Book Review: Mark Lyman Staker, ‘Hearken, O Ye People: The Historical Setting of Joseph Smith’s Ohio Revelations’
Staker, Mark Lyman. Hearken, O Ye People: The Historical Setting of Joseph Smith’s Ohio Revelations. Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2009. xlii + 694 pp. Illustrations, maps, endnotes, appendix, bibliography, index, scripture index. Hardback: $34.95; ISBN 978-1-58958-113-5.
Reading through this 600-page text, one fact becomes crystal clear: Mark Staker has read, considered, and contextualized every document that has any relevancy to Mormonism’s Kirtland experience. Likely multiple times. He is not exaggerating when he writes that he “tried to piece together as thoroughly as possible the events connected with significant Mormon sites in Ohio” (xiii)—and “thoroughly” is nowhere near a strong enough word. His meticulous scholarship is a rare achievement in Mormon studies, and the broad range of sources listed in his (50 page) bibliography is a testament to the extent of his research. Though he rightly notes that this is not a “comprehensive history of the Kirtland period” (xl) because it does not touch on all important aspects of the decade—especially religious and ecclesiastical developments of the mid 1830s—one can only imagine the depth and length a “comprehensive history” in his hands would entail!
The organization of the book is meant to emphasize the importance of locations and themes as much as chronology. Separated into four parts, Hearken O Ye People examines, in turn, the cultural, religious, and social environment of Kirtland before and immediately after the introduction of Mormonism, especially as experienced through “Black Pete” (more on him later); the introduction of the law of consecration, with a special emphasis on Newell K. Whitney and his role as bishop and storekeeper; the experiences at Hiram, Ohio, while Joseph Smith lodged with the Johnson family; and, finally, the rise and fall of the Kirtland banking endeavor (which is perhaps the most meticulously documented section of the whole book). While this layout is helpful in ways, especially in Staker’s expertise of exhaustively examining individual themes and physical places, it proved to be repetitive at times and likely made the book longer than it needed to be. While I found the first section to be the most interesting, I thought the attempted focus on “Black Pete” somewhat forced due to the lack of documentation, especially after the arrival of Joseph Smith in early 1831. An appendix to the book includes transcripts of nine sermons by George A Smith and Brigham Young, delivered in 1864, transcribed from George D. Watt’s Pittman shorthand by specialist LaJean Purcell Carruth. While these sermons likely provide more of an idea of how these Church leaders chose to remember and interpret their Kirtland experiences rather than an accurate recounting of what actually happened, they are interesting nonetheless. The physical book itself is beautiful, in part thanks to John Hamer’s genius cover design and brilliant cartography, and the publisher’s decision of capacious pages with large font made the reading pleasurable.
Like any historical work, Staker’s education, background, and interests are readily apparent in his approach and focus. His training in anthropology help him provide insights into unexplored tensions of societal relations, and his choice of things to emphasize are sometimes different than those trained in history, literature, or theology. For example, he assumes a metaphoric accent of Clifford Geertz as he continually emphasizes the importance of “community” (or, as he often put it, a “people”) among the early Church—insights that, though perhaps tangential at times in an already long book, enrich our understanding of the first decade of Mormonism. Further, Staker’s background in historic sites gives him a unique emphasis on the importance of “places,” and his attention to physical details help recreate the historical context of the Kirtland era perhaps more than any other book on any other period in Mormon history.
One of the book’s most important contributions is the reconsideration of early Mormonism’s racial relations. Indeed, the entire first section of the volume revolves around “Black Pete,” a former slave who was an early convert, “chief man,” and “revelator” in the Kirtland Church. Staker details at length the black tradition of religious enthusiasm, and posits that this culture helped form early Mormon religiosity. This is a welcome interpretive framework, yet I fear he sometimes underemphasized the porous relationship between white and black charisma during the early republic and overlooked the pervasiveness of enthusiasm in some white religious traditions (though he does hint at this continuity of enthusiasm in white “folk” traditions on pg. 17, n. 4). However, even if he argued too strongly for the influence of black culture—I think much of the culture of enthusiasm that bred Kirtland Mormonism had blurred the distinctions between Anglo- and African-American religiosity to the point that it difficult to determine which had the greater influence—he is swinging the pendulum in the right direction, and has done well to bring more attention to a heretofore ignored aspect of Mormon history.
Staker also underestimates the influence of Methodism during the Kirtland period. While he is at his best when detailing the Reformed Baptist tradition that influenced Mormon understandings of authority and priesthood—even if his presentation of that tradition makes them more monolithic and united than they really were at the time—Staker misses an important religious development with the increased influence of Methodist converts. As fellow JIer Christopher Jones has shown, Kirtland Mormonism held a complex relationship with Methodist beliefs and practices, and this helps account for much of the Church’s post-1831 religious charisma; Baptist and Restorationalist influences may have been paramount for the core of believers that made up the early ‘Mormonites,” but the LDS movement quickly grew closer to Methodism within a couple years after the move to Kirtland—this is a tension I wish would have received more attention.
This small critique aside, this book skillfully detailed many things that were new and insightful to me. His description of the “Mormonite” community during the period between their original acceptance of the gospel and the arrival of Joseph Smith—in which there were several months of being left to themselves to determine how to run the Church, experience spiritual gifts, etc—is as fascinating as it is groundbreaking. His treatment of the tar and feathering of Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon is exhaustive in every sense of the word: he dedicates a whole chapter to the event, adds an appendix debating the geographic questions of where Joseph and Emma were sleeping that night, all of which supported by 128 footnotes (chapter 27). His descriptions of Kirtland attempts at consecration and the entire banking experiement are the most in-depth treatments to date. Indeed, the book is packed full with the minutest details—including details ranging from etymology of “lickskillet” (a pejorative often used to describe early Mormons [xli, n. 1]) to the background of the Hiram, Ohio, farming economy (269-272), and from the development of Bank management in antebellum America (465) to Alexander Campbell’s idea of three kingdoms of glory in heaven (322-323)—each of which bring the Ohio culture of the early 19th century to life and provide a better understanding of the “historical setting” of early Mormonism.
The title of the book comes from the opening line of the Doctrine and Covenant’s “Preface”—a revelation received within a year after moving to Kirtland (D&C 1). Before Ohio, Joseph Smith’s revelations were always directed to an individual and only indirectly designed for the larger Church. However, the first revelation Smith received in Kirtland was directed to “my People” (D&C 41:1)—and this is what Staker evidently feels is the most significant development of the period: “They were no longer a collection of believers; they were now a ‘People.’ They were Mormonites” (101-102). This is also the biggest strength of Staker’s volume: his ability to show the development and struggles of a community while still focusing on individuals. While he examines singular families and specific leaders, his emphasis is always on how they related to the larger Mormon movement. Further, his decision to focus on many individuals who eventually left the Church provides a voice to many people now lost or forgotten. These achievements help fill in many of the voids currently present in Mormon history.
Finally, to say that Hearken gives us a “richer” understanding of the Kirtland period would be an understatement. In his “Epilogue,” Staker notes how “Kirtland has experienced a revival of interest in recent years,” referencing the recently remodeled Visitors Centers of the LDS and Community of Christ Churches; this book is not only the climax of that revival, but it promises that future scholarly interest will have a firm foundation to stand on. Indeed, Hearken O Ye People will be both a necessary starting point and immensely helpful reference tool for anyone interested in the Kirtland era of the LDS Church.
 An example of his overlooking enthusiastic tendencies in white congregations is his assertion that the practice of xenoglossia was unique to slave religions (22).
 Besides his numerous JI posts on the topic see Christopher C. Jones, “‘We Latter-day Saints are Methodists’: The Influence of Methodism on Early Mormon Religiosity” (Master’s Thesis, Brigham Young University, 2009).