonry and its endowment procedures. as Homer notes, Smith biographer Richard Bushman, Homer adds, concedes that Smith was influenced by freemasonry but a key difference is that Mormon temple ceremonies stress exaltation for the husband and wife, rather than “male fraternity.” Nibley later wrote that Mason “rites present unmistakable parallels to those of the temple.” Nibley did add that the similarities were due to a “common ancestry” and not related to salvation rites. Homer’s book notes that in 1989, the LDS Church, in its handbook. also lessened its emphasis against “secret and oath-bound” organizations. 
I haven’t done justice to the wealth of detail and background that Homer provides in Joseph’s Temples, and perceived temple connections to Royal Arch versus Craft Freemasonry. It’s a fascinating read. 
-- Doug Gibson
Previously published at StandardBlogs

Monday, August 14, 2017

With Fawn McKay Brodie, there was little neutrality among Mormons


It's been more than 100 years since the birth of Fawn McKay in Weber County. It’s pretty safe to say that there is no one left who witnessed the extremely intelligent Huntsville youngster who moved through college in her mid-teens and was teaching English at Weber College by age 19.
Even today, there’s precious little neutrality among Mormons over Fawn McKay, who later, as Fawn Brodie, published “No Man Knows My History,” a biography of the Mormon church founder Joseph Smith. The biography tagged Mormon’s most-revered latter-day leader as essentially a fraud. “No Man Knows My History” was the first biography of Smith that wasn’t either a hagiography or a cumbersome anti-Mormon hatchet job. The biography angered and stung Mormon leaders, and led to a formal excommunication of Brodie from the church, although she had ceased activity in it several years earlier.
Many decades later, Brodie’s biography of Smith remains highly regarded. In fact, it took 60 years for another biography of Smith, Richard Lyman Bushman’s “Rough Stone Rolling,” to supplant Brodie’s book as the finest account of Smith’s life. (Even today, I’m sure my previous sentence will invite controversy.)
Thanks to my friend Cal Grondahl, I had the opportunity to read “Fawn McKay Brodie: A Biographer’s Life,” by Newell G. Bringhurst. Published 18 years ago, it’s a relatively short work and can be read over a weekend. It’s a sympathetic, but not sycophantic, biography that was a very interesting read, particularly if one’s only knowledge of McKay Brodie is as the “heretic” who wrote “No Man Knows My History.” She accomplished much more.
Brodie grew up in the now-iconic McKay family home in Huntsville. Her father, Thomas McKay, was a brother of the Mormon apostle and prophet David O. McKay. Her mother Fawn Brimhall McKay, was the daughter of Brigham Young University president Richard W. Brimhall. As Bringhurst notes in his biography, Brodie grew up as part of LDS royalty but also in “genteel poverty.” Her father was not an assertive man, and allowed his brother David and four sisters to control the McKay family affairs, even as Thomas was dealing with a crushing family mortgage. An example cited by Bringhurst of the domination Fawn witnessed as a child was the refusal by the five strong siblings to allow Thomas and his large family to use more than two bedrooms or even install plumbing in the home. As a child, Fawn and the other family members used an outhouse (“Mrs. Grundy“) to relieve themselves. In winter, the house was so cold the kitchen was the preferred room.
Bringhurst describes a young teenage Fawn as a pious, believing Mormon who bore her testimony in church, taught Sunday school and was engaged to a returned missionary. Nevertheless, she abandoned Mormonism soon after moving to the University of Chicago for graduate work. By the time she married Bernard Brodie, a Jewish man who would go on to a prominent career in foreign policy and military strategy, Fawn, 20, was a hostile critic of Mormonism, expressing, Bringhurst writes, “‘great bitterness’ over the deceit of her childhood.”
Ironically, the only parent to attend Fawn and Bernard’s nuptials was Fawn’s mother. The groom’s parents had long split and their family ties were weak. On the bride’s side, emissaries were sent to dissuade her without success. Fawn’s romance with Bernard is accurately described as “whirlwind.” They were married six weeks after meeting. It’s not unreasonable to analyze the hastiness of the marriage as a defiant gesture on the bride’s part against her Mormon upbringing. Nevertheless, it was a successful, loving marriage that survived one instance on infidelity on Bernard’s part.
Fawn’s research leading to her biography of Joseph Smith correlated with her father’s rise into the elite ranks of the Mormon Church. Thomas E. McKay became an assistant to the 12 Apostles. Bringhurst relates that “in a painful, acrimonious encounter, David O. McKay forbade Brodie from doing further research in the Mormon Church Library-Archives.” McKay later relented and offered her the use, but his niece declined and never used the church library again for research.
One irony of Brodie’s Smith biography is that it also encountered fierce opposition from Reorganized LDS leaders, who had not at that time reconciled themselves to Joseph Smith’s polygamy. In fact, as Bringhurst relates, Fawn received empty threats of lawsuits from RLDS leaders. Reaction from LDS church leaders was initially subtle, but eventually included rebuttal pamphlets such as Hugh Nibley’s “No Ma’am, That’s Not History.”
Reading Bringhurst’s biography, I wondered if Fawn’s Joseph Smith biography was an effort to get Mormonism out of her system. If so, it was doomed to failure. To grow up in the Mormon faith is to be tethered to it for a lifetime. The bonds, good and bad, are too strong to completely sever. For the rest of her life, Brodie remained both a commentator of Mormonism-related issues and a McKay, visiting the family, and dealing with her parents’ painful aging process. Her father languished for years as a near invalid.
Her mother, Fawn Brimhall McKay, suffered from psychological problems late in her life, eventually committing suicide by fire. It was eerily similar to Fawn’s maternal grandfather, former BYU President George H. Brimhall, who elderly and pain-ridden, committed suicide by shooting himself. Perhaps these events, including earlier suicide attempts by her mother, prompted Fawn to seek psychoanalysis. As Bringhurst relates, the therapy was moderately successful, and helped Fawn deal with problems of sexual frigidity and depression, problems which had also afflicted her mother. In fact, as Bringhurst notes, Fawn believed her mother was a “secret heretic” who did not believe in her faith and suffered from what was expected of her as the wife of a prominent Mormon.
I have neglected Fawn’s other accomplishments. She was far more than just the author of a strong biography of Joseph Smith. As Bringhurst relates, she had a mostly successful, loving relationship with her husband Bernard. Both earned esteem and success in their diverse fields, and they raised three children. They lived on both coasts, eventually settling in Southern California, where, as Bringhurst notes, Fawn recalls being described as the “fleshpots of Egypt” when she was a child in Mormon Huntsville. Both Bernard and Fawn taught at UCLA.
Brodie’s interest in psychological therapy prompted her to write several more psychological biographies after “No Man Knows My History.” They covered the lives of Civil War and Reconstruction-era politician Thaddeus Stevens, the British explorer Sir Richard Burton, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson and President Richard Nixon. All were controversial and reviewed pro and con, but the most successful was the Jefferson work, one of the earliest to link him to a sexual relationship with his slave Sally Hemmings. That book made Brodie famous.
Brodie was a plodding, conscientious researcher, taking several years to write her biographies, and willing to put her research aside if family matters, personal or extended, became pressing. If she had a flaw to her method it may have been a trend toward confirmation bias, the tendency to search for information that confirmed her initial opinion on a subject. Bringhurst relates an event in Fawn’s childhood in which she bet a sibling that cobwebs were the result of dust rather than spiders’ webs. After learning she was wrong, Fawn was so angry she refused to pay the bet.
Fawn Brodie was a confrontational liberal, who loved a good fight, whether in politics, environmentalism or religion. Much of Bringhurst’s research comes from her correspondence with two close friends, her uncle Dean Brimhall and her mentor Dale Morgan. Both were disaffected Mormons, and the accounts of their correspondence, and others,’ with Fawn’s candor, are fun to read.
Fawn loathed Ronald Reagan, the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon, and most things conservative. Her interest in completing a Nixon book before her death was prompted by her revulsion for what she saw as his lifetime proclivity for deceit. Ironically, her book on Nixon came out as he was enjoying a temporary season of positive re-appraisal.
Cancer was cruel to Bernard and Fawn Brodie. Bernard languished for a year before dying in 1978, contracting cancer just as he was hoping to enjoy his retirement. Fawn’s case was even crueler. In September of 1980, while nearing completion of her first book of a planned two-book series on Nixon, Fawn, a non-smoker, learned she had lung cancer. The 65-year-old was dead within four months, dying on Jan. 10, 1981. She finished her Nixon book a few days prior to Christmas, and entered the hospital.
On New Year’s Eve 1980, Fawn, in desperate pain from a cancer that had invaded her bones, asked her brother Thomas, from whom she was semi-estranged, for a priesthood blessing. He obliged. A few days later, Fawn, in her last public statement. clarified that her request was linked to a family sentiment of her father providing blessings. “Any exaggeration … that I was asking to be taken back into the [Mormon] church at that moment I strictly repudiate and would for all time.” That statement is accurate. Fawn Brodie was disgusted by organized religion, and was not a self-professed Christian. If there’s any debate as to her beliefs, they lay between agnostic or atheist. Bernard was an atheist.
The blessing request, however, underscored the strong cultural and familial pull Mormonism always had on Fawn McKay Brodie. Bringhurst writes, “But while Brodie may have hated Mormonism, she couldn’t shake it. It dogged her to the end of her life — as evident in the last meeting with her brother.”
Brodie’s influence as a biographer, except for the Joseph Smith book, has faded. Psychobiographies are fascinating to read, but they do retain a pop atmosphere to them. I recommend her books though, particularly the Smith and Burton biographies. Fawn Brodie had the ability to look at a subject’s life and find questions to ask them that other biographers’ either wouldn’t think of asking or wouldn’t dare to ask. That she provided often-controversial answers to some of her questions adds to the interest.

-- Doug Gibson

This review was originally published at StandardBlogs.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

More than 100 years ago, Smoot Senate hearings titillated the public

Utah Sen. Reed Smoot, R-Utah, was an apostle and U.S. senator. Too bad that too few of us recall the fierce, almost four-year U.S. Senate battle that resulted before Smoot was fully accepted as a senator. He served until 1933.
The Monica Lewinsky testimony had nothing on the Smoot hearings. The Mormon Church, with its alleged rampant secret polygamy, anti-government rhetoric, “lecherous” old leaders in white beards, captured the attention of a gossipy nation and crusading publicity-seeking pols. As Mormon historian Michael Harold Paulos points out in several essays, hundreds of political cartoons were published — most on the front page — during the tenure of the Smoot hearings. The then-anti-Mormon Salt Lake Tribune published more than 300 Smoot-related cartoons. Church President Joseph F. Smith, future president Heber J. Grant, and pols of that era, including U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt, found themselves caricatured as part of the hearings’ commentary — most often with savage wit.
No topics were off limits. Secret LDS temple ceremonies were discussed on Capitol Hill. The Washington Times, on Dec. 14, 1904, published on its front page a photo of a man wearing Mormon garments and temple garb. 
To provide an example of the barbed hearings, here’s an excerpt of testimony between LDS Prophet Joseph F. Smith, who admitted to fathering children with his wives after the first LDS Manifesto on polygamy, from Paulos’ The Journal of Mormon History article, “Under the Gun at the Smoot Hearings: Joseph F. Smith’s Testimony”:
(Senate questioner) “Do you consider it an abandonment of your family to maintain relations with your wives except that of occupying their beds?
(President Smith) “I do not wish to be impertinent, but I should like the gentleman to ask any woman, who is a wife, that question.”
The prophet had some wit, as that rejoinder shows. He also drew praise for candor, although it was a selective candor. As Paulos points out, Smith frequently obfuscated and avoided issues. He was a turn-of-the-century Alan Greenspan, often confusing senators. Smith shocked many Utahns when he stated under oath: “I have never pretended to nor do I profess to have received revelations.” That untrue statement may be a result of Smith’s long tenure in the LDS Church, fraught with longstanding distrust of federal authority.
Cartoons included references to Sisyphus pushing Mormonism up a hill, a tattooed Smoot covered with LDS liabilities on his body, and a Tribune cartoon that mocked Smith for his lack of candor on revelation. As Paulos explains, the era was a golden time of political cartooning, with most cartoons on page 1A, rather than the editorial pages. Readers can see several of the cartoons in the December 2006 Sunstone magazine, “Political Cartooning and the Reed Smoot Hearings,” authored by Paulos.
It seemed unlikely for a long while that Smoot would be accepted as a senator, but history records that after the long hearings, he passed Senate muster fairly easily. He owed that win primarily to President Roosevelt, who bucked popular sentiment and backed Smoot, whom the president genuinely liked. 
Another factor helping Smoot was that the original charges against him being a senator were lodged by anti-Mormons in Utah, who added one significant false charge — that Smoot was a polygamist. He was not; nor was he a strict LDS theologian. In fact, Smoot was chosen as an apostle and future senator due to his lack of interest in theology compared to politics and public service. In his speech to the U.S. Senate, which Paulos includes in an essay, Smoot is persuasive in both defending Mormonism and promising to separate his politics from his religion. Paulos suggests that current LDS politicians who seek political office should emulate Smoot’s frankness. That seems to be a critique of Mitt Romney’s “religion in the public arena” speech in 2008, one that failed to sway many voters wary of Mormonism.
In 1904, LDS President Smith issued a second Manifesto against polygamy. It eventually led to the excommunications of apostles John W. Taylor and Matthias Cowley, who flaunted their polygamous lifestyles. Paulos opines that the Smoot hearings and the Second Manifesto were beginning steps toward the modernization and eventual secular power of today’s LDS Church.
The Smoot hearings cartoons are priceless, provocative mementos of LDS history. Paulos, and colleague Ken Cannon, have privately published a professionally bound, 90-page book on the Smoot hearings. One hundred copies were printed and the small publication was presented at a past Mormon History Association gathering. Many libraries have copies of the publication.
-- Doug Gibson
This article was previously published at StandardBlogs.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Backslider reminds us that enjoying sex is part of the Gospel


It’s a pleasure to read Levi S. Peterson’s novel, “The Backslider” every year or two. It’s the tale of Frank Windham, a rural Utah young man in the mid-20th century who is a bit of a hell-raiser but heavily influenced by his Mormon religion. Frank is 20 and “one of those fellows who got bogged down making another man rich,” as Peterson writes on page 4 of the novel.
Out of spite, and soon after he is dumped by the college-gone girlfriend he loved, Frank seduces Marianne, the college-age daughter of his Lutheran employers, Wesley and his wife, Clara. When Marianne gets pregnant, she and Frank decide to get married, give the baby a name, and then eventually part. No one else really takes that pledge seriously except Frank, who has some real issues with enjoying sexual pleasure with a young woman, even if it is within the bounds of marriage.
“The Backslider” is a love story between Frank and Marianne, but it’s also a primer on how to love. Old-fashioned Mormon codes of sex, such as having relations with temple garments on, serve to bridge the old versus the new mores that Frank encounters growing up.
As the late Paul Swenson, writing in Utah Holiday notes, “Guilt, depravity and grace —, Cowboy  themes that Peterson finds fruitful to explore in The Backslider — are not exactly commonplace in fiction peopled primarily by Mormons.” 
“The Backslider” is a frank, sometimes comic novel with incredible depth, that gets into the guilts, resentments, pities, excitement, lust and exaltations that make up high and low points of our lives. Frank’s battles pit his desire to be pious versus his gut-wrenching need to hell-raise makes for wonderful reading, as does his struggle to accept adulthood and take responsibility of himself and his unexpected wife. 
Although Frank’s mother, Margaret, is a faithful Latter-day Saint, both Frank and his brother Jeremy have impressions of the church that are distorted, thanks in part to her, as well as the general culture of the novel’s setting, mid-20th century rural Utah. This leads to tragic consequences for Jeremy. One well-written, amusing passage involves Margaret’s uncomfortable observation that Frank and Marianne’s bed frame needs to be oiled to stop the loud squeaking at night.
Frank, badly affected by his brother Jeremy’s insanity and self-mutilation, finds it almost impossible to reconcile sex with his wife as anything other than a sin. Even her impending baptism doesn’t drive that obsession away until Frank receives a visit from a “Cowboy Jesus,” who tells Frank to stop worrying about these issues, that His atonement has paid the bill up in full. The Cowboy Jesus advises Frank to enjoy his wife and their carnal pleasures and comfort his mother-in-law, who is shook up about her daughter becoming a Mormon.
The whimsy of the final scenes underscore a serious message: pleasure is usually not a sin, although it frequently is assumed to be.
The Backslider can be purchased at many locations. The Signature Books website has it here.
-- Doug Gibson
Portions of this column were previously published in StandardBlogs.