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Biography

Rediscovering Fanny Alger Custer

By July 31, 2018


In Mormon history circles, we know Fanny Alger Custer by her birth name, Fanny Alger, and almost exclusively speak of her relationship to Joseph Smith in terms of the early history of plural marriage. She has mattered to Mormon history because of controversy surrounding this relationship, and just as briefly as the relationship may have lasted, so briefly does Fanny make an appearance in the history of the Kirtland period. The question of early Mormon polygamy overshadows the collective concern over Fanny’s life as an early Latter-day Saint woman.

But some sources do allow us to consider her independently of Joseph Smith and even get a sense of a more complete biography. I’m working on a paper that gives priority to Fanny’s perspectives and life details, and then reconsiders her relationship to Mormonism and Joseph Smith in light of those perspectives. Here is a highlight from the longer essay, something stunning from Fanny herself—her own voice.

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From the Archives: Black Internationalism in 19th Century Salt Lake City; or a Haitian-born African American in Utah Reports on the Fourth of July, 1873

By July 4, 2018


NOTE: The original version of this post was based, in part, on faulty research, for which I take full blame. What appears below is a revised version (with a slightly modified title).  There is no documentation identifying either Francis or Martha Grice as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Believing, however, that the source shared below is still sufficiently interesting and important, I’m keeping the post. A copy of the original can be seen here

I’ve been slowly making my way through Paul Ortiz’s new book, An African American and Latinx History of the United StatesIn a chapter on the Cuban Solidarity Movement of the 1860s through the 1890s, Ortiz quotes an 1873 letter from “an African American in Salt Lake City,” published in the black-owned newspaper, The Elevator.[1] Curious to learn more (and anxious to see if there were any clues where the SLC correspondent was a Latter-day Saint), I searched for the original letter in the digitized version of the paper (courtesy of the California Digital Newspaper Collection), and to my great delight, discovered that it was written by Francis H. Grice, a “mulatto” artist, miner, and restauranteur who moved to Salt Lake City in 1871.[2] 

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Summer Book Club Week 2: Chapters 3 through 6

By June 13, 2016


per86---D1-page-163---088-088-emma-smith-full            Welcome to week 2 of this Summer’s Book Club. We’re reading Mormon Enigma, and this week’s post focuses on four chapters: “Gathering in Ohio, 1830-1834,” “Seas of Tribulation, 1834-1838,” “Strife in Missouri, 1838-1839,” and “Sanctuary in a Swamp, 1839-1841.” For the first two chapters, see Robin’s helpful post for week 1.

 

The next four chapters of Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippett Avery’s Mormon Enigma focus on Emma Smith’s experience throughout the 1830s. Emma’s life during this time period was marked by transition: she trekked over one thousand miles, lived in at least seven different households (that’s after I started counting), birthed six children (and adopted three more), hosted countless “boarders” who passed through her homes, and earned money from home economics, to trade, to real estate. And she was faithfully married to a religious prophet who polarized nearly everyone he came into contact with. In spite of Emma Smith’s many accomplishments and fortitude, her inner life is hard to get to. Sources are simply scarce, and seeing Emma Smith the individual becomes murky through the refracted and power-laden narratives that constitute Joseph Smith’s history. I read these chapters with these thoughts in mind, and this post will survey and suggest some ways into Emma Smith’s life.

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Review: Kyle Walker, William B. Smith, In the Shadow of a Prophet

By June 1, 2016


41e28E-Qn7L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Kyle R. Walker, William B. Smith: In the Shadow of a Prophet. Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford, 2015. xiv, 639 pp. Photographs, two appendices, notes, sources, index; ISBN 978-58958-505-1.

Kyle Walker has further solidified his position as the leading expert on the Smith family with this extensive biography of Joseph Smith’s troubled younger brother, William. In meticulous detail, Walker describes William’s life as one full of conflict: with his brother Joseph and other church leaders during Joseph’s lifetime, with other claimants to leadership after Joseph death, with William’s own followers when William made his own claim, and with William’s numerous wives almost all of whom left him. As one-time follower Edmund Briggs declared, “Everybody that knew William Smith, and worked with him, rejected him” (409).

Walker begins the book with a description of uncle Jesse Smith, the cantankerous family member that threatened to get an ax if anyone said anything about the Book of Mormon. Walker wonders if there was an inherited family trait that would explain William short temper, his refusal to compromise or let things go, and his perpetual self-focus.

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The JI 2nd Annual Summer Book Club: Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith

By May 23, 2016


Last year, we at the Juvenile Instructor started a Summer Book Club on Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. The posts garnered thousands of views, many helpful comments, and publicity from the Salt Lake Tribune and the Religion News Service. I received notes from friends, acquaintances, and perfect strangers who benefited from reading along with us. It was extremely gratifying to hear from folks that found a reason to tackle such an important biography.

In the spirit of introducing non-specialists and non-academics to Mormon history, we have decided to read Linda King Newell’s and Valeen Tippetts Avery’s Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith.  We landed on Mormon Enigma for several reasons. First, we wanted to address the history of women in Mormon history. There are very few books on women in Mormonism, far fewer, at any rate, than books on men’s actions, thoughts, lives, and decisions. For instance, there are several biographies on Joseph Smith but only Newell and Avery have written a biography of Emma Smith.

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From the Archives: A Jewish Perspective on Mormon Undergarments (and more), circa 1853

By May 19, 2016


Carvalho_autoportretIn September 1853, John C. Frémont embarked on his fifth and final overland expedition of the American West. Accompanying the noted explorer on his final journey was Solomon Nunes Carvalho, a South Carolina-born Sephardic Jew of Spanish and Portuguese descent. Carvalho was an accomplished painter and photographer, and in spite of having a wife and three children at home, eagerly “accepted [Frémont’s] invitation to accompany him as artist of an Exploring Expedition across the Rocky Mountains.”[1] 

Over the course of the next year, Solomon Nunes Carvalho traveled with the Frémont expedition “across the Great American Desert,” including an extended stay in Utah, where he spent three months recovering from sickness. Unfortunately, almost all of the sketches, paintings, and daguerrotypes from Carvalho’s journey (including several from his time among the Mormons) are no longer extant, evidently destroyed in a fire. But an account of his journey was published in 1856 as Incidents of Travel and Adventure in the Far West, a volume that proved popular enough to go through several additional printings on both sides of the Atlantic.

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Ronald W. Walker: Historian, Mentor, and Friend

By May 11, 2016


Ronald W. Walker left an indelible impression on many Juvenile Instructor bloggers (and friends of the JI). For some, it was primarily through reading his work or hearing his conference presentations. Others of us got to know him on a more personal level, and we have contributed brief tributes below, reflecting on Ron as a historian, mentor, and friend.

Brett D. DowdleJoseph Smith Papers

I was saddened to learn of Ron?s death.  The first time I read one of Ron?s articles was in 2006, when I read ?Crisis in Zion: Heber J. Grant and the Panic of 1893.? I was instantly captivated.  Ron had a way with words and a command of research that few historians ever approach.  In June 2008, I was privileged to meet him for the first time, beginning a long friendship as he kindly took me on as a research assistant for his biography of Brigham Young.  At the time he hired me, I was an inexperienced graduate student and historian, but he kindly worked with me to teach me how to become a proficient researcher.  While working with Ron, my understanding of and appreciation for the early Utah period grew exponentially as we discussed the topic in his office.  Up to the very end, Ron was dedicated to research and writing, and was pushing forward with his work on Brigham Young.

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Eliza R. Snow as a Victim of Sexual Violence in the 1838 Missouri War– the Author’s Reflections on a Source

By March 7, 2016


Perhaps you have heard or read that I gave a talk called ?Beyond Petticoats and Poultices: Finding a Women?s History of the Mormon-Missouri War of 1838? at the Beyond Biography: Sources in Context for Mormon Women’s History conference at Brigham Young University.  My paper sought to address the history of how women experienced the violence in Missouri, particularly as victims of sexual violence.  As part of that research, I examined the case study of Eliza R. Snow as a possible victim of a gang rape that might have left her unable to have children. Eliza R Snow I looked at a few of the rapes and attempted rapes in Missouri, recalled by various witnesses, legal testimonials, and personal accounts, with a discussion of why women are not specifically named in most sources. The scarcity and limitation of sources has presented historians with the difficulty of uncovering a history of sexual violence in Missouri, and of identifying actual victims. So I concluded with an examination of a primary source that amazingly came to me only three weeks prior to the conference, via a colleague who received it from a member of the family where the source is held. That source gives a description of Eliza’s rape, and its larger meaning in Snow’s life and possible motivations for her polygamous marriage to Joseph Smith.

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Black Mormons and Friends in Chapel Hill and Durham, North Carolina, Part III

By February 25, 2016


This is the third and final post in a series chronicling the experiences of the The Friends of Latter-day Saints of African Descent support group in Chapel Hill and Durham, North Carolina. Part one and part two can be read here and here.

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Friends of Latter-day Saints of African Descent, August 2011.

Friends of Latter-day Saints of African Descent, August 2011.

Another purpose of the Friends meetings is to provide instruction. Most black members in the Durham Stake tend to be converts to the Church, many of them having converted fairly recently. Every month a theme is chosen and one person appointed to direct the conversation or to provide a lesson. Themes include “outreach,” “fellowship,” “true v. false doctrine,” or “being a black Mormon today.”[1] In September 2011 Brother Isaiah Cummings taught a lesson titled “Blacks in the Bible.” Brother Cummings has apparently written a book on this subject but has been unable to find a publisher. I was not present at this meeting but Christina shared with me a copy of his lesson outline and it is also posted at the group’s Facebook page. In that lesson he taught that “When you begin to look at ‘Biblical History,” it is important to realize that the world had two (2) beginnings: The World ‘before’ the Flood and the World “after” the Flood. Hence, the Black Race had two sets of Parents: 1) Cain and his wife and 2) Ham and his wife Egyptus.” The lineage Brother Cummings constructs to illustrate the history of Blacks in the Bible is supported by scriptural references to the Bible and the Book of Abraham in the Mormon book of scripture, the Pearl of Great Price.

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Black Mormons and Friends in Chapel Hill and Durham, North Carolina, Part II

By February 24, 2016


This is part two of a three-part series chronicling the experiences of the The Friends of Latter-day Saints of African Descent support group in Chapel Hill and Durham, North Carolina. For part one, see here. Part three will be posted tomorrow morning. 

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Isaiah Cummings presents a lesson on "Blacks in the Bible," Friends of Latter-day Saints of African Descent, September 2011.

Isaiah Cummings presents a lesson on “Blacks in the Bible,” Friends of Latter-day Saints of African Descent, September 2011.

The Friends Group arose out of the African American cultural celebration as the brainchild of Brother Lee Cook, a white member of the Durham 1st Ward. Lee grew up in Richmond, Virginia, as a Southern Baptist. He described his younger self as a hippie and college dropout who joined the Air Force, which is where he met missionaries and joined the LDS Church. After moving around with the Air Force and then living for a while in New York, he returned to the South. It was exciting to see all of the changes that had occurred since the Civil Rights movement occurred, he explained. Yet, he noticed that, in many places, there was still that separatio: a “wall of partition,” he called it. So he started visiting black churches as part of his own quest to overcome that partition and he became very spiritually impressed (a common Mormon term for inspiration from the Holy Spirit) “that the Lord has a great work for us to do together.” Then he met Christina and after one of the African American cultural celebrations she confided in Lee that, as he remembered her statement (which he shared with her permission), “this is the only day I feel good as a black Latter-day Saint.” So, to remedy that sense of loneliness that she and presumably other black Latter-day Saints in the stake feel throughout the rest of the year, he proposed the organization of a support group, “so instead of once a year, once a month.”[1]

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