July 19, 2010

Review: Susan Easton Black, "The Best of the Frontier Guardian"

Title: The Best of the Frontier Guardian  
Editor: Susan Easton Black  
Publisher: BYU Studies/University of Utah  
Year: 2009  
Pages: 186 pp., DVD-ROM  
ISBN13: 9780842527408  
Price: $19.95  

There is no paper in the land 
That ever yet has come to hand 
That takes as just and bold a stand,     
    As the noble Frontier Guardian…. 

Orson Hyde stands at the helm 
The cause of error to o’erwhelm 
And clear away its nasty phlegm,     
    All through the Frontier Guardian.
(“The Frontier Guardian,” by North Pigeon Joe, 113.)

As vanguard companies of Latter-day Saint pioneers prepared for their first winter in the Great Basin in late 1847, federal Indian agents in Missouri complained that Mormons camped along the Missouri River were stripping the area of wood and game. To avoid further conflict, the Mormons moved to the eastern bank in Pottowattamie County, Iowa, and established Kanesville (later Council Bluffs), which became the central staging area for migrating Saints and other pioneers traveling to Oregon and California. Brigham Young appointed Apostle Orson Hyde to oversee the community.    

For roughly four years, Hyde directed the Mormon migration and edited a newspaper called the Frontier Guardian. The paper helped tie Church leaders, emigrants, and local settlers together. Alongside other Latter-day Saint newspapers, books, pamphlets, broadsides, and other publications, the Guardian is another reminder of the Mormon belief that “the extensive circulation of the printed word” is a crucial “impetus to the rolling of the great wheel of salvation” (122). The Guardian’s eighty-one issues are an important source for understanding this period of Mormon history. The Guardian has been made more readily available by BYU Studies and the University of Utah Press in Susan Easton Black’s The Best of the Frontier Guardian.    

The paperback volume consists of an introduction to the contents of the newspaper followed by thirteen chapters organized by themes said to represent the Guardian’s “best.” In the opening chapter Black very briefly situates the Guardian in the context of other LDS newspapers and explains Orson Hyde’s background and experiences as apostle and editor:     
Assuming his position as editor, Hyde confessed, “It is with a trembling hand, and a faltering knee that we step forward to our seat in the Editorial chair.” But if he lacked confidence it didn't show up in his published articles; Hyde frequently used the Guardian to vent his frustrations and disappointments, call for volunteers, and otherwise direct the Mormon outpost. An overview of the paper says as much about the editor as it does about the paper itself. It reveals Hyde’s need for money, his assistants’ unscrupulous tactics, and his transition from printing an official Church newspaper to a secular publication. (8)     
After tracing the development of the Guardian’s four volumes, Black’s introduction concludes with a description of the newspaper’s development and general content. The thirteen themes are: “General Epistles” of the First Presidency, “Counsel” from Brigham Young and the First Presidency, Church conference minutes, efforts of boundary maintenance against splinter groups, political conflicts between Orson Hyde and Almon W. Babbitt, poetry, letters from the mission field, news from the California gold fields, instructions for westward-bound emigrants, announcements of marriages and deaths, “words of wisdom” (pithy statements and anecdotes), and humor. A significant weakness throughout these selections is the absence of introductions, analysis, annotation, and contextualization of the content. Readers might wonder why a Church conference in 1851 “voted to observe the words [sic] of wisdom, and particularly to dispense with the use of tea, coffee, snuff, and tobacco” if they are unfamiliar with the development of observance of the word of wisdom (58), or why the death of Oliver Cowdery was announced in one obscure sentence given his earlier prominence in the Church (171). The excerpts provide a general flavor of the Guardian’s content, although Black does not explain her method of selecting the “best.”    

The DVD archive of the Guardian offers rich possibilities for researchers interested in Latter-day Saint publication history. I agree with Sherry Pack Baker’s assessment that “while much good work already has been done in Mormon media studies, this area has not as yet been overtly recognized as a discipline unto itself.”1 Making full works like the Guardian available is an important step in the direction of better media-grounded studies of Mormonism. Understanding the context in which Latter-day Saint publications arose better illuminates their content and tone. The Guardian inherited the idea-centered and overtly partisan nature of early American newspapers. The power of print was widely acknowledged after colonial printers successfully opposed the Stamp Act of 1765, whereby British Parliament attempted to impose a tax on publishers in colonies of British America. The First Amendment extended a remarkable measure of freedom, much of which was used to promote the interests of rising political parties. Technological advances made the printing press more affordable and available, which helped lead to the rise of “‘alternative’ media--the black and American Indian press and the abolitionist, women’s, and labor publications.”2 Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation that, during the 1830s, “there is scarcely a hamlet that has not its newspaper” was only a slight exaggeration, and his assessment of the press’s purpose was accurate: “It rallies the interests of the community round certain principles and draws up the creed of every party; for it affords a means of intercourse between those who hear and address each other without ever coming into immediate contact.”3    

 Some Americans resisted this new power, believing that it tended to corrupt the moral sense of the community, provide excuses for the invasion of privacy, encourage crime and vice, or dumb down the readership. By contrast, Latter-day Saints embraced the new technology with gusto. Following the printing of the Book of Mormon, the next official publication of the fledgling Church came in the form of a newspaper, with many more to follow. In 1831 Joseph Smith received a revelation (D&C 70) creating a Literary Firm to take charge of publishing revelations and receiving remuneration. In addition, missionaries produced their own tracts to warn of the impending Millennium and counter anti-Mormon accusations.4 Several LDS newspapers disseminated sermons, revelations, political positions, notices of birth, death and marriages, and other items of interest. LDS leaders clearly recognized the utility of the press and in 1845 took steps to centralize the voice of the Church. Parley P. Pratt’s “Regulations for the Publishing Department of the Latter-day Saints in the East” rebuked independent Mormon printers and warned Saints to patronize only official publications.5 The Guardian, one such official paper, served as the main organ for the Church in America from 1849 to 1852. Such contextualization from Black would have helped the reader better understand its role and importance.    

Like earlier LDS papers, the Guardian followed the general newspaper format of the times, though with an LDS slant. Newspapers before the Civil War had not yet entered the industrialized business-oriented model of news-gathering which gave rise to the professionalization of journalism, the decline of party presses, yellow journalism, the Associated Press, and well-staffed newsrooms. Embodying Joseph Smith’s overlap of the sacred and secular, the Guardian mixed sermons and agricultural advice beside advertisements and jokes. Ezra T. Benson, one of Hyde’s counselors at Kanesville, testified of that overlap: “We talk about moving to the Valley, about our labor, our stock, calves, &c., because it is our religion” (71). Orson Pratt, one of Mormonism’s foremost authors and publishers, exultantly wrote from England on July 23, 1850 that the increasing ease and speed of travel had “almost united the continents into one” (119). Technological developments enabled Isaiah’s prophesied “swift messengers” to warn the world of coming judgment and gather the elect to Zion. “The extensive circulation of the printed word,” Pratt continued, “has also given an impetus to the rolling of the great wheel of salvation” (122).    

The book itself is brief and interesting but seems like an afterthought. The real treasure is attached to the inside back cover: a DVD-ROM containing the complete archive of the Guardian, including scanned images of every page in addition to searchable HTML text. The DVD is simple to navigate but the quality of the scanned images could be improved. The bottom left side of each scan is too light, making some words difficult to make out except by zooming in on each image. It is not clear if the defect is in the scans or the paper pages, but it seems to be the former. A search feature allows wild-card text searches. The DVD also includes sixteen photographs and a collection of “annotations” compiled by Black: lists of all the names and places mentioned in the Guardian and a glossary of 135 “commonly used” nineteenth-century terms. The DVD makes the book well worth the cover price, joining similar collections that offer important, if uneven, access to primary documents from the privacy and proximity of a personal computer.6 Perhaps Susan Easton Black’s greatest contribution to Mormon history to date has been providing such grist for other historians’ mills.7  Orson Hyde certainly thought the Guardian itself was worth the attention of Latter-day Saints: “Who, among the Saints,” he asks, “will raise up a family of children without giving them education, the bible [sic], and the Guardian?” (10).

[1] Sherry Pack Baker, “Mormon Media History Timeline, 1827-2007,” BYU Studies 47, no. 4 (2008), pp. 117-123.

[2] Hazel Dicken-Garcia, Journalistic Standards in Nineteenth-Century America, University of Wisconsin Press (1989), 51.

[3] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Signet Classics), Signet Classics (2001), edited by Richard C. Heffner, 93-94, 1835.

[4] David J. Whittaker, “Early Mormon Pamphleteering,” Journal of Mormon History 4 (1977): 43.

[5] Parley P. Pratt, “Regulations For the Publishing Department of the Latter-day Saints in the East,” New York Prophet 1 (January 4, 1845): 2; rpt. Times and Seasons Vol. 6 No. 1 (January 15, 1845): 778.

[6] For a slightly dated overview of available CD-ROM collections, see Ronald Walker, David J. Whittaker, and James B. Allen, Mormon History (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001), 87–88. See also Richard E. Turley, ed., Selected Collections from the Archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints, 2 vols., 74 disks, DVD (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, [Dec. 2002]; New Mormon Studies CD-ROM: A Comprehensive Resource Library, Smith Research Associates, Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Book Publishing, 2009. 

[7] Other primary-source contributions by Black, all published in Provo, Utah, by the BYU Religious Studies Center, are Membership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830–1848, 50 vols. (1989); Early Members of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 6 vols. (1993); and Annotated Records of Baptisms for the Dead 1840–1845, Nauvoo, Hancock County, Illinois, 7 vols. (2002).