I spent two years with Mormon people, with Mormon books, and embraced by Mormon history to write American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church. People constantly ask me: Well, what did you think of them? What were the Mormons like?
I respond that I started this project mildly prejudiced in favor of Mormons. More to the point, I'm mildly prejudiced in favor of organized religion. I attend church fairly often, and — even though Mormons often describe their own religion as "weird" or "peculiar" — I regard the Latter-day Saints as part of the American religious mainstream. I've never had a (significant) beef with some of the stretch points of the Saints' beliefs, to wit, the mysterious appearance and disappearance of the "golden tablets" which contained the Book of Mormon. My own religion, Anglicanism, isn't exactly, well, rational.
I also like to say that I ended this project with a mild, pro-Mormon bias. But it's true that a great deal happened in between.
There are about six million Mormons in the United States, and they are far from a homogeneous group. The majority probably respect the ritual and dogma of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City. Many do not. There are probably tens of thousands of "cradle" Mormons — men and women born into the LDS church who subsequently left the faith — adult, lapsed Mormons and then unreligious, cultural Mormons, who find it almost impossible to tear themselves away from the powerful, family-centered culture that Mormonism promotes.
In researching my book about the turbulent final year of Joseph Smith's life, I had extensive contact with what used to be called the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the descendants of the Illinois Mormons who chose not to follow Brigham Young to Utah because they opposed polygamy. Today, this faith, based in Independence, Missouri — Joseph Smith's original "Zion" — is called the Community of Christ. The Community takes a serious interest in Smith's five-year-long Illinois sojourn, and, in conjunction with the Salt Lake Mormons, they curate and manage the historical site of Nauvoo, where Joseph lived at the time of his death.
Many Americans know about the so-called Fundamentalist Mormon (FLDS) sects, like Warren Jeffs's notorious church in Texas, which is just one of several renegade polygamous sects. Mainstream Mormonism supposedly abandoned polygamy in 1890, so that Utah could qualify for statehood. In fact, the practice lived on at least 20 years and then surfaced in breakaway, fundamentalist sects like Jeffs's.
Actor Harry Dean Stanton memorably re-created the Jeffs-like character of Roman Grant, the elderly leader of the polygamist Juniper Creek colony in HBO's long-running TV series Big Love. David Ebershoff successfully captured the insular, polygamous culture of a tiny, FLDS enclave in his novel The 19th Wife. Jon Krakauer's 2003 bestseller, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, primarily exposed the wild behavior of Mormon Fundamentalists, though Krakauer argued, persuasively for many readers, that Salt Lake City's efforts to distance themselves from FLDS polygamous beliefs are not altogether convincing.
All this to say that there is no monolithic body of "Mormons" in this country, nor did I deal with men and women who seemed to be reading from the same playbook.Mormon history is like the Wild West; it remains an open field for both academic and popular historians. First off, it's not a very old discipline. Even though Joseph Smith himself consciously "kept a record" of his own activities — in part to deflect the many lawsuits flung his way during his lifetime — the Utah church began to get serious about history only in the middle of the 19th century. In the final scene of my book, John Taylor, the sole survivor of the jailhouse massacre that claimed Joseph's life, begins the process of memorializing Smith's assassination 10 years after it happened, in 1854.
Brigham H. Roberts started publishing his comprehensive, official church histories at the end of the 19th century. A quick glance at my book's footnotes reveals that I took Roberts's work, which includes tens of thousands of documents, very seriously. Nonetheless, the church has not been exactly open-minded about its history during the 20th century. What many regard as the Golden Age of Mormon historiography dates only to 1972, when the legendary historian Leonard Arrington became Church Historian. Arrington served for 10 years. Since then, church policies have vacillated between openness and restriction.
Nowadays, scholars are quick to praise the accessibility of the LDS archives. Mormon historian Matthew Bowman told the New York Times about "signs of a new openness," in 2012, adding that the church "is pushing for detente with historians." Yes and no. Mormon and "Gentile" writers like me have been asking for decades to see the secret records of Joseph Smith's Council of Fifty, which he appointed to administer all of mankind after the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. (Really.) These records have not even been allowed inside the Church History Library; instead, they reside in the so-called President's Vault, a repository of, well, who knows what? The church recently announced its intention to publish the Council of Fifty records, at an undetermined time in the future.
The Salt Lake church doesn't have a monopoly on its history; significant records reside at Utah universities, at the Community of Christ, in regional historical societies, and in private hands. Independent and amateur historians have made huge contributions to Mormon history working both inside and outside official archives. Two of the greatest names in Mormon history — Fawn Brodie and Juanita Brooks — were housewives taking care of children when they wrote groundbreaking books on Joseph Smith and the Mountain Meadows Massacre, respectively.
I should end where I began. What were the Mormons like? Unfailingly polite, generally welcoming, blindingly literate and — perhaps counterintuitively — fascinated by Gentile attitudes toward their religion and history. Wallace Stegner, the great novelist and lover of the American West, admired the Saints, although he never converted to their religion. "I write as a non-Mormon but not as a Mormon hater," Stegner once explained. "Except as it affected the actions of the people I write of, I do not deal with the Mormon faith; I do not believe it, but I do not quarrel with it either."
My sentiments more or less precisely.
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Alex Beam is a columnist for the Boston Globe and for the International Herald Tribune. He is the author of three works of nonfiction, American Crucifixion, Gracefully Insane, and A Great Idea at the Time. He has also written for the Atlantic Monthly, Slate, and Forbes/FYI. He lives in Newton, Massachusetts, with his wife and three sons. He tweets @imalexbeamyrnot.
Books mentioned in this post
Alex Beam is the author of American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church