Mormon History and the Problem of Mermaids

Mermaids illustrate the problems faced by non-Mormon readers of Mormon histories, and go a long way toward explaining the decidedly mixed reviews that Richard Bushman’s book has received. Bushman laid out the problem some twenty years ago, writing:

Haw can a description of Joseph Smith’s revelations accommodate a Mormon’s perception of events and still make sense to a general audience? My method has been to related events as the participants themselves experienced them, using their own words where possible. Insofar as the revelations were a reality to them, I have treated them as real in this narrative. General readers will surely be left with questions about the meaning of these experiences, but at least they will have an understanding of how early Mormons perceived the world. (Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism 3)

This seems like a nice intermediate position. Bushman doesn’t try to make claims one way or another about the visions — or so he claims — but simply presents the stories in the words of the participants, letting the historical record speak for itself and offering his narrative not as an explanation of the events but as an explanation of contemporary reaction to the events. For a lot of folks, however, this approach simply will not fly. It seems like cheating, with Bushman smuggling his religious beliefs into the narrative via the backdoor. At this point, so the argument goes, he is no longer doing history and is surreptitiously engaged in religious apologetics jumped up in academic garb.

“Unfair!” cry Mormon readers. Perhaps. However, consider the problem of Mary Ann Hafen’s encounter with mermaids. Hafen was a Swiss convert to Mormonism who pulled a handcart to Utah in 1860. Much later in life she wrote out an autobiography that was published by her historian son, who was a professor at the University of Colorado. It is still in print as Recollections of a Handcart Pioneer of 1860. Her account of the transatlantic voyage from Europe to America contains this passage:

One afternoon while we were playing on the deck one of the sailors pointed out a mermaid. I looked but could see only what seemed to be a lady’s head above the water. The sailors told how mermaids would come up to comb their hair and look in a mirror. They said it was a sure sign of a storm.

Sure enough there arose a great storm next day. The waves came up like mountains and broke over the deck. We were all ordered under deck and the water splashed on us as we went down the steps. All night the storm raged. Our ship tossed about like a barrel on a wild sea. Two large beams or masts broke off and we were driven many miles back. (Mary Ann Hafen, Recollections of a Handcart Pioneer of 1860 19-20)

Does Mary Ann’s account of the mermaid sighting require an explanation? Can we simply incorporate it into the narrative, claiming that it may present problems for some but it will give us a sense of the how immigrants perceived the world? Or should we try to account for it in some way. For example, we might argue that the sailors were just pulling a little girl’s leg. We might talk about maritime superstition, and mention that sailors frequently identified manatees and porpoises as mermaids. Perhaps we can make some point about the genre of Mary Ann’s account, which was after all written many years after the account. Is this perhaps meant to be taken as a tall tale? Perhaps we can make some journey into Mary Ann’s psyche, talking about the unique mental quirks of young Swiss children in the 19th century. Suppose that for whatever reason, however, an author believes devotedly in mermaids, and chooses to write a narrative in which Mary Ann’s mermaid incident is simply recounted as fact. Might one be suspicious? Might one have questions about precisely what kind of history one is reading.

Mormon historians who wish to justify Bushman’s approach to non-Mormons, must, it seems to me, come up with a way of justifying a fairly literal reading of Mary Ann’s mermaid story to non-mermaid believers. It is not clear to me that they have. Furthermore, it is far from clear to me that it is even possible. For myself, I suspect that the tension is inevitable, that we ought to accept it, and that the price one pays for being Mormon is the inability to be thought a serious historian or thinker by some. There are worse fates. I do think, however, that we need to be realistic about the strength of the intellectual devices that we employ to negotiate the strangeness of our own beliefs.

47 comments for “Mormon History and the Problem of Mermaids

  1. Kaimi Wenger
    March 21, 2006 at 2:47 pm


    I agree — serious problems arise in writing for the non-Merman audience.

  2. March 21, 2006 at 2:53 pm

    Merman is such a sexist term. It’s “mer-person” or “person of fins.”

    I do think Nate has a bit of a point. But to be honest if this mention of a mermaid was relevant for the actions that Marry Ann takes, then I think the question of its reality is irrelevant. Clearly she thought it was.

    Put an other way, Bushman’s approach is somewhat akin to how behavioralists tried to do in psychology. (Ultimately unsuccessfully) That is holding aside questions of inner workings and just dealing with the publicly observable actions. The issue of someone’s thoughts is less relevant than their report of thoughts. And of course a common critique of some sociologists and psychologists is just that they don’t make such a distinction. (That is self-reporting is considered to reflect the what of reported)

  3. March 21, 2006 at 3:16 pm

    Does Mary Ann’s account of the mermaid sighting require an explanation? Can we simply incorporate it into the narrative, claiming that it may present problems for some but it will give us a sense of the how immigrants perceived the world? Or should we try to account for it in some way.

    The answers to these questions depend on such factors as what the purpose of the narrative is, what the narrative demands or invites its readers to do, what social impact the people who buy into the narrative have, etc.—in other words, how high are the stakes associated with this narrative? Clearly there are big differences in this respect between Joseph’s account of gold plates and Sister Hafen’s account of mermaids.

  4. Kaimi Wenger
    March 21, 2006 at 3:28 pm


    Take it up with the Foundation for Ancient Research and Merman Studies, buddy. Believe me, there’s a whole “Merman studies” crowd you don’t want to get involved with. And don’t even get me started on all of those anti-Mermans . . .

  5. March 21, 2006 at 3:58 pm

    Does Bushman really have a duty to present a paragraph or chapter full of speculation about potential “alternative explanations” for the statements in primary sources and documented activities examined, or can he allow the reader to supply those for him or herself?

  6. March 21, 2006 at 4:54 pm


    I certainly agree that most reviewers seem to be somewhat reserved in their praise of RSR. Incidentally, I have often wondered, and you allude to this question, whether a non-Mormon producing an identical text would have been praised for his “empathy” and “deep cultural understanding.” As you intimate, the problem seems to be not so much with Bushman’s treatment of the events per se but with his suspected ulterior motives.

    I also agree that Mormons may simply have to accept that the greater intellectual community will always view us with suspicion (a Pulitzer Prize and an Endowed Colummbia Chair notwithstanding). Indeed, one somewhat prominent and very intelligent intellectual once recounted to me how he was treated as an equal at an elite academic conference–until one of his colleagues learned my friend was Mormon. From that moment on, my friend was viewed with skepticism: certainly a rational intellectual could not believe such silly wives’ tales. Indeed, Paul Fussell has identified the Mormon movement as the catalyst for the growing nincompoopization of America (his word, not mine).

    Still, the fact that the greater intellectual community has decided to ostracize believing Mormon thinkers does not mean they are correct, or even rational–it just means they don’t think we are as rational as they.

    For my part, I don’t think the distinction is as stark as they purport. First, I don’t think most intellectuals are nearly as rational as they believe. Consider, for instance, a history professor who receives a prescription from his doctor and then takes the medication, believing it will help him recover. This mundane act requires a great amount of faith on the part of the professor. First, he has faith the doctor is both competent and well-intentioned–that is, the professor has faith the doctor will presecribe the “right” medication. Beyond this, however, the professor has faith in the intellectual establishment and in government regulatory boards. That is, he trusts that everyone from the experimentors to the FDA officials overseeing approval have made the right decision and that the medication presecribed will thus make him better. We might argue this is very different than believing in Joseph Smith because the FDA approval process et. al. is a time-honored practice that has undergone substanital scrutiny. The truth, however, is that invesitgators make mistakes all along the way–the process is not nearly as deserving of trust as we often assume. And, yet, intellecutals put their faith in this process all the time.

    Second, both history and modernity make Mormonism distinctly different from Mermanism. The fact that so many people have been willing to leave all they possess, and even to give up their lives, because of their faith in Joseph’s claims should give us pause. That is not to mention the fact that some 12,000,000 people (hard to know how many, actually)–rich, poor, American, Asian, Tongan, African, Conservative, and Liberal–have put Moroni’s promise to the test and found it valid. Such mass experimenting with consistent results should also make us wonder (some, of course, experiment and get varying results, but such is often the case in academia as well). None of that, of course, proves Joseph’s claims true. This does, however, make his claims more worthy of the serious consideration of the intellectual community than the isolated story of one girl’s fleeting encounter with a mermaid.

    It is, in the end, intellectual hubris–not objective rationality–that leaves Mormon intellectuals out in the cold.

  7. Visorstuff
    March 21, 2006 at 5:32 pm

    When dealing with religious topics, historians and others should always write from the believers point of view – regardless of religion. This is something I’ve brought up here in the past. You cannot understand history, without understanding what they believed and how they saw the world around them. Yes, the way we interpret events today may be different, but authors can always use footnotes or even in-line explanations if they feel it’s neccessary.

    In dealing with matters of faith, the intangible and unprovable becomes even more important to understanding one’s world view.

    Bushman’s right. Understanding this girls’ “experience” with seeing a Mermaid may not be explainable, but it gives good insight into her world view – a critical component of tolerance and understanding another’s view point – and a critical component of historical research.

    In fact, don’t those of you who are lawyers do the same thing in a court room? Help the jury to see things from either the plantiff’s or defendant’s point of view?

  8. March 21, 2006 at 6:05 pm

    Look, in a sense I agree with all of these defenses of Bushman’s position. Furthermore, I think that if he was to actually engage the alternative theories explaining the visions, etc. in some substantive way the product would be even less palatable for some. I can’t imagine, for example, that Bushman walking through the intricacies of Dan Vogel’s arguments would be particularlly edifying, and I am quite certain that it would earn him the label of arch-apolegist. But in a sense this simply is a restatement of my point: there are certain people you are never going to satisfy. They are not bigotted anti-Mormons with an axe to grind. They are reasonable secular intellectuals who think that we are nuts. I think that you simply have to be willing to take your lumps as a Mormon scholar.

    What I found so interesting was the fact that Bushman’s biography has been compared to Remini’s, with the implication — explicitly and implicitly stated — that Remini is more objective. Yet with regard to Joseph’s early visions, etc. Remini basically takes exactly the same approach that Bushman does. The reason is that his work — at least for the early period — is basically derivative of Bushman’s 1984 book. Go figure…

  9. Mermaid Investigations, Inc.
    March 21, 2006 at 6:05 pm

    Mermaids are real, of course.

  10. Jed
    March 21, 2006 at 6:38 pm

    “What I found so interesting was the fact that Bushman’s biography has been compared to Remini’s, with the implication — explicitly and implicitly stated — that Remini is more objective.”

    I agree–you have to take your lumps. The basic problem is that the presuppositions drive the interpretation. Words like “stake patriarch” and “stake president” frame the reviews of RSR (both positive and negative reviews). In this way, a Mormon historian who retells the narrative as the visionary told it gets labled an “apologist,” while the non-Mormon telling the same story is called even-handed. The Mormon gets derided as soft, the non-Mormon is complimented for getting inside the skin of his subject. A blind review–which in the current system is impossible–is the only way out.

    It works the other direction, too, though, and Mormon academics need to fess up to their own biases. The Mormon looks at the evidence through Mormon eyes, countencing some evidence, discountencing others, all filtered through the believing lens. We come up short on the secular and hard deterministic hypotheses. Our writing will never appeal to the demystified types. We should admit this and move on.

  11. March 21, 2006 at 6:40 pm

    “It works the other direction, too, though, and Mormon academics need to fess up to their own biases. The Mormon looks at the evidence through Mormon eyes, countencing some evidence, discountencing others, all filtered through the believing lens. We come up short on the secular and hard deterministic hypotheses. Our writing will never appeal to the demystified types. We should admit this and move on.”

    What Jed said…

  12. March 21, 2006 at 7:03 pm

    But in a certain sense, couldn’t it be said that Bushman is more objective because he refrains from judgment? That is, he presents primary sources and the contemporary reaction to those primary sources. Someone can just as easily come away from RSR still believing that Joseph Smith was a total fraud and believing the Joseph Smith was inspired. Bushman’s approach should be followed by more historians in all historical contexts. Rather than passing judgment within the text from a current perspective looking back, he presents the details almost in their historical setting. It really is quite remarkable.

    Technically speaking, wouldn’t it be Vogel and others who are not objective when they start trying to present their own speculative conclusions and intricate scenarios to provide the reader with an “explanation” for the historical material? Why is that necessary? Just present the material.

    My point is that criticisms of Bushman along these lines are unfair. In fact, coming from “demystified types” who are “reasonable secular intellectuals who think that we are nuts,” these criticisms seem practically disingenuous. By letting Joseph Smith “speak for himself” and viewing his words and actions through the contemporaneous observations of both contemporaneous critics and believers, Bushman is not neglecting any duty of a historian. He is not obligated to wax long on speculation about what the “real explanation” might be. Once he does that, he loses his objective voice.

  13. March 21, 2006 at 7:07 pm

    Nate: I can’t imagine, for example, that Bushman walking through the intricacies of Dan Vogel’s arguments would be particularlly edifying, and I am quite certain that it would earn him the label of arch-apolegist. But in a sense this simply is a restatement of my point: there are certain people you are never going to satisfy.

    Was this the fate of Givens’ By the Hand of Mormon? While his sympathy showed through, as I recall he also presented a fair amount of the unbelievers’ view of the Book of Mormon. Does this detract from the book, or did it earn him unfavorable reviews?

  14. March 21, 2006 at 7:42 pm

    The problem, Christian, was that Givens was largely ignored by the non-Mormon community precisely because he took these things seriously even though he also presented the critics. One could, of course, argue that he didn’t present enough of the critics criticism. But I think this is a situation where Bushman is probably getting the best any believing Mormon could hope for. It isn’t much and I’d argue that Bushman doesn’t always even approach his own ideals. But at least he gets some respect.

  15. Edje
    March 21, 2006 at 7:51 pm

    I really need to learn to think and write faster…

    Like Jed (10) and Nate, I agree that there are “reasonable secular intellectuals who think that we are nuts” and that we “are never going to satisfy” them with any scholarship, no matter how rigorous, that implicitly accepts direct divine action and thus one has “to be willing to take your lumps as a Mormon scholar.”

    This being the case, however, I think Miss Hafen’s mermaid is an inadequate metaphor. If a “reasonable secular intellectual” says they want “an understanding of how early Mormons perceived the world” but reject Bushman’s approach–or, in the metaphor, reject any “narrative in which Mary Ann’s mermaid incident is simply recounted as fact”–they are ignorant, confused, or lying about what they really want (for the reasons given in comments 2-3 & 5-8, 12). This doesn’t mean the Mormon Scholar won’t be taking lumps, but it’s not for a deficiency in their scholarship, per se.

    I think the situation is more like a merperson and a human having a conversation. The merdude/tte can respire above or below the surface; the human can only respire above. Thus, the conversation takes place above the surface. The trouble is that you can only hear the hot crustacean band under the sea (cue the singing crab…).

    Contrary to the propaganda, scholarship is not concerned with truth; it is concerned with evidence that can be tested, manipulated, and measured–“terrestrial” evidence. To accept “aquatic” evidence is to fundamentally and irretrievably disqualify yourself, no matter how perfectly all your “terrestrial” evidence is arrayed. It is intellectually fatal for the human to try to join the merpeople underwater or allow their evidence without being able to examine it; it is spiritually fatal for the merperson to come to believe that only “terrestrial” evidence is valid.

    We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
    By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
    Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

    Here’s to Mormon Scholars taking lumps!

    Here is to not caring! (I’m lying about not caring; I accept the reality but it still hurts my feelings.)

  16. S.
    March 21, 2006 at 8:53 pm

    There is no problem with the recounting mermaid story as fact because it is obvious to every reader what happened, namely:

    Sailors persuaded little girl she saw a mermaid; no mermaid was really there.

    There is no great mystery that the reader will feel you are ignoring if you recount the story as fact. (I don’t consider “Were the sailors themselves superstitious or were they pulling her leg?” a great mystery.)

    But the questions “Who wrote the Book of Mormon? If Joseph Smith, then how? When? Could it really have been composed on the fly? Dictated from rough notes or outlines? What were these plates, really?” are very serious mysteries. If you gloss over these issues and state that you are simply going to take the word of those closest to Smith at face value, non-believers will feel cheated–like you’re not telling them everything you know, not even making a good faith effort to help them understand what really happened.

    Bushman himself admits that he didn’t really want to resolve the mystery for non-believers. He wanted the mystery to remain a mystery. Fair enough. But in light of this, we can’t really blame non-believers for feeling a bit cheated or for being a bit skeptical.

  17. Kimball Hunt
    March 21, 2006 at 10:08 pm

    My 5 May 1854.

    After some internet sleuthing, my heart shone to see one wondrous page of the 1910 census.

    On a frontier street, are three households, side by side:

    The house in the middle holds that “merman see-er” Anna Maria Hafen nee Stucki (“Anni M. Hafen”), 56 from Bern, Swizterland; her son Leroy Reuben Hafen who was to become a historian (“Reubin L. Hafen”) 16; her daughter Lovena M. Leavitt, 19; and her son-in-law Parley Leavitt, 21.

    The next door down holds a historian even more famous!: Juanita Brooks, who would deliver fresh milk next door to her grandmother, the “merman see-er” Annamarie (“Waneta L. Leavitt”) 12.
    (Along with Juanita’s mom, Mary (Hafen) Leavitt, 32; Juanita’s dad, Dudley H. Leavitt, 40; and Juanita’s younger brother ‘n’ sisters: Charity, 10; Aura P., 8; Melvin H., 7; Lansel E., 5; and Daisy, 3; and Eva, 1-and-3/12ths.)

    But the house immediately preceding Annamarie’s is that of my OWN grandfather: Harmon Christian Tobler, 32!
    (Along with my grandmother, Lillian Graf, 28; and their children Donald, 6; Birdie, 2; and Lee G., 2-and-a-half.)

    Many who will read this post will be related to people above.
    See Anna’s vomiting while reading Juanita’s work: (Note #36 to Kevin Barney’s post of a year ago March 1st, “Celestian Polygamy”).
    Note also that Annamarie’s son-the-historian’s ofttimes co-author is his wife, Ann Hafen nee Woodbury: Is this the same Woodbury’s as are in town?
    Also in town are some of my father’s extended clan, yet he (Austin Hunt, 3) and his not-established-as-yet– young parents, who may not, by this time, have begun their modest two room adobe house, were missed in this census.

    So, then, allow us to flesh out Nate’s analogy even more.

    Let’s say that an extended, pioneer family such as the Hafens have been raised to accept Mary Ann Hafen’s sightings of mermen as essential omens of God’s favor upon and love for them. And then one descendent, John, publishes a history wherein Mary Ann Hafen is said to have “just seen manatees or porpoises.” And this historian’s work, although aclaimed by many, is jeered by the faithful.

    But, thereafter, yet another descendent, Julie, both a historian and a faithful mermen-believer, publishes a history wherein “Mary Ann said she saw mermen,” leaving the ultimate determination as to these claims, so importance to the Hafen family, up to the reader. And our second historian’s book invites awe if not scorn in her readers about the credence of “mermen see-ers.”

    But at the next family reunions, Julie is warmly welcomed and her accomplishment feted, while John’s presence is only tepidly acknowledged if he is at all.

  18. March 21, 2006 at 10:09 pm

    I respect and find important presenting a view from the person who was standing in the place at the time. I think it’s important to provide that perspective. I am moved when Bushman does this well. That said (and felt), there are at least two perspectives I wish that Bushman were consistently better in sorting out. (And I say this as a person who finds Bushman’s book an important, interesting, useful, and often moving, perspective on Joseph’s story. I have a great deal of respect and admiration for what Bushman has accomplished in his book.)

    1. He is not consistent in sorting out those junctures (often highly charged in his narrative) when the view of the 19th century source ends and his 20th century believing perspective begins. I respect that he believes, respects when he is clear that is happening, less convinced with his argument when the slide happens without his being explicit and honest about the slide. I’m sympathetic and respectful of his belief, impressed when he can show an adroitness in using that to the benefit of his argument, and the depth of perspective in the story he tells. I am disappointed when he presents his belief as a simple conclusion in a book he publishes and places so explicitly within a scholarly and academic conversation. I listened to him talk about his book recently at a fireside. And it was clear from what he said that it’s important to him his arguments have a certain entry, respectability in that context.

    2. It does not seem to be a consistent focus of Bushman’s project to sort out when the 19th perspective is contemperaneous and when that perspective is layered over with retrospect and memory (even of a few years and certainly sometimes of decades). I’m fascinated with sorting through the record to discover those gems that are contemperaneous with the time they describe (not so layered with memory). Don’t get me wrong. I love retrospect and memory–it’s the bread and butter of a lover of narrative (of autobiography, isn’t this book partly that?). I just find the exercise most interesting and impressive when the historian/writer himself/herself helps to sort that out for a reader (for me). Bushman doesn’t always do that. His story is often layered in memory. I wish he were better in helping me know that he’s seeing those fascinating distinctions as well.

  19. Jed
    March 21, 2006 at 10:35 pm

    john f: “Technically speaking, wouldn’t it be Vogel and others who are not objective when they start trying to present their own speculative conclusions and intricate scenarios to provide the reader with an “explanationâ€? for the historical material?”

    I think you make a good point. The believers are more likely to use sources close to the visions, while the non-believers are more likely to ignore them, or to rely on people at a distance, in second- and third-hand reports, whose quirky, unsubstantiated observations just happen to support the belief of the writer. Brodie and Vogel both play this trick in their speculations that the gold plates were really homemade plates of tin. The sources closest to the visionary events–JS most of all–have to be diminished or suppressed for the secularist argument to hold.

    The trouble is the people reviewing books on early Mormonism don’t know the sources well enough to recognize the gymnastics going on behind the curtain.

  20. March 21, 2006 at 10:48 pm

    Jed: The believers are more likely to use sources close to the visions, while the non-believers are more likely to ignore them, or to rely on people at a distance, in second- and third-hand reports, whose quirky, unsubstantiated observations just happen to support the belief of the writer.

    Do you really believe that?

  21. March 21, 2006 at 10:57 pm

    john f.: Technically speaking, wouldn’t it be Vogel and others who are not objective when they start trying to present their own speculative conclusions and intricate scenarios to provide the reader with an “explanation� for the historical material? Why is that necessary?

    This is why some feel it necessary (and also why many don’t).

  22. March 22, 2006 at 12:34 am

    I’d second Jim’s concern there Jed. I think both sides end up doing fairly similar things.

  23. DKL
    March 22, 2006 at 12:40 am

    I don’t have any problem with Vogel’s “explain everything” approach. He does it well, and he explains his biases from the outset. This is what people expect of history–they want it all chopped up and served to them in tide Dr. Suess style couplets (Emma would not tolerate polygamy on a plane, she would not tolerate it on a train…).

    An easy example of this kind of thing (a topic that we have reason to expect Nate to be acquainted with thanks to the recent revelation that he read civil war books as a toddler) is McPhereson’s history of the civil war, which won the Pulitzer and was widely celebrated because it pretended to justify all the fatuous (and self-congratulating) dualities between the North and South ever used to explain the civil war (pre-industrial south vs. industrial north; southern regional identity vs. northern regional identity). But on the whole, McPherson’s work is just a surface analysis with an attempt at deep justification. McPherson’s urge to categorize simply fails to capture the underlying complexity of the events.

    I think that Brodie and Vogel suffer from the same problem. As a big fan of both, I admire the ambition of their projects as sometimes marvel at their successes. But their ruthless drive to classify and pre-digest the events ends up trading a rich narrative for a kind of artificially-clean perfection, that is sometimes as false as the artificially clean accounts in our correlated materials.

    To criticize Bushman for presenting an ambiguous account is actually to pay him a compliment for recognizing and (what is more difficult) preserving (in some sense) the tremendous complexity of the historical events that underly his narrative. You can’t have it both ways.

  24. March 22, 2006 at 12:56 am

    Well said DKL. I fully agree. I honestly don’t mind if Vogel is not only adopting a very naturalistic framework, but creating a coherent reading of history that explains everything. As you said, Vogel’s fairly forthright in this. So it’s hard to fault him. Other historians who sometimes impose frameworks onto the data without being clear they are doing that I have far more trouble with.

  25. DKL
    March 22, 2006 at 1:02 am

    I just realized on re-reading my comment #24 above that the Dr. Sueuss quip sounds like a negative swipe at Vogel’s work, when it’s intended only to disparage many people’s (and even many reviewers’) expectations. It is not my intent to classify Vogel’s work that way.

  26. March 22, 2006 at 10:02 am

    DKL wrote that is sometimes as false as the artificially clean accounts in our correlated materials

    I would say that is just as false as the artificially clean accounts in our correlated materials. And anyway, Bushman’s work is nowhere near “our correlated materials.” Nothing in RSR would compel someone who already believed Joseph Smith was a fraud, a pious fraud, an idiot, a fraudulent genius, or someone deceived by the devil to believe otherwise. Someone approaching RSR tabula rasa could just as easily come away believing any of the above as that he might have actually been a prophet. By allowing the primary sources and the contemporary reactions to those sources (both critical and believing) speak on their own terms, Bushman trusts the reader to draw a conclusion and doesn’t force a forced interpretation on them. This seems more honest. And as a freebie, Bushman by no means ignores the wide speculations of Brodie, Vogel, various and sundry nineteenth-century anti-Mormons, and many others. Instead, he includes them in the endnotes so that readers who are looking for someone else to draw their conlcusions for them may be pointed in the right direction.

  27. Jed
    March 22, 2006 at 10:58 am

    Jim F. ” Do you really believe that?”

    I do. One of the basic strategies of anti-Mormon writing in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was to marginalize Smith as a visionary by downplaying or ignoring collective visionary experiences: priesthood restoration, the 3 witnesses, the 8 witnesses. We see the strategy at work in such writers as J. H. Kennedy, and Ellen Dickensen, and I. Woodbridge Riley. Dickensen, for example, claims the 3W’s quickly disavowed their statement, without offering evidence, even though numerous accounts from the witnesses themselves were then in circulation. Although Woodbridge quotes at length from Cowdery and Whitmer, he moves beyond the evidence to conclude everyone was in a dream state. The statement of the 8W he dismisses as a complete fabrication, again without offering evidence.

    Vogel’s tack is to quote primary sources when they suit his purposes. (This is not to say the Mormons do not do the same thing, only that they seem they seem more comfortable with the supernaturalism in the primary sources.) In his account of Aaronic priesthood restoration, Vogel subscribes to an evolutionary hypothesis: Smith and Cowdery did not start talking about seeing an angel until 1834, and later still they started calling the angel John. The implication is Smith and Cowdery were making things up as they went along, weaving a large story as they went along. But Vogel overlooks evidence that does not confirm the theory. He does not cite JS’s 1832 history which of the reception of the holy priesthood by the “ministering of angels”; nor does he mention the possibilty that the Painesville Telegraph’s 1830 report of Cowdery’s claim to have seen angels might have reference to priesthood and not 3witnesses. It is true that John the B enters into the record late, but expansion or evolution is not the only hypothesis.

    As for the First Vision, all writers, Mormon and anti-Mormon, have to quote Smith, because Smith’s is the only account. It is the collective experiences that are set aside.

  28. Jed
    March 22, 2006 at 11:25 am

    john f.: “By allowing the primary sources and the contemporary reactions to those sources (both critical and believing) speak on their own terms, Bushman trusts the reader to draw a conclusion.”

    Is the historian’s job to let the sources “speak on their own terms”? It seems so self-evident to us, because as a people Mormons have felt they have been misrepresented and misjudged, disallowed to speak on their own terms. It is not so clear to me that the model applies to other phenomena.

    I do not think the problem has a simple answer. The tensions reflected in his post have not been resolved within the historical profession. There is no consensus about makes good history. The causal model of the old scientific history is still preferred by many, while others want to map the relationship of ideas. The goal of the former is to show etiology or derivation; the goal of the latter is to show spacial relation. I think RSR was interested in spacial relation. Several reviewers, however, wanted derivation.

  29. S.
    March 22, 2006 at 8:41 pm

    I think Susan #18 sums up the problems with Bushman’s approach quite well.

    When describing an uncontroversial event (e.g., “William visited New York during February of 1940”) you don’t need to give a lot of details about your sources, the dates the accounts were written, the possible evolution of the narrative over time, etc.

    But if you say, “William spent February of 1940 living among the mer-people near the Bahamas,” then it is very important to give more information about how this fact was known (whether you believe it has a chance to be literally true or not). Say, “According to a diary entry of William’s mother dated June, 1845, William visited the mer-people during February of 1940. William’s own diaries make no mention of this fact, but a letter he wrote to his sister in 1850 states, ‘I surely do miss the mer-people. It’s been nearly a decade since I saw them last.'”

    If there are reasons William might have been strongly motivated to make up the mer-people story, it is important to mention those reasons.

    It is not an issue of semantics (“Joseph Smith saw a vision” vs. “Joseph Smiths claimed to have seen a vision”) but an issue of full disclosure of the nature of the source material being used.

  30. Julie M. Smith
    March 22, 2006 at 9:01 pm

    S., I agree with you in principle, but what to do about the fact that your approach changes a 12-word sentence to a 56-word paragraph that would ruin the flow of the narrative and, I might add, make for bone-dry reading?

  31. March 22, 2006 at 9:19 pm

    I’m hoping there are interesting and felicitous ways to be more explicit–to do the kinds of things I described in my previous post. And sometimes it’s fine to say more if you have more to say. (This comes from the woman who got my present job in part because I disclosed my nickname at my previous job–Susan Scissorhands.)

  32. Blake
    March 22, 2006 at 9:23 pm

    Here is my disappointment with Bushman’s approach. I can read the sources — and I have read all of the sources that Bushman cites about Joseph Smith. What I cannot do is place the sources in an explanatory context and setting that makes sense of them in a way that a person intimately familiar with the history of the sources and wider culture can. I just don’t have the background to do that. So I look to experts like Bushman for his take on what the sources mean and how apparent differences are reconciled. But that is just what isn’t there — so I miss out on his incredible ability to put things together in a way that I just don’t have the background to do.

    I’m a bit amazed that Vogel’s book is even being mentioned as somehow on par with Bushman’s. Vogel’s book is an apologetic for a naturalistic reading of Joseph as fraud and con-artist. To make his case he twists sources, makes arguments that are not merely weak but laughable and slights sources that are much more relevant and favors sources that are removed and not reliable (he does this especially with arguments regarding the 3 witnesses and their testimony). Vogel lacks precisely the broad knowledge of the larger culture and cultural-cross-currents that make Bushman a superb historian. Vogel also fails to grasp the theological currents and ideas with which he works that Bushman is much more adept at explaining. I just wish there were more Bushman in his history. Historians write history from a point of view — the notion of historical objectivity is simple ignorance of what a person brings to the table when writing.

  33. March 22, 2006 at 10:00 pm

    Blake, somehow I doubt that “broad knowledge of the larger culture and cultural-cross-currents” is going to make angelic visitations seem less laughable to a thoroughgoing secularist. I completely agree with your last sentence, which is why I don’t begrudge either the Bushmans or the Vogels for making sense of the sources for their particular worldviews.

  34. DKL
    March 22, 2006 at 10:13 pm

    Blake, I agree with you about some of Vogel’s weak points, but I find the scope and ambition of his book to be impressive in its own right. And if he under-delivers a bit–well, there’s worse things than that. For my part, I think that his biggest weakness is his propensity to overstate his case, and thereby open himself up to more criticism than he’d otherwise deserve. A good example of this is with the witnesses’ accounts. He’s got a lot of interesting things to say (even if it is mostly a re-iteration of his essay in American Apocrypha), but his conclusions just don’t follow. And since conclusions of the strength that he draws don’t add to his thesis, he’d do better to play it down a bit. Even so, The Making of a Prophet is worth reading if only for its comprehensive chronology of the writing of The Book of Mormon.

    At the bottom of it, I think that you and I start at different points with regard to naturalistic explanations of the supernatural. We’re probably going to have to agree to disagree about Vogel.

    I’m surprised to hear you say that you wish that there was more Bushman in Rough Stone Rolling. I found it to be his best work to date. His 1984 book was fine, but it’s too cursory and is arguably too apologetic, and I find his essays unreadable, because he seems to want to talk more about historical stuff than about history.

  35. DKL
    March 22, 2006 at 11:37 pm

    S, the problem is that saying, “He lived among the mer-people” isn’t the kind of thing that makes any sense at all without explaining what that means, because nobody really knows what it might be like for someone to live among mer-people. Saying, “The deck hands pointed out mermaids, indicating that their presence meant…” actually makes quite a bit of sense.

    Saying, “He lived among the mer-people” is not analogous to “He had a vision.” It’s more analogous to “He lived in the 9th realm of purgatory.” “He had a vision” is the kind of thing that people understand in some sense, since our culture is full of stories containing miraculous appearances (e.g., the bible or movies like The 6th Sense, The 10 Commandments).

  36. Jonathan N
    March 23, 2006 at 12:21 am

    I agree with Blake that it would be nice to have more of Bushman’s insight in the book, but I suppose that would be impractical in a single volume. I’ve attended several of Bushman’s presentations over the last year and in these you find much more of his insight than you find in the book. A second volume that focuses on these insights instead of relating historical facts would be wonderful.

    The impact of Bushman’s book is impressive. Just last week in Priesthood meeting one of the older brothers raised his hand and commented that everyone should read it, that it’s the most important book to be published in many years. Our Stake President has recommended it. I know several other older members who were amazed that they knew so little about Joseph Smith before they read this book.

  37. S.
    March 23, 2006 at 12:32 am


    Well, there are also some nice popular movies and old stories about life among the mer-people. In fact, my film-going experience has taught me more about the culture and sociality of mermaids than about the culture and sociality of angels. Some of my favorite stories…

    Okay, never mind all that. (This analogy is hard to defend with a straight face.) I was making a point about sourcing standards being higher for all kinds of supernatural stories (or otherwise seemingly implausible tales) than for less controversial events.

    Anyway, I hate to criticize Bushman’s book too much, because it is a truly wonderful book. But I can also see elements of his style that might make non-Mormons reluctant to “engage” the text as a scholarly work.


    Have you started thinking about things you can do in your own soon-to-be-written brilliant books on Mormon legal history to increase your non-Mormon audience’s comfort level and willingness to engage you as a scholar? (I presume you are thinking about these issues as you write these blogs. Am I correct?)

    I’d imagine that non-Mormon scholars and reviewers would be more willing to discuss concrete Utah laws than assertions about Joseph Smith’s visions. But similar issues and prejudices may come into play….

  38. Kimball Hunt
    March 23, 2006 at 1:31 am

    Since, as noted in post 17, it seems my mother, who’s now 90 years old, lived next door to Mary Ann Hafen (who herself died when she was 91 in 1946). I’ll call her tomorrow and see if she remembers anything about Mary Ann’s having seen the mer-woman(/mer-pre-pubescent).

    My mother, born in 1915, was a Tobler and hales from 100% Swiss artisan-class stock. She’s extremely bright (some of her nephews are extremely well accomplished , her father represented the area in the Nevada legislature). Her father taught her that the most important thing in the world is someone’s testimony of the Gospel.

    When I was a young I remember her mentioning how it’s been found to be scientifically possible the Red Sea to have parted just like it says it does in Genesis. As a boy I’d just taken such accounts of God’s mystical doings so long ago at face value, but I took it in how my mother seemed to delight that there were perhaps natural world justifications for such things.

    What makes for the marvelous underpinning of faith for one but seems mere superstition to another.

  39. manaen
    March 23, 2006 at 3:42 am

    I’m sure this isn’t literally true because a mermaid couldn’t pull a handcart to Utah.

  40. Kimball Hunt
    March 23, 2006 at 3:56 am

    More from the 1910 census.

    Only two doors down from Mary Ann Hafen’s house–and one house over from 12-year-old Juanita’s–lives 5-year-old Erma.

    Erma is the grandmother of secretary Mike Leavitt (Health and Human Services. Erma’s son Dixie is Michael O. Leavitt’s father.)

    And I hope president Romney taps Mike for his cabinet, too. Then Mike can be best situated to work towards the acceptance of mer-people as America’s first state religion.

    (See )

  41. Adam Greenwood
    March 23, 2006 at 8:13 am

    “Mormon historians who wish to justify Bushman’s approach to non-Mormons, must, it seems to me, come up with a way of justifying a fairly literal reading of Mary Ann’s mermaid story to non-mermaid believers. It is not clear to me that they have. Furthermore, it is far from clear to me that it is even possible.”

    Actually, I would have no problem with a history that matter-of-factly recounted the Hafen story or something similar without trying to explain it. The best histories pull you in and pull you in until you are able to percieve how alien the time is, or the people are, or the person is, because you’re looking at it from the inside. The tension you refer to, which will always exist, is the discomfort most people have at being inside the head of a fringe religion.

  42. DKL
    March 23, 2006 at 8:25 am

    I agree, Adam, Moreover, if the mermaid incident had been a life-changing event that led Hafen to found a new religion and eventually to take on more spouses, then Nate might have a point. It would be impossible to understand Hafen without understanding how she felt about all the pretty mermaids.

    As it is, her claim to have seen all the pretty mermaids is just one more novel episode. This novelty is the only real reason for including all the pretty little mermaids in her story in the first place. It’s not like if you didn’t mention all them, you’d be missing a key piece of Hafen’s life.

  43. Richard
    March 23, 2006 at 9:30 am

    Bushman seems to be following paths some who write about tribal religions follow, i.e. attempting to report on the religion from the point of view of an insider. Such writers frequently get praised for helping the reader get inside, and even sympathetic, the world view of their tribal subjects.

    So why doesn’t this work for Bushman among his non-LDS scholarly critics? Some possible explanations…

    Since the French Enlightenment some intellectuals have loved non-Western tribal people and their religious sensibilities as a foil to Western religious culture which they see as hopelessly flawed. The problem with Mormonism is that it is too close to the Western religious tradition which some have long ago rejected.

    Another possible reason… Celebration of religious world views is reserved for dying or dead groups, or at least small cultures that are precieved as rapidly loosing their tribal religious roots and sliding towards Western secularism. Celebration of the tribal religious traditions can be seen as part of protecting a culturally “endangered species.” The problem with Mormonism is that we haven’t had the good grace to fade away like some eastern U.S. urban Native American tribes (always excepting those that run casinos), or perhaps groups like the Shakers. One of our biggest obstacles for intellectual acceptance as a “protected species” of religious history is that our growth and size don’t make us “at risk.”

    Assuming that “multi-culturalism” would cover a celebration of Mormon spiritual historys ignors the intellectual world view of those that created “multi-culturalism” (with its attendant celebration of the corresponding religious worlds) in the first place.

    Mormons live nearby. A tribe from the Amazon rain forest isn’t geographically threatening. Mormons have chapels and congregations in the neighborhood.

    Mormons want others to join them. Small tribes are much more exclusive. They are not seekinng converts. I think it was Woody Allen who said that he wouldn’t want to be part of any group that wanted him to be a member.

    Mormon’s see their religion as being universal. The God of Mormonism is not their exclusive god who only works for their particular tribe. Mormonism’s God is the universal god of the entire universe, hence some Mormon spiritual imperatives could be construed as being binding on non-Mormons. Modern scholarly secularists don’t want to have belief and behavioral imperatives put on them to become members of highly structured Christian religious sect.

    Just a few thoughts as to why Mormons shouldn’t get their hopes up about a lot of scholarly acceptance for their religious history, especially when it starts dealing with serious faith and mermaids. Still I applaud Bushman for getting the word out and perhaps smoking out the double (or quadruple) standards of what passes for contemporary historical scholarship.

  44. Jeremiah J.
    March 23, 2006 at 1:30 pm

    Nate: I think your example of the mermaids is a great way to open up this kind of issue, and also a great way to dampen some of the sourness that Mormons sometimes feel when someone like Bushman gets criticized.

    There are some distinctions which should be made, however, which haven’t been so far in this thread. First there are at least two kinds of “accounting for” beliefs. The most obvious is that you attempt to give some explanation of how the person came to have this belief. This may involve everything from really attempting to claim that angels themselves caused people to believe they saw angels to claiming that people believed in Joseph because he lied cleverly. The second kind of accounting seems to be the attempt to say whether the beliefs are true. Of course the two kinds of accounting are very much related (if there are true beliefs in revelations then of course God causes them in some sense, and if there is a made up story of a charlatan than it’s unlikely to correspond very well to the truth about God). And yet there is still a distinction to be made here, because, among others things it is much easier for the historian to give worldly explanations of why people came to hold the religious beliefs that they do hold than to engage with the question of their ultimate truth (which may ultimately be a religious or theological quesition anyway). It is also possible, indeed, common that people come to true beliefs in ways which are different from the way they think they came to them.

    It’s true that Bushman doesn’t engage, by and large, in the second kind of accounting, but historians probably shouldn’t anyway. He doesn’t engage much in the first kind of accounting either. But here again it is questionable what history can do. It really isn’t problematic at all for historians to debunk garden-variety misunderstandings, illusions, misconceptions, etc. E.g. political historians routinely are able to show that political elites at various points in the past operated under false assumptions (the mermaid example also seems to fall into this category). But while it is of course possible in principle for a whole social and cultural world to be illusory, constituted by false consciousness, etc. or on the other hand indeed holy and brought about by God, it is much more difficult to show that it is. It is not enough to show that the founder of it lied about some things, or that Mormon accounts of Mormon history are found to be inaccurate. Complex cultural and moral systems cannot (unlike garden variety deceptions) be attributed solely to the actions of particular people and contingent events (even though these events and people may have supremely important *meanings* for such systems). To give an account (a historical explanation) fo such systems one would first have to figure out what those constitutive meanings and shared practices are. This takes a great deal of skill and careful analysis. This is what Bushman has done–not allow the sources to speak for themselves, but give a historical *interpretation* of the spiritual world of early Mormons. There may indeed be more to be said–from a historical or more generally social-scientific perspective–about early Mormonism (e.g. a sociological explanation of the rise of Mormonism), but I don’t think that this latter project can be done well without the preliminary interpretive history that Bushman does. My beef with Vogel and some others is that they treat Mormonism as a garden-variety deception, not a very complex and rich religious movement that stands in need of extensive “understanding” (in Weber’s sense) prior to historical explanation. Of course this is a value judgment which historians must make, but I think that Bushman has, in his attempt at interpretive understanding, shown quite well such a project is necessary to any account-giving of Mormonism.

  45. March 23, 2006 at 2:25 pm

    “Since the French Enlightenment some intellectuals have loved non-Western tribal people and their religious sensibilities as a foil to Western religious culture which they see as hopelessly flawed.”

    I think that the search for the noble savage goes back farther than that. Tacitus wrote about the Germans as a foil for what he saw as the decadent culture of Imperial Rome. Ironically, Polybius wrote a couple of centuries earlier about the history of the Romans, who he saw as the noble savages to his own decadent Greek culture.

  46. Kimball Hunt
    March 23, 2006 at 9:33 pm

    I called my mother and was disappointed that she recalls no talk, really, of her once next door neighbor Mary Ann Haven’s having spotted the mermaid in the wild. (And this is despite the fact, as Mom had made mention, that my father was Mary Ann’s bishop at the time of her death. When I mentioned elder Bruce C. Hafen, my mohter’s voice got animatedly cheerful at this mention of a church leader. But this former dean of the J. Reuben Clark Law School is descended from the “sister” plural-wife of John Hafen, who lived over in Saint George.) However, if there was not widespread knowledge of this spotting, it’s probably just because it’s so unremarkable.

    It surprises me anyone could doubt the existence of mermaids. It’s a clearly extablished fact that, intermittently and starting from at least the late 19th century onwards, aquairiums and traveling exhibits routinely included still-alive mermaid specimens. And from this evidence it can readily be seen that, certain needs being met, mermaids can accomplish overland travel quite easily (although it might be noted that after much exposure to air, these beautiful creatures’ scaly lower extremities are said to take on a rubbery consistency to touch or feel).

    One of my fondest memories from childhood was at just such an exhibit. This one (as I recall, it was located in Anaheim, California) featured mermaids covorting in their native habitat–which, since this is underwater, required the exhibition goers to board these deisel-powered, World War 2 era of submarines.

    I can’t recall how old I was then. However, I was apparently old enough to marvel that these mermaids–which we came across soon after the sub departed from its base and which were cavorting underwater some distance from the sub on the port side of the boat–were topless! But, since mermaids are known to be somewhat dangerous when approached while they’re underwater. perhaps this explains why their famed curator (a mister Walter Disney, I believe was his name) did not, at this time at least, insist that they wear tops.

    Does anyone know if this policy ever changed anytime before this E-ticket ride was discontinued in 1995?

    But–especially since there were no predators in the controlled, exhibition environment of this 4-foot deep lagoon–perhaps, with time, mermaids become accustomed to dealing with humans, even while remaining in their native watery environment. This is supported by the evidence that during the summers of 1965, 1966 and 1967, a small grouping of mermaids, who really looked no older than teenagers, could regularly be seen to sunbathe at this location, on shore and in water only an inch or two deep–albeit with their tops on. The representative sample seen in the photo at
    indicates that the hair of approximately 75% of mermaids will lighten to a golden blonde to the sun while 25% will remain a dark brunette.

  47. Richard
    March 24, 2006 at 8:59 am

    Good point about Tacitus and Polyibius. In the Middle East the Bedhuins often play the role of the noble savage. “Plus q’on change, plus q’on reste le meme.”

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