John Turner on Mormonism, Scholarship, and Race (and Anne Hyde on Deadwood)



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Paul Harvey

Our blog contributor John Turner is on a roll. His biography of Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet already has garnered numerous favorable notices and reviews, and just recently he has two very nice pieces that I recommend.

update: and also this piece by Max Perry Mueller, on closely related topics, and something of a response to John's New York Times op-ed.

First, in his blog post for Patheos, Turner explains the turn of his scholarly interests from twentieth-century evangelicalism (which he wrote about for his first book) to nineteenth-century Mormonism, and thence to Brigham Young. He writes:

Studying the history of American religion at Notre Dame kindled my interest in Mormonism. For starters, several of my Notre Dame classmates – Patrick Mason, Matt Grow, and Mike DeGruccio – were LDS. They became good friends, and I was intrigued about their faith and their church. I also think it’s impossible to study American religious history without being somewhat curious about the Mormons. Not a lot of religious groups had a new Bible, a martyred prophet, practiced polygamy, trudged across the country as religious refugees, and nearly fought a war against the U.S. Army. Prophets, persecution, polygamy.  A pretty good story.

Then, in Sunday's New York Times "Week in Review Section," Turner writes very gracefully about issues of Mormonism and race in American history. He writes that:


Mormons have no reason to feel unusually ashamed of their church’s past racial restrictions, except maybe for their duration. Their church, like most other white American churches, was entangled in a deeply entrenched national sin.
Still, acknowledging serious errors on the part of past prophets inevitably raises questions about the revelatory authority of contemporary leaders. Such concerns, however, are not insurmountable for religious movements. One can look to the Bible for countless examples of patriarchs and prophets who acknowledged grave errors and moral lapses but still retained the respect of their people.
And, by the way, just as a side note, Brigham Young and early Mormonism in Utah gets some excellent discussion in Anne Hyde's Empires, Nations, Families, which I've blogged about here before -- it's an excellent example of how religious history can be woven into historical narratives that aren't "about" religious history. Some of you might be interested in "Deadwood as History," a short piece of Anne's, which discusses the television series Deadwood (which I loved, at least the first two seasons) in relationship to the actual history of the West. In this short excerpt, Anne reflects on the conflicted relationship that westerners have with government, in a way similar to what I wrote earlier this summer about the Colorado wildfires. Just fyi -- fun reading. 
No characters on Deadwood are without sin; instead of morality, what sometimes seems to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys are their opposing views on the proper role of government. Civic-minded Bullock and his deputy, Charlie Utter, want some kind of central authority to meet the community's collective need for hospitals, sidewalks, and schools. In contrast, the greedy brothel owner Swearengen and the hapless suck-up Farnum view government as little more than a conduit for bribes. This dim view of central authority lives on in Western mining towns. Although their cities and towns require federal Superfunds to clean up their water and state tourism grants to attract visitors, local potentates still look at taxation and government authority with a jaundiced eye.

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