There are 23 thoughts on “Sensationalism: A One-sided Perspective”.

  1. What an excellent review! Thank you, Ms. Black. Can the Interpreter Foundation please ask her for more contributions to this website? I very much appreciated reading her perspective on this book and appreciated her criticisms of it as well. She is an excellent teacher and scholar. Thank you again!

  2. “I found myself wishing I was at my home in Nauvoo, having an afternoon with the author at the site where the Council of Fifty once met, talking about the individuals who attended their meetings and reviewing with him some of their journals. I wanted to show him the parade grounds of the Nauvoo Legion, the tucked-away graveyards, and Emma’s rentals. I wanted the author to see the remains of small Latter-day Saint settlements in and around Nauvoo and the Mississippi River at dusk. Most of all, I wanted to share with the author additional facts and clear up the speculations in his work that mar the publication and his future career.”

    Reading a scholarly history of the Civil War-era American South is difficult for someone who was raised believing that “Gone With the Wind” was an accurate portrayal of life in Atlanta. Ms. Black’s view of Nauvoo is very similar to how Victor Fleming (the director of Gone with the Wind) viewed the South, complete with a gauzy, soft-focus that eliminates most of the harsh realities.

    I imagine reading Kingdom of Nauvoo was very difficult for her.

  3. Perhaps overuse of the “primary voice” is why this review is lacking substance? Ms. Easton-Black has an impressive CV and should know better. People are complex. History is complex. Not everyone is a hero at all times, even the founder, despite what certain people want to portray. And the members can handle alternative views. They don’t need the added sugar to church history they get most of the time.

  4. It’s clearly evident, from the many basic mistakes in her review, that Susan does not have the education or training in the historical method to conduct a proper critique.

    Hopefully, Susan can use this as a learning experience.

  5. I bought and read the book. I loved it. It added a new perspective to Nauvoo for me, one to add to what I’ve gleaned from previous books on Nauvoo. Did I agree with everything Park said or concluded, No, but often he forced me to view events in new ways that opened my mind and understanding. I was shocked to read this review. It seems Sister Black had a very different experience reading it than I did. She seems to infer that it will only appeal to the sensationalist or those who see Joseph differently than she does. I don’t agree with her. I am an active Latter Day Saint who views Joseph as a prophet and the book increased my understanding of him in that light and of Nauvoo overall.
    Interestingly I picked up Sister Blacks new book on Hyrum last week and couldn’t get through more than the first couple of chapters. It reads like It was intended for a teenage audience, adds no new information and focuses more on Joseph than Hyrum, ironic since the title is “The forgotten Martyr”. I felt like she forgot who she was writing about and, as one with ancestral ties to Hyrum, thought, “here we go again.”

  6. What an interesting string of comments.

    Ben Park is a friend and I’ve sat with him next to the Red Brick Store in Nauvoo as we chatted and enjoyed the moist evening air.

    But what are we to do with a text that refers to Nauvoo plural marriage as Joseph Smith’s “polygamous experiment” (121). Would any of the 115 polygamists who entered those covenants in Nauvoo before Joseph’s death have agreed it was an “experiment? It seems that such a characterization is based on ignorance of how the participants (including Joseph Smith) described it or a willful willingness to ignore that data in preference of a view more acceptable to a secular audience (who would likely agree).

    I can’t comment on the rest of the book because I stopped reading at that point. Maybe I’ll pick it up again later.

    Brian Hales

    • The “interesting string of comments” seems like they were needed to this very unprofessional and off-the-wall review. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a review from a historian that misrepresented a book at the same time as not really engaging the content of the book either. You clarify one of the main points for the author of the review when you say that you’ve sat with Ben Park in Nauvoo (I’d recommend considering “humid” next time over “moist”; for many of us younger readers moist is an awkward term).
      I am wondering, though, if you likewise didn’t finish Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s book A House Full of Female because she used the term “experiment” to refer to early Mormon polygamy as well (see page 97, second to last paragraph, for an example). I’m also curious why it would be necessary for early church members to call polygamy an experiment for later scholars to be able to also use the term. Did the Oneida community also call their venture into polygamy an experiment? If not, should historians stop saying using the phrase “the Oneida experiment” in their research?

      • Hi Steven,

        Ben’s book reflects a secular view, sometimes in the extreme. It conflates John C. Bennett’s spiritual wifery with Joseph Smith’s introduction of plural marriage and fails to consider any of the evidence that I bring up in my “John C. Bennett and Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Addressing the Question of Reliability, Journal of Mormon History, vol. 41 (April 2015) no. 2, 131–181 article. On this topic, it is retro-history, a step back in interpretive time. But the naturalists will gladly receive it.

        Despite your claim, Nauvoo pluralists were devout religionists trying to please God by entering plural unions. They did not see themselves as “experimeters” with a new form of marriage. Please read their accounts.

        Best,

        Brian Hales

        • Are you implying the Oneida community was insincere, and that using the term “experiment” is somehow a denigration? What does it say that you couldn’t finish a book because you disagreed with its terminology? So much of what I see when you engage online with others, and your self-deference, makes me shudder and think your underhanded barbs as ultimately self-defeating. Your books are incredibly valuable, but your forum jaunts far less so..

          • Hi Jacob H.,

            I didn’t say anything about the Oneida community. I think it is important to realize that Nauvoo polygamy was a religious practice for all participants. That view is largely discarded in KINGDOM OF NAUVOO.

            Susan Easton Black is very accurate, but those who prefer a JS driven by libido with gladly accept the limited perspective of polygamy provided in KofN and vilify Black in the process.

            Another example is Fanny Alger. Ben pulls his punches there by ignoring the 19 evidences I accumulated in appendix C of JSPvol2 and other evidences like eyewitness Eliza R. Snow, who was “well acquainted” with Fanny in Kirtland, also calling her a plural wife. Of course, the book is about Nauvoo, but if we are going to sensationalize a narrow interpretation of polygamy, why not cast a wider net to enhance the reconstruction?

            You ask why I stopped reading. I’m sure I could have learned some new things about the Cof50, but seeing the biases applied to the recounting of polygamy, I could not have easily accepted that information without documenting it independently. It could be a fun project, but unfortunately I don’t have the time for that.

            Best,

            Brian

            • “I think it is important to realize that Nauvoo polygamy was a religious practice for all participants. That view is largely discarded in KINGDOM OF NAUVOO.”

              This is perhaps an ever more misguided and incorrect reading of Dr. Park’s book than the OP that sparked this conversation, and that’s saying something. Here’s what Park actually says:

              “Smith was never intent on merely vindicating promiscuity. There would have been much easier ways to justify extramarital affairs, after all. His understanding of, and reasons for, such a radical marital experiment, however, was slowly pieced together as new individuals were added and new ideas were considered. … As he did throughout his prophetic career, he constructed a new religious world that gave radical meaning to human activities” (p. 63).

              “The most common refrain found in the writings of women who entered plural marriage in Nauvoo was the appeal of the security and permanence the ritual offered. They looked not so much for an intimate relationship as for the assurance of familial networks that transcended life and death” (p. 64).

              “Polygamy was a path to becoming queens of a godly kingdom. … For [Eliza R.] Snow, this was a promise that could not easily be turned down” (p. 116).

        • Brian,

          In the Book of Mormon, Alma tells his listeners to “experiment” upon his words. “Experiment” is a reasonable description of the actions of those who by faith entered into plural marriages. They were acting on faith with the hope that they were pleasing God. Without a perfect knowledge, these actions can be called an experiment, and Alma would seem.to agree.

          • Hi Arnold,

            I appreciate the possible analogy, but it seems a little strained.

            Reading and praying about possible truth is a bit different from engaging in marriage ceremonies that defy governmental statutes stretch heart strings to the limit., and would immoral without proper priesthood authorization.

            There are many things I do not know, but I’m pretty familiar with accounts of plural marriage in Nauvoo and I’m convinced JS would never have seen himself as “experimenting.” Nor would he have agreed that his teachings were similar in any way to JCB’s antics. I think JS also believed Fanny Alger was a genuine plural wife in Kirtland. KofN does not tell these stories well enough to advance the discussion.

            While Ben was kind enough to reference my volumes, it doesn’t seem he digested all the new material Don Bradley and I accumulated. It is an unfortunate weakness.

            Best,

            Brian

            • “I’m convinced JS would never have seen himself as “experimenting.” Nor would he have agreed that his teachings were similar in any way to JCB’s antics.”

              Whether JS understood the introduction of polygamy in Nauvoo as an experiment or not is beside the point. The job of the historian is to not merely document what historical people thought they were doing but to critically assess what they were doing. And early Mormon polygamy was, very much, an experiment: an attempt to introduce and try a new form of marriage and kinship that departed in notable ways from the cultural norms of 19th century America.

              “I’m sure I could have learned some new things about the Cof50, but seeing the biases applied to the recounting of polygamy, I could not have easily accepted that information without documenting it independently. It could be a fun project, but unfortunately I don’t have the time for that.”

              I mean, you could’ve taken some time to do exactly that instead of trolling message boards and blogs to dismiss a book that, by your own admission, you didn’t bother finishing.

              “While Ben was kind enough to reference my volumes, it doesn’t seem he digested all the new material Don Bradley and I accumulated. It is an unfortunate weakness.”

              Or maybe — and try having the humility to admit it — he does not agree with your and Don Bradley’s interpretations of Nauvoo plural marriage. That’s a far different (and more charitable!) reading than suggesting he’s either not smart enough or so blinded by his own biases (which biases are those, btw?) to “digest” your research.

  7. One gets the impression from this review that Susan Easton Black has never met Dr. Park before. Which is strange, since the pair co-led a post-conference tour of Nauvoo at the annual meeting of the Mormon History Association in 2017. If Sister Black knows Dr. Park, why does she not reveal as much instead of pretending to be surprised to learn of “young Benjamin Park” only with the publication of this book?

    One also gets the impression from this review that Sister Black believes that Dr. Park has never so much as stepped foot in Nauvoo. Which again is strange, since the pair co-led a post-conference tour of the city at the annual meeting of the Mormon History Association in 2017. Beyond that, Dr. Park begins the acknowledgements in his book by noting that “The genesis of this project came when, as an undergraduate student, I had the privilege to participate in a Brigham Young University program in Nauvoo for four months. … I quickly fell in love with the city and its history” (p. 281).

    Sister Black accuses Dr. Park of not going “beyond the internet to the library.” In that same acknowledgments section, Dr. Park lists the following libraries and archival repositories where he researched for the book: LDS Church History Library, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, Brigham Young University’s Harold B. Lee Library, the Community of Christ’s Library and Archives, the International Society Daughters of Utah Pioneers, the Library of Congress, the University of Chicago Library, the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriot Library, Western Illinois University’s Leslie F. Malpass Library, and Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (that list comes from p. 283). Hundreds of references to the documents he consulted and cited are scattered throughout the 31 pages of footnotes (pp. 288-319, in case Sister Black would like to go take a look).

    Sister Black claims “the author uses few dates.” A quick (if admittedly unscientific) search for each of the following dates via Google Books turns up the following results: 1830: 12; 1831: 7; 1832: 6; 1833: 7; 1834: 4; 1835: 7; 1836: 9; 1837: 7; 1838: 16; 1839: 24. 1840: 43; 1841: 37; 1842: 60; 1843: 54; 1844: 60; 1845: 27; 1846: 14; 1847: 6.

    That’s a total of 390 dates for the 1830s through 1847 alone. I’m sure there’s more. Does Sister Black really believe ~400 dates is “few”?

    Sister Black claims Dr. Park’s “documentation is infrequent.” My quick count of his footnotes — many (perhaps most?) of which cite more than one source — shows 491 footnotes. I would be willing to bet there isn’t a page of text in the book without at least one (and usually several) footnotes. Sister Black’s most recently published book (The Other Martyr: Insights from the Life of Hyrum Smith), by contrast, includes 286 footnotes, every single one of which includes a single reference (including several sources from the ::gasp:: internet!).

    Sister Black rightly points out “that two people can read the same document and reach divergent opinions; it is a matter of perspective.” She then repeats the truism that the sources should guide the historian’s conclusions instead of allowing one’s perspective to guide the conclusions reached. While accusing Dr. Park of the latter, Sister Black the concludes her review by chastising “the young author” for purportedly “tak[ing] out faith, a belief that God speaks to his prophet, and the sacrifice of thousands of early Latter-day Saints to build up Nauvoo.” But isn’t such a view a perspective that risks guiding the conclusions a historian reaches? That is all well and good, but Sister Black cannot have it both ways.

    Perhaps the strangest part of this review is that it does not address — even in passing — the central argument and thesis of Kingdom of Nauvoo. A general history of the city this is not. Instead, Dr. Park uses the Latter-day Saint experience in Nauvoo as a case study of “the contradictions and tensions of” frontier America in the 1840. “Examining the rise and fall of this Mormon empire,” he argues, “demonstrates how Americans still struggled with the concept and practice of democracy only a few generations after the nation’s birth, and highlights the legacies and paradoxes of the country’s commitment to one of its most cherished ideals, religious liberty” (p. 6). It is, in many ways, a continuation of his earlier work in American Nationalisms, showing the ways in which America and its ideals remained contested in the early republic and antebellum era. What does Sister Black think of that argument? This may not be the book she would write — and that’s just fine! — but a responsible review should judge a book on its own merits and claims, not the reviewer’s agenda (one might say, “perspective”).

    I encourage Interpreter readers to give the book a closer read than Sister Black appears to have.

  8. As someone who grew up loving Susan Easton Black’s work on Nauvoo, this review was very disappointing. Not only does it give very little evidence for her critiques—the only specific she gives is Park’s claim that the Council of Fifty’s constitution was meant to replace the US Constitution, which is apparent to anyone who reads the documents—but she asserts that he never provides documentation, which he does in 40 pages of dense endnotes. And her accusation that he only used the internet flies in the face of all the archival sources the book cites. Indeed, it appears she is guilty of the very things she’s claiming the book does.

    But more than the superficial nature of her critiques, I could not get over how condescending this review’s tone is. And its overall point that history has to be “edifying” to be “true” is a misunderstanding of the profession. This is far from responsible discourse. I admit I don’t read the Interpreter that often, but I imagine–I hope–that most of its reviews are more rigorous than this.

  9. In podcasts hyping Kingdom of Nauvoo’s debut, the author called Nauvoo “a failed experiment.” Given the his undergraduate study at BYU, it is regrettable that Park has not seen Nauvoo’s DNA in the cities and colonies organized by post-Illinois Latter-day Saints. Joseph Smith’s fingerprints are all over Provo and settlements ranging from Canada to Mexico.

    Beyond the big themes, the errors in small details also hurt this book’s credibility. When did Carthage Jail become a brick building? The 1840’s Mississippi River at Nauvoo was daunting, but it was not a mile wide. There are many more. The blogosphere has fawned over this book for weeks. While several thoughtful narrative points could recommend it, Kingdom of Nauvoo’s central premise is deeply flawed.

    • I’m a little confused by some of the points you make here. Since the church was pushed out of Nauvoo was it not still a “failed experiment,” especially if the constitution of the Council of Fifty didn’t work out and plans were cut short when the prophet died? I’m glad to know that some of those ideas were later used in Utah, but that doesn’t seem to undercut the book’s argument from where I’m sitting.
      Also, is Carthage jail not a brick building? The bricks seem a little bigger than the ones you would expect today but it still looks like they were bricks. Correct me if I’m wrong. You’d probably need to include a page number about the Mississippi being a mile wide. It is also not clear how these smaller issues do any damage to the central premise. What is the central premise? How exactly is it deeply flawed? I don’t see an answer to that in either this review or in your comment.

    • “When did Carthage Jail become a brick building?”

      When it was made from red limestone bricks, which any mason will tell you is a common shorthand for any block used in construction.

      “The 1840’s Mississippi River at Nauvoo was daunting, but it was not a mile wide.”

      Are you sure? Here’s William G. Hartley on that subject: “A comparison of recent maps of the Mississippi River with survey maps from the 1840s shows that in 1846 the width of the river between Nauvoo and the Montrose shore was about the same as it is today.” (William G. Hartley, “The Nauvoo Exodus and Crossing the Ice Myths,” Journal of Mormon History 43:1 (January 2017): 30-58.

      • If any mason would tell you that hewn red limestone blocks are bricks, they really should take a shot at editing the “Brick” page on Wikipedia, because nothing on that page seems to warrant that usage.

  10. “Can it really be concluded that the Council of Fifty was formed in reaction to tensions and the threat of violence by suspicious outsiders?”

    Has Sister Black read the Council of Fifty minutes? Because that is exactly what they say.

    “Was Nauvoo an ‘asylum’ for God’s chosen people?”

    As Park makes clear, that is certainly how early Latter-day Saints understood it – a place of refuge for God’s chosen people.

    “Is the law of plural marriage and clandestine domestic arrangements synonymous?”

    Well, yes. The haphazard and somewhat secretive introduction of plural marriage in Nauvoo resulted in clandestine domestic arrangements. What could possibly be controversial about this?

    “Did Joseph Smith get his ideas from popular theologian Thomas Dick or mystical elements from Emanuel Swedenborg?”

    Several historians have suggested as much. In my reading, Park does not go that far, though he does admit that at least Smith’s ideas shared broad similarities and were shaped by the intellectual context in which he lived.

    “Did stories of adultery, fornication, and other illicit sexual dalliances fill Nauvoo’s civic and ecclesiastical courts? I think not.”

    Whether you think so or not, Sister Black, the minutes of such courts during the 1840s are, in fact, filled with stories of adultery, fornication, and other illicit sexual dalliances? Contrary to your review’s claims that Park does not cite sources, Kingdom of Nauvoo provides reference after reference to the minutes of the Nauvoo Relief Society, Nauvoo High Council, Nauvoo City Council detailing these dalliances.

    For a review that makes quite a bit out of claims that Park’s “documentation is infrequent and causes the reader to search for sources to quotation marks,” Sister Black was unable to provide even a single example from the book to back up that charge. That seems irresponsible at best, and hypocritical at worst. Perhaps she’s not as interested in the truth as she claims.

  11. “One-sided Perspective” is a reference to this review, right? After decades of being interested in and reading whatever I could get my hands on about the Nauvoo period of the Church’s history I was surprised to learn from the Joseph Smith papers that I really did not know that history as well as I thought I did. Brother Park’s history was a breath of fresh air after that experience.

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