The Giant Joshua

Outside of the Book of Mormon, the highest achievement in Mormon literature is possibly Maureen Whipple’s largely forgotten classic novel, The Giant Joshua. Certainly one of my favorites. Unlike the Book of Mormon, it isn’t chloroform in print. Whipple’s book deals rather heartbreakingly with the harsh conditions the early pioneers faced settling southern Utah, including all the thorny problems one would imagine inherent in their avowal of polygamy. I suppose it is for this reason the book ruffled many a feather tick when it was first published in 1941, but for my money no book has done a better job of helping to humanize the early Saints.

When the elder missionary at the Hill Cumorah Mormon Visitor Center told us he was from St. George, I looked at his badge and saw the last name “Whipple” and asked, “You related to Maureen Whipple?” “Yes, he tells me. I’m her nephew.” The man looked to be somewhere between seventy and eighty years of age, but his eyes lit up with renewed enthusiasm at my recognition. “We just called her ‘Reen’,” he went on. “You know, she was living with us when she wrote that book. Really struggling with it. Finally my mother put her in a spare room and said, ‘you sit here and write. Don’t worry about anything else.’ She brought her breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” “Did she ever write anything else?” “Oh sure, articles for Look magazine, other national magazines.” “Any other novels?” “No.” Any other fiction?” “No. No, that was the only one. Real controversial book when it first came out. I remember a lot of people in St. George were upset by it, especially her portrayal of polygamy.” “I bet.” “Yup, Aunt ‘Reen.” “Has anyone ever written her biography?” “Not that I know of.” “Anyone collected her other writings?” “Someone in the family has. Some of them.” I let him know it was great talking to him and that The Giant Joshua was one of my favorite novels.

This wasn’t our first chance encounter with someone during our Mormon road trip. Brother Funk ran into his eighth grade basketball coach, now an elder missionary, inside the Independence, Missouri, Mormon visitor’s center. Again, in Palmyra, there was a young Sister from Logan, Funk’s hometown. The two of them exchanged last names and found some common connections. Small insular world, this Mormonism.

The Disneyfication of Everything

Your stay in Historic Nauvoo begins with a horse cart ride. Everything in Nauvoo is scripted. Every restored or rebuilt home run by the Mormons comes complete with a moral message. There’s an elder in the front, sitting next to the teamster, chiming in from time to time with humorous anecdotes. A sister—his wife?—sits in the back of the carriage wearing a wireless head mic. She solemnly sticks to the script. They pass through the sites owned by the Community of Christ: the Smith family gravesites, the old store, and the Smith family home. It costs three dollars, they say, to tour these places, but well worth it.

If you continue to wear your Community of Christ admission sticker like a badge of shame, expect snide remarks from the Mormon missionaries the rest of the day: “Oh, that’s the three dollar sticker! Haha!” with Calvinistic implication they’re the true church by virtue of wealth and numbers. As if to reinforce this disparity, the Community of Christ tour ends with a visit to the Red Brick Store where visitors are encourage to check the books to see if their ancestors have any outstanding debits. If your last name appears in the book, the guide will rib you about how you now have a chance to make good on your family’s debt. Fortunately, they haven’t yet heard of compound interest.

Back on the LDS side of things, you’re encouraged to get a free cookie at the bakery, a free “prairie diamond” at the blacksmith shop, then learn about rifling and a gun empire that began in Nauvoo. Sorry, no free weaponry. At the post office, they’ll demonstrate how letters were mailed using a single piece of letter as both stationary and envelope. And if that’s not enough, they’ll also explain how the town’s inhabitants wrote cross-wise from top to bottom and left to right in a remarkable display of pioneer thrift. All interesting tidbits. Then comes the spiritual lesson. Oops, time to duck out. Ah, this is why their side of things is free. You have to endure a little proselytizing. Suddenly three bucks doesn’t seem like such an extravagant expenditure. But they’re in the business of saving souls. “Did you know when you place a piece of paper on top, you can decipher the letters on this page line by line? This here paper is like the Holy Ghost.” A distinct and disembodied spirit, as conceived by the Mormons, who helps guide people who have received his blessing. “Do you have the Holy Ghost in your life?”

Fortunately there were numerous occasions where the volunteer army of aging sisters and elders unintentionally let the seams—and their humanity—show. There was the really nice lady working at the Brigham Young home. She seemed constitutionally unable to stick to the script. We had a lengthy conversation about polygamy and she said she had been studying Brigham Young’s history and was just fascinated by all she had learned since coming to Nauvoo.

At the Lyon’s drug store, the ladies handed me their cue cards, after a long disagreement about whether they were allowed to let people into Patty Sessions’ cabin any longer. The laminated deck of index cards, comprised mostly of footnotes, included, I suppose, for the purpose of placating pestering folks like me. The introduction was a single sentence about the Word of Wisdom and the cue cards directed the sisters to make it the focus of their tour. But in the footnotes there was something more interesting: did you know Sylvia Sessions was the only “spiritual wife” of Joseph Smith to ever claim to have had one of his children? The footnotes go on, in Hugh Nibley style, to say this claim was later disproved by DNA evidence. By whom and when? The footnotes didn’t say.

Nauvoo Neighbors

Enoch Bartlett Tripp

Patty Bartlett Sessions is an ancestor on my mother’s side, a fourth great aunt. I once read in her diary how she had “put a woman down with child” and realized that woman was a relative on my father’s side, a third great grandmother. Given how close-knit of a group the early Saints were, I’ve wondered whether any of my other ancestors might have known one another. I didn’t find any conclusive proof in Nauvoo, but I did see that the Sessions home and Lyon Drugstore were just a block and a half away from the Yearsley home. Even though Nauvoo once rivaled the population of Chicago with some 12,000 residents, I feel fairly confident that some of these ancestors probably knew each other and well.

While in Nauvoo, I visited the Land and Title building, which is where they send anyone who starts asking questions about their ancestors. There, I received a CD full of useful information, including the conversion story of Enoch Bartlett Tripp, my third great grandfather on my mother’s father’s side:

About five miles from Nauvoo, I saw a man with a gun on his shoulder and my heart jumped, not knowing but that the stage driver might be a Mormon too, and that they might conspire to take my life. My eye was on a good look-out from one to the other, until we had left the man with the gun far in our rear.

As my cousin, Sylvia Sessions, had married W.P Lyon, a merchant in the city, I asked the driver if he knew W.P. Lyon. He said he did, so I took out fifty cents which I gave him and asked, “Will this pay you for your trouble to drive me to his store before you stop at any other place?” He answered, “that it would.” I felt if I could only get among my relatives and reveal to them who I was, I would be safe.

On arriving at the Lyon Store, December 24, 1845, I asked if Mr. Lyon was in. The gentleman answered, “I am the man.” I asked if I could see his wife and he opened the door and called her. They lived in the back part of the store. She came in, and when I informed her that I was E.B. Tripp from the state of Maine, she grabbed me by the hand and asked, “Is this cousin Enoch B. Tripp?” I answered, “It is.” She greeted me with a kiss and thanked the Lord that he had preserved her life to behold some of her blood relatives from Maine. I was introduced to her husband and then taken into the dwelling part of the building, and her father, mother and brothers were sent for, and all greeted me with a most hearty welcome. The fear of being killed had now to a great degree left me.

I was much prejudiced against the Mormons because of all the bad reports I had heard of them, thinking they were a set of thieves, robbers and murders, and that they were kept together by their leaders through secret oaths. After being introduced into their society and to some of their leading men, and after partaking of the kindness and courtesy extended to me and seeing how strict they were in their faith, asking the blessings upon their food and prayers in their families, I asked myself, “Are the reports about the Mormons true?” The answer came, “No!”

I ventured one day to ask Aunt Patty Sessions to let me see the Mormons’ golden bible. With a smile, she brought forward a large bible and said, “That is all the bible we Mormons have.” Being well posted in the bible, I looked it over and said it was like our bible. Aunt Patty replied, “It is the same kind of bible that I have heard your father preach from many a time in the state of Maine. The only difference between your father’s beliefs and ours in the bible is that your father does not believe the bible as it reads, but spiritualizes it. We believe the bible as it reads.” This opened my eyes and put me thinking, for that was my belief, too, and I had contended with my father on that point several times. Aunt Patty then said that they had another “bible” they held as sacred and brought it forward saying it was called the Book of Mormon and that it had been translated from golden plates by the Prophet Joseph Smith, and was a true history of the inhabitants of this continent, the Indians. “Christ,” she told me, “was with them after His crucifixion, and had established his church among them, the same as he had in Jerusalem. The same gospel that he preached there he preached here and it was recorded in the book of Mormon more plainly.”

I begged the privilege of reading it which she readily granted. On reading the book, I was convinced that it was true and the work of God, but I kept the same locked up in my breast. I then read the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Voice of Warning by Parley P. Pratt. In the meantime I often met in company with Heber C. Kimball, one of the twelve apostles, at Mr. Lyon’s store. He stood next to Brigham Young in the leadership of the church. He often spoke pointedly of the Latter-day work, but I tried all the time to show that I had no faith in it, against my feelings.

On Sunday morning, February 1, 1846, Elder Heber C. Kimball came to the house of my cousin, Windsor P. Lyon, to re-baptize him into the church. They sent up to the temple and got a large bath tub to baptize him in inside the house. Mob violence was so strong that Elder Kimball did not dare to do it in public. I took Elder Kimball to one side and informed him of my feelings in relation to Mormon doctrine. I told him I believed it to be the true word of God according to the bible. I made a confidence of him and said that I did not want to disgrace my father’s family by becoming a Mormon if it was not true, as my folks stood high in society in Maine. My father was then in the legislature and my eldest brother, William, president of the senate in Maine. “If it was the work of God, so inform me. If it was the work of men, so inform me, and I would forever remain dumb.”

Elder Kimball looked down at me, his face white as snow, and said, “Enoch,”—he always called me by that name—“I see the integrity of thy heart and I say unto you, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, this work is the work of God, and not the work of man! I promise you that if you will go forth into the waters of baptism, and have hands laid upon you for the gift of the Holy Ghost, that you shall know for yourself that this is the work of God!” I felt a shock go through me from the crown of my head to the soles of my feet with a convincing power that it was the work of God and I said to him that I would obey, and delay no longer and that I was a candidate for baptism. We went into Mr. Lyon’s kitchen where he baptized and confirmed me a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I then had a witness of the truth of this Latter-day work and that testimony has always abided with me.


Lyons/Sessions Drugstore in Historic Nauvoo


Benjamin Morgan Roberts

Benjamin Morgan Roberts is a third great grandfather on my mother’s mother’s side. He was born Jan. 15, 1827 in Chester Co. Pennsylvania, to Samuel Roberts and Sarah Lamar. His parents died when he was a small child leaving himself and his sister orphaned. He was raised by the Society of Friends in Pennsylvania. At an early age he became a wheelwright apprentice, which he used later in life. In 1840, he found a pamphlet of Mormon literature with the address of the meeting place for the missionaries. Secretly he attended their next meeting and became converted and was baptized in July 1840 at the age of 13. Knowing his guardians would voice strong objections should they found about his desires, he decided to join a group of Mormons that were going to Nauvoo.

In Nauvoo, Benjamin was adopted into the family of David and Mary Ann Yearsley, who had previously adopted George Boyd. Benjamin was in Nauvoo in the midst of the stirring times, witnessing the aftermath of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s death and the expulsion of the Saints into the safety of the Iowa Territory.

Yearsley Home in Historic Nauvoo, one and a half blocks from the Sessions' residences and business.

A new customer review of Mormonia: Stories

A new customer review of Mormonia: Stories, my first short story collection, appeared on


The Mormon Church asserts that it is the fastest-growing religion in the world, and whether true or not, it’s clear that non-Mormon fascination with Mormonism is on the rise. Mitt Romney has piqued our curiosity while HBO’s Big Love has kept us glued to the set, and Broadway’s The Book of Mormon has left us scouring the web and standing in lines for impossible-to-get tickets.

Jeff Von Ward’s collection of short stories, Mormonia, is a welcome new entry for the Mormon-curious–and for anyone craving compelling human stories. The book, though rich with cultural esoterica, is less about Mormonism than it is about the inner lives, with their ordinary triumphs and defeats, of the characters that weave the seven stories together.

The collection spans several generations of a single family, and each story touches down in a different point in its history. The final story, a novella, seems to breathe life into a stony-faced sepia family portrait, as a hopeful child approaches the family’s patriarch, who still lives by Depression-era thrift, to request approval to purchase a pair of shoes. We sense that what the boy really craves is for the imposing man to approve of him, not his shoe choice, and his yearning is palpable. Soon the child is grown and coyly pursuing a cardigan-clad young woman on a college campus the 60s counterculture seems to have bypassed. The campus is insulated, but Von Ward makes its culture so real to us that it we don’t see the courtship’s unduly restrained progress as anything but natural. As we travel with the boy on his mission overseas, we long to protect him from the tragedy that awaits.

“Grable the Swan” zooms in on the teen years of the same boy, while “Grape Juice,” “Restricted Materials” and “Visitors Welcome” throw us, cringing with recognition, into the teen years of the next generation, throttling through religious questioning and sexual awakening in the latter days of the 20th century.

“Families Are Forever” and “A Little Vacation” offer a telling parallel between the children and parents of different eras, separated by decades but connected by the same, persistent familial fault lines.

Non-Mormons will encounter surprises and strangeness in the world of these people, but Von Ward deftly blends the odd and the ordinary, showing us a world made of “large strip malls and freeways, Maverick gas stations and churches every few blocks whose spires align like a unanimous sustaining show of hands.”

The glue that binds the stories is not the idiosyncratic culture these characters inhabit, but the empathy we feel for them. We greet each reappearance of a character within these pages as we would an old friend, and while the customs and traditions detailed in the stories are new to anyone outside the Mormon faith, we are swept up in them as if we’ve practiced them all our lives. Von Ward drops us into foreign territory but guides us every step of the way. When we depart these characters’ world, what remains with us is not their cultural oddities, but their aching humanity.

-Louis K

Lots-o-religion, Temple Lot Style

Turns out there is more to see in Independence, Missouri than just the Harry S. Truman library. Just walking from the coffee shop on the main drag, I must have seen a dozen or so churches. First Presbyterian. First Baptist. First this and that. There are at least three strains of Mormonism here as well which makes sense since this is the place (no, not that place) that Joseph Smith once declared to be the original location of the Garden of Eden. It’s hot here and it’s not the heat so much as the humidity. Great place for a nudist colony.

Now according to current Mormon doctrine and the two young women missionaries at the Mormon visitor center (one of whom cried while bearing her testimony) this is also the place where all the Saints will gather to await Jesus’ second coming once everything goes to hell in a handbasket. From here, they’ll build a temple on the famed lot. Only problem now? That land is owned by a different, competing splinter sect of Joseph Smith’s original religion, called the Church of Christ. Across the street is the beautiful 30M modernist, spiral of a temple owned by the Community of Christ, another sect until recently known at the Reorganized Latter Day Saints. I took  a tour of the temple. Yeah, unlike the Mormons, they’ll let Gentiles in. Peace seems to be the emphasis here (no battalion museums). The main rectory was quite beautiful, like a modernist version of the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake with a wonderful shell-like view overhead. I wonder what the acoustics are like. Anthropologically speaking, it would be interesting to learn more about how these two strains of Mormonism have adapted into two very distinct religions with a shared past. I learned a little bit. From what I could see, it looks like the Community of Christ might be a more liberal faith. They have three women serving amongst their twelve apostles. They also have a man from Africa. Maybe the Mormons, too, will eventually have a black man amongst their twelve, though they’ve just given the priesthood to men of color in 1978 and women? Well, fuggethaboutit. They also have a book called the Doctrine and Covenants, although theirs contains about thirty more prophecies than the one the Mormons have.



Keys to the Kingdom


Toured the museum in the temple. They have the original door of liberty jail as well as a key from the jail. Hmmm… the Mormons also have a key on display at the official Liberty Jail site, a reconstruction complete with mannequins, but the keys didn’t look similar at all. Maybe the Mormon key is also a reconstruction. I know they’re big on keys, though, so I’m sure many of the faithful will be disappointed to hear that. As an interfaith inquiry, I propose they take the key from the visitor’s center and try it in the door. If the key don’t fit, you must acquit… or at least quit displaying it as an actual key. Deal?

Land Down Under

We ended up camping at the campground time forgot on Wednesday night. This place would make a great set for a horror film. You can almost imagine what it was like in its heyday, but now all of the facilities are in need of repair, a fresh coat of paint. The snack machine is empty. The odd menagerie of animals in the playground have begun to rust. The arcade is closed, a few desolate machines tucked into the far corners covered in cobwebs.

Turns out the owner is some kind of computer hacker so I better not malign the place too much else he’ll hack into my website and well, actually, Jeff, there were some really nice things about my place. Maybe you failed to notice, but we did give you a free upgrade to a spot with electricity. And we use the honor system on the lake. You could have fished without a license, only three dollars per catch. We have paddle boats and miniature golf. We have free wifi. We couldn’t get on the wifi. Too far away from the signal tower. Although in the morning, before we drove off, I was finally able to fix my Eye-fi card, parked under the transmitter. So thanks for that. And thanks, too, for a memorable night full of eccentric conversation about hacking cars and computers, DEFCON conferences, using PUPPY and avoiding thumb drives.

Benjamin and the Battalion

In Kanesville there is a reconstructed log tabernacle, apparently built quite quickly at the behest of Brigham Young for his official appointment in December 1847 as president of the Mormons. In the visitor’s center, there is yet another exhibit commemorating the Mormon Battalion. What is cool about this one, though, is that the woman running the place writes down the name of your ancestor and after you’ve watched a short film about the battalion, she presents you with a print-out with more information. My third great-grandfather, Benjamin Morgan Roberts, was a private in Company D. He never made it to San Diego. He was part of the sick detachment at Fort Pueblo and ended up being one of the twelve men who traveled ahead of the main company searching for stolen horses when they came across Brigham Young and the first pioneer company along the bank of the Green River. They joined them and became part of the first group of Mormons to enter what would eventually become Utah.


Winter Quarters

The old voluntary missionary was excited when I told him I had a relative buried in the Winter Quarters cemetery, my fourth great grandfather, George Eddins. I didn’t know too much about him other than what I’d been able to piece together from his daughter, Jessie’s oral history at the Daughter of the Utah Pioneers’ Museum in Salt Lake. George died of scurvy on April 26, 1847 of scurvy. He was only 38. The elder walked me over to the memorial to show me approximately where he was buried, grave number 143. All of the grave locations have been extrapolated from extant sextant’s records using the location of the one remaining pioneer tombstone. The elder said he was in the process of making placards with each pioneer’s name so that visiting families can place them in the approximate locations to take photos, but he’d only finished with the Cs so it would be a while yet before he got to my ancestor. Over six hundred people died here, many infants, as their families waited to go west. Causes of death included dropsy, croup, consumption, inf. bowels (?), scurvy, and bilious fever.

Jessie, my third great grandmother, did not die, but she was left in the camp, essentially orphaned. One of her brothers drowned in the Missouri. Her step-mother went back to England. Her brother and older sister went to Salt Lake in 1848 as part of the Willard Richards Company. Jessie Ann finally came, through the Perpetual Immigration Fund, as part of the Edward Hunter Company in 1850. She was only eleven years old when she walked across the plains.


Turns out I have a few other relatives buried here as well, though none direct relatives. There are several members of the Bullock family buried at Winter Quarters and Mary Minvera Snow, the 10 month-old daughter of Erastus Snow, is also interred here.


Getting some family information from the volunteer historian in the visitor’s center, thought it would be interesting to try to see the famed Bullock’s Grove. It was established by Benjamin K. Bullock, a fourth great grandfather, as a place to grow wood for wagons and raise oxen in advance of the westward migration. We obtained directions to Hyde Park. According to reports, Bullock’s Grove existed a mile or so north of Hyde Park. Fortunately, Hyde Park has a placard as it is the location where the council of the twelve met after Brigham Young’s return from Salt Lake to anoint him the next president of the church. Well, I’m pleased to report the area hasn’t changed much: rolling green dells lined with trees, just as I’d always imagined it.

Casper the Ghost

Casper Wyoming is a windy little town. Gotta love that their minor league baseball team is called the Casper Ghosts. That shows they have sense of humor. Also the sign at the river with specific instructions for dogs.I applaud the bureaucrat who came up with that.

Speaking of bureaucracy, there’s also Fort Caspar, spelled different in deference to some ancient army bungling.


My first time camping in a tent in over twenty years. Didn’t sleep a wink. Finally plugged my ears with some balled-up pieces of tissue, but that didn’t help. Tent was flapping constantfreakingly. Thought the tent might take flight.


Up at first light, throat so raw I head to the office to see if they sell any lozenges. Fuel up on some bad coffee and then we’re off to the Trails Museum. Nice museum. Brand spanking new. Full of all sorts of interactive exhibits for the kiddies. We ride a covered wagon across a bumpy river complete with simulated pneumatic bumps and drops courtesy of a woman holding a joystick.


The main film, a panorama including mannequins from different periods of time, all fellow travelers, also featured an excerpt from Patty Bartlett Sessions’ diary. She’s the famous Mormon midwife and a fourth great aunt of mine.

Sweet Sweetwater, we’re on the Mormon Trail!

Skies of Wyoming

My favorite part of Wyoming isn’t the mythical 6% beer or even M80s as big as your fist that can take your fist right off (or get you a slap on the wrist); though, surely, these were the reasons we travelled to Evanston as teens.

No, now I think it’s all about the clouds.

Call me a poet if you must, but there’s an unmatched beauty in these patches of uninterrupted cumulus and nimbus set in motion against a mostly flat and largely monotonous landscape. Is there any better way to while away your drive across this starched terrain than by searching the clouds for characters and faces? Lookie here, a swan! Over there, looks like Bart Simpson! And you have to stare fast, too, because we’re moving quickly and the clouds, they’re also constantly changing.