The Mormons go to Voree: JWHA Conference Redux

By September 29, 2008

This last weekend I had the great privelege of attending JWHA’s 36th Annual Conference, held at exotic Old Voree, Wiconsin. This year’s theme was “1844-1859: A Time of Transition” (preliminary program found here). Reminiscent of DKL’s roundup from last year, here are a few things that stood out to me the most, though there are numerous other experiences and papers I could list.

Highlights from JWHA’s 2008 Conference

1. The opening McMurrin lecture given this year by Roger Launius, author of several Mormon-related books (probably the most important of which is the biography on Joseph Smith III). His address was entitled “Darwinism, Creationism, and the Mormon Experience,” and he focused on the evolution debate within the Mormon tradition, specifically focusing on the RLDS/Community of Christ. He is an eloquent presenter, and had some fun information. An intriguing discussion in the Q&A followed.

2. Tons of fascinating sessions on Strang. It seemed that there was almost always at least one concurrent session focused on the Strangite movement. Among the many presentations, Kyle Walker delivered an excellent paper on William Smith’s transitory alliance with Strang, Robin Jensen spoke on Strangite newspapers, John Quist spoke on the Strangites’ practice of polygamy, and John Hamer presented on mapping Beaver Island. Although I wasn’t able to make a lot of Strangite sessions, the few I did go to were very revealing and mind-expanding–they are just a fascinating movement. John Hamer mentioned that he is hoping of compiling all the Strang papers and publishing them, a project I certainly hope to see happen.

3. An excellent plenary address at the Awards Banquet given by D. Michael Quinn on “The Ambiguous History of Us-Verses-Them in the Mormon Experience.” Following the paper, Jan Shipps commented that the paper was Quinn’s finest contribution to Mormon studies in quite some time. Following the dinner, most of the attendees gathered in the resort’s club to watch the presidential debate. After witnessing and analyzing the debate with people from numerous Mormon traditions and various political alliances, I think all other debates will be somewhat anticlimactic–at least for me.

4. A great session on Joseph Smith and polygamy. Lawrence Foster presented a paper on how polygamy was the main point of internal conflict in Nauvoo, and how its tensions led to the vast dissensions. Brian Hales then presented his paper on JS’s practice of polyandry, arguing that he believes there is no documented support for sexual polyadry (meaning sexual relationship within polyandrous relationships). He takes all the polyandrous wives case-by-case and accusation-by-accusation to defend his thesis. Interesting stuff, and will definitely receive a lot of challenges (especially in George D. Smith’s upcoming book on Nauvoo polygamy which Signature Books had a review copy at the conference I got to flip through). Hale’s first volume of his work on JS and polygamy should be out next year from Kofford Books, so we’ll see how all his documentation stacks up. It was a pretty convincing presentation, though.

5. Joseph Jessup and Eric Rogers gave a fascinating presentation on Mormon Fundamentalists in Pinesdale, MT. Joseph was raised in the Allred group before joining the LDS Church (but still has favorable relations with them) and Eric is the CES guy in Pinesdale, so both have had a lot of experience with the Group. They did a great job of showing the vast differences between fundamentalist groups, and Joseph even mentioned how most in the Allred group see Warren Jeffs and the FLDS Church as repulsive. They proposed that the relationship between fundamentalist groups are similar to the differences between the LDS Church and other Mormon groups: they share a common heritage and some major doctrinal foundations, but at times can be different as can be. One really interesting point they made was that because the Allred group has such a favorable relationship with the local government and therefore don’t have any tension or “persecution,” they are not as tight a cohesive unit as they once were and are starting to see a sizable number of members join the local LDS Church.

6. The crowd at JWHA was both knowleageable and friendly. Anyone could have candid conversations with Newell Bringhurst, Phil Barlow, Jan Shipps, Ron Esplin, John Hamer, Steve Shields, Bill Russel, Michael Quinn, and the list can go on and on. John Hamer and Michael Karpowicz were always friendly and open despite their hectic schedule in running the show.

7. Bill Shepherd, the Strangite Church Historian and basically the “host” of the conference, was both “quirky” (in a good way) and very hospitable. He was extremely kind to everyone and went out of his way to welcome anyone who he saw.

8. Perhaps the funnest part to me was the field trip everyone went on Saturday afternoon. All of us piled on to two school buses and travelled around to see various Strangite historic sites, including the house Strang died in, the cemetery where several important Strangites were buried, and the Hill of Promise where the Plates of Voree were uncovered. John Hajicek, a Strangite historian and Mormon collections guru, was kind enough to show several valuable Strangite artifacts.*

9. The Latter Day Saint Hymnfest on Sunday morning was also quite memorable. We sang a wide arrange of hyms from different Mormon traditions, finishing with “The Spirit of God” (a hymn reverenced in each Church) which we sang standing up and with real power. A magical experience.

Next Conference

Next year’s conference will be held in Independence, MO, on September 24-27. The theme will be “Race, Gender, Ethnicity, and the Restoration,” a topic that has gotten some attention lately on the blog.

Hope to see all of you next year in Zion!


*John provides an intriguing glimpse into the identity politics associated with the numerous Mormon movements in his comment #16.

Article filed under Conference/Presentation Reports


  1. Ben, excellent! Thank you for the write-up.

    Comment by Mark Brown — September 29, 2008 @ 4:20 pm

  2. Thanks for the date of the next conference Ben, I’ll add it to immediately.

    Comment by Kent (MC) — September 29, 2008 @ 4:28 pm

  3. Thanks for the summary. I was sad to have to miss this year’s conference. I’ve recently re-entered the job market, and so I’ve placed a moratorium on Mormon studies conferences. John Hamer does a great job with those conferences, and JWHA is my favorite conference.

    Comment by DKL — September 29, 2008 @ 4:32 pm

  4. Thanks!

    Comment by Edje — September 29, 2008 @ 4:34 pm

  5. Thanks, Ben. So what were the awards?

    Comment by David G. — September 29, 2008 @ 4:40 pm

  6. Wonderful right-up. Thanks!

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 29, 2008 @ 4:59 pm

  7. David: Bringhurst and Foster’s “Quest for the Presidency” got best book (a surprise for me as I’m sure it is to many), and the articles by Rob Jensen and Erin Jennings from last year’s Scattering the Saints split the best article award. (I smell conspiracy that JWHA’s best article when to two articles in a JWHA published book… ;).)

    Comment by Ben — September 29, 2008 @ 5:01 pm

  8. Thanks, Ben. Can you give a one or two sentence summary of Quinn’s argument? Do you know about publication plans for his paper?

    Comment by Christopher — September 29, 2008 @ 5:41 pm

  9. Chris: He explored both the benefits and consequences the Mormon movement has had from their us/them dichotomy. While the negative aspects are obvious (creating enemies, etc.), Quinn focused primarily on the good it has done. For instance, when united in an “us” unit, we are more capable of being cohesive and united. Thus the paradox of an us/them mentality: it is crucial in order to have group identity, yet it always causes problems with outsiders.

    A horrendously simplistic summary, but you get the gist.

    I would hope that it will be published in JWHA’s next year journal–I think I heard some comments to that regard–but I really don’t know.

    Comment by Ben — September 29, 2008 @ 6:00 pm

  10. Great write-up; thanks so much. I was sad to miss it. I was actually in Nauvoo; my 80-something aunt who had never been before wanted to see it before she died and she finally made the trek, and I wasn’t about to miss squiring her around the sites there. But I certainly lamented not being in Wisconsin.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — September 29, 2008 @ 8:04 pm

  11. Thanks to everyone for their kind comments about the Voree JWHA Conference. It was a fun conference to plan and great to see old and make new friends. Best Wishes Bill

    Comment by Bill Shepard — September 29, 2008 @ 8:55 pm

  12. Ben — It was great seeing you at the conference, I?m very glad that you enjoyed it. Thanks for the write up. I hope we can get more JI folks out to Independence next September for what we are hoping will be a record-breaking conference in terms of both the number of participants and attendees. (Hope we?ll see you there too, DKL!)

    Quinn?s address will be published in Volume 29 (2009) of the JWHA Journal. We?re pleased to announce that Vickie Speek will be the new editor of the JWHA Journal — you heard it on JI first.

    As Ben mentioned, the Strangite related articles are going to be published in a volume tentatively entitled The Strangites: Histories of the Great Lakes Mormons, which I will co-edit along with Vickie. This will be the first volume that focuses less on Strang and more on his church and the Strangite Mormons in general. (This will be the second time JWHA will have produced a conference volume that is the equivalent of a 2nd journal, the first being Scattering of the Saints, which came primarily out of on-topic articles from the 2006 conference; that year the off-topic articles went into the 2007 Journal.)

    It was wonderful to see the Strangite church filled with JWHA members singing heartily on Sunday morning. As Ben mentioned, we always end with ?The Spirit of God.? We also almost always start with ?Redeemer of Israel? — including our old JWHA story that gets better with each telling (this year it was retold by Jan Shipps). Verse Two is traditionally sung by Josephites only (We know he is coming to gather his sheep, And lead them to Zion in love, For why in the valley of death should they weep, Or in the lone wilderness rove?) and Verse Three is reserved for Brighamites to sing (How long we have wandered as strangers in sin, And cried in the desert for thee?!)

    I sat next to Steve Shields during the hymn festival and he pointed out an interesting variant in the Strangite hymnal:

    We ask the, O God, for a prophet
    To deliver us in these latter days.
    We entreat thee for one who is mighty,
    Who will lead us from bondage and sin;
    For we need one to lead us as Moses,
    Long ago who led the Israelites.
    O, God, don?t forget your people,
    Who have wandered alone for so long.

    Though we?re few and we?re scattered and lonely;
    Though we?re led by the precepts of men;
    Though in some things we err so often,
    And our steps falter now and again,
    O, God, we implore thee for mercy,
    Bestowed by thy bounteous hand.
    We ask thee to send us a prophet,
    Who will teach us to do thy command.

    We are thankful for the restoration
    Of the gospel of Christ and our King;
    But our prophets were driven and martyred
    And our people were scattered afar;
    Our records were lost to the Gentiles;
    And our homes were destroyed by the mobs,
    Now we ask thee for mercy and blessings,
    To send us a prophet ere long.

    Truly a humble, remarkable group of Latter Day Saints.

    Comment by John Hamer — September 30, 2008 @ 8:18 am

  13. fascinating stuff, thanks Ben.

    Comment by Jon W — September 30, 2008 @ 10:10 am

  14. John H: Thanks for stopping by and adding your comments.

    Congrats to Vickie for her newly-appointed editor position. I’m sure she will continue the great tradition; the JWHA Journal has quickly become one of my favorites.

    Comment by Ben — September 30, 2008 @ 10:38 am

  15. John Hamer, excellent news on the Quinn article in the 2009 JWHA Journal (any further developments on the proposed name change to the journal?), the forthcoming Strangite volume, and on Vickie Speek’s appointment.

    I hope to make it next year, especially considering the theme chosen (“Race, Gender, Ethnicity, and the Restoration”). When are paper/panel proposals generally due for the conference?

    Comment by Christopher — September 30, 2008 @ 12:52 pm

  16. I regret that my quest for religious tolerance has resulted in me being quoted on the searchable Internet as stating “Most Christians don’t consider me a Christian.” That is a mistaken quote. Can someone edit that out before my next in-laws see it? 😉 “Most Christians” have never heard of me, and those who have heard of me rarely consider whether or not I am a Christian.

    What I was trying to say, and remember saying was “I do not think that being the largest Christian church makes it the truest Christian church, or that being the largest Mormon church makes it the truest Mormon church, or that being the largest Strangite church makes it the truest Strangite church. In parallel, Christians (sometimes) say that I am not a Christian, because I am a Mormon; Mormons (sometimes) say that I am not a Mormon, because I am a Strangite, and Strangites (sometimes) say that I am not a Strangite. I am comfortable with being independent.”

    I was trying to ridicule the exclusion of minority faiths or cultural bias, as I was trying to obtain compassion from anyone with a Mormon heritage who knows the hurt of being told that Mormons are not Christians. I was protecting my legitimacy to represent myself as a member of a disorganized church with continuous authority from 1830. By the way, I do not want to be called a “Strangite,” and the name is inappropriate for a church. See the bottom of the page at

    My faith is in the New Testament gospel of Jesus Christ. I am a Latter Day Saint. I have authenticity.

    I was visibly uncomfortable while giving this tour because of the diversity of experiences and tolerance levels in the audience, and I needed to sensitively allude to controversial matters of history from my minority viewpoint. I had to be a historian while standing behind the pulpit of a church: a church that should be presented as moderate among its cousins but still historically interesting.

    I said that since 1856 (not now) there have been 24 different fragments, groups, or camps (not churches) that believed in the appointment of Strang. I said that one of them reorganized in 1961, and that they (themselves) said they formed a church that day that had no connection or affiliation with any other church, and they changed their church name and the names of their offices and councils. (They do have a heritage and tradition descending from church members.)

    I may not have said it clearly enough to all of the four tour bus groups and two private car tours that came through, but I tried to emphasize that the people in the other groups are my friends. I started to lose track of repeating myself or forgetting to state things. I have a new respect for the Nauvoo and Kirtland tour guides. I should have written a script.

    I did not identify an “independent church,” but rather said that I personally have remained independent from any group, and that many other believers (perhaps even a majority of them) have remained independent since 1856.

    If you missed the conference, or wanted a more complete tour, you might enjoy my online tour of Voree at

    Comment by John Hajicek — September 30, 2008 @ 2:11 pm

  17. Please delete the periods to visit those links.

    Comment by John Hajicek — September 30, 2008 @ 2:12 pm

  18. Thanks for stopping by, John. I edited the text to just refer to your well-put comment; thanks for the corrections.

    Thanks again for your contributions to the great conference, and for your comments.

    Comment by Ben — September 30, 2008 @ 2:33 pm

  19. Thanks Ben! Great review. I wish I had been there. Can you give any more details on the Brian Hales presentation?

    Comment by Brett D. — October 1, 2008 @ 11:50 am

  20. From the report here it seems that Hales is not covering new ground. Andrew Ehat gave two papers on this topic in 1985 (Pseudo-Polyandry: Explaining Mormon Polygyny’s Paradoxical Companion–The Microscopic View) and in 1986 (Pseudo-Polyandry: Explaining Mormon Polygyny’s Paradoxical Companion–The Macroscopic View). It’s hard to get copies of the papers (I don’t recall if he ever published them) but the audio is available from Sunstone.

    Essentially, Ehat argues from the evidence that no true polyandry was ever practiced, that concurrent physical relationships between a woman and her two husbands were not permitted, Joseph being sealed only for eternity to women who were still living in an intimate relationship with their first husband. Only after the women were divorced, abandoned or given to Joseph could a physical relationship begin and then only after a second sealing to the Prophet–this sealing being for time and eternity–had been performed.

    Comment by Curtis Weber — October 21, 2008 @ 10:44 am

  21. Curtis: I guess that’s the problem with unpublished conference papers: they get largely forgotten, even if they were important.

    Comment by Ben — October 21, 2008 @ 10:57 am


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