July 29, 2009

Review: "Amasa Mason Lyman, Mormon Apostle and Apostate: A Study in Dedication"

Author: Edward Leo Lyman
Publisher: University of Utah Press
Genre: Biography/History
Year Published: 2009
Number of Pages: 646
ISBN13: 9780874809404
Price: 39.95

Ask a group of current Mormons to identify any LDS apostles who served between 1844 and 1900 and you will likely hear about Brigham Young or Heber C. Kimball. Ask for the name of a person who never ascended to the First Presidency and you are likely to draw blank stares. Mention the name “Amasa Mason Lyman,” well…

Despite being relatively unknown today, many of these early leaders made important contributions to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For his part, Amasa (pronounced “Am-uh-see”) was once considered one of the finest early Mormon preachers. Having read some of his engaging sermons, I anticipated the publication of Amasa’s new biography with relish. The author, Edward Leo Lyman—a direct descendant—promises an “objective and complete treatment of this important subject” despite making no “pretense of seeking to veil” his admiration for Amasa. Who was this enigmatic apostle, what were his contributions to early Mormonism, what were the circumstances behind his excommunication, and how did he spend the final years of his life? Leo believes his forefather has not received enough attention from historians and hopes to correct this problem. To Leo, Amasa had “more influence than has usually been recognized” in historical accounts (74) and deserves “much more credit” for the success of early Mormonism in spite of being “almost forgotten” today (244). He “attempts to redress a century and a half of diminished attention” by underscoring Amasa’s valuable Church service and honorable life (297). He also hopes to help readers understand why such a promising apostle was dropped from the Quorum of the Twelve and excommunicated from the LDS Church. In short: Leo seeks to “justify the ways of Amasa to men,” and all good morality tales need an antagonist to contest the protagonist. More on that below.

The biography will interest anyone interested in early Mormon history because Amasa’s life was so intertwined with the rise of the Church. The narrative chronicles many aspects of early Church history almost from its inception through the 1870s, including early missionary proselyting in the United States and overseas, church administration, the pioneer exodus, colonization, plural marriage, the aftermath of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and dissent in the highest quorums. Readers see these events as experienced by one of the Church’s earliest and lesser-known apostles. In the process, Leo wades through primary sources and family lore to analyze and sift wheat from chaff, attempting to present the most reliable information possible. (Unfortunately, following him through the endnotes is tedious because the publisher elected to print them in the back of the book as opposed to bottom-of-the-page footnotes.) I enjoyed the glimpses into how various Lyman descendants have understood, depicted and interpreted Amasa’s experiences. While interacting with previous researchers, Leo includes many personal details on early Mormon life that may seem foreign to today’s average Latter-day Saint.

For instance, readers will enjoy reading more about early Mormon family life. Amasa’s concern and affection for his wives and children are apparent in the personal correspondence Leo includes. These relationships were strained by the difficulties of living in plural marriage and the constant missions the apostle performed which took him away from family. Amasa’s letters contain beautifully poetic (only occasionally over-the-top) prose as he describes his labors, apologizes for absences, and constantly urges family unity. The financial troubles, loneliness, and other struggles faced by these families are necessary to consider when imagining pre-Manifesto Mormonism. A useful appendix traces the maze of Lyman familial relationships, though it is easy to become confused as wives and children increase and spread out to settle in different locations. Perhaps a visual graphic family tree would have been helpful.

Examination of Amasa’s involvement with the Council of Fifty is hampered by the unavailability of early historical documents pertaining to the organization. Nevertheless, Leo makes use of the available sources to describe Amasa’s prominence in that early movement, detailing Joseph Smith’s ordination of Amasa to the apostleship and then his confusing shift from that Quorum to the presidency of the Council of Fifty. The nebulous responsibilities and direction of these priesthood assignments demonstrates the flexible nature of the early quorums. After Smith’s death, Amasa vouched for the authority of the Quorum of the Twelve during the succession crisis, an important gesture that helped the Quorum gain more adherence than other splinter groups.

Amasa’s loyalty to Joseph Smith is examined as a prominent feature of his faith in the gospel—and interestingly, his later involvement in spiritualism. Spiritualism and the so-called “Godbeite” movement to which Amasa became allied following his apostasy is a fascinating, though short, part of early Mormon thought and doctrinal development. Leo argues that Amasa played a larger role in the protest movement’s intellectual side than has been previously described. Beginning in the mid-to-late 1850s Amasa became fascinated with the spiritualist movement which had recently grew to prominence beginning in the “Burned-over District” of New York. He held several hundred séances before the end of his life—including many before his excommunication from the Church. In some séances Amasa believed Joseph Smith communicated to him from beyond the grave, leading him to believe he was on the right track while the mainstream Church was derailing from Joseph’s earlier revealed truths. Regrettably, Leo only gives a brief and somewhat scattered overview of the spiritualist aspects of the Godbeite movement. Specifically, he fails to include any in-depth description of how Amasa actually conducted a séance. If the records are too sparse to go into such detail Leo doesn’t say, but there are many other interesting works on the spiritualist movement that could have been consulted to supplement his treatment with a little more detail. A fuller examination is warranted because spiritualism played an important role in Amasa’s later estrangement from the Church as he drifted further from commonly-held Church doctrine. I was not convinced that Amasa may have thought his activities with spiritualism could have been excusable based on the relative fluidity of early Mormon doctrine. “Spirit rapping” and other such phenomena had been denounced by various church leaders before. As early as 1842 Joseph Smith had revealed certain signs and words whereby “false spirits” could be detected. I am curious as to whether Amasa ever employed such advice in his séances. Amasa was very selective in inviting particular people to join his activities and it appears as though he consciously avoided inviting or discussing it with his fellow apostles, several of whom had already warned congregants against such practices in public sermons throughout the 1850s.

Amasa’s growing distance from “orthodox” Church doctrine came to a head during his 1862 mission to Europe. One crucial sermon Amasa delivered in Dundee, Scotland (subsequently published in the Millennial Star) eventually led Young and the Quorum of the Twelve to request that Amasa correct himself. Amasa made a brief attempt to recant, but couldn’t reconcile his views on Christ’s atonement with what the Quorum understood to be acceptable Church doctrine. Wilford Woodruff noted his feeling that Amasa had actually taught “the worst herricy man can preach.” Similar to other Universalist preachers, Amasa essentially taught that Jesus Christ was a normal man whose blood and sacrifice held no efficacy for the redemption of the human race. Instead, Jesus was the great teacher and exemplar mankind should follow, but no more than that. Following this line of thought, any person could effectively redeem him/herself without Christ’s redemption. It was simply too unorthodox for a man called as a “special witness of Christ” to advocate. Leo downplays the doctrinal deviance as a factor of Amasa’s censure before the Quorum of the Twelve by pointing to other apostles who had preached doctrines Young found heretical (Orson Pratt, for instance). He posits that because other apostles were not excluded from the Quorum for these disagreements, something more personal must have led Young to unfairly target Amasa. It is critical to note that no other apostle had taught such radical things concerning the atonement of Christ and it is clear that his beliefs bothered virtually the entire Twelve, whereas less unanimous views tempered other doctrinal disagreements. A brief appendix discusses the under-defined LDS Christology (the result of the Church’s lack of a systematic theology) but stops short of advocating what Amasa himself advanced. Another interesting appendix contains early missionary notes Amasa wrote regarding the atonement which seem to contrast radically from his later views expressed in Dundee. Including the full text of the Dundee sermon in another appendix would have been useful, though. Amasa initially tried to repent of his “herricy” and issued a retraction in the Deseret News, but his conscience wouldn’t allow him to proceed further and he began preaching his views of Christ again and was cut off from the Quorum, and then full Church membership shortly thereafter. From there, Leo traces his sporadic Church attendance, continuing interest in spiritualism, and declining health.

Unfortunately, a clear and convincing interpretive framework never emerges throughout the book. Instead, readers are treated to a lengthy chronological story in dry prose with an occasional break in the story for explanation of a particular doctrine or practice. The book basically focuses on one thing: vindicating Amasa as one of the greatest early members of the Church who has been marginalized because of his apostasy. In some ways Leo is correct; Amasa has been forgotten in far too many ways, including his sacrifices to join the church, his interesting missions, his participation in early LDS temple worship, the founding and governing of San Bernardino, California, his struggles trying to reconcile personal feelings with church authority, his unorthodox views of the atonement, his determination to maintain integrity for what he believed to be the truth, his devoted and loving son who became an apostle and later begged to have Amasa reinstated, and the eventual posthumous restoration of all former blessings (including a fascinating vision/dream by one of Amasa’s daughters which helped tip the scales in Amasa’s favor for President Joseph F. Smith’s decision to restore the blessings). The book lends valuable commentary on all of the above.

Perhaps the book’s greatest weakness is its devolving into something of a morality play between Amasa and Brigham Young; there is clearly no love lost between the Leo and Young. In order to explain Amasa’s excommunication and why he has evidently been marginalized in historical accounts, Leo depicts Young as a militant tyrant who was determined to marginalize Amasa in order to prevent him from usurping power and influence. Thus, the wise and free-thinking Amasa faces off against the cold, power-hungry Young whose "regime" (always "regime") is much too controlling, hyper-critical, and close-minded for the more enlightened Amasa and his like-minded friends. The rhetorical advantage is clearly offered to Amasa as Leo employs many negative adjectives to color anything Young does in a negative hue while Amasa most often receives the benefit of the doubt. According to Leo, Young’s dislike for Amasa began in Nauvoo when he viewed Amasa as a threat to his authority and relationship with Joseph Smith. Amasa’s later popularity as a speaker and community-building in San Bernardino caught Young’s ire. For Amasa, Young was departing from the gospel as he understood it to be preached by Joseph Smith, but it is easily apparent that Leo tends to follow Amasa's view of Smith instead of employing a fuller historical view of the prophet. Amasa appears to have latched onto only certain aspects of the prophet’s teachings. He highly values Smith's encouragement to seek knowledge and intelligence and his positive portrayal of man as a child of God with all the potential that entails. However, he overlooks the “Kingdom-building” Joseph, who directed the construction of hotels, the marching of militia's, the founding of banking institutions and other more temporal pursuits. In this regard he fails to recognize many of the prophet’s teachings which strongly impacted Young’s vision of the Church’s direction. At no point does the book provide a good sense of what Young was trying to accomplish while leading the Church or how he understood his own role. He is basically a mysterious, arbitrary dictator traveling around the Territory with his "entourage" telling the hapless Saints what to do.

In several places Leo specifically calls into question Young’s reputation as “the Great Colonizer” based on decisions Leo sees as misguided. For instance, he believes Young’s failure to get the most out of Amasa’s San Bernardino ranch will clue readers into just how poor Young really was at managing outlying Mormon settlements. If anything, (to Leo) Mormon settlements were successful in spite of anything Young did, not as a result of his direction or vision. “A decade ago,” Leo says, “I asserted that Young's aloofness during the preparation period [when the San Bernardino settlement company was being formed] calls into question his reputation as ‘the great colonizer.’ There has been no reason presented since then to alter that conclusion” (p. 190). I advance one reason: it is simply a weak claim to begin with and completely overlooks Young’s own intentions. Given the current available information on Young’s accomplishments, picking out a few poor decisions doesn’t overturn the general picture of the man. Moreover, Young’s colonization efforts are best understood through his own religious outlook. Comparing Amasa’s best with Young’s worst does a disservice to both men and Leo actually misses a good opportunity to help readers understand both men better. His dislike of Young is entirely too evident. I am not disagreeing with Leo’s focusing of the narrative on Amasa’s strengths and weakness versus Young’s weaknesses and strengths. Indeed, I do not believe historians can avoid such value judgments. My problem is in the results based on the available records. His sympathies clearly reside with Amasa (which is no surprise) and this is easily detectable by looking at the benefit of the doubt extended to Amasa as opposed to Brigham, who serves as the book’s antagonist. The rhetorical advantage is always granted to Amasa by allowing him the last word and viewing him with a sympathetic eye. Perhaps this is to be expected in a biography of Amasa, but I believe Young is misrepresented to the detriment of the overall book. The main problem is we aren't getting a treatment of Amasa's own views of Young, rather, the narrator's.

Finally, I do not find Leo’s dismissal of Amasa’s possible mental instability later in life particularly convincing. Late in the story Leo notes that one of Amasa's wives complained that Amasa spent weeks at a time in bed depressed and debilitated, only to rise, come out of it, and go about his former work with renewed zeal. Leo explains this away as the bitter explanations of an estranged wife and claims there is no documented evidence. However, Leo talks often of long breaks in Amasa's journals and he notes several periods where he can't find any information about Amasa actually doing anything. Many of these lapses are explained as recurring chronic illness, but it can’t be proven that depression never played a role in these lapses. Perhaps the testimony of Amasa’s wife deserves more consideration. Even Brigham Young believed something was wrong with Amasa near the end and speculated about mental instability—something Young rarely did. Whatever the causes, Amasa became somewhat condescending toward the end of his life as he wrote to close friends about the simpleton Saints with whom he occasionally shared the pews attending Church in Fillmore. He was never rebaptized and requested to be buried in a black suit instead of white temple robes. The efforts of several relatives to get Amasa’s membership and blessings restored posthumously sum up a touching conclusion.

Leo’s biography joins several other important works from the University of Utah Press, including Breck England’s The Life and Thought of Orson Pratt and Greg Prince’s David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism. The publisher should be applauded for continuing to offer these works on LDS leaders and history. While perhaps the weakest of the three, Leo’s substantial volume is still very useful in giving an idea of Amasa’s contributions, sacrifices, and interesting life. Leo wants readers to know that Amasa Lyman was one of the most important Mormons of the early days of the Church and he has spent an impressive amount of time, energy, and research to that end. It seems Leo is unfamiliar with the old adage “show, don’t tell!” The book might have been more powerful with a more skillfully crafted narrative. Leo does well to show us what we might be missing, but it would have been more powerful had he allowed Amasa’s deeds to make the case without repeated reminders that Amasa has often been overlooked in historical studies. After all, Amasa’s best self appears to be reluctant to proclaim his own accomplishments and sound his trumpet. Aside from these problems, I believe this book will remain the most complete source on Amasa for years. Leo has done a great service for his ancestor and I thank him for helping me get to know Amasa more intimately than before.

2 1/2 out of 5 Plates

*Worth reading
*Not the most well-crafted narrative
*Interpretive disagreements