The “Milk and Strippings” story as it relates to Thomas B. Marsh, onetime top LDS apostle turned apostate who came to Utah almost 20 years later a broken, humbled, impoverished supplicant, is one of the pleasant semi-fictions of Mormon history. It probably isn’t completely untrue, but it seems a mostly unlikely fable, which follows: In Far West, Sister Marsh and Sister Harris agreed to share milk and so-called “strippings” in order to make more cheese. Sister Marsh kept too many of the “strippings.” Sister Harris complained to the ward teachers, who decided that Sister Marsh was in the wrong. There was an appeal and the bishop upheld the verdict. Thomas B. Marsh, the senior apostle, appealed to the High Council, who upheld the bishop’s verdict. Apostle Marsh then appealed to the First Presidency, who upheld the High Council. The story concludes with Marsh so angry over what he perceived as an affront to his wife, that, as Apostle George A. Smith relates, “With the persistency of Lucifer himself, he declared that he would uphold the character of his wife, ‘even if he (Marsh) had to go to hell for it.’” (It bears noting that Smith’s recollections are from the 1850s.)
So, Marsh eventually left the church, filed affidavits that Mormon paramilitary organizations were prepared to attack church opponents. According to authors Richard Van Wagoner and Steven C. Walker, writing in Sunstone, Vol. 6, No. 4, Marsh’s affidavit, which was co-filed by Orson Hyde, an apostle who later returned to the church, contributed to the extermination order of Mormons in Missouri, signed by Gov. Lilburn W. Boggs, and the Haun’s Mill massacre, where 17 Mormon men and boys were murdered.
Marsh’s apostasy was damaging to the church leaders. As A. Gary Anderson, writing for the website 1857massacre.com, notes, Joseph Smith “spent five months in jail as a result of the betrayal of Marsh and the others.”
Both the Sunstone piece and Anderson’s online essay, titled, “Thomas B. Marsh: Reluctant Apostate,” rely a lot on the “Milk and Strippings Story” to explain Marsh’s apostasy. Frankly, it seems ludicrous that a dispute over a pint of milk “strippings” would lead to such chaos. But that’s the point of the fable, to point out how something that seems inconsequential can have great ramifications.
But there is a rest of the story to Marsh’s apostasy. He was under a great deal of personal and religious stress. As a senior church apostle, he was confronting rebellions from some of the church’s earliest leaders, including John Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, William E. McLellin, John Boynton, Luke Johnson and Lyman Johnson. In fact, Marsh’s efforts to maintain a church led by Joseph Smith were rewarded with his appointment as “President pro tem of the Church in Zion,” writes Anderson.
Nevertheless, history records that by the end of 1838 Marsh was both an apostate and an enemy to the LDS Church and its prophet, Joseph Smith. Casting aside the “Milk and Strippings” story as more legend than fact, John Hamer, writing in the blog bycommonconsent, offers a reason for Marsh’s apostasy that seems to have more curd in it. Hamer casts Marsh as a church leader very concerned over the young faith’s embrace of “Gideon’s mythic defeat of the Midianites (Judges 7-8) where God required only 300 men to defeat 120,000,” Hamer writes. Hamer argues that Marsh’s concern over Mormons wanting Quixotic battles with far superior enemies that would be waged with God’s help “was no small thing. Rather, it was the big thing.”
Now, the second part of the “Milk and Strippings” fable is that Marsh, nearly 20 years later, returned to Utah a broken man, begged publicly for forgiveness, and was reinstated into the church by a forgiving Brigham Young. Again part of that’s true, but it’s much more complex.
As Hamer notes, Young offered this ungracious reply: “I presume that Brother Marsh will take no offen[s]e if I talk a little about him. We have manifested our feelings towards him, and we know his situation. With regard to this Church’s being reconciled to him, I can say that this Church and people were never dissatisfied with him; for when men and women apostatize and go from us, we have nothing to do with them. If they do that which is evil, they will suffer for it. Brother Marsh has suffered. ...
“He has told you that he is an old man. Do you think that I am an old man? I could prove to this congregation that I am young; for I could find more girls who would choose me for a husband than can any of the young men. Brother Thomas considers himself very aged and infirm, and you can see that he is, brethren and sisters. What is the cause of it? He left the Gospel of salvation. What do you think the difference is between his age and mine? One year and seven months to a day; and he is one year, seven months, and fourteen days older than brother Heber C. Kimball. ‘Mormonism’ keeps men and women young and handsome; and when they are full of the Spirit of God, there are none of them but what will have a glow upon their countenances; and that is what makes you and me young; for the Spirit of God is with us and within us. When Brother Thomas thought of returning to the Church, the plurality of wives troubled him a good deal. Look at him. Do you think it need to? I do not; for I doubt whether he could get one wife. Why it should have troubled an infirm old man like him is not for me to say.”
Hamer describes Young as “uncharitable” in his remarks. Perhaps that’s true, but there’s more context to this historical tale, as Van Wagoner and Walker note in their Sunstone article. Prior to the reunion and speeches at the Bowery, Marsh had sent Young what he claimed was a revelation from God. It read in part, as the Sunstone piece records, “Behold I say unto thee Brigham Young! Where is the servant of the Lord, Thomas Marsh, Chief of the 12 to whom the Lord gave the keys of the Kingdom? from whom they have not been taken, who was driven out from among you because of the iniquity of his brethren who hunted for his blood but did not obtain it because his life was hid with Christ in god, because he had made the Lord, who was the God of David, his habitation …”
The letter from Marsh to Young also claimed that God wanted Young, as well as himself, to be part of a “Supreme Council” in which “they shale obtain the word of the Lord through the mouth of Thomas ...”
Brigham Young did not suffer those whom he considered fools easily. Reading the letter, one imagines emotions including contempt, pity and compassion. History does record that he sent for Thomas B. Marsh, and allowed the “prodigal apostle” a place in the church he once abandoned. Young’s tendency to be blunt, one which often extended to cruelty, was also on display on the day the former apostle Marsh addressed the Utah saints. As for Marsh, after spending time in Springville and Spanish Fork, he eventually moved to Ogden. As Van Wagoner and Walker note, he sometimes wrote Brigham Young, requesting clothes. He died in Ogden in 1867, and is buried in the city cemetery.
I have always wanted to read early Mormon apostle Parley P. Pratt’s “Key to the Science of Theology,” a book that was heavily read by church members in the 19th century, yet probably would not be placed by most members today. But the book was a must-read 150 years ago.
The book is free electronically, online or Kindle, but it never seemed appropriate to read this tome via technology, and the dead-tree editions were a tad pricey until I found — surprisingly — a 1973 Deseret Book edition in an Ogden thrift store. For $1, I snapped it up and read it one long weekend.
With the exception of Joseph Smith, I find Pratt the most interesting of the early Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints leaders. I can support that claim by merely having skeptics read his autobiography or the recent biography by Terryl L. Givens and Matthew J. Grow.
He was a force of theological energy, a mixture of piety and randiness. He was that curious blend of frontier independence, New Testament fundamentalist and progressive theologian that Mormonism attracted.
He weathered a major dispute with Joseph Smith and frequently angered Brigham Young, but he stayed a stalwart in Mormonism, eventually being murdered in 1857 by the husband of a convert he had taken as a plural wife. Perhaps more than any other early leader, Pratt understood the power of the printed word and his writings likely brought scores of thousands into the young church.
Pratt’s theme in his book is that every theological occurrence is based on a scientific law that we may not understand but is the norm in a higher, celestial sphere occupied by deity.
To be honest, the book is a tough read. Pratt writes in a ponderous, flowery manner in which a lot is used to say a little. On the plus side, the book’s explanation of Mormonism’s Plan of Salvation, with its pre-existence, distinct godly trinity, the earth being renewed to heavenly glory, and degrees of post-mortal salvation and exaltation, is similar to what is taught weekly in LDS chapels. These were extremely provocative concepts even within Mormonism 150-plus years ago, and Pratt’s mastery of the concepts lend credence to accounts that he and Joseph Smith engaged in long, productive conversations on theology during the last several years of Smith’s life.
There are nuggets of unconventional information that get through, such as his belief that the Book of Mormon prophets Lehi and Nephi landed in what is today Chile in South America. Also, in the book, Pratt opines in detail about life in the spirit world. One can imagine that this passage may have been inspired as a rebuttal to the then new fad of spiritualism and summoning the dead.
Pratt writes: “Many spirits of the departed, who are unhappy, linger in lonely wretchedness about the earth, and in the air, and especially about their ancient homesteads, and the places rendered dear to them by the memory of former scenes. The more wicked of these are the kind spoken of in Scripture, as ‘foul spirits,’ ‘unclean spirits,’ spirits who afflict persons in the flesh, and engender various diseases in the human system. They will sometimes enter human bodies, and will distract them, throw them into fits, cast them into the water, into the fire, etc. They will trouble them with dreams, nightmare, hysterics, fever, etc. They will also deform them in body and in features, by convulsions, cramps, contortions, etc., and will sometimes compel them to utter blasphemies, horrible curses, and even words of other languages. If permitted, they will often cause death. Some of these spirits are adulterous, and suggest to the mind all manner of lasciviousness, all kinds of evil thoughts and temptations.”
Although there’s a lot of theological fun within the heavy prose (imagine a high priest group lesson extending beyond the lesson’s boundaries), it’s a good idea that this book stays an historical curio to be pored over by church historical buffs. It contains bits and pieces of the biases of earlier church history, some of which extended well into the second half of the 20th century. In this unfortunate passage. Pratt “describes” post-resurrection exaltation, writing:
“The heathen nations, also, will then be redeemed, and will be exalted to the privilege of serving the Saints of the Most High. They will be the ploughmen, the vine-dressers, the gardeners, builders, etc. But the Saints will be the owners of the soil, the proprietors of all real estate, and other precious things; and the kings, governors, and judges of the earth.”
For those with an interest in Mormon history, by all means give Pratt’s “Key to the Science of Theology” a read. As mentioned, its main point of interest is as an early primer on the LDS Plan of Salvation.
Mormon leader Brigham Young and Thomas L. Kane, bred for wealth, were certainly oil and water at first glance. Nevertheless, Philadelphia’s Kane, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and the rugged, bred-from-poverty pioneer leader Young enjoyed decades of respect and friendship that endured to death. Indeed, Kane is appropriately regarded as Mormonism’s most influential non-Mormon lobbyist and champion during the time the Saints were most unpopular.
Culled from archives and edited by scholars Matthew J. Grow and Ronald W. Walker, “The Prophet and the Reformer: The Letters of Brigham Young and Thomas L. Kane,” (Oxford University Press, 2015) detail a cordial, respectful and candid relationship between the pair. As the authors note, Kane, while having spiritual beliefs, was critical of the conventional Protestant religion of his day, and appalled by the ill treatment the Latter-day Saints received in Illinois. He saw the Mormon situation in terms of a people whose civil rights were being violated. Kane was a frail man, at one point he’s described as weighing 93 pounds. Succumbing to the disease-ridden camps, he nearly lost his life. Perhaps some of his decades-long lobbying for the Mormons stemmed from his appreciation to the Mormon women who nursed him back to health.
I suspect Young viewed Kane as a gift from God; he was indeed grateful and treated Kane with a respect and deference that the candid, hard-bitten leader usually deferred when dealing with others. And Kane was a valuable, productive ally. The son of a prominent Philadelphia judge, he had the ability to talk on even terms with presidents, congressmen, periodical editors, and state and local officials. He used his writing and organizational skills to manufacture favorable public opinion for the Saints, either by anonymously reporting or writing, and on one occasion, delivering a highly influential speech that, in that era, heavily swung public opinion to pity the Mormons for ill treatment received rather than be criticized for alleged sins.
A fascinating tidbit of history gleaned from this book is that Kane’s lobbying actually inspired a series of Easter U.S. fundraising activities for the Mormons as they struggled to migrate West. Indeed, Sara Childress Polk, the wife and first lady to U.S. President James K. Polk, even had a tea party fundraiser for the Mormons in 1846, as did other Washington socialites. As the editors note, even non-Mormon religious leaders participated in this 1846 effort. The genesis of this success was Kane, who produced and circulated a “Meeting for the Relief of Mormons” circular.
Kane rarely visited Utah, and turned down opportunities to be its governor. He primarily represented the church interests with lobbyists from Utah, advising Young on their effectiveness. He was candid, being particularly critical of a profane, Jack-Mormon-type Utah representgative named Almon Babbitt, whom he argued hurt Utah’s chances of territorial autonomy with his coarseness and crudeness. In later years, Kane and Young focused on statehood for Utah, a goal which would elude them until after their deaths. One of Kane’s biggest accomplishments was his skill in negotiating a shaky peace between Utah officials and the federal troops during the tension and conflict that erupted in the late 1850s.
Despite Kane’s talents, there were constant setbacks due to the public’s slow but consistent disapproval of the Mormon religion. Polygamy was an issue that caused Kane some embarrassment. In the years prior to the Saints’ admitting to the practice, Kane echoed the denials. Soon after church leader Jedediah Grant admitted the practice, huckstering a skeptical Kane with the explanation that a majority of Mormon women necessitated the practice, Kane sent a frank letter to Young, expressing his disappointment as a friend. He wrote, in part, “... I have to grieve over your favor to a custom which belongs essentially, I think, to communities in other respects behind your own. ...”
Young reciprocated the friendship, and took no offense at Kane’s disapproval, replying in part “... Permit me to thank you most cordially for the open, frank, and candid expression of your views and feelings, on one important truth connected with my history ...”
As important as the historical letters are, the complexities of Kane’s mind and intellect is explained through the letters. It was an egalitarian mind, and deeply conditioned to champion the underdog and seek justice. He found a cause in the Mormons, a group he firmly believed were both misunderstood and mistreated. His family respected Kane’s beliefs even while wondering about his close friendship with the polygamist self-proclaimed prophet Young. Kane’s accomplished wife, Elizabeth, recounted meeting Young in 1872, saying, “Vulgarly speaking, I couldn’t abide him. ... He was just as kind and hospitable to me as he could be, but I loathed him.”
As the authors note, though, “her husband, however, prized his relationship with Kane.” Helping the Mormons was his passion. Although never a church follower or member, he received a patriarchal-like blessing from the Latter-day Saints and noted it as he advanced in life; even asking his wife to receive one. She did.
After Young’s death in 1877, Kane, as many others have, reached Ogden by train. As befitting a confidante, he was greeted by a contingent of the Quorum of the Twelve, met with Young’s family, tried to soothe the disappointment of Young’s son, John W., who had been passed over by the church hierarchy, talked with Young’s wives at the Lion House, and visited his old friend’s grave. Kane died December 26, 1883.
A key difference between Latter-day Saints and many other Christian churches is that Mormons believe that there are various post-judgment kingdoms in the outskirts of heaven. There’s the Telestial Kingdom, for anyone from Hitler to that lawyer who’s cheating on his wife. There’s the Terrestrial Kingdom, for those decent folks who said “not now” when the missionaries came by the door. And then there’s the Celestial Kingdom, the jackpot prize.
But even the Celestial Kingdom comes in degrees. According to Joseph Smith, there are three degrees of glory in the Celestial Kingdom. So, there’s the big leagues, triple-AAA ball and AA ball in the Celestial Kingdom. The Terrestrial Kingdom is eternal single-A ball while Telestial Kingdom folks are damned to the rookie leagues forever.
And there’s reason I say leagues, because Mormon pop theology has flirted with the idea of progression within the less kingdoms ... and even from kingdom to kingdom.
I refer to one of the more early B.H. Roberts books, “Outlines of Ecclesiastical History,” first written in 1893, but the edition I have read is from 1927. The copy I read was used by an LDS missionary of that era. Roberts was one of the “progressive model” Mormon leaders of the first half of the 20th century. He favored a more expansive interpretation of Mormon doctrine. It was a doctrinal battle that Roberts and others would eventually lose to future Church president Joseph Fielding Smith, who headed the rise of a very conservative church leadership.
Anyway, Roberts, on page 416, parts 19 and 20 of The Restoration of the Gospel section, writes:
(19) “The question of advancement within the great divisions of glory celestial, terrestrial, and telestial; as also the question of advancement from one sphere of glory to another remains to be considered. In the revelation from which we have summarized what has been written here, in respect to the different degrees of glory, it is said that those of the terrestrial glory will be ministered unto by those of the celestial; and those of the telestial will be ministered unto by those of the terrestrial — that is, those of the higher glory minister to those of a lesser glory. We can conceive of no reason for all this administration of the higher to the lower, unless it be for the purpose of advancing our Father's children along the lines of eternal progression. Whether or not in the great future, full of so many possibilities now hidden from us, they of the lesser glories after education and advancement within those spheres may at last emerge from them and make their way to the higher degrees of glory until at last they attain to the highest, is not revealed in the revelations of God, and any statement made on the subject must partake more or less of the nature of conjecture.
(20) ”But if it be granted that such a thing is possible, they who at the first entered into the celestial glory — having before them the privilege also of eternal progress — have been moving onward, so that the relative distance between them and those who have fought their way up from the lesser glories, may be as great when the latter have come into the degrees of celestial glory in which the righteous at first stood, as it was at the commencement; and thus between them is an impassable gulf which time cannot destroy. Thus: those whose faith and works are such only as to entitle them to inherit a telestial glory, may arrive at last where those whose works in this life were such as to entitle them to entrance into the celestial kingdom — they may arrive where these were, but never where they are.“
Now here is where things get really interesting. For a long time, ”where they are“ is where section 20 ends. HOWEVER, if I go to the 1927 edition of ”Outlines of Ecclesiastical History,“ which is the edition I read, Roberts continues with this fascinating ”conjecture“:
”But if it be granted that the chief fact about Intelligences is that they have power to add fact to fact and thus build up knowledge, and through knowledge have wisdom, and thus make progress; and if to such intelligence there is granted eternal life — immortality — then it is useless to postulate any limitations for them; for in the passing of even a few thousands of millions of years, even if progress be very slow — there will come a time when these intelligences — men and women of even the telestial glory — may become very acceptable characters, and very important personages.“
This is radical doctrine, and very interesting to read. It brings Mormonism back to its most progressive roots. But it’s hard to find the 1927 edition. A newer online ebook restoration (here) also omits the 1927 complete version. Frankly, Roberts’ later speculation is hard to locate. But it was once published. Other early LDS leaders also seemed to believe in a post-mortal progression between kingdoms, including Wilford Woodruff and Franklin D. Richards.
Since 1927, the idea of eternal progression toward exaltation has become a pariah. I came of age as a young Mormon in the 1970s and I recall more than one teacher telling classes that the idea that you could progress from any of the lower kingdoms to exaltation was damnable to consider. In fact, I recall teachers citing Bruce R. McConkie, who described the idea as one of the ”Seven Deadly Heresies.“ (Here)
What is included in Roberts’ 1927 version was part of Mormonism’s move to more speculation of doctrine, more discussion. It was not to last, though. I have no idea if the propensity to seeing the edited version of ”Outlines ...“ online is due to disapproval of the 1927 edition, but I would not be surprised.
If you go to to FairMormon wiki page and inquire into eternal progression into kingdoms the answer is more or less, ”there is no official church position on this, but it probably isn’t true.“
Going back to Roberts’ book ”Outlines ...,“ in section 7, page 408 he writes:
”Naturally the question arises why was the gospel preached to the spirits in prison who had once been disobedient if there were no means by which it could be applied to them for their salvation. We can scarcely suppose that Messiah would preach the gospel to them if it could do them no good. He did not go there to mock their sufferings or to add something to the torture of their damnation by explaining the beauties of that salvation now forever beyond their reach! Such a supposition would at once be revolting to reason, insulting to the justice of God, and utterly repugnant to the dictates of mercy!“
That part of Roberts’ teachings remains accepted doctrine. It’s a reminder that the LDS belief that God does not have a ”line“ that divides all in a ”heaven“ and ”hell“ is still evidence of the faith’s progressive roots.
So, despite mostly successful efforts to make progression within kingdoms a ”heresy“ to speculate about, Mormons do wonder about these issues, and even discuss them among ourselves from time to time. (To read a fascinating article on Roberts’ and other debates within the LDS leadership go to http://signaturebooks.com/2010/09/excerpts-the-truth-the-way-the-life/.)
-- Doug Gibson
This essay was previously published at StandardBlogs.
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.
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.
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.