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Book Review: Polly Aird: ‘Mormon Convert, Mormon Defector’

By: Ben P - November 09, 2010

[Note: The following is a book review forthcoming in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. I appreciate Kristine Haglund and Russell Fox for allowing me to reproduce it here.]

Aird, Polly. Mormon Convert, Mormon Defector: A Scottish Immigrant in the American West, 1848-1861. (Norman, Okl.: Arthur H. Clark Company, 2009). 320 pp. Illustrations, photos, maps, footnotes, bibliography, index. Cloth: $39.95, ISBN 978-0-87062-369-1.

Just as national histories are always written by the victors, religious narratives are often written by those who remain within the fold. The common tropes of conversion, devotion, dedication through trials, and faithfulness until death dominate Mormon historiography. What are missing are those whose stories diverge from the traditional storylines. In Mormon Convert, Mormon Defector: A Scottish Immigrant in the American West, 1848-1861, Polly Aird provides us with an account of someone whose narrative significantly differed from the norm. Peter McAuslan embraced the Mormon faith in his native Scotland, made the arduous trek to Utah to live with the body of Saints, grew disillusioned with the faith he once loved, and then decided to leave the Church, flee Deseret, and establish a new life once more in California. While stories like McAuslan’s are often quickly forgotten, they are crucial to enriching our understanding of the historical period, offering a-traditional views in order to complete our portrait of the past.

Perhaps Aird’s biggest accomplishment is her ability to richly recreate the historical context for each of the different episodes McAuslan experienced. Utilizing numerous secondary sources, varied contemporary records, and the eclectic collection of McAuslan’s writings, readers are introduced to the dynamic and disruptive environment of early nineteenth century Scotland, the traumatic and tedious experiences of migration over land and sea (Aird’s treatment of the British Saints’ voyage should be singled out for its vivid brilliance), and the rugged, difficult, and often unstable society of early Pioneer Utah. Aird dedicates many pages to this larger environment—perhaps, at times, to the extent of forgetting the biography’s central character—and the result is a text that is useful for understanding both McAuslan as well as the world he lived in. While ostensibly about a single individual, the book is really a group biography and microhistory narrating the circumstances of the many different groups McAuslan associated with: Scottish converts struggling to make a living in a tumultuous climate, immigrant Saints enduring the dangerous trek to Zion, and imported foreigners fighting to survive the rough Utah soil and even rougher Reformation rhetoric. By moving beyond the restrictions of traditional biography, Aird casts a much wider net enabling a much broader—and thus, much more relevant—narrative.

A specific thematic cycle permeates the entire text: the high hopes of idealist faith, the difficulties of when that faith clashes with reality, and the disillusionment when one is unable to aggregate the two. McAuslan and his fellow Saints had high hopes when they set off to travel to Zion, yet the trip was filled with difficulties, sickness, and death. When they finally settle in Deseret—narrated in a chapter ironically titled “The Promised Land”—they are only met with difficult weather, crop-eating locusts, and a priesthood leadership more intent on reforming personal spirituality than sympathizing with the toiling settlers. The unity of the Kingdom of God that McAuslan originally pictured was replaced with discord and bickering. Attending General Conference only five days after arriving, McAuslan witnessed Orson Pratt, previously the hero to Scottish Saints from when he was the Mission President over the British Isles due to his prodigious writings and publications, reprimanded by Brigham Young for preaching doctrine contrary to Young’s own beliefs. Welcome to Zion, indeed.

The narrative becomes most broad during the chapters depicting McAuslan’s time in Utah. In order to fully understand McAuslan’s defection from Mormonism, Aird spends considerable time on the fiery rhetoric of the Mormon Reformation, especially the jarring discourses of Brigham Young. Readers may be taken back by the domineering, insensitive, and extremist portrait that Aird paints of Mormonism’s second prophet—and indeed, she may at times be guilty of presenting a one-sided and simplistic caricature of a deeply complex figure. However, I found the depiction justified—at least to a certain extent—for a very important reason: caricature or not, it was the view that Peter McAulsen (and others) actually had of Brigham Young. Aird recreates the worldview that many Utah residents possessed in response to the Reformation’s shocking rhetoric, where their primary fault was to take their leaders’ words literally—a trait not only justifiable but arguably expected in the atmosphere of obedience Mormonism encouraged. At the very least, McAuslan’s story reveals the potential pitfalls of violent discourse in a religious tradition.

One reason the themes of obedience and rebellion are of utmost importance in Aird’s narrative is the characters in this historical drama often seem limited in their agency. Peter McAuslan, his fellow Scottish workers, the poor Mormon immigrants, and the struggling settlers of Utah all appear more as creatures of their environment rather than creators of their own destiny. Perhaps steeped in the social history that dominated the second half of the twentieth century, Aird’s presentation is more concerned with temporal survival than personal expression, societal requirements than individual liberties. In this framework, deep theological answers hold little merit to those striving to build Zion, and the spirituality of the story’s participants can be defined as—at best—apathetic. Though ironic for a narrative that focuses on a religious “convert” and “defector,” actual religious belief (at least more than just a superficial level) takes a backseat to what are deemed more pressing issues in the story—a point that becomes a bit more jarring later in the text when McAuslan’s later writings reveal an individual deeply concerned with spiritual matters. Whether this is more a result of a dearth of McAuslan’s earlier writings or Aird’s authorial penchant, this was one theme that came across lacking.

Overall, though, Aird is to be commended for providing an important contribution to Mormon historiography. Mormon Convert, Mormon Defector helps us better understand nineteenth century Mormon culture, a culture that we are just starting to figure out was much more dynamic, heterodox, and multifaceted than previously understood. Only when Mormon history acknowledges these nuances in the LDS past—the countless examples of people like Peter McAuslan—can the larger picture become more complete.

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10 Comments

  1. Oh, and for J Stapley’s helpful review, see here. For respected historian Todd Compton’s reflections on some of the main issues of the book, see here.

    Comment by Ben — November 9, 2010 @ 9:55 am

  2. You noted that Aird pulls extensively from secondary sources and personal writings? How much of McAuslan’s journals or letters are utilized in portraying his personal decision to defect from Mormonism? Did you see his reasoning as more of a justification or just a general disillusionment with Brigham Young? This book definitely fills a hole in Mormon historiography during the 19th century. Most early colonization descriptions paint a picture of a happy, hard-working, devoted people in the west. Just as in contemporary Mormonism, most certainly this was a complex period with members defecting and abstaining from Mormon beliefs.

    Comment by Jordan — November 9, 2010 @ 10:34 am

  3. Jordan: an important question. For McAuslan’s disillusionment, Aird relies primarily on McAuslan’s later letters where he explained his decision to leave to his still-faithful Mormon relatives. The most important letter is a fantastically long and detailed text written late in life, which Aird thankfully reproduces in whole as an appendix. It seemed much of the disillusionment was based on Brigham Young and the problems of a dangerous theocracy rather than Mormon doctrines in particular—an emphasis that likely set the tone for Aird’s narrative that I outline in my penultimate paragraph.

    Comment by Ben — November 9, 2010 @ 11:02 am

  4. Thanks for the review, Ben. I still need to get around to reading this at some point.

    Comment by Christopher — November 9, 2010 @ 12:09 pm

  5. Thanks, Ben.

    Comment by David G. — November 9, 2010 @ 12:26 pm

  6. Ben, thank you for your thoughtful review! As to Jordan’s question, the key document was written in 1860, a year after he left Utah and Mormonism, and was in response to a friend in Scotland whom he had baptized in 1849. The friend had obviously written to him, though the letter does not exist, asking why he had left. This is Peter McAuslan’s draft answer.

    McAuslan left the Mormons primarily for two reasons–the violence resulting from the church leaders’ radical preaching of blood atonement, etc., during the Reformation, and secondly, because of the church’s insistence on absolute obedience to one’s file leaders, whether they were right or wrong. Peter took part in a Seventies trial in Spanish Fork–subject unknown, but probably a land dispute or debt–and after the presiding officer gave his opinion after hearing the evidence, he asked the others for theirs. McAuslan had come to a different conclusion and dared to say what it was. For that he was immediately suspended from the Seventies. Two weeks later–just two days after Mountain Meadows Massacre–McAuslan abjectly came back and apologized. That he was not allowed individual agency rankled–25 years later he wrote to his sister about that trial and, paraphrasing Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” said that “he’d rather be a dog and bay at the moon than give up his right to think for himself.”

    Comment by Polly A. — November 9, 2010 @ 12:35 pm

  7. Thanks Ben for sharing your review. I really appreciate your comments.

    I am particularly excited about Aird’s book. The subject of apostates has often been neglected. Aird’s book is a major move in correcting this oversight.

    Comment by Joe Geisner — November 9, 2010 @ 1:59 pm

  8. Thanks for the review, Ben. I get to respond to it with Levi Peterson this weekend and I am looking forward to it.

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 9, 2010 @ 3:23 pm

  9. Thanks, Polly, for stopping by and answering Jordan’s question much better than I could. And congrats on a great book!

    J: I wish I could attend what promises to be a great review panel!

    And thanks, David, Chris, and Joe.

    Comment by Ben — November 9, 2010 @ 3:53 pm

  10. Jonathan, see you on Saturday! It should be fun.

    Comment by Polly A. — November 9, 2010 @ 6:33 pm