Note: I have tamed my views considerably since high school. Not living in Southeastern Idaho for a while has helped. Anyone who would like to critique my rash, abrasive high school self should remember their own foibles first and that I was acting from a place of pain and alienation. I’m also not saying that Ed Decker or Fanny Stenhouse is correct in their depiction of Mormonism – just that we need to take their geographic location seriously.
Recently, there has been a spate of work about how Mormons have been perceived in American popular culture. Spencer Fluhman recently published A Peculiar People, which explores the role that anti-Mormonism played in defining what counted as “religion” in the United States in the nineteenth century and what was dismissed as fanaticism and lunacy. J.B. Haws will also be publishing a book on the Mormon image in the twentieth century with the same publisher next year. Cristine Hutchinson-Jones and Megan Goodwin have both written about the public perception of Mormonism on this and other blogs. (For examples, see here, here, here, and here.)
Although I have used a lot of this work in my dissertation and have found their analyses of American culture to be insightful and incisive, I am still conflicted about the way that they portray critics of Mormonism. Most of the work that has been published about perceptions of Mormonism as focused on the how Americans as a whole perceive Mormonism. There is little attention paid to regional variation. As a result, a lot of the contest over the meaning of Mormonism that happens within Mormon circles and within the Intermountain West is lost. According to most analyses of public perceptions of Mormonism, most Americans now see Mormonism as naïve, overly friendly, and slightly odd. They are people who have been duped and who believe bizarre things – in planets called Kolob, in Jews who traveled to America, and in golden plates. As Cristine and Megan have also pointed out, there is a darker side to contemporary portrayals of Mormonism. Mormons are seen as uniformly conservative and as blocking progress in regards to the status of women and the rights of sexual minorities. Books like Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven have also portrayed Mormons as potentially violent and disruptive. Although both of these portrayals are common within American culture, as a whole, the latter is much more common in my experience among those who have lived in the American West than among the American populace as a whole.
For people living in the wider United States, Mormonism is a small, minority religion that is mysterious and slightly odd. For those within the Intermountain West, however, Mormonism is a powerful entity. Growing up, I felt that the Mormon Church controlled not only local politics but also the tenor of my education, the standards by which my morality was judged, and discussions about religious faith. Every year, I endured missionary week when the local seminary encouraged its students to spread the gospel to their friends. I sat quietly as my teachers told us skipped over evolution and sex ed as inappropriate topics for discussion, and I listened as a Mormon student prayed at graduation on behalf of the entire graduating class. My non-Mormon friends and I responded to the ever-presence of Mormonism within our lives by reading A LOT of anti-Mormon literature. I first learned about the temple and what happened inside from Deborah Laake’s Secret Ceremonies, which I read as a junior in high school. Likewise, my introduction to Mountain Meadows came from exmormon.org. Whenever my Mormon friends tried to witness to me about Mormonism, I asked them about Joseph Smith’s polygamous wives, the Kinderhook plates, the Masonic meaning of the green aprons in the temple, the priesthood restriction, and about the lack of physical evidence of an Israelite civilization in the Americas. I rolled my eyes when my friends eagerly told me about how Mayan temples were proof that Lamanites had existed and responded that the Book of Mormon contained several anachronisms including references to horses and steel. I was insufferable and hot headed, at times. I assumed that I knew more about Mormonism than my Mormon friends did. My non-Mormon friends and I occasionally mocked the faith of our Mormon friends when they weren’t around. What made our actions different than anti-Mormonism in the rest of the United States is that we didn’t think that we were attacking a small cult or ridiculing a marginalized religious group. We saw ourselves as speaking truth to power. For us, the Mormon Church was THE CHURCH. All of us had Mormon family members. All of us had experienced endless bouts of proselytizing, and all of us had been judged as slutty or less than for not living up to modesty and health standards that we hadn’t agreed to. Our understanding inverted the power dynamic assumed by much of the literature on public perceptions of Mormonism. We saw evangelical Christianity and Protestantism as a minority religion in danger of being snuffed out and Mormonism as the dominant force determining our lives.
The assumption that the church is all-powerful pervades a lot of anti-Mormon literature published by authors from the Intermountain West. Although some people from the Intermountain West like Bernard DeVoto or John Fitzgerald published humane accounts of Mormonism, others like Ed Decker,* Jerald and Sandra Tanner,** and even John Krakauer*** reflect the bitterness and sense of powerless that I felt as a teenager. Even saner accounts of Mormonism written by ex-Mormons or non-Mormons from the Intermountain West often contain the sense that the church, rather than being a marginalized community, is a powerful entity with the ability to control the political landscape. Sonia Johnson, for example, saw herself as fighting against an opponent with enormous political and financial power.****
The writings of ex-Mormons and non-Mormons from the Intermountain West have been enormously influential in the way that Mormonism is portrayed within academia and American culture. Krakauer’s book, for example, was a national bestseller and Decker’s film The God Makers is available in various clips and formats on You Tube. Hits for the various versions vary from 60 or 70 views to over 14,000. Understanding their influence on public perceptions of Mormonism ultimately requires understanding the internal dynamics of communities within the Mormon Corridor. Although Krakauer’s book can be placed within a wider history of American depictions of Mormonism as violent, it can also been seen as part of a paranoia among non-Mormons in the American West with the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the wrongs done to non-Mormons in Utah and Idaho. This is as important for historians studying the nineteenth century as it is for historians of the twentieth. Ann Eliza Young, Fanny Stenhouse, and Charlotte Cobb Godbe were all former Mormons who saw themselves as critiquing a community from which they had come. Although they often used language similar to critiques in the East Coast, it is important to understand their arguments as part of a conversation emerging within a particular community. None of these women were originally outsiders to the Mormon community. In fact, all of them were in one way or another related to and part of Brigham Young’s family. Bonus points to anyone who can tell me how the Stenhouses are related to Young. If we treat their work as simply another depiction of Mormonism, we miss out on what is truly going on.
* Ed Decker converted to Mormonism while at the University of Utah.
** Jerald and Sandra Tanner currently live in Utah. Edit: It has been pointed out to me that Jerald Tanner passed away in 2006. Although I knew that he had passed away a few years ago, for some reason, it didn’t pop into mind as I was describing him as living in Utah. Tanner’s death was caused by complications from Alzheimer’s.
***Although not from Utah or Idaho, Krakauer has lived in Oregon and Colorado and grew up as he puts it “among the Mormons.” He has also been involved in efforts to provide homes to boys who are abandoned by their polygamous families.
****Sonia Johnson is from Malad, Idaho.