J. Spencer Fluhman. A Peculiar People: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. 229 pp. $37.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-3571-5.
Reviewed by Matt McCook
Published on H-SHGAPE (April, 2015)
Commissioned by Julia Irwin (University of South Florida)
Familiarity Breeds Contempt and Shapes American Religion
Throughout the nineteenth century the relationship between Mormonism and Protestantism in America was volatile, sometimes violent. The mutual antagonism is well known. Yet the ways in which each shaped the other is often overlooked. J. Spencer Fluhman sheds light on this inverse symbiotic relationship. He argues that Mormonism was central to America’s changing notions of religion as anti-Mormons struggled to distinguish Mormonism from true religion. In turn, Fluhman asserts, Mormon identity was crafted in this tension with its critics. As a history professor at Brigham Young University, Fluhman has observed firsthand the continual tensions between Mormon and American identity. His book, however, focuses not on contemporary Mormonism, but on its nineteenth-century opponents, how they used Mormonism to define American religion, and subsequently influenced modern Mormonism. It is not so much a history of Mormonism, although that is the backdrop; it is more a history of how religion has been defined in America and how opponents categorized Mormonism over time as a fake religion, a foreign religion, and then a false religion. To support his thesis Fluhman draws from an impressive array of anti-Mormon literature, including art, fiction, theological works, and newspapers. Although he focuses exclusively on the century of Mormonism’s origins, Fluhman’s work should interest scholars of religion and history, and contemporary Mormons seeking to historicize their faith and fill in the blind spots Fluhman says are common in Mormon memory.
In his first full chapter, “Imposter: The Mormon Prophet,” Fluhman details the ways Protestant critics reacted to Joseph Smith. Fluhman asserts that Protestant depictions of Joseph Smith demonstrated the limitations of religious tolerance in the early nineteenth century. For many Protestants, Smith served as a cautionary example of religious pluralism. To explain his appeal and justify their opposition, Protestants compared Smith to imposters throughout the history of Christianity, but they found comparisons of Smith and the Muslim Prophet Muhammad most useful. Both claimed to have new revelations from God that would result in new authoritative scriptures. Neither separated their religious movement from political activism enough to satisfy American Protestants’ sensibilities. And both accepted polygamous marriage for the faithful. By detailing comparisons of the founders of Islam and Mormonism, Fluhman sheds light on anti-Mormons’ point of reference. Moreover, Fluhman supports his argument that Protestants’ definition of legitimate religion was shaped by their opposition to Mormonism. He points out that Smith’s blending of magic and religion would have been commonplace in medieval Catholicism, but was now deemed anti-modern and counterfeit religion.
Next, Fluhman turns from Smith to those who followed him and subsequent Mormon leaders. It was far easier, Fluman suggests, for nonbelievers to explain what motivated Smith or Brigham Young than to understand why their following continued to grow. The difficulty was doubly sensitive because it forced the Protestant majority to face their reasons for religious adherence as well. While nineteenth-century American Protestants labored to demonstrate the reasonableness of their faith, they struggled to explain why so many would follow Joseph Smith. Delusion and gullibility were favorite explanations. Anti-Mormons saw Latter Day Saints as examples of enthusiasm opposite formalism on the Christian heresy continuum. Evangelicals often faced similar charges of enthusiasm, but Mormons were distinguished by their belief in new revelations. Fluhman points out that speaking in tongues and healings among the Mormons elicited numerous charges of delusion from opponents discouraging the continuance of such practices as Mormons sought acceptance in wider culture. Mormons apparently sought empirical verification as much as anyone and their witnesses who swore to have seen the golden plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated are a testament to that need. Fluhman astutely suggests that Protestants’ faith in the Bible and their ability to understand God’s message and their struggle to balance formalism and enthusiasm made them susceptible to the same charges they hurled against Mormons.
In chapter 3, “Fanaticism: The Church as Unholy City,” Fluhman details anti-Mormon criticism of the Mormon community and continues to demonstrate how each community defined the other. Protestant critics thought prophet-led, Mormon communities were tyrannical and un-American. Their communitarianism and habit of voting as a bloc violated Protestant notions of church and state separation. However, Fluhman suggests, Protestants failed to realize how much Mormon communities mirrored those of earlier Protestant groups like Anabaptists and Quakers. Nor did they realize the degree to which their anti-Mormonism drove Mormons toward communitarianism and cooperative politics as a necessary defense. According to Fluhman, Mormonism was both a reminder of earlier struggles within Protestantism and a sign of the failure of religious disestablishment in America.
Mormon alienation peaked as the community occupied a remote territory of the West seemingly beyond the reach and concern of the United States. Yet anti-Mormons marshalled the force of the federal government against Mormons more than ever and described them as un-American. This rhetoric of alienation in the mid- to late nineteenth century is the subject of the next chapter. Fluhman points out that polygamy was the primary marker of Mormon otherness as it was considered un-American and racially connected to Asia. The fundamental problem with federal suppression of polygamy was that the Constitution had never adequately defined religion. Mormons argued that prohibiting the free exercise of their religion was un-American. In addition to discussions of religious practice and the law, Fluhman emphasizes the dilemma Mormon women posed for anti-Mormons. Their defense of polygamy made them unworthy of the pity opponents were apt to extend.
Finally, Fluhman addresses the late nineteenth century, when Mormons sought greater acceptance in American religious culture and were considered merely a false religion rather than fake or foreign. The process of assimilation and Americanization was neither easy nor complete. Mormonism lost some of its distinctiveness, but was never completely tamed by its growing acceptance in American culture. Fluhman maintains that the Mormon identity is still characterized by that tension. He describes how historians have struggled to categorize Mormonism, especially after the end of polygamy in the late nineteenth century led to its greater acceptance and as the definition of religion, which Mormonism and its opponents helped shape, has broadened.
Fluhman’s work, like all good histories, raises critical questions that deserve greater attention. For example, in his first chapter he suggests that anti-Mormons were more concerned with Joseph Smith as a prophet and seemingly had little problem with his theology. One wonders if opponents separated Smith and his theology because his prophetic claims were central to the organization and practice of the Mormon religion. Challenges to his authority and authenticity were likely challenges to all Latter Day Saints’ teaching and practice. Fluhman suggests that anti-Mormonism was central in defining religion in America and church-state relations, thus challenging Philip Hamburger's emphasis on the centrality of anti-Catholicism. While his boldness is commendable and he convincingly argues that anti-Mormonism is important in defining religion in America, anti-Catholicism still seems more central to church-state relations in America’s nineteenth century.
Still, Fluhman’s achievement is noteworthy and A Peculiar People is worth reading. Its emphasis on defining religion will probably interest scholars of religion mostly, but historians of the nineteenth century, whether religious historians or not, will find much to ponder here. Gilded Age and Progressive Era scholars should be aware that most of the book deals with the early nineteenth century. Fluhman’s research is impressive and thorough. He manages to provide immense depth in less than 150 pages. Thus the book would be suitable for the undergraduate classroom as well as the scholar’s library.
. Philip Hamburger, Separation of Church and State (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002).
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Matt McCook. Review of Fluhman, J. Spencer, A Peculiar People: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America.
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