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Sam Brown on Death Culture in Early Mormon History

What may be the most important and significant book on Mormon history in 2011 was not, in fact, written by a historian. Sam Brown is an ICU pulmonary care doctor who specializes in how the cardiovascular system responds to the stresses of life-threatening illness. But he is trained to look hard at death, which turns out to be important for understanding early Mormon history. "What was Cumorah? A massive grave mound," he says. "Where were the plates stored? They were interred in a stone sepulcher. What was their message? They contained voices of the dead 'whispering from the dust' about America’s lost ancestors. I realized that there is an important continuity between Smith’s treasure quest and the Book of Mormon, and it was specifically this sense of negotiating with the dead over their legacy, their history, their artifacts in the soil." --JKR

You’re not trained as a historian, yet you say that your medical work with the dying prepared you to research and write this book. How so?

My experience with real people grappling with life's big issues allowed me to see the actual stakes of religion—not theological controversies in some abstract sense, but the very real struggles that people have to make sense of their worlds and the religious traditions they inherit and inhabit. Being a physician has also trained me to synthesize data quickly and recognize patterns, which helps my historical work.

The book argues that the world of early Mormonism was “besieged by death,” and that much of Joseph Smith’s theology—polygamy, baptism for the dead, temple covenants, everlasting priesthood—arose as “a campaign to extinguish death forever.” Can you explain this?

Until you get into the sources, you have no idea just how much people encountered death before the “demographic transition” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Death permeated most of human culture in one way or another. Joseph Smith’s religious genius seems to have been his ability to see the problem of death—the permanent disruption of community—and to propose a variety of ways to create a society that could withstand death. Most of the elements of early Mormonism served the ends of creating that forever-durable society.

What was the death culture of early 19th-century America, and how did it affect Mormonism?

Following the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, I call that culture “holy death” culture, though other scholars have preferred to call it “beautiful” or “good.” I chose “holy” because it emphasizes how deeply religious it was. Holy death culture emphasized the converting power of the deathbed, the presence of angels as escorts to the dying, the need for stoicism in the face of one’s own death but dramatic mourning after the loss of a loved one. The culture also emphasized providence, the belief that God decreed every event in every life. Almost all early Mormons grew up within this culture. Joseph Smith proposed solutions to the two most troublesome areas: providentialism and the possibility that death could separate families if some members were less righteous than others. Mormon sacraments solved that problem by integrating individuals permanently into the family of heaven.

You discuss the Book of Mormon as a “grave artifact.” What does this mean?

I hadn’t really thought about it in these terms until I got deep in the sources. Think about it, though. What was Cumorah? A massive grave mound. Where were the plates stored? They were interred in a stone sepulcher. What was their message? They contained voices of the dead “whispering from the dust” about America’s lost ancestors. I realized that there is an important continuity between Smith’s treasure quest and the Book of Mormon, and it was specifically this sense of negotiating with the dead over their legacy, their history, their artifacts in the soil.

You dig into a great deal of primary source material for this book. What did the research involve for you?

One of the reasons to study early Mormonism is the incredible accessibility of the primary sources. Many have been published in either paper or digital formats. While Signature books was once the primary source of such documents, the LDS Church in the last 10 years or so has joined the effort to get the sources out with great enthusiasm. The Signature New Mormon Studies CD and the LDS Selected Collections DVDs are godsends, as are excellent physical booksellers like Benchmark Books, who can supply sources available only in print. I also relied on the efforts of committed research assistants, primarily Brett Dowdle, for references I didn’t have time to access myself.

How in the world did you have time for all this, working full time as a doctor and raising three young kids?

The most important answer is that my wife and children are patient with me. My wife is a busy historian in her own right, and we have had to negotiate how time will be spent by each of us, but without her patience and support this book would have been impossible. More generally, I think of myself as an interstitial historian. Most of my work happens during the interstices of the day. Riding or waiting for an elevator, walking to the car, standing in line for something, sitting at an airport are all moments when I can pull out a manuscript from my front pocket and start editing. I have only had one accident editing while walking, years ago, when a parking meter punched me in the gut, but I have developed techniques to avoid harm when I edit and walk. I also don’t have a terribly quiet mind, so it’s hard for me to watch TV without also editing a manuscript. I also try to set aside a few minutes early in the morning before the family awakens and before I leave for work when I can do some writing. I also don’t really have many hobbies beyond spending time with my family and working on cultural history. It makes me more than a bit dull.

What did you learn about Joseph Smith that surprised you?

I think I was most surprised to learn how smart he was. Many of us have this sense that he was a country bumpkin, and there has been a vein in Mormon apologetics that has emphasized just how unlearned Smith was, but when you actually see his mind at work, it’s clear that he wasn’t just charismatic, he was brilliant. Now he was not a great writer and was not an academic in any substantial sense, but he was a great speaker and had an incredible cognitive agility that allowed him to make connections and see solutions that were not apparent to others.

Topics: Faith, Doctrine & Practice
Beliefs: Mormon
Tags: early mormon temple rituals, flunking sainthood, in heaven as it is on earth: joseph smith and the early mormon conquest of death, jana riess, oxford university press, sam brown

Comments

  1. Thank you for featuring this book! I have ordered a print copy from Amazon, not an ebook, since this is the kind of book I will want to annotate with my own reactions.

    I did not see it in the article, but I am wondering if the author discusses the significance of the angel who showed the Book of Mormon to Joseph Smith being a man returned from the dead, the last editor of the book who had died around 421 AD.  How many angels were there, before Moroni, whose own mortal life was well known, and whose mission to Joseph Smith reflected his farewell in the Book of Mormon.  He promised to meet us, flying triumphant through the air, before the judgment bar of Jehovah. All of his actions in bringing the book to light are part of his mission to bear witness against those who teject the Book of Mormon, which he guarded with his life for lonely decades.

    One side note: My understanding is the “Hill Cumorah” in Palmyra is a drumlin, one of many similar elongated north-south hills created by the ice age glaciers which once advanced south over the Finger Lakes region.  Some of the actual man-made earthen mounds left by pre-Columbian civiliazations, including in some cases burials. I know of no evidence of human remains in the hill, nor any statement by Joseph Smith to that effect.

  2. Sam responds:

    Thanks for getting a copy of the book.

    In answer to your questions, 1) the book does discuss the meaning of angels as human beings at a different phase of their existence. In fact this observation was one of the central facts that motivated me to write the book, because that understanding of angels is very different from other traditions. There is a sense in which Moroni personalizes the Book of Mormon narrative in a way that is distinctive with Joseph Smith.  2) the topographical feature LDS call Hill Cumorah is in fact a glacial drumlin, as you note, but the book discusses the evidence that early LDS understood that hill as a grave mound. The book focuses on the first couple decades of Mormonism and does not incorporate modern LDS views and concerns in order to try to represent a history that the early LDS would have understood. I think many modern LDS would feel comfortable with the notion that the early LDS misunderstood the nature of Cumorah (though not the nature of the plates buried there). I hope that helps. All best wishes, Samuel Brown

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