Author: Price, Barton E
Date published: March 1, 2013
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Book Reviews and Notes
Stephen Taysom's study of the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing (Shakers) and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) provides a litany of modes whereby both groups set themselves against the backdrop of the social, cultural, and economic environments of nineteenth-century America. His thesis is that both groups held a "'high tension' with American culture" (3) but that there was a substantive difference in the kind of tension each group maintained.
The book's organization presents the boundary markers and adaptations that each group constructed and underwent. The first boundary marker is spatial order. The Shakers established their villages separate from American society. Taysom observes that the organization of the villages was intended to create order in contrast to the perceived chaos of antebellum America wrought by structural changes in the wake of the revolution and market economy. However, Shakers were never entirely severed because they participated in the economic network, and because they allowed visitors onto their hallowed grounds. In fact these activities allowed the Shakers to perform a greater amount of holiness by demonstrating that holiness to non-Shakers. The Mormons also ordered space, but they did so by laying claim to a sacred center in the American landscape. This claim allowed them to mark a distinction from their non-Mormon neighbors. The second boundary marker was sexuality. Both communities are well known for their unconventional sexual practices. Taysom's analysis of these sexualities does not dwell on their proclivities but instead directs the readers to consider how sexuality was crucial to the formation of these groups' identities.
Those identities were challenged at times, and Taysom goes at length to distinguish the sources and outcomes of those challenges. His fourth chapter compares the Shakers' Era of Manifestations and the Mormon Reformation. Only the Era of Manifestations, Taysom concludes, was an actual crisis. The Mormon Reformation was a fabricated crisis propagated by the Mormon hierarchy. The end goal was the rejuvenation of piety by the Mormon rank and file. The Era of Manifestations was also a period of revival in the Shaker community, but one whose grassroots upstart prompted Shaker leaders to accommodate changes and integrate new practices. This adaptation by the Shakers was a response to crisis from within the community. The Mormons' accommodations resulted from external threats. These adaptations often involved reworking the Mormon teaching on boundary markers. When Mormons could no longer reside in Zion, they reformulated their notion of the sacred center to be the individual body protected by priestly garments. When Mormons' practice of plural marriage threatened the longevity of their community, they ended the practice and explained it away as a temporal fulfillment of revelation. At every crisis, the Mormons were adept at embracing certain practices at their appointed times and seasons.
Taysom's strength lies in his detailed presentation of the archival material that illuminates his narrative. When his analysis relies on historical evidence, Taysom is at his best. However, there are occasions when he leans more heavily on scholarly theory and terminology. This is especially evident in chapter 1. Rather, it may have been better to outline all of his organizing concepts in the introduction and then affirm each concept with the historical examples in each chapter. This concern is not too grave to obstruct the appreciation of Taysom's revelations. There are times, though, when his conclusions could have been connected. For example, the Mormons' shift toward the sacredness of their bodies happened along with the practice of plural marriage. Taysom would have served the readers by pointing to any direct connections between these practices. Another helpful concept that could guide Taysom's analysis of the Mormon Reformation is scholarship on revitalization movements. The supposed crisis of confidence within the LDS Church is very similar to the crises among Native Americans that prompted spiritual renewals.
The significance of this volume is that it reinvigorates our understanding of what R. Laurence Moore termed "religious outsiders." Taysom focuses on ways in which Shakers and Mormons constructed their boundaries as outsiders; however, these outsiders also think of themselves as insiders. Both the Mormons and the Shakers were part of the restorationist movement. Therefore, each group considered itself to be the true form of Christianity. Their boundary markers were not just ways of distinguishing from mainstream American culture and society but also as a method to distinguish themselves from mainstream Christianity. Their boundary markers were restorations of what each group perceived as the correct fulfillment of Christ-like holiness. Taysom's chapter on sexuality is best at recognizing this fact without explicitly stating it.
In addition to its scholarly accomplishments, this book has pedagogical utility. As Taysom observes, he worked through these ideas in classes he has taught. His examples are provocative and his writing is accessible. These attributes make the book useful in the classroom and should elicit lively discussion among students. Overall, Taysom's book is a worthy addition to the ever-growing corpus of American religious history.
Grand Valley State University