Between Pulpit and Pew: The Supernatural World in Mormon History and Folklore

Edited by W. Paul Reeve and Michael Scott Van Wagenen. 2011. Logan: Utah State University Press. 243 pages. ISBN: 978-0-87421-838-1 (hard cover).

Reviewed by Arle Lommel

[Review length: 1393 words • Review posted on December 12, 2013]

Henry Glassie often commented to his students that the field most aligned with folkloristics in the late twentieth century was not anthropology but rather history. The turn to microhistory marked an interest in the same kinds of people and many of the same issues folkloristics had turned to since the 1950s. The volume Between Pulpit and Pew is an example of both how close these concerns can be and how wide the divide remains.

Just because folklorists would be keenly interested in a concept does not mean that others must be, but a book with “folklore” in the subtitle might reasonably be expected to engage with that field. However, none of the authors is a folklorist or appears to have formal training in the field (with one exception, they are historians). Although Between Pulpit and Pew is a collection of essays that attempt to limn the role of the supernatural in Latter-Day Saint (LDS or “Mormon”) vernacular religion, both historically and in modern times, it shows that the concerns of the authors are actually quite different from those of folklorists and that the flow of scholarly insight is rather one-directional, with folklorists having little impact on historians.

Despite some quite solid chapters on particular topics, the contribution of the volume to broader scholarship is unclear. The central problem with the volume that I suspect would not exist were it written from a folkloristic viewpoint is that the subtitle promises an examination of “the supernatural world in Latter-Day Saint history and folklore,” but the volume never provides a working definition of “supernatural” or a coherent view of what exactly is meant by it. (The closest it comes is in the introduction: “occurrences beyond the realm of empirical knowledge about the natural world…attributed…to gods, devils, angels, spirits, demons, extraterrestrial life, undiscovered fauna, and other phenomena currently outside the understanding of science.”)

As it happens, the issue of the supernatural is particularly thorny for any discussion of Mormon studies: Mormon theology maintains that God and other “supernatural” beings actually exist within the natural universe, not outside it. Thus, at the level of high theology at least, there is no supernatural category in Mormonism, but readers would be hard pressed to understand the complexity at work here. (In fairness, one of the authors, Matthew Bowman, does engage the issue of Mormon theology in this area in passing, but nowhere does the volume really grapple with the problematics of its central issue.)

For example, the applicability of the supernatural to UFOs and Bigfoot (two topics covered) is problematic even outside of Mormonism: if tomorrow it were proven that Bigfoot and UFOs met out in the Utah desert every Thursday at 9:00 pm (presumably with Elvis and Jimmy Hoffa), they could no longer be termed supernatural in any objective sense. So, as far as it is coherent, the category of supernatural at work in this book is not the one of the believers (who would argue that these things are real and, at least from a Mormon theological perspective, part of the natural order), nor is it an objective descriptor of anything about the subject; rather, it is a category about the scholars’ belief and, since most of the authors do not define the concept as they use it, we are left to ponder how actual Mormons might deal with the concept of the supernatural.

A side-effect of the lack of a coherent central theoretical question/framework is that the volume comes across as a bit of a grab-bag in terms of perspectives. While the individual pieces often succeed on their own, the framing of the book ends up undercutting the articles because they do not feel unified and do not provide a response to the central theme. The chapters would be better served if the book had another title that did not emphasize folklore and the problematic supernatural aspect. But because they do not rest comfortably in the promised framework, the collection ultimately does not work particularly well as a book.

The story that early LDS apostle David W. Patten met the Biblical Cain, condemned to roam the earth as a large, hairy man (and its popular connections to Bigfoot lore) is well-known to folklorists. Matthew Bowman’s first contribution deftly ties this legend into changing conceptions of race in Mormonism, and particularly to the faith’s troubled past with African Americans. He also does a particularly adept job of demonstrating how the use of this particular legend has changed over time to move away from a demonstration of “priesthood power” to a more typical format in which Cain scares people.

W. Paul Reeve’s examination of beliefs about Gadianton Robbers (an evil secret society in the Book of Mormon) and how beliefs about their ties to the Mormon landscape provided a way for participants in a colonization attempt to deal with their failure provides a nice model study for how believers can invoke external agents to account for mismatch between religious belief and reality.

Matthew Bowman’s second contribution to the volume focuses on the notion of raising the dead and dealing with cases where, despite all efforts, it doesn’t work. Not surprisingly, the Mormon response to failed attempts (versus widespread stories of successful attempts or spontaneous cases) was that God ultimately controls the success, and failed attempts must have been contrary to God’s will. (Discourse about the bounds of God’s will and human control are still very common in Mormon circles.)

Michael Scott Van Wagenen’s chapter deals with Mormon beliefs about UFOs. Here Mormon belief in the multiplicity of inhabited worlds naturally inclined many Mormons in the 1970s and 1980s to accept UFO narratives as factual. While active belief in UFOs has since declined among Mormons (as in broader American society), Van Wagenen is able to show a uniquely Mormon angle and way of dealing with UFO stories. However, this topic is one that shows just how problematic the concept of the supernatural is since Mormon belief in this case hinged on the notion that UFOs were actually natural.

Perhaps the most unique contribution to the volume is Kevin Cantera’s story of John Hyrum Koyle’s “Dream Mine.” Koyle had proclaimed visions of a mine that would produce large amounts of precious metals and save the LDS Church from financial ruin at some point in the future. Although later excommunicated from the Church over his claims, Koyle created a corporation to exploit the mine (which has never produced significant revenue), and shares are handed down within families. Cantera’s fieldwork reveals a range of interpretations and understandings of the mine and its role.

Alan Morrell’s contribution on the Bear Lake Monster (a sort of Utah version of the Loch Ness Monster) ultimately finds very little specifically Mormon in the story, but instead situates it in a broader interest in monsters and belief in hidden creatures. In this examination he shows that Mormons, despite their well-known insularity in the nineteenth century, were surprisingly well integrated into broader societal trends.

The final chapter, by Stanley W. Thayne (a religious studies scholar and the lone non-historian author), produces the contribution closest in spirit to folkloristics. He does a nice job of dealing with the contested divide of rationality and the miraculous by examining how non-Mormons historically attempted to debunk claims of (LDS founder) Joseph Smith’s prophetic powers through narratives in which he tries, but fails, to walk on water. Thayne demonstrates that such narratives were common ways of dealing with miraculous claims before Smith as well, and thus the narratives fit into an ongoing battle between skeptical debunking and belief in the miraculous, stances often held by the same person depending on who is on the end of the debunking.

Altogether, these articles provide a solid contribution for those interested in Mormon studies and particularly Mormon folklore. Whether the volume is particularly useful to those interested in broader religious studies or folklore studies is less clear. Individual articles may provide useful comparative data for those examining similar issues in other traditions. But ultimately the value of the volume for general folklore studies is not as great as it could be because of the limited coherence and unexamined status of the central topic, which is a shame because the individual cases could, with only slight adjustment, contribute greatly to a more general understanding of the supernatural as a category and how it is contested in religious communities.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.