Mormon Books Win Awards
Calgary, Alberta—A hint of apprehension hung in the air at the MacEwan Centre on the University of Calgary campus when the Mormon History Association gathered for its annual awards banquet. To the surprise of some, the Best Documentary Book Award went to a work by 34-year-old John S. Dinger, who edited The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes, a book reflecting the collaboration of some fourteen historians and researchers. The minutes are kind of Pentagon Papers for Mormons. The original documents have been under lock and key at the Mormon Church’s History Library in Salt Lake City.
The minutes confirm the role of polygamy in the martyrdom of Mormon founder Joseph Smith (1805-1844) and the bullying of dissenters by Mormon civic leaders in Nauvoo, Illinois, the headquarters for the Mormon Church in the 1840s. They also chronicle the power grab by the Church’s Twelve Apostles in expelling from the Church the only surviving member of the First Presidency and heir apparent after Smith’s death.
In December 2011, the month Dinger’s book was published, the Church History Library made the Nauvoo city council, but not the Nauvoo high council, minutes available to scholars and said it was “an oversight” that the minutes had been restricted. The high council minutes, a record of ecclesiastical controversies, remain sequestered.
“Through a cataloging oversight,” wrote Robin Scott Jensen of the Church History Library in the current issue of the Journal of Mormon History, “the Nauvoo City Council Minutes were identified as both restricted and open for research.” But independent researchers have confirmed that the original documents were restricted prior to December. Dinger had to rely on typescripts prepared in the 1970s by three different historians.
Dinger is Deputy Prosecuting Attorney in Boise, Idaho, where he works through the complexities of documentary evidence to piece together what happened at crime scenes. He finds the record from early Mormonism to be fascinating. “I think it enriches our understanding of Nauvoo,” he writes. “It shows us an intelligent Joseph Smith, a courageous stake president William Marks, and a villain in the apostate John C. Bennett.” It also shows “a city being formed from the ground up and the development of an important religious body.”
In the introduction to his 700-page book, Dinger calls the minutes a “treasure trove of material relating to the religious and secular life of the early Latter-day Saints.”
“These sets of documents are, I believe, two of the most important primary sources for the period,” he writes. Regarding the Church’s attempts to keep the minutes under wraps, the high council meetings were not originally private, Dinger responds. The meetings were held in rooms that were “crowded to excess” with “curious onlookers.” If too many spectators appeared, the council moved to a bigger space “to accommodate the large audience.” The high council trial of Smith’s councilor, Sidney Rigdon, was held outdoors so everyone could attend. The charges and verdicts and sometimes the minutes were published in Church newspapers to dissuade others from contemplating sin.
“The book is well done and makes a significant contribution to the canon of published primary sources in Mormon studies,” writes attorney Morris Thurston, who has done research for the Church Historians Press and wrote the foreword to Dinger’s book. The typescripts Dinger drew from are housed in the Beinecke Library at Yale University, the Marriott Library at the University of Utah, and the Merrill-Cazier Library at Utah State University. They were prepared by historians who had access to the documents during the 1970s when the Church History Library’s collections were more open.
Other awards announced in Calgary include the Best Book Award for a book from Oxford University Press, Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism, written by University of Richmond English professor Terryl L. Givens and director of publications at the LDS Church History Department Matthew J. Grow. The Best Biography Award went to a volume from Kofford Books of Sandy, Utah, “Swell Suffering”: A Biography of Maurine Whipple by southern Utah artist Veda Hale. The Best International Book Award was won by BYU religion professor Reid L. Neilson for To the Peripheries of Mormondom: The Apostolic Around-the-World Journey of David O. McKay, 1920-1921, published by University of Utah Press. A Best Family History Award went to LDS historian William G. Hartley for Another Kind of Gold: The Life of Albert King Thurber. The association also gives an award to a first-time author, in this case to Utah physician Samuel M. Brown for In Heaven as It Is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death, published by Oxford.
In his review of Dinger’s book in the Journal of Mormon History, Jensen asserted that Dinger should have described the physical appearance of the documents, that Dinger should have insisted that Church archivists, like Jensen, show him the documents or help him in “confirming transcriptions and providing descriptions.”
“What a clever bit of wordplay,” Dinger says in response. “One of the sources I relied on for better understanding the content and providing annotation for readers was Selected Collections from the Archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a set of 74 DVDs with photographs of documents prepared by Church archivists. Anyone who has used this resource knows the archivists blacked out key information. They look like redacted FBI files.”
“The real value of the minutes is that they were recorded in dramatic eye-witness fashion,” Dinger says. Readers are introduced to “conflict among the political and religious powerbrokers,” and light is shined on “behind-the-scene issues” in Joseph Smith’s “struggle for control, the conflicts with significant community leaders, and the pulse-pounding events that ended in Smith’s death, followed by the evacuation of the second-largest city in Illinois. As you read, you can feel the tension on every page. The reading is sometimes pretty gripping.”
Mormons may be surprised, Dinger explains in the annotation, to learn that the concept of a “high council” is not biblical. Joseph Smith originally met with ad hoc groups to make plans and resolve disputes. Later he formed a permanent council that met in his home, and he called it the “high council of the church of Christ.” It became the primary governing Church body and appellate court for other Church councils.
The Mormon History Association
2011 Book Awards (Presented in 2012)
Best Book Award ($2,000)
Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism
by Terryl L. Givens and Matthew J. Grow
The Best Book Award is given to the best book published during the year on Mormon history. It is intended to honor and encourage a sense of purpose, dedication, excellence of study, research, and scholarship in the field of Mormon history. It is funded by Curtis T. Atkisson Jr. in memory of his wife, Mary Ann Atkisson, a lover of history, an accomplished artist, and an MHA member.
Smith-Pettit Best First Book Award ($1,200)
In Heaven as It Is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death
by Samuel Morris Brown
Awarded for the best first book written by an author in Mormon history, the prize is funded by the Smith-Pettit Foundation, a private organization, in support of scholarly Mormon studies.
Turner-Bergera Best Biography Award ($1,000)
“Swell Suffering”: A Biography of Maurine Whipple
by Veda Hale
Given to the best published biography in Mormon history, the award is named after Ella Larsen Turner, a published historian and genealogist. After her death, family members wanted to honor her by encouraging scholarship in personal histories. Her daughter, Ella Ruth Turner Bergera, taught children’s literature for 20 years at Brigham Young University and was a published novelist and poet.
Steven F. Christensen Best Documentary History/Bibliography Award ($1,000)
The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes
John S. Dinger, editor
This award is given to the best published documentary or bibliography on a Mormon topic. Steven Christensen’s interest in Mormon history and documents, as well as his love for his family and life generally, was tragically cut short in 1985 with his death by Mark Hoffman. Members of his family created this award in his honor.
Geraldine McBride Woodward Best International Book Award ($1,000)
To the Peripheries of Mormondom: The Apostolic Around-the-World Journey of David O. McKay, 1920-1921
by Hugh J. Cannon, Reid L. Neilson editor
Awarded for the best international Mormon history, the prize honors an outstanding woman who loved her Mormon heritage. Her family funds the award to recognize her advancement of Mormon history and her own place in it.
Winchester Family and Community History Award ($500)
Another Kind of Gold: The Life of Albert King Thurber, a Utah Pioneer, Explorer, and Community Builder
by William G. Hartley
Awarded to the most thoroughly researched family or community history relating to Mormonism prior to 1980, the book may be published commercially or privately. The award is intended to honor the memory of Marjorie June Winchester Scott, a local historian, museum curator, and MHA member. It is funded by her children. Her ancestors, the Winchesters, were early converts who survived the tumultuous first one and a half centuries.