REVIEW: Partridge, “Thirteenth Apostle: The Diaries of Amasa M. Lyman”

Scott H. Partridge, ed., The Thirteenth Apostle: The Diaries of Amasa M. Young, 1832-1877 (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2016).

Amasa Lyman is a difficult person to situate within the Mormon tradition. On the one hand, he was a fervent believer, a devoted follower of Joseph Smith, a dogged defender of the gospel, a diligent pioneer, and a committed diary keeper. Yet his life was also full of quixotic divergences from the mainstream as well as substantial complications. The very title of this new volume of Lyman’s diaries hints at his liminal status: The Thirteenth Apostle. Lyman was called as an apostle when Orson Pratt was temporarily dropped from the quorum, but when Pratt was restored Lyman was stuck as a thirteenth wheel. He was then called to the First Presidency when Joseph Smith wanted to drop Sidney Rigdon, but when the latter didn’t happen the former was left in limbo. Lyman’s very ecclesiastical position highlighted an inability to fit in. With the publication of his diaries, Scott Partridge and the staff at Signature Books have provided us an important entrypoint not only into Lyman’s odd life, but also the community whose boundaries he frequently tested. 

After decades of frequent missionary, scouting, and leadership expeditions between his conversion in the early 1830s and 1863, Lyman’s liminality became an issue once more once he settled in Utah. He was called upon to defend his unorthodox positions—he preached a famous sermon in which he said Christ’s divinity was not necessary for the exaltation of man—and after he was stripped of his apostleship and later excommunicated from the Church he became a prominent spiritualist and leader in a dissident liberal Mormon body in Salt Lake City. He participated in a number of seances, communed with dead spirits like Joseph Smith, and lectured in public halls. He was a thorn in the side of the LDS institution while still living in their midst. All but one of his eight plural wives left him (though one passed away before the episode), and his son, Francis, became an LDS apostle shortly after Amasa’s death. The renegade figure’s story would not be completely righted until 1904 when his membership, priesthood, and apostleship were restored—by Joseph F Smith, the man who had in 1867 replaced Lyman in the quorum, no less. Talk about life on the frontier. 

This volume reproduces entries from all of Lyman’s diaries, with a few exceptions. Partridge understandably did not copy all the mathematical and grammar insertions. (Lyman used his diaries for several purposes.) And there are inexplicably no diaries that cover the years surrounding Lyman’s heresy trial and drop from the quorum. It is very difficult to contemplate that that period, of all the periods in Lyman’s life, was the period he didn’t keep a record. But whether he truly chose to take a break from his diaries, or whether something else happened to them, they do not exist in the public record. While Partridge’s project was underway the LDS Church History Library, who possess the original volumes, have uploaded scans of a majority of the entries. (This in no way decreases the convenience of having them in a transcribed, printed copy, of course.)

A majority of the diary entries through 1868 capture the tedious details of life on the road as a missionary. They are mostly terse and with the most bare observations. Yet once Lyman settled in Utah, and especially after he became a leader in a dissenting spiritualist church, the material becomes far more interesting. On May 8, 1870, he “announced to [his family] my intention to resume preaching the [Godbe] gospel.” The news “gave them much pain” (614). Though Partridge claims this spiritualist movement was a “fad” in the broader American community (xxi), it was actually a strong and tangible cultural feature. The many popular seance meetings in Salt Lake City were merely one part of a much larger web of spiritualist belonging. Especially after the Civil War, where Americans experienced death and loss like never before, many turned to this new mode of communication that supposedly transcended death. Therefore, Lyman’s detailed accounts should be of immense interest to scholars of American religion who aim to trace this phenomenon in its many expressions. 

Some of the reports of these spiritualist encounters were mundane, like “Received some words purporting to come from Joseph Smith through Mr [John M.] Spear” (624), but as Lyman became more converted to the process the accounts became much more detailed. In one seance Theodore Turley received guidance from his deceased daughter “in regard to treating the cancer with which he is afflicted” (639). In another, Joseph Smith channeled a woman in order to affirm that “humanity will be lifted up from their narrowmimdedness” as a result of Lyman’s new, liberal church (640). Some messages are received through knocking, and some spiritual visitors complain about their medium’s inability to cooperate. Scholars of spiritual mediums will be rewarded with the rich detail Lyman provides of these practices. 

There are a number of other noteworthy elements in the book. One fascinating thread to chase is Joseph Smith’s son, David Hyrum, who traveled to Utah to convert Mormons to the RLDS faith but was instead converted by Lyman to spiritualism (710-716). Another is Lyman’s fraught relationship with his family, as some children remained close to him after his “apostasy” while others shunned him and reaffirmed their allegiance to the church. Lyman’s entries concerning his family are certainly sparse, but there is enough there to reconstruct an important gendered picture of the Lyman household(s). 

But perhaps the most exciting tale woven within Lyman’s diaries, at least to me, is that it provides material with which we can reconstruct a dissenting and liberal culture that flourished in Salt Lake City just down the street from Brigham Young’s headquarters. Territorial Utah, even when Young was in charge, was far from the tyrannical environment typically depicted. On the very same blocks where general church meetings were held there were also seances, dissenting rallies, and apostate lectures. Utah’s capital was a much more diverse and pluralistic space than Mormon leaders wanted people to believe. 

That said, readers will have to slog through a lot of tedious material to get to the good stuff. The decision to publish the diaries in total made the volume both long and dense. One might argue that it would have been more useful to be more selective on what was included—which would have allowed them to include selected letters and sermons, as originally envisioned—but that would have been a different project. Given the framework they chose, Thirteenth Apostle is a wonderful resource. Scholars of Mormon missionary work, leadership dynamics, territorial Utah, and dissenting traditions will be well rewarded by engaging this excellent collection. 

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Thomas Parkes says:

    Professor Park: You really had me going there for a couple minutes. I’m sure someone has called your attention by now to the error in your posted review book title: i.e.”Thirteenth Apostle: The Diaries of Amasa M. Young.” versus Amasa M. Lyman , as it should have read. Yes, I’m sure Amasa Lyman is a difficult person to situate within the Mormon tradition, What I wonder about is how Amasa’s son, Francis, dealt with his father’s various deviances , yet remained faithful. Are you aware of any of Francis’ writings on this topic? [Additional note: Francis touched my grandfather, Thomas H.G. Parkes, life when he reorganized the Juab Stake in Nephi, Utah, on August 14th, 1914. Apparently something happened during that process that offended many of the local members, causing the First Presidency to send Elder James E. Talmage to the November 1915 Juab Stake Conference with a straight-forward plea for unity. He said, “There is no reason for the ensuing spirit of disharmony to continue.” (Juab County Times, 12 November 1915). It would be interesting to know what else Elder Talmage may have said, but which was not quoted by the newspaper…}

    Thanks for your Blog. Thomas D. Parkes Prescott, AZ

    Like

    1. Benjamin Park says:

      Yes, embarrassing typos like that are what happen when I write at midnight on my phone. (Luckily someone alerted me right after the post went up–it shouldn’t have had “Young” in the title since 8am or so this morning.)

      Like

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