Genealogy from the perspective of a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon, LDS)

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Response to JSTOR Daily's Brigham Young and the Defense of Mormon Polygamy


Consistent with much of what is written about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, contributor Professor Peter Feuerherd made several historical as well as factual errors in his article for the JSTOR Daily on June 1, 2017. Feuerherd is a professor of journalism at St. John's University in New York and a correspondent for the National Catholic Register.

As a former trial attorney, genealogist and historian, I am abundantly aware of the need to cite your sources and accurately reflect the content of those sources. Statements made without any source citations or made without checking the facts alleged reflect very negatively on the contributor and on the JSTOR Daily.

Professor Feuerherd's article is entitled, "Brigham Young and the Defense of Mormon Polygamy." The article is not overtly anti-Mormon but anytime an article contains factual errors about the Church or its history, the article can not be considered positive.

I may not have identified all of the misstatements and errors in the article but here are the things that I identified with links to sources that provide more correct information. Where appropriate, my links will be to the LDS.org website and the section entitled, "Gospel Topics." These statements reflect the official position of the Church. In referring to Professor Feuerherd's article, I will let the reader review the article. I will only quote brief passages to illustrate the error or incorrect statements.

Speaking of Brigham Young, Professor Feuerherd states that Brigham Young led his people, "...to the "New Jerusalem" established in Salt Lake City."

Quoting the Gospel Topic Zion,
The New Jerusalem, which will be built in Jackson County, Missouri (see D&C 45:66-67; 57:1-3; Articles of Faith 1:10).

Salt Lake City, has never been considered by the Church or its members to be the "New Jerusalem," although Utah and the LDS communities in Utah have been popularly known as "Zion" particularly when members were congregating in the West during the 1800s and early 1900s. Here is a quote from the Gospel Topic Zion:
In the early days of this dispensation, Church leaders counseled members to build up Zion by emigrating to a central location. Today our leaders counsel us to build up Zion wherever we live. Members of the Church are asked to remain in their native lands and help establish the Church there. Many temples are being built so Latter-day Saints throughout the world can receive temple blessings.
Again speaking of Brigham Young, the article states that he was, "...elected to his position as president after the murder of Joseph Smith, the founder."

The Prophet leaders of the Church are not elected in the sense usually applied to that word. There are several dozen articles on the LDS.org website concerning the process called "succession in the presidency." I suggest a simple search on the terms on the LDS.org website. Here is one article for an example:

Flake, Brent L. Top and Lawrence R. “‘The Kingdom of God Will Roll On’: Succession in the Presidency - Ensign Aug. 1996 - Ensign.” Accessed June 8, 2017. https://www.lds.org/ensign/1996/08/the-kingdom-of-god-will-roll-on-succession-in-the-presidency?lang=eng.

From Professor Feuerherd referring to the Salt Lake Valley where the members of the Church first settled: "from upstate New York, to Illinois, to Missouri, only to find security under Young’s leadership in the wide-open territory of Utah, first under Mexican control and then under the authority of the United States."

All of my ancestral lines go back to pioneers and some of these pioneers practiced plural marriage. I have studied the history of the Church all my life. The above statement is factually inaccurate. The main body of the Church members, called "Saints," did start in upstate New York, but they first moved to Ohio, then to Missouri and then to Illinois where they gathered until they were driven from there into the West, first to the Salt Lake Valley and then into communities all over the West. 

The first pioneers entered the Valley of the Great Salt Lake in July of 1847. At that time, the area was technically a part of Mexico however it could not be considered to be under Mexico's control. However,  pursuant to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, the area became part of the United States. Had the professor looked in Wikipedia, he would have found the following:
The creation of the Utah Territory was partially the result of the petition sent by the Mormon pioneers who had settled in the valley of the Great Salt Lake starting in 1847. The Mormons, under the leadership of Brigham Young, had petitioned Congress for entry into the Union as the State of Deseret, with its capital as Salt Lake City and with proposed borders that encompassed the entire Great Basin and the watershed of the Colorado River, including all or part of nine current U.S. states. The Mormon settlers had drafted a state constitution in 1849 and Deseret had become the de facto government in the Great Basin by the time of the creation of the Utah Territory.
Short summary phrases such as the ones used in the JSTOR article are seldom completely accurate. 

Back to the JSTOR article again speaking of Brigham Young; "...was a polygamist, taking on dozens of wives..."

The author has fallen into the trap created by anti-Mormon writings on the subject. A good explanation of the practice of plural marriage can be found in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism online from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. See the article on Plural Marriage. Although there is some controversy about Brigham Young's wives, mostly among the Church's detractors, you can easily see the list in Wikipedia: List of Brigham Young's wives. The author here cites a journal article to support his understanding and the statements made. See Cannon, Charles A. "The Awesome Power of Sex: The Polemical Campaign against Mormon Polygamy." Pacific Historical Review 43, no. 1 (1974): 61-82. doi:10.2307/3637591.

Further on, the author cites another journal article. See Hardy, B. Carmon, and Dan Erickson. ""Regeneration; Now and Evermore!": Mormon Polygamy and the Physical Rehabilitation of Humankind." Journal of the History of Sexuality 10, no. 1 (2001): 40-61. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3704788.

As is common, the author fails to cite even one article from any LDS source on the subjects raised. The two journal articles seem to be the entire source of the author's article. 

Another quote from the article: "Twenty years after his [Brigham Young's] death, Utah was admitted into the Union, and in exchange, the Mormon leadership officially abandoned polygamy as an official practice."
Utah was admitted as a state into the Union on January 4, 1896. The Church President, Wilford Woodruff, issued the Manifesto now known as Official Declaration 1, which was accepted by the Church as authoritative and binding on October 6, 1890. This led to the end of the practice of plural marriage in the Church. Plural marriage in the Church officially ended six years before Utah was admitted as a state. In addition, Brigham Young died on August 29, 1877. My calculator says that the Manifesto was issued 13 years after Brigham Young's death and Utah was admitted as a state about 19 years after his death. I would have to assume that the conclusion concerning the connection of the two events would need to be supported by some citation to historical documents. Historians expect genealogists to be historically accurate, how about historians abide by the same standard?
If I made the same kinds of inaccurate generalized statements unsupported by cited sources, I would expect someone else to critique my work, just as I have here. 

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