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MHA 2015 in Review

The 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 out of town, because I can attend all the sessions.  When I’m home, there’s just too much going on, so I have to miss some of the session.  Anyway, here’s a recap of the sessions I attended.

Conceptions of Race

I caught the tail end of this session, and missed the presentations by Jonathan Stapley, Joseph Stuart, and Amanda Hendrix-Komoto.  I did hear some of Laurie Maffley-Kipp’s comments about their papers, and wish I could have heard their presentations.  From Laurie’s comments, it sounded like Stapley and Stuart discussed Joseph Smith’s sealing of black servant Jane Manning James.  It sounded like there was a debate about whether she had “wife” status.  Jane, a black servant of Joseph and Emma in Nauvoo, had been offered by Joseph Smith to be sealed to Joseph’s family, but she declined.  (More details in my priesthood ban post.)  After Joseph’s death, she was vicariously sealed to Joseph as a servant.  Apparently there was a debate about whether she might have had wife status.  There was talk about whether Emma would have had a higher status in the Celestial Kingdom with more subordinate wives underneath her.  (Sounds a little like a pyramid scheme.)  In the Q&A, Stapley noted that child-parent sealings did not exist while Joseph was alive, giving credence to the idea this could have been more of a wife-type sealing relationship.  Anyway, I wish I could have heard more of the presentation.  Can anyone add details here?  (I hope my understanding is not off here.)

Mormon Bodies

This was a strange title, but an interesting session with Paul Reeve, Edward Jeter, and Christine Blythe.  Reeve discussed the 19th century psuedo-science of Physiognomy and Polyeroticity.  (Yeah, I don’t know what that means either.)  I guess there was an idea that you could look at a person’s eyes and other physical characteristics and know things about them.  For example, Brigham Young’s eyes weren’t wide open, and were described as rat-like.  Rats are polygamists, so that proves Mormons are too.  Conceptions of race were really odd, because supposedly these psuedo-sciences could distinguish Catholics, Irish, Germans, and many other white “races.”  Mormons were considered so different than mainstream whites that their physical appearance was altered.

Edward Jeter discussed the Origin and Persistence of Mormon horns.  Most of these origins seemed to involved editorial cartoons where Brigham Young had goat horns protruding.  Similar to Paul Reeve’s presentation, this was a way to show Mormons were “other.”  There were some rare instances of people actually believing Mormons had horns, but it seems that now Mormons like to tell these stories to tell how stupid gentiles are for believing such things, even though the evidence of gentiles believing Mormons had horns is so old.

Christine Blythe discussed folk theologies about birth among Mormon women.  She told many stories about Mormon midwives spiritual experiences during birth.  I have to say I didn’t really connect with this presentation, but many others in the audience did, asking her many questions in the Q&A.

1954 – A Year in Decision

These presentations were both excellent.  Newell Bringhurst, who has written extensively on the black priesthood/temple ban, described 1954 as an under-appreciated year in the history of the ban, and encouraged Mormon historians to more closely consider this year when discussing the history.  In 1954, Pres David O. McKay visited South Africa.  Because of the concern of intermarriage with blacks, South Africans were required to trace their genealogy back to Europe in order to prove they did not have “one drop” of black blood.  Mission president Evan P. Wright told McKay that this requirement was impossible for some saints to prove.  As a result, branches and wards couldn’t function effectively because they just didn’t have enough leaders.  McKay immediately rescinded the genealogical requirement, changing the policy from in essence, guilty until proven innocent to innocent until proven guilty.  If there was no reason to suspect black ancestry, white-appearing men could be ordained to the priesthood.  This was a tremendous help in South Africa.

Also in 1954, McKay met with LDS Institute teacher Sterling McMurrin at the U of Utah about the ban.  McMurrin was an outspoken critic of the ban, believing it was not doctrinal.  Apostles Joseph F. Smith and Harold B. Lee wanted McMurrin excommunicated for his views.  In the meeting, McKay told McMurrin that McKay believed the ban was not doctrinal either, and told McMurrin if he had any trouble that McKay would be a witness for McMurrin’s character.  The excommunication proceedings were dropped.  News of McKay’s belief that the black ban was not doctrinal were not made public until the late 1960s when McKay confirmed McMurrin’s account of the meeting.

A third action occurred in 1954:  McKay convened a special meeting of the Apostles to get a comprehensive view of the ban.  Apostle Adam S. Bennion’s committee concluded there was no sound scriptural basis for the ban, but believed church membership was not prepared for a reversal of the ban. It turns out that McKay reportedly plead with the Lord, but received an answer that the time was not right to remove the ban.

Apostles were split on the issue.  Spencer W. Kimball gave an April 1954 General Conference address in which he referred to the “monster of prejudice” against Chinese, Japanese, Hawaiian, and American Indian members (though he did not refer specifically to blacks.)  Mark E. Peterson, on the other hand, defended segregation as a “divinely sanctioned practice.”  In October 1954  J. Reuben Clark had planned to give a talk in which he called on fellow church members to protect all rights of blacks that are afforded in the Constitution.  He hoped there would be a new era for the ban and that modern prophets had declared that in due time the burden will be removed, and blacks will enjoy priesthood.  However, McKay did not approve of Clark’s talk, and it was not given.  Apparently relations between Clark and McKay were quite poor due to several personality conflicts.  McKay had demoted Clark from 1st to 2nd counselor in the First Presidency, and often kept Clark out of important decisions.

A last landmark decision in 1954 was discussed by Matt Harris, a professor of history at Colorado State University.  Harris discussed the important Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in which school integration became the law of the land.  Mark E. Peterson had condemned Civil Rights and given a talk at BYU linking segregation with theology.  Peterson said God favored whites over blacks.  Peterson conceded blacks could go to the Celestial Kingdom, but only as servants.

The Supreme Court decision forced apostles and Mormons to deal more with race issues.  Peterson defended the status quo.  Clark was more nuanced, saying that the Supreme court decision made whites and black relations worse.  He said the color line would only disappear with blacks good behavior.  Clark supported segregated blood banks.  Harris gave more details about Clark and Peterson’s disagreements and Clark’s nixed talk by McKay.  In the Q&A session, it was learned that Clark probably circulated his talk prior to General Conference seeking support (which is why McKay nixed it), but Peterson had probably spoken at BYU without McKay’s knowledge.  It is unknown if McKay approved of Peterson’s talk, (McKay probably didn’t know what Peterson was going to say) but many Mormons felt Peterson’s stature gave official church sanction.

Memory as Historical Devices

Gary Bergera gave a very interesting presentation regarding the beginnings of polygamy in Nauvoo.  Joseph Smith’s first 3 polygamist wives in Nauvoo were Louisa Beamon, Presindia Huntington Buell, and Zina Huntington.  Dates of the marriages are conflicting, but traditional dating puts these 3 marriages in 1841.  However, the Wilford Woodruff Journal dates them to 1840.  Which is correct?

The problem with dating is that Nauvoo was so secretive with regards to polygamy that records are poor.  Most of the records come from the 1860s, based on memories or participants.  Dates from these memories are very hard to corroborate, which is why there are so many conflicting dates.  Bergera laid out the various sources and dates for these 3 sealings.  The knottiest problem deals with Zina Huntington.  She married Henry Jacobs in a public, civil ceremony in 1841, and if the 1841 plural marriage to Joseph is correct, was 7 month pregnant with Henry’s baby.  However, if the 1840 date is correct, then she was still single when married to Joseph.  Then the question comes, was her public marriage to Henry a sham?  Either way, this is a strange marriage.  Other marriages have contradictory dates as well.

John Hatch gave an interesting story that I had never heard before.  The Improvement Era of 1933 contained a story that claimed Jesus Christ had appeared to Lorenzo Snow in the Salt Lake Temple some 30 years prior.  The circumstances of the vision were that Snow received a telegram in Brigham City where he learned that Wilford Woodruff had passed away.  He immediately boarded a train to Salt Lake and went to pray in the temple.  Just outside the Holy of Holies, Christ appeared to him, standing on gold about 3 feet in the air, and told him that he should immediately reorganize the First Presidency.

However, Snow didn’t tell anyone about the vision.  He hoped the apostles would get a similar revelation about reorganizing the presidency.  Prior to Snow, Church leaders often waited a few years before reorganizing the First Presidency.  In fact, when Taylor died, Woodruff had proposed reorganizing the First Presidency immediately, but Heber J. Grant had opposed the motion.  When Woodruff died, however, the apostles met and agreed to reorganize the First Presidency immediately, which for Snow, seemed to confirm his vision.  (In practical matters, the church was in trouble financially due to polygamy persecutions, and needed a million dollar loan. No bank would issue the loan without a living Trustee-in-trust, which likely helped spur the apostles to move more quickly in organizing the First Presidency than they had in the past.)

There are some problems with the story of this vision, however.  Snow didn’t seem to tell any of the apostles, or at least none of them recorded it.  The Improvement Era article was written by Snow’s son LeRoi some 30 years after the vision, and was based on his interviews of his niece Allie Pond Young’s recollections of her conversations with Lorenzo Snow.  (Allie is 6 months older than LeRoi; she is related to both Snow and Brigham Young.)  Allie never wrote down her account, so LeRoi’s account is third hand.  In the article, LeRoi seems to quote Heber J. Grant as confirming the story, but there are some concerns.

Grant does confirm some elements of the story: that Snow had prayed in the Salt Lake Temple and in answer to prayer felt the First Presidency should be reorganized immediately and the Apostles agreed.  However, the vision of Jesus is missing from Grant’s account.  In response to a letter from a woman asking if any apostles or prophets had seen Jesus, Grant replied that only Joseph Smith had, which seems to imply he had no knowledge of Snow’s vision.

Hatch said memories are often fluid, and cited some studies where people’s memories shifts.  He cited studies involving memories of many people with regards to tragedies such as the  9-11 attacks, Kennedy assassination, and Challenger explosion in 1986.  In one study, a man was asked to write down his memory of an event soon after it happened.  Several months later, he was again asked about the same event, but this time his memory didn’t match his hand-written account.  Asked if this was his own hand writing, he replied ‘that’s my writing, but it’s not what happened.’  Many people have false memories, so it is hard to know if LeRoi’s account is embellished or just a false memory.  Allie had a strong desire to believe, and historians should be charitable when evaluating memories.

JB Haws finished the session with an account describing Mormon history over the past 40 years.  The 1970s have been known among the Mormon History community as the Camelot years for open church history with Leonard Arrington.  However, Mark Hoffman forgeries of the 1980s portrayed unflattering church history and often produced controversial headlines, causing the LDS Church to be cautious when discussing history.  This controversial era of church history influenced the Sept Six Excommunications in 1993.  Haws discussed Richard Bushman’s internship program to help groom Mormon scholars begun in the 1990s.  Haws felt that the current openness in church history is even better than the Camelot years, and Bushman has referred to this as more of a Golden Age of church history.  The new church essays are much better received than they would have been 30 years ago.  Haws felt that the church has turned a corner with regards to openness in church history.

In the Q&A session, I asked JB if there was some pushback among church leaders with the recent excommunications of John Dehlin, Kate Kelly, and Rock Waterman.  Haws responded that there does seem to be a pushback against advocacy, but he felt that the current environment was different than it was in 1993. He cited a post at By Common Consent by Nate Oman that felt things were different this time.  In some conversations afterward, he asked me how I felt.

I told him that these excommunications make me very nervous, and it feels like 1993 to me.  I told him I would be more encouraged if a leader like Elder Uchtdorf could take over after Monson, but if someone like Packer takes over, I think some of these gains could be reversed.  I hope JB is right, but I’m not convinced that these changes are permanent.

Culture and Conflict

The last session I attended began with Russell Stevenson, this year’s winner of the Best Book Award: For the Cause of Righteousness.  Stevenson is beginning a Ph.D. program at Michigan State University, and has been in Nigeria recently.  He discussed Mormon missionary work in Nigeria, starting in the 1960s.

Nigerians had somehow become acquainted with the Book of Mormon, and wrote to church headquarters asking for missionaries.  Pres. McKay asked mission president Glen Fisher to investigate Nigeria on his way home from South Africa.  Fisher didn’t deliver a promising report of the country, but told McKay that blacks there had actually begun meeting on their own, and even adopted the name “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” in the early 1960s.  The next year, McKay sent Lamar Williams as mission president, along with 19 year old missionary Marvin Jones.  They wrote back that the priesthood ban was not viable or sustainable in Nigeria.  Jones noted that there was tremendous financial need in Nigeria, and was skeptical if that was the reason for interest of the Nigerians in the gospel.  Nigerians told Jones “we need to go to America to teach you Christianity.”  They noted that Nigerians used drums in church services and seemed very Pentecostal.  Nigerians have a lot to learn about Mormonism, but they saw potential.

Mormonism and the Negro was written by John Stewart, a professor of communications at Utah State University.  The book lays out why the ban should continue, and implied that blacks should be grateful they exist at all.  The book made its way to a Nigerian journalist at Cal-Poly named Ambrose Chukwu.  Chukwu wrote the Nigerian government about the book’s racist teachings, and there was a newspaper headline “They’re importing Ungodliness.”  The government then banned all Mormon missionaries, an astonishing position as Nigeria has always been known as being very open to missionaries of all faiths.  A Civil war starts (called the Biafra War) over eastern Nigeria and Nigeria soon quit granting VISAs to all foreigners on account of the violence.  As a side note, Stevenson noted that Sonia Johnson was living in Nigeria in the 1960s.  (Sonia was later excommunicated for  her advocacy of the Equal Rights Amendment of the 1970s.)

I asked Russell when LDS missionary work returned to Nigeria, and he replied that it was shortly after the 1978 revelation.  He said that Sonia Johnson’s attitudes were pretty typical of LDS in the 1960s, and her time there was not noteworthy with regards to the race ban.

Alex Baugh discussed the relatively peaceful time of Mormons in Clay County, Missouri.  Of course this is in stark contrast to the early conflicts in Jackson County of 1931-2 in which Mormons were forcibly expelled from Jackson County.  Saints headed north to Clay County, home of Alexander Doniphan and David Atchison, attorneys that represented Mormon interests in Jackson county.  The period of 1833-36 was much more peaceful for Mormons, and they coexisted with Clay County citizens quite peacefully.  By 1836, Clay citizens became alarmed at the growing Mormon population, and asked them to leave.  Simultaneously, Mormons had purchased land in Ray (later named Caldwell) County, and is the home of Far West.  Baugh noted that D&C 105:25 seemed to have been fulfilled in which God said he would soften the hearts of the gentiles.  Mormons were treated quite well in Clay County, unlike their treatment in Jackson County.

Finally, Scott Esplin discussed Catholic and Mormon relations in Nauvoo.  When the Mormons abandoned Nauvoo in the mid-late 1840s, the Catholics purchased much of the land in the area around the Nauvoo Temple.  (They even offered to purchase the Temple from the Mormons, but were refused.)  In 1873-4, Catholics built a school between the temple and LDS housing blocks, blocking the view of the temple.

In the 1930s, the LDS began to return to Nauvoo, and tried to buy property, especially the temple lot which was under Catholic control.  The RLDS Church also came to town, attempting to purchase land in order to block LDS interests.  There was a restoration boom in Nauvoo, with LDS and RLDS in competing restoration projects.  By 1989, the church announced that it would switch from a restoration mode to a maintenance mode, with no other restorations planned.

By 1997, the Catholic school had fallen into disrepair, and Catholic officials decided to sell the property rather than try to make expensive repairs.  Within 24 hours, the LDS Church issued a bid for the property.  The announcement didn’t go over well with locals, who felt they had been sold out by the Catholic sisters.  There was animosity between Catholics and residents because residents were tired of the foreign LDS and RLDS plans that didn’t seem to take into account local interests.  The LDS Church gave Catholics 30 months to vacate, and then announced plans to reconstruct the temple.  Nauvoo residents were upset with the lack of input from Catholic and Mormon officials.

Nauvoo residents had been accustomed to the generosity of the Catholic church.  Catholics had often allowed use of church buildings for gatherings.  Since LDS temples are not open to the public, this made town gatherings almost impossible as no other buildings were available.  The LDS Church initially retained a few of the Catholic buildings for use during the Nauvoo Temple open house, and then tore down the old school.  Nauvoo residents were sad to see such a historic building torn down.

In the Q&A session, someone asked what could be done to help with residents’ concerns.  Hatch responded that the LDS Church only thinks of Nauvoo as 1840 era, but there is another 150 years of history that Mormons just don’t care about in Nauvoo.  It would have been better to try to understand residents concern and get more local input.  While Mormons secretly tried to purchase land (as early as the 1930s) in order to keep real estate prices low, it also came across as secretive as if Mormons were covertly trying to invade the town.  Better communication to understand local concerns would have been helpful.  While the temple was being rebuilt, many locals expected a boon to the economy, but it didn’t materialize.

Some questions:

  • What are your thoughts about Catholic Mormon relations in Nauvoo?
  • Do you think the church is more open about history, or is retrenchment going on with excommunications of key members?
  • Do you think 1954 is a pivotal year with regards to the priesthood/temple ban?
  • What are your thoughts with regards to the vision of Lorenzo Snow?  Do you think it happened?
  • Are stories of Mormon horns overblown?

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