June 13, 2011

Review: Reeve and Van Wagenen, "Between Pulpit and Pew: The Supernatural World in Mormon History and Folklore"

Title: Between Pulpit and Pew: The Supernatural World in Mormon History and Folklore
Editors: W. Paul Reeve, Michael Scott Van Wagenen
Publisher: Utah State University Press
Genre: Religion, Folklore
Year: 2011
Pages: 243
Binding: Softcover
ISBN13: 978-0-87421-838-1
Price: $24.95

Have you heard that today's youth of the Mormon Church were once Generals in the War in Heaven, and that in the afterlife other spirits will bow the knee in reverence upon learning that these chosen ones lived during the church presidency of Gordon B. Hinckley? I've heard it to. And I still occasionally hear it, despite an official disclaimer from Boyd K. Packer and the LDS Church that the claim is not church doctrine (7). Why the longevity of such Mormon myths?

In the introduction to their new book Between Pulpit and Pew, historians W. Paul Reeve and Michael Scott Van Wagenen point to the statement's grounding in church theology. They find similar elements in quotes from General Authorities on the preexistence of spirits, war in heaven, and the singularity of today's youth. But they locate the quote's unique combination of these themes in a book by popular Mormon author Brad Wilcox. They describe the interesting cultural work such a quote does for recipients. The attribution of the quote to a higher Mormon authority, combined with its general Mormon themes, has led people to forward the quote through emails and share it in various seminary classes and church meetings. Receivers and transmitters of the quote become authors themselves, "shaping and molding the quote" to their liking (11). This "legend process" (10) undergirds the themes explored in these essays. "The expansive worldview of Mormonism," they write, "has created a vast negotiable space between pulpit and pew for Latter-day Saints to order their universe and define their place within it" (11).

Between Pulpit and Pew is a collection of seven essays on Mormon history and folklore. Bigfoot and Cain, heavenly signs and UFO's, the Bear Lake Monster, a Dream Mine for end times, walking on water, raising the dead, and Gadianton ghosts—these are the types of stories you might bump into at Scout camp or Girls camp, on a summer pioneer trek, or a late Sunday night chat. The various essay authors describe how and why such stories circulate and operate in an oral culture (viii).

"Folklore" as an academic category includes stories consisting of a "traditional center," around which the exact setting and characters can shift as "dynamic variables," depending on who is telling the tale (ix). Within Mormonism, story materials are provided in official pronouncements from Church leaders, publications, scriptures, etc. (i.e., Pulpit) and then grasped by church members (Pews) to be interpreted, embellished, and adapted. Exploring folklore can uncover some of the anxieties and hopes of regular members of the church.

In the first of Matthew Bowman's two essays he outlines the morphing legend of Cain and Bigfoot. Tracing the historical sources of this lingering Mormon story allows Bowman to highlight changes in emphasis, as the original story focused on the nature of evil while later re-tellings merged the story with newer Bigfoot myths. His second essay outlines intersections of rational Enlightenment Christianity versus popular Christian "enthusiasm" in stories of Mormons raising the dead. W. Paul Reeve's essay on the Gadianton Robbers and early Utah Mormons explains how folklore can serve anxiety-relieving functions when things don't work out as expected. Michael Scott Van Wagenen's sympathetic chapter on UFOs highlights how early Mormons read signs in the heavens as clues about the impending millennial return of Christ, whereas some Mormons later merged such accounts with the phenomenon of UFO witnessing, thus emphasizing possibilities of life on other planets rather than millennialism. Kevin Cantera's fascinating chapter on the so-called "Dream Mine" presents the most contemporary example of living folklore in the collection. He describes a diverse group of Mormons—fundamentalists, lapsed, fervent believers—all of whom remain stockholders in a mine which is supposed to become chock-full of gold prior to the second coming of Christ. Alan Morrell's "Bear Lake Monster" chapter explains why belief in such a seemingly wacky zoological phenomenon was far from unusual in the 19th century. Finally, Stanley J. Thayne exhaustively documents stories of Joseph Smith's mythic attempt to walk on water, pointing out funny discrepancies and tying the stories to earlier, widespread folklore created to debunk 19th-century prophetic figures.

The chapters are somewhat limited in scope, so they aren't without small problems. For example, Morrell's interesting Bear Lake Monster chapter felt stunted. In Van Wagenen's UFO chapter he claims a lack of reference to extraterrestrial life by church leaders since the mid-1980s, overlooking more recent ruminations on the remarkable cosmos by Neal A. Maxwell, who occasionally discussed life on other planets. (On the plus side, Van Wagenen includes plenty of perhaps-forgotten references like N. Eldon Tanner's 1972 conference address, "Warnings From Outer Space," and a 1981 feature in the Friend magazine on making a paper plate flying saucer! See p. 115). Bowman's analysis of Enlightenment thinking seemed more fully informed than Stanley Thayne's, reflecting a problem perhaps common to such essay collections.

These are minor quibbles. Overall, the collection successfully highlights what historian Grant Underwood described as the "kaleidoscopic pattern of Mormonisms," expressions of faith which are not typically explored in Mormon literature but which may seem familiar to many Mormons nonetheless (5). Mormon cosmology has inspired, and will continue to inspire supernatural folk beliefs "that center upon occurrences beyond the realm of empirical knowledge about the natural world" (5). This collection is a brisk jaunt through several under-explored Mormon folklore lands. Such stories, which otherwise might have been lost to the air, are entertainingly analyzed in this fun little collection—altogether quirky, engaging, sympathetic, and academic. (Killer cover art, too!)