Mormon Studies in Unexpected Places: Volume III: The Refiner’s Fire Edition

By January 20, 2016

Bone HunterThis is the third installment in an ongoing but terribly irregular series dedicated to the appearance of Mormon Studies in popular media, including musical lyrics, popular television shows, movies, and so forth. Previous installments can be read here and here.

A friend recently tipped me off to a series of books by Sarah Andrews, in which Wyoming-born geologist Emily ‘Em’ Hansen uses her geological skills to help solve murders in various locales throughout the western United States.[1] The third installment in the series, Bone Hunter, takes place in Salt Lake City and Snowbird, Utah, where the annual meeting of the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology is being held.[2] Here’s Publisher’s Weekly’s summary of the plot:

Em is working as a petroleum geologist when George Dishey, a famous paleontologist, invites her to speak at a conference in Salt Lake City. Flattered, she accepts, although she knows little about his specialty: dinosaurs. Em is Dishey’s houseguest when he is savagely murdered, and her status as prime suspect leads her to launch an independent investigation of her host’s death.

Given the location’s geographical setting, it comes as little surprise that Mormonism and Mormon characters feature centrally into the book’s plot — there’s scattered references to the Book of Mormon, a scene at Temple Square, family home evening (complete with priesthood blessings [paging J.  Stapley]), and a secretive polygamist cult, to name just a few such instances (even Mormon Tea gets a mention). What is surprising, though, is the reference to one of the most controversial books published in the field of Mormon Studies, John L. Brooke’s The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844.[3] When Em Hansen is first brought to police headquarters to recount her whereabouts the morning of the murder (and the night before), she explains that “I slept only seven hours. I don?t sleep well in strange places, so I read for a while.”[4] When the detective queries her on what she was reading, she answers, “The Refiner’s Fire,” which elicits an unexpected reaction from the uniformed officer assisting the detective:


I heard Officer Raymond shift suddenly. I rolled my head toward him and looked at him. His lips had parted. He was surprised, and looked into my eyes for the first time, looked deep inside, as if he expected to find someone he knew in there, someone who’d been missing for years. Recovering himself, he looked away and spoke to the detective. “Refiner’s Fire. By John L. Brooke.”

Now it was my turn to gape. The Refiner’s Fire was a thick scholarly tome on the roots of Mormon cosmology. I had found it on the bookshelf in my room. I had selected it expressly because it had looked dry and brainy enough to put me to sleep. What was a rank-and-file cop doing reading it?

Now the detective smiled his geek smile at Officer Raynond. “One of your church books. Ah.” (15-16)

At this point, the detective presses Hansen further, about how long she read, what she ate for breakfast, and what time she left the house after finally rising that morning. The assisting officer’s reaction to the revelation concerning her reading material has her worried:

Now I colored, a nice red blush from collarbone to scalp. If Officer Raymond knew about books on Mormon cosmology, he was sure as hell going to have an opinion about my reasons for tarrying another hour before setting out to my car. (16)

Not bad, huh? It’s not everyday you see a murder mystery (or any novel) go beyond stereotypes of Mormons and their Salt Lake home base to include references to important works of Mormon history. But the early references to The Refiner’s Fire don’t end in the book’s earliest chapters. As Hansen sets out on her own investigation of Dishey’s death, she is accompanied by Officer Raymond, whose combination of good looks, religiosity, and reading habits make him nearly irresistible:

I wanted to lift my hand and touch his check, run a finger down the strong bones of his nose. I had to be out of my mind. He probably had a wife and half a dozen kids at home, wondering where he was. Yes, of course. He’s Mormon, isn’t he? He knew The Refiner’s Fire, not your everyday reading matter, and he lives in Salt Lake City, the Mormon stronghold. And if cigarettes or alcohol have ever passed those incredibly healthy lips, I’ll eat his badge. (70-71)

Together, Hansen and the healthy-lipped Mormon police officer discover that George Dishey was less than honest in his motivations and intentions. Not only had he never scheduled Hansen to present at the Snowbird conference, but he also was guilty of multiple other moral shortcomings and sins, in both his personal and academic lives. While reflecting on what he might have intended with her before his murder and continuing to fantasize about her new crush, Em Hansen returns to her reading material on the making of Mormon cosmology:

I flicked on the bedside lamp and tried reading for a while. I had swiped the copy of The Refiner’s Fire from George?s house with this thought in mind: If I found I couldn’t sleep, it would surely knock me out again. But it didn?t. This time, it drew me in because I wanted to know what Ray believed, wanted to know how he could believe it.

I read for close to three hours, and discovered two things, both of which I found disturbing: First, the author presented evidence that suggested the founder of the Mormon Church (Joseph Smith) had been a conjurer, a money digger, and a “bogus maker” — in modern terms, a con artist. Nowhere in the text did the author presume to state whether or not Smith was conscious of his purported capacity for fabrication, or whether or not he believed everything he said. In unpleasant ways, Smith began to remind me of George Dishey in his rather charismatic ability to draw people to places he wanted them to go, leading his faithful from New York to Illinois, and attempting to lead some other men’s wives to bed[.] ? But George was also a Ph.D., and widely published, a huge presence within the profession of paleontology. Which was he, saint or sinner?

Second (and this was tougher for me), I had to conclude that whatever else Joseph Smith had been, he had also been inspired, and adept at matters of the psyche and perhaps the soul that I preferred not to contemplate. I prized my own ability to embrace ambiguities, but the idea of a flawed human with godly powers of transcendence left me scared and angry, and stokes my insomnia worse than a strong cup of coffee. Was this corruption of power, or a case of evolution from the profane to the profound? (74-75)

More than mere detail to the story’s backdrop, then, Brooke?s book provides a lens through which Hansen understands and interprets Officer Ray’s religious beliefs and George Dishey’s creepy patterns of behavior.

The Refiner’s Fire makes one final appearance later in the book. While staying at the home of Officer Raymond?s mother (along with Nina, George Dishey’s young, na├»ve, and terrified love interest, who hailed from a violent polygamist sect), Em awakens in the middle of the night, notices Nina is missing, and immediately runs out the back door to the family’s pool, where she finds Nina drowning. Em dives in and saves her life. While the protagonist attributes the stroke of intuition to a combination of “dumb luck” and her quick-thinking abilities as a scientist, Ray offers an alternative explanation:

“Think about it Em: You didn’t wake up all the time she was moving about the room getting dressed and making the bed, but you must have come awake the instant she fell in, or she’d be dead now.”

“Oh, so now you think I’m psychic?”

Ray’s eyes flashed. “Not psychic — connected.”

“What are you talking about?”

He set down his glass and reached his hands across the table, palms up, a beckoning, an invitation. “You read The Refiner’s Fire. This is the alchemy he writes about. This is the magic!” (193-194)

It isn’t clear whether the officer is offering this, um, rather interesting interpretation of Brooke’s argument as implicit approval of the rather controversial claims Brooke makes linking Joseph Smith to European alchemical traditions dating back centuries, or simply the efforts of a believing Mormon to explain the LDS concept of personal revelation to a person whose understanding of Mormon theology is based largely on Brooke?s book. Indeed, Ray is somewhat difficult to make sense of throughout the book. But I suppose that’s to be expected of a Salt Lake City Police Officer who reads fairly dense academic histories of early Mormon theology in his spare time, huh?


[1] Hansen is essentially a younger, female, and Westerner version of Robert Langdon. Only her training and research is in an actual academic discipline. Or, since Sarah Andrews’s Em Hansen novels predate Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, perhaps we should say that Langdon is a slightly older, more WASPy, and male version of Em Hansen. Only his training and research is in a fictitious discipline.

[2] Snowbird is also the exact location of the 2016 meeting of the Mormon History Association (!!), so you may want to rethink the invitation from that famed Mormon historian to stay as his or her houseguest this June.

[3] Brooke’s book was awarded both the Bancroft Prize from Columbia University and the Best Book Prize from the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, but was rhetorically ripped apart by most historians (and apologists) of Mormonism (though it failed to follow in the footsteps of the last volume featured in this series, which remains the sole recipient of MHA’s Worst Book Award). Our own Ben Park organized an excellent retrospective panel on the volume at last year’s MHA meeting. If you were unable to attend or have not yet read the published papers, take the time to do so now.

[4] Is seven hours not a lot of sleep for geologists, paleontologists, and/or Salt Lake City-based detectives? Because man, seven hours sounds pretty incredible to this sleep-deprived historian.

Article filed under Book History Cultural History Current Events Popular Culture Theology


  1. I’m pretty sure this is the most important post JI has ever published.

    Also, I must find a way to fit this into MHA’s Snowbird conference this summer. Perhaps Em Hansen and Officer Raymond are available for a plenary lecture…

    Comment by Ben P — January 20, 2016 @ 6:34 am

  2. This is great. Thanks, Christopher. Any idea why the author selected Refiner’s Fire?

    Comment by Jeff T — January 20, 2016 @ 10:16 am

  3. Thanks, Christopher. The late 19th and early 20th centuries had some literature that fairly well described aspects of LDS lived religion not included elsewhere. I’m interested in the note you made about blessings.

    A fun game might be to pick a book about a particular religion/philosophy to be a plot point in a murder mystery. Aristotle’s second volume of Poetics got tapped by Umberto Eco, albeit in a more central role.

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 20, 2016 @ 10:56 am

  4. I have a not-so-secret passion for cozy mysteries and am ordering this book right now. Remind me to write about Lee Martin’s Mormon genealogy murder sometime (not even set in Utah! and it’s the detective that’s Mormon, not the sinister murderer! And if I remember correctly, the DAR comes into play somewhere too, and they talk about polygamous ancestors barring you from membership into the DAR. Hot stuff).

    Comment by Saskia — January 20, 2016 @ 11:38 am

  5. This is so weird/good. Thanks, Christopher!

    Comment by J Stuart — January 20, 2016 @ 12:14 pm

  6. Thanks, everyone.

    Jeff T. — the author thanks several people in the acknowledgments “for assisting me in better understanding the history, faith, and practice of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” including at least one historian of American religion (not a specialist in Mormonism). My guess is that said historian recommended Brooke’s book, which had just been released a few years earlier and was garnering all sorts of attention.

    Stapley, here’s a transcription of the blessing bit. It comes at the close of a family home evening:

    Ray nodded to Enos, who rose and followed him over to the miniature rocking chair in which Timothy sat sniffling. Enos put his hands on the child’s near shoulder.

    “Dear Heavenly Father,” Ray said, “I ask that you bring the bounty of renewed health to Your son Timothy.” Ray opened the vial and poured a drop of oil on the crown of his sniffling nephew’s head. He closed and pocketed the vial, placed both hands atop the child’s head, and closed his eyes for a while. “In Christ’s name, amen.”

    “Amen,” said his family.

    Ray and ENos then moved to Nina. “Dear Heavenly Father—” Ray was interrupted as Nina slid off the couch and knelt in front of him, eyes closed, arms folded in prayer. The women’s eyes widened at what was apparently an unusual posture for receiving a blessing. Ray said, “Dear Heavenly Father, we ask that You shine Your special light upon Your daughter, Nina, that she may grow in your love and kindness. Help her to know Your plan for her. Enfold her in Your comfort in this, her hour of need.” He anointed her head and placed his hands upon her flaxen hair. Enos put his hands on her shoulder. “In Christ’s name, amen.”


    Then Ray turned toward me. He stared out through the open doorway at me, a silent invitation to come and be blessed. A few heads turned, watching me in curiosity.

    My feet were frozen to the ground.

    Ray bowed his head again, and said, “Dear Heavenly Father, we ask a special blessing also for Your daughter Emily Hansen, that she may also know Your deepest love and guidance in the days to come. In Christ’s name, amen.”

    “Amen,” said the family.

    I could not respond. My lips had frozen, too.

    Comment by Christopher — January 20, 2016 @ 4:01 pm

  7. Awesome, Saskia. Please report back on what you think. And yes, please write about the Lee Martin book!

    Comment by Christopher — January 20, 2016 @ 4:11 pm


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