Interview Sarah Barringer Gordon

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Gordon is the Arlin M. Adams professor of constitutional law and a professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. She is author of The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in 19th-Century America and, with Kathryn M. Daynes, the forthcoming Inlaws and Outlaws: The Prosecution of Polygamists in Utah Territory. Here, she discusses those two topics. This is an edited transcript of two interviews conducted April 28, 2006 and Dec. 12, 2006.

Clearly the idea of family is important to all religions, but there's something special going on for Mormons. ...

In the mid-19th century, in much, although not all, of Mormon rhetoric, monogamy -- that nuclear family that we talk about all the time -- was seen as the problem, not the solution. It was by overcoming that nuclear family that Mormons believed that they could bring on the millennium and create a new, more sanctified race for the earth. Once polygamy no longer became possible, the big question was, "Is the nuclear family, that old unit, still celestial in the ways that polygamist families had been?" The answer very quickly had [become] yes, and the nuclear family inherited both that superheated quality and that supportive quality that had gone into that investment in polygamy. It's through and in, by and with the family that Mormons are saved, and it's how they think primarily of their relationship, both to the afterlife and to the church as a whole. ...

One of the biggest misconceptions about Mormonism that has survived even to today is that they practice polygamy. They don't. They abandoned it over 100 years ago, and within the faith no person practices polygamy. There is a remnant that refers to themselves as Fundamentalist members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints [FLDS], but they are not members of the mainstream church, and they are in violation of the basic tenets and rules of the church. Nonetheless, people still blame this radical, violent fringe, the [FLDS president] Warren Jeffs of this world, on Mormonism. That is unfair. It's unfair in part because you really can't blame Joseph Smith for what a man like Warren Jeffs does abusing a 14-year-old girl almost two centuries after Smith himself died. There is no direct connection between these people and Joseph Smith. Blaming Smith in particular or Mormonism in general for ongoing Fundamentalist polygamists is like blaming Karl Marx for communist China. It's blaming a twisted idea on the progenitor of an idea, who could have had no concept of it being used in such a way. ...

... The Mormons were not alone in starting this practice with plural marriage. It took place during a time when there was considerable experimentation.

If you want to think about the fertility of religion and the early 19th century, think of mushroom soil -- the richest stuff you can imagine, that will grow almost anything -- and there you have what it was like to be a believer in the early 19th century. Things were sprouting up all around you, and you could stick your own shovel in, and it might grow roots. It was incredible.

“When a faith is born in the 19th century, it's very hard to hide in the mist of time. ... From the moment of its birth, Mormons were under a klieg light.”

The outpouring of religious expression in a new environment of religious freedom -- really, lack of control is probably a better word. No one had ever seen a government that didn't put its stamp on religion before, and certainly by 1800 in Mid-Atlantic States -- New York, Virginia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania -- there were no established faiths. In the other states -- North and South Carolina, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut -- establishments were either all but crumbling or incredibly weak, so anything could happen, and it did. That's the atmosphere, this supercharged fertility, in which Mormonism was born. It's a very exciting period.

Vivify that landscape for me, some of the crazy characters.

Well, one of the interesting things is you saw all kinds of people doing all kinds of different things. Joseph Smith using divining rods -- he wasn't the only one. ... One of the most interesting people of all was Charles Grandison Finney, who was a recovering lawyer. He had a searing, devastating religious awakening while practicing law, left the practice of law but kept many of those habits. He preached in a business suit, for example, and he described himself as arguing to a jury for his client, Jesus. ...

Joseph is both a product of it and led the pack and survived as the rest of them didn't. Why?

... Well, Joseph Smith's story is a classic coming-of-age story. He has the vision as an extraordinarily young man. He reaches the emotional maturity necessary to discover the gold plates still as a very young adult. It's in the same period that we might think of an extraordinarily successful CEO today building his own empire. ... He has vision not only in terms of a story but also in terms of institutions. So many people can only put one together; he had two great talents.

He also was mesmerizing as a person. He had great charm. We've all known people who fill a room; he filled an entire faith. So in one sense Joseph is everything. In another sense Brigham Young is his cement: He took those tools and he connected them together in a people's experience. So this faith is gifted with two extraordinarily gifted leaders, both of whom ... arrive at the right moment in their lives and American history to lead this group of people. They were brilliant; they were inspired. ...

[So it was a] coming of age for the country, too?

Certainly, yes. ... One of the ways to think about the post-1815 period is that that's when it becomes clear that the United States really isn't a candidate for recolonization. It's going to survive; it's going to expand. The implosion is what everybody's worrying about, but it's actually pretty distant. And there's a sense of experimentation across the board: migration, faith, economics, politics. So in that sense, the way that Joseph unified all those things in his own person and with this new faith is the epitome of the age. ...

The polygamy question: ... It came from a time when people were pushing the boundaries of marital relationships and sexual relationships -- Oneida, the Shakers. ...

... The Mormons were perhaps the most radical and consistent expression of a broad-ranging sexual experimentation that included the most rigid celibacy and the most group kinds of sex experiences that you could imagine in the 21st century.

In another way polygamy is a natural outgrowth of the Protestant formation as a whole. It's not the case that other radical reformers hadn't thought or even practiced polygamy; there's the case of [the German city] Munster in the 18th century. There were often attempts to recover Christian purity that in some sense meant going back to the social practices of Jesus' era, and of course the social practices of Jesus' era did not look like monogamy, right? ...

One analogue to Mormon polygamy might be the Oneida Perfectionist Community founded by John Humphrey Noyes. They practiced what they called group marriage and stirpiculture [a form of selective breeding], and it's actually quite distinct in its own way as well. One of the things that Noyes believed was that marriage was the foundation of property and selfishness, that both of those things were fundamentally un-Christian, and that, therefore, each member of the community was covenanted to share him- or herself with every other member of the community.

Nothing was ever done involuntarily, but it often was the case that John Humphrey Noyes initiated a young lady into her first sexual experience. And the group did practice what was called stirpiculture. That was based on the idea that to produce a new race of men, one need[ed] to participate in proper breeding, so that most men ... were not to come to orgasm, but to pleasure the woman and not pleasure themselves. Only when preapproved was the sex to proceed to what we would think of as the logical conclusion. ...

Do you see Joseph trying to pull [sexuality and spirituality] together [in that way]? ...

In early Mormon society, sexuality and spirituality were united in plural marriage. The idea was that a sanctified man in union with multiple women could bring together male sexual potency and female fertility to create a family that would itself add to his own salvation in the family's status in heaven. The practice of sex within that family was thus sanctified.

It also was tightly controlled. There were strict rules about how quickly after birth one could have sex with any wife, and within most families there were very regular visiting arrangements for the husband, for example. But the idea that sexual relationships with a woman were themselves mirroring God's own sexuality was very, very important in the early church, especially to Joseph Smith himself, who in those early days and before the revelation was written down began to experiment with different forms of marriage and relationship in an effort to get closer to the divine mandate for human sexual relationships. ...

[When did he officially announce polygamy as part of the Mormon doctrine?]

The religious basis of plural marriage came through a revelation to Joseph Smith that was written down in 1843. Although it's clear that the pieces were in place earlier, it was written down in the year 1843. The commandment was the reinstitution, if you will, the restoration of patriarchal marriage. In this sense, the Saints understood themselves to have been commanded by God to recreate the marital order of the patriarchs, of the Old Testament. They were reliving the sacred years of the Bible by practicing plural or celestial marriage. ...

There have always been questions whether or not this revelation was convenient, that it arrived at a time when Smith really needed it because his own peccadilloes were becoming more and more public and thus, whether or not this revelation was a fraud. It's clear that this practice did begin years before this revelation was written down. It's not clear that the regularization of the practice was available to Smith well before 1943. In other words, Smith was going through an intense, a passionate and an incredibly creative period in which he instituted all of the basic rituals and structures of the Mormon faith. This was a time when revelations came at him helter-skelter, where he almost didn't know what to do with what was coming in his direction.

The idea that all of them were written down at the precise moment or worked through at the precise moment that he received them seems to me to be naive in trying to understand how whole new faiths work. These things take time; they are always messy. Prophets are as human as they are a divine channel, if you will. So when we ask of Joseph Smith that he be perfect, we are imposing our own sense of what religious creativity looks like from a comfortable distance of more than 2,000 years since the crucifixion of Jesus. A lot gets lost.

In the case of Joseph Smith, even though there's much we won't know for sure, so much of what happened is an open book that people obsess about the inconsistencies and fail to look at the creativity. That, I think, is what makes historians of religion so frustrated to hear this again and again and again. They look at the small piece and not the big picture and argue that small pieces invalidate the idea that this man was a prophet. ...

[Do you think he was a prophet?]

I've been asked many times whether I believe Joseph Smith was a fraud or whether he was a prophet. I am among those who believe he was a prophet, but let me make it clear he was not my prophet. I am an Episcopalian; I do not believe in ongoing revelation. However, it is clear to me that there was an extraordinary, difficult and confusing social period in the first half of the 19th century, where religious ferment was everywhere. We are just, I think, at the end of a great awakening ourselves, in which religious creativity, religious involvement in areas of life we never thought of as possible has occurred all around us. So we can get a sense of the excitement that must have been in the air in the 1830s when this new prophet appeared and galvanized audiences -- those piercing blue eyes, that amazing new Scripture.

What Mormons and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did was turn this brand-new revelation and the existence as a small, very cult-like sect into a flourishing and worldwide religion. So we see, if you will, the painful birth, the early childhood, the flourishing and the maturation of a whole new religion. When I look at that, I think Joseph Smith was a prophet. ...

The theme of persecution in Mormon history and the various origins for it: ... As you look at the pattern of persecution from the beginning, what do you see? ...

Well, if your mandate is to create the political kingdom on earth and you proclaim from the rooftops, everyone around you is likely to feel either excited or threatened. So in some sense it's the gutsiness of this church and its claim that the new kingdom will come right on the North American continent where we all live, and it will be soon -- in fact, it might even be now -- [that] not only grabs attention, but stirs fear in the opposition, much of it unfair, but certainly much of it comprehensible on both sides.

To what extent do you think the theology is part of it?

Well, I enter through law, so my explanation is probably more law-based than some you would have heard. But, for example, Joseph Smith believed very deeply in the United States Constitution because he said it had created the space, the freedom, if you will, for this extraordinary new revelation to enter. What he was dismayed by was that everybody else got the Constitution wrong. They kept telling him that the national government in Washington couldn't do anything to protect him in Illinois or Ohio or Missouri because that was the business of the several states. And he said things like: "States' rights are a stink offering. They are a carcass." He was disgusted by interpretations of the Constitution that he believed violated its inspired nature, and so he declared his candidacy for president of the United States. ...

Smith declared himself a candidate for president, had himself crowned king and became lieutenant general in charge of the Nauvoo Legion, an army. There are these fabulous pictures of Smith on a white charger, holding his sword out, and that's a very martial picture. So you combine religion, military force, political power, and you've got something that looks like a country, a whole new identity within the United States borders. And really, Brigham Young carried that into practice, but it was Smith who had that enormous presence and made the claims first. ...

Talk about the importance of the Exodus to Mormons then and now.

Mormons describe themselves as a peculiar people; they see themselves as having been forged in the 19th century in very particular and demanding ways. There are many ways to talk about this. One of the most important is exodus, the trek westward in 1847, out of the United States, out of time, and into biblical, sacred space and time. ...

Often in the history books this chapter is called "Exodus," and there's a good reason why the historians refer to this as "Exodus," much like Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt, because this was in its own way a miraculous trip in which the Mormon faithful walked away from the rest of the country and, in many senses, walked out of secular time and into sacred time. When they took that trip to Utah, with each step they walked further and further away from the rest of the world and deeper and deeper into their faith and identification with the rest of the faithful, gathering in Zion, building up the kingdom of God and creating something the rest of the world had never seen. ...

So what happens on the trek? ... It's become iconic. ...

You have a people who are impoverished. They're cold; they're hungry; they're exhausted. Their prophet has been martyred. In some sense, they have nothing left to lose because they've given it all up, and they found within themselves the strength to keep going. And as anyone who has gone on a very long walk knows, eventually you're so exhausted that you are truly open to miraculous connections with the divine and those around you. Clearly that's what happened on this trek.

It was a pilgrimage of the most foundational and fundamental kind that forged those who experienced it and, in some ways, those who re-enact it and re-experience it in their imaginations or on actual pieces of the trail. They envision themselves as Saints, walking to Zion, walking to their own salvation. It's an incredibly powerful story, ... and today people within the faith can still connect to bits and pieces of it: They re-enact the trek, or they go to places along the trail where given events happened, miracles or otherwise, and connect with this sacred history. ...

Dramatize for us the moment that Brigham Young goes public with polygamy and the effect it had on the nation.

The public announcement of the belief in and practice of celestial marriage or polygamy in 1852 was a carefully orchestrated moment. The church called a conference to defend the practice on every different level, starting with the religious -- this was a divine commandment -- and down to the political and especially the social: the idea that only sanctified men would have access to multiple wives; their salvation was assured and through them, their wives' salvation. ...

They defended it also as a human practice. [Original member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles] Orson Pratt, for example, said: "Polygamy has been the most common form of marriage throughout human history. This cannot be contrary to civilization, given that civilization as we know it has been engendered within and through this form of marriage." And they said this will cure the problem of unmarried women, excess women in the society, who themselves either had to work for a living at a respectable trade or, more often, work as a prostitute. ...

I'm always asked how it could be that LDS leaders thought they could get away with polygamy when they announced it in 1852, and the real answer is they had good reasons for thinking that they could. One of the most important was that the country was careening toward civil war. By 1852, slavery was itself an increasingly difficult question. Southerners went further and further in their defense of it; Northerners went further and further in their attack. But if anything seemed clear, it was that domestic relations were a matter of local concern only, so that if you were in Utah and you wanted to practice polygamy and your Legislature backed you up, then you stood on very firm legal ground.

The other thing that's happening all over is critique from early feminists who are arguing monogamy is itself a form of enslavement for white women -- that the laws of marriage virtually obliterate a woman's identity during marriage. She is the slave in the equation, where the husband is the master. And last but not least are those things we've already mentioned, which is that sexual experimentation by religious groups isn't just happening in Utah. It's happening in Maine; it's happening in New York; it's happening in Michigan; it's happening in Ohio; it's happening all over. So why would the Mormons excite such an enormous response when everybody else seems to be doing similar things elsewhere? It took a while for the rest of the country to realize that celestial marriage among the Saints was something different. ...

[So when the public realized what was going on in Utah, what was the reaction?]

Well, of course we didn't have the Internet, so it takes a little longer than it would today, ... but it took only a couple of years for the stories really to begin to get legs. The stories included women being beaten within an inch of their lives, locked in cellars, escaping across the desert, murders being done of young men by vicious old tyrants who want more luscious women for themselves. It's the stuff of great drama. So to some extent what happens naturally is that it's the dramatists who pick it up first. Really it's novelists and magazine storywriters who popularize anti-polygamy first. It makes for great stories. ...

How important were these stories and the polygamy novels and articles in shaping the nation's cautiousness about polygamy?

One of the most difficult things always is connecting culture to political life and connecting culture to legal development. Fortunately for us in this case it's relatively easy, because you have congressmen standing up by the mid- to late 1850s in the Capitol, saying: "This is an insult to our own wives and daughters. We need to avenge the insult, not only to women in Utah but to women everywhere." So it's clear that the message got through, not just to women but to their husbands, and they felt called upon to rescue women from the threat of such abandonment. ...

In the 1850s, the 1860s, the 1870s and beyond, people believed, as they do today, that marriage is the fundamental institution of the family, and as the family goes, so goes the country. So it's not just overheated rhetoric; it's also the case that there's a lot at stake. And it's true on both sides: The Mormon defenders of polygamy met anti-polygamists on their own turf and fought it out. They said: "You bet marriage makes a difference. Take a look at your own societies and the prostitutes and the abandoned women that are there. And look at our society, and see every woman have the opportunity to be married to a man who not only will marry her, but who is an upstanding member of the faith." ...

But isn't it true, going back to the anti-polygamy side, they didn't have an accurate read on the spiritual logic of polygamy. They thought it was a fraud, didn't they?

Many of them thought it was a fraud. Many anti-polygamists thought Mormon polygamy was more than a fraud. They thought these priests had delegated themselves with sexual opportunities that they denied to the rest of the men in their own society and that they had denied women their own natural inclination to monogamy. Women, they said, were naturally monogamous. Men may be naturally polygamists, but in our society we tame them and we civilize them, and it is by attachment to and respect for one woman that a man acquires the discipline to be a member of society, to govern himself, and to participate in the government of others. ...

When the anti-polygamists say monogamy is the pillar of society, where are they getting that from? What are they drawing on?

When anti-polygamists said that monogamy is the bedrock upon which society is built, they were drawing on a very deep sense -- still current in society today and very much part of the creation and strength of the nation-state -- that marriage is politically, economically and socially important. Any nation-state worth its salt controls the kind of marriages that take place within its boundaries. ...

We're seeing that again in the early 21st century; people are taking marriage very seriously as a political matter again. They also made arguments like the following: Monogamy produces the greatest number of children; if you really want to grow society, what you do is have monogamy across the board. ...

When they use these arguments, what are they basing it on at the time? Certainly not Scripture.

These were primarily secular arguments. ... One of the key books in American legal and political development were these lectures by [Sir William] Blackstone, and one of the things that Blackstone says is that Christianity is part of the common law, and polygamy has always been odious to the common law; it was punishable by death in England. So there was a very deep sense that modern Protestant impulses informed the legal structure, and that the legal structure was fundamentally committed to a nonpolygamous marriage. So ... these were secular arguments about what makes a healthy state, but you can't quite say that there were no scriptural or religious arguments.

If you were living in that time, is it true you would be reading about or discussing the "Mormon problem?" What was the Mormon problem, and why was polygamy first and foremost, and how would you be reading about it and hearing about it?

The amount of attention that the Mormon problem, as it was called, got varied. For example, in the late 1850s when Republicans began equating polygamy with slavery and [President] Buchanan sent that army out to Utah, it was on everyone's lips for a while there. But understandably during the Civil War attention was elsewhere. Lincoln is credited with saying: "When we found a big stump in the field, we would plow around it. Let's treat Utah like that. We've got to get plowing." In other words, we've got to get through this war, but Utah is just in our way. We're just going to go around it. ...

By the end of the Civil War ... Utah begins to look not so much like a stump, but like this growing tree out there in the West creating this ever bigger problem for those Republicans in the East who had set up polygamy as one of their central antagonists. In the early 1870s, there was an incredibly fortuitous event for those Republicans. Brigham Young's youngest and arguably most beautiful wife, Eliza Young, escaped Brigham Young's household, ran to non-Mormons in Salt Lake City, and undertook the first successful lecture tour in the United States. She would stand there in the most beautiful dress and talk in the most radical, raunchy terms about what life was like as a wife of Brigham Young. For example, she gave lectures that President Grant attended, lectures in cloakrooms in Congress. She was called the rebel of the harem, and she really caught everyone's attention. ...

Her beauty, her explicit tales and her voyage around the country got a lot done in the early 1870s for reinvigorating this anti-polygamy campaign, and Congress pushed through a modification of the original ban on polygamy. ... It's not terrifically interesting except that right after this statute was passed, the prosecutor in Utah arrested George Q. Cannon, the territorial delegate to Congress, the guy that everyone in Washington knew. And he in turn made a deal with the prosecutor as far as we can understand. ... He offered up his protégé, George Reynolds, as a defendant in a test case to test the constitutionality of these laws against polygamy. ... Reynolds winds up at the United States Supreme Court, and the Mormons not only lost; they lost big. This unleashed the tsunami of legislation that poured out of Congress over the next decade and eventually crushed the resistance.

Give me that tsunami of legislation.

After the Reynolds case came down -- and it was full of fabulous language about how polygamy was by definition aggressive and patriarchal and no community of polygamists could live long in peace with monogamists -- ... in Utah it was met with condemnation. The president of the church said that it was an opinion of a nation that was ripened for damnation, and he was not about to obey it. ... And Congress responded saying: "You want to crank it up? We'll crank it up."

It began to unleash a whole family law ... onto Utah. They established rules for divorce, for adultery. The real workhorse for several years was called unlawful cohabitation: You, one Mormon man, could not legally even pretend to be married to more than one woman. Even if we couldn't prove that you actually went through a marriage ceremony, you still could be punished for living with more than one woman. They imposed incest regulations. They required alimony for women who wanted to divorce their husbands, and of course they're there thinking of a woman like an Eliza Webb Young, who so tore at the heartstrings of all those congressmen.

So they gradually but surely built a law of marriage and family around Utah. That legal architecture that existed in all the states but was absent from Utah, they placed onto Utah, and they surrounded it as it is in other jurisdictions with criminal penalties. The difference is that we're now realizing that there were almost 3,000 separate criminal prosecutions, an extraordinary number, nothing like we've ever seen in the history of the United States; far exceeding, for example, even those Puritans that we think of as puritanical. ...

Over the course of the 1880s, Congress tried a number of different strategies. They used criminal punishment; they used political disenfranchisement; they imposed an entirely new governing structure on the territory of Utah. And none of it worked. The Mormons were very good at resisting the condemnation of the rest of the country. So finally Congress went after the church itself; they went after the property of the church. They went after the church's economic power, the church's political power and the church's real estate, not even excluding the temple itself.

The way it happened was that in 1887 Congress directed the attorney general to confiscate all the church's property that was valued in excess of $50,000, and the receiver, as he was called, declared that vast swaths of the church's property now belonged to him. He was directed to deploy this property for the benefit of a new public education system in the territory, but you just can't imagine the consternation that this caused among leaders of the faith, because they had poured themselves into building this temple, creating sacred spaces, creating sacred rituals within the spaces. And all of these were secret and private; the records of them were private. The invasion of heathens into those sacred spaces was really the last straw.

Combine that with the fact that the church simply would have no money to keep going if Congress got away with this, and you see why the last great [court] case involved was called Late Corporation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints [v.] the United States. The question was whether, now that Congress had stripped away political and legal rights from the Mormons, they could also go after the property of the church, and the United States Supreme Court said: "You bet they can. This is a dangerous corporation that has declared itself in defiance of every different kind of United States law. Yes, it's vulnerable." ...

It was a pivotal moment in Mormon history.

This final decision by the Supreme Court not only brought leaders of the church to a new realization of their own vulnerability; it emboldened the [centrists] within the church, many of whom had long argued the price they were paying for polygamy was too high, that they had to abandon it. Within months it really was clear that there was no sentiment left across the country, and dropping sentiment within Utah itself, that it was worth this kind of cost.

The [1890] Manifesto [against polygamy], as it is called, is literally a declaration that they understand the rule of law: They understand that you have to obey it, and they understand that open defiance will no longer be tolerated. It's not clear that it's much more than that, ... but it certainly is a white flag, a very important white flag that finally deflected Congress from going even further. ...

By 1890 the Mormons had learned that to be an American citizen was to have strict limits and painful limits imposed on their ability to live their religion. Those outside the faith thought that they had really achieved a victory, that they had made the Mormons come to heel in ways that were consistent with the broader Protestant faith that literally governed the country at the time. They believed that the limitations on the free exercise of religion wouldn't come back and bite them, but they have.

What we learned through those polygamy cases was that the Constitution protects the freedom to believe but not necessarily the freedom to act. And as the 20th century progressed, and as believers began to feel the new secularism biting at their heels, they had to learn to live by the rules that they themselves had imposed on Mormons, and it has been painful -- school prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance and more, all these forces of secularism. We can even go to abortion. Same-sex marriage is the current topic of the day. ...

And how do you see this ... as putting wind in the sails of the Mormons sailing into assimilation?

If we've talked about this before as a flood, ... the water recedes very quickly after the capitulation. And even before statehood, in 1896, polygamists had been granted amnesty. Roads were being built; businesses were flourishing, so that much of what had been damped down by all that attention to law now sprang to life. ... In many ways, Utah itself was ripe to bloom, and bloom it did. ...

One of the most interesting developments ... is the ways that Mormons have entered into new party politics, national politics. They gave up the People's Party, which was the official party of the faith, and became themselves active within especially the Republican Party, but also the Democratic Party. In that way you become part of a national dialogue, and Utah begins to look like it has importance to the nation. ...

They also did a very good job of participating, for example, in the military life of the country. Mormons fought wars, volunteered at extraordinarily high rates, recalibrated their patriotism to be loyal to the government in Washington rather than just loyal to the shadow government that the church had created. ...

Going back now into the psyche of the Mormons who experienced the [anti-polygamist] raids and feel some pain about the whole thing, ... how does it linger? ...

Mormons have a very complex relationship with their own sense of persecution. For example, it is unfair to say that they courted persecution; on the other hand, it is fair to say that it brought them exhilaration and conviction that what they were doing was the right thing, because God's prophets have never been welcome in their own lands. So that persecution both identified them as special and seared into them the pain of what being a peculiar people means. It is worn with pride to a certain extent and also used as a means of condemning a tyrannical, central government that imposed such pain, so many wounds on Utah in the 19th century. And, especially among a people that take kinship and ancestry so seriously, what their ancestors suffered is fresh. It means suffering for them as well, so that persecution is not just in the past; it also has a present life, because for Mormons, the past is the substance of the faith. ...

One of the things that many scholars have said about the claims of Mormonism and the claims of those who say it was all a big fraud is that when a faith is born in the 19th century, it's very hard to hide in the mist of time. There isn't that patina of centuries behind which one can argue that certain things are unknowable or that a given myth is unprovable, not because it didn't happen, but because it's so long ago that we simply can't find the evidence. From the moment of its birth, Mormons were under a klieg light. They were the center of attention in ways that, let's say, early Christians just weren't. In that sense the life and times of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young are known and appreciated in ways we just can't know the life and times, say, of Paul.

In another way as well, Mormon Scripture makes great claims to historical specificity about the North American continent. So it's not only that the religion is very now -- it's only, after all, not even 200 years old -- but it's very here; it's on the North American continent that all the good stuff happens. So it's present in a way that, say, Christians just don't understand, given that their great texts and great events are two millennia old and that their great spaces are 7,000 or 8,000 miles away. ...

When we think about Scripture, we're always thinking about what it means for the divine to enter the language of the mortal, and there's always a requirement of faith; there's always that leap. One thing that I think many critics of the Book of Mormon have overlooked or downplayed is the degree to which the literal truth of the Christians' Scriptures are still believed by an enormous number of Christians. In that sense Mormon believers in the literal truth in the Book of Mormon are just fellow travelers, not in believing in the same Scripture, but believing with the same degree of adherence to the factual truth of what is recorded therein.

So to that extent I think we need to bracket the idea that the Christian Scriptures are adhered to in a more textured, scholarly, critical way than the Mormon Scriptures, because I think there are lots of Christians every day who work on high-tech machinery all day and go home and believe in the literal truth of the Bible at night. If there's anything that postmodernity taught us, it's that it's possible to have multiple identities at once and to have those be important. ...

Talk to me a little about the myth of innocent persecution. It's large in Mormon life and imagination. What's at stake? Why is it held onto?

In my own reading of Mormon history, I've been struck by how much has been invested by historians in the idea that Mormons suffered unfairly and unjustly. Everyone agrees that the government went too far. There's no defending everything that the government did. There is, however, a way that is also fair to look at the Utah church in the 1850s, '60s, '70s, '80s as openly defiant of the rest of the nation and posing a real, genuine challenge about what kind of political entity would be contained with the United States in the form of Utah. In that sense there's a real conflict going on, ... so that when we focus only on the suffering imposed on families whose husbands went to jail and so on, we're not really taking a look at the big picture. What did it mean when the church said, "We openly defy the laws of the United States"? What kind of challenge is that? And what does it mean to claim the legal right to do so? Did it mean that Mormons claimed that they were not bound by the rules everyone else had to live by? That's what many anti-polygamists thought, and that's what they acted on.

So that persecution is there; there's no doubt about it. It's not only persecution, though, and I guess that's where the story gets complicated. But to the extent that there was a much less simple story of innocent, separatist, utopian existence stomped on without provocation by the rest of the country, then I think we missed the really interesting part of 19th-century Mormonism, which is that they claimed a separate political life and the power to control those within their borders and the ability to keep the rest of the world out of that control. ...