Leland H. Gentry’s 1965 dissertation “A History of the Latter-day Saints in Northern Missouri, 1836-1839” was part of a wave of new Mormon scholarship of the 1960s that sought to reinterpret Mormon history in more academic terms, avoiding the polarities of the “traditional” anti-Mormon/pro-Mormon battles of the 19th and early 20th century. After reviewing the literature on Mormon Missouri during the late 1830s, Gentry noted in his introduction that
No study exists which has attempted to bring together the various and oft-conflicting points of view concerning this era. The common picture one gets of the Latter-day Saints from a reading of the literature connected with this period is either that of an arrogant and designing people entirely to blame for their misfortune or else that of an abused and much-maligned people who were entirely blameless of any ill which befell them. The view one gets of Lilburn W. Boggs is either that of a dedicated state executive dealing with a difficult problem or else that of a determined and self-appointed persecutor of the Mormon people. This study is an attempt to clarify the historical picture in these and related areas. If this objective alone is achieved, this work will have justified itself on at at least one important count. (BYUS edition, 3)
In order to achieve his goal, Gentry used more thoroughly than any scholar before him the official documents published by the State of Missouri and the U.S. Senate in the aftermath of the Mormons’ departure from the state, which contained the correspondence between Boggs and his militia commanders, other government documents, and legal papers associated with the November 1838 preliminary hearing on Joseph Smith’s treason and other charges, thereby providing strong non-Mormon perspectives. Gentry also used the Reed Peck manuscript and John Corrill’s history, which illuminated the voices of prominent Mormon dissenters. Utilizing these sources demonstrated Gentry’s willingness to move beyond “traditional” Mormon interpretive frameworks and seek to understand alternative points of view. However, given his CES/BYU affiliations and due to the fact he was writing with a pre-critical understanding of many of the problems associated with Joseph Smith’s History of the Church, it was not unclear where Gentry’s ultimate sympathies were located.
While not arguing a distinctive thesis, Gentry identified five primary objectives: 1) to examine Mormon colonization efforts in northern Missouri after 1836; 2) to analyze Mormon thought and teachings in light of the social conflicts of the period; 3) to develop an interpretation of the roles of Mormon dissenters and the Danites in the conflict; 4) to examine the Mormon War of 1838, and 5) to discuss the 1839 expulsion of the Saints from Missouri. In many ways, Gentry set the agenda for the next half century of scholarship on these issues and his interpretations generated continued debate and discussion. Stephen C. LeSueur, who worked for a time with Gentry at BYU’s Religious Studies Center, published his masters’ thesis as The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri in 1986. LeSueur went further than Gentry in seeking to understand non-Mormon views and contextualizing them within the burgeoning scholarship on violence and mob activity in Jacksonian America. Most controversially, LeSueur extended Gentry’s analysis of the Danites by claiming that Joseph Smith not only knew about and approved their activities, but that he even at times directed depredations against non-Mormon Missourians. In 1996, Alexander Baugh completed his dissertation, “A Call to Arms: The 1838 Mormon Defense of Northern Missouri,” which challenged many of LeSueur’s more controversial interpretations and tried to steer the conversation back toward Gentry’s more sympathetic view toward the Mormons. In addition, in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s several significant articles appeared on the Mormons experience in northern Missouri that enlivened the scholarly debate (much of the most important literature is summarized by LeSueur in his 2004 contribution to Excavating Mormon Pasts).
In the midst of this scholarly activity on Missouri, Gentry’s work has remained an important and relevant contribution. Although for several years his dissertation was primarily available only in research libraries, he published several articles based on his doctoral work. In 2000, his dissertation was finally published in the BYU Studies/Joseph Fielding Smith Institute series “Dissertations in Latter-day Saint History.” Before his 2007 death Gentry had discussed publishing a revised and updated edition with Greg Kofford Books, although Gentry’s health and death made that ultimately impossible. Friend of the Juvenile Instructor Todd Compton agreed to conduct the necessary revisions for publication, which occurred in 2010.
In the preface of the retitled Fire and Sword: A History of the Latter-day Saints in Northern Missouri, 1836-1839, Compton described his purpose as “providing a reading experience for the reader that integrates old and new research as smoothly and inconspicuously as possible. I have done necessary editing and rewriting to shift the book from the requirements of a dissertation, including conventions of dissertation prose, to meet the needs of a more general audience in scholarly but still accessible style” (xv-xvi; it should be noted that Compton was aided by Lavina Fielding Anderson’s sharp editing skills). In addition to reworking the book’s name, chapter titles, subheadings, and often awkward prose, Compton also updated footnotes and included helpful addenda after most chapters that updated the scholarship since 1965. (While I have not conducted a systematic assessment of Compton’s updates, my initial reading convinced me that he did his homework.) Compton for the most part did not take sides in scholarly debates, which probably would have been inappropriate given the nature of his project, but it does make me wonder what this revised and updated work would have looked like had Gentry survived and had been able to reflect on the impact of more recent works on his early, foundational interpretations (for a thoughtful recollection of his experience editing Gentry, and for Compton’s own thoughts on some of the more controversial issues, see here).
As with any work nearly a half century old, Gentry’s dissertation represents another era of scholarship. While Compton’s alterations improve the work’s readability and provides insights into where the study of Mormonism in northern Missouri has gone during those decades, Fire and Sword is unlikely to move debate beyond the polarized paradigms established in the 1980s and 1990s in LeSueur’s and Baugh’s works. Neither does Fire and Sword participate to any significant degree in the new generation of scholarship that uses Mormon history to illuminate broader themes in American history. But that was not likely the intent of the publisher, Gentry, or Compton in reissuing the work. Rather, it was to make available to a new audience a classic work that remains relevant today. And with the BYU Studies/JFSI “Dissertations in Latter-day Saint History” series now apparently defunct, causing that edition of Gentry’s dissertation to go out of print, Fire and Sword‘s appearance could not have been more timely.