Guest Post: Jeff Turner, “Early Mormon Conversion: Method, Multiplicity, and Madness”

By June 25, 2015

[Today’s guest post comes from Jeff Turner, who recently completed a master’s degree at Claremont Graduate College where he worked with Patrick Mason in the Mormon Studies Program. This fall he will be a PhD student in history at the University of Utah.]

Mormon_baptism_circa_1850sAs far as I can tell, it?s been at least a year since JI has featured a post on conversion, which means that it?s time for us to take a trip back in our Delorean and uncover a topic that might be forgotten under a layer of dust.

Take, for example, two stories of two different English converts to Mormonism in the 1850s. First, in 1853, an Englishman attended his first Mormon meeting, encountered religious enthusiasm, and converted: ?At this meeting, a testimony meeting, one young woman spoke in tongues and many of those present bore their testimony to the divine mission of the Prophet Joseph Smith. This was something new to us and had a great impression upon our minds as being the truth and reasonable? So we were then and there baptized by James Woods in the baptismal font of the chappel yard? We attended meetings as often as circumstances would permit and our minds began to be lit up by the Holy Spirit which caused our hearts to rejoice.?[1]

Second, 100 miles away, another Englishman attended a Mormon meeting, encountered religious enthusiasm, and also converted to Mormonism: ?In prayer meetings, I have heard men and women get up and talk an unintelligable mass of gibberish for three or four moments and then some one also would get up and profess to interpret the same.? Even in spite of this fakery our second convert continues, ?After attending their meetings for sometime and becoming thoroughly infatuated with their preaching, I was baptized by immersion in the River Colne.?[2]

When taken at face value, these recollections seem to point to similar events (Englishman attends meeting, bumps into religious enthusiasm, reacts, and converts). Scholars may even point to comparable economic factors,[3] generational and traditional biases,[4] and theological underpinnings[5] as variables that predisposed these two converts to the Mormon message and led to the point of conversion.[6] Others might suggest that Mormonism supplied the two with a unique opportunity that other religions couldn?t offer. A regional study could shed light on both ends of attraction for the two Englishmen; attempting to combine the answers to the questions: what predisposed these men to Mormonism? And what did Mormonism offer that other religions didn?t? That is, why Mormonism in particular?[7] These are helpful questions with important methodologies that shed light on the nature of conversion in early Mormonism, and could shed light on our two seemingly similar situations.

But one story isn?t like the other, and employing any one of these methods might miss that fact. The world of Mormonism that our first convert inhabited was vastly different from the one that our second convert failed to remain in. One operated on external experiences, religious authority, and participation in a sacred community for religious truth-making while the other depended on reason, democratic values, and the pluralistic nature of truth and its hidden-but-accessible relationship with the universe. Although the comparison isn?t perfect, one convert might as well have been Hume and the other Descartes.

What, exactly, was the Mormonism that these two converts approached so differently? Studying early Mormon conversion as microhistory suggests that the freelance and ad hoc nature of early Mormon missions allowed for a diversity of conversion experiences.[8] As a result, it seems likely that, for many early converts, Mormonism was a live option because of a variety of trivial and momentous reasons: some individual, some social.

Since multiplicity marks early Mormon conversion, we ought to employ various methodologies to study it; otherwise we run the risk of masking the above two conversion stories with superficial sameness. The question is: whither now, Mormon conversion studies? I look forward to the future avenues that our scholarly community ventures into.


[1] William Jex, autobiography, Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah, 2.

[2] Stephen Forsdick, autobiography, Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah, 5.

[3] See, for example, Whitney Cross, The Burned Over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1950), Mario S. De Pillis, “The Social Sources of Mormonism”, Church History, 37 (1968): 50-79, and Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).

[4] John L. Brooke, The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994) and Val D. Rust, Radical Origins: Early Mormon Converts and their Colonial Ancestors (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004).

[5] Marianne Perciaccante, “Backlash against Formalism: Early Mormonism’s Appeal in Jefferson County”, Journal of Mormon History, 19 (1993): 35-63, Steven C. Harper, “Infallible Proofs, Both Human and Divine: The Persuasiveness of Mormonism for Early Converts”, Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, 10 (2000): 99-118, and Steven J. Fleming, “The Religious Heritage of the British Northwest and the Rise of Mormonism”, Church History, 77 (2008): 73-104.

[6] This is based on JI?s own Stephen Fleming?s historiographical framing in Steven J. Fleming, “”Congenial to Almost Every Shade of Radicalism”: The Delaware Valley and the Success of Early Mormonism”, Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, 17 (2007): 129-64.

[7] Methodology that is best shown in Perciaccante, “Backlash against Formalism,” Polly Aird, “Why Did the Scots Convert?”, Journal of Mormon History, 26 (2000): 91-122, and Fleming, “”Congenial to Almost Every Shade of Radicalism.””

[8] David J. Whittaker, “The Web of Print: Toward a History of the Book in Early Mormon Culture”, Journal of Mormon History, 23 (1997): 1-41, Steven C. Harper, “Missionaries in the American Religious Marketplace: Mormon Proselyting in the 1830s”, Journal of Mormon History, 24 (1998): 1-29, and Polly Aird, “Without Purse or Scrip in Scotland”, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 39 (2006): 46-69.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. This is good stuff, Jeff. What recent scholarly works on conversion do you feel capture at least a glimpse of the type of direction you’d like to see?

    Comment by Ben P — June 25, 2015 @ 6:35 am

  2. Thanks, Ben. These aren’t within Mormon Studies, but two works that I keep returning to are The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion and Kathryn Lofton’s Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon. They ask religious studies questions and employ a hodgepodge of methods in creative and productive ways where previously conversion studies have typically been relegated to sociology/anthropology or history.

    For Mormon Studies, I’d like to see studies move somewhere between Rodney Stark’s Rise of Mormonism and Craig Harline’s Conversions: the microhistory necessarily informs the macro for Mormonism, but the macro has always been told in terms of anomalous success, and often in terms of church growth.

    Maybe we need an informed intellectual history of Mormon conversion… or conversion in American Religious History, unless I’m totally missing something, neither of which have been written.

    I’d love to hear what others here on JI think and envision.

    Comment by Jeff T — June 25, 2015 @ 7:49 am

  3. In reading this, I got to thinking not entirely about the interesting yet somewhat impossible question of why Mormonism in particular, but more about conversion narratives. As a convert myself, I’ve heard a variety of conversion stories over the years, and I’m interested in the common patterns found in these accounts. And within the LDS church, you can add deconversion narratives to the list too–I find it all fascinating.

    Thanks, Jeff!

    Comment by Saskia — June 25, 2015 @ 7:53 am

  4. Thanks, Jeff, and welcome! Could you say a bit more about the Jex and Forsdick autobiographies that you juxtapose at the beginning? Any idea when they were written, and what their status in the church was at the time? My sense is that Forsdick was writing after after he had left the church, whereas Jex was still in good standing, which shaped how they described their respective conversions.

    Comment by David G. — June 25, 2015 @ 8:09 am

  5. Thanks Saskia, me too!

    Thanks David.

    You are absolutely right. The accounts are very retrospective, and as a result most definitely shaded their memories of their experiences. Jex remained a Mormon for his life, and had little trouble adapting to Utah. Forsdick was out of Mormonism by the time of his writing, having been disillusioned by polygamy and Brigham Young’s brashness. His departure impacted his secular and democratic thinking, but I also think the reverse is true. I chose these two accounts for rhetorical reasons.

    I’d use different sources and diary accounts for a paper, but I think the historiographical point is the same.

    Comment by Jeff T — June 25, 2015 @ 8:23 am

  6. Amen amen amen. “Multiplicity marks early Mormon conversion.” Thanks Jeff. Been thinking about this a lot while reading conversion narratives across Mormonism’s first century at the CHL. Multiplicity is right. I love Stephen Fleming and Steve Harpers’s work on early Mormon conversion, but I think, like you, that some studies should explore the multiplicity (itself) of reasons as ably as those studies have searched for the main reason Mormons (or Mormons in certain regions) converted. As for future studies, how about a truly diachronic study? I wanna see how the multiplicity of conversion to Mormonism evolved over the first hundred years in response to the wider culture of conversion and in response to developments within Mormonism itself (JS death, succession, migration, public polygamy, manifesto, Reed Smoot, etc.) As for context, have you looked at Lincoln Mullen?s work? He?ll email you his dissertation if you ask (and it?s fantastic), and his database is awesome:

    Comment by Bradley Kime — June 25, 2015 @ 10:04 am

  7. Mullen’s now-book-manuscript does aim to be a history of conversion in American religious history.

    Comment by Bradley Kime — June 25, 2015 @ 10:07 am

  8. Thanks Bradley. Good suggestion, a diachronic study would be genuinely insightful. Thanks a million for the reference, I hadn’t heard of Mullen’s work: of course now I can’t wait to read it.

    Comment by Jeff T — June 25, 2015 @ 10:45 am

  9. Ditto re: Lincoln Mullen’s awesomeness and intellectual generosity.

    I’m struck by the importance of gender in both accounts: tongues-speaking by “a young woman” (Jex) and by “men AND women” (Forsdick) both seemed to impress and/or motivate the converts to take action in short order. Presumably, in part, because these weren’t ordinary or familiar scenes, and they suggested to those present that this was no ordinary church. Even when unintelligible or untranslated, glossalia (of/by women in particular??) was a sign for seekers, and one which in this case persuaded two very different people to cast their lot with the Saints, at least for a while.

    Comment by Tona H — June 25, 2015 @ 12:37 pm

  10. Great post, Jeff. I’m wrapping up an article on baptism that overlaps into this topic a bit; I discuss briefly how the practice of baptism helped to define the conversion experience and how the event itself often exhibits some of psychological and social tensions that were endemic to conversion.

    Comment by Ryan T. — June 25, 2015 @ 12:40 pm

  11. Thanks for the comment and the keen eye, Tona. I missed the gendered aspect in both accounts, a mistake that won’t happen again! Maybe “feminine” spiritual gifts played a large role in facilitating the social networks that early Mormon conversion often occurred in.

    Thanks, Ryan. Interesting stuff, I look forward to reading your article.

    Comment by Jeff T — June 25, 2015 @ 1:23 pm

  12. Thank, Jeff. These are good thoughts and of particular interest to me. One other piece you’ll want to keep an eye out for: Chris Allison has an article forthcoming in JMH on early conversions in Boston, and does some important work with the spatial dynamics of the city and the location of various converts.

    Comment by Christopher J. — June 25, 2015 @ 4:14 pm

  13. Thanks, Christopher. The heads up is much appreciated.

    Comment by Jeff T — June 25, 2015 @ 5:07 pm

  14. Interesting, Jeff. Harper and I were both responding to Hatch’s and DePillis’s assertions of “depravation” as a factor in early Mormon conversions. So for me, at least, the issue was more of studying the issue of early Mormon success than it was of treating conversion as the topic itself.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — June 26, 2015 @ 9:26 am

  15. Thanks, Steve. Good clarification: most of the footnoted studies are in conversation with one another, and it’s my mistake to have lumped them together without specifying the terms and goals of their individual studies.

    Thanks for your work! It was the go-to starting point for finding what others have written and for thinking about the framing of my thesis.

    Comment by Jeff T — June 26, 2015 @ 11:16 am

  16. This all sounds very interesting, Jeff. Good look and I’ll try to think about some of the issues you raise as I work on my Philadelphia book.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — June 26, 2015 @ 11:57 am

  17. […] [Today we are happy to have the second post in our guest series from UofU-bound-PhD student Jeff Turner. Make sure you didn’t miss his first post last week.] […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Guest Post from Jeff Turner: “Nineteenth-century Gathering: A Translocative Opportunity” — July 3, 2015 @ 4:58 am

  18. […] incoming PhD student at the University of Utah. See his previous posts on early Mormon missions here and […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Guest Post: Jeff Turner, “The First Vision in Mormon Missions” — July 23, 2015 @ 4:49 am


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