Our controversial guest post today is from Rock Waterman. Check out the original unabridged post at his blog, Pure Mormonism, so titled from his observation that the organic religion founded by Joseph Smith was nondogmatic and libertarian.
A couple of weeks ago Jeff Riggenbach sent me his latest book, Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction To Revisionism. I’ve had a passion for revisionist history for as long as I can remember, but something I read in Riggenbach’s informative volume caught me up short. It was an essential factor that I had never known or considered before, and which just so happens to have direct application to why the historical record about Joseph Smith and Polygamy is so confusing and contradictory.
While doing the research for her biography of Joseph Smith back in the 1940’s, Fawn Brodie wrote to a friend that “the more I work with the polygamy material, the more baffled I become.” She has not been alone. Every biographer since has struggled with the dichotomy of what Joseph Smith asserted and what the historical record appears to show.
I think Jeff Riggenbach may have uncovered the explanation for us.
Correcting The Past
If the study of history can be defined as “the science of discovering what happened,” then revisionism is the forensic science of methodically re-sifting through the evidence of the past to get at the truth of what really happened. According to Joseph R. Stromberg, “revisionism refers to any efforts to revise a faulty existing historical record or interpretation.”
Harry Elmer Barnes, the father of modern revisionist history, describes revisionism as “the effort to revise the historical record in the light of a more complete collection of historical facts, a more calm political atmosphere, and a more objective attitude.” As Riggenbach himself succinctly puts it, “We need to revise the historical record when we have new facts.”
What surprised me about Riggenbach’s book — and which is directly applicable to our discussion here — is his revelation that until quite recently there was no such thing as “history” as we usually think of it; that is, the kind of history that could actually be relied upon:
“It was the tail end of the 19th century before the calling of the historian had been professionalized and academicized to such an extent that a majority of practitioners in the field had come to hold the view of their discipline that we now take for granted -the historian as dispassionate seeker of truth, a scholar, much more like an anthropologist…Still, there were holdouts.” (Pg 27)
One “holdout” in the arena of Mormon historians may have been Joseph Fielding Smith, whose book Essentials in Church History was a book all missionaries were armed with in my day, and which turns out to have been of no more real use to the student of Mormon history than the 9/11 Commission Report is today for the person desiring to find out the complete truth about that particular event. I relied upon Elder Smith’s book during my mission when I gave a presentation to a class of high school seniors in Milan, Missouri where I used it to refute “anti-Mormon lies” about Mormon complicity in the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Elder Smith (an apostle at the time he wrote it) placed the blame for the massacre squarely on the local Indians and John D. Lee, who he painted as a renegade Mormon with only a tenuous connection to the church. At any rate, he strongly implied, the members of the Fancher party were asking for it and had it coming. Even today I feel like a dupe and a fool when I remember how vehemently I defended the official church position against what was the real truth of that sordid affair.
But to give him his due, Joseph Fielding Smith was little different than any other compiler of American history a hundred years ago, including the most famous and reputable of all, George Bancroft, whose ten volume History of the United States, published in 1874, remained the unchallenged standard work for decades. But even Bancroft’s classic History was far from objective:
“Bancroft believed that his job was to write a chronicle that would make his readers proud of their country’s history, and when it suited his didactic purpose, he fabricated.” (Why American History Is Not What They Say, Pg 27)
It was not only Bancroft who was making up history to suit his agenda; Riggenbach demonstrates how this “style” was common among virtually all historians of the time. He shows how “most of them saw themselves in particular as the providers of an important kind of inspirational literature.” Facts were elastic. This practice of bending reality to fit the lesson plan was rampant in the 19th century. It was systemic. And it was considered normal. One can easily see the parallels between writers wishing to portray actions of the American government favorably, and those within the LDS church tasked with portraying Mormon history in the most positive light. According to Riggenbach:
“The American history taught in most schools during the past hundred years faithfully reflected received opinion, and received opinion sees the United States as a consistent, devoted partisan of the same spirit of individual liberty that once moved its founders -a peace-loving nation that wishes the rest of the world only the best, and never goes to war except in self-defense.”
“Apply this set of principles to what we know of the past and, at the end of the day, you’ll wind up with quite a pile of facts that didn’t meet the criteria and now litter the cutting room floor.”
“The facts about the gross violations of individual liberty that have been championed by U.S. presidents almost since the beginning, for example -John Adams’s Sedition Acts, Andrew Jackson’s genocidal treatment of the American Indians, Abraham Lincoln’s military conscription (to say nothing of his suspension of habeas corpus and his imprisonment of newspaper editors who dared to disagree with his prosecution of the Civil War), William McKinley’s brutal suppression of the independence movement in the Philippines after the Spanish American War, Franklin Roosevelt’s order to round up American citizens of Japanese ancestry and imprison them in concentration camps- are any of these inconvenient facts likely to be selected for inclusion in a textbook based on the “commonly shared principle” of the saintliness of the U.S. government?” (Pg. 24)
Similarly we Mormons may ask ourselves if we should really expect inconvenient facts that reflect poorly on the “saintliness” of our church leaders to find their way into books and Sunday School manuals published by the church.
History: It Ain’t What It Used To Be
In 1972 the church appointed LDS Professor Leonard J. Arrington as the official Church Historian. This was the first time a real historian, a trained academic, had been given that post. This important office had always been held by a general authority. Arrington opened up the massive church archives to other Mormon academics, and the era of The New Mormon History was born. Surprise, surprise! That magic era didn’t last long; just barely a decade.
The archives were a treasure house of information for the excited historians involved. They were soon discovering things that the even the current leadership of the church hadn’t known about. Paul Toscano reports that Hyrum L. Andrus was opening wooden crates full of church records that had been nailed shut since they left Nauvoo in 1846. All kinds of fascinating stuff was in there. Books and essays were written based on these newly found letters, diaries, journals, newspapers, and records. But not all of the information in these documents was seen as favorable to church leadership. Some of the revisions seemed to contradict elements of what had become the official church history.
A massively ambitious multi-volume church history was planned, utilizing the talents of the church’s most qualified scholars and historians. Then one day the order came down from on high to scrap the project, and the historian’s office was “reorganized.” Arrington, who had been introduced at general conference with great fanfare for a vote of approval ten years earlier, was quietly released in 1982 without even a mention in conference or any vote of thanks. The position of Church Historian was again placed into the hands of a trusted general authority. The archives were closed to all but a select few, and have remained closed to this day.
For a fascinating example of the work of a revisionist Mormon historian, and and insight as to why revisionism is such a volatile subject to some within the church, let’s look at Richard Van Wagoner’s reexamination of the famous transmogrification of Brigham Young.
Mighty Morphing Fact Arrangers
We all know the basic story. It goes something like this. After the death of Joseph and Hyrum, the church was left leaderless. So the million dollar question on everyone’s mind: Who was next in line to lead it? A meeting was called, and Sidney Rigdon was first to speak. As the story goes, Rigdon got up and campaigned for himself to be the new prophet. Then it was Brigham Young’s turn, and as he spoke, the gathered throng witnessed a miracle. It looked to them as if Brigham Young had been transformed into Joseph Smith before their very eyes. Brigham’s visage became Joseph’s visage, his voice was Joseph’s voice, his mannerisms were Joseph’s. Clearly the spirit of Joseph Smith himself had returned to witness to the membership that Brigham Young was his anointed successor.
That’s the way most of us have heard it, but virtually every element of that story is false. Nothing even remotely resembling the described supernatural transformation took place. How do we know? We have new facts. Using letters, diaries, journals, newspaper accounts, and church records, Van Wagoner walks us through the event. He revises the history. You can read his essay here: The Making of a Mormon Myth. (You can find another excellent analysis by Reid L. Harper in the Fall 1996 Journal of Mormon History.)
The simple but true facts are that on August 8th, 1844, Sidney Rigdon, as remaining member of the First Presidency, spoke to a large gathering of the Saints, advocating that the church continue to be led by a triumvirate with himself as President. The next day, Brigham Young gave a speech proposing that the church instead should be governed by the twelve apostles as a body. He was not campaigning to be the next leader himself, nor would anyone have accepted him if he had made such a proposal. The membership eventually voted in favor of Brigham’s plan because he made the better speech and it was considered wiser that church government be spread among the twelve rather than to continue with a new First Presidency under the ailing Sidney Rigdon.
And that was it. No image, no visions, no voice. Just a rip-roaring good sermon by Brigham Young. There was no transfiguration of Brigham Young into the form of Joseph Smith, no morphing, no eerie ghost noises, no nothing.
Again, how do we know? From primary sources; the letters, diaries, journals, and newspapers of the time. Brigham’s speech was reported on in detail in both Nauvoo newspapers and recorded by scribes for the official church records. Hundreds of members present wrote about Brigham’s persuasive argument in great detail in their private journals. Nowhere was there a mention of the miraculous or divine. Not a hint.
Until years later.
Van Wagoner takes us through the transformation; not the transformation of Brigham to Joseph, but the transformation from historical truth to historical legend.
You Really Had To Be There
After the saints were settled in Utah, church leadership began to shake out in the form of a hierarchy with certain apostles recognized as having seniority over others. Almost immediately Brigham Young forsook the plan he had proposed that church affairs should be administered by the Twelve equally, and quietly adopted the plan that had been proposed by Sidney Rigdon — with himself in Sidney Rigdon’s place.
Although in his famous speech in the grove at Nauvoo Brigham had insisted that “you can’t put anyone at the head of the Twelve,” in no time he managed to maneuver himself at the head of the Twelve and into the role of successor to the prophet Joseph Smith. This aggrandizement was not what the Saints had originally voted for, but Brigham had more than proven his leadership abilities by getting them across the plains and settled in, and who were they to question the senior member of the Quorum?
It was soon being spoken about that “the mantle of Joseph had fallen on Brigham.” What that meant exactly was anybody’s guess. “Mantle” is both a verb and a noun, and is a very abstract term in this sense. Nothing tangible or spiritual or visible had actually “fallen” on Brigham Young. It was meant as a metaphor. But in 1857, 13 years after the speech in the grove, Albert Carrington took the account one step further. In a speech before a huge gathering of Saints, he said that he couldn’t tell Brigham from Joseph that day when Brigham was speaking.
Someone else soon claimed that he had sensed the very spirit of Joseph Smith while Brigham had been speaking. Then another person declared that he saw the very personage of Joseph take over Brigham’s body.
That was all it took. Mark Twain has famously said that a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on. Human nature being what it is, there was soon no shortage of pioneers declaring that they had seen the miraculous transformation too. It was a sign! It was a miracle! Brigham Young had been transformed by the spirit of Joseph Smith into the image of Joseph Smith himself!
Some of the most prominent church leaders got caught up in the illusion. “His words went through me like electricity,” testified apostle Orson Hyde in 1869, “It was not the voice of Joseph Smith but there were the features, the gestures, and even the stature of Joseph before us in the person of Brigham.”
Eight years later, a full thirty-three years after the original event, Hyde went even further. On second thought, it was the voice of Joseph Smith after all, and more:
“I heard the voice of Joseph through him, and it was as familiar to me as the voice of my wife, the voice of my child, or the voice of my father. And not only the voice of Joseph did I distinctly and unmistakably hear, but I saw the very gestures of his person, the very features of his countenance, and if I mistake not, the very size of his person appeared on the stand. And it went through me with the thrill of conviction that Brigham was the man to lead this people. And from that day to the present there has not been a query or a doubt upon my mind with regard to the divinity of his appointment; I know that he was the man selected of God to fill the position he now holds.”
There’s just one problem with Orson Hyde’s testimony. He wasn’t there. Orson Hyde did not arrive in Nauvoo until August 13th.
Other prominent Mormons who weren’t present added their testimonies too. John D. Lee’s personal diary, Van Wagoner tells us, “makes it clear that he did not return to Nauvoo until 20 August, nearly two weeks later.” But that didn’t stop Lee from later saying “I myself, at the time, imagined that I saw and heard a strong resemblance to the Prophet in him.” Wilford Woodruff told the story from the pulpit many times over the years, embellishing it more than any of the others with each retelling. Interestingly, Woodruff was present that day and had written the most detailed and complete contemporary account of Brigham’s speech on the day he gave it. But in that original account he failed to mention any of the supernatural sights and sounds he miraculously recalled years later.
If the church leadership were inclined to exaggerate, the rank and file were up to the challenge too. According to Van Wagoner:
“Retrospective retellings of a ‘transfiguration,’ in a variety of forms, can be found in dozens of sources, yet no two seem to agree on precise details. Elizabeth Haven Barlow, a cousin of Brigham Young, for example, wrote that her mother told her that ‘thousands in that assembly’ saw Young ‘take on the form of Joseph Smith and heard his voice change to that of the Prophet’s.’ Eliza Ann Perry Benson reminisced that the Saints arose ‘from their seats enmass’ exclaiming ‘Joseph has come! He is here!’”
Too bad the newspapers neglected to notice the crowd going wild. It would have made good copy.
Thankfully, not every member of the church got caught up in the collective delusion. According to Van Wagoner:
Bishop George Miller, present at the gathering, later recalled that nothing supernatural had occurred on that day. Young made a “long and loud harangue,” Miller later wrote, for which I “could not see any point in the course of his remarks than to overturn Sidney Rigdon’s pretensions.”
Why It Matters, And Why It Doesn’t
Just as 19th century historian George Bancroft believed there was nothing wrong with fabricating and reshaping the facts as long as the resulting stories “would make his readers proud of their country’s history”, so did 19th century Mormons profess to fudging the facts if it led to promoting the faith. But such Mormon urban legends have a way of backfiring. Rather than strengthening testimonies, once the deception is revealed, testimonies are often destroyed. Witness the hordes of good and faithful people leaving the church in droves every year after discovering their testimonies were dependent on deeply held beliefs that had been manipulated by those they trusted most.
Nearly a hundred years ago B.H. Roberts was already concerned about this trend:
“Suppose your youth receive their impressions of church history from ‘pictures and stories’ and build their faith upon these alleged miracles [and] shall someday come face to face with the fact that their belief rests on falsehoods; what then will be the result? Will they not say that since these things are myth and our Church has permitted them to be perpetuated …might not the other fundamentals to the actual story of the Church, the things in which it had its origin, might they not all be lies and nothing but lies?”
Members and ex-members alike deserve to take an objective look at the women who started popping up in late nineteenth century Utah claiming to have once been secretly married to Joseph Smith. We deserve to carefully analyze their claims one by one, and that’s just the kind of research Richard and Pamela Price have been engaged in for over thirty years.
Are these tales of secret marriages not that much different from tales of miraculous transfigurations, thought to aid in affirming the glorious doctrines of The Lord’s True Church? If an apostle could claim to witness a miracle he did not see, is it not conceivable that a woman might claim a marriage she did not experience? Did any of these women come forward earlier than the late 1870’s? Do we have any contemporary accounts of their secret marriages written in their diaries at the time they supposedly took place? Why don’t we hear anything of this until these women were well past middle age and the practice of plural marriage was under attack? Anyone could have claimed to have been married to Joseph Smith, since the marriages were alleged to have been secret and no marriage certificates exist. One wife would not even have known about any of the others. “You were married to Joseph Smith? No kidding! I was married to Joseph Smith!
“Well, howdy-do and pleased ta meetcha!”
All of these dubious claims were made by women who were firm believers in The Principle, having lived their entire adult lives as plural wives, nearly all of them to men of prominence in Utah society. They were absolutely convinced that the doctrine was introduced by Joseph, so a little exaggeration to affirm the legitimacy of the practice couldn’t hurt. Doubtless some of these gals may have come to believe Joseph Smith actually would have married them for real if he had actually met them.
Let’s take a quick look at just a couple of cases of women who have been presented to me as proof positive, absolutely-airtight-smoking-gun-evidence that Joseph Smith was a sex-obsessed Lothario.
The Smoking Gun Is A Toy Cap Pistol
1. Nancy Rigdon
Nancy Rigdon was the pretty nineteen year old daughter of First Councilor Sidney Rigdon, and the way the story is often told, Joseph Smith made advances toward her in a letter and she rejected him.
In volume II of Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy, the Prices examine this story in depth and document all the juicy details. You can read the complete analysis on their website here . I’ll give you the short version.
A letter was delivered to Miss Rigdon which she was told was from Joseph Smith. The letter did not contain Joseph’s signature, and Miss Rigdon rejected it because she knew where it had come from. She suspected it was the work of John C. Bennett, who held incriminating knowledge about her seduction by Chauncey Higbee and hoped for her cooperation in entrapping Joseph. What ended up happening to the poor girl was that her affair with Higbee was made public, causing her no end of humiliation.
Wouldn’t you know it, Bennett somehow had a copy of that letter to Nancy Rigdon of his own, which he published in the Sangamo Journal, and later in his book, claiming it was written by Joseph Smith to Nancy Rigdon. Gee, I wonder how he got that copy?
Joseph Smith made affidavit denying authorship of the letter, and Nancy Rigdon herself affirmed it had not come from Smith, “nor in his hand writing, but by another person, and in another person’s hand writing.” Nancy’s father didn’t believe the letter was from Joseph either. Neither copy of the notorious letter has been found to this day. All we know of it is from what Bennett published.
Some smoking gun.
2. Helen Mar Kimball
I suppose if we came across the diary of an innocent fourteen year old girl expressing horrified apprehension about her upcoming wedding to Joseph Smith, a grown man in his mid thirties, that would be pretty damning evidence, wouldn’t it?
That’s how the journal of Helen Mar Kimball is often presented. But the journal was written by Helen when she was nearly fifty and had been one of the plural wives of Orson F. Whitney her entire adult life. Helen tells a retrospective tale of desiring to be obedient to her father who wished her to be given to the Prophet to wife. The actual purpose of her story was to bolster support for the practice of plural marriage, to which she was a devoted acolyte.
Far from being the private diary of a frightened underage girl, this was a story Helen composed in the late 1870’s which she wrote for publication. Her story has all the earmarks of the type of fabricated “history” created to build testimonies among those who may have come to question the doctrine of plural marriage. Her conclusion was that plural marriage was wonderful. She was in with both feet. Why, she even had the privilege of being married at one time to the living Prophet himself, that’s how super-duper the whole thing was.
“I learned that plural marriage is a celestial principle,” she testified, “and saw… the necessity of obedience to those who hold the priesthood, and the danger of rebelling against or speaking lightly of the Lord’s anointed.”
Helen makes it clear in an accompanying poem that her marriage to Joseph was for eternity only. That is, the marriage was never consummated. This is a typical caveat of the women who came forward with these claims. They seemed to enjoy the status of an eternal marriage to the famous founder of their faith, but most were careful to make the point that there was never any hanky-panky going on. Joseph would claim them as his celestial mates later in the hereafter. They even had themselves sealed “again” to Joseph in the Utah temple in case anybody didn’t believe them.
Those who insist that Joseph Smith was a sex-obsessed letch scoring dozens of clandestine conquests at Nauvoo will have to explain to me how the biggest celebrity in the city, during the busiest time of his life and with everyone’s eyes constantly watching his every move, would be able to woo, court, and wed two to three women every month. And then explain to me this unusual talent he had for constantly picking ladies who refused to put out.
Helen Mar Kimball’s purpose in writing her tract was to help bolster support for “The Principle” at a time when it was coming under attack from outside the church and generating questions inside. Like anyone else of her generation and in her position, when it suited her purpose, she fabricated. She didn’t write what she did because she was fishing for sympathy, she was trolling for converts.
Art or Science?
Today the study of history is a social science, no longer the malleable “art” that it was prior to the twentieth century. So perhaps it’s time Mormons as well as ex-Mormons applied the scientific process when trying to determine whether Joseph Smith was being honest in his denunciation of polygamy, or whether he was a flaming hypocrite.
“Occam’s Razor” is the scientific principle embodied in the statement that “the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.” Perhaps Fawn Brodie’s frustrated bewilderment at the conflicting evidence tying Joseph Smith to plural marriage was simply a result of her having been raised in the church (as were most subsequent Joseph Smith biographers) and accepted as a “given” that the doctrine of polygamy originated with Joseph Smith. Was she predisposed to ignore the simplest explanation?
How many of us have ever thought to check the provenance of D&C 132? Haven’t we always just assumed that it was written in Joseph’s hand? We unquestioningly accept as truth what has been handed down to us from people whose own recollections of key events changed radically depending upon the lesson they wished to convey, and who lived in a time when even the professional historians were no sticklers for accuracy.
After weighing all the evidence in any historical controversy, the best we can conclude about any given event is that it was more likely to have happened one way, and less likely to have happened another. Important factors to consider are primary and contemporary accounts (accounts written at the time), versus secondary accounts, hearsay, and later recollections.
So here’s what it comes down to. On the one hand we have countless contemporary accounts in Joseph’s own words testifying of his incessant crusade to root out polygamy in the church and his threats to prosecute its practitioners. On the other hand we have scribes as early as 1847 testifying to their complicity in tampering with the dead man’s journals, along with an entire gallery of pinch-faced dowagers appearing from out of nowhere with a claim to fame for their secret weddings to a long dead super-celebrity.
Taking Joseph Smith at his word and approaching the later claims as hyperbole typical of the zeitgeist is the only way to make sense of all the contradictions. It’s the only way the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. No one really knows the truth about what happened back then. I wouldn’t pretend to. I’ve only read half of the revisionist history on the topic, and I’m told there’s much more yet to be made available. But if I were to offer an early opinion based on the evidence I’ve seen so far, I would have to say that it seems more likely that Joseph Smith was sincere about eradicating polygamy in the church; and given what we know about the 19th century proclivity for embellishing reality without shame as long as it was for a good cause, I’d have to conclude that it’s less likely that we can rely on the claims of Joseph Smith’s several “wives”.
I don’t quite understand this reluctance some people have -both believing Mormons as well as others raised in the parochial Mormon culture- to automatically reject new information that might force a paradigm shift in their thinking. I like how B.H. Roberts looked at it: “I find my own heart strengthened in the truth by getting rid of the untruth, the spectacular, the bizarre, as soon as I learn that it is based upon worthless testimony.”
I actually like discovering I might have been wrong about something. It’s kind of exhilarating. It tells me I’m still learning.