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.