The most recent issue of the Journal of Mormon History has been out for several weeks now, and as much as the Bloggernacle has buzzed with interest in Sam Brown’s and J. Stapley’s pieces on LDS adoption theology, another article is drawing even greater attention in hallway conversations and over lunch tables and in email exchanges. The piece that is the focus of all this discussion is Gary James Bergera’s “Transgression in the LDS Community: The Cases of Albert Carrington, Richard R. Lyman, and Joseph F. Smith.” Part 1, the case study of Albert Carrington, appears in this issue, with articles on the other two cases scheduled for fall 2011 and winter 2012 issues of the Journal of Mormon History.
Part 1 begins with a very brief overview of excommunication in Latter-day Saint practice, followed by a brief biography of Albert Carrington, a 19th century member of the Quorum of the Twelve, then a detailed report of the investigation, hearing, and excommunication for adultery, and Carrington’s appeal for mercy and the Quorum’s consideration of that appeal. The narrative is straightforward, explicit, and painful, and I recommend it for reading of almost all serious students of Mormon history, although it will greatly disturb some readers and probably shouldn’t be left on the coffee table for casual perusal by children … although if your children are precocious enough to dip casually into JMH, you probably already have a practice of discussing adult topics with them.
Rather than reviewing the content of the article – just read it, already – this post is about the “buzz” I have heard and taken part in over the past several weeks. I don’t remember ever hearing anything like the discussion that is being focused on this article.
First, Gary was kind enough to list my name among his acknowledgments. My participation was limited to tabulating the numbers, dates and causes for historical excommunications that appear in an introductory table to the article. Otherwise, I had no involvement in preparing this article, nor any awareness that it was in the works – my remarks here are not colored by any personal stake, other than that I greatly admire just about everything Gary has ever published. He is thorough, balanced, fair, and – as I keep saying in just about every conversation I’ve ever had concerning his work – he has a knack for walking right up to the very edge of the precipice where I think if he says One. More. Word. I’m going to be offended … and every time, without fail, he stops just in time, says exactly the right word, and diffuses my concern. (Also, Gary left a comment at Keepa yesterday, his first participation here. This post was already in the works, he had no input into it, and he is unaware that I am about to post it.)
What people are saying, and my response:
It’s so graphic! He didn’t need to be so explicit in describing the acts for which Carrington was tried!
In my opinion, yes, he did. Carrington had a highly idiosyncratic definition of “adultery.” That an intelligent man, a churchman, a native speaker of the English language, could so distort the meaning of the word is so unexpected and, frankly, so unbelievable that had this account not been as graphic as it was, I would not have understood the seriousness of Carrington’s misbehavior. The explicitness of the quoted testimony is absolutely necessary to understanding his transgression and to trusting that the members of his Quorum were neither overreacting nor misjudging.
But don’t you think the author was deliberately being provocative / sensational / lurid?
No, I don’t. The detail is presented in the recorded language of those who heard the testimony first-hand. None of it comes from the author – there is no editorializing or finger-pointing or dwelling on any detail for the sake of drawing additional attention to it. Also, some details of Carrington’s behavior are known but not reported in the JMH article – had Gary been going for sensation, he certainly would not have omitted those details. He told us what we needed to know in order to understand, then stopped.
I also trust Gary as an author. As often as I’ve met him and as long as I’ve known him, he is the one person in my acquaintance whom I am unable to peg with regard to his personal religious beliefs or attitudes toward the Church. I may be wrong in my evaluations sometimes, but I have no trouble making those evaluations. Gary, however, keeps his personal feelings personal. I trust him where topics like this are concerned, in part because he has never ground any axes publicly.
But this is about a General Authority. This is disrespectful.
It’s true that there would probably be little justification for the article had it been the story of some ward clerk in Parowan or some inactive elder in Cache County. At no point, though, did my highly sensitive he’s-telling-this-just-to-embarrass-the-Church alarms go off. I don’t believe for a moment that discrediting Church leaders played any role in the author’s thoughts. To the contrary, I find it reassuring, as a believing Church member, to know that the same laws apply to the mighty as well as to the small, that there was no cover-up, no looking the other way, no attempt by 19th century Church leaders to excuse or overlook the serious transgressions of an apostle, even for the sake of supposedly protecting the reputation and influence of the Church.
But sex is different.
Different from what? From the violence that we have finally begun to study with open eyes and candid pens? Different from trying to understand the genesis of the handcart deaths? of affinity fraud? of personal, racial, and legal injustices? The details are different, but the seriousness is no less. If we can tackle the others, we can tackle this one too.
We should leave topics like this to Dialogue or to Sunstone.
No, we shouldn’t. With apologies to the current editors of both Dialogue and Sunstone, both magazines have a long history of being “out there” with regard to sensitive matters and how they’re handled in print. Both journals have a track record of publishing personal essays which are far less subject to the rules of scholarship and evidence than those governing JMH. Frankly, I don’t have the same trust in either journal as I do in JMH. It’s too much ever to hope that these topics will be fully covered by any Church-vetted source; the next best thing, for a reader like me, is to have them covered in JMH. As much as I’ve privately fumed over what I consider unfair treatment in some JMH articles of the past few years, I still have confidence in JMH’s review and editorial processes, and in their commitment to scholarship over “giving a voice” to every point of view, no matter how subjective or extreme, that demands a platform.
What would you say if, hypothetically, a donor were so upset about an article like this that he cancelled his commitment for a many-thousands-of-dollars contribution to MHA and to the Journal?
I’d be very sorry, both for the donor and for MHA. I would hope that any donor who had sufficient confidence in MHA before publication of this issue to promise a significant donation would maintain his trust in the same editorial standards he trusted last year. But if he felt strongly enough that this article was inappropriate, I acknowledge his right to pull his donation.
I hope, however, that MHA and JMH would not be swayed by the loss of funds, and would not allow individual contributors to micromanage the publication of scholarship. At some points in our history, donors would no doubt have withdrawn support from any journal that considered publishing the truth about Mountain Meadows and about other painful topics. I hope MHA would maintain its commitment to scholarship and find a way to do without the donation, rather than letting deep pockets rather than MHA’s elected officials or professional scholars control or stifle scholarship.
What about the author’s sources?
In my opinion, this concern is the only one with any potential legitimacy. As anyone might understand with a little reflection, the major sources for an article like this one would have to be either the official records of Carrington’s disciplinary hearings, or the private writings of high Church officials who took part – neither of which type of records is generally available at the Church History Library. They fall under the “confidential” rubric of the policy to restrict “private, confidential, and sacred” records of the Church.
I’ve heard this concern expressed two ways: First, “Now everybody is going to think they can waltz into the Church History Library and expect to see everything, no matter how private, confidential, or sacred it is.” That’s easily handled. Some inexperienced people have always made that assumption. The Church has easily deflected requests for restricted records for many years – nothing has changed in that regard since the publication of this article.
The related criticism is, “With official records restricted, the author relied on handwritten or hand-typed transcriptions of records made by researchers” like Michael D. Quinn, Scott Kenney, and others, made many years ago when some now-restricted records were open for study. These private transcriptions are now part of the papers donated by these scholars to institutions, or they have otherwise been made available by their owners. Such transcriptions cannot be as satisfactory as the original records – how accurate are they? how can we rely on a long-ago researcher’s understanding of the records when we cannot go to the same records today to verify his understanding? But in the absence of the official records, they are the best sources a historian has available in this generation. If current critics can successfully challenge the accuracy of specific transcriptions, that’s part of the scholarly process; if the official records are one day made available and this study can be corrected or expanded, that’s also part of the scholarly process. For today, though, historians have to use the best records available in 2011. Dismissing a study out of hand because potentially better sources exist but are unavailable is not part of the scholarly process.
Some of the speculation I’ve heard — all of it private and unofficial and twice or thrice removed from anyone who has any authority — has been unpleasant, defensive, even vaguely threatening, concerning Gary’s scholarship, or the latitude granted to JMH’s editor and board, or even the current research climate at the Church History Library. I’m nobody important in the chain of those who set policy; I understand that. But I’m a consumer and appreciater of well-researched and well-written history, and this history was researched, written, and published for people exactly like me.
This study is original, it’s authentic, and it’s significant. We don’t need to be afraid of it, and we don’t need to hide from it, and we don’t need to be punitive about it. Really.