Eighteen months ago, Taysom was deep into work on a biography of Joseph F. Smith, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1901 to 1918. We interviewed him then about the project. Taysom recently finished work on the manuscript, and we decided to follow up to see how the project evolved over that period and what Taysom’s reflections in retrospect are.
Questions of Method
Do you see the biography as more a study of American religions (that is, as religious studies) or as American religious history?
Although the readers will be the judges of that in the most meaningful sense, my own impression is that this book is more closely associated with what we think of as religious studies. That is, it is interdisciplinary in method and I engage in theoretical reflection, particularly in chapters where direct evidence for JFS’s life are sparse.
What, if anything, do you think future biographers of LDS individuals should be aware of as they research and write, given Mormons’ emphasis on record keeping? (In other words, what is the untapped potential of LDS biography given the wealth of sources?)
Biography, as a genre, is moving away from “cradle to grave” style comprehensiveness toward more limited, thematic studies. It is not uncommon to see biographical work that focuses on a single theme or time period in the life of the subject. This is a smart move for future biographers working on LDS subjects, especially given the unevenness of access to sources. It is true that we have a massive corpus of material, but often some of the most important material is restricted or otherwise unavailable. Thematic biographical studies help to alleviate this problem without compromising the strength of the book’s evidentiary foundation.
How have women and sources created by women figured into the biography?
Women show up everywhere! There are a few women who are very important to the story, aside from the obvious significance of his wives. Three in particular come to mind. The first is his first wife, Levira. I examined the affidavit she submitted to Brigham Young at the time of her divorce from JFS in which she alleges physical and emotional abuse (allegations that JFS does not entirely deny). The second is JFS’s cousin Ina Coolbrith. The daughter of Don Carlos Smith, Ina left the LDS Church and became the first poet laureate of California. She and JFS maintained a love/hate correspondence spanning more than 50 years. Finally, JFS relationship with Susa Young Gates is significant. The two became close in the 1880s during JFS’s exile in Hawaii and they remained so until JFS’s death. Gates was one of the few people to whom JFS, on his deathbed, read his “Vision of the Redemption of the Dead.”
What were the major challenges as you researched?
The biggest challenge by far came from the sources. For some periods there were too many, they became unwieldy and tempted me to lose the narrative thread. At other points, the last 20 years of his life, for example, JFS’s journals are not available and the files relating to his time in southern California where he spent a great deal of time are restricted. This feast or famine situation required some creativity to smooth out.
Questions of Content
Was there any meaningful distinction between family and church for JFS?
Based on the sources I have seen, I would have to say no. JFS was probably the last Church president for whom “Mormonism” was not something that could be compartmentalized and tucked into a life with other compartments for “work” “family” or “politics.” He simply did not see the world that way. His family relationships, to the degree that they are accessible through the sources, are seen in explicitly religious terms.
What do you think JFS’s greatest strengths and weaknesses as a leader were?
JFS was an incredibly intelligent person, just tremendously insightful. And he had a gift for understanding how people thought and what would motivate them. Although he is most famous for his anger, he had an equally passionate interest in the well-being of individual members of the Church. He cared deeply about people, and they could sense this and they responded to it. His greatest weakness, especially as president, was his utter disinterest in business and his rather naïve belief that he ought not to have to become personally sullied with either business or political matters. Ironically, his presidency has largely been defined by his involvement in both.
What did JFS think “Mormonism” was?
It was everything. Although he was never particularly apocalyptic in his outlook, he saw Mormonism as the only repository of goodness and truth that could withstand the inevitable moral deterioration of human civilization.
Do you essentially agree with the conclusions of other major studies of this period of LDS history – Alexander’s Mormonism in Transition and Flake’s The Politics of American Religious Identity?
Absolutely. I think my research on JFS has provided further confirmation that the work of both Alexander and Flake on issues like the impact of Progressivism on Mormonism and the navigation of Mormon political and cultural integration during the early twentieth century. There are, naturally, minor points of disagreement, but very few. Not much revisionism to be found for that period in this book.
How should we understand Mormonism differently because of this book?
I hesitate to say too much on this, because, again, I think the responsibility for adjudicating this lies with the readers. I think that the book has some useful things to say, for example, about JFS’s role in the creation of the vision of the celestial kingdom as the family-centric place it currently enjoys. But more broadly, I hope the book conveys a sense of the complexity of Mormonism and the fluidity of its development. I argue, somewhat obliquely, throughout the book that Mormonism remade itself at least three or four times during JFS’s lifetime, and tracing how that happens is a major part of the study. I would say, however, that I am far more concerned with how the book influences our understanding of JFS than of Mormonism writ large.
Looking at your earlier interview, undertaken when you were midway through this project, is there much now you’d want to clarify or answers you want to change?
Just that I finally learned the answer to the final question from that interview. One day, I just knew I was done. It is hard to explain but I just knew it.