Everyone loves a good villain…the bellowing laugh with hands thrown up in the air utter triumph. As a child, I found Dr. Claw of Inspector Gadget fame to be wildly amusing. The Joker has quickly reached pop-culture stardom as people would practice their Joker impressions of “Why So Serious?” Good cartoonish villainy makes for good parties.
Hadyn White maintains that every history, in spite of its claims to objectivity, is constructed in literary fashion with traditional literary tropes such as villains, comic reliefs, and heroes. Indeed, White would conclude, we see our very world as a story…and therefore, the job of a historian is to point out our way of making history more than the history itself. Hence, the title of his magnum opus, Metahistory.
So who gets under our collective skin? You know…the folks who have been able to get inside our heads and poke us where it hurts? As we will find (surprise, surprise), there is no one archetype for the Mormon villain. Each of these villains represents a strand of our thought our culture that has been particularly vulnerable. We will see the Benedict Arnolds, the political activists, the heretics, and the downright scoundrels. Some have even worn a denim jumper or two in their lifetime…
Some observations are in order:
A) Some of these individuals, I guarantee, will be seen as heroes by Mormon Matters readers. However, as I’m sure these readers recognize, these heroic efforts are generally those of a dissenter…and in order for a dissenter to become famous, s/he has to tick off the powers that be in large numbers. So alas…they make the list.
B) Most of these villains have varying degrees of admirable traits. We’re talking about perception and not reality. I, for one, would gladly eat lunch with most “villains” on this list.
10. Emma Smith
Poor sister Emma…while she is beloved as a heroine in much of the contemporary Church (of course, we all have the resident Emma-hater), Emma was not always perceived as one. In the aftermath of the Exodus from Nauvoo, Emma not only stayed behind but also kept several of Joseph’s personal belongings that Brigham believed belonged to the Church. In addition, she offered some support to Joseph III in establishing the RLDS church. Her son, David, eventually went to a mental institution in the aftermath of learning of his father’s polygamy while he served an RLDS mission to Utah–thus blackening her name even further with the Utah leadership. Brigham Young even accused her of trying poison Joseph and called her a “child of hell.” Thankfully, we can appreciate Emma for her tremendous accomplishments now.
9. Sidney Rigdon
Sidney has, quite sadly, been classified among the “crazy uncles” category of Mormon history. Yet he served for nearly ten years as the Joseph Smith’s proverbial Aaron. Despite his impressive service and considerable contribution to the Church with his Campbellite congregation, he has something on record to annoy just about every faction of the Church–from “when the prophet has spoken the thinking is done” orthodoxy to the postmodern, “scripture is inspired fiction” free-wheelers. In the months leading up to the Missouri War, he proved his capacity to inflame when giving the famous Salt Sermon–which implied that the expulsion of prominent apostates such as W.W. Phelps and Oliver Cowdery would be forthcoming. He became the bete noire of the succession crisis as he attempted to convince the Latter-day Saints that Joseph Smith had appointed him to be the leader. In historical memory, Rigdon has not been painted in the darkest hues; his villainy is often viewed as delusions and nothing more–delusions that could easily be brushed off into the ash-bin of history
8. Albert Sydney Johnson
A significant figure in 19th-century American military history in his own right, it’s ironic indeed that his greatest legacy is outside scholarly circles is as a part of an anticlimactic military operation that saw no bonafide engagement of enemies: the Utah War. He led, in all, over 5,000 troops to put down a supposed rebellion of Utah against the federal government. Congress widely opposed the expedition (most notably Sam Houston), and eventually would deem it “Buchanan’s blunder.” However, Utah remained under military occupation (albeit limited) For modern Latter-day Saints, Johnson serves more as a symbol of the animosity between the pioneers and the federal government than as an actual executor
7. John D. Lee A looming figure in not only Mormon history, but in the history of the West, John D. Lee has been kicked around as the football in the hands of Mountain Meadows historians. Aside from the elephant in the room that is the MMM, John D. Lee was otherwise a hard-working LDS who contriubted significantly to his community.
Having Been depicted as everything from a loyal scapegoat and hack to a renegade, John D. Lee has borne much of the blame for the attacks. Juanita Brooks’ research demonstrated that Lee’s excommunication and execution was simply meant to relieve pressure from the federal authorities’ constant haranguing. Walker, et. al. has concluded that John D. Lee played a central role in the massacre in both planning and deed (the topic looms too large for extensive treatment in this, a rather superfluous article by comparison–see the book that needs no introduction, Massacre at Mountain Meadows, for more info). In either interpretation, Lee’s name is often one of the few names to be mentioned within popular discourse about the massacre, in spite of the dozens of Iron County militiamen participation. Lee has come to symbolize the violent streak–if there be one–within 19th-century Mormonism–the crazy uncle in the attic.
6. Fawn Brodie
Niece of President David O. McKay and husband of a famed of nuclear theorist, Bernard Brodie, who helped to craft Eisenhower-era nuclear deterrence strategy; Fawn Brodie made fame in both critical and liberal Mormon circles by publishing one of the first scholarly biographies of Joseph Smith to reach wide circulation, No Man Knows My History. Brodie was roundly denounced and excommunicated within a year of publication. Whether she deserved such denunciation or not (I’m intentionally avoiding that elephant in the room), Brodie’s name has come to symbolize the “pointy-headed intellectual” stock character for modern Mormons. One of my contacts has informed me that when Richard Bushman presented Rough Stone Rolling to Knopf, they initially hesitated. Bushman responded that they owed him one: “After all, you published Brodie.” The argument was persuasive.