Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » From our exchanges: “The Brink of War,” Smithsonian, June 2008

From our exchanges: “The Brink of War,” Smithsonian, June 2008

By: Ardis E. Parshall - May 17, 2008

The newest issue of Smithsonian is out, with an eight-page article of Mormon history: David Roberts, “The Brink of War,” Smithsonian, June 2008, 44-51. The cover title (“The Utah War”) and interior heading (“One hundred fifty years ago, the U.S. Army marched into Utah prepared to battle Brigham Young and his Mormon militia”) summarize its chief focus and suggest the reason it is being published in this issue, on the anniversary of the de jure — if not the de facto — ending of the Utah War (that’s “Johnston’s Army” if you’re familiar with the more parochial label). This article covers a far broader slice of Mormon history than that, however.

Roberts ranges from the 1830 organization of the church (“The conflict had been building almost from the moment Joseph Smith, a religious seeker, founded his church in Palmyra, New York, in 1830. Where other Christian churches had strayed, Smith preached, the LDS Church would restore the faith as conceived by Jesus Christ, whose return was imminent”) through American reluctance to vote for a Mormon presidential candidate in 2007-08.

Bloggernaclers are unlikely to find any new historical fact or opinion in this article, except perhaps references to the 1855 Indian missions, but it’s still very much worth reading to appreciate the even-handed approach and freedom from “bite” in the narrative that too often mars coverage of Mormonism by non-Mormons. The pull quotes give you a sense of what Smithsonian’s readers — generally a curious and intelligent audience without a specific political or social agenda — will take from this article:

“On July 24, 1847, a wagon rolled out of a canyon and gave Brigham Young, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, his first glimpse of the Great Salt Lake Valley. That swath of wilderness would become the new Zion for the Mormons, a church roughly 35,000 strong at the time.”

“Determined to establish a new Zion beyond American laws and anti-Mormon mobs, church leaders looked toward the Great Salt Lake Valley.”

“‘I was not desirous of shrinking from any duty …,’ Young wrote of taking more than one wife, ‘but it was the first time in my life that I had desired the grave.'”

“Buchanan assumed the presidency facing the prospect of a conflict over slavery in Kansas. But within weeks his attention was focused farther west.”

“Young declared an exodus of some 30,000 Mormons from northern Utah. A few men remained behind, ready to put houses and barns to the torch.”

The text itself is carefully neutral about issues that have given openings to past writers to indulge in sarcasm, exaggeration, or self-righteous pontification. The failure of the Kirtland anti-banking institution, for instance, is reported as: “he [Joseph Smith] left the state in 1838 after civil lawsuits and a charge of bank fraud followed the failure of a bank he had founded.” The very real existence of Danites in Missouri is related as: “By the time he arrived in Missouri that January, non-Mormons were assaulting Mormons and raiding their settlements, a secret Mormon group called the Sons of Dan, or Danites, responded in kind.” The Mormons aren’t doing all the dirty work, though; he acknowledges Haun’s Mill and the Extermination Order.

Other issues he addresses frankly but without undue scorn are the destruction of the Expositor, the concealment and announcement of polygamy, and the Mountain Meadow massacre. His account of Mountain Meadows is too long to fairly extract here, but it is remarkably free of sensationalism, set in context of 1857 wartime conditions, while still detailing treachery and murder and assigning culpability. He includes extracts from the expression of regret given last year by Elder Eyring, both for the massacre itself and for the long-time shifting of responsibility from Mormons to Paiutes.

This professional, dispassionate, yet blunt account of Mountain Meadows is all the more remarkable when you know that David Roberts’ friend, mountain climbing partner, and occasional collaborator in writing projects is Jon Krakauer.

This article is Roberts’ first foray into Mormon subjects. A longer and more important work, due from Simon & Schuster this September, and available now for pre-order at a substantial savings from, is his Devil’s Gate: Brigham Young and the Great Mormon Handcart Tragedy. I’ve read quite a few of his adventure narratives and Southwestern histories in the last year, and wholeheartedly recommend them, especially In Search of the Old Ones: Exploring the Anasazi World of the Southwest (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996) and Four Against the Arctic: Shipwrecked for Six Years at the Top of the World (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003).



  1. Nice write-up, Ardis. I actually have Roberts’ In Search of the Old Ones on my bookshelf — picked it up at a gift shop on the south rim of the Grand Canyon about five years ago. Read a couple of chapters and didn’t think much of it, but maybe I’ll give it another shot now.

    Comment by Dave — May 17, 2008 @ 8:57 am

  2. Thanks for the review of the article, Ardis. I hope Roberts was able to capture a similar tone in his forthcoming volume.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 17, 2008 @ 11:12 am

  3. Ditto to J.’s comment.

    Comment by David G. — May 17, 2008 @ 12:10 pm

  4. Thanks for the write-up, Ardis. And ditto to J and David’s comments.

    Comment by Christopher — May 17, 2008 @ 12:25 pm

  5. Thanks for the write-up, Ardis. And ditto to J’s and David’s and Christopher’s comments.

    Comment by Ray — May 17, 2008 @ 8:07 pm

  6. Thanks, Ardis. I used to subscribe to Smithsonian, but haven’t for some years now. Someone mentioned this new article to me, and I was curious about it, so I really appreciate your critique.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — May 21, 2008 @ 8:31 pm

  7. Ardis, I just finished reading the piece and reached the same conclusions you did: a judiciously balanced, well written piece. I enjoyed it very much and I’m looking forward to the release of his book on the handcart disaster.


    Comment by Rob Briggs — June 12, 2008 @ 4:15 pm

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