(The following is a give-and-take with Christopher and Christine Blythe, graduate students in American religious history who specialize in the many divergent forms of Mormonism. Christopher attends Florida State University, where he is nearing completion of his PhD, and Christine recently started a master’s program at Memorial University of Newfoundland. A couple weeks ago, I highlighted two of their recent articles; today, they answer a few questions presented to them by the JI cabal. The Blythes have a documentary history of the succession period due to be published by Kofford Books next year.)
Christine: For me, my interest in the succession crisis evolved out of close relationships I developed shortly after my conversion to the LDS Church. I became friends with a number of individuals who were raised in Mormon Fundamentalist homes and my interests were piqued. Having little knowledge of Latter-day Saint history in general, I found the similarities and differences fascinating. Later, as I began my undergraduate degree, I took the opportunity to research some of these contemporary expressions of the Restoration. In 2009, I presented my first academic conference paper on The Church of the First Born led by Ross Wesley LeBaron and then Fred Collier. A year later, I took a position as a research fellow at the Joseph Smith Historic Site in Nauvoo. While I was there, I needed to come up with a thesis concept for my degree and since I had become absorbed in the story of William Smith, decided to focus on his controversy-filled summer living in the city in 1845.
Chris: I also learned about multiple Mormonisms not too long after my conversion to the LDS Church. Shortly after my baptism (I was 14), I learned that I had relatives who were also members of a Mormon Church, but a different one than the one I had joined. They were members of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. My grandfather took me on a trip to Independence, Missouri to introduce me to his aunt, a well-known RLDS historian, Pearl Wilcox. I will always remember this brief meeting when she pulled out a couple shoeboxes of primary sources and explained how historians work. I wouldn’t come to share Pearl Wilcox’s conclusions about succession, but I would soon share her passion for this particular aspect of our history. A few years later, I was addicted to studying different Restoration groups and visiting the RLDS archive, which when we consider this topic is second to none.
How do you see your articles leading into the documentary history?
Christine: Good question. Although these particular documents will not be included in the collection, my article on William Smith mainly addresses the controversies he faced from within the church, and the tensions that existed between William and the Twelve previous to his excommunication. I suppose my article can be seen as a prelude to the documents we’ve chosen to include about William, which save for a very few, relate to his career once he fully departed from the Twelve.
Chris: Concerning the Dialogue article, I don’t necessarily see this article as leading into the documentary history, but I hope it is an example of the type of work that can come from diving into these sources. One of my interests, which I was able to explore in the article, is how different Mormon collectives have responded to their shared history, particularly when it relates to controversial elements the Nauvoo experience that many would prefer to leave behind.
For a long time, studying the history of the succession crisis has often been to “prove” one position or the other. What do you see the purpose(s) of studying this time period are now?
Chris: Fortunately there has already been some good work done by scholars of the Restoration who have moved on from this paradigm. We can look at the succession crisis in a number of ways, but if we confine this conversation to the period immediately surrounding the martyrdom, recent literature is often focused on the success of the twelve apostles and their response to dissidents. This would include discussions of Mormonisms in Terryl Givens and Matthew Grow’s Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism and John Turner’s Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet. I am still convinced that the best scholarship on the succession crisis itself was written by Ronald K. Esplin, Andrew F. Ehat, and D. Michael Quinn, who even though their own biases might have played a role in the way they sometimes expressed their conclusions, moved us in this direction. The other paradigm that we sometimes see is the look at various movements as precursors to the Reorganization. Of course, these are both largely accurate narratives, but they don’t allow these bodies the sort of historical autonomy that they otherwise might, which we do find when we look at the growing number of microhistories written about individual Restoration churches.
When we go beyond this earliest period, I am most impressed with work that looks at these communities as part of the history of a broader Mormonism in which the story is complicated by a plethora of competing voices and actors. We see examples of this in Lawrence Foster’s use of the Strangite practice of plural marriage in Religion and Sexuality or even in George Bartholomew Arbaugh’s Revelation in Mormonism (Chicago, 1932), where the Mormon phenomenon of modern scripture is dissected by examining a variety of bodies.
How do your position your own work in relation to what has already been written?
Christine: Like you said, studies of the succession crisis have often set out to prove “one position or the other.” In part, I think that is where our work differs. While we will be providing some historical interpretation regarding these movements and the restoration as a whole, we have selected documents that we hope will best allow these actors to speak for themselves. Like Chris mentioned above, there is a real tendency to see some of the groups in subject as movements that were simply absorbed into the RLDS Church, as if this was there predetermined destiny. In this project, we take these movements seriously as bodies that had their own unique agendas and ideas and who in many cases continued to survive independently. We attempt to do this largely by looking at contemporary sources, rather than memoirs from individuals who would later join the Reorganization or the larger LDS Church and thus influenced by other interpretations of the Mormon past.
What do scholars of American history and religion gain by looking at the conflict of Brigham Young, Sidney Rigdon, Joseph Smith III, James Strang and others?
Chris: My hope is that this collection will invite additional studies on Mormon sectarianism. The lengthy introductory section, in particular, discusses a variety of potential approaches from the academic study of religion. When it comes to the necessarily comparative project (paraphrasing J.Z. Smith) of understanding how religion works, Mormonism will continue to prove an ideal case study as it has since Weber used Joseph Smith as his example of a charismatic figure. If we are interested in understanding how religions form, prosper, multiply, and die then the subject of Mormonisms is potentially very enlightening.
The zones of conflict that these documents unfold are not simply related to Mormon-specific issues, but to the larger story of an America taking shape. Strang defines himself with Christological issues influenced by Unitarian thought. Joseph Smith III is not only trying to redeem his father’s name from the apostate Brighamites, he is speaking the discourse of American anti-fraternalism and expressing concerns over the influence of secret societies (characterized at the time by the Mormon endowment house.) Wight and Cutler are continuing the antebellum pursuit of a small scale utopian society. Each of these groups are wrestling and responding distinctively to the extensive intolerance towards non-Protestant faiths in the period. (I’m convinced this is a key to understanding their othering of one another.) But, perhaps, most importantly for me this work takes the history of Mormonism seriously for its one sake, a history that I think is radically incomplete if we do not look at the various branches of the larger movement. Through conflict, competition, protest, cross-pollination, and so forth each of these churches have influenced the development of the others. Without exception, we have defined ourselves against one another for two hundred years.
Is there something average members can glean from the study of the conflicts following Joseph Smith’s death?
Christine: We hope this volume plays a small part in the larger Mormon historical project, characterized by the Joseph Smith Papers, of bringing to light accurate history that corrects and complicates our version of the past. There is plenty of misinformation and oversimplification about the founding of other churches and the reasons underlining dissent in the past century.
Chris: Speaking not only to Latter-day Saints, but all forms of Latter Day Saints, I would hope that by studying these multiple incarnations of Mormonism, we can come to value our shared heritage, come to better understand one another, and maybe even allow ourselves to experience “holy envy” or at least appreciation in each other’s strengths. We might even find inspirational the value one body places in the Book of Mormon, another’s use of the Joseph Smith translation, efforts to live the law of consecration, and so forth.
What should average members do with contradictory truth claims?
Christine: It would really depend. If we were speaking of historical succession issues, for example, Joseph Smith both ordaining his son Joseph III and giving the last charge to the twelve apostles, then the answer would be to study the historical records and make up your own mind. In some cases, such as this one, we might determine that there is strong evidence that both events occurred. We might discover that like our own tradition, other Restoration movements possess historically compelling positions for their beliefs.
However, if we are thinking about the question of responding to contradictory truth claims, I don’t think this is best answered by a couple of historians. Instead, I think the answer is one that the Restoration has insisted on since the beginning. Our final authority is not the claims of a prophet or the words of a book of scripture, but personal revelation.
What principles of selection do you use to determine 1) which groups to include 2) documents and 3) chronological scope? What is the status of the project?
We are covering a very small period of history looking at groups that coalesced after the martyrdom and before the ordination of Joseph Smith III in 1860. This means we are looking at communities associated with Brigham Young and the Twelve Apostles, Sidney Rigdon, James Strang, Alpheus Cutler, Lyman Wight, William Smith, Charles Thompson, and the earliest incarnation of the Reorganization. The volume will also include materials from Gladden Bishop and James C. Brewster. Of course, by limiting it to those sects that originated previous to April 6, 1860, we are deprived of some of the most interesting communities founded only a few years later, including – to use the traditional monikers – the Bickertonites, the Hedrickites, and the Morrisites, but the volume is bulging where it currently stands, and the closing date works well both for the volume’s major points but also as a major chronological period of Restoration history.
The volume is far from exhaustive. The surviving sources from each of these movements are substantial, including hundreds of pages of periodicals, letters, minutes, etc. Our goal has been to include “sources that offer us a glimpse of how Mormon sects interacted with and defined themselves against their competitors. In fact, a large portion of the sources included in the volume could be considered heresiographical, in that they are documents expounding on one sect written by an opposing sect. Also included are minutes of quorum meetings, excommunication trials, sermons, memoirs, and diary entries geared to understand how these groups established themselves through processes of identity formation. While pursuing this overarching theme, sources will also be presented to understand each prophet figure’s major theological tenants, life stories, and legitimating claims.” (Book Proposal)
The book is largely complete, but there remains some serious editing and revising that needs to take place. We hoped to be finished a year ago, but our current goal is to turn in the final draft in the spring.
 Our paradigm of identity formation is borrowed from the work of Edward Said, Regina Schwartz, and John Corrigan.