I recently completed reading David Clark’s biography of his great-great grandfather, Joseph Bates Noble: Polygamy and the Temple Lot Case (U of U Press, 2008). My full review of it will appear in the forthcoming issue of Nova Religio, but I want to focus here on an aspect of the book I wasn’t able to fully explore there.
In the introduction, Clark argues that figures like Noble are often overlooked by historians “because most chronicles of early members of the LDS Church focus on those who became important figures—church presidents, their counselors, and other major figures—rather than those who worked in the trenches.” These “‘regular’ members” constitute a group Clark affectionately labels “the many foot soldiers of [the] church” (p. ix-x). Yet it appears from the details of Noble’s life provided in the biography that his life as a Latter-day Saint was anything but regular. Noble traveled to Missouri as part of Zion’s camp, was a member of the original Quorum of Seventy, was initiated into the Anointed Quorum, served in the Nauvoo Legion, and was privy to the secretive discussions and practice of polygamy in the early 1840s, officiating at Joseph Smith’s 1841 plural marriage to Noble’s sister-in law Louisa Beman. Following Smith’s death, Noble traveled west with Brigham Young, overseeing a company of fifty individuals on the trek to Utah. Once there, he remained a confidant and trusted friend of other church presidents, including John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff (he spoke at Taylor’s funeral), and participated in plural marriage himself. His ecclesiastical responsibilities included service as a bishop (five separate times), a missionary, a seventy, and a patriarch. Because of his role in officiating at what was then believed to be Joseph Smith’s first plural marriage in 1841, Noble was among the group of Latter-day Saints called upon to testify at the 1892 court case between the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and the Church of Christ (Temple Lot) that determined the rightful owner of a plot of land in Missouri that Joseph Smith dedicated for the construction of a temple, and in the minds of the many participants, the true successor of Joseph Smith’s church.
While Clark deserves credit for crafting from scant primary sources a readable sketch of his ancestor’s life and bringing to the attention of historians Noble’s involvement in so many important episodes in nineteenth century Mormon history, I think he’s missed the mark in lumping Noble together with the general rank-and-file membership of the Church. It seems to me that, instead, figures like Noble represents a lower echelon of leaders that carried out important tasks and participated to varying degrees in shaping Mormonism but for various reasons never attained the status of prophets, apostles, and other notable leaders.
Martha Sonntag Bradley seems to agree, noting in a blurb on the back cover of the book that “Noble comes from the second tier of church leaders and his life story illuminates many events in Mormon history from this unique perspective.” While reading, I was reminded of James Henry Martineau, whose journals the Religious Studies Center at BYU recently published. While Noble and Martineau converted to Mormonism at different times and in different places, they share much in common. Each regularly rubbed shoulders with the highest-ranking church leaders and each was present at numerous important ecclesiastical, political, and cultural events in Latter-day Saint history. Curiously, Noel Carmack, who is working with Charles Hatch on another edition of Martineau’s journals, concluded in a recent review of the RSC’s version that “Martineau’s extraordinary life” qualifies him “as a third-echelon Latter-day Saint settler, surveyor, engineer, chronicler, and patriarch.”
I’m not quite sure what makes an individual part of the second or third or fourth or fifth tier of Mormon church leaders, and am not too interested in debating where different historical figures fall in the framework. But I do have a couple of reflections on such designations. First, I wonder whether Clark’s labeling of Noble and other second-tier ecclesiastical leaders as “regular members” who “worked in the trenches” only serves the further obscure the actual rank-and-file membership—those women and men who lived their lives quietly, whose names perhaps never show up in minutes of leadership meetings, and who weren’t on a first-name basis with apostles and prophets. Those figures, it seems to me, have much to tell us about Mormonism as it was lived and experienced at different times and in various locales.
This is not to suggest, of course, that figures like Noble and Martineau do not deserve attention. In fact, many important questions deserve to be asked of their own experiences. I’m interested, for example, in knowing what function (if any) these persons served in mediating Mormonism as it was taught and understood at leadership levels and how it was received and practiced on a local level in homes and individual lives. What else might lower-tier church leaders reveal about the Mormon experience?
 Noel A. Carmack, “Review of An Uncommon Common Pioneer: The Journals of James Henry Martineau, 1828-1918,” Journal of Mormon History 35:4 (2009): 274.