Friday, August 22, 2014

Bitton on Ritualization of Mormon History

Without denying that written histories have enormous influence, especially those used in the schools, it should be recognized that a pervasive, ultimately more important influence in fostering a sense of the past is ritual. I am using this term in a broad sense to refer to the forms and symbols whose function is not primarily the communication of knowledge but rather the simplification of the past into forms that can be memorialized, celebrated and emotionally appropriated. (p.171)
Among these forms of ritualization are "heroes, monuments, ceremonies, even standardized narratives reminiscent of morality plays in their insistent simplification" (p.171).
Bitton then quotes Émile Durkheim:
There can be no society which does not feel the need of upholding and reaffirming at regular intervals the collective sentiments and the collective ideas which make its unity and its personality. Now this morla remaking cannot be achieved except by the means of reunion, assemblies, and meetings where the individuals, being closely united to one another, reaffirm in common their common sentiments. [= Elementary Forms of Religious Life, p.474-475] (p.171)
Bitton points out that the Mormons worked out their own calendar, whose function Bitton describes with the words of Harvey Cox [= Feast of Fools, Harvard (1969), p.7] as
a human form of play through which man appropriates an extended area of life, including the past, into his own experience (p.171)
Bitton demonstrates his contention by pointing out that the founding date of the church, April 6th, 1830, was first commemorated in 1833 [= HC 1:337], with no celebrations in the years 1834-1836 (p.172). In 1837 there was a multi-day event at the Kirtland temple, spanning the April 6th date.
In 1838, April 6th saw the beginning of a "general conference" at Far West, Missouri, to transact church business and "to celebrate the anniversary" of the Church. (p.172) 
In 1839, the prophet was in jail, but in 1840 in Nauvoo, the general conference pattern was repeated and from then on, until 1977, the conferences were scheduled to include April 6th (p.172). A special jubilee form of the celebration was held in 1880 (p.174).
Thus, a need for a regular annual conference was met while at the same time commemorating the founding day. (p.172)
Joseph Smith Jr may not have received much celebration because of the proximity of his birth and death to other big events: December 23rd is too close to Christmas, and June 27th, the date of his martyrdom in 1844, too close to July 4th (p.172). In addition, a martyrdom without resurrection does not make for a time of rejoicing (p.172).

"July 24th, the official day of entry into the || Salt Lake Valley in 1847" (pp.172-173) became the Mormon annual celebration par excellence, being sufficiently distant from July 4th on the one side and in the agriculturally inert time between sowing and harvesting (p.173). The first elaborate celebration took place in 1849. The day was commemorated at the local level as well (p.173).

There was also cross-pollination between the events; in the founding of the church jubilee of 1880, the July 24th celebrations were especially extravagant, including surviving pioneers of 1847 and surviving members of Zion's camp (p.174), as well as of the Mormon Battalion (p.175). This selection should come as no surprise.
Often the celebrations paid tribute to special groups, especially the surviving members of Zion's Camp, the Mormon Battalion, and the Pioneers of 1847. (p.175)
Parades were no special invention of the Mormons, of course.
The Mormon parades we have described were squarely in the mainstream of American public ceremony. The parade in its classic American form had been "invented", or at least assumed its definitive form,roughly between 1825 and 1850 (p.175).
In the latter half of the century major American cities punctuated their temporal existence with celebrations that included parades. Trader os occupations, immigrants or ethnic groups, voluntary societies, along with symbolic representations of concepts like liberty, characterized these parades. In the large cities, Mary Ryan has said, parades "made order out of an urban universe that teemed with diversity and change." Again, "the disorder and cacophony that reigned most of the year was ordered into reassuring, visually and audibly pleasing patterns." [= Mary Ryan, The American Parade: Representations of the Nineteenth-Century Social Order, in: Lynn Hunt (ed), The New Cultural History, Berkeley (University of California Press) 1989, 139, 152. Cf. Susan G. Davis, Parades and Power: Street Theater in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia, Philadelphia (Temple University Press), 1986.] (p.175). 
This suggests that the Mormon parades had the same functions as elsewhere.
... Mormons used parades to help propagate the community ideals and did this in part by symbolic references to past achievements or events. (p.175)
Historically accurate depiction, esp when lauding the special groups, was not the key concern.
Needless to say, the past events seen through the eyes of nostalgia were simplified, romanticized, and in the broad sense of the term, ritualized. (p.176)
The commemoration of the Mormon battalion in 1855, for which a report is available by the stenographer J.V. Long, is a case study in point. Despite the plurality of remarks and speeches, there were common themes that pointed toward a single historical interpretation (p.176).
Despite the differences, there is a common interpretation running through their remarks: the courage and dedication of the Battalion member, the conspiracy theory of the circumstances behind the muster, the providential overruling power of God, and rededication to their leaders. In a ritualized setting a sense of group consciousness was being formed by a simplified remembering of their history. (p.176)
Bitton quickly sketches the main lines of the historical narrative, which was not that dire.
... we can safely say that the decision to call it was made at least in part at the instigations of the Mormons, who saw it as a means of obtaining government help for the journey west. Some of the Battalion's pay did find its way back to the main body of the Latter-day Saints, where it doubtless was of help. As for the journey itself, there were few noteworthy events in the grand military tradition. (p.176) 
But the transformation of this event into a struggle between Mormons, central government and the Divine, happened remarkably quickly.
Remarkably soon, however, this whole experience was transformed into a symbol of federal oppression, Mormon heroism, and the overruling omnipotence of God. It was told and retold in these terms; participants even started remembering it in these terms. The men of the Battalion || (and later their descendants) were lionized as representatives of truth in a heroic struggle. (pp.176-177)
Bitton is clear that ritualization is not a matter of "invention out of whole cloth" (p.177), but of selection and of emphasis (p.177).
From the beginning some Mormons saw the venture as an onerous obligation; some did not know about the previous requests and negotiations; others who did know resented the timing of the call and the number demanded. (p.177)
The ritualization was not invention; it was a selecting out of certain aspects, dramatizing them, memorializing them, and giving to the whole the simplicity of a morality play. (p.177)
Bitton then notes that is "a short step from meetings of groups of survivors ... to the organization of descendants" (p.177), and names the Sons and Daughters of the Utah Pioneers as examples (p.177).
Such societies ... perform many functions, social and even political. But their main raison d'ètre is to celebrate and honor the past not primarily on the level of scholarship but on the level of ritual commemoration and rededication. (p.177) 
Bitton then turns to the physical form of ritualization, the historic site or the shrine.
In new York the Hill Cumorah and the Sacred Grove, for Mormons sites of sacred events, were visited with interest by Mormon missionaries and converts, who doubtless gained inspiration as they contemplated the surroundings. (p.177)
But there were no monuments, properly so called, during the first generation of Mormonism's history. (p.178)
[[One wonders if that is strictly true, and also what Bitton would call the digging traces on the Hill of Cumorah that were shown to visitors who were anti-Mormon. RCK]]

Monuments not only require organizations and a distance to the founding generation, but also the increased mobility and leisure time that the 20th century affords (p.178).
The 1930s and 1940s were a time of almost feverish activity in the erection of monuments and historical markers. (p.178)
Closely related to identification is restoration.
One activity in the making of historical sites that deserves mention is restoration---the attempt to restore homes and buildings to their appearance of a hundred or more years ago. (p.178)
Some pieces, such as liberty jail, had already been acquired early; but the rise of historical restoration, partially inspired by the success of Colonial Williamsburg, did not commence until after World War II (p.178). Efforts like the Nauvoo Restoration Inc showed what had become possible (p.179).

A similar tale can be told for portraiture. Bitton mentions the work of Charles W. Carter, who worked hard to align the prophet's image with the accepted notions of male attractiveness of his time.
In 1855, Charles W. Carter copied a daguerreotype of Joseph Smith, made prints, which he had heavily retouched by the artist Dan Weggeland, then rephotographed, copyrighted and distributed this "portrait". Quite unlike the profile portrait that community leaders of the 1850s considered authentic, the Carter portrait was preferred by most people. It was "aesthetically superior," closer to a recognizable standard of male attractiveness. (p.179)
Among the most influential contributors to the ritualization process were the artists who created many of the visual images that commemorated the key events, Philo Dibble and C.C.A. Christiansen (p.179). Christiansen painted huge canvases, eight of them completed by 1878, and took them on a road show of Mormon history through Utah, sewn together into one long roll, exposing one image after another [like a slide show, RCK] (p.180). Other forms of representation, such as statues and murals, as well as the production of movies through BYU Motion Picture studios. All of these efforts were whitewashing in some sense.
[All of these visual representations were, RCK] contributing to the process of ritualization by establishing a sense of the past that was primarily emotional, appropriate, and not primarily concerned with accuracy. Accurate or inaccurate, it was certainly selective. There are, for examples, no marble monuments to polygamy. (p.180)
Bitton then describes pageants, each of which "unquestionably set forth simplified images about the past" (p.180). Such pageants, just like the Rodgers & Hammerstein knock-off Promised Valley, a musical by Crawford Gates and Arnold Sundgaard (p.181), were functionally equivalent:
These are all vehicles for perpetuating a romanticized, ritualized version of the Mormon past. (p.181)
Bitton chooses as an illustrative example the miracle of the crickets and seagulls (p.181).
This famous miracle, which every Mormon child learns in Primary or Sunday School if not at his or her mother's knee, is a classic example of how the ritualization of history works. (p.181)
Although William G. Hartley has demonstrated that some contemporaries did not view the incident as particularly providential, at least if we are to judge from their diaries, it would be idle to || deny the historicity of the event---that is, there were crickets, and seagulls did devour them. (pp.181-182)
The point is not the event itself but what people did with it in later years. (p.182)
Bitton is careful to eschew the impression that such a behavior is particular to the Mormons.
Such simplified presentations of the past as parades, monuments, and pageants were contributing to nation building in many American cities. Especially poignant as a case study of conscious simplification of a ritualized past is the American South. (p.182)
The simplified history did not only help the Mormons persist in the face of persecution and ridicule, but also made an easy package for the new members to assimilate and thus make their own (p.182).
If one of the reasons for the creation of the "mythic history" by the early American was, as Major Wilson believes, their sense of being "orphans in time and space," the Mormons had the same need in their own communities. [= Major L. Wilson, The Concept of Time and the Political Dialogue in the United States: 1828-1848, in: American Quarterly 19 (Winter 1967), as cited in Robert Flanders, To Transform History: Early Mormon Culture and the Concept of Time and Space, in: Church History 40 (1971), p.108-117.] (p.182)
"Any people in a new land," says Wallace Stegner, "may be pardoned for being solicitous about their history: they create it, in a sense, by remembering it." [= The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail, New York (1964), p.2] (p.182) 
More important, perhaps the Mormons had their own special problem of orphanage. Cut adrift from the moorings of orthodox Christianity, and even, at times, from a sense of belonging to the American nation, they needed ritualistic support for their legitimacy. Robert Flanders has observed that the ritual incantations of restoration, priesthood authority, unity of faith, patriotism and so on, may be, in part, cases of protesting too much. In any event, the value of a standardized, moralized sense of the past during the Mormons' long identity crisis is unmistakable. (p.182)
[[There is a piece of the puzzle missing here, namely that Joseph Smith Jr was in general against ambiguity. He wanted a divinely inspired translation because it would eliminate contention and counter narratives. He had no problem rectifying revelations post-facto to bring out their meaning in full detail. A plurality of historical narratives was not in his line of thinking. RCK]]

Bitton then turns to the problem of how the simplification process skews the experience of center and periphery.
 It is significant that the rituals have tended to focus on the "centrist nucleus" by giving attention to people and events near the center. The cohesion of the groups is enhanced, the lines of traditional identity maintained. Selecting only those events clearly related to the doings of hierarchy, however elitist it appears, may be unavoidable, just as national || heroes are usually figures high in the government or the national military circles. (p.183)
Bitton closes with some warning words about the problems of ritualized past.
Those who probe more deeply are bound to discover that men and women of the past were not that flat, and more essentially, that the past was not that simple. Historians have a duty to criticize and correct inaccurate, inadequate, or oversimplified versions of the past. (p.183)
And the key is that the expertise and scholarship expended do not tend toward the unified history.
But it will not be the one true history or the only possible history. (p.183)
Finally, Bitton warns that historians should not deride ritualized history.
The fact is that most people are not historians---which is to say that most of us will possess our history ritualistically or not possess it at all. (p.183) 
[[I am not sure I agree with that assessment. I agree with the statement that most of the history we will possess will be simplified in the way that ritualistic history is. I believe that to be true even for the historians, who may know "three names at best for the Reformation in Iceland", in the words of Prof. Peter F. Barton, that is they will form islands of expertise in a sea of simplified history outside their domains. I believe that to the extent that we participate in communities, who push ritualized histories---our governments, our churches, our alma mater institutions, our companies, our neighborhoods---we will be exposed to much ritualized history, so in those domains our simplified histories will be ritualized as well. But a historian could never see that as anything than preliminary and eventually as problematic. RCK]]

Bibliographic Record

David Bitton, The Ritualization of Mormon History and other essays, Urbana -- Chicago (University of Illinois Press) 1994; pp.171-188.

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