Book review: Saints Vol. II

I have been waiting for Saints Vol II to come out for the past year, and I downed it as quickly as I could. If anything, I was more excited about Saints II than Saints I because it deals with a historically difficult period in Church history that could be summarized in two words: Brigham Young. Now, Brother Brigham gets a lot of flack for stuff that wasn’t all his fault. For instance, we know that polygamy was actually started by the Latter-Day Saints’ founding prophet Joseph Smith. Brigham Young was just being faithful to what was viewed and accepted as a God-given commandment and Abrahamic trial. But Brigham takes it to another level: how would Saints deal with not only polygamy, but blood atonement, the Mountain Meadows massacre, polygamy, the Utah War, etc? The other reason I was excited is most Church members (including myself) are most familiar with the basic events of the Restoration: the Doctrine and Covenants covers some of the material, and seminaries and institutes typically cover Restoration history to some extent. But after Joseph Smith’s martyrdom, Church history to most members is at best a complete blank or a few scattered anecdotes with no connecting story, at worst a mysterious bog not worth wading into or else it could weaken your testimony. We need a Church history that connects the founding events of the Restoration to the current embodiment of the restored Church of Jesus Christ. And that is why I am so excited about the expansive terrain that Saints promises to cover.

To start off with the good, I bore my testimony on Sunday centered around this book. I said that I gained a testimony of things I never thought I would gain a testimony of. This book talks about things that I feel are usually engaged in with embarrassed looks and hushed whispers. They are things that aren’t good to bring up because they will either cast the Church in a negative light or cause an argument. But we need this. We need this so much. I was thinking of the time I went with my wife to a gynecologist for a minor surgery she had to get. Speaking for myself, I was embarrassed to talk about that stuff (see, I can’t even use words here!), but the gynecologist was so good at talking about sexual and biological matters so naturally and comfortably, she put me right at ease. We’re all adults here. We need to be able to talk about our own history without being ashamed too, even if the approach topics that are uncomfortable.

Apologetics?

One of the main reasons I praised Saints I was for its comparatively open and honest approach to events of the Restoration. It tackled hard topics, such as the origins and secrecy surrounding polygamy and some of the inter-personal struggles between the prophet Joseph Smith and the early apostles. To me, it painted a picture that Joseph would have been proud of: he said of himself, “I told them I was but a man, and they must not expect me to be perfect; if they expected perfection from me, I would expect perfection from them.” But it was hard for my parents to read all the way through, because it didn’t feel “spiritual” all the time, and it conflicted with the heroic image of Joseph Smith as traditionally portrayed. I think acknowledging the weaknesses of our prophets and apostles is much more likely to strengthen faith, because we don’t build unrealistic expectations that will inevitably be deflated at one point or another. We make our faith fragile when it depends on a trumped-up fairy tale where we are always the good guys with noble motives fighting a world filled with Satan and his minions.

Saints II was similar, in that it too attempted to paint a complicated picture of Brigham Young. But in my opinion, this book put a thumb on the scale tilting it hard towards apologetics rather than unencumbered history– at least in some parts. I know there is always bias. But if I set Volume I, next to Volume II, that’s the impression I get. Take these two different descriptions of Brigham Young’s attempt to reorganize the First Presidency (see below, as they are pretty lengthy), one from Preserving the Restoration by Denver Snuffer (with his own biases of interpretation) and the portrayal in Saints. The Saints description does one thing excellently: it provides context to a difficult problem. Instead of passing a judgment right away, it presents each of the apostles qualms with organizing a First Presidency: we would need a revelation to do that; it would split the Twelve; the Twelve would become servile and accept the Presidency’s decision without deliberation. While the book does consider the opinions of the Twelve who were present, it doesn’t seem to mention the propriety of holding such a vote while three of the Twelve were not present, nor their disposition at the time towards reorganization. While Brigham presents some arguments of his own (the Twelve are needed to be freed up for missionary work), he does not seem to address any of the concerns of the twelve head-on. Instead, he uses a charismatic approach (the title of the chapter is Seven Thunders Rolling, the words he used to describe the influence of the Spirit in him) to buoy past opposition. The conclusion of the event is that the Spirit confirmed the decision, and it was done.

You could say that the lack of interpretation in Saints gives it a sense of objectivity. Perhaps it does. I was pleased that it presented arguments from all the Twelve present in this case. But it also gives into the triumphant traditional narrative by not addressing these concerns. It looks a lot like the way things are often done in the Church today: opposition or holding a contrary opinion to the one in authority is seen as a form of disloyalty.

There are other passages that are even more obvious in a tipping of the scales. Blood atonement for instance. Take this passage that makes blood atonement seem nothing more than innocent hyperbole:

At times, Brigham and others had even drawn on Old Testament scriptures to teach that certain grievous sins could be forgiven only through the shedding of the sinner’s blood. Such teachings harked back to the hellfire and brimstone language of Protestant revival preachers who tried to frighten sinners into reform. Brigham understood that he sometimes let his fiery sermons go too far, and he did not intend for people to be put to death for their sins.

I think there are plenty of examples documented elsewhere who disagree with that statement. And the presentation suggests that blood atonement was just a similar scare tactic that Protestant preachers used. I don’t think they’re on the same level: one suggests retribution from God in the next life, the other taking things into your own hands in this life: suicide at best, murder at worst. Other topics I was expecting to be addressed, like Adam-God Theory, were not mentioned in the book at all– but they might make an appearance in the supporting documents.

I don’t mean to make a mountain out of a molehill: this book does an excellent job at attempting to walk a fine balance between history and devotion. It already is dealing with a difficult period in Church history, one we don’t talk about enough because it is uncomfortable. Just being able to talk about it is so refreshing, and it did so much to help humanize these saints. They aren’t painted as larger than life heroes or caricature villains, and for that, I think the authors did the best they could with the truly momentous task given them.

Diverse views

Church history is often portrayed as being entirely moved by Church leaders. Carrying on the approach from Saints I, Saints II deviates from this precedent by telling the story of the Restoration from the Saints on the ground. While we do hear about the goings-on of Brigham Young, John Taylor, and Wilford Woodruff, we also hear the story of a young divorcee and her struggles in the Church; Lorena Larsen, who suffered tremendously as a second wife; Jane Manning James and her trials as a black Latter-Day Saint in the 1800s; Tongan, Hawaiian, and Samoan pioneers and their contributions to an already global Church; and Shoshone Indian tribes who helped build the Logan temple. This is important. These are stories we need to hear. Their stories are just as relevant then as they are today, and their examples of faith are much-needed. Just like us, these Saints had questions and doubts and struggles. We can learn from them.

The other point not lost on me was that the Church wasn’t made up of homogeneous European “pioneer stock.” Even back in the 1850s, the Church had devoted members in the Pacific with wards and stakes. Missionary work was even being performed in Africa and Asia. These are Saints that aren’t often portrayed in our images of the pioneers. I am glad that we are re-owning their stories. There are some CRAZY stories to be told there too– just Google “Walter Gibson Mormon” and you’ll have a heydey. While these bring much-needed alternate perspectives to Church history, it also at times causes shame and self-reflection on our heritage. There are times when we didn’t act as nobly as our intentions. Latter-Day Saints had racist attitudes. Our suspicion of outsiders created tensions and even resulted in violence. This is a mixed legacy, with much to be proud of but much that challenges us to be better.

Polygamy

Not surprisingly, a large portion of Saints II either directly or indirectly deals with polygamy. Growing up, you couldn’t bring up polygamy in our family without having my mom get very fired up. If polygamy were to ever return and our dad wanted a second wife, my mom would divorce him. If he even chose to marry someone else if she passed away, she would come back to haunt him. And I entirely agree that she has a right to feel that way. The burden of polygamy disproportionately fell on the women. It caused heartache and uncertainty. But the very strong reaction to polygamy left me not quite knowing what to do with the fact that polygamy happened, and people we revere in Church and our ancestors carried it out and sacrificed for it. How can we honor them as pioneers, and reproach them as polygamists? It created a kind of mental disconnect that made it impossible for me to consider these people one and the same. Either Brigham Young was a prophet, or he was a lecherous man who was using the cover of religion to justify sexual impropriety. Saints shows that these individuals were neither larger-than-life heroes nor villainous caricatures, but complex individuals trying to live their faith. And polygamy was a part of that, something that became so central to their faith they would go to any lengths to defend it.

Plural marriage was a trial for the Saints, but so was giving it up. Reading about the harsh treatment by federal officers, the unfair trials, the prison sentences is hard. Your heart reaches out for the Saints. B. H. Roberts explains in his own words why it was so hard:

“He thought of the time he had spent in prison for plural marriage, and the sacrifices his wives had made because of it. What about everything the Saints had suffered for honoring and defending the practice? What of the many sermons preached over the decades supporting it? B. H. believed that God would sustain the Saints through whatever hardships came their way because of the practice. Were they now taking the coward’s way out?”

When the Manifesto ending polygamy was officially read in general conference, it was accepted with reluctance:

“When Orson finished reading the Manifesto, Lorenzo Snow presented it to the Saints for their sustaining vote. Hands went up throughout the auditorium– some decisively, some more reluctantly. Other hands did not go up at all. There did not appear to be any direct opposition, though many Saints’ eyes were wet with tears.”

My favorite individual story in Saints is Lorena Larsen. She was a second wife. She had to go into hiding, or else she would be called to testify against her husband in court. Her husband was sent to a federal prison. Lorena and her children had to refer to their husband and dad as “Uncle”, for risk of being found out. When The Manifesto announced that polygamy would be done away, her future was uncertain: what would happen to the wives and families already married? The federal government was not kind on this matter either, as you could still get arrested for unlawful cohabitation. Church leaders didn’t help the issue in some cases: officially, they had to appear to be upholding the letter of the law. In public settings, they seemed to imply that husbands should give up their second wives. But off the record, they had harsh words for any husband and father who abandoned their family. This uncertainty left Lorena not only with an unclear future, but also a crisis of faith. She said to her husband:

“It is easy for you. You can go home to your other family and be happy with her, while I must be like Hagar, sent away.”

and

“If I didn’t believe you thought you were doing God’s service,” Lorena told Bent, “I could never forgive you.”

Eventually, her husband decided to stay with her despite what the law said. But it shows you the complex situation for the saints.

Notes

Brigham Young called a general conference at Winter Quarters on December 27, 1847 to become elected as president and to reorganize a new first presidency. He did this without notice to apostles Parley Pratt and John Taylor in Salt Lake Valley (who both opposed him) and Lyman Wight who was voluntarily in Texas (but who also opposed him taking the step). He argued for days to persuade the eight apostles who were present that a revelation was not needed to reorganize a first presidency, and no delay should happen. All the absent apostles were not aware a move to reconstitute the first presidency was taking place. He got eight of the apostles to drop their opposition on December 5th and twenty-two days later he called for a general conference at Winter Quarters. He recorded, “I was unanimously elected Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.” Eight of twelve may not be truly “unanimous” but it satisfied Brigham Young.

with

On November 30, Brigham finally spoke to the quorum about reorganizing the First Presidency, certain that it was the Lord’s will to move forward. Orson Pratt immediately questioned teh need for change. “I would like to see the Twelve hold together perfectly and unitedly,” he said.

Orson believed that the Twelve could lead the Church in the absence of a First Presidency because a revelation had declared the two quorums equal in authority. The prophet Joseph Smith had also taught that a majority of the Twelve could make authoritative decisions when a full quorum was not present. For Orson, this meant that seven apostles could stay at Church headquarters to govern the Saints while the remaining five took the gospel to the nations.

Brigham listened to Orson, but he disagreed with his conclusion. “Which is better,” Brigham asked, “to untie the feet of the Twelve and let them go to the nations, or always keep seven at home?”

“It is my feeling,” said Orson, “there should not be a three-member First Presidency, but the Twelve be the First Presidency.”

As Orson and Brigham spoke, Wilford turned the matter over in his mind. He was willing to sustain a new First Presidency if it was the Lord’s revealed will. But he also worried about the consequences of a change. If three of the Twelve formed a First Presidency, would three new apostles be called to take their place in the quorum? And how would the reorganization of the presidency affect the role of the Twelve in the Church?

For now, he wanted the Twelve to continue as they were. Splitting up the quorum would feel like severing a body in two…

A short time later, Brigham met with eight other apostles at the home of Orson Hyde, who had returned from his mission in England. “I want to have a decision,” he said. “From teh time I had been in Great Salt Lake City till now, the tappings of the Spirit to me is, the Church ought to be now organized.” He testified that the quorum needed to sustain a First Presidency to govern the Church so the apostles could lead missionary efforts abroad.

Heber Kimball and Orson Hyde agreed that it was time to organize the First Presidency. But Orson Pratt once again expressed concern. He worried that the First Presidency would not seek advice from the Quorum of the Twelve and that the Twelve might also defer too quickly to teh presidency’s authority, accepting its decisions before thinking through matters themselves. The Church had functioned well enough under the Twelve, he reasoned. Why change now?

Brigham asked to hear the thoughts of the quorum members present. When his turn came, Wilford Woodruff shared his hesitations about creating a First Presidency, but expressed his willingness to align his will with God’s. “Our president seems to be moved upon by the Spirit,” he said. “He stands between us and God, and I for one don’t want to tie his hands.”

“I don’t want to see this quorum divided,” George A. Smith said next. He wished to delay his decision until he was certain of the mind of God, but he was open to change. “If it’s the will of the Lord that this course should be taken,” he declared, “I’ll twist myself into it.”

“My feelings are precisely like yours,” said Brigham. “I would not be divided in our feelings or separated no more than you would.” Still, he knew the Lord’s will. “It is in me like seven thunders rolling,” he declared. “God has brought us where we are, and we have got to do it.”

“Amasa Lyman and Ezra Benson, the two newest apostles, agreed with him. “I want to help with the Quorum of the Twelve,” Ezra said, “and I mean to stick to Brother Brigham.” He compared himself to a machine in the mill, ever ready to serve its function. He said he was perfectly willing to have the First Presidency lead him as the Lord saw fit.

“Amen!” said several apostles.

Orson Pratt stood. “I don’t consider we should act as machines,” he said. “If we are to be governed in all cases in that way, we have no room in the least degree to look at a thing in this light.”

“It’s of importance now to organize the Church,” Brigham told Orson. “What we have done is a mere patching to what we have to do. If you tie us up, we can’t do anything.”

Brigham’s words hung over the room, and the Holy Ghost was poured out upon the apostles. Orson knew what Brigham had said was true. The apostles brought the question of reorganization to a vote, and each member of the quorum raised his hand to sustain Brigham Young as the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

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