Sunday, May 5, 2019

Review: Life and Times of John Pierce Hawley ...

Historian Melvin C. Johnson's new book, Life and Times of John Pierce Hawley: A Mormon Ulysses of the American West," Greg Kofford Books, 2019, is a very interesting account of a man's life through various episodes of early Mormonism. Hawley was a not a major figure in the faith's history; he was mostly limited to regional prominence. However, his life traveled through significant eras of Mormon history.

Hawley's parents were baptized in the first half of the 1830s; Hawley was baptized in the midst of the Missouri turmoil and was part of the forced exodus from the state. His family ended in Wisconsin and his father served under church leader Lyman Wight. After Joseph Smith's murder, the family followed Wight's splinter group to Texas. After a short, unsuccessful marriage, Hawley had a successful lifetime marriage with Sylvia Johnson. He also helped build the Zodiac Temple and lived and served in the Cherokee Nation.

The decline of Wight's colony prompted Hawley's family, and his brother George's family, to cross the plains to Utah and join the "Brighamites." He and his family eventually helped to start the town of Pine Valley and build the church in Southern Utah. Hawley was a major figure there, serving as presiding elder, settling disputes, leading efforts at building, road creation and other initiatives. He rubbed both ecclesiastical and social shoulders with church leaders, including Apostle Erastus Snow and even President Brigham Young.

However, after serving an LDS Church mission in the late 1860s, Hawley slowly reconsidered his faith decisions, and he and his family left the "Brighamites" to join the "Josephites," or the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints (now Church of Christ). He remained a faithful member for the rest of his life.

Modern church may regard Hawley's actions as an apostasy but I'm sure he did not. Johnson's account underscores the animus between the two major LDS factions in the late middle 19th century but also notes both faiths' strong reliance on the teachings of Joseph Smith and belief in new scripture, such as the Book of Mormon. Also, Hawley reconnected with family members, most notably his mother, during his mission to the RLDS, as well as old friends. He must have felt a strong pull.

Hawley's was a hard life. He and Sylvia buried several small children during the years in Pine Valley. Johnson notes how dangerous life was for youngsters, and women, in that era, particularly when a family did not have a secure house-like living arrangement. He also notes the terrifying, adverse affects that colonization had on the Native Americans, particularly in Southern Utah. The loss of land and traditional ways of living killed many, and reduced them to a begging existence, which generally led to scorn, rather than compassion, from settlers. Johnson notes that Hawley's autobiography virtually ignores the Native Americans, despite his and others' impact on their lives.

Hawley's autobiography is very sparse on details. One manner in which Johnson beefs up his book is to provide additional research on experiences Hawley shared, such as life for pioneers on the trail, the experiences of women in early Mormonism, how colonization affected Native Americans, slavery, and the Mountain Meadows Massacre, etc. The massacre is a central incident in Hawley's life. He claims not to have been involved; indeed, a Johnson reports, he says he nearly lost his life protesting the murderous plans. That may be true; but the possibility also exists that Hawley may have succumbed to the pressure. Many of the victims were shot by revolvers. Hawley was one of only two men in the area who possessed revolvers.

I have neglected to mention that Hawley and family were in Utah during the Mormon Reformation. In the book Johnson provides a list of questions members were asked during the Reformation. An interesting anecdote involves an alleged conversation between Hawley and future LDS Prophet Wilford Woodruff in which the latter tells Hawley that some LDS apostles had confessed to adultery.

Hawley's  work and efforts in Utah were mostly respected. It's interesting he left the faith after a generation of setting roots in Pine Valley. It's possible that his failure to be called as bishop to the Pine Valley ward hurt him. He was called to be first counselor to a relative of the Snow apostles. This may have rankled as he had ruled against the Snows' interests earlier in a timber dispute and might have felt his "demotion" was a form of payback. In any event, after his mission to the RLDS, Johnson recaps Hawley's reassessing of personal religious beliefs, including church leadership lineage, a key dispute between "Brighamites" and "Josephites." Hawley reversed his belief in apostolic succession in family of a familial succession. This was likely prompted by his visits to RLDS prophet Joseph Smith III and his brother Alexander Smith.

Just before he left Mormonism, Hawley, who had always resisted polygamy, went back on his word to take a second wife, an action Erastus Snow had urged him to do. That probably sealed his decision to leave. I suspect his short-lived proposal to a much younger woman may have been a last effort to cling to a faith he was departing. It was doomed, as Johnson makes it clear Hawley and his wife Sylvia shared a lifetime bond that had no room for plural marriage.

As Johnson notes, Hawley's commitment to the RLDS late in life included omissions and fabrications that he had displayed while faithful to his Utah-based faith. For example, in a legal case, Hawley parroted the RLDS pleasant fiction that Joseph Smith had not taught or promulgated polygamy. He clearly knew that was not true.

Although he was conditioned by biases and prejudices that dominated his times, the Hawley depicted by biographer Johnson appears a basically decent, hard-working, loyal family-based man. He was clearly an asset to the various ecclesiastical leaders he swore allegiance to during his life. In fact, as Johnson notes, he received a second endowment during his tenure in Utah, one that guaranteed his exaltation.

We benefit from books such as "Life and Times of John Pierce Hawley." They underscore the uniqueness of the Mormon historical experience, for better or worse. Johnson's commendable effort provides us a looking glass into the daily life of an individual who helped shape that experience.

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