“Mormon” Dissent: Gestures to the Past and my own Mormon Story

By February 22, 2012

Update on “The Mormon Body Project:”  I found skinny jeans.  Anyone who wants pictures can visit: http://scholaristas.wordpress.com/2012/02/22/the-skinny-on-the-hunt-for-skinny-jeans/

Last week, I attended a presentation at Benchmark Books by Will Bagley, Polly Aird, and Jeff Nichols on their new book Playing with Shadows: Voices of Dissent in the Mormon West.  They regaled the audience with stories of Ann Godge, a wife of John D. Lee who claimed that the Danites lived on top of caves and were willing to kill their own sons for infractions, Brigham Young Hampton, who tried to entrap several of Utah?s Gentile government officials in a prostitution ring and was instead arrested for running a brothel, and Charles Derry who could not bear the Mormon Reformation and was marginalized within his community.

As they were speaking I began to reflect on the stakes might be in labeling such people as Mormon dissenters.  Although these men and women had all once belonged to the Mormon faith, many of them had renounced Mormonism and considered themselves to exist in opposition to the church.  On the one hand, classifying them as Mormon dissidents seems to be a political statement that forces historians of the Mormon religious tradition to take voices of dissent seriously and to recognize them as belonging to the same history as men like Brigham Young and Joseph Fielding Smith.  One of the claims that Bagley, Aird, and Nichols made that night was that historians need to recognize the difficulties that everyday Mormons encountered as they tried to apply the principles of their faith to their lives.  While some people struggled through and remained within the faith, others decided to leave or to become figures of opposition.  Bagley, Aird, and Nichols want us to recognize that both options were valid.  On the other hand, to call someone like Godge Mormon does violence to the way that she saw herself.  Godge would have rejected the description and vehemently denied that it remained a part of her identity even after she had denounced the faith.  As historians, we need to think about the implications and politics of choosing certain descriptors for the people whose lives we are choosing to tell.

One of the reasons why this subject has been on my mind recently is the direction my research has taken.  I have been increasingly focused on the Fielding family, using their lives to move between the Pacific and Great Britain to see how race and gender informed Mormon missionary work.  During his teens, Joseph F. Smith carried on a correspondence with his cousin Josephine, who would later become known as Ina Coolbrith.  Ina was the daughter of Don Carlos Smith, Joseph?s brother, and Agnes Moulton Coolbrith.  After Don Carlos died of malaria, Joseph Smith married Ina?s mother in a Levirate marriage.  Agnes, however, refused to follow the Saints to Utah and eventually settled in California.  Ina and her mother appear to have continued to believe in Joseph?s status as a prophet.  They, however, rejected polygamy and Brigham Young?s claim to be Joseph?s successor.  In a letter to her cousin, Ina told her cousin that she could never go to Utah and that if could ?read and hear some of the stories I do, and had one iota of the true feelings of justice and mercy within your heart, they would make your blood run cold.?[1]  Ina also felt abandoned by the Mormon Church and insinuated that the church had completely forgotten those of them who had went to California.[2]

Reading Ina?s letters made me wonder about what it would mean to label her as a Mormon.  Her descriptions of her uncle Joseph Smith and her pride that the blood of the Smiths runs through her veins marks her as unmistakably Mormon.  Ina, however, felt resentful when the Mormon Church tried to claim her as ?Mormon? in the early twentieth century and would probably be resentful of such efforts today.  She wrote to her cousin that he did not understand the suffering she had experienced.  ?When one suffers persecution from their ?Faith,? she told him, ?is not suffering but joy; — but when one is persecuted for what one does not believe in, it is hard, indeed.?[3]  Her sister had been dismissed from jobs because of her connection to Mormonism.  Her mother had been ostracized, and they rarely heard from members of the church in Utah or even from their own family.  Ina asked her cousin why the church was trying to claim her now.  ?If it is because I have attained a trifling degree of eminence,? she said, ?it is not enough to reflect any glory on others.?[4]  To identify Ina unproblematically as Mormon is to dismiss her own experiences and suffering.

Identifying someone as Mormon is still a politically charged decision.  John Huntsman?s decision to identify as spiritual and not religious and his willingness to raise his daughters in a religion other than his own places him in an ambiguous position within the Mormon faith.  Moreover, it is often a personal one.  Part of the reason why I decided to write this post was that I had received a Facebook message from a friend asking why I was interested in Mormon history as a non-Mormon.  His personal reason for studying Mormonism is that he wanted to make a religious contribution to his faith tradition and perhaps effect positive change within it.  This desire to do right was part of what motivated him when graduate school was difficult.  Although he appreciated my work, he wondered how I could put spend so much time and energy into studying a faith tradition that?s not my own.

The answer is a complicated one.  I was born into an interfaith family.  Born into a family whose earliest convert to the church came into New York in 1832, my father had served as president of his high school seminary class and had dutifully attended sacrament meeting.  He decided not to attend a Mormon mission because his family could not afford it and the military offered him a chance for a college education.  My mother, on the other hand, was a Catholic.  As a sort-of compromise, I became mainstream Protestant.  Because of my family?s history, I feel connected to the Mormon community and my dissertation is partially a way of working out my demons with Mormonism.  I would never identify myself as Mormon and yet to put me in the category of a non-Mormon historian isn?t quite correct either.

I guess what I am asking is that historians be careful with the way that they employ the term ?Mormon.?  To do so without care can be to obscure rather than to illuminate. Perhaps one fruitful way to think about the term Mormon is to think about each person?s relationship with Mormonism and then to make that clear in the text.  Doing so allows us to write better and more complex histories.  If we think about the history of Fanny Stenhouse, for example, using the term carefully can change the way we position her and her contemporaries.  Women like Stenhouse allied themselves with the Gentile community in many ways and yet as Ron Walker has pointed out in his book on Mormon dissent, Stenhouse and other nineteenth-century dissidents wanted to reform Mormonism and believed that Brigham Young had led it astray from the faith that they had known in Great Britain.[5]  Exploring her history carefully opens up a way to think about Mormonism as a faith that was fractured and contested.  It was a tradition that different people tried to claim at different times and for different purposes.  I recognize that people mean a very specific thing when they use the term Mormon and that many people who belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will likely feel uncomfortable with stretching the term. Although I believe we as historians should recognize the integrity of the faith tradition and be sensitive to those who claim the label today, I believe it is also important to recognize that employing the term always invokes a politics of one type or another.  Using the term at once more capaciously and more carefully in our research more accurately reflects the actual richness and diversity of the tradition and the alienation and difficulties that some have had within the faith.

[1] Josephine ?Ina? Smith to Joseph F. Smith, July 22, 1857, Joseph Fielding Smith Correspondence, 1854 ? 1918, Typscript, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, UT.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Josephine ?Ina? Smith to Joseph F. Smith, July 30, 1908, Joseph Fielding Smith Correspondence, 1854 ? 1918, Typscript, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, UT.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ron Walker, Wayward Saints: The Godbeites and Brigham Young (Urbana-Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press,1998)

Article filed under Biography Reflective Posts


  1. Amanda,

    This is a great post. Thank you for making me think! 🙂

    I believe you are correct; that Ina did not think of herself as a Mormon. It seems that she did think of herself as a Smith. Much like Joseph and Emma Smith’s sons thought of themselves.

    Some of my favorite letters are the Smith cousin letters. They may be the most interesting of all Mormon connected letters I have read.

    Comment by Joe Geisner — February 22, 2012 @ 8:00 pm

  2. Great, great stuff, Amanda. Thanks for the important reminder and the glimpse into your own life, history, and interest in Mormonism.

    Comment by Christopher — February 22, 2012 @ 9:35 pm

  3. This is fantastic stuff, Amanda. It definitely gives me a lot to think about as I prepare my MHA paper on Edward Tullidge.

    Identity politics is such a fascinating topic.

    Comment by Ben P — February 23, 2012 @ 4:00 am

  4. Amanda, this is fascinating. Your story reminds me of that of Tom Simpson, whose (IIRC)father had also been raised Mormon, but for various reasons had not remained active as an adult and married a a non-Mormon. Tom does not identify as a Latter-day Saint (I believe he’s Methodist), but he wrote his dissertation on Mormons in higher education during the late 19th/early 20th century since he was so fascinated with that part of his ancestry.

    I know your own autobiography was not the main point of the post, but thank you for sharing it, since it does illuminate things greatly.

    Comment by David G. — February 23, 2012 @ 10:09 am

  5. Concerning your own autobiography, Amanda, I would say that your coming from Blackfoot has more significance than any religious affiliation.

    Comment by Ben P — February 23, 2012 @ 10:27 am

  6. Joe, I find the Smith cousins fascinating. I hope to be able to go to Independence one day and look at the material they have on the relationships between the cousins. What I find most interesting in the letters to Ina is that in one Joseph tells Ina not to think of him as a lover. I wish I knew more about what he was referring to.

    David G, Ha! I am also Methodist. Perhaps there’s something about religions whose names being with M. It would be interesting to see how many non-Mormon historians have Mormon heritage and how many don’t. I am betting that their relationship with their parents, family, and the church makes a significant difference in their scholarship. My parents are divorced now, and my little sister is being raised Mormon. Whenever I write something, I write knowing that she might read it and it could have an effect on her faith.

    Ben, you make me laugh. I would hug you for that comment if I could. The Eastern Idaho State Fair remains a point of pride with me. My constant hope is that one day I will return and be able to take my husband there.

    Comment by Amanda HK — February 23, 2012 @ 1:06 pm

  7. Jan Shipps is Methodist, too. Perhaps JS was more right than he knew when he told Peter Cartwright, “We Latter-day Saints are Methodists.”

    Comment by Christopher — February 23, 2012 @ 2:11 pm

  8. There’s a research project for you Chris, after you finish that mammoth dissertation–do former Mormons tend to become Methodists, just as former Methodists tend to become Mormons (at least in the 1830s)?

    Comment by David G. — February 23, 2012 @ 4:25 pm

  9. Fascinating article… and well written Amanda. I was at the Benchmark book signing and presentation too. It was a truly a worthwhile and entertaining event. Perhaps I missed it, but I did not get the impression that Ann Gordge was described by any of the three editors as anything but a woman who no longer wished to be identified as a Mormon, once she parted ways. I would surmise that dissidents take all kinds of paths after becoming such. Some stay within the movement and try to change it. Some want nothing to do with it and definately don’t want to be identified with the movement any longer, but can’t they all be dissidents?

    For example, I am a great grandson of John D. Lee, grew up in the faith in Utah, served a mission, married in the temple… and then left it on philosophical and historical grounds a few years later. I definately have not wanted to be identified as a Mormon since that time. I’m ok with ex, or former Mormon, but I am not a Mormon. Once I made my own choice with all faculties and thinking in gear, I chose to go a different path.

    Anyway, your article did cause me to think about a lot of things and I believe you are right about the need for historians (and the rest of us) to be careful in regards to how we label or categorize others, especially those who can no longer speak for themselves to set the record straight. I purchased an autographed copy of the book at the event, though I have only had the time to get through about 20 pages. As I finish reading, I will be looking for innapropriate labels.

    Comment by Rodger — February 23, 2012 @ 6:24 pm

  10. I appreciate your voice and insights very much. Thanks for this personal glimpse into your scholarship.

    Comment by Liz — February 23, 2012 @ 8:13 pm

  11. As I told an interviewer for a show called “People & Power,” being Mormon is worse than being Jewish: if you are, you are, and it’s pointless to deny it. I haven’t believed for going on fifty years–my Mom said my brother and I walked down the hill to the East Mill Creek wardhouse and asked to have our names removed at ages 8 and 6–but I identify myself as a Mormon. What I believe is that religion began when the first knave met the first fool, a phenomenon especially relevant to my religious tradition.

    Comment by Will Bagley — February 23, 2012 @ 10:52 pm

  12. Rodger, it’s not that I think that such labels are inappropriate or that they can’t all be dissidents, but that the talk caused me to think about the politics of using the word Mormon. Such terms are always ambiguous and loaded with meaning. Rather than having historians stop using the word “Mormon,” I would like them to think about who is applying the word at times and why. What point are they making in employing it in such a way? What boundaries are they drawing?

    Will, I agree in many ways that it is impossible to escape the Mormonism once you’ve been born into it, but I also want to create a space in which people choose their identities and groups.

    Comment by Amanda HK — February 24, 2012 @ 1:24 am

  13. Good luck on that project. I’d be interested in what you make of “Shadows” and the experiences of the people who lived in the created space variously called Zion, Nauvoo, and Deseret. As for drawing boundaries to define the proper use of the term Mormon, I’ll happily ignore them.

    Comment by Will Bagley — February 24, 2012 @ 9:15 am


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