book review – The Church Through the Years : Rlds Beginnings, to 1860

book review – The Church Through the Years : Rlds Beginnings, to 1860

Richard P. Howard. Independence, MO: Herald Publishing House, 1992. Pp. 9-402. Introduction, maps, notes, selected readings in church history, index.
The Church Through the Years: Rlds Beginnings, to 1860

The Church Through the Years is both more and less than what had been intended when the project was first conceived. As such, Richard P. Howard’s first volume of The Church Through the Ages reminds me of the kid who lost the pie-eating contest, while the competition is challenging and exciting at first, afterward one feels bloated and unsatisfied. It is more in the sense that it is far from a narrative chronological treatment of church history since, it applies serious historical analysis to major themes in the development of the movement, it deals reasonably well with a myriad collection of difficult issues, and it tries to reconcile faith and history for a lay audience of RLDS members. It is less for the reason that it is disjointed, uneven, in some places simplistic in interpretation, in its own way creates some myths while exploding others that may or may not be appropriate, and taken altogether is not very convincing to serious students of Mormon history.

There is much to praise in this book, however, and I want to give The Church Through the Years its due as an attempt to explain the development of the institution to a lay audience. Two persistent themes in Howard’s historical work for more than 25 years has been philosophy of history and reinterpretation of earlier popular conceptions of historical truth. Both of these themes are explicitly dealt with here. As a philosopher of history Howard has served for a generation as the Carl Becker of the Reorganization, arguing over what constitutes historical facts, drawing out viewpoint and perspective as central points in historical interpretation, and moving beyond dogmatic equations of scientific history as “the truth” in favor of history as art. Howard has gently pushed the envelope of historical understanding for the Reorganization’s rank-and-file membership over a long period, and has helped to make the “new Mormon history” palatable to the faithful. That has been an important legacy, and a whole generation of RLDS historians following in Howard’s, and his colleague’s, footsteps have published their research without feeling the need either to justify or to condemn the church’s existence. Howard’s first three chapters here explicitly raise issues of philosophy of history and seek to reorient readers from the pro-Reorganization argumentation that had characterized most earlier efforts to write RLDS church history. The theme also emerges at other points in the text, and while professional historians might see these sections as “old hat” they serve a valuable purpose in laying the groundwork for non-scholars.

Howard also tries to reinterpret the history of the early church in these pages, and what success he has in doing so is commendable. To his credit he does not shy away from ticklish issues in early Mormon history. The best example is the RLDS bugaboo over the origins of Mormon polygamy. The Reorganization constructed over a period of many years in the latter nineteenth century an interpretation of polygamy’s origins that denied the involvement of Joseph Smith, Jr. Howard rejects that earlier interpretation and places polygamy’s development in the context of concern for the afterlife and the rise of temple rituals in Nauvoo, in the process assigning Smith responsibility for the practice. While Howard takes a decidedly conservative approach here–I would argue it is questionable since many sources place the origins much earlier than Nauvoo–he deals with the theme candidly. Basically, Howard offers the same analysis of the subject that he had originally published in a 1983 article in the John Whitmer Historical Association Journal. That study received bitter and unjustified censure from many RLDS members, and, sadly, the same RLDS leaders that had been aware of his efforts and some of whom had read drafts of his manuscript, refused to stand behind him and allowed his character to be assassinated. The First Presidency even issued a statement that said in essence that Howard’s conclusions were his own and that he did not speak for the institution. One must wonder if a similarly strong reaction will accompany the present discussion. Howard also tackles other difficult areas, good examples are his suggestion that the Book of Mormon bears a relationship to nineteenth century secular and sectarian concerns (pp. 120-23) and that Mormon temple rituals began to appear in Kirtland with the washing of feet and associated ceremonies (pp. 238-40).

Yet it is Howard’s all too often unfulfilled promise of reinterpretation of Mormon history that creates the most serious problem present in The Church Through the Years. A case in point is his chapter, “The Kirtland Experience, 1831-1838,” but the problem also exists elsewhere. Howard begins by suggesting that the RLDS interpretation of Kirtland as a prototype of “moderate Mormonism” and therefore the model for the Reorganization, is an idealized image and deserves sustained examination. Howard noted, “RLDS ‘defenders of the faith’ have too long portrayed the Kirtland Saints of the 1830s as ‘larger than life.’ The time has come to relieve ourselves and our ancestors of such an unfair burden. The task is neither more nor less than trying to discern something of Kirtland’s truth” (p. 204). True enough. From that beginning I expected that the remainder of the chapter would have presented a broad reinterpretation of Kirtland, but it related the same basic commentary that has been taught for nearly twenty years. His discussion, for example, does not go much beyond Max Parkin’s excellent article on Kirtland that appeared in The Restoration Movement: Essays in Mormon History (1973) and the more recent analysis in Milton V. Backman, Jr.’s The Heavens Resound: A History of the Latter-day Saints in Ohio, 1830-1838 (1983).

Examples abound demonstrating this mistaken commitment. Much of the information on the development of the scriptural record that Howard includes in the Kirtland chapter, for in- stance, is drawn from his pathbreaking study, Restoration Scriptures: A Study of Their Textual Development (1969), and other research published more than a decade ago. His discussion of the “Book of Abraham” and the position of blacks in the church is likewise not particularly revisionistic of the accepted interpretation on the subject, and fails to acknowledge much of the work that has been done recently by such scholars as Armand L. Mauss, Lester E. Bush, Jr., and Newell G. Bringhurst. Howard’s discussion of the Kirtland Safety Society anti-Bank-ing Company, moreover, is simplistic and apologetic. Consisting of only two paragraphs, this section fails to explain satisfactorily the Kirtland economy and the need for a bank, omits details of the effort to charter and run the bank, assigns responsibility for the bank failure solely to the Panic of 1837 with no more than a sentence’s worth of discussion, and passes off the nega- tive reaction to the bank with a simple, “Because Joseph was instrumental in the venture, he and other church leaders received severe criticism for the bank’s demise” (pp. 223-24).

The pledge to reinterpret Kirtland failed. Howard could have moved beyond the themes that had been well plowed to explore some very significant topics in Kirtland history that would have accomplished his purpose. A dissertation on the theological development of the church while headquartered in Ohio would have been valuable, so would a social, political, or economic history of the Kirtland episode. He might have raised new questions about the nature of power and influence and how they were played out in the early church. He might also have asked some of the questions of the “new social history” and investigated themes of class, ethnicity, and gender. In the end, Howard, while honest in his appraisals and meticulous with his research, was so cautious with his reinterpretation that he offered no reinterpre- tation to speak of at all.

It seems to me that one way in which we might begin to understand the misplaced promise of this work is by reviewing how it came to be written. The Church Through the Years had been originally intended to replace the standard one-volume history of the Reorganized Church, Inez Smith Davis’ Story of the Church which first appeared in 1934. While an internal “best seller” that had gone through twelve editions by 1985, Davis’ book was also poorly documented, simplistically developed, conspicuously faith-promoting, and all too often sacrificed real understanding in favor of a good (and decidedly favorable) story. It had been recognized as an embarrassment as a historical work at least since the latter 1960s, but there was nothing better available so it remained in print. The Story of the Church was the book from which I and many others first learned RLDS history, and after realizing its problems it became, at least for me, a book to be condemned for stunting the intellectual development of more than two generations of Reorganization members when they accepted its “story” at face value.

For a variety of reasons, many of them political, no one took action to replace The Story of the Church until Howard, in his capacity as official RLDS Church Historian, began planning for the sesquicentennial anniversary of the organization in 1980. In 1976 he began a drive to prepare a new one-volume narrative history and lined up Alma R. Blair at Graceland College to write it. At one point there was also discussion of preparing a second volume of key documents to accompany the narrative. The plan, unfortunately, ran aground, and the Reorganized Church celebrated its sesquicentennial without a new history. The need for a new one-volume history based on modern research and employing recent interpretative trends did not go away at the end of the sesquicentennial, however, and in late 1982 Howard was asked to fill the need. He worked on it as time and circumstances permit- ted, but soon decided that he really wanted to write a set of essays on the history of the church rather than a narrative (see pp. 10-11). In the process the size of the book also grew, so that it is now projected to be two volumes, the second scheduled to appear early in 1993. Since The Church Through the Years did not meet the need of the institutional church for a replacement to Davis, Paul M. Edwards prepared Our Legacy of Faith: A Brief History of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (1991) to fill the gap.

The roots of The Church Through the Years, resting as they did in the need to write a one-volume narrative history of the RLDS, forced a chronological perspective on Howard. It also prompted him to “cover the waterfront” of RLDS history in some- thing of a textbookish manner. The result, to use the Kirtland chapter as an example once again, was a discussion of many small areas tied to the specifics of time and place without the benefit of larger context and overall meaning. He might have been more successful if he had written individual essays on major themes in the history of the church. As only one example, Howard might have taken his sections on communalism, stewardship, the Order of Enoch, and tithing, which appear periodically throughout the book and written a sustained essay on the subject, in the process greatly expanding the understanding of the church membership. Such an endeavor has for many years been the author’s forte, but it seems to me that at least partially because of the history of this book Howard eschewed that approach.

There are other problems with The Church Through the Years, but they are secondary to this larger criticism. Sometimes it seems that Howard lets his pastoral sense get in the way of his historical judgment, and he softens comments to place them in the best possible light and still maintain his integrity as a histo- rian. For instance, he rejects as without foundation the deposi- tions of Palmyra residents on the Smith family’s character in contrast to an important reinterpretation of their origins and validity offered in Rodger I. Anderson’s Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reexamined (1990). The sources cited in the notes and the bibliography are also incomplete and in a few instances misleading. As one example, why would an important book like Kenneth H. Winn’s Exiles in a Land of Liberty: Mormons in America, 1830-1846 (1989) be excluded from the bibliography? Finally, the index looks like it was put together by someone on a bender. Tom–not Thomas G.–Alexander is mentioned in the index, but it is only a listing of an acknowledgment for his assistance (and many other people also acknowledged do not show up in the index). At the same time significant figures in the book like William Law are not indexed at all or are incompletely indexed as in the case of Sidney Rigdon and his July 4th Oration (pp. 264- 66), which is omitted.

The Church Through the Years is an attempt to explore the complexities of RLDS history for a lay audience. While it will probably become a standard work on the subject there is consider- able room for additional effort. For those who accept the challenge of reconsidering the development of the Reorganized Church, this work is only a starting point. Unfortunately it is not the definitive treatment that had been anticipated for so long. In the end, I would prefer to remember Richard Howard for his noble perseverance against the myths of the RLDS and for his compassionate yet demanding and provocative articles rather than for this book.

reviewed by Roger D. Launius
NASA Chief Historian

(Published in Journal of Mormon History 19 (Spring 1993): 163- 67.)