Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Roger Launius Review of Glen Leonard's Nauvoo: A Place of Peace, a People of Promise

Nauvoo: A Place of Peace, a People of Promise by Glen M. Leonard
Edition: Hardcover=20
Price: $39.95
The Nauvoo that Never Was, August 10, 2003
I wish I could be more positive about "Nauvoo: A Place of Peace, A
People of Promise," but it is astoundingly disappointing. Glen Leonard
is a fine historian who has been working on this subject for more than
twenty years. This should have been his magnum opus, instead it adds
virtually nothing to understanding about the subject and in many areas
is a significant step backward.

The fundamental problem is summarized in Glen Leonard's book title,
"Nauvoo: A Place of Peace, A People of Promise." Nauvoo may have been
a beautiful place, as Joseph Smith Jr. thought, but it was never a
place of peace. Political, economic, religious, cultural, and social
divisions both within and without the church constantly swirled
between 1839 and 1846. Some who have spent significant time in Nauvoo,
including myself, would conclude that they still exist and rumble just
below the surface of a seemingly quiet little town. In addition, there
is abundant reason to question the "people of promise" aspect of Glen
Leonard's title. Were they a "people" in a unified sense of the term?
What promise did they hold?

What the title suggests is that this overview of the history of Nauvoo
is a thoroughly faithful construct that seeks to show God working
among the Mormons in every aspect of their lives. In essence, it
represents a return to an overtly mythic history not seen since the
time of Andrew Jensen and B. H. Roberts. Leonard asserts repeatedly
that Nauvoo represented the first major explication of Joseph Smith's
vision of the world. Nauvoo represented, and this is what he
emphasizes to the exclusion of anything that might be contradictory,
the first instance of Mormonism as a new religious tradition
substantively different from what has gone before. It was in Nauvoo
that Joseph Smith Jr. taught, admittedly to a small group sworn to
secrecy, his most unique religious conceptions. In so doing, Leonard
suggests, it was at Nauvoo that Joseph Smith Jr. fulfilled his
religious mission. With such a perspective, mythic interpretations of
the Mormon experience in western Illinois represent the only
possibility for this book.

The reason for Leonard's myopic concern with Mormon theology is that
the Latter-day Saints do not so much have a theology as they have a
history. Confusing theology with history, therefore, requires that
believing church members accept a specified set of affirmations that
are grounded in the "pure" thoughts and actions of past individuals,
especially those of Joseph Smith Jr. Without acceptance of these
truths, Mormonism could and probably should fall of its own weight.
The perception of truth or falsity about the religion, therefore,
rests on what historians say about those who have gone before. Glen
Leonard, therefore, is fulfilling the Mormon equivalent of St. Thomas
Aquinas by systematizing the Nauvoo "truths" for the faithful.

Unfortunately, this expounding of his thesis leaves the reader
wanting, or alternatively frustrated and angry, that the effort is not
more sophisticated. In the end there is a wealth of detail in this
lengthy book on the history of Nauvoo. It is not the historiographical
triumph that I had hoped. Glen Leonard seems to attribute virtually
all positive developments in both Nauvoo's history and the evolution
of the church to inspired leadership by Joseph Smith Jr. or Brigham
Young and to the righteousness of the rank and file. Any negative
developments, and there were many, Leonard too often blames on
"apostates" and anti-Mormons with sinister intentions. In that
context, he accepts virtually without question, the Mormon myth of
persecuted innocence. Leonard's Nauvoo is far too black and white for
any historian to accept, and I would hope that the non-historians
interested in the subject would be more discerning as well. Leonard
also steps away from the role of the historian as analyzer to moralize
on the tragic results of sin and rebellion against Joseph Smith Jr.'s
authority. In every instance, this work is a morality play and not a

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