Sunday, February 26, 2006

Stand As a Witness: The Biography of Ardeth Greene Kapp

Book Cover

We begin with a quiz: How many book-length biographies of LDS women can you name?

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Salt Lake City 14th Ward Album Quilt

In the 1990s, Carol Nielson inherited a quilt. Or, to be more precise, half a quilt.

Her words on that occasion came by instinct: "Only a man could do that." She was right; her husband's great-great grandfather had cut the quilt down the middle rather than slight one of his daughters. Intrigued by the quilt, Nielson took advantage of the fact that each block contained the name of its creator and eventually wrote a book consisting of mini-biographies of each woman. At this point, gentle reader, you are perhaps tempted to adopt that glazed expression the Saints share when someone's sacrament meeting talk on family history shifts into a reminiscence of their family history. There's nothing more boring than someone else's family history, is there?

But this book deserves more than glazed stares: not only are the women from some of the pioneer families that you know best (Woodruff, Young, Richardson; the 14th Ward included Temple Square and was home to many Church leaders), but their lives in 1857 give a snapshot of the Church, with converts from the four corners gathered to Utah--living The Principle. Polygamy is a major issue in this book; virtually every quilter shared her husband.

Which brings us to the major weakness of this work: Nielson is not a historian. A schoolteacher by trade, she approaches difficult interpretive issues such as polygamy in a rather naive way. In a brief explanation in the introduction, she states that the Church practiced polygamy simply in order to "raise up seed." (Considering Joseph Smith's polyandry, this is hardly a compelling argument.) Her rosy approach to polygamy is never more obvious than when she writes about sister wives who shared the burden of entertaining church and government leaders: "a formidable task that would make any woman wish for a sister wife." (I'd probably be content to hire a caterer.) At one point, in what one can only hope was an unreflective moment, she refers to polygamy as the "higher law."

Further, Nielson's prose is often wooden, occasionally clunky, and sometimes even confusing. She frequently fumbles by attempting to find some metaphor for the woman's life in her quilt square ("The . . . severed block, with the first and last names separated, lucklessly served as a portent of the future. Matilda's tenure as wife of Isaac Rhoads was short.")

Yet the book is still worthwhile for the glimmers that emerge of lives barely included in most historical records. They range from six-year-old Bulah Woodruff (whose father, Wilford Woodruff, would later write that she was "on the road to destruction" in a classic example of the ability of historical sources to hide more than they reveal and to tease the modern reader beyond that which she is able to bear) to Josephine Richards (a 'countess' who, after reading Les Miserables, sent a letter to Victor Hugo suggesting that the Gospel was the cure for the ills of which he wrote) to Deborah Turnbow (who buried ten of her thirteen children). There's also interesting historical trivia here; most Saints are probably not aware, for example, that independent Relief Societies existed in the period after Nauvoo and before their formal church-wide reorganization in 1867. The lived reality of polygamy (the devil is in the details) is also a source for interesting factoids: "For subsequent wives, the title 'Mrs.' customarily preceded their own name," while only the first wife would use her husband's first name after the 'Mrs.' I did not know--until I read of the experience of quilter Mary S. Snow--that on one occasion (which Nielson calls "not an isolated incident"), a woman's sister wife was none other than her own mother.

Nielson notes that two incidents crystalized her commitment to writing this book: she had a photo labelled with the man's name and "and wife." Since he was polygamous, she didn't know which wife was in the photo. She contacted one of the man's descendents for help. He didn't know but he attempted to reassure her: "Women weren't important back then, you know. It really doesn't matter which wife it is." Later, she was thrilled to find a good-sized biography of one of the quilter's husbands. Imagine her dismay when she flipped through it and found this: "Unfortunately, there is not space to go into the history of the wives, nor their courage, patience, and other excellent qualities."

It is that type of thinking which explains why, despite its flaws, I'm grateful that Nielson did "go into" the history of the women who created this quilt. The brief biographies, evocative photos of the women, and large reproductions of each quilt square--all on heavy paper, with the quilt photos in full color--make this book a fitting testament to those pioneer women who devoted their talents (and their precious fabric) to relieving the needs of others.

Cross posted to Times & Seasons

Daughters of Light by Carol Lynn Pearson

This slender compilation of anecdotes is designed to chronicle the exercise of gifts of the spirit--by women. Chapters are devoted to the gift of tongues, prophecy, revelation, healing and power over evil spirits. It was, apparently, another fruit of the years that Leonard Arrington was in charge of the Church Archives.

Friday, February 17, 2006

The Girl from Botany Bay by Carolly Erickson

Mary Bryant was born into a poor family in England. She became a 'highwaywoman,' was sentenced to death, was given a reprieve and sent to Australia with the first batch of convicts, married and had two children, escaped to Timor in a 25-foot boat, was caught, saw both children die, was sent back to England to be punished, caught the fancy of the nation and Samuel Johnson, was given a reprieve, and promptly disappeared from the historical record. Wow.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

In Sacred Lonliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith by Todd Compton

This is almost two separate books:

(1) Mini-biographies of the almost three dozen women who were married to Joseph Smith. On this level, it is a fascinating read--full of the trials, daily life, and amazing faith of these early LDS women.

(2) An interpretation of early LDS polygamy. This section was more of a mixed bag for me. I think that Compton's idea of these marriages as 'dynastic' probably makes sense; but I also think that his condemnation of polygamy as institutional neglect is a little overdone since not a one of these women experiences what we might call 'normal' LDS polygamy: married to Joseph Smith and then, usually, either Brigham Young or Heber C. Kimball after the martyrdom, they did not experience what most polygamous wives did.

This is, nonetheless, one of the most important texts for understanding early Mormonism.

Under the Banner of Heaven

I have a friend –I know her through the homeschooling community–with an interest in the Church. She told me that one of the books that she read about the church was Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. Now, she’s not stupid–she didn’t expect it to be unbiased–but she did want to know my reaction to it. So I read it and then sent her this email:

Hi xxxxxxxxx,

I read Under the Banner of Heaven this weekend, and I think my reaction to it is probably about what your reaction would be to a book that argued that homeschooling should be illegal on the basis of a few abusive families who hid their abuse by claiming to homeschool.

I was really amazed at how fast and loose Krakauer was with the evidence. I could give you literally dozens of examples, but I doubt you want to read all that, so let me just pick a few:

(1) His entire explanation for Joseph Smith’s polygamy is that it was about fulfilling his sexual lust with what Krakauer calls ‘nubile adolescents.’ This thesis becomes a little less convincing when you know the ages of some of the women that he married: 47, 50/51, 53/54, 58, and 56 (while Joseph Smith was in his 30s).

(2) His basic thesis is that religious belief in general–and LDS belief in particular–causes people to be violent because rationality goes out the window when people think they can talk to God. This is a fairly easy thesis to prove or disprove–about all it takes is a quick look at the statistics to see if areas with high LDS populations have a higher or lower violent crime rate than the national average. Utah County is often used for this type of thing since it has about a 90% LDS population: “An FBI report showed the Provo-Orem area to have the second-lowest rate of violent crime in the nation for the year 2000.” Of course, Krakauer doesn’t mention this but instead focuses on a few lurid and sensational cases–as if there were a single minority group (racial, religious, lifestyle, whatever) that couldn’t be painted as a hothouse for violence on the basis of a few of its members.

(3) He writes about a revelation John Taylor had in 1886 that stated that polygamy would never be ended and that some church members would be called to be ostracized by the church for practicing polygamy. What he doesn’t mention in the text is that his only source for these revelations is . . . a book printed by the FLDS Church! But in the text, he makes it sound as if the revelations are only disputed by a few angry LDS leaders when, in fact, no historian would uncritically accept these as a historical source given their attestation.

(4) He pins the blame for the Mountains Meadow Massacre cleanly on Brigham Young, despite the fact that one of his own main source for that chapter [Juanita Brooks] wrote, “The complete—the absolute—truth of the affair can probably never be evaluated by any human being; attempts to understand the forces which culminated in it and those which were set into motion by it are all very inadequate at best” (Brooks, p. 223).

(4) He often seemed to confuse the doctrine and practice of the LDS and FLDS churches; whether this was deliberate, sloppy writing, or based on his own ignorance of the differences, I can’t say. There are many false statements in the book, such as that the LDS church strongly discourages marriage between black and white members which is completely false. (In fact, a respected couple in my own congregation is an interracial couple.) Another one is that members–particularly women–are encouraged to be mindless sheep. But his own example of Brenda Lafferty as a headstrong woman who wouldn’t tolerate any nonsense suggests otherwise.

I could go on with similar examples from virtually every page, but I think you’ve gotten the feel for my response to this book. I hope that if it raised any specific questions for you, you’ll ask me.


Note: Lest you think that it is only one quirky woman using this book as a primer on Mormonism, go do a search on Amazon using the keyword ‘Mormon.’ This book is the bestselling book under that keyword. Ugh. Those interested in a more thorough response than mine should read this.

Cross posted from Times & Seasons.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang

Wow. Mao makes Hitler look like a grade-school bully. Wow. While this book doesn't psychologize Mao much, it was interesting to watch his unremitting focus on personal power and his complete disregard for human life play out against the fates of the 70 million people who he killed. Wow. It is fascinating to watch a character assissination against someone who deserves it.

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