SHIELDS header banner /w logo

Critics Corner


Dr. Daniel C. Peterson's comments on
Timothy Egan's review of 
Richard and Joan Ostling's Mormon America
("Theocracy in the Desert," 9 January 2000)

Dr. Peterson wrote this response at the request of the LDS Church's New York Public Affairs Office.  In an ironic twist, though Mr. Egan criticizes the LDS Church for excommunicating "LDS" scholars for publishing things the Church doesn't like, to the best of our knowledge, the New York Times has not seen fit to publish Dr. Peterson's response.

New York Times book review by Timothy Egan:

New York Times Sunday Book Review 

January 9, 2000 
Theocracy in the Desert 

A history of the Mormon Church, in the U.S. and around the world. 

What a difference a century has made to the image of Mormons, the self-described ''peculiar people'' who are as much a part of the American West as saguaro cactus or the Las Vegas Strip.  The church that shocked polite society by sanctioning marriages in which an older man could take a dozen wives or more -- some of them half his age -- is now a public guardian of strict family values no more experimental than Beaver Cleaver's.  The founders of perhaps the most successful attempt at American socialism have given way to the competent capitalists who run an empire worth more than $25 billion.  And the descendants of political radicals who proudly defied the constitutional separations of church and state with their theocracy in the desert now hold up those once scorned democratic ideals as divinely inspired. 

These contradictions and more provide the narrative tension for ''Mormon America,'' a long overdue primer on one of the fastest-growing religions in the world -- officially, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  This home-grown faith, founded by an itinerant treasure digger from upstate New York in 1830, has grown to a world membership of more than 10 million, including five current United States senators.  Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for The Associated Press, and his wife, Joan K. Ostling, a freelance writer, note that if it continues to add followers at the present rate, the Mormon Church could become the most important world religion to emerge since the rise of Islam 14 centuries ago. 

At the start of the 21st century, Mormons project a toothy wholesomeness.  But the Ostlings remind us that this supposed white-bread religion was founded by militia-backed authoritarians who nearly went to war with the United States and prompted the first Supreme Court rulings to restrict religious liberty.  Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet and founder of the church, was killed by a mob in 1844, but only after he had declared martial law in Nauvoo, Ill., and ordered his followers to smash the printing press of a publication that had reported on polygamy among church leaders.  Of course, many religions have morphed their questionable pasts into iconic nostalgia.  The Church of England, after all, was founded by a serial killer, King Henry VIII, who was unhappy over institutional moralizing about the way he disposed of his wives.  But the Mormons are burdened by being one of few major religions subject to recent fact-checking.  Many of the foundations of the church -- among them, the beliefs that American Indians were Jews who sailed across the Atlantic, and that the biblical Garden of Eden was really a verdant patch of Missouri, in what is now a parking lot near Harry Truman's home -- are embedded as divinely inspired, historical facts in the golden-plated Book of Mormon brought forth by Smith.  Few non-Mormon scholars have ever considered these claims to be anything more than archaeological fairy tales.  DNA analysis, for example, has failed to establish a viable connection between the Hebrews of old Israel and the native peoples of the Americas.  ''Book of Mormon apologists have a much tougher job than apologists for the Bible,'' the Ostlings write.  ''Not a single person, place or event unique to Joseph Smith's 'gold Bible' has ever been proven to exist.'' 

Still, for all the harsh lighting of historical fallacies, ''Mormon America'' should not be mistaken for a polemic.  Most books on the Saints, as they call themselves, tend to be anti-Mormon screeds or soft-focus proselytizing.  This book is eminently fair, well researched and exhaustive.  There are no major revelations that are likely to alter opinion one way or the other, but the authors are diligent referees of fights past and present. 

In the opening chapters, the Ostlings dramatically recreate Smith's rise and the events leading up to his death at 38 in the doomed Mormon city of Nauvoo.  Though the story has often been told, it is still full of tension, hubris and fatal misunderstandings.  Whether Smith was a latter-day prophet or simply a charismatic fraud, the Ostlings never conclude.  He can be viewed as the Henry Ford of religion, with a uniquely American knack for enterprise and innovation, or a Jim Jones figure from the dark edge of the frontier, ready to take his followers off a cliff with him. 

In the second half of their book, the Ostlings try to sort through the many nuances of church doctrine.  Heaven has three tiers, a spiritual class system that appears to be much easier to get into than the hereafter of other religions.  Hell is reserved only for the most evil.  Blacks were long considered lesser human beings until a public outcry prompted a 1978 reform that allowed them to become priests. 

Through it all, the Mormons have been ever practical, adaptable and optimistic.  The church president is also the Prophet, Seer and Revelator -- a direct spokesman for God.  He can shed sacred Mormon beliefs when they no longer suit the times, and doing so has never seemed to bother most followers.  Ultimately, as with any religion, belief comes down to faith. 

The weakness of ''Mormon America'' is that it does not go into much depth on the temporal world created by the Saints.  The physical and political realm, the empire that sprouted from the original plan for a Zion in Utah and is enlarged by the annual 10 percent tithings of all members in good standing, is subject to mere listings of holdings and new buildings.  It is on the spiritual front that the book most comes to life.  Quoting from dozens of anguished Mormon scholars who have run up against the iron fist of church authorities, the Ostlings make the case that the Saints should not be afraid of their own past.  People who buck the party line are spied on, denounced and coldly excommunicated.  ''No other sizable religion in America monitors its own followers in this way,'' the Ostlings write.  Other religions also rein in their freethinking renegades, but the Mormon Church ''is unusual in penalizing members for merely criticizing officialdom or for publishing truthful -- if uncomfortable -- information,'' the authors say.  This raises the question of whether Joseph Smith himself, were he alive now, would last long in the present church.  Like many religious visionaries, he was a heretic in his day. 

Timothy Egan, who writes on national issues for The New York Times, is the author of ''Lasso the Wind: Away to the New West.'' 

Response by Dr. Daniel C. Peterson (as a letter to the editor)


Timothy Egan's review of Richard and Joan Ostling's Mormon America ("Theocracy in the Desert," 9 January 2000) takes the flaws of that book and exaggerates them to stratospheric heights.  A few examples will have to suffice, but readers of the Times should know that little if anything in his review can be accepted at face value. 

"American Indians were Jews," he says, "who sailed across the Atlantic."  The first part of that sentence is a gross oversimplification, the second a simple falsehood.  In a related matter, Mr. Egan is naively overconfident about what DNA evidence has shown or can show about the claims of the Book of Mormon.  Scientific information on Amerindian DNA is far from complete, but is downright abundant when compared to our genetic data from immediately pre-exilic Jerusalem.  Yet, at a minimum, a genuine test of the Book of Mormon would require an exhaustive study of both populations.  Even then, though, such a test might simply be impossible.  It isn't at all clear what genetic trace, if any, would survive from a few dozen immigrants whose mingling with the relatively vast pre-Columbian population commenced nearly three millennia ago. 

"Blacks," Mr. Egan writes, "were long considered lesser human beings until a public outcry prompted a 1978 reform that allowed them to become priests."  This is almost wholly untrue.  Blacks were never considered "lesser human beings," and the criticisms of the late '60s and early '70s had largely subsided when the 1978 revelation (note the term) authorizing black entry into the priesthood was received.  The earthly impetus for the revelation, to the extent that one can be identified, was clearly not external pressure but rapid church growth in Brazil, coupled with the concerned compassion of the president of the church. 

Mr. Egan finds "contradictions" between supposed early Mormon "socialism" and the contemporary church's solid financial base, between the practice of plural marriage and today's emphasis on family, and between an alleged early political radicalism and current Latter-day Saint "conservatism."  Each "contradiction," though, owes more to Mr. Egan's rhetorical caricature than to historical reality. 

The same is true of Mr. Egan's dismissal of Joseph Smith as "an itinerant treasure digger."  I wonder, just out of curiosity, what he would make of me:  I've lived in two American states, as well as in Switzerland, Israel, and Egypt, and, during my teenage years, I played briefly in a rock band.  Am I therefore "an itinerant rock musician"?  Similarly with his ridiculous depiction of early Latter-day Saints as "militia-backed authoritarians."  This is simply historical nonsense.  And the suppression of the Nauvoo Expositor, which Mr. Egan cites as an example of Joseph Smith's dictatorial inclinations, was an act of the Nauvoo city council, arguably consistent with William Blackstone's then-authoritative Commentaries on the Laws of England. 

Finally, Mr. Egan's portrayal of the contemporary church as an intellectual tyranny is absurdly overdrawn, though it no doubt reflects the flattering self-image of the handful of dissidents who seem to have been the Ostlings' chief source on this issue.  There are thousands of practicing Mormons with advanced degrees; we are represented on the faculties of virtually every major American university and on many foreign ones.  I know that I am far from alone among Latter-day Saint intellectuals in finding the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be a very congenial spiritual community and Mormonism to be a deeply satisfying vision of the world, intellectually and in every other respect.  It is unfortunate that Timothy Egan's review, even more than the Ostlings' book, misses that important dimension of the Mormon experience. 

Daniel C. Peterson 
Associate Professor of Islamic Studies and Arabic 
Brigham Young University