MHA 2011 Recap

by: Mormon Heretic

May 30, 2011

I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the Mormon History Association meetings in St George this weekend.  For those who enjoy Mormon history, this is a truly refreshing, wonderful conference.  I can’t recommend it enough.  I gave a longer version of highlights from Days 1, 2, and 3 from my blog, but thought I would give a brief overview of the presentations I found most interesting.

Sin City was first settled by Mormons!

Mormon Fort in Las Vegas. Mormons weren't into neon lights back then.

The day before the conference began, there was a pre-conference tour to Las Vegas.  I learned that the first non-Indian settlers in Las Vegas were Mormons.  Wanting to improve relations with Indians and make a road to California, Brigham Young sent missionaries into what is now Nevada (it was part of the Territory of Deseret at the time) in 1855.  “Las Vegas” is Spanish for “the meadows”.  Water was found there and the Mormons set up the Mormon Fort.  The mission lasted just 2 years, due to the harsh conditions, and the fort was abandoned.  It is now a state park in Nevada.

The FLDS Are entitled to Civil Rights Damages

Richard Lambert is a former federal prosecutor and noted that all polygamy raids in his lifetime have been governed by state, rather than federal prosecutors.  He doesn’t believe that anti-polygamy statutes will be upheld by the Supreme Court and noted that many civil liberties of the FLDS were violated.  Rounding up all the women and children at the YFZ Ranch was a major civil rights violation, and he believes these women and children would be awarded monetary damages if they brought charges.

He felt that federal authorities had learned their lesson from Waco.  Ken Driggs, an attorney from Georgia called the sheriff and persuaded him to be more peaceful in his means when dealing with the FLDS.  He felt he had convinced the sheriff to back-off somewhat, but felt that someone over-ruled the sheriff and there was a much more militaristic raid on the ranch.

Anthrax May Explain “Poisoned Springs” of MMM

Ugo Perego was supposed to give a presentation called “‘Poisoned Springs?’  Scientific Testing of the More Recent Anthrax Theory.”  Perego wasn’t able to give the presentation because he was in Italy accepting an award, so the president of Soreneson Molecular Genealogy, Scott Woodward gave his presentation.  It was awesome.

Proctor Robinson's Headstone - the date of his death is Sept 21, 1857

Just prior to the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the Fancher party was accused of poisoning a spring and causing cattle to die.  This was supposedly the cause of the Indians getting angry at the Fancher party and seeking their deaths.  However, historians have said they don’t believe there was any poison.  Perego looked at poisons and environmental explanations of the poisoned springs theory.  Strychnine and Arsenic were the two most common poisons available in 1857, but he doesn’t think it fits the descriptions.  Anthrax and Brucellosis seem more likely, with anthrax seeming to fit the descriptions best.

A young boy from Fillmore, Utah named Proctor Robison was known to have skinned a cow and died shortly thereafter in a manner similar to the descriptions of the Fancher party “poisonings”.  The Sorenson group asked for permission to exhume the body and see if there was evidence of anthrax in the boy’s death.  While they were able to positively identify the boy using DNA testing, the ground was very moist.  Anthrax has been known to leave dormant spores around for centuries in the right conditions.  If the boy did die of anthrax, the moist ground has erased any evidence of anthrax in his death.  I think it is a really interesting theory, and I was fascinated by the presentation.

Polyandry is the Wrong Term!!!

I think MHA saved the best presentation for last, as it had some real heavyweights on the subject of polygamy, and the room was packed to capacity.  Don Bradley gave a presentation titled “Angel with a Drawn Sword: Kirtland Roots of Nauvoo Polygamy.”  Bradley is probably the most entertaining speaker at MHA.  He always brings a lot of wit to his wonderful presentations.  Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner was one of Joseph Smith’s wives; Joseph told her that an angel with a drawn sword had commanded him to participate in polygamy.  Lightner gave 3 accounts of this experience.  Bradley also noted that Oliver Cowdery accused Joseph of “a dirty, nasty, filthy affair” with Fanny Alger somewhere around 1835.  Upon close examination of the original letter, it appears that the word “affair” covers another word that Bradley believes is the word “scrape”, so it could be that the original phrase was “a dirty, nasty, filthy scrape.”  Bradley notes that the term “affair” does not have the same “adulterous” meaning in the 1830’s as it does now.  It was really fascinating.

The presentation by Brian Hales was titled “Two Mormon Enigmas:  Emma Hales Smith and Polygamy, An Update.”  Since I had just blogged about 2 other Mormon Enigmas, I knew I couldn’t miss this presentation.  Hales has documented many of the wives of Joseph Smith along a timeline.  (More info is found at his website.)  Some of you may or may not know that some of Joseph’s polygamist wives were legally married to other men.  Hales made the case that Joseph Smith had been commanded quite early (perhaps 1831) to participate in polygamy, but delayed.  Because of this delay, many women that he had been commanded to marry had married other men.  Hales makes the case that if Joseph had not delayed, “polyandry” would not have occurred.  I found Hales presentation really interesting, and definitely will check out his website more.

Larry Foster gave a presentation titled, “The Albatross:  The Complex and Changing Challenges that Polygamy Posed to Mormon Institutional Development during the Nineteenth Century.”  He outlined how difficult polygamy was to maintain for all the churches that practiced polygamy (Brighamite, Strangite, Rigdonite, etc).  One thing I found interesting was the fact that John C. Bennett has been much maligned.  Foster argues that while Bennett did exaggerate many of the reports of polygamy, he was not completely unreliable.  We need to accept the arguments of Bennett that are valid (based on corroborating evidence) in spite of the many character flaws that he had.

Finally, Todd Compton gave some comments on the papers.  Compton noted that all of the papers were very long, and the presenters did not have time to adequately address them in the 20 minutes they were allotted.  Compton said he was glad to see a conservative/moderate like Brian Hales address these issues, though Compton disputed Hales conclusions.

While the presentations were all outstanding, the Q&A session was the best part.  Larry Foster is a non-Mormon professor from Georgia Tech.  He started the Q&A session by insisting that “polyandry” is the wrong term to use, and he wishes that we would use another term.  He said that Fawn Brodie had popularized the term, but felt it conveyed the wrong meaning.  He said that if we used the term “adultery” to describe polygamy, Mormons would take great offense.  He said that polyandry conveys a matriarchal order, yet polyandry in the Mormon sense was patriarchal.  Therefore polyandry is the wrong term to use.  I will probably write up the Q&A on Larry’s comments because I thought it was a very good point.  As I recall, Larry preferred to use the term “proxy husband” rather than polyandry.

Comments or questions?

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7 Responses to MHA 2011 Recap

  1. Stephen Marsh on May 30, 2011 at 10:03 AM

    The type of polyandry most common in today’s world is poor men (often brothers) who share a wife. No matriarchy implied.

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  2. Jared on May 30, 2011 at 10:16 AM

    Always something new to learn. Thanks for the post.

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  3. Jayme on May 30, 2011 at 2:00 PM

    Fascinating! Now if only they could modify the Family History Lesson to be as interesting. . .

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  4. Aaron R. on May 31, 2011 at 3:32 AM

    MH, I was under the impression that the anthrax thesis was part of the Turley & Walker’s MMM book, I think they even use Perego in that book, so I am curious about what was new in this presentation.

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  5. mh on May 31, 2011 at 9:13 AM

    aaron, I haven’t read the turley book so I did not know the anthrax thesis. I guess it was new to me. :)

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  6. smb on May 31, 2011 at 2:21 PM

    Anthrax is the proposal in the Walker et al MMM book. It makes good sense to me, though brucellosis is hard to distinguish at this remove. B. anthracis spores really don’t persist in the damp environments so while it’s frustrating to not find them, it doesn’t really militate against anthrax.
    I agree with Foster that “polyandry” is the wrong term, but his “proxy husband” is also a poor denomination for the practice. In my writing I have settled on “dual wives” to describe these particular plural wives.

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  7. Martin on May 31, 2011 at 4:54 PM

    Thanks for this summary — it sounds like the meeting was very interesting.

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