Saturday, October 20, 2012

American Moses

Speaking of Mormons, there is a new book out on Brigham Young, seeing him as a "Pioneer Prophet," as opposed to an earlier book which hailed him as an "American Moses."  I suppose Romney would like to think of himself as a similar "Moses" leading Americans out of the Obama wilderness, but he hasn't generated the kind of passion that carried Ronald Reagan to the WH in 1980, with "Moses" himself lending support.  I'm always wary of would-be profits and pandering politicians.  I don't thinkYoung ever imagined his small community growing into the financial and political juggernaut it is today.

The whole idea of the Book of Mormon is an intriguing one, especially in regard to the Lost Tribe of Israel settling in America, and the quest to find these mystical ruins.  Hampton Sides wrote an article, This is Not the Place, about such quests, which was included in his book Americana, noting that BYU set up an archaeological department specifically for this purpose in the 1950s.   Sides was very respectful in his article, noting that even if the purpose was dubious, the Mormon archaeological team, led by Thomas Stuart Ferguson, took a scientific approach, and were very careful in their work.  So much so in fact that Ferguson not only lost faith in the quest, but Mormonism itself.

Bernard De Voto had Mormon roots and has written about Smith, Young, and the growth of Mormonism in his books.  As I recall, he saw Joseph Smith as little more than a tent revival minister, and gave the credit to Young in holding this "wayward tribe" together on its long journey West to escape persecution.  They came to see themselves as the "Lost Tribe of Israel."


  1. They also reportedly have the best genealogical records in the US, and from what I understand anyone can use them (with a little recruiting on the side).

    I'm trying to remember the exact details, but as I recall Smith was a failing magician or circus performer when he found the magic glasses and tablets and angels. But most religions seem equally weird when you start digging into them.

    We had one of them in Montana -- the Church Universal and Triumphant which turned out to be nothing more than a real estate scam, although many believers still live here after giving all their money to the church.

    What's interesting about the Mormons is that their religion is based in America -- why Romney can burst into song about America the beautiful. My guess is that's one of the few things that aren't faked, and he quit singing when he found out how the rest of the nation viewed it (as weird).

  2. Bernard DeVoto and Wallace Stegner were both non-Mormon Utah boys who wrote about Mormons. DeVoto was somewhat of a mentor for Stegner who became his biographer after DeVoto passed away. But their views on Joseph Smith and Brigham Young couldn’t have been more dissimilar.

    DeVoto poked fun at Joseph Smith as a visionary swooner with his head in the clouds. But he admired Brigham Young as a resourceful down to earth leader. Stegner attributed that to DeVoto’s macho fascination with toughness for which Young was famous or infamous depending on one’s take. Stegner disdained Young as vain, egocentric, and an iron-fisted authoritarian who tolerated no dissent within the church. But Stegner saw Joseph Smith as downright fascinating, no mere Peepstone Joe as Smith was called by his detractors. What contrasts in how two perceptive 20th century observers viewed the two most famous Mormon leaders.

  3. Interesting. I'm a Devoto and a Stegner fan -- we read several DeVoto books and as I recall a Stegner or two with our NY Times reading group. I still think Big Rock Candy Mountain is the "great American novel."

    I have been reading about the early Mormon religion since I was an undergraduate interested in Western history. The idea that a failed magician could somehow enlist an entire entourage of followers has always fascinated me. Maybe it was just been the polygamy, which brings the religion up to Romney's family.

    Now it seems more like the Catholic church with a lot of money and a lot of power, and they seem to use that power a little too much to oppress others.

    1. Meager beginnings lead down strange escape paths out of poverty and ignominy. The Book of Mormon probably began as a get rich quick scheme. But the creative process of writing it gave Smith the inspiration that he might have here the basis for a church with him as leader. So he creates the role of prophet for himself, immerses himself in that role, lives it, becomes it, and in the end finds himself destroyed by it. A Greek tragedy of the Age of Jackson.

    2. Interesting. Had never really thought of it that way, but it makes sense. His was certainly an American story in that light.

  4. Thanks for reminding me of Wallace Stegner, anonymous.

  5. Interesting review: