May 13, 2011

Review: Stephen C. Taysom, "Shakers, Mormons, and Religious Worlds: Conflicting Visions, Contested Boundaries"

Title: Shakers, Mormons, and Religious Worlds: Conflicting Visions, Contested Boundaries
Author: Stephen C. Taysom
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Genre: Religious History/Comparative Studies
Year: 2011
Pages: 280, + forward, bibiography, index
ISBN13: 978-0-253-35540-9
Binding: Cloth
Price: $34.95 (ebook, $22.95)

Stephen Taysom’s new book sets out to explode superficial views of what sociologists have called "high-tension religious groups," or religious groups who seem to define themselves over and against "the religious, political, economic, and social elements of the larger culture of which they are a part" (3). Two nineteenth-century religious groups, the Mormons and the Shakers, provide his case studies. Taysom combines meticulous historical research with more recent sociological theories and models to examine the distinct ways such "high-tension" groups negotiate their identities among themselves and with the larger society (ix). Being outsiders had advantages.

Shakers and Mormons provide excellent templates for this goal. Ann Lee and Joseph Smith inspired the creation of distinct communities of believers who would help create and maintain their “peculiar and particular visions of divinely sanctioned life” (1). A casual glance at Shakers and Mormons raises similarities: both groups sought to build their own geographical communities and both had counter-cultural ideas about marriage (celibacy or polygamy, respectively). But Taysom transcends such superficiality to reveal significant differences in the way these groups responded to their host cultures. He’s looking at how the odd ducks fit in or fit out of their larger communities. Both groups follow a similar pattern of development in that they are born in the “social and cultural margins amid feverish charismatic frenzy,” but within time begin to harden and struggle to move from margin to mainstream (2). This trajectory is helped along by outsiders, whose opposition can be beneficial to help define marginal groups to begin with.
In the first chapter Taysom argues that the underlying beliefs and values of a community can be traced in the physical structures they create. The village embodies the faith. Believers experience a tension, however, between the “culturally postulated world” and the “experienced world” (4). Taysom’s familiarity with the origins and development of the Shaker faith are most evident in the sources he uses and the scholars with whom he interacts. He skillfully weaves the religion’s history into his account of their beliefs built into villages, perhaps the most prominent physical symbol of Shakers to the outside perspective of 19th century Americans. Shakers early sought a unity and connection and used a communal village model as a bulwark against the sinful world, the “culturally postulated world” of the “natural, generative order” (7). They sought a Garden of Eden-like state which existed prior to the messiness of procreation and selfishness ushered in by the fall of Adam and Eve, interpreted primarily as a sexual act (8, 106-107). The natural world=bad, the spiritual higher life=good.

But a chasm opens up between this rhetoric and practice, which is is evident in the way Shakers had to conduct business and interact with people outside of their community in order to survive in the world as constituted, in what Taysom calls the “experienced world” (9). But it wasn’t only their needs which fueled these interactions; in the wake of the Irish potato famine of 1847 Shakers sent donations overseas, even though overseas was part of that sinful, natural order from which they fled (10-11). Thus they preached about an evil world from which they remained separate, but which in reality they still had to participate in, however marginally.

Taysom’s book is especially notable in the correctives it offers to previous scholarship. On the nature of separation and the Shakers, for instance, he offers an alternative to Sociologist Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s view that that Shakers created strict geographical and self-contained boundaries and thus lived like recluses (12). Taysom shows a “penumbra rather than a wall” built by the Shakers separating them from “the world,”, a penetrable boundary which relied on internal behavioral standards while allowing for exchange with outsiders. Using sources like hymns, contracts, and personal letters Taysom shows how Shakers maintained their distance while peripherally participating in the larger, in their view sinful, world.

Visitors were allowed to some of their gatherings—they even encouraged a bit of tourism—but conversion required a trial period and strict adherence to rigorous rules of living (30). A particular problem was orphaned or runaway youths who might seek shelter in Shaker villages until they came of age and realized that celibacy wasn’t for them (32-33). Taysom concludes this chapter by showing how the immediate circumstances affected the Shaker’s ability to fulfill their religious vision. Shaker villages in the eastern United States were much easier to maintain compared to satellite villages they began creating in the west as they expanded. Shakers in new communities lacked the requisite numbers to maintain the leadership and organizations structure central to Shaker identity (49).
In chapter two Taysom identifies “four general phases of Mormon physical boundary creation in the nineteenth century” (53). Like the Shakers, Mormons sought to come out of the wicked world and create a holy place for a holy people. Joseph Smith’s early revelations noted that “the world is ripening in iniquity” and “the saints” were to separate (51). These revelations directed followers to move to divinely sanctioned communities, cities of refuge. The first period, 1831-1833, included plans for a city of Zion. A liminal phase between 1834-39 left the Mormons without a sure foothold until the next phase between 1840-1844 when Zion rhetoric focused more intensely on a city at Nauvoo. Taysom shows how earlier revelations designating particular places were re-imagined by the community in order to account for failed expectations. In the final phase, 1844 to the twentieth century, boundary markers were increasingly emphasized through the ideas of the Temple and the personal body.

Taysom deftly argues that, even as the Mormons prepared for their exodus they received means of boundary maintenance through sacred temple rituals: “When the Mormons left Nauvoo, they literally wore a physical boundary marker on their bodies, a sacred shell that tied them to the first scene of creation and insulated them from the world in which they had to live, and it increased in importance as the memory of their sacred cities grew more distant” (95). This is not Taysom’s own imposition of perspective, he cites Mormons who made the same observations sans the sociological jargon.

Undoubtedly, historians will have opportunities for quibbling throughout all of this, although Taysom recognizes the somewhat artificial nature of phasing the development of Mormon boundaries. (For instance, temples had been discussed in earlier phases, like at Kirtland, and dreams about a physical refuge remained potent for many even when external causes prevented their realization). But he provides interesting correctives to past historical narratives of Mormonism throughout. One of the most interesting sections in this chapter for Mormon readers is Taysom’s analysis of how Mormons reconciled revelations calling them to build Zion in specified locations to their ultimate decision to abandon those very places and journey to the west. Nauvoo, he notes, only retrospectively was seen as a brief stopping point on the Mormon trail, a place of testing for the nation, where the faithful would eventually be required to pack up and go once again. Taysom argues that Mormon “leaders had to reinforce a collective memory that was literally false but was fashioned into a remembered, functional truth” (85).

Taysom justifies this argument in a most striking and meticulous revisionary section. He analyzes the historical evidence to demonstrate, or rather to demolish the idea that Joseph Smith himself foresaw the saints’ relocation to “the Rocky Mountains” of the Utah territory (87-89). “There is evidence,” Taysom acknowledges, “to suggest that Smith was looking for possible places for the Mormons to settle over a wide swath of territory,” but the specific and exclusive location could not be determined until after his death (88-89). As far as the historical documents demonstrate, the retrospective accounts which describe Smith specifically prophesying of the ultimate settling place for the Church do not find any contemporary corroboration.

Here Taysom is trying to demonstrate the power of collective thought in the creation, maintenance, and reformulation of physical boundaries. Mormons needed a version of the past which would motivate current projects (86). Thus, sacred boundary markers shifted according to revelation and historical circumstances from city to temple to self. From one specific centerplace community of Zion to satellite stakes of Zion throughout the world with multiple temples: “Earthly temples were now gates to heavenly Zions” (93).
Mormons and Shakers were probably most known in the 19th century for their respective peculiar marriage practices: polygamy and celibacy. Clearly these were very different ways of living differently than the prevailing culture, but Taysom seeks to uncover the common ground between these practices. He finds it in the “structures motivating those behaviors” which were “nearly identical” (100). Relying on the accounts of Mormons and Shakers themselves he explains:

“The master motive, or the ultimate goal, for the Mormons and the Shakers was to behave in ways that imitated God…The Mormons taught that God was married…The Shakers, by contrast, held a view of an androgynous God that transcended all physicality” (101). 
He spends the balance of the chapter describing the internal functions of these practices and the opposing reactions from outsiders, which for Mormons were often more extreme and legally-based as the Church grew, but which for the Shakers declined as their community dwindled by lack of reproduction and inability to swiftly convert and retain outsiders. The legal pressures brought to bear on Mormons were largely absent for Shakers, but in both cases these marital/sexual practices set the groups apart from the broader cultural sensibilities. Taysom also notes how these two marital/sexual approaches resonate today—for the Mormons who retain a semblance of plural marriage practice: “Mormon policy allows men who have been sealed for eternity to be sealed again for eternity once their wife has died, as long as the second wife has not been sealed to another man previously” (150). For the Shakers, the resonance is more of a faint echo, as only three living Shakers remain. Celibacy was a “remarkably stable boundary marker” but failed at adjusting “in the face of diminishing returns” (150).

I was personally most interested in the fourth chapter. Taysom has been making the case that Mormons and Shakers defined themselves partially based upon the opposition they encountered from outsiders. When such opposition was disrupted or somewhat alleviated, a period of crisis arose because the communities had relied on opposition. He intriguingly posits that the so-called “Mormon Reformation” of the late 1850s was largely self-generated within the community, while the Shaker “Era of Manifestations” responded to an actual internal crisis faced by the community (152).

In the late 1830s various “communities of negation” inside the Shaker communities seemed to disrupt their order (154). In other words, some members weren’t playing by all the rules. A variety of Shaker youths began experiencing visions calling for a separation of wheat from chaff. Taysom’s model, which points to internal conflict and the need to maintain a separate identity from the outside world, accounts for the sudden burgeoning of revelation which spread to various Shaker communities. Taysom makes use of Shaker hymns, written revelations, group manifestations, angelic visits, and other Shaker artifacts in exploring this turbulent period. The methods Shakers employed to counter the influence of disruptive insiders lead Taysom to explore the Mormons approach to similar problems.

As for the late 1850s Mormon Reformation, Taysom describes the oppositional identity which the Mormons embraced as a sign of their divine chosenness. Persecution of believers became a marker of their identity, and when that immediate pressure was somewhat alleviated after the saints moved to the west a time of tranquility alarmed Mormon leaders who needed a crisis in order to keep things together. I still wondered about this argument on the grounds that developing a new state out of scratch in the face of desert and famine may have been crisis enough for the Mormons.

Nevertheless, Taysom’s argument is a provocative and new approach to what led to the fiery rhetoric, brimstone sermons, mass rebaptisms, the suspension of the Mormon sacrament, and even indirectly the Mountain Meadows Massacre which comprised the Mormon Reformation (although he tantalizingly brackets the implications of so-called “blood atonement” doctrines!, p. 189). In order to shore up church members and reassert their need for divinely guided hierarchy, Mormon leaders stirred their community up to a reassertion of group solidarity by use of “home missionaries” and public performances in group confessions and rebaptisms. Catechisms outlined proper worship habits and personal standards. Without providing an in-depth analysis of the chapter in this review, I believe Taysom’s sociological approach offers important new possibilities for understanding the Mormon Reformation.

The book concludes by looking at ultimate fates. Mormonism, which made changes and adjustments to its boundary markers, has grown into a global faith with several million members. Shakerism maintained very stable boundary markers in celibacy and has petered out to three members residing at Sabbathday Lake, Maine (197). More pressing to Taysom than pointing to a religion’s success based on boundary creation and maintenance is the continuing relevance of broader society’s interaction with marginal religious groups today. Various news media and law enforcement individuals have demonstrated a certain “inability to grapple with the complexities of and differences among high-tension religious groups” (198). The People’s Temple at Jonestown, Guyana and the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas are potent examples of how misunderstandings on the part of outsiders can exacerbate disaster for members of marginal high-tension religious groups. Taysom believes that by examining nineteenth-century Shakers and Mormons who also embraced their own "outsider" status, readers will better be able to identify patters within, and differences between, current marginal groups. Taysom argues that different groups can be approached using different models which help outsiders understand and thus work with such groups.

The Mormons demonstrated an “episodic crisis-driven tension model” (199). Their boundary markers brought on highly charged reactions from official, legal, and vigilante outside forces. At the final moment of conflict before an ultimate tragedy, Mormons were able to reduce the tension through accommodation. 19th century Mormonism is characterized from Taysom's view as a series of mounting tensions “followed by capitulation and the reformulation of boundaries,” i.e., the cessation of polygamy, the Mormon reformation, etc. (199). The Shakers demonstrated a “stable high-intensity moderate-risk tension model” (200). Their selected boundary markers were of “moderate risk,” meaning they did not result in the sort of legal responses Mormonism received, but did result in occasional violence and much societal pressure. They were of “high intensity” because they demanded much from insiders, living in Shaker communities with other strict rules such as the prohibition of sexual relations. They were of moderate risk “in terms of the level of response” they received from the larger culture (200).
To put Taysom’s overall conclusion more succinctly: there is usually more than meets the eye with marginal religious communities (usually defined today as “cults”). Comparing any particular group with other marginal groups might disclose some superficial, even some important similarities, but ultimately they also ought to be addressed on their own terms as far as possible. By employing theories from thinkers like Clifford Geertz, Mary Douglas, Michael Foucalt, and Catherine Albanese, Taysom seeks to avoid superficial reductions of marginal religious groups. At the same time, he offers a fresh historical reading of Shaker and Mormon religiosity, from revelations to recapitulations. 

Certainly this approach is not without its flaws—new reductions can result from such a studied attempt to avoid reductionism. Also, because Taysom’s lens is more sociological than traditionally historical he overlooks some interesting possible questions. One example: oddly enough, he never notes that these two marginal groups actually encountered each other, and that a revelation regarding the Shakers remains even today in the Mormon canon of scripture. It is unclear here whether the Shakers recorded anything of this interaction. The story behind this interaction would be an interesting examination under the model approach Taysom employs.

Shakers, Mormons, and Religious Worlds: Conflicting Visions, Contested Boundaries is part of Indiana University Press’s “Religion in North America” series, and its prose is highly technical and analytical as opposed to simple chronology or comparison of distinct historical narratives. Rather than recommending this book to the average reader I suggest it to people with a more sustained interest in religious boundary creation and maintenance. For that audience the book is both enlightening and challenging, even a must. Taysom teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Cleveland State University. His book demonstrates the intriguing possibilities his field offers to those who employ an interdisciplinary approach to examine religion.


Chris H. said...

Thanks for this Blair. The Shakers have interested me since high school history. I will have to check this out.

BHodges said...

Word Chris. There's a lot more in here than I could possibly cover in a review.

BHodges said...

To the poster named "Doodie," I usually delete spam links, yours included. Your comment has precisely nothing to do with my book review, I'm curious as to why you thought it was relevant.

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