Review: The Man behind the Discourse: A Biography of King Follett

By May 24, 2012

Mortensen, Joann Follett. The Man Behind the Discourse: A Biography of King Follett. Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2011.

A few weeks ago, a friend at church noticed the book I’d brought along with me that day and asked about it. Showing him the cover, he immediately responded, “King Follett? Is there enough information to write a full-length biography?” At that point, I’d only read the first few chapters, and wasn’t sure how to answer. I finally finished the book a couple of days ago, but I’m still a little unsure about my answer.

King Follett, an early convert to Joseph Smith’s Church of Christ whose name is familiar to modern Mormons because of its rhetorical association with one of Smith’s most famous sermons, left behind no written record. No journal and next to no correspondence have survived. And posthumous biographical summaries offer little more than the most basic information about his life. With that in mind, Joann Follett Mortensen has accomplished a wonderful feat, gathering together the scattered references to her third great-grandfather (passing mentions in LDS church records, legal and public documents, and occasional (and almost always brief) references in the diaries and journals of his fellow Latter-day Saints) and turning it into a comprehensive and lengthy history (468 pp. + 4 appendices, a bibliography, and index) of King Follett and his immediate family.

Mortensen’s biography of her ancestor fills an important void in Mormon biographical studies.[1] In researching King Follett’s life, Mortensen offers several corrections and additions to the historical record. Follett, we learn, was born in New Hampshire, and not Vermont, as almost all other biographical summaries indicate; he and his wife Louisa were members of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Ohio before their conversion to Mormonism (their oldest son was named John Wesley Follett); and that following the death of Joseph Smith, Louisa and some of her children remained in the Midwest, rejecting the leadership claims of Brigham Young and the Twelve Apostles. They were initially drawn to the teachings of Alpheus Cutler (her son-in-law Nathan West was excommunicated for “aiding and abetting Father Cutler”), but in 1863 Louisa was baptized into the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, remaining a member of that church until her death in 1891. Only one of the Follett’s children—William—went west to Utah with the Brigham Young-led Saints, eventually going south to Arizona and settling in Pima, where he died in 1885. Other children stayed in Iowa near their mother or traveled to California; few appear to have remained very active in any church, Latter Day Saint or otherwise. She also discusses at length the more widely-known occurrences in his life (and after): his incarceration in Richmond Jail, his tragic death while digging a well, and the circumstances surrounding the sermon that includes his name in the title.

Mortensen is to be commended for her efforts. Her dogged and almost exhaustive (certainly exhausting) family and social historical research is obvious. At the very least, she has provided a well-researched account of an early Mormon convert whose name is widely known but whose life is less so. As one very much interested in the experiences of early Mormon converts and the inclusion of their stories into larger narratives of Mormonism’s beginnings and development, I’m especially appreciative of her efforts.

Nevertheless, I’m left wondering about the payoff of her three-decades long research. She notes in a short epilogue that “the research on King’s life has benefitted me in two important ways—other than just providing information for his biography. The first and foremost has been the knowledge I have gained about Church history and the life of the Prophet Joseph Smith. … The second benefit is being able to trace his children and their families down to the present time and to successfully obtain a personal contact with at least one descendant of all but one of his children who left descendants” (467). These are worthy and admirable achievements, but beyond the personal payoff for the author, what does her book offer to Mormon historians more generally? What specific contributions does her project make to the field? As noted above, the corrections to the historical record are commendable, as is the more complete record of King’s life. Yet sizeable portions of the book seem almost entirely unnecessary, reading more like a general history of institutional Mormonism with whatever references to King Follett the author can manage to include. I’m sensitive to the fact that she was working with only the barest of information, but those portions of Follett’s life about which little is known could be treated more appropriately in a single summarized paragraph or two instead of chapter after chapter of speculating where he might have lived during a particular period or using the recollections of others to hazard a guess about his activities then. In addition, some of her commentary and brief asides included in the text would be better fit for footnotes.[2] The book, in short, could have been much shorter and still produced the same effect.

My other critiques are mostly minor—I wish Mortensen didn’t rely so heavily on the problematic but ever-present History of the Church and was sometimes distracted by the inconsistent and sometimes clunky descriptions of other historical writers and secondary sources.[3] Even taken alongside my larger critiques, I still recommend the book to readers. That the book mostly fails to make any notable interpretive contribution to Mormon history should probably not be held against Mortensen. It was, after all, not her intent to make such a contribution, seeking instead to provide the first comprehensive book-length biography of her ancestor. I personally prefer this sort of deeply researched biographical writing and family history to more interpretively provocative work based on superficial research. While far from a perfect book, The Man Behind the Discourse deserves to be read. It serves as a model of research for family historians frustrated by the bits and pieces of primary sources documenting the life of their own obscure ancestor. It also deserves attention from historians of Mormonism, who may be better equipped to consider the larger significance of various aspects of King Follett’s history.[4] Most obvious and intriguing to me is a question not necessarily about King, but rather his family: What do we make of the fact that so few members of his immediate family remained attached to the body of Mormons that most fully embraced the teachings found in the sermon named after their husband and father?

 


[1] Take a quick glance at the Studies in Mormon History bibliography: A search for “King Follett” produces 18 results, only one other of which deals with King’s life instead of the discourse attached to his name (and that’s an 1886 biographical summary written by Andrew Jenson).

[2] For instance, she notes on page 384 that “Donald Q. Cannon states that King worked ‘as a stonemason’ but does not cite a reference for this information. It is also the only statement I have found that identifies King’s occupation specifically as stonemason.” This information—useful to be sure—distracts from her narration of Follett’s life and is exactly the sort of commentary for which footnotes are intended. Also, it is not clear whether the decision to go with chapter endnotes was Mortensen’s or the publisher’s, but it is incredibly frustrating for those who regularly check notes and sources while reading.

[3] In addition to her extensive quoting from the History of the Church throughout the book, Mortensen also relies (uncritically) on the version of the King Follett Discourse reprinted there in her own transcript of the Discourse included as “Appendix B” of her book (pp. 477-92). WVS leveled a similar critique of the book in his own review at BCC. The awkward appellations attached to various historians throughout (i.e. “present-day church historian,” “modern-day Mormon historian,” etc.) have also appeared in other publications of Greg Kofford Books, and this may be the publisher’s, and not the author’s, choice.

[4] I’ve added his and his wife’s names, for instance, to my own database of early Mormon converts’ religious backgrounds, and hope to eventually consider more fully what the scraps of information detailing the lives of King and Louisa Follett might subtly speak to the ways in which their Methodist backgrounds shaped their experiences as Mormons.

Article filed under Biography Book and Journal Reviews Categories of Periodization: Origins


Comments

  1. Excellent review, Chris; thanks for sharing. And kudos to Mortensen for giving us an account of Follett’s life.

    Comment by Ben P — May 24, 2012 @ 5:36 am

  2. Thanks, Chris. I have a cousin who is a Follett descendant. As a teenager I thought it was fascinating that she was descended from _that_ King Follett and wondered why she wasn’t active (although I also realized that the sermon had little to do with him specifically). Sounds like she’s not the only descendant to choose not to affiliate.

    Comment by David G. — May 24, 2012 @ 6:17 am

  3. Great review, Chris.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 24, 2012 @ 9:44 am

  4. Excellent review, Christopher. Thanks.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 24, 2012 @ 10:18 am

  5. Great stuff, Chris. Thank you.

    Comment by Jared T — May 24, 2012 @ 10:42 am

  6. Nicely done, Christopher. The families of subjects of JS’s funeral sermons often didn’t continue in Mormonism. It was the Sports Illustrated jinx-as-sermon-thing.

    Comment by WVS — May 24, 2012 @ 12:12 pm

  7. Thanks, everyone.

    WVS—that is fascinating, and certainly worthy of a blog post at the very least.

    Comment by Christopher — May 28, 2012 @ 8:17 am

  8. Nice work Chris. And WVS, I agree with Chris, that SI curse topic really is interesting.

    Comment by SC Taysom — May 28, 2012 @ 5:29 pm


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