Spencer, Thomas M, ed. The Missouri Mormon Experience. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2010. x + 187 pp. Illustrations, maps, endnotes, index. Hardback: $34.95; ISBN 978-0-82-621887-2
Back in September of 2006, historians of Missouri and of Mormonism met in Jefferson City, MO for a somewhat unusual conference co-sponsored by two local organizations: The Missouri State Archives and the Columbia Missouri Stake of the LDS Church. As its title suggests, ?The Missouri Mormon Experience: A Conference of History and Commemoration? was intended to be simultaneously a historical venture and a social act ? intended to ?understand the troubles of the 1830s as well as to promote understanding between Mormons and non-Mormons in the state today.? It commemorated the 25th anniversary of the rescindment of Lilburn Boggs? Extermination Order by Gov. Kit Bond (1976).
Now the University of Missouri Press has now published the historical fruits of this conference in a volume, The Mormon Missouri Experience (2010). Thomas Spencer, a historian of Missouri culture and someone largely unknown to Mormon historians, is the volume?s editor. As all edited volumes do, the book attempts to assemble and relate an eclectic group of essays (a vexing task), addressing a variety of topics that revolve around the time and the place: mid-nineteenth century Missouri.
If preparing a collection of essays is difficult, reviewing one is hopeless. Still, this post attempts to offer a review and some brief reactions to the volume. It offers some thoughts on the editorial strategy Spencer has applied, and some initial reflections on the value of project. First, though, I?ve included (very) brief overviews of the individual essays. Naturally readers should look at them much more carefully and consider them on their full merits. My efforts to keep this overview short have largely failed; feel free to browse.
Kenneth H. Winn, ?The Missouri Context of Antebellum Mormonism?
Winn?s article perhaps best exemplifies Thomas Spencer?s broadest vision for the project (see below). As the author of Exiles in a Land of Liberty: Mormons in America, 1830-1846, Winn has written about Mormons directly, but here his interest in Mormonism here serves a different end. The fundamental argument he offers is that ?the Mormon War (in Missouri) framed the thinking of an entire generation of young men in western Missouri, and helped frame it for violence.? Winn departs from conventional interest in how the violence surrounding the Mormons may have derived from its frontier culture. Instead he assigns conflict with the Mormons a formative role. Using it as genesis, rather than terminus, he asserts that it had a determinative effect in establishing a culture of violence in the Missourian paradigm that would play out later.
Ronald E. Romig and Michael S. Riggs, ?Reassessing Joseph Smith?s ?Appointed Time for the Redemption of Zion??
Romig and Riggs?s objective is to address Mormons? second, ?lesser known? campaign to retake Zion (Jackson County) after their expulsion and after Zion?s Camp. Assembling a considerable body of evidence, they sharply outline the strategy of this effort, contending that it had coordinated political, propagandistic, financial, and other components. They argue forcefully that this campaign was concerted, ?comprehensive,? and deliberate, and that it was something of which both Mormons and non-Mormons were well aware. The failure and quiet disappearance of this campaign was a consequence of a ?failed prophecy? of Joseph Smith, and ? like students of Millerism ? the authors briefly attempt to employ theories on the social effects of failed prophecy. Their arguments about the functions of Joseph Smith?s prophecies pivots on a very strong reading of a revelation on September 11, 1831 which many will find contestable.
Grant Underwood, ?Mormonism, Millenarianism, and Missouri?
Underwood brings his expertise on Mormon millenarianism to bear on the Missouri context, exploring the way that Mormons? anticipations of apocalypse impinged on the period?s relations and conflicts. The article starts (very) broadly, but eventually comes down to an application of Mormon premillennial sentiments to the Missouri context specifically. It offers some lesser-known but potent evidence to demonstrate the strength of Mormon eschatology in the period on and its implications for their experience in Missouri; for instance, their experiences of persecution and their conceptions of other Missourians and Americans.
Richard O. Cowan, ?The Great Temple of the New Jerusalem?
The historian of LDS temples, Richard Cowan, contributes a highly interesting account of the life of the idea of a temple complex at Independence, from inception to present. Starting from the initial conceptions of Zion, Cowan follows the idea through the platting of Independence in 1833, traces the commentary on the subject of Church leaders (especially Orson Pratt) from a distance in Utah, mentions the interest of Utah LDS in wranglings over the Temple Lot in Missouri, and concludes with the contemporary, somewhat conflicted interest in the ?Center Place? and its Great Temple in the modern era and the global Church. The article is an excellent assemblage of the information related to the idea, though it is all only lightly handled. It is (as far as I know) reproduced from his essay of the same name in the 1994 edited volume, Regional Studies in LDS History: Missouri.
Alexander L. Baugh, ?The Mormon Temple Site at Far West, Caldwell County, Missouri?
Baugh gives a straightforward history of the Far West Temple site, characterizing Far West as a vital if short-lived site of Mormon history. He relates how the movement for a temple there was locally initiated, then tempered by Joseph Smith. He also gives a full account of the ceremonious temple site dedication on July 4, 1838 (where Sidney Rigdon gave one of his assertive sermons), as well as the stealthy reconvention of the Twelve at the site before their departure to England. Baugh then watches the site as time moves on, describing how the disaffected John Whitmer and then his son deferentially kept the site unaltered and eventually sold it back to the Church. The personal passions of Joseph F. Smith, Alvin Dyer, and Samuel O. Bennion, the article relates, ultimately motivated reacquisition and then the improvement of the site. Baugh reflects on the reasons why the LDS Church has invested in and maintained a site that would appear remote and inconsequential.
Thomas M. Spencer, ??Was This Really Missouri Civilization??: The Haun?s Mill Massacre in Missouri and Mormon History?
Spencer?s sprawling article has many aims, including an even-handed narrative of the Haun?s Mill Massacre, a review of how it has figured historiographically in both Missouri and Mormon History, and an assessment of its significance for the broader question of Missouri cultural identity. Spencer offers a minute account of the event and its surrounding details, offering alternative interpretations on some points and constructing a narrative that often empathizes with but does not excuse contemporary Missourians. He draws the element of Mormons? responsibility in the conflict into fuller light and also introduces new evidence based on an analysis of Missouri land claims, arguing that ?land hunger played a large role in the Haun?s Mill Massacre.? Addressing the historiographical aspects of the massacre, the article works to dismiss lingering (Mormon) myths. It also reminds that Mormon histories, which have hitherto been the most prominent voices about the event, are highly partisan. Finally, it comments on how Haun?s Mill has taken on mythic proportions in the LDS mind.
Jean A. Pry and Dale A. Whitman, ?But for the Kindness of Strangers: The Columbia, Missouri, Response to the Mormon Prisoners and the Jailbreak of July 4, 1839?
The article by Jean A. Pry and Dale A. Whitman is based on a close reading of two accounts of the jailbreak: that contained in Parley Pratt?s Autobiography and one written by Mary Phelps Rich, the daughter of another Morris Phelps, another prisoner. The authors highlight the contrast between the treatment that Mormons received in western Missouri and that received by the Parley Pratt contingent of Crooked River prisoners in Richmond and then Columbia. The article shows substantially different attitudes toward Mormons in different parts of the State, and speculates at the causes for the difference. It also proposes a counterfactual circumstance, suggesting that if the Saints had tried to settle in the center of Missouri, rather than in the west, their experience may have been dramatically different.
Richard E. Bennett, ?Lessons Learned: The Nauvoo Legion and What the Mormons Learned Militarily in Missouri?
Bennett?s interest rests in how the Missouri conflict and Mormon militarism in that conflict (Zion?s Camp, the Danites) influenced later military efforts among the Saints. Missouri, he says, provided ?models how not to run a militia.? Instead, it inclined Joseph Smith and other Church leaders toward transparency in their military initiatives and to act within the appropriate legal and administrative channels. Missouri experiences also induced Joseph to take a more prominent role of militia in Nauvoo, and reinforced the Saints? commitment to undertake military action only in self-defense.
Fred E. Woods, ?Between the Borders: Mormon Transmigration through Missouri, 1838-1868?
Building on his previous work on the explosion of the steamboat Saluda on the Missouri River in 1852, Woods? article looks at Missouri in the wake of Boggs? extermination order and after the Mormons? exile. It examines post-exilic interactions between Missourians and Mormons, asking if antipathy continued between the groups, and how. By looking at a number of instances around the state, Woods determines that the extermination order was not enforced as a statute after the Saints left and that while the Mormons continued to receive ill-treatment from some, they generally went unmolested.
Now just a few words on the volume as a whole. The editorial vision that Spencer brings to the book is a worthy one. He intends it, he says, to move past the blame and caricature that dominates historical accounts and has been perpetuated in previous scholarship, and to start to genuinely engage the ?noxious blend of cultural and social causes? underlying the conflict. There is much to be gained if this can be done, Spencer suggests. For instance, the conflict can show the ?true state of religious tolerance? on the American frontier during the period, which indeed seems promising.
At the same time, Spencer is also interested in the exceptional fact that the history of the Mormon-Missourian conflict has been written by its losers. Mormon historians, he observes, have dominated the historical discussion, and Spencer suggests that he also sees the volume as an effort to achieve a better balance. Given his view of the field, the effort to reinstate the voices of non-Mormons to the conversation becomes a major element, and his goal of broad cultural analysis encounters competition.
So while the book aims at balance and inquiry into the larger cultural conditions concerning both Mormons and non-Missourians alike, a good deal of the scholarship still carries the flavor of the old debate, and devotes its best energy into contesting the established narratives (righting historical wrongs). Ron Romig and Michael Riggs, for instance, give an energetically revised interpretation of Mormon attempts to return to Jackson County after the dissolution of Zion?s Camp Spencer. Spencer himself spends a good deal of time providing a revisionist account of the massacre at Haun?s Mill and reinterpreting its proximate causes. He spends less explaining how the aspects of the event can be read as symptoms of larger cultural pathologies. Whatever the merits of the revisions offered, they consume a great deal of the volume?s energy; as a result, the vision of broader, genuine cultural analysis is sometimes neglected. This is, naturally, more true of some essays than others.
Without question, the volume contributes important insights and even a degree of coherence to an area of Mormon history without definitive monographs. Missouri, for some good reasons and some not, is rarely regarded as a theater of Mormon history in its own right, and is instead often treated as a time and place of transition. Inspired by historians of Missouri culture, the volume attempts to approach a specifically Missouri history, a impulse that may be useful and stimulating for Mormon historians as well. The volume also represents an important step toward connecting two generally disparate literatures ? the history of Missouri and history of Mormonism. Scholarship can only benefit when scholars from each group will read the other?s work. With a few Missouri historians working on Mormonism in Missouri, Mormon historians will now have someone to engage. This volume initiates that process.