Sponsored by BYU Studies—I recently had the privilege to interview Benjamin E. Park. He is an assistant professor of history at Sam Houston University and is working as a visiting fellow with the Maxwell Institute. Park is the author of “American Nationalisms: Imagining Union in the Age of Revolutions, 1783-1833,” and is researching the political culture of Navuoo, Illinois, in the 1840s.
Kurt Manwaring: Welcome! Before we begin, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you first fell in love with history?
Benjamin Park: After serving an LDS mission in Washington DC, I decided, on a whim, to participate in BYU’s semester-long study program in Nauvoo. (I was lucky to be in the final semester of the program’s existence.) It was there, in the City of Joseph, that I fell in love with LDS history, and I decided I wanted to choose a profession that would make that my primary focus.
Within a few semesters, however, I learned that what I loved was not just LDS history, but American history more broadly-defined, so my interests took me elsewhere, and I wrote a dissertation on early American political culture.
I retained a love for Nauvoo, however, so I was thrilled to return to the topic for my second book.
Kurt Manwaring: How did your relationship with the Maxwell Institute begin? Was there a formal application process to be a Visiting Fellow or was it setup through personal networking?
Benjamin Park: Spencer Fluhman, the Institute’s director, taught the first class I took when I returned to BYU after my mission. That class shaped my love for history, and I have been fortunate to have him as a mentor ever since. When I was trying to figure out a way to finish my current Nauvoo book project, I reached out to him about a possible writing fellowship. To his credit and generosity, he agreed, and we worked through the necessary paperwork and application materials to make it happen.
Kurt Manwaring: What research advantages do you expect to find working on site at the Maxwell Institute? Do you anticipate you will leave with any new research questions?
Benjamin Park: The Maxwell Institute provided two things that I needed: space and time for writing the book, uninterrupted, as well as a vibrant environment to discuss my ideas with other scholars. It has been a dream to spend all day working on the book, and then going out to lunch with other brilliant BYU employees/fellows to bounce off my crazy ideas and determine what, exactly, has merit.
I hope to leave with a better sense of how various audiences will receive my book’s arguments.
Kurt Manwaring: Are there any scholars at the Maxwell Institute who have influenced your approach to history? Similarly, do think there are any Maxwell Institute scholars who have been influenced by you?
Benjamin Park: I have no idea if I have influenced anyone else, but I am certainly keen to the people who have influenced me. Spencer Fluhman has always served as an idol for my historical approach, particularly using Mormonism to view wider historical issues. Terryl Givens, who is also on fellowship, is a writer whose style I hope to emulate. Janiece Johnson and Deidre Green, also fellows with the Maxwell Institute, provide great feedback and encouragement for how to better integrate women in my narrative.
Kurt Manwaring: What responsibility do historians have in the age of social media to be able to communicate their research to a mass audience? Who are some of today’s historians you look to as examples for making solid history accessible to the masses?
Benjamin Park: I don’t know how to gauge the responsibility of all historians to speak to a broader audience—I think it varies by person and position—but I view my personal role as tethered to a public voice. We live in an age of historical amnesia at the historical level, and due to my privileged position as an academic professor I feel the obligation of validating my profession by helping alleviate that problem. I can’t complain about America’s inability to comprehend the significance of the past if I am not working to solve the problem myself.
Kurt Manwaring: What are some of the obstacles to doing research of Nauvoo in the 1840s?
Benjamin Park: There’s an obvious problem of trying not to place contemporary ideas and assumptions on those of the past—as a historian, I am tasked to reconstruct a lost world that can be quite different from our own—but I’ve found other issues, as well. Most scholars of the 1840s struggle to find enough sources, but I have the opposite problem: I sometimes have too many! Mormons were excellent record keepers, so it is nearly impossible to be comprehensive in research, but those records can often be slanted, incomplete, and narrow.
How do I properly dissect those sources while keeping in mind that they only provide a partial picture?
Kurt Manwaring: What kind of clarity have the Council of Fifty minutes provided for your research? Did you have an outstanding research question that the minutes resolved?
Benjamin Park: The publication of the Council of Fifty minutes was what prompted me to furlough the second book project I originally envisioned and instead turn my focus to Nauvoo. Most people, when they see the Council of Fifty record and its “radical” contents, assume that it is out-of-place for antebellum America.
My task—and the goal of my entire Nauvoo book project—is to decipher how those minutes fit into their wider world; what anxieties of nineteenth-century America does the council exhibit, and what can it tell us about early American democracy?
Kurt Manwaring: How do you think Joseph Smith would perceive modern political extremism—either liberal or conservative?
Benjamin Park: Like all people, Smith was a product of his time, and he reflected an age of political agitation. On the one hand, he—like nearly every political candidate in American history—denounced party-ism and political division. His refrain that what we need is not a “Democratic” president or a “Whig” president, but an “American” president, is reminiscent of recent campaign slogans.
But Smith was also quick to denounce political opponents as wrong-headed and dangerous. He described Martin Van Buren as a “huckstering politician,” for instance, and he exchanged rather testy letters with John C. Calhoun. As much as we wish we could return to a “golden age” of American politics that weren’t divisive and extreme, I’m afraid there was never such a point.
Kurt Manwaring: Are there any ways in which the Church’s political endeavors today mirror that of the Church in the 1840s?
Benjamin Park: I think there is a crucial tension, or paradox, that you find in both modern and Nauvoo-era Church ambitions: on the one hand, they want to be left alone and merely afforded the rights of any church body; simultaneously, they also want to express their opinions on certain matters that they feel are crucial to society.
While today’s church is far less likely to immediately intervene in political matters—like when Smith would encourage saints to vote for a particular candidate—they are willing to speak out when they feel an issue has moral implications, like what they’ve done just this year on marijuana legislation. To outsiders, these moves are sometimes interpreted as testing the boundaries between Church and State.
Kurt Manwaring: Could you give readers a preview of what you will be covering in your December 2018 “Church History” article, “Joseph Smith’s Kingdom of God: The Council of Fifty and the Mormon Challenge to American Democracy”?
Benjamin Park: The Mormons who gathered in Nauvoo believed that America’s democratic society had failed them—the state and nation refused to offer redress after their expulsion from Illinois, and majoritarian rule seemed to always trample on the rights of minority groups.
What was to be done?
In response, they offered a number of projects that they felt would stabilize society—bloc voting, federal petitions, and even secret theocratic organizations, all of these initiatives were designed to strengthen their place within a world growing out of control. Even their controversial practice of polygamy was depicted as a way to restore stability in an anarchic society. Outside Nauvoo, of course, the Mormons were seen as a threat to democratic society, as their actions could upend a tenuous balance of political control.
Today, we see democracy as an obvious virtue; in the 1840s, it was still seen as an experiment. Viewing Nauvoo as a moment of democratic crisis, then, helps us see one chapter in a longer story of political development.
Kurt Manwaring: If you could go back in time and spend six months living in Nauvoo in the 1840s, what single research question would you make your focus?
Benjamin Park: I’d love to get a better sense of how everyday Mormons—those who did not hold leadership positions, but rather lived quiet lives trying to fulfill their civic and faith obligations—understood these larger currents. How confident were they that Nauvoo could navigate America’s tumultuous waters?
It is their perspective that I believe is missing from our common narratives of Mormon history, and I’m doing my best to capture that even if we don’t have as many records from them.
Time-traveling to Nauvoo would be one way to solve that problem!