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Edward Tullidge: Unorthodox Mormon

By: Ben P - August 14, 2012

I recently listened to Joanna Brooks’s fascinating interview on Mormon Stories (which I recommend, especially as a supplementary activity to reading her marvellous memoir), and was struck by one point of the conversation. John Dehlin asked Joanna if the type of identity she exemplifies—that of “unorthodox”—was something new, something that couldn’t have happened long ago. Joanna rightly pointed out her long intellectual genealogy within the LDS tradition, noting that her position is not so much new but exemplary of what many Latter-day Saints had done before her.

The idea of unorthodox figures in LDS history is an important point that deserves further consideration. It also relates to a recent focus of study of mine, Edward Tullidge, who was the topic of my MHA paper this last year. To demonstrate that this isn’t a new phenomenon, I’d like to give a bit of background to Tullidge, mostly plagiarizing my paper, and then touch on his relevance. In today’s age, when the concept of an “Unorthodox Mormon” seems to be heralded as a modern idea, it is important to note the heterogeneous history that is Mormonism.

Tullidge was a fascinating individual. Born in southern England, he was raised Methodist before converting to Mormonism, backsliding into deism, recommitting to Mormonism, migrating to Utah, taking part in the Godbeite reform movement, returning once again to Mormonism, and briefly affiliating with the RLDS faith before finally rejoining the LDS Church, this time until his death. Importantly, Tullidge narrated, documented, and defended these numerous transitions throughout his life with a broad corpus of writings that included editorials, articles, plays, poems, and books.  Indeed, Tullidge can be considered Mormonism’s Orestes Brownson—a religious weathervane whose constant shifts shed light on the broader currents that tossed him to and fro. While it is tempting to dismiss him as one lacking strong convictions, whatever those convictions may be, he can instead be viewed as representative of the evolving nature of belief in general and his dynamic contemporary culture in particular.

At one point along his religious journey, he was sent on a mission to New York to defend Mormonism to the American public. It was 1866, so polygamy was in full swing, details about Mountain Meadows were leaking out, and the Church was on shaky ground with the American public and government. Tullidge was a great selection for this position: he was erudite and skilled with the printer’s pen, with background as an associate editor at the Millennial Star and publishing experience with a small newspaper in Utah. He was given financial resources and immediately made important contacts.

But he was also an odd choice: he no longer believed in several of the central theological tenets of the faith.  In his first editorial, published in the popular Galaxy, Tullidge emphasized that Mormonism had evolved not into “a great church,” but “a little nation.” The church’s growth and success, he explained, were due to “manifest[ing] themselves through social and political organizations, and commercial activities,” and that by losing their admittedly “fanatical element” they were now “in common with other men.” Tullidge urged his audience that Mormonism’s theology was of no importance—in one place he stated that it was “the facts that have outgrown out of the movements of the people, not their faith,” in another that “polygamy…[and] our very doctrines of theology…are but our side issues and phases of specialities”—and he argued that what Joseph Smith and Brigham Young had done was establish an international network of missionaries ready to carry forth civilization to the entire world. “Not in the history of any community,” he boasted, “have they their counterpart in this specialty.” “Empire-founding,” not theology, was the purpose of the Mormon faith.

The following is taken from my paper, “The Theology of a Career Convert: The Evolving Identities of Edward Tullidge.”

Central to Tullidge’s understanding of Mormonism during this period was a recasting of Mormonism from a theological kingdom to a secular empire; the descriptor “theocracy” rarely entered his language, having been replaced with “Mormondom,” a phrase that seemingly stripped—or at least downplayed—the movement’s theological emphasis. Indeed, when Mormonism’s religious tenets are mentioned, they are primarily used as an example of the optimism, empowerment, and “unbounded faith” Mormons gain through their movement’s worldview. The purpose of the LDS faith was to gain confidence in their message and earnestness in their purpose. Then, once the foundation for this empire-building system is in place, the cause of social regeneration could finally begin.

This was an important transition period for Tullidge, one in which he let go of Mormonism’s theological claims but still maintained an attachment to its organizing potential. It also hints to the malleability and dynamism of both the Mormon movement and the surrounding culture during the period. Tullidge’s position was located in a grey area between the orthodox persona of a traditional believers—like himself only a decade before—and the disillusioned and bitter identity of ex-members—which he ironically embraced two years later. For Tullidge, certain tenets of Mormonism and American culture provided tools for the construction of a new religious identity, an identity that may have been unique to him but a construction process that wasn’t unique at all. From his faith he took international missiology and loyalty, from the United States he took nationalism and societal reform, and from the Anglo-American world he embraced imperialism. This ideological blend, while technically within the parameters of the Mormon institution, demonstrates the extent to which personal identities and religious beliefs can vary by individual, location, and era—an evolutionary process indicative of the Age of Darwin in which adaptation is not only allowed, but necessary. And Tullidge’s evolution was nowhere near complete.

Besides mostly being fascinating in and of itself, Edward Tullidge’s Mormon trajectory is imminently relevant for another reason: he demonstrates that the idea of being an “unorthodox” member, even as a spokesperson, is nothing new. Tullidge was never reprimanded for these views: seeing the national debates over polygamy as a “Mormon moment,” so to speak, the Church sent Tullidge out to defend them, and they were not displeased with what he wrote while away. Indeed, when he returned, he was still in their good graces and received financial help as he went through a health crisis. (This good will, however, would wane as Tullidge soon became a proponent of the Godbeite reform, which blasted Brigham Young.)

Of course not everyone is like Tullidge, and Tullidge himself had lots of paradoxes and trajectories within his own belief. (Worthy of it’s own discussion, that is.) And his idea of Mormonism, just like Joanna’s, can’t be reduced to tidy categorizations. (Indeed, I’ll be dealing with that issue in another venue.) However, it is sometimes easy to forget these colorful, divergent, and heterodox figures in LDS history when confronted with the uniform, button-down, obedient image of today’s church. But there are there, and they are there in abundance. We just have to look for them.



16 Comments

  1. Good stuff, Ben. Thanks. I love me some Edward Tullidge.

    Comment by Christopher — August 14, 2012 @ 2:02 pm

  2. Excellent post! I have always wondered about Tullidge, Sidney Rigdon, etc. as far as their reasons for returning to the LDS Church, if they did at all. How do their stories compare to B.H. Roberts, Orson Pratt, Hugh B. Brown (to a lesser extent), those who perhaps didn’t jive with Church leadership styles and personalities, doctrines and policies but never left? I know that’s a very broad question, but I think there could be a lot to learn from these different case studies.

    Comment by J Stuart — August 14, 2012 @ 2:24 pm

  3. Interesting — one thing that might be interesting is to think about how ideas about orthodoxy changed and morphed over time. What was the definition of orthodoxy for Mormons in the 19th C? What is it now? How has that changed? And, finally, how was this idea of orthodoxy established? I am guessing that many “unorthodox” Mormons feel that they adhered to a central tenant and that it is the church as a whole that has shifted away from this.

    Comment by Amanda HK — August 14, 2012 @ 3:56 pm

  4. What does your having to rescue Tullidge from the dustbin of Mormondom (so to speak) a hundred years after he lived teach us about the legacy and impact of self-proclaimed Unorthodox Mormons within the fold? What might the lessons be for modern Mormons taking a similar path? There are thousands of stories like Tullidge’s, but why don’t these types of Mormon stories have a bigger impact on our culture and faith?

    Comment by RobF — August 14, 2012 @ 5:13 pm

  5. Rob: there isn’t much of an agenda behind this beyond two things: 1) Tullidge is an especially fascinating example who not only expressed unorthodox views, but was embraced for it, and 2) mostly to add his story to our discourse, since we always need more variety.

    I spell out a bit more implications of this and other stories in a column going up on Peculiar People later this week. This post was mostly an outgrowth of that write-up.

    Comment by Ben P — August 14, 2012 @ 7:51 pm

  6. RobF, I’m curious about your comment. What do you see as the lessons here?

    Comment by Christopher — August 14, 2012 @ 8:51 pm

  7. Great questions, Amanda.

    Comment by WVS — August 14, 2012 @ 10:05 pm

  8. I loved it Ben! Where/when was he at the RLDS stage of his journey?

    Comment by Tod Robbins — August 14, 2012 @ 10:55 pm

  9. Interesting stuff, Ben. Look forward to seeing the rest at Peculiar People.

    Comment by Ryan T. — August 14, 2012 @ 11:54 pm

  10. Ben, I love how you connected Tullidge to the larger trends going on in the Anglo-American world–and I’m thinking of your reference to imperialism. It sounds like he can be a poster child for a lot that was happening at the time, not just Mormonism.

    Comment by Nate R. — August 15, 2012 @ 6:59 am

  11. Nate: indeed. You just spelled out the thesis for the larger project!

    Comment by Ben P — August 15, 2012 @ 8:43 am

  12. Although I’ve formed my impressions of Tullidge from just a few sources, I think one of his great strengths was that he liked people, and was very interested by them. Could the social capital created by that trait have smoothed over some of the lesser doctrinal differences?

    Comment by Amy T — August 15, 2012 @ 8:49 am

  13. Great talk. The image of you plagiarizing you caused my brain to short-circuit in a sort of metatextual time bubble-on-bubble sort of way.

    Comment by smb — August 15, 2012 @ 10:35 am

  14. Interesting post. I’ve run into Tullidge a few times in my research, but I’ve never looked too deeply into his writing. At the recent Association for Mormon Letters conference, Eric Samuelsen presented an excellent paper on Tullidge’s plays. It’d be worth listening to when the recordings of the conference are put online.

    Comment by Scott Hales — August 15, 2012 @ 11:55 am

  15. Ben– In your research did you find anything that suggested that his book, Women of Mormondom was actually written by Eliza R. Snow? I had always heard that she wrote that under his name.

    Comment by Deila — August 17, 2012 @ 12:04 pm

  16. Just realized I haven’t responded to all the commenters. My bad.

    Amanda: those are especially important questions, and are actually the driving concepts behind my current tangential interest in the idea of a “cultural Mormon” in the LDS tradition. The study of schisms and heterodoxy, of course, is always a study of how orthodoxy is developed, defined, and defended. More on this later.

    Joey: yes, that is a fascinating comparison. I love those case studies that can balance both individual circumstances/personalities with broader issues of cultural expectations and assumptions at play.

    Tod: his sojourn with the RLDS church was short but influential. He was converted by Josephite missionaries around 1880, moved to Independence, re-wrote his JS biography as an RLDS tract, was sent back to Utah to convert other Brighamites, but then re-converted back to Utah Mormonism and remained there until death. Those are the bare bones.

    Amy: I definitely think that is in play. He was certainly one to befriend people in powerful positions, no matter where he was. His correspondence with Brigham Young, for example, is long and fascinating, and it probably led to him having more leeway in what he could say while he was in New York.

    Scott: Thanks for the heads up; I’ll definitely watch out for Samuelsen’s work.

    Deila: Snow helped Tullidge, but almost all of WoM is written by Tullidge himself. The driving concepts, frameworks, and ideas were found in his writings a decade before he wrote the book, which was more of a collection and expansion of previous editorials. Claudia Bushman briefly touches on this in her Tullidge article, but there really isn’t much evidence for Snow being more than an assistant figure.

    Oh, and thanks, Christopher and Ryan.

    Comment by Ben P — August 17, 2012 @ 3:12 pm