Book reviews, especially as done back and forth among the academic community, are not always the friendliest areas of engagement but for the most part are professional and informative for a broad audience. Most often they are a reliable space where readers can quickly turn to get a sense of the feeling of a book and what it has to offer them as they figure out whether or not to spend their money on that volume or another. Fortunately, for readers, the author, and the publisher, Benjamin E. Park’s The Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier has enjoyed praise from across the spectrum of lay and academic reviewers. From what I can tell almost every review has been positive or constructive except one.
Dr. Susan Easton-Black, then Susan Lindsay Ward Easton, completed her Ed.D. at Brigham Young University in 1979. Her dissertation, “Developmental Approach to Counselor Education: Progressive Model for Training Institutions,” evaluated the training models of counselors—”elementary school, secondary school, college, community agency, and in some instances, church setting” (p. 2)—and argued that counselors at the time received adequate intellectual training but were not shown how to implement that training in real life situations and therefore struggled to complete their tasks. The goal of her dissertation was to implement new methods in the curriculum of the counselor training master’s program at Brigham Young University in 1978, the year she started working at BYU.
One might wonder how an education scholar with no peer-reviewed publications as sole author (that I am aware of) in the field of early American history would get to the point where she felt comfortable enough to write such a condescending and belittling review, if we are generous enough to call it that, of a book written by a scholar trained at the University of Cambridge in early American history. According to the review, Park is a sensationalist who “uses few dates, his documentation is infrequent…and his summaries are superficial.” Beyond that, Park “pick[s] and choos[es]…facts” that “support [his] perspective.” If true, these critiques would seem to be detrimental to a book that hopes to shift scholarship and general knowledge about early Mormonism and American religion toward new horizons.
In her comments Easton-Black offers one possible way to explain the disparity between her approach to Nauvoo and Park’s. According to her, it is precisely that their perspectives are dissimilar that drives the problem. That is, surely, a key part of the disagreement, but it appears that Easton-Black is unaware that in the field of history perspective is not the key driving factor. Perspective, again, is an issue but the word should not be misunderstood as it applies here. Easton-Black does not have training in the historical method, did not go through a rigorous program of historical training at the graduate level, and is known for her approach to Mormon history through unsourced and oft-repeated anecdotes in her travels and love for Nauvoo and tourist destinations.
The fact that she is not a trained historian and shifted from a degree in education to teaching early Mormon history at BYU in the Religious Education department does provide key context to understand the divide. As another review has recently noted, many historians in Religious Education at BYU—historians who do not have graduate training in history or its related fields—have for years painted the Nauvoo period of Mormon history in strokes and brushes that don’t particularly reflect the reality of the historical moment. That review portrays the feeling of loss for the author when she realized that the Nauvoo she visited as a teenager was lost, “buried under layers of other people’s sentimentalized and grandiose pretensions.” It is disingenuous of Easton-Black, for example, to suggest that Kingdom of Nauvoo is infrequently sourced when pages 288–319 of the book are strictly covered in endnotes and her “review” provides her audience with two endnotes. One to cite the book and the other to cite a presentation Park gave at BYU.
Easton-Black suggests that readers will question Park’s ability to be a scholar because, as she implies, his book does not tell the truth. She had ample time and space in the review to offer specific responses to why “historians in yesteryear” rejected the depiction of Nauvoo, as she suggests, in their writing. She could have also clarified how those scholars would have been able to write better histories than a historian today when they did not have the important manuscripts now provided by the Joseph Smith Papers Project. Her previous work will unfortunately be the one not viewed as scholarly in generations to come, and “the truth” in the coming generations will rest more firmly on evidentiary ground than what can be found in the work of previous generations.
In a passing comment, Easton-Black also disparages Park’s education by suggesting that his graduate mentor did not train him well, “wondering who had been his mentor.” Michael O’Brien, Park’s mentor a Cambridge, might not be well known to Easton-Black but he is to any scholar deeply interested in the study of early American history. O’Brien won the Bancroft prize in 2005 for his two-volume set Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life in the American South, 1810–1860, besides being nominated twice for the Pulitzer prize, among other awards he received during his academic career. While this may seem like a minor note it actually highlights the disconnect between Easton-Black and the important work done in broader early American history.
Some readers of the blog have noted that my posts have been, over the past couple of years, fairly negative toward the Religious Education department and related organizations. I would prefer that it wasn’t this way. I would prefer to not write the above response and others like it. But, as long as some members of the Religious Education department continue to write similar reviews of books that in reality, outside of that small group, are receiving broad praise for their contributions, these kinds of posts will remain relevant. It is far better to keep the broader readership in Mormon studies informed than to keep completely silent on these topics. In this case, I would hope and expect that most readers who stumble upon Easton-Black’s review will be able to read between the lines for what her “review” really is: an opportunity simply to ask: “Where is the author’s knowledge that Joseph Smith was a prophet and the Lord revealed his words to him?” Boundary maintenance is the function for this review and others like it, and with the supposed expansiveness of Mormon theology you would hope that the culture itself would allow scholars to be just that: scholars.