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Monumental or Vainglorious?

An examination of the Mormon attempt to catalogue the human race

Salem Alaton

Some Family: The Mormons and How Humanity Keeps Track of Itself

Donald Harman Akenson

McGill-Queen’s University Press

335 pages, hardcover

The Temple Square, Mormonism’s world epicentre in Salt Lake City, features structures inspired by the Europe of centuries ago, but its overall effect is distinctly New World. All references to historic architecture, even the massive, six-spire temple itself, are buffed bright as the Utah salt flats, while the curvilinear interior of the adjacent visitors’ centre aspires to somebody’s dream of the future. Not unlike the religion of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints itself, Temple Square holds the glinting revelation of a new penny.

This coin is forged from far older metals, however, some dug so deeply in the crevices of the Hebrew bible and early Christian church as to startle modern observers. Several years ago, those of us in a small tour group being shown around the square by an adolescent church volunteer were embarrassed when one man smirkingly asked, “So, how many wives did Joseph Smith have?” A flush mottled our young guide’s cheeks as she answered, “I don’t know.” It was an awkwardly implausible response, given that the subject was the founding prophet of her religion and that the historical answer to the question—at least 32—is rather vivid. A very old idea, polygamy was a centrepiece of Smith’s fervently American quest for the new, in this case a rewritten Christianity on which his followers of 1830 were, as historian Donald Harman Akenson notes in Some Family: The Mormons and How Humanity Keeps Track of Itself, “deliriously keen.” 

Plural marriage has been forbidden by the principal Mormon church since 1890, yet its phenomenon in the early decades of the religion (and continuance through today by breakaway, fundamentalist Mormon sects such as the one resident in Bountiful, British Columbia) embodies much more than a lurid peculiarity that outsiders scowl or snicker at. If the Judeo-Christian God stands as the apotheosis of male fecundity, so could the patriarchs of the church make their own approach to godliness through a multiplication of marriage and blood paternity. For a time, the Latter-Day Saints essentially mandated polygyny, the taking of several wives with the object of extending the Mormon presence on earth and arriving at what Smith called celestial marriage in the afterlife. Circumnavigating the celibacy of Jesus, the inspiration for fruitfulness here issued from Adam, himself the figure of God in Smith’s translation of scripture and the father of humankind.

If all the branches of our family trees could be traced back roughly six millennia to the biblical origins of the world, it followed, something akin to a biological connection to the Creator would be seen, a lineage by which a “latter-day saint” could also aspire to divinity. For industrial-era folk attaching a merely metaphorical sense to the idea of man being made in God’s image, Joseph Smith had something more bracingly literal in mind.

That there is hubris in the Mormon ethos is a point Donald Akenson makes repeatedly in Some Family. But Akenson, a Queen’s University scholar of Canadian and colonial history who has written extensively on the Judeo-Christian narrative, can hardly get around his academic debt to the Mormon hubris either. In making anew another old and still more esoteric scriptural idea—that the dead of past generations can be posthumously baptized—the Mormons have been driven to create the most extensive genealogical resource in the world. Through the International Genealogical Index, Ancestral File and Pedigree Resource File, the Latter-Day Saints have fashioned a library that, like all truly extensive genealogies, melds historical data with literary narrative and mythological aspiration, doing it all on the grand scale the Mormon church has always been drawn to.

Like the aesthetic of the visitors’ centre in Temple Square, there is a patina of science fiction to popular references to the Granite Mountain Record Vault, with its 13-ton doors guarding a repository of two billion names on microfilm in chambers that could endure an atomic explosion. Some secular researchers find much to crave within it. For whatever tenuousness of coherence outsiders may find in Mormonism’s origins and suppositions, the culture’s capacity to render hearty results—Mormon Utah as a leading success story of American capitalism comes to mind—is ineluctable. With just 13 million or so adherents in the world—resonantly the same number as there are Jews—Mormonism punches considerably above its weight, the genealogical enterprise being a core component of its fitness regimen.

Akenson underlines at the outset that the effort of humanity keeping track of itself, as per Some Family’s subtitle, rather than the particulars of the Mormon undertaking, is the true subject of his book. Actually, the work is something of a mélange, sometimes jaunty, sometimes scrupulously dense, of academic and narrative inspirations. A colourful opening section traces the development of Joseph Smith from a nervous, self-invented figure “operating on the moral border between being a superstitious savant and a confidence-man” to what Akenson dubs (with a certain diplomatic ambiguity) “a full-fledged prophet in the biblical sense of the term.” 

Key among Smith’s revelations was the call to a divinely commanded mission that had been absent elsewhere in Christianity since the fourth century and that would continue to bolster the church long after multiple marriage had been dropped in exchange for operating leverage within U.S. society. Mormon rituals of baptizing, sealing and endowing the dead—we do not learn the ceremonial particulars of these—quickly became such a fervent, community-defining activity that the early temple was for a time on a 24-hour shift. Akenson points out that this had significant family-bonding implications, not least in freeing parents to grow emotionally closer to their children, by securing afterlife togetherness at a time of high infant and child death.

Some Family then goes on to a fairly extensive analysis of the world’s varied grammars of genealogical ascent. The latter word underlines the point that as with the Mormons, humans are often looking for elevation to their divine origins, frequently as a means of defining a tribe, and in contrast to the Darwinian apostasy of descent. Akenson cites Harold Bloom’s observation that “the prestige of origins is a universal phenomenon.” More prosaically, of course, humans have long been at pains to employ genealogy as certification for claims to property and title. The upshot between these impulses is that retaining a sense of lineage is what Akenson calls one of but two “likely cultural universals” (the other being the search for or avoidance of gods). 

For the lay reader, the discussion here holds some of the pleasures of an anthropological history like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies: one is taken on a sustained excursion through a challenging but generally accessible thicket of detail on how historians try to figure things out. Diagrams and schematics dot the effort to explain such culturally varied means of lineage keeping as matrilineal, patrilineal, standard double (matrilineal and patrilineal) and variable double (sometimes one, sometimes the other) systems. The genealogy of the Hebrew bible is explained and there are intriguing examples ranging from the oral tradition of the Maori to the culture of pre-Christian Ireland employed to demonstrate how genealogical memory has been adapted and sustained across the centuries. Amateur genealogy having emerged as one of the western world’s most popular pastimes in recent decades, Akenson is writing to a broader audience than one might imagine.

The overarching paradox is that the vast majority of genealogical efforts capture nothing like a true biological lineage of ancestry, and certainly not when going back further than four centuries. Along with making this case throughout, Akenson furnishes several appendices detailing the conundrum. Innumerable distorting factors intervene in tracing lineage, from uncertainties of paternity (and even maternity), adoption, polygamy, inbreeding and incest to the deliberate wrenching of fact into fiction to achieve the desired connections. Most significantly, genealogy has not historically been about biological tracking at all but rather what Akenson terms “the collection of certain socially approved stories.” 

As in the genealogical contortions of New Testament scripture to valorize Jesus as a descendant of King David, social purpose here is often religious purpose. The Mormon genealogical effort has proceeded with church purposes uppermost, with the urge for sheer volume trumping the tedious conventions required for historicity. The ongoing Mormon effort may ultimately yield genealogical reference to something like 5 percent of the roughly 104 billion humans who have lived. If less than a third of that data repository is accurate, well, “thirty percent of something is a lot more than 100 percent of nothing,” offers Akenson.

Scholarly critiques will have no impact on the continuing Mormon effort to build a single, comprehensive narrative of humanity, in any event. And even some of the most critical scholars find things of interest in that narrative. “Enjoy the process,” counsels Akenson on the matter of delving into the Mormon genealogical holdings, “but never forget that it is a really good story, nothing more, nothing less.” 

This last glides rather too smoothly over the point that many people are quite unable to enjoy the process and find much that is not good in the story. While this titanic project of the Latter-Day Saints preserves some amount of useable data for secular researchers, the underlying religious agenda here has also made for considerable unease. That is not hard to understand. However quixotic the ambition, the driving force here is an implicit effort to posthumously “convert” the historical entirety of humankind to Mormonism.

Unsurprisingly, some of the more insistent complaints have come from Jewish organizations, particularly in the wake of revelations 13 years ago that the names of nearly 400,000 Jews murdered in the Holocaust had been the object of church baptisms, news received in some quarters as a form of soul murder succeeding corporeal extermination. An agreement by the church in 1995 to desist from the practice has been abrogated at times since, a point made prominent when the name of the late Nazi war-criminal investigator Simon Wiesenthal popped up on Mormon lists last year.

Other Christian churches, already at odds with Mormonism’s extensive recasting of scripture, have voiced their own objections. For that matter, the entitlement of Mormons to make spiritual decisions even for their own pre-Mormon ancestors might reasonably be questioned. Mormon church apologists have described the baptizing, sealing and endowing of the dead as a “gift” offered in the afterlife that can be accepted or rejected by the named party; but one could fairly wonder how Mormons might respond if it were their kin being catalogued for posthumous travel arrangements by Muslims, for example, or Shinto priests or an international network of Wiccans. Akenson is caught here like a dance troupe director necessarily grateful for support from a tobacco firm; while elaborating the problems of Mormon genealogical methodology, he slips past these other concerns with a single paragraph commencing with the word “parenthetically.” But to those on the receiving end, there is nothing parenthetical about the cancer of invasive proselytism.

Elsewhere, Akenson challenges the usual view of Mormonism as “fairly weird”—Smith declared Jesus preached in the United States right after his resurrection, for example—with some success: “In fact, Mormonism is no more banjaxed [broken] mentally than are any of the major western religions with which it competes: it’s just that we are apt to be more familiar with these others, so they do not seem bizarre.” 

Fair enough. Akenson delivers the reader an informative survey of how genealogical systems work in different cultures around the world and his rendering of Joseph Smith’s story is inevitably engaging. What is left out of Some Family is the salient existential question we cannot reasonably expect him to answer but which begs to be asked anyhow: What is it all for? Mormons and secular historians both have answers which may apply better to them than the rest of us. Certainly, whatever their otherworldly ambitions, the Latter-Day Saints have retained an excellent grasp on thriving in this world, and posthumous baptism has done a great deal to that end through fostering church cohesion and growth. And to the extent that even flawed genealogy (as is all genealogy) functions as a research tool for the humanities and social sciences, there is sense enough in the effort for anyone to accept. Yet from certain vantages the impossible undertaking in Utah seems less monumental, as Akenson describes it, than vainglorious, even fatuous.

“We all need the sense of being part of a succession for our own lives to be licit,” Akenson tells us. “That succession can be scientific, genealogical, mythological, empirical, ideological, and religious all at once.” The problem is that all of these elements, including the scientific and empirical ones, refer to belief systems, which means they total some bricks less than a load for many contemporary people. Secular humanists may note that essentially all successions are problematic; our past can also make us seem illicit. More to the point, lineage may prove scant shelter in any real confrontation with our nothingness.

For all the trumpeting of genealogy in the biblical tradition Joseph Smith set out to rewrite, for all the resonance issuing there from who begat whom, the human lot of an utterly transitory existence remains paramount, no less in the belly of Utah’s Granite Mountain than anywhere else. “As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field,” it says in Psalms [103:15–16]. “For the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.”

Salem Alaton is a former Globe and Mail arts reporter and features writer.