December 28, 2009

Review: Ronald G. Watt, "The Mormon Passage of George D. Watt"

Title: The Mormon Passage of George D. Watt: First British Convert, Scribe for Zion
Author: Ronald G. Watt
Publisher: Utah State University Press
Genre: Biography
Year: 2009
Pages: 294, index
ISBN13: 9781439102091
Binding: Cloth
Price: 39.95

For over three decades historian Ronald G. Watt has researched and written about the life of his intriguing ancestor, George D. Watt, who is hailed as the first covert to Mormonism in Britain (21). Watt has published a few articles on his ancestor and this new biography extends that work.1 The book is a simple, chronological overview of George’s life including sketches of his early days in Britain, his conversion to—and missions for—Mormonism, his work in the office of Brigham Young, his plural marriages, and his eventual exclusion to what he called “the category of rejected ones” when he was excommunicated from the Church (247).

George’s childhood in England is sparsely represented in the historical record but Watt traces a reasonable outline by describing the economic and social conditions of England. Upon joining Mormonism George became an ardent advocate of the new religion. During a mission to Edinburgh Watt began to develop the skill of writing in Pitman shorthand. This skill enabled him to take verbatim notes of contemporaneous sermons, meetings, and other events, making him a useful asset to the Church. In Nauvoo he was encouraged by his father-figure Willard Richards to make good use of this shorthand skill. In May 1845, for instance, Watt recorded most of the proceedings at the trial of the accused murderers of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. “Because anti-Mormons feared that the church would use the record for its own purposes,” Watt describes, “they searched those leaving the courthouse daily, including [George]. He thwarted their plan by secretly passing his notes out of a window to friends hourly and thus had no paper on his person when he left the courthouse each day” (51).

The biography contains interesting glimpses of early Church doctrine and practice. For instance, Watt was skeptical of the gifts of tongues and healing amongst elders in Britain. Further, during his mission in England in 1846 Watt advocated the indulgence in a little New Year’s Eve wine at a branch party. William Gibson, president of the branch, objected: “I told them I protested against such a thing & would not sanction it by my presence. Upon that Br Watt said it was a hard thing if men were not to be allowed a little whiskey on New Years day. For his part he could take it or leave it alone” (67). 

In Utah Watt began freelance reporting for the Deseret News, edited by his friend and adopted father Willard Richards. Compensation was not adequately outlined which led to a breach between the men, George feeling underpaid and Richards feeling disrespected as a member of the First Presidency of the Church. Many harsh words were exchanged by letter between the men, but in the end they reconciled. At Richards’s death Watt reported on the funeral, “leaving he remains of one of the best and greatest men that ever trod the earth, to sleep in peace” (135).

Feeling inadequately compensated for his work in the Great Basin recording the sermons of Young and other Church leaders, George had received permission to publish selected sermons in England to sell and make a living. Thus began the Journal of Discourses which remains a critical source on early Mormonism. George also assisted in the development of the Deseret Alphabet, which the leaders of the Church hoped would help Saints of different tongues better communicate and read. Only a few books were published using the new script and it fell completely by the wayside after the death of Brigham Young.

Watt calls George a “man for all seasons,” describing his hobbies in acting, music, writing, and education (188). George participated in many early Utah organizations, often as a clerk. His associations included the Universal Scientific Society, Deseret Theological Institute, Deseret Typographical Association, Musical and Dramatic Company, Deseret Musical Association, and other such groups (188-193). George became an avid reader as well. Pictures of a few of George’s personal sketches round out a discussion of his hobbies and interests. (The book also contains a few useful maps and photographs to facilitate the narrative.)
George eventually became employed as one of Brigham Young’s clerks, though the president of the Church often chided him for being absent from the office. Indeed, George was an avid gardener and found himself devoted to the cultivation of fruits, vegetables, and silkworms as often as he was devoted to pencil and paper. Having added several plural wives to his family, who receive much due attention throughout the biography from Watt, George felt he needed better compensation. Young balked at the request leading to a falling out between the men, George storming from the president’s office leaving his papers behind. In the meantime, one of George’s plural wives, a half-sister named Jane who he did not know as a youth, had a falling out and the two divorced (161). George took to business after leaving Young’s employ. After opening a store he opposed the president’s efforts to form Mormon cooperative merchandising outlets to prevent Saints from patronizing gentile establishments. Young had selected George to travel the territory and describe the benefits of home manufacture, especially George’s specialty of silkworm cultivation. Watt describes how George soon “faced several disappointments that drove him away from the course that he had set for himself thirty years earlier. He preached faithfulness to the leaders of the church, but when the final analysis came, he did not always follow his own advice” (224). George began openly opposing Young’s economic policies during the sermons he had been sent to deliver to advocate the policies. When word reached Young he spoke with Watt and cleared up the matter. But soon Watt became attracted to the economic ideas of the Godbeites, a splinter group of former Mormons who advocated laissez-faire economics and spiritualism.

Watt concludes the biography by describing George’s move from Salt Lake City to Kaysville, where he lived in a community that largely viewed him as an apostate and outsider. After the death of Brigham Young, George sought to rejoin the church by writing a long philosophical and theological letter to new church president John Taylor. By then, Watt notes, “his beliefs appear to have rested primarily in Spiritualism and secondarily in Mormonism with science and philosophy interwoven into the fabric of the two” (257). George told Taylor he didn’t understand how a person could be “justly severed from the association of his friends purely on account of a change of conviction and faith if it is his wish still to be associated with them” (259). He wanted to be rebaptized, but wanted Taylor to know the state of his beliefs so he could make the final decision. He hesitated mailing the letter, adding several postscripts, including one which admitted his “mind gradually lost its fixedness” though he still believed there was some truth at the core of Mormonism and wanted to reunite with his former friends of the church. Despite this letter, George would have to wait to be restored to the church by relatives through proxy ordinances after his death (281).

A detailed description of the lives of George’s wives—all of whom remained members of the church following his death and worked together to care for the family—made for a unique conclusion to the biography. “In the final analysis,” Watt writes, “George D. Watt was a unique individual: a product of his time, yet very much his own person” (284). Watt does not spend unnecessary time and space making a history of the Church with interspersed commentary of how George D. Watt fit into the larger picture. Instead, he crafts a narrative that stays focused on George and his family. George, not the church, is the star and focus of the biography, making it a useful contribution to Mormon biography generally.

The articles are representative of Watt’s style and approach in the biography. See Ronald G. Watt, "Sailing the Old Ship Zion: The Life of George D. Watt." BYU Studies 18 (Fall 1977): 48-65; "The Beginnings of The Journal of Discourses: A Confrontation Between George D. Watt and Willard Richards," Utah Historical Quarterly 75:2 (Spring 2007): 134-148.


BHodges said...

PS- MAD PROPS for placing footnotes instead of endnotes. Thank you, Utah State University Press!!!

WVS said...

Thanks BH. And I echo props for footnotes.

Ardis Parshall said...

I'm really looking forward to reading your review, BHodges, but as I told you I want to wait until after I've done my own review. Still, as I was picking up the link to post on Keepa I couldn't resist taking a peek at the comments -- I'm equally pleased by footnotes!! I wonder if publishers really understood how much we appreciate them, whether they would give them to us more often.

This book is so very new; you really deserve credit for being so prompt with your review.

BHodges said...

Yes, we footnote lovin' folk must give praise when it is due.

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