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Responses: The Blythes Take on Succession

By: Ben P - August 22, 2013

First of all, we hope you enjoy JI’s new look. And yes, we are aware that the “music notes” can easily catch your attention.

If the recent resurgence in Mormon schism studies did nothing more than give room for John Hamer's phenomenal images, then it has served a noble purpose.

If the recent resurgence in Mormon schism studies did nothing more than give room for John Hamer’s phenomenal images, then it has served a noble purpose indeed.

But the blog is not the only thing that was in need of a facelift recently–so was the historiography surrounding the “succession crisis.” One of the popular topics that was repeatedly researched during the rise of New Mormon History, the story of how Mormonism became/remains so prone to schism has received a lot of attention. Historians like Michael Quinn, Andrew Ehat, Ron Esplin, and many others laid the archival groundwork for much of the narrative—and that’s just for the period immediately following Joseph Smith’s death. The John Whitmer Historical Association, which sponsors an annual conference as well as a biannual journal dedicated to the various traditions that race their roots back to Joseph Smith, continues to pump out fascinating scholarship year after year. And most of the major works in Mormon history now realize they must address these schism issues—think of the recent biographies of Parley Pratt and Brigham Young—it has begun to infiltrate the mainstream of Mormon studies.

But just like any topic within the wild and still inchoate (sub)field of Mormon history, its approaches have continued to evolve. In the beginning, very few works, besides that of Danny Jorgensen, invoked a theoretical methodology in tracking what Jorgensen called “Mormon Fissiparousness.” Rather, most narratives, while grounded in ground-breaking archival research, relied on basic teleological trajectories and focussed on seemingly objective tools like facts, dates, names, and words. Such is all well and good, and will always be a staple of historical study, but these shouldn’t—these can’t—be the only tools for the trade. Jan Shipps was among the first to show that religious studies theories can help broaden our view and breathe life into our scholarship, and specifically identified schism studies as among the (sub)fields that could benefit the most. We’ve seen a growing body of work that have demonstrated how the introduction of even a tiny bit of theory can reform how we view the whole historical dynamic, including Matt Bowman’s look at Matthew Philip Gill and the Book of Jeranek, David Howlett’s forthcoming biography of the Kirtland Temple as a contested pilgrammage site, and even Rob Jensen’s musing on whether the “succession crisis” is a useful term or not.

And the hits keep on coming. This year, we have already seen a number of articles that offer fresh perspectives on Mormon schism issues. Two of them come from the “Chris Blythe” married tandem—Christopher Blythe, a PhD student at Florida State University, and Christine Blythe, a graduate student at Memorial University of Newfoundland. The two are currently finishing up a book titled Mormonisms: A Documentary History, 1844-1860, which will be published by Greg Kofford Books. In preview, Christopher published “The Highest Class of Adulterers and Whoremongers’: Plural Marriage, the Church of jesus Christ (Cutlerite), and the Construction of Memory” in Dialogue‘s Summer issue, and Christine published “William Smith’s Patriarchal Blessings and Contested Authority in the Post-Martyrdom Church” in Journal of Mormon History‘s summer issue. Both articles deserve more attention than I can give them here, but they at least deserve a little spotlight (and perhaps a few questions) for their use of provocative theory in addressing seemingly old issues.

A short drive from the temple lot in Independence, Missouri, the Cutlerite Chapel is one of the most fascinating Mormon buildings in that the top floor is alleged to host one of the few non-LDS endowment ordinances that stem from Nauvoo.

A short drive from the temple lot in Independence, Missouri, the Cutlerite Chapel is one of the most fascinating Mormon buildings in that the top floor is alleged to host one of the few non-LDS endowment ordinances that stem from Nauvoo.

Christopher’s article is a fascinating look at how the Cutlerite Church, a small group that followed Alpheus Cutler shortly after Joseph Smith’s death, handled their own history of polygamy. The Cutlerites, mostly known as one of the few Nauvoo-descended groups that maintained a form of the endowment ceremony, denied the practice of plural marriage in spite of the fact that their early leaders entered several polygamous unions. THe article traces three periods: the first, from 1853 through 1864, was “characterized by a collective and institutionally enforced silence, which attempted to mute those voices who knew of polygamy’s past”; the second period, which followed Cutler’s death, included a vocal denunciation of the practice; and finally, with their move to Independence in the 20th century, the third period included making new allies and strengthening boundaries in response to external scholarship and inter-denominational contacts (3-4). In total, this is a study of how the movement fashioned and re-fashioned an ecclesiastical memory that shaped the past in response to tensions in the present.

So what does the tracing of a small sect’s understanding of history tell us? Lots, claims Christopher. Specifically, it is a case study in “how a religious movement conceptualizes and re-conceptualizes its past in order to solidify its identity in the present” (2). Similar studies on the LDS’s re-imagining their polygamous past has been done by Kathleen Flake and Steve Taysom, and Christopher comes up with similarly fruitful results. By merging archival prowess—he uses documents heretofore unknown in Cutlerite history—with cutting-edge theory on memory and identity politics, the result is a micro-history that is as useful to the broader religious studies community as it is to AAR.

But this brings up my first question: we often pride ourselves in using theory to complicate and nuance historical issues. But what if we are over-complicating and unnecessarily-nuancing issues that are a bit more simple and, well, natural? What if those who are recrafting a denominational history that white-washes polygamy—say, either the Cutlerites or 20th century Brighamites—are just lying in self-interest? How do we balance our sophisticated history with the fact that we might be over-thinking issues that never would have entered our historical characters’ minds? Does self-interest and self-preservation always necessitate complex theoretical explanations and analyses?

William Smith, whose epic goatee is unjustifiably overlooked in the "best beards in Mormon history" discussions.

William Smith, whose epic goatee is unjustifiably overlooked in the “best beards in Mormon history” discussions.

Christine’s article is a careful and enlightening look at William Smith’s patriarchal blessings given during the tumultuous summer of 1845—only a year after William’s two brothers, Joseph and Hyrum, were killed, and right during the period that various groups were claiming Mormon allegiance. “This article considers the historical and social element of blessings,” Christine tells us, “specifically those blessings given in the summer of 1845, to narrate the life of their author, William Smith, and to further reveal the content of the debates in Nauvoo during this crucial time” (62). Drawing from the large corpus of blessings gathered in Michael Marquardt’s Early Patriarchial Blessings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Christine offers a close reading with the necessary surrounding context in order to illuminate important, and at times overlooked, elements in a popular story.

As her primary theoretical tool, the article draws from sociologist Pierre Bourieu’s model of “cultural capital” and “symbolic capital” in order to trace how this important ritual was shaped, influenced, and fractured religious life in the City of Joseph. William Smith, whose allegiance was always drawn in several ways and whose temperment led to numerous twists and turns, used and was used by the cultural authority granted to the Church Patriarch. Especially interesting and pursuasive is Christine’s discussion of how Smith “exchanged knowledge of esoterica for stature in the Church” (64), and exchange that may strike us as odd but was a real issue for Nauvoo saints hoping to follow continuing revelation and a theology based on expanding instruction. In all, this is a very helpful and careful look at how identity is structured and legitimated in a period of dynamic transition.

But the study also bring up important questions: how are the saints who are receiving the blessings interpreting the practice and incorporating the ideas? The format of the article focused primarily on the blessings themselves, and the concomitant projection of what they must have meant to those whose heads were below Smith’s hands. But could the blessings be interpreted in ways different, and perhaps contradicting, to what Smith designed? Was their a rupture between the blessor and the blessed? Future research on this may further illuminate Christine’s study.

Which brings me to one last question for both Blythes: how are we, as historians of Mormon schisms, to balance the dangerous issue of, 1) on the one hand, expanding our analysis of one small group in order to explain larger Mormon, and religious, issues, and 2) on the other hand, understanding that these could be outliers and highly unique expressions of Mormon/religious developments? How do we make sure our expanded analysis, using the shiny new toys provided by religious studies, aren’t making mountains out of mole hills?

But the best scholarship is meant to bring up good questions, and these articles do just that. At the very least, they whet our appetite for their forthcoming book, remind us that great scholarship is coming from upcoming scholars, and give us hope that the exciting field of Mormon schism continues to receive fresh looks and new insights.

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9 Comments

  1. Note: we will be hosting a Q&A with the Blythes in coming weeks, so be excited for that, as well. Also, if you have questions for them, please list them and we might fit them into the future exchange.

    Comment by Ben P — August 22, 2013 @ 11:22 am

  2. Thanks for the overview, Ben. I’m looking forward to the book and the Q&A.

    Comment by David G. — August 22, 2013 @ 11:57 am

  3. Thanks Ben. Just a note: the paragraph on self interest seems to be cut off.

    Comment by RT — August 22, 2013 @ 1:24 pm

  4. D’oh! Thanks, RT; will fix that when I get to a computer.

    Comment by Ben P — August 22, 2013 @ 1:36 pm

  5. Chris, my good friend. What have you found?

    Comment by Robert Black al Himaar — August 22, 2013 @ 5:49 pm

  6. Very nice! I look forward to the Q&A as well.

    Comment by J Stuart — August 22, 2013 @ 7:01 pm

  7. This is really helpful Ben. I have a couple of schism studies in mind already! Thanks.

    Comment by Tod Robbins — August 22, 2013 @ 10:15 pm

  8. Nice overview, Ben. Thanks.

    Comment by Ryan T. — August 23, 2013 @ 9:08 am

  9. […] started a master’s program at Memorial University of Newfoundland. A couple weeks ago, I highlighted two of their recent articles; today, they answer a few questions presented to them by the JI cabal. The Blythes have a […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Scholarly Q&A on the Succession: Christine and Christopher Blythe — September 9, 2013 @ 11:14 pm