Book Review: Linn, “The Story of the Mormons, From the Date of Their Origin to the Year 1901”

Title:  The Story of the Mormons, From the Date of Their Origin to the Year 1901

Author: William Alexander Linn

Reprint Publisher: HardPress Publishing (original publisher: The MacMillan Company)
Genre: History
Year Published: 2012 (Reprint – originally published in 1902)
Number of Pages: 692
Binding: Softcover
ISBN10: 1290161089
ISBN13: 978129016108
Price: $38.95
Reviewed by Ivan Wolfe for the Association for Mormon Letters
As this is a reprint of a book over 100 years old, there are two questions to answer.  The first: is the reprint quality any good? The second:  is the book itself worth reading/having?
As for the first question – I would say the quality is quite high.  The physical binding is better than most paperbacks, the scanning appears to be of high quality (despite a few “squeezed” pages where the text seems somewhat squished in the margins), and the text is clear and readable.   There are a few odd artifacts in this reprint – the book copied comes from the “Library of the Theological Seminary” in Princeton, N.J., and thus the reprint includes a due date card in the back of the book and other indications that this edition came from a library.  Words on some pages are underlined by hand (as well as some markings in the margins on some pages), indicating at least one student/patron made markings in the book for study (or perhaps other) purposes.  Those artifacts are minor quibbles, though.  Overall, this looks like a high quality reprint.  If you wanted a physical copy of Linn’s book, this reprint would serve as an excellent option.
The book itself is an interesting historical curiosity.  If someone is interested in turn of the twentieth century views on Mormonism (as I somewhat am, as that era of history is a research focus of mine), this book shows that quite well.  Linn represents what is likely the first attempt to seriously consider the Mormon religion and culture.  As an author he is aware that anti-Mormon works exaggerate or lie in order to attack, and that many faithful histories do the same in order to defend.  However, his overall view (quite evident on nearly every page) is that while the Mormons deserve to be taken seriously as a movement, Mormons are also, in his opinion, too ridiculous to receive any benefit of the doubt.  Linn clearly finds Mormonism such a ridiculous proposition, he can’t quite bring himself to be fair; while he tries to filter through some anti-Mormon bias, he winds up taking too many anti-Mormon works at face value.  While his work should not be called “anti-Mormon” in the typical sense of the word, it’s clearly (in the end) quite hostile to the church.
Linn states his work is an attempt to “search . . . for facts, not for moral deductions” (v).  He breaks down the many sources he uses (it is likely no work before or for many years after used as many sources, even if most of them were clearly anti-Mormon) into three categories: official Mormon sources, which are “hopelessly biased [and] incomplete”, a variety of “more trustworthy works which cover only certain periods”, and anti-Mormon works that are “in the nature of ‘exposures’” that “rest . . . under a suspicion of personal bias” (v).  With this seemingly somewhat objective goal in mind, Linn goes about to trust anti-Mormon sources over pro-Mormon sources and otherwise make many of the moral deductions he claimed he would avoid.
For example, Linn takes the claim that Joseph Smith’s family was “shiftless and untrustworthy” (11) at face value and never bothers to question the bias of sources that make this claim.  The fact that many of the Smiths either couldn’t read or could not read very well is presented as evidence of moral failing, and Linn seems to almost delight in mentioning this fact several times in the second chapter.  Chapter 7 takes an uncritical look at the Spaulding manuscript origins for the Book of Mormon.
And so the work goes, chapter after chapter, with Linn trying to be fair and citing every source possible – yet he has the clear sense Mormons are, frankly, losers who somehow managed to stumble on despite their many shortcomings. For example, phrases like “if Smith had been a man possessing any judgment” (244) are common.  His final appraisal of Joseph Smith states “it is difficult . . . to find in the character of Joseph Smith anything to commend”, and he goes on to attribute Smith’s success to “the kind of people who were gathered into his fold” (309).  He concludes that “real reverence for sacred things did not enter into [Smith’s] mental equipment” (310).  He takes a similar approach to Brigham Young.
Linn spends several chapters devoting time to describing Brigham Young-era Utah as a bloody despotism, with apostates being murdered at whim with no oversight, with only the intervention of the Federal government saving the day (the Mountain Meadows Massacre is portrayed as somewhat typical, differing only in scale from what was going on everywhere else in Utah at the time). Yet somehow, Linn’s “jolly old hypocrite” (578) version of Young, despite being so powerful a tyrant, is an incompetent administrator saved only by the simple minded, sheep-like devotion of the Mormons.  Linn approvingly quotes another source stating that “Brigham never made a success of any business he undertook” (577), and attributes success in organizing the church only because “Mormons were obliged” to obey (575).
However, as I stated above, the book really shouldn’t be considered anti-Mormon in the strict sense, since Linn was clearly trying to be fair (as far as he could), and did not set out to create an expose.  He makes use of anti-Mormon texts and too often uncritically accepts them, but his motivations appear different than most anti-Mormons of the time (or today).
Based on that, there is likely a limited audience for such works, but some specialists might find the book of value (or some anti-Mormons might use it as a resource).  Given that the text of Linn’s history is freely available on-line in several places, a physical reprint may be of value mainly to those who prefer a physical text over an electronic one (or those, like me, who like to have both).

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