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Matthew Bowman's "The Mormon People": A Book I Slightly Side-Eye

Matthew Bowman's The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith is good. He tries to be unbiased, which is REALLY HARD when you're writing about a religion, since most people's religions sound bananapants to everyone else, and he does a pretty good job.


Ok, so you've got Joseph Smith in New York, he has this vision, writes down stuff the angel Moroni tells him or God tells him through the angel or  that God tells him directly (one of those options), Joseph Smith says HEY it's the 1830s, i.e. when everyone in America decided they had they key to the new revolutionary way to do things, and therefore, said Joseph Smith, let's all do this new religion thing that is the way God actually wants us to live.

AND PEOPLE JUST SAID OK SURE because that is what people always do.

PBS made this great map that clearly shows the Mormon path across the United States. They had to keep moving, because every time they landed somewhere, other Americans said "NOPE" and they had to keep moving.

And I get it, Americans of the 1830s and '40s. You probably hadn't even really seen this kind of thing before, and so here was this big group of people all bein' weird and moving en masse together into a new town and then voting other members of the group into political positions and yeah, I'd be suspicious of that too. Especially since they were saying the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri, and dude, I just....I cannot.


So Joseph Smith started the whole polygamy thing in Illinois or Missouri, which is explained in the book as being a way to take care of the poor and widowed and all the single ladies. Except he also married other people's wives and the way it's presented is kind of like Joseph Smith was like "FAMILY I LOVE FAMILY everyone will be part of my family and I'll always have family forever because that is how heaven works."

But for serious, he married other guys' wives and wtf Joseph Smith. I understand some of the arguments for polygamy, but there were cases where the guys were like "um....ok, but I really don't want you to marry my wife" and Joseph Smith was like "hm, sounds like SOMEONE needs to examine God's will a little more."

SO ANYWAY, then a mob broke into the jail where Joseph Smith was held in Nauvoo, Illinois, and shot him and a couple other Mormons because people don't like what they don't understand in fact it scares them and this prophet is mysterious at least. But one thing Mormons were and are for sure good at doing is organizing, so the Church already had a pretty good structure laid out, and Brigham Young was like "WELP, looks like we're gonna go West where the government can't interfere."

Except they headed West in 1848, which was not only the year Everything Happened (for reals, look it up, it's crazy), but also three full years after the term "Manifest Destiny" was coined, and one year before the Gold Rush, so they were basically fucked regarding non-government interference.

Brigham Young and most of the other Mormons settled in what is now Utah, obviously, and set up a really well-developed set of checkpoints along the trail back to the Midwest to help people get out there (which included a huge number of immigrants from England, because Mormonism super caught on there). 

Americans got really pissed about polygamy until they peer pressured the Mormons to stop it (officially – unofficially took longer), and then came this long history of them acclimating to American culture until they were mainly seen as people who were really nice with some weird beliefs no one's quite clear on.

The Mormon People does do a good job of giving an overview of the history of Mormonism. Once it gets to the 1940s-2011 point, I didn't care at all, except when Bowman devotes literally one page to the Prop 8 controversy, which was where the Mormon Church organized and spent $22 million to ban marriage equality in California, except they funneled that money through other organizations because they knew Protestant America would think it was shady af, but then the documentary The Mormon Proposition detailing it all came out and I am STILL MAD, MORMON CHURCH.

I don't want to detract from Bowman's scholarship, and if you're interested in the history of Mormonism, check out this book, but since I'm speaking from the perspective of a lesbian woman, "booooooooooooo" because he not only spends just one page on this shitty thing that happened, but he also describes the protestors' response to the Church's role in Prop 8 as a "vicious backlash," seemingly because they protested and because one activist burned a Book of Mormon outside a temple in Denver. The First Presidency said "These are not actions that are worthy of the democratic ideals of our nation." Maybe your denial of equal rights also isn't, sir? Wtf. STILL MAD ABOUT IT.

Bowman does give space to the suicide by gay Mormon Stuart Matis on the steps of his chapel. Some more space is given to the Church's exclusion of all black people from the priesthood (they went with slavery's "one drop" rule for determining race). Bowman traces this exclusion from a disagreement Brigham Young had with a new black member of the Church, which of course resulted in the leadership deciding that all black people were forever barred from the priesthood (their priesthood is all laymen, so this basically meant they could have no involvement in church leadership at all on any level) because God wanted it that way. As of this book's publication in 2011, the Mormon Church has still not said that decision was a mistake. They just said in 1978 that black people could now officially take part in Mormonism. 

This isn't to say that everyone's religion doesn't have a history of being shitty. But like....damn, guys.

The Relief Society, aka the women's organization, is super cool. The quote that Americans are "protective of individual liberty and suspicious of secrets" is accurate to the nth. The Mountain Meadows Massacre sucked. Mormon women were the first women in an American territory to cast a ballot in an election, and that's pretty cool too. I still don't understand the holy underwear thing, and I don't understand the food storage thing, which Bowman doesn't really talk about, but I'm PRETTY sure I didn't make up.

Basically, I am an American and I am suspicious of secrets. But this book made Mormonism seem a little less secretive.


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