Friday, November 07, 2003

Last night Terryl Givens spoke at the Harvard Divinity School. He was chosen to speak by the HDS Latter-day Saint Society because of his reputation as a good scholar and the respect he has from faithful Latter-day Saints. This balance isn’t so easy to find. There are many successful Mormon scholars who are well respected within their field. But when they have something to say about Mormonism, they speak only to other Mormons. Much of the Mormon intelligentsia who does engage the outside world about Mormonism is either explicitly involved in apologetics, or harbors some hostility to the Church and its teachings. This division tends to perpetuate itself by leaving little room in between. At some point many LDS intellectuals find that there is a parting of the ways, and they must choose sides to defend their faith from malicious attackers who represent the outside world or expose its soft underbelly for destruction in order to gain respect and acceptance in the outside world.

There have been a few to have successfully navigated these waters when they speak about Mormonism, who have been able to achieve success and respect in both the world of Mormonism and world outside of Mormonism. Of course, no one will be universally liked, and extremists at either end will tend to dislike anyone who is not firmly within their own camp. Despite this, I think Terryl Givens, among others has achieved this kind of success. But no one has quite mastered it yet.

The Yale Conference on Mormonism demonstrated this to me. Many of the non-LDS respondents challenged what they understood to be claims of Mormon exceptionalism, wanting to show that Mormonism wasn’t as unique as it was being claimed to be by the LDS presenters. However, to my ear this claim wasn’t being made and if it weren’t for the persistence of this episode in nearly every one of the sessions, I wouldn’t have begun to see the problem. It seems that when Mormons speak of LDS doctrine or theology, the tone is often seen as “apologetic” by outsiders.

Last night was no exception. A close non-LDS friend of mine characterized Givens’ talk as “apologetic.” Perhaps it was. It celebrated in how Mormonism had closed the “sacred distance” that “other Christian religions” had seen as central to their religious experience. It was enthusiastic, and perhaps even triumphalistic. As a Mormon, I loved it. I tend to agree with most of what Givens says about Mormon metaphysics (though I think I disagree with him about the room left for myth and mystery…I will blog on this later). Maybe my friend was sensing in Givens’ talk was that he had delivered a theological discourse, not a theoretical treatise on the nature of Mormon heresy.

So why does this happen, even to LDS scholars who are most attentive to this very problem? Does the blame lie squarely on us? When faithful Mormons speak about Mormonism, are they inevitably involved in a theological defense of faith? Or is it that non-Mormons’ perceptions of Mormons are so strong that they lead them to interpret any positive (or at least not critical) evaluation of Mormonism as “apologetic”? I do not know the answer to this question, but I see it as a major hurdle to the success of a viable field Mormon Studies that engages academics regardless of belief.

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

THE EGAN CASE: The Journal of Discourses, that glorious bubbling mass of untamed theological matter, contains in its first volume the account of a trial. (See JD 1:95-103) The trial occurred during the 1851 October Term of the Territorial Court in Salt Lake City. Howard Egan murdered a man named James Monroe who had stayed the winter in Utah on his way to California. While sojourning among the Saints, Monroe apparently seduced Egan's wife and got her pregnant. Monroe then high tailed it out of Zion with Egan in hot pursuit. Egan found and shot Monroe. At trial Egan's attorney was none other than Apostle George A. Smith, who had just been called to the bar. The Journal of Discourse records his speech, which is a legally confused argument amounting a pure appeal to jury nullification. "If Howard Egan did kill James Monroe," he told the jury, "it was in accordance with the established principles of justice known in these mountains." It is my understanding that George A.'s rather bloody minded speech in the case has been used as one of the exhibits illustrating the "Early Mormon Culture of Violence."

What is interesting to me, however, is that the Journal of Discourses also includes the speech the Judge Zarubell Snow gave in charging the jury. Snow was also a Mormon, and was one of the only trained Mormon attorneys in Utah at the time. (George A. seems to have read a bit of Blackstone and hung out his shingle.) Egan was charged under a federal law, which is what make's Snow's instructions interesting. He first instructed the jury to ignore appeals for nullification, charging them to apply the law. He then stated that if they found that the murder was committed in the jurisdiction of the Territory of Utah that they must find Egan not guilty because the federal law applied only in areas under exclusively federal jurisdiction.. If the murder was performed outside the territory in the vast unorganized territory between Utah and the Missouri, then the jury could apply the federal law. This is interesting for two reasons. First, to my knowledge it is the earliest statement of the Mormon legal theory advanced a generation during the anti-polygamy battles, namely that the constitution limited the power of the federal government to pass criminal laws for the territories. Second, Snow presented the issue in the form of an instruction to the jury, rather than as a legal holding as to the scope of the law or the jurisdiction of the court. Two decades later, the attorneys for George Reynolds would use the same tactic in his polygamy prosecution, putting the issue to the jury rather than making a demurrer (ie a legal challenge) to the court. Robert Baskin, a prominent anti-Mormon lawyer, was later to use this fact to argue that Mormon authorities were lying when they claimed that there had been a deal regarding Reynold's case with the government. According to Baskin, the if there really had been a deal, Reynolds would have filed a demurrer to prosecution rather than making his plea to the jury. The Egan case, however, suggests that the jury procedure had antecedents in Utah jurisprudence.