Friday, December 31, 2010

Book Review: Gettysburg to Great Salt Lake

Gettysburg to Great Salt Lake: George R. Maxwell, Civil War Hero and Federal Marshall among the Mormons
By John Gary Maxwell

Gettysburg to Great Salt Lake by John Maxwell strives to provide a biographical account of George Maxwell and a “different voice” in studying of 19th century Utah history.(p. 27) John Maxwell does this through primary sources and the best of secondary scholarship. While he does provide a detailed biography of George Maxwell’s life, his “different voice” suffers from an extremely biased analysis and several analytical lapses.

The first section describes George Maxwell’s service during the American Civil War. Using Civil War historians and major biographers John Maxwell provided an excellent narrative of his service. But while he did point out the devastating human cost of war, the majority of his account provided a near hagiographic treatment of George Maxwell’s career. Throughout the account George Maxwell is bravely attacking, defending, regrouping, and withstanding multiple injuries. While bravery in facing enemy fire is a worthy trait, it would have been more useful to John Maxwell’s study if he asked whether this Civil War veteran had emotional scars that equaled his many physical wounds.

This is especially pertinent as we examine George Maxwell’s career among the Mormons in Salt Lake City. In order for his “different voice” to work, John Maxwell must cast the Mormons as implacable religious terrorists. George Maxwell in turn becomes the dedicated, outnumbered lawman who charges into the problem as bravely and nobly as his cavalry charges from the Civil War. But this narrative is as one sided as the account presented in John Maxwell’s fifth chapter. This is an important part of the book where John Maxwell describes the competing narratives in Utah history. These both take the same events but presents alternative narratives from the Mormon and anti Mormon camp. Unfortunately, John Maxwell then moves away from the two sided view and presents his one sided analysis of events.

For example, John Maxwell mentions George Maxwell’s participation in the “Gentile League”. This was a semi secret and semi militant society designed to counter the power of the Mormon Church. Yet John Maxwell often portrayed the Mormons in sinister terms due to their supposed secret and nefarious murders inspired by the Mormon hierarchy; and he negatively mentioned the Mormons supposed secret police, the Danites, and the former bodyguards of Joseph Smith. This double standard extended to his presentation of primary sources. Where those from the explicitly anti Mormon Salt Lake Tribune are presented without comment, and he often included a negative modifier when he introduced a quote from the pro Mormon Daily Herald.

This bias came to a head in chapter 12 where it took this reader almost the entire chapter to figure out that George Maxwell had been charged and convicted of embezzlement leading to his removal as marshal. This was so hard to determine because John Maxwell spent the entire chapter in a vast apologia for Maxwell from such unimpeachable (to the author) sources as the Salt Lake Tribune. And the author spent the chapter praising George Maxwell and condemning his accusers. In the final chapter John Maxwell again blames Mormon hyperbole for the friction with the marshal, yet it was the Justice Department and Attorney General of the United States that prompted his removal.

Biographical history is difficult and John Maxwell did a valiant job of presenting George Maxwell the man. While the primary and secondary sources were excellent, I believe in many cases they were improperly used and the narrative suffered due to the bias of the author. After an excellent discussion of the dangers of doing Mormon history, I was especially disappointed at the apparent bias in outlining George Maxwell’s career. It is possible to describe George Maxwell as a bitter, angry, and implacable foe of the Mormon church with his difficulties arising from the unresolved emotional trauma of the Civil War and the insular nature of the Mormon church. Instead, one side wore the white hats and the other wore the black hats, and the almost hagiographic treatment of George Maxwell continued. Despite those flaws, a cautious reader will still find a great deal of value and find this an important book for 19th century Utah history.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Nephite Politics

I came across an interesting verse in my studies. In Helaman 11:8-9 we read:

8 And the people began to plead with their chief judges and their leaders, that they would say unto Nephi: Behold, we know that thou art a man of God, and therefore cry unto the Lord our God that he turn away from us this famine, lest all the words which thou hast spoken concerning our destruction be fulfilled.
9 And it came to pass that the judges did say unto Nephi, according to the words which had been desired. And it came to pass that when Nephi saw that the people had repented and did humble themselves in sackcloth, he cried again unto the Lord, saying...

But I have several questions. Why did the people have to plead with Nephi through intermediaries, "their Chief Judges"? Wasn't Nephi preaching among them? Couldn't the people have talked to Nephi themselves?

Mesoamerica often consisted of rival city states somewhat similar to ancient Greece. For example, Sorenson describes a King with "powers limited at best". The King still had to personally visit another King to gain an individuals release. Even a strong ruler often relied upon what is called the "hegemonic" style of government. Where the stronger power relies upon trusted local leaders to assert their control.[2]

Thus, based on both Mesoamerican politics and previous incidents in The Book of Mormon I believe that Nephi was in a city that was only nominally aligned with the central government. Since at one point the Gadianton Robbers gained "sole managment" of the government,[3] Nephi's message was not accepted, [4] and a previous governor established his government outside of Zarahemla, [5]I believe that Nephi was in a city with a righteous population and governor. Much like King Lamoni, if one ruler needed the subject of another ruler then he had to personally appeal to that person's King.

This reading gains strength when we read how the people "could not take him and cast him into prison" for he was conveyed by the "spirit".[6] In some cases supernatural explanations are provided for what otherwise is a rational explanation. In this case I believe it was due to his protection (body guard?) from a powerful ruler. And it was only through the allowance of that benefactor that Nephi could be reached.

I've often said that many criticisms of The Book of Mormon result in a shallow reading of it. In this case, carefully reading this verse suggests that the Nephites were not a nation as powerful and long lasting as the Roman Empire. But their dominance was rather transitory. And its possible that during this time the Nephites were not only an ethnic minority but often out of power as well.

Thanks for reading.

1. It looks like there is no # 1 but I'm too lazy to go back and change all of my footnotes.
2. John Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting For The Book of Mormon (Provo, Deseret Book 1985), 227-229.
3. Helaman 6:39
4. Helaman chapter 9
5. Alma 61:5
6. Helaman 10: 15-16

Friday, December 3, 2010


I particularly enjoy 3rd Nephi 4:31-33. It reads:

31 And it came to pass that they did break forth, all as one, in singing, and praising their God for the great thing which he had done for them, in preserving them from falling into the hands of their enemies.
32 Yea, they did cry: Hosanna to the Most High God. And they did cry: Blessed be the name of the Lord God Almighty, the Most High God.
33 And their hearts were swollen with joy, unto the gushing out of many tears, because of the great goodness of God in delivering them out of the hands of their enemies; and they knew it was because of their repentance and their humility that they had been delivered from an everlasting destruction.

I have much to be grateful for. I teach military history at American Public University. I am training to teach American History at BYU-I and DeVry. I have a presentation at Claremount's School of Religion dealing with warfare and The Book of Mormon . I work as a door to door salesmen to bring in some extra money. I get free books to review from Oklahoma University Press; but that also means I have a heavy reading load. And I'm still learning Chinese so I can enter a PhD program.

I have my daughter every other week. I have lots of good pictures on facebook. Each of them is a treasured memory for which I am extremely grateful. And I'm feeling like I can move past my personal problems as well. Unfortunately, with all these activities my blog is not as active as I would like. So I will keep trying and I'm thankful for your taking the time to read this blog. Have a Merry Christmas!