From the outset, Adam Jortner makes clear that No Place for Saints: Mobs and Mormons in Jacksonian America “is a book about rumor and religion” and that “since rumor and religion can and did lead to violence in early America” (5), we would be wise to seriously consider the topic. Jortner traces the Latter-day Saint movement from its beginnings in upstate New York to its forceful expulsion from Jackson County, Missouri, in 1834. Although much has already been written about the Mormon experience, Jortner contributes a fresh insight by framing it within the intersection of Jacksonian America and a national communications revolution.
No Placefor Saints illustrates how “cheap print and an expanding press put novel ideas and news items into the hands of the public more quickly than ever before” (5). In the case of the Latter-day Saints, practices and beliefs that may have otherwise fit into a 19th-century context took on a life of their own within a rumor mill that integrated fact and fiction. Newspapers throughout the country printed and reprinted scandalous reports that quickly circulated and contributed to the collapse of Mormon-non-Mormon relationships. Among these were stories insinuating that the Latter-day Saints were British spies, that they were planning to arm and band together with Native Americans, or that they were trying to walk on water. In answer to the question of how things got so bad so quickly, Jortner argues that “the combination of Mormon supernatural claims, sectarian demands, and the swirling rumors of the printed word all played their part” (93).
Incendiary rumormongering—deliberate and otherwise—was not only perpetuated by outside parties, but also by the faith’s own disaffected members. Because “[s]chisms, and dealing with schisms, were standard for early Mormonism” (107), “anti-Mormons had a reliable supply of disgruntled Saints to draw on for scuttlebutt on [Joseph Smith] and his people” (86). Within the wider survey presented, Jortner effectively explores the tensions experienced by Latter-day Saints as they experimented with both embracing and restricting mystical manifestations. The belief that all church members could access God directly was often at odds with efforts to delineate a spiritual hierarchy. In this sense the title “No Place for Saints” might also describe the predicament of some Mormons who were eventually displaced from their own movement as its tenets were streamlined.
Unfavorable press coverage converged with common themes of Jacksonian America that served to otherize the Latter-day Saints and make their United States citizenship “contingent on religion, not law or birth” (3). Jortner describes the Jacksonian climate as “a great era of political and religious violence when repeated efforts were made to define some religions (Catholicism, Mormonism, Judaism, and others) as antithetical to America, the First Amendment be damned” (3). As such, the Mormons were dealing with a precedent of forcible removal alongside a surge in popular democracy that favored leaders who yielded to the will of the majority instead of striving to balance competing interests. Within this context, political opponents and new religious movements were deemed subversive or treasonous. No Place for Saints makes clear how such attitudes “shaped newspaper responses to the Mormon crises and turned the Mormons from an odd religion into a threat to democracy” (97).
There are several interventions throughout the book. Jortner stresses from the beginning that historians need not allow the 19th century context that fostered Mormonism’s expansion to overshadow the specifics of Smith’s message. Although Smith was clearly a product of his time and place, Jortner thoughtfully proposes that “to say he succeeded because of his time and place slights contemporary Mormon belief—making the Latter-day Saint (LDS) message merely a cipher for 19th century fears —and reduces historical investigation to mere social theory” (20). He advocates for a more expansive picture of the Latter-day Saint movement that analyzes context, specifics, and unique claims from the perspective of Smith, his followers, and those they interacted with. Reading the Mormon story from multiple vantage points (in theory and practice) is an important contribution of this historical narration. From this angle, Jortner rebuts assumptions that the enthusiastic and supernatural Mormon era in Ohio was simply a fleeting “kind of collective misunderstanding” (66) or that revelations from Smith automatically led to harmony.
At some points in the book, the argument becomes diluted by tangential historical contextualization and a chronological confusion caused by bouncing back and forth on the timeline as the account unfolds. This may have been necessary for putting together a concise work that can also serve as a primer on the subject. Notwithstanding, this conciseness is one of the book’s strengths. There is certainly further work to be done in extending the analysis of “rumor and religion” past the Mormon Missouri period to their time in Illinois and beyond. While Jortner’s emphasis is on the negative impacts of printed material on the Latter-day Saints, one is left wondering about instances in which the communications revolution worked in their favor through their own endeavors as well as at the hands of more equitable non-Mormon writers and editors. It will also be interesting to evaluate additional movements in Jacksonian America using Jortner’s framework of religion, rumor, and violence.
Although No Place for Saints is centered in the 1830s, Jortner has no qualms about asserting that the history of Mobs and Mormons in Jacksonian America is just as relevant today. “Many of the issues at stake in the rise of Mormonism and its almost immediate expulsion from Missouri will also be familiar for Americans in the twenty-first century: Religious tensions. Claims of divine right. An anxious public. A changing democracy. Advancements in communication creating an unmatched new rumor mill” (6). Whether they are clothed as newspaper articles or tweets, we continue to witness explosive blends of politics, anger, and rumor that allow minority groups to be classified as not truly religious, not true citizens, or not amenable to America. Such unfortunate developments ultimately lead democratic societies to justify discrimination and violence. In this sense, Jortner’s historical diagnosis is also a modern-day warning that must not go unheeded.
William Perez is a PhD student in American Religious History at Florida State University.
Date Of Review:
September 27, 2022
Adam Jortner is the Goodwin-Philpott Professor of History at Auburn University. He is the author of The Gods of Prophetstown: The Battle of Tippecanoe and the Holy War for the American Frontier and the Audible lecture series Faith and the Founding Fathers.
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