Title: Apostles on Trial: Examining the Membership Trials of Apostles Taylor and Cowley
Author: Drew Briney
Publisher: Hindsight Publications
Genre: Mormon History, Polygamy
Year Published: 2012
Number of Pages: xvii + 269 + index
Binding: Hardcover, Paperback
Price: $29.99 (hb)/$19.99 (pb)
Reviewed by Bryan Buchanan for the Association for Mormon Letters
If polygamy were a bookshelf, the bookends would both be labeled "confusion." Nowhere is this more evident than in the chaos present after the turn of the 20th century. Following the 1890 Manifesto, church members and leaders alike discussed the scope and implementation thereof. With occasionally contradictory sentiments expressed both publicly and privately, the average Mormon was likely somewhat bewildered. Though those in the leading quorums of the Church were undoubtedly privy to quantitatively more information, that did not mean that even they all saw exactly eye to eye.
The trials for the apostleship and--ultimately, membership--of John W. Taylor and Matthias Cowley (the former was excommunicated while the latter narrowly escaped the same) are perhaps the most obvious single example of this confusion coming to a head. In “Apostles on Trial,” Drew Briney has published not just the trial minutes but some context needed to appreciate the import of these trials.
Briney, an attorney by trade, has previously published several pieces dealing with fundamentalist history and issues important in the theology of the same. In the chaotic period following the Manifesto which gave rise to fundamentalism, the trials for the membership of Taylor and Cowley serve as a watershed. Even following the “second Manifesto,” the practice of plural marriage was by no means “all dead” even among general authorities (Rudger Clawson married a wife and it appears that Orson Whitney actively courted potential wives). However, the trials were the final statement for the hierarchy. Briney has done a fine job of illustrating the buildup to the trial, their effect and, most novel, the makeup of the “jury.”
“Apostles” begins with a lengthy (checking in at just over 75 pages!) introductory essay that depicts the situation described in the chapter title: “Behold Our Confusion.” Briney discusses the 1890 Manifesto at length, showing internal differences of opinion among the Twelve and First Presidency regarding the essence of the document (revelation or political necessity) and scope (applicable in the U.S. and elsewhere) as well as whether or not the statements found in the Manifesto are accurate. As he does throughout the volume, Briney draws heavily on the findings of Michael Quinn (employing his seminal 1985 Dialogue article as well as a presentation before an AUB congregation in 1991), Carmon Hardy (“Solemn Covenant”—his analysis of the period surrounding the Manifesto and his later documentary history, “Doing the Works of Abraham”) and Kenneth Cannon (several papers/articles over the years) to make his points. Given the quality of research that precedes Briney, his arguments are very intriguing without being too strident.
Following the contextualizing essay, Briney proceeds to present the trial minutes of Taylor and Cowley. He prefaces each trial account with a detailed chronological “biographical vignette” of the apostle in question that highlights their involvement with plural marriage in the post-Manifesto period. These entries cover statements made in preaching, their own plural marriages and their role in performing, brokering and encouraging other unions. Each item is documented, primarily with references to the appendix in “Solemn Covenant.” As he does throughout the volume, Briney draws heavily on the findings of Michael Quinn (employing his seminal 1985 Dialogue article as well as a two-hour presentation before an AUB congregation in Bluffdale--referred to as "Bluffdale Conference" in the footnotes). Finally, the minutes from the extensive questioning periods (Briney estimates 13 hours for Taylor, five for Cowley) are presented in an annotated typescript. To make the minutes as useful as possible, Briney bolds names and italicizes particularly relevant testimony.
The heavy annotation discusses the nature of the minutes (copies of the minutes and associated documents are traced through several hands until they reached Briney) and confusing or vague statements and also identifies people mentioned during the questioning. To complement the minutes, Briney also presents documents (occasionally with corresponding typescript) such as the trials summonses, correspondence and even John Taylor’s purported 1886 revelation. He often points out how Taylor’s vague testimony (occasionally slipping into lying territory) closely mirrors the Reed Smoot hearings.
In the next (and, I felt, most intriguing) section, Briney discusses the makeup of the Quorum of Twelve at the time of the trials in terms of their involvement with plural marriage. The combination of charts and biographical vignettes for each member quickly demonstrates their high level of participation, in some cases rivaling that of Taylor and Cowley. For example, he notes that John Henry Smith performed dozens of sealings in the late 1890s (and, interestingly, instructed Taylor to perform some), Rudger Clawson married a plural wife after the 1904 Manifesto and Orson F. Whitney apparently courted potential mates even after the Taylor/Cowley trials.
With this information, the reader can better appreciate the hesitation of some of the Twelve to take action against their quorum members. In additional appendices, Briney presents some of the lists of new polygamists published in the Salt Lake Tribune, charts showing the names brought up during the trials and the key facsimiles of the original trial minutes (unfortunately, those for day two of Taylor’s trial were not available to the author).
As is nearly always the case with self-published books, there are a fair number of typos and other minor errors (for example, Cowley’s photo in his biographical vignette is actually Francis M. Lyman). Though they are not overwhelming, they can be a bit distracting at times. One larger concern deals with his heavy reliance on Quinn’s Bluffdale presentation. Typescripts of his two-hour lecture can be found several places online and likely present his words accurately. That being said (and, it should be clear, I am not claiming that Quinn’s claims are erroneous), the curious reader has no published recourse where one could see documentation for Quinn’s arguments.
These concerns should not detract from the overall value of the book, however. Briney has produced a fascinating slice of Mormon history to be sure. Another point that might concern some readers—while Cowley and Taylor (particularly the latter) are seen as heroes to many in the fundamentalist community, “Apostles” is not a “fundamentalist” book.
Briney has compiled a contextualized and absorbing perspective on the rocky transition of LDS Mormonism into 20th Century monogamy.
– Bryan Buchanan