Juvenile Instructor


Manifest Mormon Destiny by stanthayne
November 11, 2007, 8:28 pm
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[1] (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.” [2] (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”)[3]; 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.”[4]

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?


[1] 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).

[2] 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.”

[3] 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).

[4] Elliott West, The Contested Plains, xxiii.

Advertisements


Mormons in the West: Life in the Donut Hole by David Grua
November 7, 2007, 9:57 am
Filed under: David Grua, historiography, Western History

Scholars typically seek to locate Mormon history within two wide frameworks: that of American religious history and that of the history of the American West. Jan Shipps, in her review of literature on Mormonism in the West, describes the situation as a donut hole. In her essay, “Gentiles, Mormons, and the History of American West,” Shipps argues that historians of the West have skipped Utah, “circling all around the Great Basin, taking into account and telling nearly every western story except the Mormon one.”[1] The task Shipps sets for herself in the essay is to understand why that would be and to offer suggestions to western historians for ways to integrate Mormons more fully into their accounts of the region.

As for the first objective, Shipps presents several ideas for why Mormonism has been ignored in the West’s wider story. First, she argues that it is Mormon “otherness” that leads historians to shy away from trying to incorporate the Latter-day Saints. This otherness reflects the divide that we Mormons have created ourselves by dividing the world into “Saints” and “Gentiles.” This leaves Mormons to write their own history.[2] A second reason put forward by Shipps is the secularism that she perceives among historians. Since these historians do not see the divine in their own lives, they have a difficult time seeing it in the stories of the people that they study.[3] A third reason is that with “[t]he transformation of Mormonism from regional faith to worldwide church makes it so difficult to get here from there, from the familiar Mormonism of western history to contemporary Mormon Christianity, that what has been occurring in the past few decades may be the principle reason why today’s historians of the American West so often neglect the region’s geographical center.”[4] This last reason is perhaps the most intriguing of the three.

Shipps also offers suggestions for how western historians can begin to fill in the hole at the center of the donut. First, she sees Mormon history as a good counter-example to Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis. Turner’s provocative 1893 essay argued that the frontier was what made Americans unique, with Europeans entering the frontier in the East, struggling with nature and savages, and finally emerging in the West as Americans, fully democratic and individualistic. Shipps concludes that Mormons passed through the same process, but with very different results. “The trail was where Saints were made…they emerged in the Great Basin not as individualists committed to capitalistic ethos but as communally oriented Latter-day Saints ready to give what was necessary to give what was necessary to build up Zion.” This transformation led to the creation of an ethnic group that can be studies as are other ethnic groups in the West.[5] In addition to seeing process in the development of Mormon ethnicity, Shipps also contends that historians should peek past their secular lenses and seek to understand the Mormon worldview from the inside.[6]

The “donut theory” may not win the prize for Shipps’ most eloquent representation of the Mormon past, but it does get the point across. This review has necessarily focused on Shipps’ specific thoughts on how Mormons fit into the western narrative, but there are some wonderful autobiographical gems that she shares about her developing sense of identity as a Gentile/non-Mormon/nonmember studying the Saints. But what of her ideas for situating the Mormons in the West? I am troubled by Shipps’ acceptance of Turner’s emphasis on process rather than the New Western history’s reliance on place. Although some respected historians continue to see a process at play in western migration, most historians have followed Patricia Nelson Limerick’s lead in seeing the West as a region first and a process a distant second. In my view, historians need to cease seeing Mormons as an isolated group in the West, and recognize that although Utah never was California in terms of diversity, Latter-day Saints in their Zion constantly converged and came into contact with “others,” whether it be Gold Rushers, federal officials, protestants, Gentile merchants, and general travelers. These contacts shaped Mormonism, as well as these “others.” Focusing our analyses on these points of contact and convergence will go a long way toward filling in that donut hole.[7]


[1] Jan Shipps, “Gentiles, Mormons, and the History of the American West,” in Sojourner in the Promised Land: Forty Years Among the Mormons (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000), 21.[2] Shipps, Sojourner, 25.

[3] Shipps, Sojourner, 35. Both D. Michael Quinn and Thomas G. Alexander have argued for secularism among historians for the neglect of religion in histories of the West (D. Michael Quinn, “Religion in the American West,” in Under an Open Sky: Rethinking America’s Western Past, eds. William Cronon, George Miles, and Jay Gitlin [New York: W. W. Norton, 1992], 165; Thomas G. Alexander, “Establishing Zion,” The Mormon History Association’s Tanner Lecutures: The First Twenty Years , eds. Dean L. May and Reid L. Neilson [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006], 117-18).

[4] Shipps, Sojourner, 41.

[5] Shipps, Sojourner, 34-35.

[6] Shipps, Sojourner, 36.

[7] Convergence, along with conquest, complexity, and continuity comprise Limerick’s four C’s for understanding the New Western history paradigm (Patricia Nelson Limerick, Something in the Soil: Legacies and Reckonings in the New West [New York: W. W. Norton, 2000], 13-28).