Book Review: Silencing Mormon Polygamy by Drew Briney

By July 29, 2011

Drew Briney. Silencing Mormon Polygamy: Failed Persecutions, Divided Saints & the Rise of Mormon Fundamentalism, Volume 1. Hindsight Publications, n.p., 2008.

This book, a free review copy, has been sitting on my shelf for perhaps the last two years as I’ve done all I can to avoid a) reviewing it and b) paying for it. I think part of my trepidation was that the issues I had with it were so vast that I just didn’t know where to begin or how to possibly provide a glimpse of the web that the book weaves. I will not take the time to take you through all the twists and turns of the story the author tells, but will instead focus on some issues that make that story suspect. You’ll note in the picture that I read the book thoroughly (what can I say, the summer of 2009 must have been slow).

Perhaps 97% of those stickies (most of which have notes written on them) represent an issue I took with some interpretation or use or misuse of a source, or the lack of  a source all together. Some of those notes represent simple frustrations and three letter exclamations, some are a full sentence or so.

The other 3%, however, are positive comments such as “Fine” and “OK.”

Simply put, the book is significantly flawed from cover to cover. It purports to be an “academic” book about Mormon Fundamentalism (by which he means one that is logically consistent and gets the citations correct) and attacks the work of Brian Hales and others as being polemic, agenda-driven (apologetic), and misleading while affirming its own clinical objectivity. It is, of course, highly polemical in its own right and I would consider it an apologetic book toward Fundamentalist priesthood claims despite its insistence on being there just to find out the history.

One of the most glaring problems is the utter unreliability of Briney’s source criticism and his tendency to assign confusing and questionable dating to documents and accounts. Briney has the annoying habit of interrupting his text constantly with an excerpt, sometimes lengthy, from a document. He notes in the heading of the document the name of the person supposedly authoring it and the date. So many times I found dates that were clearly incorrect but which, if correct, would have bolstered the credibility of an item being discussed. For instance, one of the big issues is what Lorin C. Woolley said and when he started saying it. His first statement that introduced his claims about secret ordinations in 1886 by John Taylor came in 1929. To make a long story less long, Woolley’s claims over the next four or five years before his death in 1934 became more and more elaborate and detailed. The point is that, naturally, some suspicion immediately arises that Woolley, for whatever reason, found it convenient to talk about these things once the last person who could have contradicted him was safely dead (John Woolley, last of those Lorin said had been secretly ordained, died in 1928).  Immediately after quoting the 1929 account, Briney works quickly to try and paint this story as being much older. He writes, “Despite the lack of any public announcement concerning his priesthood commission, Lorin Woolley was apparently telling his family members about some of these claims only a few years after the events occurred. Lorin informed George E. Woolley that he had spent “a long time” with Joseph Smith when President Taylor was staying at his father’s home” (172). Then Briney  presents a document he calls “George E. Woolley Letter and dates it “9/22/1891.” So, the reader is left to think that only four years later (as opposed to almost 50) Woolley was talking about some of these events. The problem is that if you follow the end note to the back pages of the chapter it says, “The letter is dated May 20, 1921 and is found in Crec[?] 6 Journal As 123000 Box 3, Folder [?]. The ‘?’ material is illegible on the author’s copy (in his possession).”  So…ok, it is unclear how Briney came to date the letter to 1891. And the source for this letter is far from clear as well. Anyone familiar to any degree with literature about LDS Fundamentalist origins and authority claims knows that the waters are murky enough without any further help from an author.

One other of Briney’s interpretive strategies is to use a later account to confirm the validity of an earlier account on which the later account was based. Take this claim: In speaking of the later and second hand recollections others had of Lorin C. Woolley’s teachings (yes, we’re out in the realm of what people in the 1940s and even 1990s were remembering about Woolley’s teachings about what he supposedly witnessed in 1886), Briney remarks that these later accounts are vague, and “frequently refer the reader to the well known accounts of Lorin C. Woolley rather than supplying new details.” Briney says, “While this is disappointing because we have few newer details to consider and compare, it is also noteworthy because it implies that the major participants all concurred in the recitation of substantive events as portrayed by Woolley and Bateman. Consistency on these details lends greater credibility to the firsthand accounts.” So, we have these remembrances of Woolley’s teachings that are recorded after Woolley dies of his remarks about what he claims to have witnessed in 1886. And because people are remembering him talking about the same things, that means he was consistent in his story and thus it lends his story…credibility? If that weren’t enough, when there is a contradiction in one of these reminiscent accounts (and invariably there are several), instead of critically evaluating the sources, if it supports his thesis, Briney takes each statement at face value and tries to reconcile it with the larger narrative which inevitably leads to some remarkable mental gymnastics. By now, you see what we’re dealing with here.

So, what was that 3% about? Well, to his credit, despite his determination to take the reader down every possible rabbit hole of possibility of how Lorin C. Woolley’s story is 100% reliable, Briney admits that “There are no firsthand accounts from John Woolley or Lorin Woolley clearly explaining their claims to priesthood authority (and I think he’s actually a bit confused about what constitutes a first hand account as Lorin  is pretty well on record in 1929 and after about his claims to priesthood authority–I think he probably means no accounts contemporary to the events described).”  Briney concludes that for these areas, fundamentalists must rely on a spiritual witness for their belief. Other such admissions are sprinkled through the text. (It’s just that in spite of those, Briney will continue to his predetermined conclusions.) Also, Briney should be commended for, in a subject that is pretty well obsessed with details and documents, ferreting out new documents and presenting them, such as excerpts from John Woolley’s School of the Prophets Minutes (circa 1932-1934) which have not previously been used in research. I’m always up for ferreting out documents and presenting them for wider consumption. That’s to be commended.

So, the book is frustrating, tedious, and tangled. I suspect only the most devoted to the subject matter (or devoted to getting a free book) will have the patience to follow it. Because of the issues outlined, which are endemic, I cannot recommend this book as a reliable presentation or evaluation of early Mormon Fundamentalism. Further, as this genre typically goes (it deals in rampant speculation and faith claims), it does not deal with any issues that concern most mainstream historians. As this is entitled “Volume 1,” Briney has a volume 2 in the works. Back in 2009 it sounded like it was well advanced, so we’ll see. For that one, however, I may just have to pass.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews


Comments

  1. Wow. Jared’s willingness to pass up the potential of a free future book is by far the strongest condemnation of this one in his entire review. It means he anticipates absolutely no value, either historically or for collecting purposes, in a continuation of the present volume.

    There are times when I question an author’s use of sources, and I appreciate this examination of a type of misuse I haven’t yet recognized myself.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 29, 2011 @ 4:38 am

  2. Ouch.

    Comment by Steve Evans — July 29, 2011 @ 8:09 am

  3. The 1886 meeting is one of those events, like the writing of the ten commandments by the finger of God, or the “first vision”, which cannot be absolutely proven by physical evidence. In each case over time their authors gave additional details, and in each case they are fundamental to the formation of the faiths they spawned. Does this mean any of them didn’t happen? Being a Jew, Christian, Muslim, Latter-day Saint, or Mormon Fundamentalist expects a belief that they did (at least one them), and the confirmation of such faith to an individual is a question of spiritual verification.

    Hales writings on the subject use the same techniques as anti-Mormon literature: selective quoting, ignoring any evidence that doesn’t bolster his argument, misrepresentation, and diversion. They are written for mainstream Latter-day Saints who are looking for an excuse not to take Post-Manifesto polygamy seriously, or to Mormon Fundamentalists who are not well studied in their own faith, in an attempt to convince them to join the LDS Church. Both sides have their converts, and have their axes to grind.

    This does not mean that there is no value in studying the 1886 meeting and the authority claims that surround it. Indeed, others have not only shown the inconsistencies in Hale’s approach, but have tried to show that the setting, precedents, subsequent actions, statements of intention, doctrinal framework, and fulfilment of prophecies make a strong case for something like it having to have happened, and for the Woolley’s (and Batemans) to have been more reliable witnesses than the detractors of it.

    Yet in the end, like all spiritual events, including the original restoration of the Priesthood, we are left to consider, ponder and pray for ourselves. In our considerations though I hope we will look just beyond Hales or Briney. B. Carmon Hardy, Michael Quinn, Richard Van Wagoner, and others give us a good overview of the history and theology of those times, and the readers can judge whether Mormon Fundamentalists or mainstream LDS Church members are closer doctrinal successors to those early Saints.

    For those looking for another approach to defending the 1886 meeting may I suggest the one from Messenger publications (which contains a doctrinal approach and overviews, with a critique of J. Max Anderson’s early anti-Fundamentalist work, and all the available accounts from Woolley and others):

    http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/1886-priesthood-succession/6002431

    Comment by Messenger — July 29, 2011 @ 8:25 am

  4. Love it when readers miss the point entirely. Messenger, Jared hasn’t written one word to argue the validity or not of any point of faith. He discusses only the scholarship — mainly not — of the author’s presentation.

    If you don’t understand that, try this: Imagine that someone has drawn a map of the United States and gotten all the state names wrong and put the Mississippi River running east-west through Oregon. Jared writes a post pointing out the cartographer’s bad geography. You comment by bearing testimony to the divine origins of the U.S. Constitution and offering a Glenn Beck video to support your testimony.

    Well, okay — but utterly irrelevant.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 29, 2011 @ 9:18 am

  5. Thanks for the review, Jared. Can you provide any more information about the author and publisher? This isn’t my particular field of study, but I’ve never even heard of this book until now.

    Comment by Christopher — July 29, 2011 @ 9:30 am

  6. Thanks all.

    Messenger, yeah, what Ardis said. Your description of the book you show sound like it’s exactly the type of quagmire I’d just as soon avoid, so no thanks.

    Chris, I put up bibliographic info at the beginning. Doesn’t surprise me that it has a low profile.

    Comment by Jared T — July 29, 2011 @ 11:21 am

  7. My question: how does one actually silence polygamy?

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 29, 2011 @ 1:54 pm

  8. Glenn Beck is NEVER irrelevant, Ardis. Your point is invalid.

    Comment by Steve Evans — July 29, 2011 @ 2:43 pm

  9. You sound like Hitler, Steve. I’m not sure how, exactly, but you do.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 29, 2011 @ 3:07 pm

  10. Thanks, Jared. You could spend a lifetime trying pull the loose threads in this genre.

    Comment by WVS — July 29, 2011 @ 4:30 pm

  11. If Briney made pretensions to writing a scholarly work then perhaps he failed in his ambitions, and his book may be deserving of criticism in that area. However, I was trying to point out that Hales work is no less polemic and no more objective than the work that critiques it, but Briney’s may have some value as it is written from someone within the culture, in helping us to understand their rationale and perspective.

    Scholarly treatments hold themselves to a different standard than apologetic ones, and I – to this end – recommended such authors as Hardy and Quinn for their research. Yet such approaches have their advantages and limitations. Personal and spiritual experience can be studied of course, but it is difficult – if impossible – to objectively study and judge them using the same criteria. These are some of the limits of historical inquiry (especially when there are strong prejudices either way, or we are dealing with supernatural events).

    Comment by Messenger — July 29, 2011 @ 4:48 pm

  12. Messenger, ok, that’s more along the lines of something we can talk about profitably here.

    If Briney made pretensions to writing a scholarly work then perhaps he failed in his ambitions, and his book may be deserving of criticism in that area.

    He did and it is, but see my last few sentences below.

    Briney’s may have some value as it is written from someone within the culture, in helping us to understand their rationale and perspective.

    Briney himself doesn’t come out as Fundamentalist in the book and I don’t know how he identifies himself. It’s true enough someone’s personal narrative can be a text itself for examination and thus have value. I suppose this text could be that, but the scope would be limited to understanding how Briney himself reconciles these things because this book DOESN’T give a sense for any different groups or differences among them on interpretations of these points. Briney is giving a new synthesis-like narrative of the events and I understand he has points where he disagrees with the “standard” narrative of most current day groups, though I seem to remember there were one or two approving references to the Apostolic United Brethren (otherwise known as the Allred group). So I agree with the gist of what you’re saying there, but I think the value here is a lot more limited than you propose in its ability to be a primary text.

    I suppose also, for believers in Fundamentalism, he provides a potential pattern to follow in reconciling belief in Woolley’s testimony with the historical record.

    But even so, the issues I take are ones that would undermine any narrative whether academic or devotional or whatever. So, again, the usefulness of the book, to me, is quite limited in any context.

    Comment by Jared T. — July 29, 2011 @ 5:26 pm

  13. Why is it that this review says essentially what I would have expected, given the way this book was published and who it comes from?

    I actually like to see reviews of books from obscure publishers and authors. I just wish that I was surprised once in a while.

    Comment by Kent Larsen — July 29, 2011 @ 11:25 pm

  14. Jared T. (12) wrote “Briney himself doesn’t come out as Fundamentalist in the book and I don’t know how he identifies himself.”

    FWIW, I did find a reference indicating that the AUB have a lawyer named Briney helping them with perhaps he is the same person?

    Comment by Kent Larsen — July 29, 2011 @ 11:32 pm

  15. Looking around a bit, I found this review by Vickie Cleverly Speek, which is quite positive. I guess I’m not surprised that a book on such a controversial topic elicits a range of reviews (which is ironically true of Hales’s book, too).

    Also, is this Drew Briney the same guy who wrote Understanding Adam God Teachings?

    Comment by Christopher — July 30, 2011 @ 10:05 am

  16. Chris, yeah, I’m not sure what to make of that review, it’s like we read a totally different book. And yes, he’s the compiler of Understanding AGT.

    Hales’ book was pretty polemical, but I think his presentation of the data was less problematic and he gave helpful comparisons of views between groups and a helpful history of how each group developed. It definitely has its issues, but to me, it is the superior work, historically speaking.

    Comment by Jared T — July 30, 2011 @ 10:14 am

  17. Thanks, Kent. Briney is a lawyer, so that may be him.

    Comment by Jared T — July 30, 2011 @ 10:15 am

  18. Thanks for the review, Jared. I don’t know much about this stuff, so it’s nice to get help with navigating such a polemical topic.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 30, 2011 @ 10:32 am

  19. Thanks, Steve.

    I think I was mistaken in the review when I said I thought Briney had edited the School of the Prophets minutes. I was confusing that with the “Musser Book of Remembrance” which was released in the last year. I’m not familiar with it, but greater access to documents is a positive thing. That gives the last chapter that deals with the Woolley School of the Prophets some increased utility.

    I’ve just scanned back through that chapter, and it gives some interesting excerpts which do highlight how these early fundamentalists viewed their authority claims and questions of succession from Woolley. Unfortunately, these are quite brief excerpts and, as is typical of the rest of the volume, Briney uses the opportunity to excerpt some of Woolley’s somewhat muddled teachings about authority, takes that as correct, and then goes back into history to support Woolley’s claims.

    I hope that Briney will take it upon himself to edit those minutes and release them as they sound like they would paint a fascinating picture in their entirety.

    Comment by Jared T — July 30, 2011 @ 10:39 am

  20. Thanks, Jared. Does Briney give any indication where he’s going to take the second volume?

    Comment by David G. — July 30, 2011 @ 10:59 am

  21. Not sure, D.

    Comment by Jared T. — July 30, 2011 @ 3:39 pm

  22. Jared–

    Briney (in addition to the Musser Book of Remembrance) did edit and publish the Woolley School of the Prophets minutes. We had a few copies–as I recall they were published primarily for AUB folk–but they went pretty quick.

    Comment by Bryan — August 1, 2011 @ 11:14 am

  23. Thanks, Bryan. Good to know I wasn’t imagining it.

    Comment by Jared T — August 1, 2011 @ 11:38 am

  24. Sorry I’m late to the game. I’m an anthropologist at UCSD who did some exploratory fieldwork with the AUB in 2008-2009. I believe Drew Briney may have worked with the AUB on the appeals to the Virgina Hill case. I actually saw him share a testimony/advertisement for this book before it was printed in the fall of 2008. Hales’ book was all the talk back then and people were really wanting a reply. At the time he said that his research “proved” the 1886 meeting and Lorin C. Wooley’s priesthood claims were true. As you would expect he sold quite a few preordered volumes that day. I recall that he also said that it was part 1 of a 3 volume set. However, I doubt that will happen anytime soon, if ever.

    I never really got the full story about Briney’s religious status with the AUB. Membership there is pretty sticky subject as many AUB saints are still members of record with the LDS Church and like to keep it that way. I did get the sense that he was a bit of an outsider with the group, although very respected. He also didn’t really stick around for much of the meetings or socializing before and afterward (which was unusual, even Kody Brown, who was already in hot water back then, stuck around for those events).

    At the AUB general conferences in Bluffdale they sell a lot of the hard to find fundamentalist literature and many people from outside sects come just for the few book venders that set up tables on Saturday afternoon. Kevin Kraut, Ogden’s son, is a common sight. I can’t speak for Briney as I didn’t really get to know him at all but the AUB are in general are incredibly good people who have a inquisitive, albiet skewed, sense of Mormon history. Unfortunately, they’re just about as bad as most contemporary Latter-day Saints in recognizing the difference between good and bad scholarship.

    By the way, I have a copy of those minutes. Unfortunately, like the Musser’s Journals, Jeppson’s Diaries, and Briney’s edition of the Nutall Diaries, the Wooley Minutes seem to have been heavily edited. The Book of Remembrance is a pretty faithful reproduction because Brian Hales had already made most of the images of the original available at
    http://www.mormonfundamentalism.com/BORpages.htm

    Comment by Jordan H — August 13, 2011 @ 4:26 am

  25. 1. Thanks for finally getting the review done Jared – I’m not surprised to note that you didn’t bother to keep your word on getting this out until the book was out of print for well over a year (or perhaps 2). A follow up volume is close to completion and well over a year behind schedule.

    2. The Journal of Mormon History reviewed the book and apparently understood it to be a defense of mainstream Mormon history – interesting how you could not see it as such as you are obviously paranoid about anything that remotely challenges mainstream Mormon history. Perhaps they read a different book than you did as well.

    3. Several fundamentalist Mormons have expressed frustration that I did not “defend” their position. Perhaps they also read a different book. Others have been very disturbed about my printing the LCW School of the Prophet Minutes and Musser’s BofR because they feel that these books undermined their faith. I guess you see what you want to see.

    4. The date on the George E. Woolley letter itself states that it was written in 1891. As I recall, the original was copied by Max Anderson who was using it to show how Lorin C. Woolley was deluded at that early date. He of course does not note that the letter shows that LCW was making claims before 1929 (which by the way was not the first written account made by LCW as you suggest in your review); he uses it only to show that LCW was delusional early on. Later, he complained that LCW did not make his claims until many years later. I would be more than happy to make any legitimate date corrections that you claim to have found in the book (I myself have found one or possibly two) – it has been through three printings and will undoubtedly be due for another before this time next year when demand gets high enough again so please – offer me your corrections and I will be glad to correct the slightest error before I do another printing.

    5. To Jordan H: I have never said – nor would I ever say – that this book “proves” the 1886 events were “true.” I may have said that it offers much proof that some of the events happened or that the historical record supports a belief that some of the events happened but I would never say that they “prove” that all of the events were “true.” The only way to know if such claims are “true” or not is to obtain a spiritual witness – something which a book cannot do for you. In the book itself, I note that only faith can justify a belief in the ordinations of the men in question on September 27, 1886 – there is simply no historical “proof” that anyone was ordained. I would agree that there is little question but that the Sunday meeting occurred as reported in 1912 (not 1929 as Jared states in his review) and that what happened was relatively close to what LCW claimed – but I do not consider that meeting to be especially controversial as it had nothing to do whatever with priesthood authority.

    6. I have the original LCW School of the Prophet Minutes – any serious historian or author is welcome to compare them with the published version. I altered nothing – the edits that I mention in the book are things like substituting code numbers for individual’s names and expanding abbreviations to the full spelling (e.g., Sun. to Sunday, etc.). None of the edits are remotely substantive.

    7. You say: “Briney takes each statement at face value and tries to reconcile it with the larger narrative which inevitably leads to some remarkable mental gymnastics.” That is a fascinating statement to make when I repeatedly stress the lack of credibility of sources from Kunz/Bishop throughout the book and these are the sources that you are referring to. The retrospective statements are chalk full of contradictions with very few exceptions. Because the “affiants” were so willing to contradict each other, that does offer some credibility to their few statements that actually concur as to what was stated by LCW. In a courtroom, when two people vehemently disagree on multiple issues but do not disagree on a certain issue, the judge is often quick to believe the non-disputed issue.

    8. Thanks for noting that you were basically trying to get out of buying the book – I appreciate your candor even though it was intended as a slam.

    9. Your emotionally laden polemics in describing the book betray your own bias.

    Sincerely,

    Drew

    Comment by Drew Briney — August 31, 2011 @ 5:52 pm

  26. Thanks for stopping by, Drew. Good luck on future projects.

    Comment by Jared T. — August 31, 2011 @ 7:09 pm

  27. Drew. I stand corrected. I reviewed my fieldnotes and I think you’re interpretation of your speech is probably consistent with what I heard. I write in pretty good shorthand so I usually get what I need to reconstruct a discourse but I think you may be right. I still don’t think you were quite that articulate about it, as you only had only a few minutes to talk. What I have you saying is, “this provides proof beyond a reasonable doubt that these events did occur and that the writings of critics dismissing them as fiction are simply denying the truth.” I don’t have you mentioning a spiritual witness, but you weren’t sharing a testimony so that wasn’t out of the ordinary. I’m sorry if you feel that me abbreviating your comments didn’t accurately portray your position. You are probably right to insist differently.

    If my comment earlier didn’t make it clear, I deeply appreciated the time I got to have to know people in the AUB. I am quite convinced that most of the attacks on fundamentalists are ignorant and biased to the extreme (both of parts of the historical record and of the current state of Mormon fundamentalism). I’m not convinced by your book or your other work, but I do respect it and will continue to buy further publications. The biggest problem with your book and a lot of the research about Mormon fundamentalists is that the sources aren’t publicly available to check. I think priority number one should be to digitize original documents and try to get them in the public domain. There’s some really cool journals, letters, revelations, and minutes floating out there but very few people have access to the originals (beyond disgruntled exfundamentalists or current believers). It’s created an artificial polarization that is really regrettable. To a large degree that’s why it is virtually impossible for dedicated and professionally trained historians to take it up in a less biased manner.

    Comment by Jordan H — September 3, 2011 @ 4:49 am


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