San Antonio MHA 2014

I thoroughly enjoyed MHA 2014 here in San Antonio, and getting to meet some other bloggers like Clean Cut and Matt W from New Cool Thang.  I didn’t live blog MHA like Kevin Barney did at By Common Consent, but thought I’d give a “quick” recap of the happenings there.  (Kevin and I obviously overlapped a lot and went to many of the same sessions.)

I really enjoyed the welcoming remarks from Henry Cisneros, former mayor of San Antonio and HUD Secretary under President Clinton.  The band La Calma also played some good music–I don’t remember ever hearing music at MHA meetings from a band, let alone someone playing the accordion, but it was fun!  Michael Van Wagenin reminded everyone about apostle Lyman Wight’s mission to Texas.  I was first introduced to the idea by Clean Cut back in 2008, and didn’t know that Joseph had sent Wight to Texas to see if Mormons might be welcomed there.  I definitely heard more about Wight and Texas than I have ever heard before.  Wight was discussed in several speeches.

Christine Hutchison-Jones talked about Mormons on the internet, and Kristine Haglund spoke about Bloggernacle history and boundaries.  (Strangely W&T was absent her very abbreviated history.)    Saskia Tielens discussed that Pinterest is the least controversial, and most generally positive outlet for Mormonism.  (I must confess that I don’t get the allure of Pinterest.)

Probably my favorite session on Friday dealt with Mormons in the Cold War.  Nancy Kader talked about her experiences as a Young Democrat with BYU, and even provided a photo of Hugh Nibley campaigning with Robert Redford and Democratic Mayor of Salt Lake Ted Wilson.  She recounted the spying scandal of BYU President Ernest Wilkinson, who accused BYU Democrats of collaborating with Communists, and trying to kick students out of the school.  Gary Bergera, the chair of the session, said that Kader should continue her work on documenting that history because most of it is known only to the participants and is not written down.

Reid Nielson discussed Ezra Taft Benson’s meetings with Soviet president Nikita Khrushchev.  Benson served not only as apostle, but as Agriculture Secretary in the Eisenhower Administration.  There was somewhat of a rivalry between the US and USSR regarding farm output, so Khrushchev came to America to review farms, and Eisenhower then sent Benson to do the same in Russia.  These meetings had a profound experience upon Benson, and seemed to generate more of Benson’s hostility to communism.  Benson made a special effort to visit a Christian Church in Russia, and the experience of attending a Baptist church there had a profound impact on him.

Patrick Mason reviewed Benson’s addresses about the Book of Mormon over the decades.  He found that Benson’s speeches about the Book of Mormon related conservative political rhetoric much more than an emphasis to bring people closer to Christ.  Benson was obsessed with the secret combinations in the Book of Mormon, comparing them to communist infiltration in the US government as well the Soviet spread in places like Cuba and Korea.  After the fall of communism, Benson’s last address finally turned to pride of the Book of Mormon, an internal threat rather than the external threats of communism.  Mason said that Benson caused people to pick up the Book of Mormon anew, and had a profound impact on general church membership.  However, people have different interpretations of the Book of Mormon, and many have found the messages of Christ more important than Benson’s concern about secret combinations and political conservatism.

Natalie Rose discussed Lenore Romney’s change in support for the ERA amendment.  Lenore, the mother of Mitt Romney and wife of Michigan governor George Romney, had her own political aspirations.  After leaving the Michigan governor’s office, George served in the Nixon Administration (I believe as HUD secretary).  Lenore launched an unsuccessful campaign for a senate seat, and lost to the democratic challenger.  Lenore was concerned about the sexism on the campaign trail, often by women who refused to vote for a woman.  She and her husband George were early champions of the ERA, but it appears that pressure from church leaders led her and her husband to withdraw support, and eventually actively work to defeat the amendment.

Amanda Hendrix-Komoto discussed the church’s involvement in the ERA movement in Hawaii.  I was familiar that the LDS church worked against an IWY (International Women’s Year) in many state conventions, and was not surprised to hear similar issues in Hawaii.

JB Haws and Andrea Radke-Moss discussed Mormon power in politics, especially in regards to the ERA.  Both made an emphasis that church leaders initially made no efforts to stop the ERA, and in fact about 28 states passed the ERA within the first year of the amendment passing overwhelmingly in Congress.  However, the combination of Roe v. Wade legalizing abortion, as well as concern that ERA supporters had been infiltrated by lesbian groups and gay rights might be next, the church worked actively against ratification of the amendment.  Idaho had been one of the first states to pass the amendment, and with pressure from the church, rescinded that support.  A few other states also rescinded support.

The church at first adopted much of the rhetoric and arguments advocated by Phyllis Schlafly, such that bathrooms would become unisex, and the ERA movement was a way for gays to marry.  Combined with on-demand abortion, these things greatly alarmed the church.  With the passage of gay marriage now in 19 states, it’s hard for me to remember that gay rights was such an important issue for the church’s refusal to ratify the amendment.  The church preferred piecemeal legislation instead, feeling the broad language would lead to unintended consequences of unisex bathrooms and gay marriage.

The Council of Fifty Minutes was the subject of the plenary session.  The Council of Fifty minutes has been one of the most sought after records that historians have sought.  Access to the minutes has been restricted for a long time, and as part of the Joseph Smith Papers Project, the Church has decided to release these documents.  The book on the minutes is expected to be released at the end of 2016.   For those of you unfamiliar with the Council of Fifty, it was a group originally created to further the political aspirations when Joseph Smith ran for President of the United States, and included 3 “non-noteworthy” non-Mormons.

I was struck by the effort of all three speakers (Rick Turley, Matt Grow, and Ron Esplin) to tamp down expectations, almost as if “there’s nothing to see here folks, move along.”  It just seemed really odd to me.  The minutes are believed to reference Joseph Smith being crowned a king among the quorum, but the historians said that was not the case.  It sounded to me like this crowning was part of a temple ceremony preformed previously, but I was unclear what they were referring to.  Newell Bringhurst asked if there was any information about blacks.  Tamping down expectations again, they said that Orson Hyde had previously talked about blacks being less valiant in the pre-mortal life during a church meeting in Nauvoo, and these minutes held a similar, later reference.  I know many historians will be excited to finally examine these long sought after records.

Transportation problems led me to miss the Saturday morning session, but I’d love to hear more about the “uppity women” session among Margaret Young (who read Maxine Hanks response), Cheryl Bruno, Heather Olsen-Beal, and Mary Ellen Robertson.  I really wish I could have attended that session (as well as some others), so I’d love to hear comments from others on that session in particular.

While nearly all sessions are fantastic in their own rights, I think the session on slavery was the best of the two days.  LaJean Purcell Carruth from the LDS Church History Department came across some notes written in shorthand concerning the 1852 Utah Legislative session, and it was an INCREDIBLE find.  Carruth first had to learn to read the ancient shorthand, before she could translate it.  Previously unknown was an impassioned speech from Orson Pratt in which he argued that Utah should not adopt slavery (known in the law books as an Act in Relation to Service.)  I think this session deserves a post on its own, and I think I will plan to write something up of the session.  She found some other speeches, but the Pratt speech was an incredibly moving speech.  I asked how influential the speech was, but unfortunately, records of votes were not recorded, so we have no idea how many legislators voted against the Act in Relation to Service.

Christopher Rich, a lawyer, gave a very interesting and controversial speech arguing that “if it walks and talks like a duck, it’s not necessarily a duck.”  It was a very technical legal argument saying that we shouldn’t refer to the act as legalizing “chattel” slavery.  Rather, the act was a form of gradual emancipation.  I had previously been told that Indians and Blacks were treated differently under the law, but I will need to get clarification from Rich on that point.  He said that the Utah law was modeled after gradual emancipation laws in Illinois and Pennsylvania, and was more akin to indentured servants rather than slavery.  Needless to say, his opinion was controversial, and the respondent Newell Bringhurst, as well as audience members took issue with his interpretation.  I enjoyed Ardis Parshall’s comment that lawyers, as well as sociologists do have something to offer to Mormon history, and we should take this presentation seriously.

Paul Reeve also gave an awesome presentation, and said we should no longer refer to Wilford Woodruff’s account of Brigham Young’s speech to the Utah Legislature in 1852.  While Woodruff got the basic gist of Young’s speech right, he conflated some issues.  LaJean Carruth has uncovered a more accurate version of Young’s speech.  In addition to the Act in Relation to Service, legislators were also debating an Act in Relation to Voting.  According to Reeve, Pratt was also advocated that blacks should be able to vote.  Young was against that idea, because it could allow blacks to hold government office as well, and so Young’s rhetoric about blacks ruling over whites was in relation to the voting idea, more than priesthood.  There were other points that Reeve made, but he said that we should not be quoting Woodruff’s account any more.  Young never said anything about “one drop”, and the “jot and tittle” referred to voting, not priesthood.  Really, all three presentations were incredible.

The last session I attended was on Joseph Smith.  Jared Halverson discussed Alexander Campbell’s Scottish background and his battles with Mormonism in Ohio.  Campbell used sarcasm, as well as sound arguments to argue against Smith, and is an under-appreciated adversary in Mormon history.  Lawrence Foster argued that Fawn Brodie’s use of psychology to analyze Joseph Smith isn’t always a good approach to people long dead.  Even psychologists with living patients have a hard time diagnosing people.  He gave a method to try to take a better approach to avoid polemical and apologetic perspectives on Smith.

Steve Harper discussed competing First Vision narratives.  Apparently, an  evangelical zealot (by the name of Walters who) set out to prove there was no “religious excitement” in Palmyra in 1820, trying to cast doubt on the facts surrounding the First Vision.  His essay in Dialogue inspired the LDS Church to better document the religious fervor of the era, using some of the best scholars including Richard Bushman, Leonard Arrington, & Jim Allen among others to look deeply at the issue.  Walters perhaps unwittingly inspired the New Mormon History era.

Non-Mormon and Boston Globe reporter Alex Beam finished the session.  Beam is somewhat of a new Mormon celebrity with his recent book American Crucifixion outlining the murder of Joseph Smith.  I enjoyed Beam’s remarks, though in the Q&A, Brian Hales questioned some of his use of sources regarding his polygamy claims.

Did anyone else go?  Do you have any comments?

3 comments on “San Antonio MHA 2014

  1. Thanks for the overview. I thought it was a great conference. I’m sorry I missed meeting you.

  2. […] Annual Mormon History Association meetings came to Provo last night.  Last year it was in San Antonio, and next year it will be at Snowbird Resort in Utah.  Sometimes I like it better when it’s […]

  3. […] Annual Mormon History Association meetings came to Provo this past weekend.  Last year it was in San Antonio, and next year it will be at Snowbird Resort in Utah.  Sometimes I like it better when it’s […]

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