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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



Doing The Works of Abraham: Mormon Polygamy: Its Origin, Practice, and Demise edited by B. Carmon Hardy (Kingdom in the West: the Mormons and the American Frontier, Volume 9: Arthur H. Clark Company) Celestial Marriage—the "doctrine of the plurality of wives"—polygamy. No issue in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (popularly known as the Mormon Church) has attracted more attention. From its contentious and secretive beginnings in the 1830s to its public proclamation in 1852, and through almost four decades of bitter conflict with the federal government to Church renunciation of the practice in 1890, this belief helped define a new religious identity and unify the Mormon people, just as it scandalized their neighbors and handed their enemies the most effective weapon they wielded in their battle against Mormon theocracy.

This newest addition to the Kingdom in the West Series provides the basic documents supporting and challenging Mormon polygamy, supported by the concise commentary and documentation of editor B. Carmon Hardy.

Plural marriage is everywhere at hand in Mormon history. However, despite its omnipresence, including a broad and continuing stream of publications devoted to it, few attempts have been made to assemble a documentary history of the topic. Hardy has drawn on years of research and writing on the controversial and complex subject to make this narrative collection of documents illuminating and myth-shattering.

Like nothing else, the doctrine gave the Mormons a compelling, distinctive theology, and it established their reputation as a "peculiar people," a badge they still wear with pride. But its odd and unconventional nature is still a reminder that the doctrine remains a central element of Mormonism's revolutionary theology despite its having been abandoned by the Church's leadership over 100 years ago.

The second "relic of barbarism," as the Republican Party platform of 1856 characterized polygamy, was believed by the Saints to be God's law, trumping the laws of a mere republic. The long struggle for what was, and for some fundamentalists remains, religious freedom still resonates in American religious law. Throughout the West, thousands of families continue the practice, even in the face of LDS Church opposition.

B. Carmon Hardy is Emeritus Professor of History at California State University, Fullerton. Though published in the fields of American Constitutional History and the History of Religion, his primary work has been on Mormonism. His previous book, Solemn Covenant: The Mormon Polygamous Passage (1992) was given the best book award by the Mormon History Association.

Solemn Covenant: The Mormon Polygamous Passage by  Carmon Hardy (University of Illinois Press) describes the Mormon church's doctrinal change from a polygamous to a monogomist ethic. The first part of his book deals with the polygamous beginnings and early Mormon justification for the practice. Polygamy was considered the "family order of heaven" and was sanctioned by revelation given to the founding prophet Joseph Smith. Polygamy was practiced in secret until the Mormons came to Utah, were it was openly taught. Early church leaders even taught that polygamy was a requirement to reach the highest Heaven, where God dwells. Hardy spends the rest of his book describing the slow death of polygamy. Even though polygamy had always been against the law, the Federal government started passing tougher laws against the practice. The most strict law became the "Edmunds-Tucker act" in 1887, which was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1890. This law disincorporated the church and most of its properties. The church realized that it could not survive and so that same year the manifesto was issued, which publically stated the church would abandon plural marriage. However, it was not that simple. Hardy shows how many members of the church, including high church leaders, continued to practice polygamy well into the beginning of the next century. This created a discrepancy between what the church was saying (that they had given up polygamy) and what they were still doing (allowing some to continue in taking new wives). Hardy's final chapter deals with the issue of deception used by some in the church to try to keep the practice alive. "Solemn Covenant" is very well written and Hardy's keen sense of irony manifests itself throughout the book. Especially in the chapters that deal with the church being so strong in the doctrine of polygamy, to a church that is now strongly anti-polygamous.


Bones in the Well: The Haun's Mill Massacre, 1838; A Documentary History by Beth Shumway Moore (Arthur H. Clark Company) Gathered in this new work are eyewitness testimonies of the massacre and its aftermath by those who were on the scene. The accounts of Joseph Young, Amanda Smith, Willard Gilbert Smith, Austin Hammer, Artemisia Sidnie Meyers, Nathan Kinsman Knight, Thomas McBride, Isaac Laney, Olive Ames, and others are heart-rending and vivid. On October 30, 1838, a group of Missouri militia attacked the small Mormon settlement at Haun's Mill on Shoal Creek, killing seventeen men and boys and wounding eleven men, one woman, and one child. The conflict between the Missourians and the Mormons was in many ways inevitable. The Mormons had their own business and economic system. Clannish people, they voted in a bloc, thus tipping elections in their favor. They had a "different" religion and considered their faith superior to all others. Unlike most of their neighbors, they were friendly to the Indians and were thought to be abolitionists. The Missourians saw them as interlopers to be driven out. Set in context by the author, these documentary accounts dramatically portray the suffering of the Saints during and after the episode. An important event in Latter-day Saints history that helped mold Mormon attitudes and posturing toward the outside world in following decades, the Haun's Mill Massacre still resonates today in the hearts and minds of Mormons as a manifestation of religious persecution.The book has a bibliography and index. It is bound in wine linen cloth and has a foil stamped spine and front cover. 

Mormon Polygamy: A History by Richard S. Van Wagoner (Signature Books) In this, the first comprehensive survey of Mormon polygamy—from nineteenth-century Ohio to twentieth-century Utah—Richard S. Van Wagoner details with precision and detachment the tumultuous reaction among Mormons and non-Mormons to plural marriage. Drawing heavily on first-hand accounts and recent scholarly research, the author carefully outlines the philosophical underpinnings of the practice, the institutional administration of policies regulating polygamy, the opposition from within and without the church, and the personal trauma often associated with plural marriage.

What emerges is a portrait of polygamy that neither discounts nor exaggerates the historical evidence but presents it as sympathetically as possible in the context of the times. Van Wagoner offers neither condemnation nor apologetics. All relevant contemporary accounts are examined and interpreted , and no period of Mormon history emphasized over another. Even present-day polygamous splinter groups are examined. The result is a systematic view unavailable in studies of isolated periods or repetitions of folklore which disguised the ubiquitous and fascinating story of polygamy as it is really was.

Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930 by Thomas G. Alexander (University of Illinois Press) Alexander's clearly written history covers a period of Mormonism's development not usually examined despite its importance. The book, aptly titled, is essential to an understanding of the evolution of modern Mormonism. Portraying the turn-of-the-century church in a state of flux, Alexander demonstrates the process of solidification of its organizational structure, external affairs policy, and cultural institutions over the 30 years that followed. Thoroughly documenting his arguments, he answers many questions about the origins of contemporary Mormon practices. Recommended for college and university libraries. 

Things in Heaven and Earth: The Life and Times of Wilford Woodruff, a Mormon Prophet by Thomas G. Alexander (Signature Books) Thomas G. Alexander, professor of history at Brigham Young University and one of the leaders of what has been called the "New Mormon History" that tries to approach the subject with functional objectivity, has written a good biography of the Mormon Church's fourth president. Alexander asserts that Woodruff was "arguably the third most important figure in all of LDS Church history after Joseph Smith...and Brigham Young" (p. 331). While perhaps an overstatement, there is no question but that Woodruff was a central leader of nineteenth century Mormonism. He was a member of the church's council of twelve apostles between 1835 and 1889. Then he became president and headed the Mormon movement until his death in 1898 at age 91.

Alexander presents Woodruff as a true believer in the message of Joseph Smith and the Mormon religion. That meant, for Woodruff, the acceptance of "a world view that unified the temporal and spiritual realms in God's kingdom and in the lives of church members" (p. xiii). That holistic view of the temporal and spiritual found expression in the Mormon theocratic state of early Utah. Ironically, Woodruff began the dismantling of that theocracy in response to the challenges of federal authority. He, for instance, was responsible for the 1890 manifesto ending the performance of plural marriages and he set the course for Utah's statehood in 1896 by working to remove the church from politics.

Although there is much to admire in "Things in Heaven and Earth," there are some imperfections. One of them is occasional demonstrations of pro-Mormon bias and the too-easy acceptance of the court position. For example, Alexander argues that the "intermingling of church and state [in pioneer Utah] would have generated little opposition in a Protestant-dominated community" (p. 176), but there is little reason to accept that conclusion. The quest for empire that early Rocky Mountain Mormonism mandated always ran against the grain of the American mainstream and the nation asserted itself to defend against a perceived threat to liberty. There are numerous examples in American history of other religious groups, in similar instances being handled roughly by the larger community.

Even so, "Things in Heaven and Earth" is a fine biography. It is sympathetic without being hagiographic, and Alexander's conclusions are usually well measured. It can be profitably read by anyone interested in the development of Mormonism, new religions of the nineteenth century, and the American West.

From the Publisher: Wilford Woodruff converted to the LDS church in 1833, he joined a millenarian group of a few thousand persecuted believers clustered around Kirtland, Ohio. When he died sixty-five years later in 1898, he was the leader of more than a quarter of a million followers worldwide who were on the verge of entering the mainstream of American culture. Before attaining that status of senior church apostle at the death of John Taylor in 1886, Woodruff had been one of the fiercest opponents of United States hegemony. He spent years evading territorial marshals on the Mormon "underground," escaping prosecution for polygamy, unable even to attend his first wife's funeral. As church president, faced with disfranchisement and federal confiscation of Mormon property, including temples, Woodruff reached his monumental decision in 1890 to accept U.S. law and to petition for Utah statehood.

As church doctrines and practices evolved, Woodruff himself changed. The author examines the secular and religious development of Woodruff's world view from apocalyptic mystic to pragmatic conciliator. He also reveals the gentle, solitary farmer; the fisherman and horticulturalist; the family man with seven wives; the charismatic preacher of the Mormon Reformation; the astute businessman; the urbane, savvy politician who courted the favor of prominent Republicans in California and Oregon (Leland Stanford and Isaac Trumbo); and the vulnerable romantic who pursued the affections of Lydia Mountford, an international lecturer and Jewish rights advocate. He traces a faithful polygamist who ultimately embraced the Christian Home movement and settled comfortably into a monogamous relationship in an otherwise typically Victorian setting.


The tragedy is that the story that occurred in the Mormon "kingdom" during the life span of the 4th President of the Church was anything but dry! While I disagree with the author's assertion that "Woodruff was probably the 3rd most important Mormon after Joseph Smith and Brigham Young," (I don't know how you could possibly quantify the value of a man, and then rank them in some sort of Letterman's Top Ten List...especially when you consider the incredible contributions of other Mormons, including Sidney Rigdon, Hyrum Smith, the Pratt Brothers, as well as some of the more notorious, such as John Bennett,) still, so very much changed in Utah during his presidency that radically shaped the future of the West, that the feel and meaning of the story should be TOLD, not merely documented. It was during the leadership era of Wilford Woodruff that the Mormons finally joined the United States, which was in reality an incredible shift in the paradigm of the Mormon hierarchy. Plural Marriage, one of two keystones to Mormon segregation, (the other being the notion of theocratic inheritence of whatever land they happened to occupy), was eliminated...more or less...during his leadership. And the millenialism of the Saints became considerably tempered. Instead, Alexander chose to focus on the breakup of the People's Party and the importance of the tension then between Mormon Democrats and Mormon Republicans. To read this book, you would think that was the biggest story in Woodruff's life. I don't disagree that it was important in shaping policy, but it wasn't the real story. Furthermore, you practically know nothing about his families as a result of reading this book, only that he had four, plus a few divorced wives, which you would think in the family orientation of this church that these people would be a more significant subject of this book.

The fact of the matter is, Alexander has chosen to focus on the History of Utah and the Church during the life of Wilford Woodruff, while mentioning Woodruff's involvment, rather than focus on his life, while mentioning what was going on in the church.

Power from on High: The Development of Mormon Priesthood by Gregory A. Prince (Signature Books) This book covers the history and progression of the restoration of the priesthood and associated ordinances.

LDS author Gregory Prince apparently spent 8 years scanning more than a half million pages of research to produce this work on early Mormon priesthood development. The focus of this book is to chronologically organise early developments as they were written, not necessarily as they reportedly occurred. As a typical example, the term "Melchizedek Priesthood" did not exist within Mormonism until 1835, but in referring to earlier events, people who wrote after 1835 tended to use that term retroactively.

Prince shows that authority and priesthood were concepts that developed gradually, not as instant "restorations" but as ideas that acquired definition and evolution as time passed: "All the while the structure of higher and lower priesthoods fluctuated in response to pragmatic needs. Priests were needed to perform ordinances, teachers to lead congregations, bishops to manage church assets, and elders to proselytize - responsibilities which would be redistributed repeatedly throughout Smith's fourteen-year ministry."

While occasionally the author supplies his own interpretation on what he is quoting, he generally allows the reader to make their own assessment of the quoted historical record.


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