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 Amazon.com, 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).