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Guest Post: “A Few Clarifying Comments”

By: William P. MacKinnon - November 13, 2012

Bill MacKinnon shared with me his comments written to some friends who were discussing Mitt Romney and Mormonism, in connection with an article on Mitt Romney published recently in the Boston Globe. Who knows how many tens of thousands of similar conversations have taken place in the past months – or how few of those discussions included someone like Bill, offering gentle correction and an informed perspective on points needing clarification? Bill has kindly given permission for me to post his comments here; even without the essay to which he was responding, you’ll have no trouble reading between the lines to understand what is under discussion.

Not for nothing, Bill is a past recipient of the Mormon History Association’s Thomas L. Kane award.

-ooOooo-

I haven’t read the Globe’s article about Mitt Romney and his campaign, but I have read your essay about it and would offer a few clarifying comments about some points in the latter. My perspective is that of a Presbyterian who has researched/published about Mormon history (but not theology) for 55 years and during 2010-11 was president of the Mormon History Association while being a Fellow of the Utah State Historical Society. For years I lived a mile from the Romney parents in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan and know Mitt’s older brother, Scott, but not Mitt.

My comments:

** You’re right re the LDS Church being “in trouble” in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois, but it wasn’t one-sided, i.e., solely Joseph Smith’s fault. As with most conflicts, it “took two to tango.” For example, in 1838 the large Mormon community in multiple Missouri counties fled the state for Illinois after Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs, a non-Mormon, issued an executive order to the state militia decreeing that it was to execute summarily (“exterminate”) all Mormons if they remained in Missouri after year-end. It was an order so raw that an embarrassed Governor Kit Bond (now a U.S. Senator from Missouri) rescinded it by executive order in 1976. Then there’s the matter of one of the LDS Church’s greatest subsequent “troubles” in Illinois — the June 1844 assassination by a non-Mormon mob of Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum while incarcerated in a Carthage jail, an act that moved the governor of Illinois and the state legislature to apologize for it in a public ceremony about five years ago.

** Re the Mountain Meadows Massacre, there is general agreement that there were 120 victims rather than “160-plus.” As for their being “polished off” it was a lot more gruesome than that breezy characterization, with infants, women, and disarmed men shot at point blank range or knifed and tomahawked to death — the greatest incident of organized mass murder of unarmed civilians in the country’s history until the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

** Brigham Young left Utah Territory’s governorship in 1857 (not during the 1890s); he died in 1877.

** “Gentiles” (non-Mormons) aren’t prevented from observing and joining in Mormon worship, which takes place in public in ward and stake meeting houses and tabernacles. It’s only what goes on in temples that is off-limits to all non-Mormons and those Mormons who lack a temple “recommend” from their bishop. I refer to several rituals, rites, and ceremonies such as marriage for time and eternity, baptism for the dead, and receipt of various “endowments” such as the priesthood for males. Mormons might not agree with me, but I believe that there’s a parallel between this exclusion/secrecy and that practiced then as well as today by the Masonic Order for certain of its rituals. (Both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were Masons.) Or, I suppose there’s an approximate parallel to the Jewish ritual of circumcision, which takes place not publicly in the temple but rather in the parents’ home with just the rabbi and a few family members in attendance for the actual surgery (as opposed to the subsequent celebration).

** You write: “Think about having a U.S. President who has fenced off the most significant part of their being.” What goes on in the temple (as opposed to the meeting house, tabernacle, or home) isn’t necessarily “the most significant part of their being.” A Mormon in good standing may enter the temple only one or two times a year (or not at all) versus semi-weekly trips to the ward meeting house and near-daily religious observances at home. As for other presidents, JFK did not share with the public what went on in the confessional booth between him as a penitent and the priest; President Obama has carefully kept his college/graduate school transcripts and term papers from the public; and President Nixon’s tax returns were off-limits to the public until someone leaked one out of the IRS’s data center in Martinsburg, WV in 1973.

** Mormons are poorly understood and “dedicated to having it that way.” I agree with the first part of this comment, but not the last, having seen the LDS Church’s news, PR, and publishing apparatus up-close for decades. The day Jon Krakauer’s book Under the Banner of Heaven came out, I was in the Salt Lake City office of the LDS Church’s Assistant Historian. He had already put out a five-page critique of the book by the time I saw him later that day. The LDS Church’s Bonneville International Corporation owns a vast array of radio stations (WQXR in NYC), television channels, and newspapers for reasons other than profit — it is unlike any religious group’s communications effort in the country with the possible exception of the Roman Catholic Church. I’m not clear what you have in mind, other than temple rituals, that Mormons are unwilling to discuss. You correctly make the observation that Protestant evangelicals and the LDS don’t agree on whether the latter are Christians, but is that the Mormons’ fault or is there some responsibility for this disagreement for which evangelicals also bear responsibility, perhaps the prime one? (I think I’m back to my “two to tango” comment above.)

** If the real Mitt Romney isn’t “known,” I’d argue that it’s a function not of his religion and the secrecy of a few of its ways, but rather a matter of his personal values, including modesty and a desire for privacy on some matters. Did anyone ever say that they didn’t “know” such prominent public figures who also happen to be Mormon as: Jon Huntsman, who contested for the Republican nomination this year with Mitt; Harry Reid of Nevada, the current Senate Majority Leader; George W. Romney, who ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968 and who for years before that was governor of Michigan; and Lieut. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, National Security Advisor under Bush 41?

** “Best book on Joseph Smith” — Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History is a very important one for which, as you point out, she was excommunicated in 1946. But Brodie’s book came out almost 70 years ago, and there has been an enormous amount of material unknown to her that has surfaced since then. (The LDS Church Historian’s Press began printing ALL of Joseph Smith’s known papers two years ago, a project that may take the next twenty years and that bears the imprimatur of the Library of Congress.) If one is to read a single biography of Smith, I’d suggest Richard Lyman Bushman’s 2005 study, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling: A Cultural Biography of Mormonism’s Founder. If one could read two, they should be Brodie’s and Bushman’s. Interestingly, Alfred A. Knopf published both books 60 years apart.

Regards, Bill

-oooOooo-

Notice, please, that the topic is non-Mormon perceptions of Mormons, or a friend speaking on our behalf, or any of the particular points raised in this email. The topic is emphatically not Mitt Romney, or the election, or partisan politics. Thanks.



15 Comments »

  1. Let’s remember this gentleman when the Bloggernacle considers nominees for this year’s Doniphan awards. It is truly heart-warming to have friends who defend us.

    Comment by Chad Too — November 13, 2012 @ 7:47 am

  2. The topic is emphatically not Mitt Romney, or the election, or partisan politics.

    But it is about historical accuracy, right? Kit Bond left the Senate almost 2 years ago. He was replaced by Roy (ahem) Blunt.

    Otherwise, an excellent defense.

    Comment by Last Lemming — November 13, 2012 @ 8:10 am

  3. Last Lemming (#2), thanks for the correction. I guess I’ve been spending too much time in the nineteenth century.

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — November 13, 2012 @ 8:52 am

  4. Thank you, Bill.

    Comment by Carol — November 13, 2012 @ 9:16 am

  5. Pretty fair. Thank you.

    Comment by Adam G. — November 13, 2012 @ 9:30 am

  6. “My perspective is that of a Presbyterian”

    This was powerful to me. For some reason, I loved that you identified yourself as being of another religious persuasion (as opposed to just saying, “I’m not a Mormon”).

    Wonderful write-up. How lucky we all are to have such interested and informed observers. Thanks.

    Comment by David Y. — November 13, 2012 @ 10:37 am

  7. Thanks, Bill. Well done.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — November 13, 2012 @ 11:08 am

  8. It is nice to see this discussed with less emotion, and more attention to the facts. I appreciate that MMM is also given the same “fact checking” treatment. Thanks.

    Comment by Julia — November 13, 2012 @ 11:42 am

  9. Oh, a quick question for Bill if he is around: what do you think the best “nonmissionary” way to approach those of other faiths, when there are misunderstandings about fact that arise?

    Comment by Julia — November 13, 2012 @ 11:44 am

  10. Julia (#9), you’ve raised a good but difficult question. One approach that works, I think, is to address the issue by commenting or responding in a neutral, low-key way that you’ve heard that perception (or assertion) a number of times before, and that after researching it a bit you’ve discovered that there’s another side to the matter and that what actually was the case is _____. For example, I’ve had friends ask me if I worry at all about a Mormon being elected president of the U.S. in terms of taking orders from Salt Lake City. Usually, I just chuckle, acknowledge that I hear that question a lot, and then comment that in my mind it’s no different than JFK’s 1960 response vis a vis his Roman Catholicism and fears about him taking direction from Rome. At times, I’ve also added the observation that in the past the church’s hierarchy in Salt Lake hasn’t always seemed enthusiastic about highly visible Mormons seeking national office, as with the controversies surrounding Apostle Reed Smoot’s U.S. Senate race and seating shortly after the turn of the last century or subsequently, Ike’s offer of a cabinet seat to Apostle Ezra Taft Benson. Surprising to me, what often follows such comments is a set of remarks by my questioner about what she admires about the candidate she’s just expressed concerns about to me. So, I think a light touch (rather than defensiveness) and a little vignette is one non-confrontational but factual way of addressing misguided questions, misperceptions, or even hostility.

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — November 13, 2012 @ 12:27 pm

  11. Bill: I appreciate your answer to Julia’s question. Good advice for all.

    Comment by Steve C. — November 13, 2012 @ 8:47 pm

  12. Bill, I appreciate you for always being a friend to the Mormons. You rightly deserved being awarded the Thomas L. Kane Award in MHA. Thank you for your comments here.

    Comment by Maurine Ward — November 14, 2012 @ 12:40 am

  13. Maurine (and others), I appreciate your kind thoughts. Some of how I feel about the church members whom I’ve encountered since my initial foray into Mormon history in 1958 is included in the closing section of my MHA presidential address in St. George in May 2011. This talk, titled “Not as a Stranger: A Presbyterian Afoot in the Mormon Past,” appeared under that heading in “Journal of Mormon History” 38 (Spring 2012): 1-46. In the interests of full disclosure, I should report that about ten years ago, Maurine Ward and I were nearly trapped for the night in the Salt Lake City Cemetery (after a long MHA Board meeting) while in search of the tombstone of some interesting, nineteenth-century LDS character to whose story Ardis Parshall had probably alerted me. So I consider myself fortunate to have fallen in with such a fascinating group, both living and dead.

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — November 14, 2012 @ 8:27 am

  14. Thanks for your answer Bill! It is good advice, and good for those of us who want to be respectful, while trying to not let untruths stand.

    (Sorry my thanks are a little belated. My body is not doing very well.)

    Comment by Julia — November 14, 2012 @ 6:25 pm

  15. Julia, you’re welcome. Hope tomorrow will be a better day.

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — November 14, 2012 @ 10:10 pm

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