Filed under: 19th-century Mormonism, Archives, Brigham Young, Memory, Stan, Western History
As certain babblers in Zion shared everything but their testimonies from the pulpit in Church today (we had stake conference last week so this today was fast and testimony meeting), I began flipping through the hymn book, reading some of those obscure old hymns we never sing. I lighted on Orson F. Whitney’s poetic little reverie “The Wintry Day, Descending to Its Close” and got a good dose of manifest destiny in the 4th verse:
The wilderness, that naught before would yield,
Is now become a fertile, fruitful field.
Where roamed at will the fearless Indian band,
The templed cities of the Saints now stand.
I leaned over to my wife, and showed it to her. She gasped, “That’s awful.” It reminded me of my reaction to a little vignette I once read in none other than our own namesake, the Juvenile Instructor, titled “The Indian Boy’s Twenty-Fourth” (1898):
“It was a morning in July. At the base of a range of mountains that formed the eastern boundary of a great valley stood an Indian boy. Westward he turned his gaze. The grey sage that lay both south and north here also met his view. Down through its midst a silver band showed the course of a winding river, that, pouring itself into the bitter waters of the great inland sea, sought vainly to make them sweet. In the hazy light of the summer day the gray valley grew more gray in the distance until it touched the dark waters of the bitter sea and the mountains of blue that shut it in.
“The boy turned from all this and looked attentively at the dark spot down in the valley where strange men unlike himself had come and made their camp. Two days before they had come and immediately with appliances strange as themselves had begun turning over the virgin soil, and by some unknown means directing the waters of a near-by stream to cover it.
“As still he gazed, slowly another stranger band emerged from the mountains. It came near his side and halted. In one of the wheeled vehicles lay a man, pale and weak, who as the carriage stopped raised up and looked upon the land and uttered strange words as he beheld it. The boy knew not the man, knew not his words, but in his eyes he saw a strange light and on his face an expression that made him look like some fair god.
“A tremor shook the frame of the Indian child, a thrill went to his very heart. He seemed to feel the import of those words. The land where he was born, where as the old man said his sires had hunted, since the great lake left the mountain side was now by strangers taken and lost to him for evermore.”  (Juvenile Instructor 33, no. 14, July 15, 1898, 520.)
This is an incredible passage, soaked in a characteristically Mormon and yet very American sense of manifest destiny. Several myths are embedded in the narrative: the timelessness of a static pre-European America (“where the old man said his sires had hunted, since the great lake [Bonneville] left the mountain side”); the assumed superiority of agrarian lifestyle; and of course, the sense of divinely sanctioned entitlement to the “virgin land.”
Historian Elliot West refers to such stories—variously labeled as “‘living myths’ or ‘stories lived forward,’” but which he calls “visions”—as ways different peoples explain, quite literally, “who in the world they are.”
“These overarching stories describe how a people fit into the world and what their purposes have become. They argue that certain beliefs and values are natural, self-evident expressions of a people being exactly where they are and nowhere else. Such stories become guides and encouragements for living out a newly dreamed existence. Almost invariably they justify possession. When people look back, the stories become proof to them that they have been summoned by fate or history or God into their rightful homes.”
So if such tales have been so useful to Latter-day Saints and Americans for so many years—they were in full swing in 1898 and still in currency whenever Whitney wrote his hymn (pre-1931)—what has become of them now? Do Mormons (and Americans) still have a sense of manifest destiny, even if it has been toned down a little? (Whitney’s hymn is still in the book, long after W. W. Phelps’s “O, Stop and Tell Me Red Man” was been removed). Have we simply removed those that cringe upon our PC sensitivities? Or has the entire vision been altered and recast by the experiences and historical revisionism of the past century?
 My wife commented that this line is not too charitable; so I reminded her that after a certain individual’s preamble today she leaned over to me and whispered, “This is going to be long.” (She was right.) But to cede her point, I really don’t mean do denigrate any person’s experiences or testimony, so please consider this only playful banter by an insider (and thus one entitled to such quipping by the eso/exo factor).
 To those unfamiliar with Mormon history, July 24 is when the Latter-day Saint pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley. A few vanguard Saints arrived a few days before to plow up a small plot, plant crops, and may have begun irrigating. According to legend (and Wilford Woodruff’s journal), when Brigham Young entered the valley, sick and laying in a wagon, he raised up on one elbow and said, “This is the [right] place, move on.”
 Elliott West refers to this idea of European exploration and colonization as “the start of history itself” as a perceived “breaking of a slumbering spell” (The Contested Plains [University of Kansas, 1998], 33).
 Elliott West, The Contested Plains, xxiii.
As explored elsewhere, novel reading/writing did not have a major stronghold in 19th century Mormonism. This sentiment changed with Orson Whitney’s call for “home literature” around the turn of the 20th century, novels became more common both for past-time reading as well as a career in writing. These were often didactic tales teaching morals with a simple plot, usually with the intention of building faith. Very characteristic of the neo-classicism era, they found historical accuracy not as important in their tales as the message gleaned from them. A modern-day example of this type of literature is The Work and the Glory series.
However, Mormon novels did not gain respect outside of Utah until the 1940’s, when a handful of authors dared to write historical fiction from a not-too-glamorized point of view. Two of these books, Virginia Sorensen’s A Little Lower than the Angels and Maurine Whipple’s The Giant Joshua, explore the practice of polygamy in the early Church. While Sorensen focuses on the Nauvoo time period, Whipple sets her story in the settling of St. George. While a case can be made that neither denied the faith in their masterpieces, it is safe to say that they offered a very humanistic approach to controversial topics.
So, my question is, what role does historical fiction play in understanding how Mormons view the past? A vast majority of members would prefer Gerald Lund’s stories over Sorensen and Whipple, but does the fact that the latter’s books were written say something about our community? And, perhaps more importantly, how does literature help shape our outlook on the past? Even though it is obvious that the books are fiction, would they structure how a person would view the time period that the story is set in?
Latter-day Saints (including me) in the 21st century have, to say the least, a complex relationship with their past. A friend once told me that Mormon history offers everything a historian could ask for—polygamy, visions, ancient books, violence, prophets, etc. While these things fascinate historians and buffs alike, for many contemporary Mormons that are missionary minded, they present uncomfortable difficulties when brought up with friends of other faiths. I think that part of this discomfort stems from the fact that we no longer see ourselves in parts of our past. When we share stories about ourselves with others, we choose aspects of our past that we feel define us. In like manner, we hide or diminish those things that embarrass us. One of these things is Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy.
For much of the 19th century and even during the first decades of the 20th century, this was not the case. As SC Taysom has shown, once the Saints publicly announced that plural marriage was a religious tenet in 1852, telling the world that Joseph Smith was a polygamist was an integral part of Mormon self-representations.  These self-representations were soon contested however by the counter-memory put forward by members of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints—a counter-narrative that portrayed Smith as a monogamist. Debates with the RLDS became a struggle over who would have the power to define Smith’s image in the wider culture and, by extension, the power to claim the mantle of Joseph Smith’s Mormonism. Embracing the memory of Smith as a polygamist was therefore an integral part of Brighamite identity during the 19th century.
The complete abandonment of polygamy in the first decades of the 20th century, coupled with changing relations with the RLDS, has moved Smith’s polygamy from the center of our public self-representations to the margins. At times, it seems that his polygamy is only in the picture when we’re called upon to defend him. Smith’s polygamy is now an embarrassment to modern Mormons, and remembering his polygamy is usually avoided (or diminished) in public representations of our past. Perhaps most ironically and tragically, I’ve observed that many disaffected Mormons claim that learning about Joseph Smith’s polygamy—primarily polyandry and marrying 14-year-old girls—contributed to their becoming disillusioned. What was once a bulwark of Mormon identity now serves in some cases to contest and even disintegrate it.
Note: To be clear, since there seems to be some confusion, I am not saying that most Mormons in their private lives or in their discussions among themselves, are embarrassed by Smith’s polygamy. Rather, I am pointing to embarrassment in their self-representations to others outside of the faith.
 Stephen C. Taysom, “A Uniform and Common Recollection: Joseph Smith’s Legacy, Polygamy, and the Creation of Mormon Public Memory, 1852-2002,” Dialogue 35, no. 3 (Fall 2002): 114-44.
As sociologist Barry Schwartz has shown with Abraham Lincoln, great men and women become great not because of what they do in life, but by how they survive in memories and narratives of those that follow. Most Americans (outside of the South) remember Lincoln as a national hero that held steady during crisis, unified the country, and brought an end to slavery. But during his lifetime, and especially during the last few years of his life, Lincoln was despised by many not only in the South but also in his own party and even in his cabinet. It was not until after his death that the image of the national liberator emerged as a dominant narrative in American culture, although that image has been contested, by Southerners that see him as a tyrant as well as by civil libertarians that see his suspension of habeas corpus as a gross violation of liberty.
In much the same way, Brigham Young has been imagined in several different ways in the years since 1877. Jan Shipps in “Brigham Young and His times” traced the history of changing representations of Young. The History of Joseph Smith, written by church scribes, cast Young as rescuing the Church from disintegration following Joseph Smith’s death. Bernard DeVoto and other observers took this to mean that Young saved the Church from the follies of Smith, an image that fit well with the emerging frontier school of American history that defined historical significance as the westward movement of Americans. Shipps then described “a broad-based attempt [by scholars] to assess the extent to which Young ought to get the credit for the survival and endurance of Mormonism,” primarily by Eugene England, Ronald K. Esplin, and Leonard J. Arrington (Sojourner, 247). These scholars have presented a new image of Young not as the savior of Mormonism (because Mormonism survived in the East, albeit in a different form), but as the one that created a Mormonism “that so fully explored the implications of the fullness of the first LDS prophet’s vision that was more esoteric, more communal, and, from the standpoint of traditional Christianity, more heretical under Brigham Young than it had been during the lifetime of Joseph Smith” (Sojourner, 254).
Shipps’ article is an important exposition of how historians and journalists have imagined Brigham Young, but it does little to explore how Church leaders, ordinary Latter-day Saints, and non-Mormons have remembered him in the years since his death. It seems to me that there is no other figure in Mormon history (aside from BRM) that has so many competing images in popular discourse. Brigham Young being a Prophet has been crucial to the self-identity of the Mormons that followed him west because of the succession crisis. In perhaps equal measure, those Mormons that did not follow Young west have defined themselves as not being like the Brighamites.
In recent decades, many Mormons have been forced to deal with Young’s legacy in terms of racism, the role of women in the Church, and doctrine. “Brigham Young said many things” is a narrative that I’ve heard several times during my lifetime, which seems to function as a way for Latter-day Saints to maintain their faith in him as a Prophet while distancing his prophet-status from the things that he taught. Despite these discursive techniques that seek to maintain balance, for many Mormons they also serve as subversive narratives that challenge and contest the dominant tropes of Brigham Young as successor and colonizer.
So where does Brigham Young “fit” in our collective memory? What are the narratives that we as Latter-day Saints use to situate him in the stories that we tell others about ourselves? How do we reconcile competing images of him? Do race, gender, or region of origin influence how Mormons remember Young? Does it matter if someone is a convert or born in the covenant? How do we interpret him in relation to Joseph Smith? [Note: This post is designed to promote an interesting conversation about Young and the people that have followed him. Please keep comments within the definition of “relatively faithful” as defined by DMI Dave. Basically, don’t hijack this thread to give justifications for loss of faith or to question how Mormons can believe in Young despite the racism, sexism, etc.]