Mormon Convert, Mormon Defector: A Scottish Immigrant in the American West, 18481861 Hardcover – Jun 9 2009
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In this most thorough study of the British Isles origins of an early Mormon convert ever to see the light of day, Ms. Aird has done the yeoman's share of legwork for descendants of English-speaking Mormon pioneers who want to learn what persuaded their ancestors to emigrate. If you're curious about your forbears' sufferings on the plains or in territorial Utah, you can find no better source.
The heart of "Mormon Convert, Mormon Defector" gives an unflinching picture of the dark events of the 1850s: the Mormon reformation, the Utah War, and Move South. Let us hope for many more of Polly Aird's meticulous reclamations of suppressed Utah narratives.
In the 1840s, the young Peter McAuslan, a calico print designer in Scotland, encounters Mormonism via missionaries sent from Salt Lake City. Recognizing in the new religion vistas opening to the Zion across the Atlantic, Peter and his wife Agnes accept Mormonism and move their family to Utah. Their experience is the heart of the tale. It is replete with poignant details about daily life, the pressures on the Saints in the new land, and internal contradictions in Mormonism itself. Eventually, Peter and Agnes allow a contingent of Federal troops to escort them with other refugees out of the Utah Territory, to settle finally in Marysville, California, at the Eastern fringe of the Sacramento Valley.
Polly Aird does a beautiful job balancing graceful prose with a dignified, neutral tone in analyzing the relevant ideas and events in the lives of the McAuslans and the Mormon community. She buttresses her tale with a magisterial command of archival material (from diaries, to LDS committee decisions, birth certificates, personal letters) to the photographs (complete with ratios for the images), to a diplomatic transcription (including the crossed-out words) of a fascinating letter McAuslan wrote to Robert Salmon, still back in Scotland, whom Peter had baptized early in his Mormon period.
Peter McAuslan's tale comes across as a personal narrative along with the many contextual and environmental factors that influenced it: trends in the Scottish textile industry, the supply of oxen for the overland trek, the role of disease and drought and locusts, the shift from urban to rural labor, Brigham Young's authoritarian tenor of rule and that of his assistants. Then, at the end, Aird wonderfully develops her account by elucidating McAuslan's own judicial temperament: never rejecting individual Mormons even while rejecting Mormonism and Young's theocratic enthusiasm. As McAuslan's personal beliefs blended more and more with the rising current of spiritualism, Aird ties his ideas to nineteenth-century science, where all kinds of invisible forces were coming into our (human) purview and many frontiers were opening up to discovery: why not the boundary between the living and the dead?
Far from appealing narrowly only to specialists in Mormon history or to Mormons or to critics of Mormonism, this book will fascinate anyone interested in the great migration into the American West, how factory workers adapted to farming as they moved across the continent, how religious ideas tinge a group's perception of political realities (whether of a distant President or a local theocrat), how faith tempers adversity and adversity tries faith and authority. At that time, Mormons considered keeping multiple wives consistent with a divine command peculiar to themselves. One underlying theme in this book is how these arrangements prompted a regional opposition to the U. S. government akin to the South's defense of slavery.
The non-specialist reader will learn about little-known but crucial aspects of Mormon history such as the Mormon Reformation, Brigham Young's astringent, penitential regimen imposed, in theory, to avert natural disaster. Young's application on earth of what he considered divine chastisement did not stop short of shedding blood. The question is open whether it served more to prevent plague and drought or to maintain internal discipline. The dilemma of how to draw the line in applying divine law over against human reason was as crucial to the life of Peter McAuslan as it is, in many religious communities, today. This is only one major theme that Polly Aird ventilates eloquently in this profound and provocative study.
We start in Scotland near Loch Lomond where the McCauslans eked out an existence as farmers tilling the poor soil. Then, they, like thousands of others, were driven off the land in the early 1800's for more profitable sheep ranching. They migrated to small manufacturing towns near Glasgow that were truly Dickensian in horror: miasmas of water and air pollution, cholera and typhus. In order to survive, they worked in the textile industry, six days a week, 12 to 15 hours per day but their wages were relentlessly driven down below subsistence levels as both women and children were forced to work to survive.
All attempts at legitimate change failed. They were denied the right to vote, their unions were destroyed, their union leaders either imprisoned or shipped off to Australia. The only group that promised a better life before death were the Mormons. The McCauslans converted and began the hazardous journey to Utah.
The difficulties of the voyage as well as the trek overland were enormous. Their ship could have been easily wrecked by bad weather en route to New Orleans; food and water was scarce; privacy and cleanliness nonexistent: several on board died during the voyage. New Orleans was an exotic never never land to the poor from Europe: the architecture, the colors, the flora, the plantations, the slave markets were both beautiful and repellent.
The upriver trip was hazardous and slow; more died along the way. Finally, they reached the inland trail head and began the overland journey. These poor working people from the British Isles were untrained as how to manage oxen and wagons and live off the land for their thousand mile journey. Many more died along the way.
However, the Mormons did provide practical assistance during the inland journey to Utah. Without their help, it is doubtful that anyone would have survived. The McCauslans arrived in Utah, beaten but grateful, and then reinvented themselves again, this time as farmers. Once again, the Mormons provided invaluable assistance in this transition.
However, a series of natural calamities reduced the Mormon settlement in Utah to semi starvation. There were horrible storms, drought, and plagues of insects. There was little to eat and hardly any hope of surviving the brutal winters without wood to burn and clothing that had been reduced to tatters. The reaction to these natural calamities by the Mormons was to create a human calamity: the Mormons blamed the settlers for straying from God's path because how else could they explain why God would punish them with such horrific, Biblical plagues? The Mormons and the settlers were the victims of their own relentless religious logic.
Utah became a vicious police state which secretly murdered and plundered their perceived enemies. Then the Mormons made the mistake of taking on the US Government. All too predictably, the US army arrived in substantial force but it could make little headway against a tightly knit religious group. The irony is that the original settlement only survived as a result of the US Army: the settlers worked for them and sold them supplies; and, as a result the impoverished group received a much needed influx of cash and goods. But the murders, the secrecy, the intolerance of the Mormons were too much for Peter McCauslan to bear. He and many members of his extended family finally left under armed escort from Utah by the US Army; they were delivered out of harm's way to Nevada; from there they continued unescorted to California.
In California, Peter McCaulsan's story ends as a peaceful farmer in the great Central Valley. In Biblical terms, he had finally reached the Garden of Eden, the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, the modern equivalent of the Tigris and Euphrates. He had returned to what his ancestors in Scotland had done for centuries: farming. So what are we to make of Peter McCauslan?
An independent, tough farmer, at the end of his life, he devoted enormous energy to the religious mishmash called Spiritualism. Bright and industrious, he invented himself three times: first as pattern designer, then as an overland pioneer, finally as a farmer. A gifted artist, he left no visual record of Scotland, Utah, or California, nor did he recreate his religious visions with Blakian images. Appropriately bitter at the plight of the working poor in Scotland, he never spoke out against the mistreatment of the American Indians, despite the obvious parallel between the Scottish aristocracy forcing his ancestors off their land and the American settlers forcing the indigenous peoples off their land. Repelled by the murders, lies, and intolerance of the Mormons, he finally left Utah, never to see some members of his family again, but he never spoke out against the secret Mormon murders, even from the safety of California. Peter McCauslan walked a fine moral line in a brutal world of false choices.
Polly Aird's book, MORMON CONVERT MORMON DEFECTOR, is the riveting story of her great-great uncle's introduction to the Mormon faith by American missionaries to Scotland in the mid-19th Century. Consequences of the Industrial Revolution, hard times economically and socially, in combination with an impulse to pursue spiritual truth, opened him to the possibility of a better life in a promised land among like-minded faithful. After a hard but hopeful journey to Utah and years of residence, he witnessed things unacceptable to his integrity and intelligence and was led then, by a greater commitment to truth, to abandon Mormonism. Army escort was required for him to safely leave and travel to California. This book takes us on his physical journey as it becomes his inward journey. It is the story of every seeker, every person led by spiritual impulse to let go of the false and travel within.