May 27, 2011

Review: Patrick Q. Mason, "The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South"

Title: The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South
Author:  Patrick Q. Mason
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Genre: American History
Year: 2011
Pages: 252
ISBN13: 978-0-19-974002-4
Binding: Hardcover
Price: $29.95

In 1857, Mormon apostle Parley P. Pratt died with two stab wounds to the chest and a bullet in the neck, delivered by a disgruntled husband of one of Pratt's plural wives, in Arkansas (4). Elder Joseph Standing was murdered in 1879 by a Georgia mob, his body riddled with multiple gunshot wounds, "frightfully mutilated" by knife and gun (26). During the 1884 Cane Creek Massacre Elders John Gibbs and William Berry, along with Mormons Martin Conder and J.R. Hutson, were shot dead in a home where Sunday worship services were being held (40). These deaths, in addition to threats, beatings, abductions, destruction of property, and other violent intimidations, made the Southern States mission of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints notorious to, and oddly faith-promoting for, the burgeoning nineteenth-century Mormon movement. In The Mormon Menace, historian Patrick Mason uses these stories of violence from the post-Civil War south to analyze "the attitudes and actions of southerners as they perceived and then responded to Mormon proselytizing in their region" (11). For this review I decided a brief overview of the chapter contents would be sufficient to demonstrate the quality and relevance of Mason's work.

Masons first chapter is the introduction to the book. In clear and straight-forward prose he sets the stage for the rest of the book. While narrating and dissecting southern violence toward Mormons, Mason will touch on "some of the most important cultural and political discussions of the age, including debates over modern American notions of the nature of religion and its role in society, the limits of religious freedom, the construction and application of gender norms, state regulation of domestic affairs such as marriage, and the contest between popular sovereignty and the rule of law" (17).

Chapters two and three are narrative case studies of the murder of Joseph Standing and the Cane Creek, Tennessee Massacre, respectively. Mason uses these stories to introduce the ideas that he examines in the remainder of the book, including southern gender roles, the problem of Mormon polygamy, religious competition, and the prevalence of extra-legal and largely understood vigilante action.

Mason makes a strong case that the violent reactions to Mormons were largely motivated by perceptions of polygamy. In chapter four he outlines arguments used against Mormonsarguments which stand in stunning contrast to present arguments made by Mormons themselves in the public arena. As one anti-Mormon tract warned: "Mormonism is an organized, systematic attack on the permanence and purity of the Christian home....The law must guard the Christian home as the main pillar of the state" (62). So Mormon missionaries were seen as "home wreckers" on the prowl to seduce young women away to their harems in mysterious Utah. Mason draws interesting and carefully qualified comparisons between these southern views of Mormon missionaries and views of recently-liberated blacks, who were also seen as a threat to southern white male possession of women (67-8). Opposition to Mormon polygamy also proved a nice gathering point for differing religious sects in the south; it was an interdenominational effort (76).

The fifth chapter continues his analysis of reactions to polygamy by shifting his attention into the political and legal sphere. Latter-day Saints viewed their peculiar practice as being protected by the First Amendment. Their mantra was "no retreat, no surrender," and they defied laws to the contrary which they deemed unconstitutional (80). Southerners, who argued heavily in favor of state's rights, found themselves in a strange position when they felt aligned with Republicans on the other "relic of barbarism," polygamy, the twin of the defeated slavery. North and south found a common cause here. Mason then analyzes the three main structural approaches southerners used to purge polygamy: Christian missions, legislation, and vigilantism.

Mormon theocracy loomed large in public fears of the Mormon kingdom rising in the west, and Mason explores these theocratic accusations in chapter six. By painting Mormons as anti-Christian and specifically anti-American, southerners could justify violence and coercive legislation, despite their Christian beliefs and their desire for state's rights. Rumors of a Mormon "political conquest" took on a conspiratorial tone, as one writer warned that the "settled policy of the Mormons is to control Utah and the adjacent Territories, and from there to conquer the United States, and, subsequently, the whole world" (113). I chuckled a little at this section, recalling similar claims still being made today, with Mitt Romney and now John Huntsman throwing their hats in the presidential ring. Alongside the problem of theocracy, which threatened the body politic, was Mormon theology, which threatened the very soul. Mason explores some of the early Mormon claims which captured the nation's imagination in the worst of ways. The "to a point" tolerance of nineteenth-century America allowed for much diversity, but had to draw lines nevertheless (126).

Mason turns particularly numerical in the crucial seventh chapter by quantifying and describing more than three hundred documented episodes of southern anti-Mormon violence. It is particularly fascinating to see how the geographical and historical setting of the opposition to Mormonism helps account for its violent nature and the motives behind it. Latter-day Saints, of course, viewed the violence as pure religious bigotry, but Mason finds this view "ultimately insufficient in explaining the extent and nature of southern anti-Mormon violence" (127). The Mormon case is a particularly interesting anomaly to other repeated violent opposition, for instance towards blacks, because "the geographical divide [Upper South versus Deep South, which demonstrates a clear difference in treatment of freed blacks] holds little or no explanatory power for understanding anti-Mormonism" (128). He documents and charts the time, place, and forms of opposition and deeply contextualizes this within southern vigilantism. Indeed, the opposition was actually quite "democratic," but revealed "one of the fundamental flaws of democracy, namely that the people prey on the people in the name of the people" (148).

Chapter eight discusses the ways violent opposition contributed to the way Latter-day Saints understood their own identity. Mason condenses the "persecution narrative" which still echoes in Mormonism today:

They were God's chosen people, and God's chosen people had always suffered persecution and even martyrdom at the hands of evildoers. Latter-day Saints were key players in a cosmic battle between the forces of light and darkness. Casualties would come along the way, but ultimately God would exact vengeance on the wicked and vindicate the faithful remnant (149).

He supports this view of personal identity by including revelations from Joseph Smith, sermons by high-ranking Mormon leaders, and accounts from lay missionaries, all of whom faced real and physical opposition in the history of Mormonism. At times Mormons had responded in kind, at times they played a large role in precipitating the violence they encountered, but Mason also analyzes the Mormon pacifism manifested by leaders like George Q. Cannon, who quoted Joseph Smith's revelation that the Mormons must "renounce war and proclaim peace" (161). Mormons found solace in the idea that God would "bare His almighty and powerful arm" to defend them if need be, that "the wicked and ungodly will feel the avenging hand of God" (161). Ultimately, their "collective defensive mentality" steeled the faithful's resolve and helped keep the new movement together. Being "other" has a few benefits too (170).

"Most studies of conflict in the postbellum South focus exclusively, and justifiably, on racial and political violence against African Americans and to some extent their political allies," Mason notes in his final chapter. Mormons, as his book shows, deserve some attention as well, but they were not "the only religious minorities in the post-bellum South, nor the only victims of violence" (171). Thus, his book fills a gap in the current historiography regarding southern violence and religion, but he broadens his scope here to briefly compare the Mormon experience to that of Catholics and Jews, who paid closer attention than Mormons to accommodation with American culture by privatizing their religion. Attention is especially due to the case of Catholics, more of whom were lynched in the late nineteenth century South "than any other religious group (excepting black Christians), more than Mormons and Jews combined" (180). Why not a book on that? As Mason shows, however, this violence was "comprised largely of Irish and Italian Catholics" themselves, and they didn't name religion as a motivation (181). Racial, economic, political, cultural, and other factors trumped religion here, which demonstrates "how religion can be subsumed in ethnic and racial identities" (181).

Times change, and understanding the history behind religious and political movements can uncover strange surprises. The Mormon trajectory from margin to relative mainstream is placed in context of morphing views of what America is supposed to be. The "runaway logic of liberalism [in the classic sense] allowed all kinds of groups excluded in the Founders' original formulationwomen, blacks, the propertylessand groups whose claims as political communities they could not have envisionedMormons, homosexualsto demand full inclusion and insist on constitutional protections to express fully their cultural identities within the American polity" (193). The feared "tyranny of the majority" still casts a shadow over the country; extra-legal violence still occurs. Despite remaining difficulties, "the boundaries of American tolerance have enlarged considerably but unevenly in the century since the end of the nation's anti-Mormon crusade, shaped as much by the paths that have foreclosed as those that have opened (194).

Mason's conclusion demonstrates, whether his analysis is accepted or rejected, the amazing relevance such classic questions still hold for the American people: the nature and limits of the freedom of religion, the majority versus minority, the contests between the will of the people and the rule of law, and how our worldviews powerfully impact how we approach these matters in the public and political spheres. Mason's The Mormon Menace exemplifies the new historical analysis at its bestcareful consideration of cultural contexts, both past and present, thus making our history not only understandable, but extremely relevant.  


Patrick Q. Mason was recently selected to replace Richard Bushman for the Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University. Mason discussed this book, some of his other projects, and his selection to the Hunter Chair here: "Patrick Mason answers your questions,", 24 March 2011.   

May 25, 2011

Review: Veda Tebbs Hale, "Swell Suffering: A Biography of Maurine Whipple"

Title: "Swell Suffering": A Biography of Maurine Whipple
Author: Veda Tebbs Hale
Publisher: Greg Kofford Books
Genre: Biography
Year: 2011
Pages: 456
ISBN13: 9781589581241
Binding: Paperback
Price: $31.95

One of the most significant conversations in the life of Mormon author Maurine Whipple took place between herself and a Bishop. It wasn't a Mormon bishop, though, it was John Peale Bishop, a nationally-recognized poet and talent scout. During the 1937 Rocky Mountain Writers' Conference the two found themselves talking about life and literature on the steps of a Boulder, Colorado frat house. Maurine poured her heart out. "She had lost at least two jobs, created and lost two more, been married, divorced, suffered rape and an abortion, and plunged into six romantic relationships" (97). This, in addition to other difficulties including resentment towards her father borne of a difficult childhood in St. George, Utah, led Bishop to exclaim: "My God! What swell suffering! Great literature is born from suffering like that!" (p. 1).

And so it was. Bishop brought Maurine to the attention of a national publisher, Houghton Mifflin, ultimately leading to the publication of her acclaimed novel, The Giant Joshua. Maurine would spend the rest of her life failing to live up to this remarkable monument. Her triumph and tragedies are explored in the new book, "Swell Suffering": A Biography of Maurine Whipple 

Maurine's 1941 Joshua has been touted as "The Greatest But Not 'The Great' Mormon Novel," and still holds a place in the hearts of many Mormon readers. Biographer Veda Tebbs Hale follows Maurine's crafting of Joshua through the correspondence between Maurine and Ferris Greenslet, literary editor and vice president of Houghton Mifflin. Maurine found the work slow going until Greenslet took advantage of her somewhat desperate need for cash—a need that would hardly subside for the rest of her life—by promising $50 per finished chapter, taken from her eventual contracted earnings: "There is another $50.00 here raring to go as soon as we get that chapter seven" (160). By following this carrot-and-stick process, Hale cleverly interweaves brief chapter synopses from Joshua, which tells the life story of Clory, a plural wife trying to survive physically and emotionally in the 19th-century Mormon settlement of St. George. Readers beware, the biography is full of spoilers, so it may be best to get through the novel before reading the biography.

Just as interesting as Maurine's production of the book, her writing process and influences, are the reactions she received after it was published. Joshua was written for a national audience and Maurine hoped to help people understand why early Mormons endured what they endured. She referred to their underlying motivation as "the Grand Idea." According to Maurine, the Mormons were a group of believers "who wanted to see if the Sermon on the Mount would work," and despite their "bigotry and intolerance" which were "part of the times," they also had "one essential idea of brotherly love, and it was very beautiful" (184).

Years prior to writing Joshua, Maurine received this piece of criticism which college professor at the University of Utah wrote on one of Maurine's earlier works: "Bringing in [that extra element] helps a story; but it clouds the problem. Make clear-cut solutions of your problems" (39). Maurine didn't follow that advice in
Joshua, which helps explain why the book still resonates strongly with readers today. Her triumph is her captivating ability to explore the power and reality of faith without forgetting or downplaying faith's tragedies, fears, and doubts. "Clear-cut solutions" don't appear in Joshua because they didn't appear in Maurine's own life.

Her willingness to explore the disappointment, privation, and woes of polygamous women at a time when that somewhat-embarrassing aspect of Mormon history was finally starting to recede from public consciousness brought on criticism. Some locals in St. George were scandalized by some of the detail Maurine included, but criticism wasn't confined to neighbors in St. George. Apostle John A. Widtsoe's negative review of the book in the February 1941 issue of the Improvement Era made her feel rejected by the Church (he didn't like its "lurid" aspects), and she also related alternate versions of an encounter with a Church authority (sometimes Heber J. Grant, or Widtsoe), who told her "we want nothing to do with you or those of your ilk" (214).

At the same time, other Church members and leaders praised her grand accomplishment. Levi Edgar Young, a professor of western history at the University of Utah and member of the First Council of the Seventy, promised to back a later book proposal she made to Knopf by writing a letter of recommendation. He told her Joshua was "a splendid work and will take its place high up in Western literature" (245). A resurgence of interest in the novel occurred in the 70s when BYU professors Richard Cracroft and Neal Lambert, along with others, sought to publicize the book in symposia, university classes, and an anthology (387-390). Hale describes the continued interest in the novel up to the present, including several starts and stops on a Joshua movie project (404).

Above all, most of Maurine's admirers encouraged her to complete the originally-planned trilogy. Hale spends the rest of the book telling the tale of why the trilogy, later scaled down to a projected sequel, never reached completion. Perhaps above all, Maurine felt she needed financial and emotional security and sought a husband to provide it. She tried her hand at magazine writing and romantic relationships, sometimes mixing the two with disastrous results. Time after time Hale describes Maurine's unhealthy attempts to forge relationships with men who ultimately proved disinterested.

As various side-projects fizzled, it seems Maurine became increasingly paranoid (although Hale includes earlier traces of this characteristic, like Maurine's hiring a private investigator to look into the whereabouts of a former lover). Her troubles with traffic accidents, supposedly greedy publishers and editors, city government officials, and the LDS Church had her mind racing about conspiracies and her pen busy composing complaints rather than working on sequels. An extended effort to research and publish information on a clearly-failing scientific theory about overcoming alcoholism, now thoroughly discredited, drained time and money (351).

Throughout these experiences Maurine interacts with a colorful cast of characters. There's Lillian, a friend who is in the process of reevaluating her relationship to Mormonism and who encourages Maurine to have some flings with various men; Joseph Walker, a "cultural Mormon" who provides her with positive feedback and encouragement; Dean Brimhall and Fawn Brodie, who don't become very close with her based largely on some religious differences, Sam Weller, a book seller who she eventually trusts with the copyright to Joshua; Juanita Brooks, a St. George neighbor who provided important personal comfort to Maurine at times, but who also doubted her knowledge about elements of Mormon history like the Mountain Meadows Massacre (247, 347); Dale Morgan, a western historian who, despite his support, had a spat with Maurine over some plagiarism (255); and Carol Jensen, a plural wife in Southern Utah whose husband had died. Carol became Maurine's legal guardian in 1982 until Maurine's death, and was a friend and helper to Hale through the biographical process. In spite of these friends, acquaintances and family members, Maurine believed her work was spurred by and resulted in solitude: "Every writer's curse is loneliness," she wrote "because his work, itself, is the loneliest, cruelest job in the world" (204).

One of the most interestingly coy characters in the biography is Veda Tebbs Hale, the biographer herself. Hale spent time during the last years of Maurine's life interviewing her for the biography. Evidently, she also sometimes filled the role of friend, confidant, and even occasional artistic collaborator; there's an ambiguous reference in a footnote to her helping Maurine revise a short story (223). Hale is not a trained historian and she enters the narrative quite personally at times, offering her "personal feeling," her defense, or her criticism of Maurine (80,95, 197, several chapter conclusions). This unique biographer's perspective and access sans academic discipline contains potential for disaster, but Hale turns it into a crucial strength for this biography.

Hale is familiar enough with Maurine, for instance, to recognize her repertoire of anecdotes, allowing her to notice differences in how Maurine related them to various people (192-193, 213, 305). She tries to assist the reader in understanding some of the more embarrassingly desperate and dramatic personal letters Maurine wrote to various suitors, providing some preemptive catharsis by describing their agonized and uncomfortable nature (95, 197, 335). It's somewhat unusual to see a biographer discuss her own emotions in the biography itself: "I felt embarrassed for Maurine, irritated by her tone, and exhausted by reading" letters stored in the BYU Special Collections, some of which Maurine begged to have removed, but which remain today (105; see 91). Some of Hales's personal sources are a bit tenuous, as when she cites "an unnamed temple worker in St. George" (189), reminiscent of the same small-town gossip Maurine  herself was often the subject of. But she was able to interview a good number of Maurine's personal acquaintances as well. She was even with her shortly before she passed away at a St. George nursing home where she'd spent the last few years of her life, and Hale describes the touching death (421).

Despite such intimacy, Hale remained distanced enough to include unflattering information, along with a little hand-wringing about privacy. She is able to ask Maurine for clarification about old letters or stories, although Maurine doesn't always have a satisfactory answer and sometimes becomes quite angry at the asking (91). Hale makes this an opportunity to explore the murky boundaries between the past as others saw it and the past as we compose it in our own memories. For example, a relationship with a lover named Tom Spies ends in tragedy when he dies of cancer according to Maurine, but he actually lived 19 years beyond their parting (194; see also 46, 48, 53, 305 on memory). Details of Maurine's failures in various teaching positions, a rape and abortion, thoughts of suicide, an unexpected hysterectomy, attempted relationships with married men, embarrassing love letters and angry rants, failed relationship after failed relationship—Hale deftly handles many difficult situations without turning gossipy or tabloid. Perhaps this is why she does not approach these difficulties as a novel narrative might by building up suspense. More often, she prefaces the circumstances with their ultimate conclusions (56, 65, 84, etc.). 

A particular example of Hale's ability to tell the story without lurid gazing is her analysis of Maurine's attempts at several non-traditional relationships with men. Hale detects a certain old St. Georgian perspective, a "combination of rigid sexual morality combined with under-the-surface acceptance of unorthodox relationships," i.e. plural marriage. Hale depicts Maurine's familiarity with plural marriage as partly accounting for how she justified pursuing a few married men (77, 81), and how she all-but-proposed a polygamy-like relationship to a successful doctor/bachelor which would have involved herself and a few of his clinic workers (204, 210). It never happened.

Nor did the much-anticipated follow-up to The Giant Joshua. She had hoped to trace three generations of Mormons in St. George. Perhaps the "Grand Idea" would really shine through in the sequel (113), but she continued to find excuses not to complete the manuscripts despite being under contract at various points in the process. Belated income on a movie rights deal (which seems to have fallen by the wayside) helped Maurine survive, but it didn't provide the impetus to completing her project; she had become too old, it was too late (404). Hale and others discovered pieces of manuscript, character outlines and bits of narrative, which Maurine had worked on off and on for decades. She allows a glimpse at these materials, at what could have been ("The Failed Sequel," 272-292). 

The biography ends with a postscript in which Hale completely shifts from the voice of biographer to the voice of personal narrator and participant. She describes a beautiful outing late in Maurine's life when together they witnessed a remarkable rainstorm causing a sudden waterfall to crash over the red rocks of a ridge in St. George. Hale thought of Maurine's life and her work: "Can your work and mine—can this biography somehow help that Grand Idea of love and brotherhood...I knew we both wanted it to be so" (429). Her unique biographical voice helps bring Maurine's story—a story of triumph, heart-ache, and crawling courage—to life. This is a wonderful, if emotionally taxing, biography of a fascinating Mormon author.