Mormonism in Howe’s What Hath God Wrought, Part 2 (Concluded)

By March 7, 2009

In my previous post on Howe’s What Hath God Wrought, I discussed Howe’s treatment of Mormon history from the 1820s through 1838. This post will complete my analysis of Howe by examining his discussion of Nauvoo, the exodus, and early Utah history. Let me just reiterate the point of my earlier post-Howe, unlike other historians who treat Mormonism in synthesis histories, has taken the time to get the details right and to engage contemporary Mormon scholarship. Just as he situated early Mormonism in Chapter 8 (“Pursuing the Millennium”) with other millenarian groups in the Early Republic, Howe in Chapter 18 (“Westward the Star of Empire”) includes Nauvoo and Utah within the wider contexts of Manifest Destiny, California, Oregon, and the Mexican-American War. In addition, Chapter 19 (“The War Against Mexico”) includes brief passages on the Mormon Battalion (pp. 758, 760-61), and Chapter 20 (“The Revolutions of 1848”) briefly relates Mormon participation in the discovery of gold in California (pp. 813-14).

In contextualizing Mormon history within the western migration, Howe again shows careful attention to detail. Although he omits crucial texts from his footnotes (e.g., Glen Leonard’s Nauvoo, Richard Bennett’s We’ll Find the Place, and Kathryn Daynes’ More Wives Than One), his treatment of this period remains nuanced and balanced. For example, in his discussion of the founding of Nauvoo, Howe states that the name is “a word that he [i.e., Joseph Smith] (correctly) informed his people meant ?a beautiful place’ in Hebrew,” a conclusion that Howe reached by consulting a Hebrew dictionary as well as a rabbi (p. 723n49). In another place, Howe refers to Smith as “Joseph,” explaining in a note that “Mormons usually refer to the prophets Joseph Smith and Brigham Young by their first names, and historians also often follow this practice” (725n58). Although Howe’s discussion of groups that did not follow Young west is brief, Howe does mention Joseph Smith III and notes that “in 2000, the Reorganized LDS Church changed its name to the Community of Christ. They no longer call themselves Mormons” (p. 727n61).

Howe also gives special attention to Mormon women in this section. He uses an Eliza R. Snow poem to describe the Saints’ reaction to the Martyrdom and provides a short biography of Snow (p. 726). He later notes that during the exodus “the women cooked, washed, and gathered buffalo dung for fuel” (p. 728). Although Howe neglects Daynes’ work in his discussion of polygamy, he does rely on Todd Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness, Lawrence Foster’s Women, Family, and Utopia, and Claudia Bushman’s Mormon Sisters. He concludes that

evidence of dissatisfaction with their situation among plural wives is less widespread that we might expect. Some women enjoyed their independence when their husband was living with his other families; others resented having to rear their children largely by themselves. Some felt jealous of the other wives, but sisterly affection was also common. Plural wives could divorce their husbands more readily than their husbands could divorce them; Ann Eliza Webb divorced Brigham Young” (p. 731).

Rather than sensationalize polygamy, Howe chooses to portray the institution with nuance and complexity.

Howe concludes this section by noting the irony of Mormon history.

Ironically, the Mormons who sought to escape from the United States ended up playing a role in extending the United States. Their way of life, originally a millenarian critique of the larger society and a collectivist, authoritarian dissent from American individualistic pluralism, now impresses observers as the most “American” of all. How that transformation came about, however, is another story (731).

My primary complaint with Howe’s treatment of Mormonism is the lack of attention given to race, which, as I noted in the earlier post, is confusing given Howe’s interest in the subject in other parts of his book. Indeed, Howe’s view of Jacksonian democracy could be characterized as the efforts by white males to consolidate power. Although the black and Native converts to Mormonism prior to 1848 were few in number, their stories deserve to be told, if for nothing else than to illuminate how early Mormonism was born in a milieu of whiteness. This complaint aside, Howe’s What Hath God Wrought is a remarkable retelling of Jacksonian America, and the place of Mormons in it, and students of Mormon history would do well to become familiar with the work.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Historiography State of the Discipline


  1. Thanks for this, David; I agree with your assessment of Howe, and also wish he could have incorporated race a little more–especially contextualizing Mormon relationships with Natives.

    Comment by Ben — March 7, 2009 @ 7:31 pm

  2. Nice review, David. I don’t have anything to add, other than to note that the students in my class responded favorably to Howe’s treatment of Mormonism (something I gather is not terribly common among BYU undergrads’ general perception of an “outsider’s” treatment of their faith).

    Comment by Christopher — March 9, 2009 @ 9:12 am

  3. That’s good to know, Chris. I’m curious to know more about the student responses. And I’d agree that generally, most BYU undergrads (and even some grad students) don’t like it when outsiders write about us.

    Comment by David G. — March 9, 2009 @ 10:37 am

  4. See here for a sampling of the responses.

    The students also seemed to like Gordon Wood’s essay, though they mostly despised Brodhead’s comparative essay of JS, Nat Turner, and RW Emerson. Some wondered if Wood was LDS, which is especially interesting when in a previous class, students accused him of being anti-Mormon.

    Comment by Christopher — March 9, 2009 @ 11:04 am

  5. Interesting, thanks for the link. That’s interesting about the responses to Wood. I guess his essay lends itself to a variety of readings. I would suspect that LDS readers love how he says that the restoration had to happen in 1830, but aren’t so thrilled with his treatment of the Book of Mormon as a cultural document.

    Comment by David G. — March 9, 2009 @ 11:12 am


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