Monday, May 17, 2010

Religion without Integrity

Will Bagley.  Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.  ISBN 0806134267.

My first memorable encounter with cowboy historian Will Bagley took place while watching the 2006 PBS documentary on the Mormons.  True to character there, he posed a question that defines the problem faced by anyone who tries to understand the Mountain Meadows Massacre, one of the bloodiest incidents to take place in the history of America's overland trails.  Bagley's question: "How did these decent, religious men who had sacrificed so much for what they believed in—how did they become mass murderers?"  Before Bagley, I was vaguely familiar with the incident (Mormons and Indians killed some non-Mormon pioneers on the way through southern Utah sometime in the nineteenth century), and the question (why?), and I even had a grasp on something like the usual LDS apologetic response (local vigilantes took justice into their own hands and got really carried away).  As my testimony of the church's unadulterated moral goodness began to crumble, however, I became more curious.  In the end, answering Bagley's question to my own satisfaction became one of the most difficult and painful processes of my life (so far): it turned my mental world upside down and made it impossible for me to be religious in the way I once was.

Bagley's book does more than clarify the fuzzy picture I had of the Massacre (which took place Friday, September 11th, 1857): it sets the Massacre in historical context, showing (as much as possible) how it happened that a group of staunch Mormon pioneers took it upon themselves to murder 120 men, women, and children in cold blood.  To be brief, I will say that reading Bagley has convinced me (1) that Brigham Young and other men high up in the Mormon hierarchy (notably apostle George A. Smith) knowingly stirred up the Saints of southern Utah against non-Mormons; (2) that Brigham Young tried his best to rouse the Utah Indian bands against non-Mormons; (3) and finally, that Brigham Young and the church hierarchy later did everything they could to obscure their involvement and blame everything on Indians and local Saints, notably John D. Lee (Brigham's adopted son who definitely played a crucial role in the killing, however you read the sources).  Each of these points raises troubling issues that I can only treat briefly here.

(1) Decent men such as the killers at Mountain Meadows do not rise up unprovoked.  What provoked them?  Several things.  The immediate provocation was the coming Utah War (an armed confrontation with the US government), which the Saints and their leaders alike regarded with understandable fear and anger.  Beyond the war were the Missouri killings (like the massacre of Mormons at Haun's Mill), the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, and the recent murder of apostle Parley P. Pratt (whom non-Mormon Hector McClean killed after Pratt converted McClean's wife Eleanor against his will and then married her).  These grievances were kept alive in the oath of vengeance administered in early LDS temple ceremonies, an oath to avenge the blood of the prophets upon those responsible for shedding it.  The war and the oath of vengeance were not the only factors pressing for violence in southern Utah.  Coming hard on the heels of the Mormon Reformation (which involved a lot of public humiliation inflicted by church leaders determined to make the Saints less worldly and more obedient to church authority) came a rash of directives and sermons by church authorities (notably Brigham Young and George A. Smith) making bellicose statements against non-Mormons--statements like the following:
Brigham Young to stake president Isaac Haight of Cedar City, one of the Saints responsible for the massacre (from a letter dispatched with apostle George A. Smith in August of 1857): "Save your ammunition, keep your Guns and Pistols in order, and prepare yourselves in all things--particularly by living your religion--for that which may hereafter come to pass...Save all grain, nor let a kernel go to waste or be sold to our enemies.  And those who persist in selling grain to the gentiles, or suffer their stock to trample it into the earth I wish you to note as such" (quoted in Bagley, p. 84).
George A. Smith to the people of Parowan (August 1857, as remembered later): "As for the cursed mobocrats, I can think of nothing better they could do than to feed a tree in Zion [with their corpses]" (quoted in Bagley, p. 84).
George A. Smith to the Cedar City militia (August 15, 1857, speaking of the US army): "I say damn the man who feeds them; I say damn the man who sympathizes with them; I say curse the man who pours oil and water on their heads" (quoted in Bagley, p. 85).
So the Mormons who pulled the trigger at Mountain Meadows experienced powerful social pressure from the church (in the form of codified oaths and incendiary statements), pressure which characterized vengeance against the wicked, gentile non-Mormon as something desirable, something righteous, something God and his chosen representatives on earth expected from the faithful.

(2) The newly discovered testimony of Dimick Huntington (see pages 113-114 of Bagley's book) indicates that Brigham Young's rhetoric about the Indians becoming "the battle-axe of the Lord" in the Saints' war against the people of the United States was more than just hot air.  When Brigham convened the tribal chieftains and gave them license to raid wagon-trains in Huntington's presence on September 1st, 1857, right before the Massacre, he recognized that innocent people would die as a result, and he condoned it.  This attests the literal understanding Young and other Saints had of scriptures like 3 Nephi 21:12 ("a remnant of Jacob shall be among the Gentiles, yea, in the midst of them as a lion among the beasts of the forest, as a young lion among flocks of sheep, who, if he goeth through both treadeth down and teareth in pieces, and none can deliver").  The nineteenth-century LDS fervently believed that the second coming of Christ was around the corner, to be brought on by a bloodbath in which the United States would perish and the rediscovered "remnant of Jacob" (the Indian tribes) would unite with the LDS to establish God's kingdom on earth.  In the end, this vision failed to materialize: the western Indians never accepted their role in the Mormon world and remain still aloof (even as the modern LDS church looks for new candidates to take their place as God's remnant).

The actual role played by the Indians at Mountain Meadows is something of a mystery.  My reading of the evidence has some tribesmen joining the expedition primarily for plunder, then bailing out after the non-Mormons proved too tough to kill easily (the train was heavily armed and fought back hard against the initial attack, forming a wagon-circle fortified with trenches and exchanging fire with the raiders for 5 days).  Fearing recognition if they allowed survivors to escape, the Mormons then secured the surrender of the surviving non-Mormons by promising protection from the (increasingly absent) Indians, only to turn traitor and shoot every one dead but a few very small children.  Some Indians may have participated in this final butchery, but it is clear that the bulk of the killing was done by white men.

(3) All of the foregoing is problematic: it involves church authorities willfully inciting their followers (and the hapless Indians, caught between the US army and the Mormons) to violence.  Was this incitement without any justification?  No!  Unfortunately, the fury it ultimately released was very poorly directed, coming to rest upon an innocent wagon-train that happened to pass through Utah territory at just the wrong moment.  From Brigham Young's public and private statements before the Massacre, especially his conversation with the Indians referenced above, it seems clear to me that he doomed this train, perhaps without realizing the full extent of what he was doing at the time.  Like many other Saints, he was caught in a sea of boiling adrenaline, scared by the prospect of the US invasion and all fired up to avenge the blood of Joseph and Hyrum upon the infidels.  To his credit, he desired to call the thing off once he got wind of it actually going forth, but it was too late.  You can only wave a red flag in front of a angry bull so long before it charges.  He and George A. Smith sowed the wind in southern Utah, and their dutiful followers (as many as valued obedience to the prophets above personal conscience) reaped the whirlwind in Mountain Meadows.  The fallout was (and still is) terrible: some good Saints refused to participate and came under suspicion of apostasy (which in those days could still result in bodily harm or death); others followed orders (from local authorities channeling the rage of the prophets and apostles) and lived the rest of their lives suffering the consequences.

What bothers me the most about all of this, however, is not even the awful fact that it took place.  Bad things happen in the world.  Leaders say the wrong things, and their followers let zeal for the group overcome personal integrity, translating bad words into worse actions.  But how does denying the leaders' role in the process make the resultant mess any better?  Why did Brigham and his fellow apostle George A. Smith not see fit to take responsibility (even a little) for their role in the tragedy at Mountain Meadows?  Why did they try to shift blame off onto the Indians?  Why, when that did not work, did they foster lies about the character of the emigrants who died wrongly there?  And why, above all, did they countenance the scapegoating of John D. Lee for something that, in a very real way, was the fault of the whole LDS community?  Lee's rehabilitation in recent years is a tiny step in the right direction, as are efforts of goodwill that the church has directed toward the offspring of the survivors of the Massacre.  But these efforts are undercut by our leaders' persistence in refusing to acknowledge the guilt that belongs to church headquarters.  (This persistence gives our "anti-Mormon" enemies a big fat target, which they pummel pretty hard, with pretty good reason.) 

This for me is the crux of the problem posed by Mountain Meadows, a problem which the LDS church has been ignoring ever since that awful day in 1857.  Then, as now, we LDS are seemingly incapable of seeing flaws in our church leadership and (duly correlated) church programs.  We are like little children with a hammer: everything we see is a nail, and we just love putting all the nails in place with our perfect hammer.  But in fact not everything is a nail, and hammers can sometimes be put to very bad use, especially when you make the mistake of supposing that they are good for any operation requiring tools (e.g. brain surgery).  Until we recognize that the church has a dark side (like every human institution), and that there are ways in which leaders and followers alike can turn religious faith to seriously evil ends, we run the risk of hurting ourselves and other people.  Until we recognize that the gospel raises more questions than answers, that the righteous zeal of our pioneer ancestors was not always a positive asset, and that our own unexamined obedience to community rules may be causing as much harm as it does good, our religion lacks integrity.  Responsible religion does not pretend like it never makes mistakes: it acknowledges mistakes, learns from them (repenting where necessary), and moves forward.  I really wish church leadership could be honest with members (and the world) about our chequered past and what we have learned from it, rather than publishing whitewashed legends that deny its existence and perpetuate a mental environment in which the faithful follow their ancestors lemming-like over the proverbial cliff.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Sex in the City of God

Todd Compton.  In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith.  Salt Lake City: Signature, 1997.  ISBN 156085085X.

My first encounter with LDS scholar Todd Compton occurred when I ran across his fascinating book on the persona of the poet in ancient Indo-European societies (Victim of the Muses: maybe I will review it here some other time!).  I was impressed with his creativity, as well as the careful attention to precise detail which is very evident in all his work.  As time went by, I became aware (through his website and various other sources) of his other magnum opus, which is the inspiration for this essay.

In Sacred Loneliness is without doubt the most honest, even-handed treatment of Mormon polygamy that I have ever encountered.  It is not an expose: there are no lurid details.  It is not an apology: there is no attempt to "put to rest" or trivialize the fact that polygamy was a fundamentally important part of nineteenth-century Mormonism.  Rather than delve into the morass of questions often raised about polygamous morals (then and now), Compton merely tells the life stories of 33 women who were married to the Prophet Joseph Smith.  For him, as for them, polygamy is interpreted as a revelation from God through his prophet: some embrace it willingly; others are more reluctant.  All are given ample time to express, through their deeds and their own words wherever possible, how they thought and felt about "the principle" and other, more mundane things: this aims to be as complete a record of their lives as Compton's sources allow.  I was impressed with the fortitude some of these women displayed: it is hard to be married to two men at once (as some of them were) when you have been raised to regard monogamy as the rule (like most early converts to Mormonism).  I was impressed at the highly developed spirituality they showed, joining together in close-knit groups of sister-wives whose community of friendship and faith did much to cover for the continual absence of their shared husbands.  They even performed priesthood ordinances, healing the sick by the laying on of hands and speaking in tongues on numerous occasions.  Compton has done a wonderful job of rescuing these and other precious details from the dustbin of history, where modern LDS Mormonism's dislike of its feminist and sexually "deviant" roots has consigned them to lie forgotten too long.

Reading In Sacred Loneliness forced me to take a hard look at the doctrine of the family as taught by Mormons.  Our current position, adopted in the wake of a century-long effort to make up with Protestant America, is that family = 1 man + 1 woman + offspring.  This is a hard-won reversal of Joseph Smith's teaching (still with us after a fashion in Doctrine and Covenants 132) that family = 1 man (in practice maybe 2: one for time and another for time and eternity) + x women + offspring.  I grew up with the dissonance of this position echoing in my head: on the one hand, thanks to Hugh Nibley I became acquainted with sermons by the early brethren arguing passionately for the morality of polygamy; on the other, I listened to LDS prophet Gordon B. Hinckley sternly denounce it from the pulpit in General Conference.  The more I learn about polygamy, the more conflicted I am about the LDS church's position (as articulated by Hinckley in the link above) that we LDS have nothing to do with it and are perfectly willing to sit by and let the government break up the families of those who practice it.  "God wanted it then (in the nineteenth century), for some reason," we acknowledge, "but he has no use for it now, and people who practice it should repent or be punished."  Hinckley (again in the link above) declares that Mormon fundamentalists do not even exist, denying the historical fact that there are non-LDS practitioners of Mormonism, and some of them choose to live principles of Mormonism that the Brighamite LDS have relinquished.  How is that position any more charitable toward modern Mormon polygamists ("you aren't really Mormons: you're just a bunch of sick weirdos") than the default Christian position toward modern Mormons ("you aren't really Christians: you're just a bunch of sick weirdos")?  We take fellow Christians to task when some of them deny our claim to belong to the Christian club because of a few historical differences, then turn and pull the same trick on our "fundamentalist" Mormon brethren when they claim membership in the Mormon club.  Jesus has something to say about this: "And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?" (Matt. 7:3).
Compton's book ultimately became one piece in the puzzle of evidence that led me to rethink my (LDS Mormon) attitude to sexuality completely.  While I cannot share all the details here (though I will probably explore them elsewhere), I can provide a basic outline of my new understanding of sexual morality.

(1) The ethical appropriateness of a sexual relationship is not defined by number.  There are polyamorists (including polygamists) whose standard of ethical behavior rises as high as that of the most virtuous monogamist (or celibate).

(2) The ethical appropriateness of a sexual relationship is not defined by gender.  There are homosexuals (practicing and not) whose standard of ethical behavior rises as high as that of the most virtuous monogamist (or celibate).  The argument that homosexuality goes against nature falters on the fact that nature is not necessarily interested in creating as many copies of a species as a given ecosystem can possibly hold (or a given heterosexual couple produce) before all resources are used up and everything dies.  Furthermore, homosexual behavior occurs in nature.  Maybe we should put a new initiative on the ballot in California, warning the owners of all those randy farm animals (not to mention lewd pet dogs) to look out for falling brimstone?

(3) The ethical appropriateness of a sexual relationship is defined by fidelity.  The thing that holds all healthy relationships (of any kind) together is mutual trust and transparency.  Instead of lying to one's partner about the others (as Joseph Smith repeatedly did), the responsible thing to do is discuss desires honestly with the other party and move forward from there, taking full responsibility for one's actions and making every effort to accommodate one another.  Before my LDS relatives go haywire, let me hasten to assure them that, like Joseph Smith, I am a very heterosexual man (close to "0" on the Kinsey scale) married to a woman who is jealous of her husband's love.  Unlike Joseph Smith, I do not intend to break her heart.  I am also leery of the emotional alienation between partners that seems to accompany some forays (including the Mormon one Compton chronicles) into polyamory.  Therefore, I remain a happy, heterosexual monogamist.

(4) Irrational shame and guilt do not build healthy relationships.  This is particularly true when we insist that our neighbors' sexual status is causing (1) natural disasters or (2) human conflict.  The first is simply not true (though promiscuous sexual behavior of any kind can pose significant health risks to the promiscuous and those who come in contact with their vital fluids), and the second can become a dangerous, self-fulfilling prophecy (when people decide to cleanse the world by doing God's work for him at the ballot-box or on the battlefield).  As long as people are not sexually abusing one another (rape is always rape, and no child should be sexually active with an older person), what they do in the bedroom is none of my business and should not keep me from sleeping at night.  The more concerned and obsessed I become with the perceived immorality of my neighbors who do not happen to resemble me in every detail, the more I run the risk of becoming another Joseph Smith, Ted Haggard, or George Rekers.  All these men were obsessed with forbidden sex and became involved with it as a result.  There is a definite lesson to be learned from their experiences, and it is not one any of them taught from the pulpit.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Questioning the Prophet

Richard Lyman Bushman.  Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling.  New York: Knopf, 2005.  ISBN 1400042704.  

Todd Compton.  In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith.  Salt Lake City: Signature, 1997.  ISBN 156085085X.

Will Bagley.  Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.  ISBN 0806134267.

I encountered these three books in the order I have listed them here: first Bushman's, then Compton's, then Bagley's.  They have profoundly impacted my view of LDS church history.  The picture of the pioneer church that they paint individually and cumulatively is much more vivid and real than anything in the church manuals.  Unfortunately, it is also much more disturbing if (like me) you grew up accepting the maudlin stuff in the manuals as an essential part of your faith.  In the next three posts, I will discuss my reaction to each book; this essay will deal with Bushman.

My hunger to know more about church history goes back at least to the mission field, where I distinctly remember questioning my church-manual testimony of the prophet Joseph for the first time.  While I had read Hugh Nibley's apologetic screeds (especially the hilarious Myth Makers) thoroughly enough to get a basic sense of the controversies surrounding the origins of Mormonism, I had not made any detailed study of church history and was largely uninformed.  I was with a fellow missionary en route to a special zone leaders' conference in Leon, on the other side of some really impressive mountains in northern Spain.  We wiled away a good bit of the drive (with him at the wheel, since I did not have a viable driver's license) by listening to a series of lectures on the Prophet Joseph by the late Truman Madsen, who was still alive back then.  Gazing out over the wild Spanish countryside (so beautiful and so empty of humanity), I listened to Madsen narrate the official story of Joseph, loading the prophet with every virtue known to man in the superlative degree, and found myself wondering, against my will even, whether it was all empty words.  Did Joseph really see God in the flesh, live a practically perfect life (committing only a few sins that most people could not care less about, like letting Martin Harris keep some pages of the first Book of Mormon manuscript overnight), and then die a martyr?  I wondered, and I had no immediate answer.  I resolved that I would look into the matter when I got back.

Fast forward several months, and I am sitting around the table with a lot of older undergraduates (returned missionaries like myself) listening to a professor mention Richard Bushman's biography of Joseph Smith with approval.  I am interested.  Then the book appears at my parents' house, at my fiancee's house.  Pretty soon, I have read it. In some ways, it is much more satisfying than Madsen's portrait; in other ways, it is profoundly more troubling.  Madsen's Joseph is the church-manual prophet: a perfect gentleman who embodies an exact contrast to the kind of loose morals that are often associated with frontier America in the nineteenth century.  Madsen's Joseph is a kind, gentle soul, but a lusty wrestler and no stranger to hard work; he talks to Jesus and plays with children before being hauled off to court on trumped-up charges to face a band of illegal executioners instead of a lawful trial.  Bushman's Joseph, on the other hand, is a lot less immediately prepossessing: he drinks, fights, and has this thing for women (including other men's wives: polyandry was a much greater shock to me than polygyny, which I already knew something about thanks to Nibley).  On top of that, his revelations are a lot less "inspired" (than that of his official counterpart) when considered from a purely practical point of view: many (some would say most) of the ventures he launches in the name of God (the United Order, Zion's Camp, Kirtland Safety Society, the Nauvoo Legion, the New and Everlasting Covenant) fail with ambiguous moral consequences for those involved.  (Did losing all their property in the Kirtland Safety Society prepare people to be righteous leaders, the way failing to save the church's property with Zion's Camp did?  Did Emma's endurance of what she perceived as her husband's ongoing infidelity provide a necessary test of character, or was he just a cad?)  Finally, instead of delivering himself up as an innocent lamb to the slaughter, Bushman's Joseph dies in a gun fight brought on as much by his own antisocial posturing as that of his enemies, reminding me more of Billy the Kid than Father Imbert (who made no active effort to defend himself: I freely admit I would probably go down shooting, much like Joseph).  The "martyrdom" of the Prophet is a really morally ambiguous event for me in the wake of reading Bushman.  How would you react if local law enforcement were erratic and someone showed up threatening to take over your county for God and his chosen people?  My thinking is that many of us, myself included, might have acted just like some of the "mobocrats" in Missouri and Illinois, who responded by taking the law into their own hands.  Joseph Smith himself was not above such behavior: witness his destruction of the Expositor press in Nauvoo.  The fact of the matter is that the American frontier was a savage place in the nineteenth century: rule of law was weak enough to accommodate the destruction of an annoying printing press or the execution of a notorious criminal.  In the absence of strong military and police forces, the only thing that separated crimes from acts of civic heroism was courtroom rhetoric, which either side could command at will. 

Bushman makes an effort to contain his problematic prophet, pointing out that Mormons have never been told their prophet is perfect.  (For more from Bushman in this vein, listen to his interview with John Dehlin.)  This defense does not sit well with me, largely because I see it belied in the educational effort that the church puts forth: in the mission field, we did not warn investigators that prophets might occasionally go off the deep end (trying to cheat people of their property or take advantage of their wives, activities just as illegal in the nineteenth century as in the twenty-first); we told them to pray, and that if they prayed with real intent they would know that following the prophet is always the right thing to do.  When a modern prophet remarks that "one modest pair of earrings is sufficient" (Gordon B. Hinckley, "A Prophet's Counsel and Prayer for Youth," Ensign, January 2001), the righteous are supposed to interpret this as a test of their obedience: a virtuous woman will doff her excess ornaments, demonstrating her ability "to promptly and quietly obey the counsel of the prophet in all things and at all times" (quoted from current LDS apostle David Bednar, "Quick to Observe," BYU Devotional, 10 May 2005).  What kind of behavior does such rhetoric train if not unquestioning, fanatical obedience? Where is the place for personal revelation (on the part of the individual church member) and prophetic fallibility here?  I do not see it.