Book Review: The Missouri Mormon Experience

By December 15, 2010

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.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Cultural History


  1. If preparing a collection of essays is difficult, reviewing one is hopeless.

    Very, very true. This is a helpful and worthy review nonetheless, Ryan.

    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.

    An astute point.

    Thanks for the overview and reflections.

    Comment by Ben — December 15, 2010 @ 10:26 am

  2. Thanks for the thorough and thoughtful review, Ryan. Good stuff.

    Comment by Christopher — December 15, 2010 @ 10:50 am

  3. Thanks, Ryan. Could you say a bit more about Romig and Rigg’s strong reading of D&C 64 and how it fits into their thesis?

    an area of Mormon history without definitive monographs.

    It is worth noting that there is a pretty good monograph on the 1838 conflict, Stephen C. LeSueur’s The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri, which tried hard to forefront Missouri sources (which hasn’t settled well with some Mormon historians), as well as two published dissertations (Gentry and Baugh). There are also important unpublished dissertations on Mormon settlements in Jackson, Clay, and other counties, most recently Mark Ashurst-McGee’s dissertation on Zion. Admittedly, MO hasn’t received the same attention as Nauvoo, which has two or three solid monographs and a handful of other more specialized works, but neither has Kirtland (one solid monograph, Heaven’s Resound, and a few other important specialized works like Hearken, Oh Ye People), or NY (Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, Porter’s published dissertation, and a few solid unpublished MA theses like Ashurst-McGee’s and Jensen’s). So while I agree that there is still a lot of work to be done on MO, especially from a more mainstream academic viewpoint, I think it’s not quite the scholarly backwater as you suggest.

    Comment by David G. — December 15, 2010 @ 11:05 am

  4. Great review, Ryan. Thank you. I second the request for more on Romig and Rigg’s interpretation.

    Comment by Jared T — December 15, 2010 @ 11:20 am

  5. Thanks. I had not a few questions about this volume and this clarifies things a bit.

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 15, 2010 @ 12:27 pm

  6. You make a good point, David. I went through the historiography trying to get a sense of this, and it doesn’t get expressed very well in what I’ve presented here. There is some stuff out there. LeSueur is a good example, although it’s dated now and deals only with northern Missouri. There’s also the volume from the RS Center, Regional Studies in Church History: Missouri, which has some good stuff. And scores of very good articles. What struck me is that there’s not much that coheres, no clear overall picture. This makes for limited access. I guess I was also thinking in terms of university press coverage; I’d love to see some of those dissertations (I’m thinking specifically of Ashurst-McGee) brought into better view.

    Actually, part of the review I had to exclude was my response to Spencer’s argument that nothing has been done that really takes the “Missourian” perspective seriously. I point out LeSueur (which seems a very odd oversight, given that it also came from UMissouri Press). Bushman was pointing this out fifty years ago, and Steven Harper wrote a great article on Missouri cultural identity in MHS in 2008, which Mormon Missouri Experience seems to have entirely overlooked. And there’s other stuff, too. So your point is well taken.

    And you are certainly right about Kirtland; I think it’s on the up (Staker) but I would like to see it get more independent attention.

    Comment by Ryan T. — December 15, 2010 @ 1:07 pm

  7. Romig and Rigg’s piece is actually quite provocative. It gives a relatively dramatic account of the way LDS regarded Zion (Jackson County), and worked to redeem it, especially while still in MO.

    The argument from the reading of D&C 64 (basically) is this:

    A revelation on September 11, 1831, explained that key leaders should remain in Kirtland for the next five years and thereby allow God the opportunity to soften the hearts of ‘the wicked’ Jackson County residents. Following the 1833 forced removal to Clay County, the exegesis of the earlier 1831 revelation morphed into a retrospective spiritual rationalization to rally support for a second effort to reclaim Jackson County by September 11, 1836.

    You’ll have to check out D&C 64 to see what you think of this reading.

    The prophecy then, the argument goes, forms the basis for a shifting timeline of prophecy as the Saints wrestle with how to understand Zion and the timeline of its redemption. It also comes to form the core of a coordinated effort toward redemption five years later. Eventually, as it becomes clear that this effort will not be realized, alternative renditions of Zion appear. Interestingly, the authors see the settlement that Alexander Doniphan and the church’s other lawyers reached in Missouri courts (re recourse for the Missouri displacement) “without the consent of their clients” as a turning point. This not only was financially harmful, but, the authors say, cause Mormons to “physically and spiritually disengage from…their hoped-for return to Jackson County.”

    There’s certainly something here. The evidence they collect sheds some important light on evolving attitudes toward Zion (Jackson County). It also helps to understand the consequences of confusion over prophecy. Not enough scholarly attention – to my knowledge – has been given to interpreting the Saints’ understanding and experience in that context.

    But the argument about a centrally coordinated “campaign” supposedly empowered by the prophecy, which the article sketches out in very clear-cut terms, is too forceful on my reading. Important revision, but now needs balance.

    Comment by Ryan T. — December 15, 2010 @ 1:41 pm

  8. Thanks, Ryan. That’s very odd that Spencer doesn’t acknowledge LeSueur. I co-presented a paper (along with Mark Ashurst-McGee) at JWHA in 2005 at a session that included Spencer, and LeSueur was the respondant. Baugh was in the audience, which gave the session a bit of an odd feel. Judging from Spencer’s tone, he liked Baugh’s take on things a lot more than he did LeSueur’s, which may suggest a reason for the oversight.

    I know that Harper was planning on doing a whole book on Jackson County, but I’m not sure what the status of that is now. The MHS article was part of that larger project. I agree that Mark needs to get his dissertation into print. The last time I talked to him about that, he said he wants to but doesn’t have a lot of extra time right now to get it into shape. But it has the potential to really impact how we see not only MO and Zion, but also early Mormonism.

    I’ll have to check out Romig and Riggs’ chapter, as it sounds very intriguing. I hadn’t made the connection between the date of D&C 64 and the planned 1836 redemption, which is very interesting.

    Comment by David G. — December 15, 2010 @ 2:14 pm

  9. I thought it odd that the volume generally overlooked LeSueur too. He’s not entirely missing, as Harper is, but he only shows up in Baugh’s article briefly and in a couple of footnotes.

    Comment by Ryan T. — December 15, 2010 @ 4:03 pm

  10. And I just put the book’s title in the right order in the post’s title. Good grief, it’s a slippery one.

    Comment by Ryan T. — December 15, 2010 @ 4:16 pm

  11. Can someone post the abstract from Mark’s dissertation? Thanks. I agree that Missouri is an interesting period in many respects. As I recall there’s also an old book by a non-Mormon who was a librarian in Missouri if memory serves–it was a pretty pointed rejection of Mormon views of the action. Written in the 1980s I think. And then of course there’s the Secretary of State report that was contemporary and is circulating.

    Comment by smb — December 15, 2010 @ 4:24 pm

    The dissertation explores the early social and political thought of Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of the Mormon religious tradition. The research is based on a close study of Smith’s scriptural and personal writings, augmented by historical sources produced by his early followers and others. Smith’s thought is also set in the broader context of early American cultural and political history.

    In his youth, Joseph Smith experienced the revivals of the Second Great Awakening and the denominational competition for converts that followed in their wake. Confused and upset by doctrinal disputes, Smith sought for religious truth directly from God. In addition to answering his questions, his early visions and revelations foretold that the contention in American society would escalate into violence, war, and destruction. But Smith also proclaimed that a new nation, called Zion, would arise. Further revelations established Zion’s laws and government and conceived a new balance between individual freedom and social harmony.

    Joseph Smith directed his followers to migrate to Jackson County, Missouri, where they attempted to stake out Zion’s territory. He prophesied that Zion would grow in size and power as America and the nations of the world fell to ruin. In the short term, Smith’s plan was to fill the county with his followers and take the reins of local government through ordinary democratic channels. Once in power, the Mormons could make a political space for themselves in which to live by divine law.

    The early settlers of Jackson County resented the Mormon community’s solidarity, its growing numbers, and the swagger of its overzealous nationalists. When the Mormons became a real political threat, the early settlers forcibly drove them from the county. The magnitude of their losses in land and improvements required the Mormons to seek aid from the state of Missouri in returning to the county. Joseph Smith had to accommodate the Zion project to the broader political landscape. The effort to reoccupy their land, which never succeeded, led to a tenuous reengagement with American political culture.

    Comment by David G. — December 15, 2010 @ 4:29 pm

  13. thanks.

    Comment by smb — December 15, 2010 @ 5:33 pm

  14. Sam, you may be thinking of Kenneth Winn. He is not a Mormon, was formerly the Missouri State Archivist and wrote Exiles in a Land of Liberty, Mormons in America, 1830-1846 (UNC Press, 1990). He was involved with the MME conference. I don’t know that he gave any special focus to Missouri in his book, but LeSueur’s The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri (U Missouri Press, 1987) would fit the bill of a non-Mormon interpretation that raised hackles.

    Comment by Ryan T. — December 15, 2010 @ 7:35 pm

  15. No, it’s not Winn. His Exiles is a great book. The one I’m remembering was a slender volume that focused mainly on documents rather than interpretation per se. I think I even bought a copy, but this was 15+ years ago. I’ll say if it comes to mind. And it’s not LeSueur either. (blasted memory)

    Comment by smb — December 15, 2010 @ 9:10 pm

  16. Gary Beahan, comp., Guide to the Mormon War Papers, 1838-1841 (Missouri State Archives, 1980)?

    Comment by Ryan T. — December 15, 2010 @ 11:35 pm

  17. I seem to remember looking over the Beahan thing, and it’s just a pamphlet put out by the MO state archives describing the content of the papers. I’m not sure what smb is remembering, but I don’t think that’s it.

    Comment by David G. — December 15, 2010 @ 11:37 pm

  18. I think I reconstructed the memory. It was John Hallwas, and I was merging a conversation (in which he laid out this view of the need to revise Mormon accounts of conflict in Missouri and Illinois) with his brief biography of Thomas Gregg and his later anthology on the Illinois Mormon War. I apologize for letting memories from about 1995 lead us down a primrose path. Thanks for trying to jog the memory.

    Comment by smb — December 17, 2010 @ 9:34 pm

  19. As a side note, I’ve notice several people point to Jennings’ 1960s dissy “Zion is Fled” (e.g., Mark in his recent dissy and the recent Nauvoo Legion volume). Anyone know if it is worth plowing through?

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 17, 2010 @ 10:17 pm

  20. Other than MAM’s dissy, it’s really the only substantive work on Jackson County. He spun a few of the chapters fromt the dissy into articles, which are identified in MAM’s intro. I think it’s worth looking at, with some of MAM’s critiques mind. For example, MAM argues that Jennings, not unlike other works from the period such as Flanders, didn’t delve deeply enough into the religious impulses driving the Zion project. Also, Jennings bought into the post-JC expulsion narratives that present the Saints as 100% American, whereas MAM contends that the BoM and revelations don’t show the Saints as all that patriotic prior to 1833.

    Comment by David G. — December 17, 2010 @ 10:47 pm

  21. I wouldn’t say I ignored LeSueur entirely. He’s in the notes. My point was that academic historians had not dealt with Haun’s Mill and the motivations behind Missourians’ role in Haun’s Mill and the Mormon War seriously. Much of the academic scholarship in Missouri history tried to blame it on the Mormons or ignored it altogether.

    Nice discussion by the way. Good stuff.

    Comment by Tom Spencer — January 31, 2011 @ 10:57 am

  22. I agree with Tom, excellent review Ryan and follow-on discussion. I wish Steve LeSueur had been part of the 2006 conference in Jefferson City and then part of this volume. Ron and I sent him early drafts of our paper for comment and he was supportive and helpful in our efforts. If you want to see LeSueur taking about MO-MO history though get a copy of recently released DVD “Trouble in Zion” where he is featured along with Alex Baugh, Richard Bushman and others. Steve Harper’s paper placing Missouri Mormon history in the context of Jacksonian America at the conference was outstanding, but I think he published it elsewhere before this anthology came out. Ron Romig had a lingering interest in the September 11, 1836 date for the return to Zion prophecy. I showed him a letter written by a Jackson County trader from 1836 which claimed the Mormons were planning to invade and try and redeem their Zion. This is what started our work together on this project. The 2006 conference gave us a deadline to finish it! One last note, thank goodness Tom Spencer was willing to pick up the ball and carry the anthology project to completion…a couple of times there it looked like the project was not going to happen. He did a great job sticking to it and getting us all to revise and submit our chapters. Thanks Tom.

    Comment by Michael Riggs — February 6, 2011 @ 10:49 am

  23. Thank you, Tom and Michael, for dropping by. As you saw, your work provided grounds for some important discussion.

    Comment by Ryan T. — February 7, 2011 @ 1:23 pm


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