Reviews – Mormon Mavericks: Essays on Dissenters
Mormon Mavericks: Essays on Dissenters is a square-pegs-in-round-holes collection of essays about Mormons who have left—or been excommunicated from—the LDS church. Arranged roughly chronologically by editors John Sillito and Susan Staker, the book profiles early Latter-day Saints such as the Stenhouses and Amasa Lyman, as well as more recent non-conformists, including philosopher Sterling McMurrin and historian D. Michael Quinn. The anthology includes a beautiful, sensitive epilogue by Esther Peterson, who was the Assistant Secretary of Labor during the Kennedy administration.
The Salt Lake Tribune, Martin Naparsteck
Mavericks, the human kind, can be heroes or oddballs. At least four in Mormon Mavericks qualify as heroes. Most of the rest are oddballs (who can be loveable eccentrics or just plain kooks), although at least a few are just plain curiosities.
John Sillito and Susan Staker, editors of Mavericks, have selected thirteen people who have found themselves at odds with the leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They date back to men born in the early nineteenth century; one, historian D. Michael Quinn, is still alive. The thirteen entries are written by fourteen writers, and the quality of the writing and insight in the personalities and issues involved vary greatly.
Novelist Levi Peterson provides a gentle, loving, credible portrait of historian Juanita Brooks, Mountain Meadows Massacre. Like most of the authors in the volume, he clearly admires his subject for her courage in resisting church pressure to not publish the truth.
By contrast, Edward Leo Lyman, a professor at a small California college, provides a view of Moses Thatcher, who, among other sins, displeased the Republican church leadership in the twentieth century by running for the U. S. Senate as a Democrat. Lyman’s essay could have been written by that same church leadership: “It is indeed a tragedy for a man with the seeds of real greatness in his chosen field not to develop the humility and cooperation with colleagues and submissiveness to higher authority that are necessary for retaining a position appropriate to his talents.”
Peterson, far more so than Lyman, is an admirer of the courage truth-telling often requires, and seems appropriately in near-awe of Brooks’s courage in exposing the details of Mormon involvement in the 1857 massacre at Mountain Meadows, even in the face of intense pressure from church officials. Elder LeGrand Richards tried to dissuade her: “Even if her interpretation of the massacre were correct,” he asserted, “it was not in the interest of the church ‘to bring it up at this late date.'”
Similarly, Newell Bringhurst writes with admiration of Fawn Brodie, who portrayed church founder Joseph Smith in No Man Knows My History as “having primarily non-religious motives,” including lust, in shaping the early church. Late in her life, she wrote in 1979 that Smith’s “frantic search for wives in the last four years of his life betrayed a libertine nature that was to be quite shocking.”
Quinn’s portrait is written by his friend, Lavina Fielding Anderson, who makes no attempt to hide the friendship or her admiration. Quinn, like Brodie and Brooks, is an historian who wrote books about early Mormon history that displeased church leaders. He lost his teaching position at BYU (which he later would call “an Auschwitz of the mind”).
These three historians all qualify as heroes because all were willing to resist intense pressure from high church officials in order to write historical truth. But there is an important difference among the three, and one problem with an anthology of fourteen authors is that the editors didn’t seem to notice it. Brodie was excommunicated and really didn’t care; Brooks was not excommunicated but feared she might be; Quinn was excommunicated and didn’t want to be. Those differences probably would have been noticed if the three essays had been written by one person. A study of the differing psychologies of the three historians might have revealed something about the nature of dissent.
The fourth hero in the book is Sarah Pratt, one of the wives of key nineteenth-century church leader Orson Pratt. She resisted amorous and obnoxious advances from Joseph Smith, later playing a key role in exposing Smith and other church leaders, reporting their polygamist activities even as they publicly denied it. Their lies notwithstanding, Sarah Pratt had the courage to tell the truth.
Other “mavericks” in the book seem less admirable than these four. William Smith, Younger brother of Joseph, had a bad temper and sometimes displeased his older sibling. Thomas Stuart Ferguson spent years trying to dig up archaeological proof that the Book of Mormon was genuine only to conclude it was a fraud. King James Strang thought he would succeed the murdered Joseph Smith as head of the church but was beaten out by Brigham Young.
The thirteen biographical essays are followed by one by Esther Peterson, who was the Assistant Secretary of Labor in the Kennedy administration. In her essay, Peterson searches for a way of explaining Mormonism so it can include the obedient and dissenter alike. She writes of “close friends and relatives” who “resent being considered less than good Mormons for being less than good Republicans and for questioning authority.” Most of Mormon Mavericks is a tribute to everyone who feels that same resentment.
Utah Historical Quarterly, Melvin T. Smith
The publisher and editors have brought together thirteen biographical sketches and one autobiography, written between 1973 and 2001 by a group of competent historians, who, in these articles, provide readers with much Mormon history between 1833 and the present. These biographies of five women and ten men review many interesting details of their controversial lives.
A common characteristic of these “Mormon Mavericks” has been their pursuit of truth, which for some had led them into Mormonism in the first place. Most were devoted members, often with years of dedicated LDS church service. Problems arose for them when the claims and teachings or conduct of Church leadership conflicted with their own understanding of the “facts” of history and their “sense” of truth.
Their choices brought them consequences ranging from apostasy and excommunication or disfellowshipment and inactivity to quiescent doubting that allowed a few to continue to wear their “cloak” of Mormonism.
Loretta Hefner in “From Apostle to Apostate: the Personal Struggle of Amasa Mason Lyman” discusses his conversion, missionary work, and calling as an apostle (1842), and his subsequent shifting beliefs resulting from his exposure to Spiritualism and the Godbeites. His “quest” resulted in his excommunication in 1870. In “John E. Page: Apostle of Uncertainty,” John Quist follows him from convert in 1833 and successful missionary, to his call as an apostle in 1838. Page accepted Brigham Young and the Quorum of Twelve as Joseph’s successor then shifted to James Strang, then to John Colin Brewster, and later Granville Hedrick. He settled finally on a “spiritual compass” that “pointed inward rather than outward.”
Richard and Mary Van Wagoner in “Sarah M. Pratt: the Shaping of an Apostate” reveal a woman with high moral values, whose commitment to Mormonism was eroded by polygamy, first in Nauvoo with Joseph Smith’s “proposition,” and further by her husband Orson’s plural marriages (ten). Though she remained with the Church she did not believe, and so taught her children. Excommunication came in 1874. “William Smith: Problematic Patriarch” is given a more balanced image by Irene Bates. She sees his claim of “Patriarch to the Church” as legitimate. Charges of “licentiousness” and “violence” against him were also made against his brother Joseph. Bates suggests that William is more fairly judged by the standards of his time than by later critics.
Ronald Walker, “The Stenhouses and the Making of a Mormon Image,” reviews the Stenhouses’ conversion, missionary work, and trek to Zion where they embraced Mormonism fully. “Polygamy” led to Fanny’s disillusionment. Thomas was attracted to Spiritualism and the Godbeites which cemented his anti-Brigham and anti-Mormon stance. Walker credits Fanny’s Tell It All, and TBH’s Rocky Mountain Saints with both national and international influence on the “Mormon Image.” In “King James Strang: Joseph Smith’s Successor,” William Russell notes Strang’s grandiosity even before his conversion to Mormonism. After Strang declared he was the Prophet’s successor, his religious career mimicked that of the Mormon founder, including organization, revelations, translations, polygamy, and death at the hands of enemies in 1856.
Edward Leo Lyman, “The Alienation of an Apostle from His Quorum: The Case of Moses Thatcher,” claims that Thatcher’s troubles with George Q. Cannon and other Quorum members began with the purchase of Bullion Beck Mine stock. That conflict escalated with his unwillingness to “submit to counsel” on political prerogatives. His decisions led to his loss of Quorum standing in 1896.
In “Fawn McKay Brodie and Her Quest for Independence,” Newell Bringhurst presents a brilliant young woman not satisfied with her devout father’s or church’s answers to her questions. At the University of Chicago she would meet her husband to be and write her powerful biography of Joseph Smith, No Man Knows My History. She stated later that her work was a “desperate effort to come to terms with my childhood.” Her biography still remains important. Levi Peterson, in “Juanita Brooks as a Mormon Dissenter,” sees an “insider dissenter.” Her commitment to her Church remained second only to her commitment to truth and to accurate history. The Mountain Meadows Massacre book was her bold effort to tell the truth at the risk of membership in the Church. Ironically, her version of that tragedy is now accepted by the Church, generally.
“Thomas Stuart Ferguson and the Book of Mormon Archeology,” by Stan Larson looks at Ferguson’s life and “passion.” He wanted to prove that the Book of Mormon was real history, Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling, and Jesus Christ’s divinity. His monumental efforts bore few fruits. With the discovery of the Pearl of Great Price Papyri, his disillusionment was complete. He chose to remain within the “fold” because he loved being a Mormon.
In Brigham Madsen’s “Sterling McMurrin: A Heretic but Not an Apostate,” the author reveals McMurrin’s Mormon heritage and its influences on his life and thinking, his career through college, teaching within the church system, the “Swearing Elders” group, and subsequent threats of excommunication, until his opponents found he had a friend in David O. McKay. McMurrin hoped his own honest “commentary” would somehow improve Mormonism’s potential for doing good. Richard Cracroft sees “Samuel Wooley Taylor: Maverick Mormon Historian” as a very talented writer and historian who was willing to “tweak” the “blue noses” of his too serious Mormon friends and readers. Taylor, ever the maverick, was a deeply committed Mormon. He saw his role as writer, not destroyer of “faith,” nor prophet.
In “DNA Mormon: D. Michael Quinn,” Lavina Fielding Anderson writes an emotional account of this brilliant and dedicated historian and gay man. She reviews his early interest in history, his schooling and decision to return to BYU to teach, and his forced resignation. Despite hostility from some Church leaders, Quinn elected integrity—to his profession, and (he thought) to his church. With his excommunication, the dilemma of being a “faithful” Mormon and a professional historian was resolved.
In the epilogue, Esther E. Peterson talks about “The World beyond the Valley.” She discusses how her early Mormon roots translated into her commitment to social issues with labor, women’s rights, and political involvement with three U. S. presidents. When asked: “Are you a Mormon?” she responded: “You decide.”
Readers too can ask: “Are these mavericks Mormons?” Their loss to Mormonism is surely Mormonism’s loss.