Benjamin Park is at the Maxwell Institute this summer, working on his tentatively titled book, Democracy’s Discontents: A Story of Politics, Polygamy, and Power in Mormon Nauvoo. He’s one of the Institute’s 2018 short-term research grant recipients, but you might recognize his name because he’s been an associate editor of our Mormon Studies Review since volume 1.
Park’s book about Mormons in Nauvoo grows out of his deep interest in early American politics. He argues that the clashes between the Mormons and their neighbors during the 1840s can be seen as a moment of democratic crisis in the early republic.
“Americans were struggling to understand what democracy meant,” Park said. “Joseph Smith and his followers worried that the nation’s democratic culture allowed mobocratic rule that trampled on minority rights; their opponents countered by arguing that the saints were trespassing on the boundaries of political and social decorum, proving to be a nuisance to America’s democratic experiment.”
In the end, Park said, both sides lost faith in the democratic process and turned to extralegal actions, including violence. His book uses this story as a lens through which to understand the tensions of populist governance and cultural boundaries more broadly.
Park said the historian’s task of taking different perspectives of historical actors—the ability to sympathize with competing points of view—reflects a crucial element of discipleship.
“As a historian,” Park said, “I am tasked with trying to reconstruct the motivations and justifications of historical actors, including people with such disparate agendas like Nauvoo’s Mormons and Carthage’s anti-Mormons. As a disciple, I am tasked to try to empathize with both sides of the divide and see them as individuals who were likely trying to make the best decisions for them and their community. Such a daunting mission should be humbling, but also rewarding.”
This isn’t Park’s first BYU experience. He earned his bachelor’s degree in English and history here. He completed his master’s of science in theology at the University of Edinburgh and rounded out his student career at the University of Cambridge (MPhil, political thought; PhD, history). He became the inaugural postdoctoral fellow with the University of Missouri’s Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy, and recently published his first book, American Nationalisms: Imagining Union in the Age of Revolutions, 1783-1833 (Cambridge University Press). Now he’s an assistant professor of history at Sam Houston State University, teaching courses in early American history as well as American religions.
Park will be at the Maxwell Institute until the end of June.