“A Peculiar People”: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America by J. Spencer Fluhman (review)
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“A Peculiar People”: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America. By J. Spencer Fluhman. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. Pp. 229. $34.95 cloth; $34.95 e-book)

Mormonism is an important force that shapes modern American cultural and political discourse. Yet its influence is hardly new. In “A Peculiar People”: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America, J. Spencer Fluhman states that, “The persistent (and still lingering) problem of categorizing Mormonism reveals as much about American negotiations of religion’s conceptual boundaries as it does about Mormon belief or practice” (p. 127). He shows that “through public condemnation of what Mormonism was, Protestants defined just what American religion could be” (p. 9).

Fluhman uses a wealth of primary sources that are either exclusively anti-Mormon or deal with the contemporary issues and assumptions that inform the complicated nature of the anti-Mormon genre. The chapters are topical and suggest chronological shifts in the rhetoric of anti-Mormon literature in the nineteenth century. Simply put, Americans constructed Mormonism as “fake,” then “foreign,” then “false” (p. 9). Chapter one shows that the earliest anti-Mormon writers focused on the founder of the movement, Joseph Smith. Americans suffered persistent anxiety over perceived religious frauds because of genres and tropes that had already been established, most notably through numerous biographies of the prophet Muhammad. Chapter two posits that the followers of Smith “posed an interpretive challenge” to other Americans, but critics “reassur[ed] themselves that it was a familiar delusion” seen throughout the Christian past (p. 51). Chapter three describes how these labels were turned on Mormons, especially with their zeal for building a “brick-and-mortar” Zion, not just a spiritual one as other groups were doing (p. 81). According to Fluhman, this labeling was strong enough to result in the assassination of Joseph Smith who sought to conflate church and state, the great American (and Protestant) sin. Chapter four focuses on the national firestorm created by Mormon polygamy. Once Mormons went public with this [End Page 244] practice, an infusion of national politics resulted in “a federally directed antipolygamy crusade” (p. 107). In Chapter five, Fluhman concludes that “Mormonism hovered between Christianity and a non-Christian religion, between history and comparative religion, and between material reality and sacred myth” much as it does today (p. 146).

A common problem that plagues the academic study of Mormonism is demonstrated by Fluhman’s designation of Latter-day Saints (LDS) as synonymous with Mormonism as a larger movement. Though the Utah-based LDS Church is the largest and most influential Mormon group, there are many others with shared but divergent histories that should have been noted, especially in terms of the internal battles over Mormon thought and practice in the nineteenth century. More generally, Fluhman’s ubiquitous and far-reaching use of the term “anti-Mormon” implies that those who killed Mormons are in the same category as those who wrote polemics against them. This is clearly not his intent, as he “tabled those discussions for another time” (p. 19). Yet it is befuddling, especially when the greatest strengths of his book rely on precisely this kind of critical investigation of terms, such as the antique, imperial, and Enlightenment origins of the term religion.

Some scholars of Mormon history have treated notable examples of anti-Mormon literature, but none have gone to such painstaking detail to catalog it in its vast expanse and explain it in its whole American context. Fluhman’s book skillfully points out that “while Mormons survived to thrive in the twentieth century, it was hardly on their own terms” (p. 20). Fluhman has successfully captured the dynamic process of nineteenth-century religious otherness by crafting a wonderfully entertaining, illuminating, and concise book. Fluhman places Mormonism on a high pedestal, perhaps too high in terms of its actual importance on the national scene. Yet as his book rightly shows, the genesis, perseverance, and durability of Mormonism gave many Americans great pause and helped to change the way that the federal government and popular society understood what constitutes religious life in America. [End Page 245...


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