Scholarly Inquiry: Mark Ashurt-McGee Responds to Your Questions

By November 14, 2009

Nearly six months ago, we announced the creation of what he hoped would (and still plan to) become a regular feature here at the Juvenile Instructor. As we announced then,

The series?Scholarly Inquiry?will consist of a series of questions addressed to a guest scholar and that person?s responses. Visiting scholars will include both Mormons and those from other faith traditions, as well as historians of Mormonism and those whose primary research interests focus on other subjects. The aim of Scholarly Inquiry is to involve a larger community of scholars in attempts to situate the Mormon experience in wider contexts and new and innovative ways.

We also introduced Mark Ashurst-McGee, historian, documentary editor with the Joseph Smith Papers Project, and friend to the JI, as the first “visiting scholar” to participate in the series. The demands of family, work, and church, together with sickness and the summer months, delayed Mark’s responses to your questions. We had (and have) other scholars in the pipeline awaiting to participate in the series, but out of respect for Mark as a scholar and a friend, we waited for his response, which arrived in my inbox this evening. His answers to your questions were indeed worth the wait. As is typical of Mark, his responses are thorough, detailed, and long (he did write a master’s thesis the length of most PhD dissertations (387 pages), and his dissertation, as I understand it, had to be cut down from its original scope after the first chapter alone totaled some 400+ pages). His lengthy answers do mean, however, that he was only able to answer four of the questions posed.

Without further ado, here is the questions and Mark’s answers:


1. Do you have any input on frameworks for Zion in a non-agricultural society?

Okay, I?m not really going to tackle this question, but just offer some thoughts: For starters, I think the original plan for a partly agricultural Zion was more than circumstantial (I mean the circumstance of coming from early 19C agricultural America); it was theoretical. Zion was supposed to stand independent from the transitory ?nations of the world?, which must include Zion producing its own food. Of course the early concept of Zion includes the gathering. And whenever any such gathering becomes substantial, you have the increasing possibility of gathered Saints producing surplus food that other gathered Saints can purchase or share. This naturally occurred to some extent in pioneer Utah. This also occurs to some extent in any part of the world where there is enough membership density for a Bishop?s storehouse to work.

Another part of the gathering, at least at the beginning, was being debt-free. When the Zion immigrant arrived in Jackson County, he (usually a male head of household) was supposed to have already paid all of his debts, settled and disengaged from all business affairs, and liquidated his real estate and much of his chattel property. He had already consecrated everything but the provisions with which he travelled. When he arrived, he consecrated his remaining property and stood before the Zion bishop free from the entanglements of both debt and property. He owed nothing and owned nothing. In a very real sense?to an extent that amazes me?the social order of individual freehold tenure and the acquisitiveness of market capitalism were behind him now. He was ready to become a steward over an ?inheritance.? On an annual basis, the steward was to meet with the Bishop and negotiate what was needed for sustaining the stewardship over the year to come and what was surplus that could be given to the Bishop for provisioning the poor and building up the community.

Many adults today don?t really fit into this model, not just because we don?t consecrate our property but because we couldn?t if we wanted to. We invest the better part of our adult careers into paying off the mortgages on our real estate, which has a very real effect on our manner of consecration as loosely defined. The current cost of land and homes in America is such a strange situation in world history. Even today, things are different elsewhere. For example, in Peru the people are relatively poor, but few are in debt as most banks will not lend money to ordinary people. You build the first story of your home and you have your rebar poking out through the roof to tie into after you save enough money to build your second story. While in a state of poverty not unlike the original Zion immigrants, your average Peruvian member may actually have a real surplus at the end of the year. I know many American Latter-day Saints pay off their homes relatively early and then contribute tremendously to the Church and other good causes. But it is depressing to have to be in your 60s before you can actually do this. Of course there is much good you can do along the way, but not in the original stewardship model. Personally, I think we should aim to get out of debt and then live the law of consecration as best we can. To me, this would mean owning modest acreage and a modest domicile, using our income to maintain a modest household economy, and then giving our entire surplus to the church (which could be more or less than 10% of income). I think I?ll stop there.

2. Would you comment on Michael Quinn?s recent on-line article in Dialogue on The First Vision and a contemporary Methodist Revival in 1820 as a factor that may have influenced Joseph Smith to go to the grove? Do you believe that the cannonized 1838 account of the first vision conflates an 1823 and 1824 Palmayra revival with events in the 1819-1820 period?

An introductory word on terminology: I try to steer away from the internal Mormon lingo of ?The First Vision? toward something like ?Smith?s first vision of deity? (see, for example, J1). In fact, Smith?s first vision may have been the vision of a seer stone for himself that he saw when he looked into the seer stone of neighbor Sally Chase (plausibly 1819). It?s been a few years now since I read Quinn?s article?and several years since I have read most of the relevant literature?so I hope I don?t misconstrue it.

Basically, Quinn lays out evidence of a Methodist revival at Palmyra in June 1820. This ain?t no ?early in the Spring of? but it does fit nicely with the year of 1820 as given in the canonized account. And it makes room for Smith responding to an earlier revival rather than the later revival boom of 1824?1825 to which Wes Walters, Mike Marquardt, and other revisionists have pointed as the revivalism Smith described in the canonized account. I would like to start out by taking a few steps back and remembering that we have hardly anything to go on here. Lots of things written much later, but hardly anything concrete from the period in question. I think the place to start with dating Smith?s first vision of deity is that it was (1) after his move to Palmyra in the winter of 1816/1817?and apparently after the family?s c1819 move from Palmyra village to the Manchester countryside?and (2) before the initial vision of the record-revealing angel in September 1823. Given what we can reconstruct of the golden plates revelation in later sources, the September 1824 announcement in the Palmyra news regarding rumors of Alvin?s disinterment is pretty decent contemporaneous evidence for Moroni first appearing in September 1823. Whatever Smith wrote about his first vision of deity and however much it may have conflated earlier and later revivals, I think the most solid interpretation of his accounts of his early visions?which list both his vision of deity and his vision of the angel and do so in that order?is just that: Whatever year it occurred is questionable but it was before Moroni first appeared. This is why the strong form of the Walters hypothesis just don?t work. But it does not at all rule out the possibility of Smith accidentally conflating later revivalism in his 1838 account (more on this below).

Instead of trying to reconcile the traditional (1838) account with revival data, I would like to point to the earliest (circa 1832) narrative account, which alludes to revival context and mentions his biblical and doctrinal confusion, and says he stewed over this for several years (age 12?15) before seeing Christ. This points to earlier revivalism, which Milt Backman and Richard Anderson have documented (BYU Studies articles). I think the June 1818 revival at Palmyra recorded in the diary of Methodist circuit rider Aurora Seager fits the bill better than the June 1820 revival discussed by Quinn.

That being said, I would not be at all surprised if Smith conflated some revival data from later on?looks like he did. It?s only later that we can clearly document Lucy?s Presbyterian membership. However, as Vogel has pointed out, it was a Presbyterian minister that spoke at Alvin?s 1823 funeral, this before the 1824?1825 revivals in which Lucy became a formal member of the Presbyterian church. So apparently there was some kind of affiliation earlier. In 1838, Smith recounted that his mother had joined. Though she had not become an official member (someone help me on the requirements), she certainly may have been attending their meetings. Her connection may have ranged anywhere from regular meeting attendance to investigation to (at least apparently) preferring the Presbyterian minister over other ministers when Alvin?s funeral occurred. When Lucy?s Presbyterian connection began is uncertain. But it?s certainly possible that Smith?s statement to his mother that he had learned (in his vision) that Presbyterianism was not true could figure into a pre-1824 setting.

Like I said, I am a bit rusty on the historiography, so if I have some facts wrong or have some majorly flawed interpretations, somebody set me straight.

Of course there is the related problem of very little mention of Smith claiming to have seen God in the accounts of New York neighbors. I will refer those still interested to my FARMS review of Palmer?s Insider?s View of Mormon History for my explanation of that.

3. Whereas they were once hotly-contested and highly-controversial issues within Mormon studies, it seems that the concepts of treasure seeking and seeric translation have joined the historiographic mainstream. Do you think there are any subjects left that are destined to shake things up like magic did? What might they be?

I?ll venture a guess here – I don?t think there will be. The golden plates are absolutely fundamental to the veridicality of Mormonism and the ?magical? treasure seeking context offers a relatively satisfying context to explain them. While somewhat domesticated, I think it persists as a genuine historical problem for those of us who believe. I don?t think it is a problem without a solution?and some of my own work is in the vicinity of such a solution?but it retains an interpretive strength and I think the issue will stick around. Richard Bushman is working on a book on the golden plates. I don?t know the contours of the work, but I?m hoping it includes a deeper assessment of the treasure seeking issue than found in RSR (which I think was about right for that book [my favorite of all time, by the way]). Polyandry has made a splash recently, but that among a Mormon community that is becoming more informed?not among Mormon historians. I believe that polyandry, like polygamy, is shocking and challenging at first because of our current western cultural mores (though much less so for anyone who has taken Anthropology 101) but doesn?t really strike at Mormonism?s foundations like good reasons to question the golden plates story.

4. Can you tell us more about your dissertation? What does it contribute to our understanding of Joseph Smith and early Mormonism? What are your publication plans?

Many Americans in Smith?s day were fine with the status quo, but it was a great era of reform. Most reformers were moralist reformers, who sought to improve society with new laws, or institutionalist reformers, who sought to ameliorate social problems through building or improving institutions such as schools and prisons (here I am following the taxonomy and analysis of Mintz in his book Moralists and Modernizers). Moralists and institutionalists had an optimistic view of society. Instead of finding errors in society itself, moralists believed they could solve surface social problems by perfecting the society?s incomplete body of law. Institutionalists, on the other hand, labored to maintain a structurally sound society in need of some repair. Smith?s attitude of reform is better compared to that of the minority view coming from more pessimistic reformers such as the abolitionists, feminists, and utopianists. These reformers attempted to overcome inequality and injustice by changing the social order at its core. Probing the flaws located deep within society itself, they felt the need to fundamentally alter cultural beliefs and attitudes. Joseph Smith and the Mormons, like the Shakers and other utopianists, took the most pessimistic of reformist stances. They withdrew from the larger society into separate communities. In the early years, the Mormons did not attempt to reform the United States through either politics or persuasion. Smith did remain in a continual engagement with America (and then other nations) through proselytizing, but this in order to gather them out of the wicked and transitory ?nations of the world? into Zion.

More radical even than the Shakers and other separatist groups who created pockets of sacred community within America, Smith called on the elect to leave America behind and help him build Zion in the western borderlands. After the expulsion from Jackson County, Smith spent the rest of his life trying to ?redeem? this Zion project. As we know, the necessary accommodations of the redemption endeavor eventually changed Smith and even the concept of Zion itself. But the earliest Zion movement stands as a very strong example of discontent that helps us view early American society from the margins.

Plans for publication exist . . . which is about all I am prepared to say at this point. Working full time (and often overtime) on the Smith Papers, raising five kids, and serving in my ward?s bishopric already take up more productive waking hours than I have?which is why my response to these questions is coming so late after they were solicited. Thanks to the bloggers at JI for being patient and the same to anyone who has read here to the end of our interview.

Article filed under Scholarly Inquiry


  1. Thank you very much for your answer to my question on Joseph conflating events from the 1823-24 period with events in 1819-20 in the 1838 account of the first vision.

    It would be great if your perspective could be incorporated into the lesson on the first vision that we will have when we do Doctrine and Covenants and Church History in Gospel Doctrine four years from now.

    If the church can support a gay rights ordinance in regards to employment and housing in Salt Lake, maybe anything is possible.

    Comment by John Willis — November 14, 2009 @ 9:47 am

  2. Mark,

    Thanks for your thoughtful insights. I especially enjoyed your comments on the differences in Zion-like societies then and now. You are a brilliant and inspired scholar!

    Comment by Derek Lines — November 14, 2009 @ 12:41 pm

  3. This was fun. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and opinions. I enjoyed it.

    Comment by Hunter — November 14, 2009 @ 2:03 pm

  4. Thanks for this, Mark; this is all great stuff.

    Comment by Ben — November 14, 2009 @ 6:00 pm

  5. Mark, Thanks a lot for taking the time to answer these questions. I especially appreciate your thoughtful comments on Zion in a non-agricultural society.

    Looking forward to your dissertation and future work on the JSP!

    Comment by Jared T — November 14, 2009 @ 10:22 pm

  6. I also particularly enjoyed your insights on building Zion, then and now. I’d be interested in your opinion on the role of the saints in building Zion today. Does it go beyond being a good friend and ward member?

    Comment by Dane — November 15, 2009 @ 2:45 am

  7. Thanks for the responses Mark. Always enjoyable.

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 15, 2009 @ 8:44 pm

  8. Thanks, Mark. What are the odds of you boiling down your dissertation argument into an article, maybe for Religion in American Culture or Church History?

    Comment by David G. — November 15, 2009 @ 9:19 pm

  9. David, #8, I’m doing something like this at AHA in Jan. We’ll see what becomes of it.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — November 16, 2009 @ 10:15 am


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