Book Review: City Saints

March 21, 2005 | 10 comments
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The interaction of the LDS church and its members with New York City is a fascinating topic. Someday, that story will doubtless be the focus of one or more great works of Mormon regional history which will have truly broad appeal to members. And those works will in turn acknowledge City Saints: Mormons in the New York Metropolis (edited by Scott Tiffany) as an important step in the examination of church members in New York City. However, City Saints itself, while interesting, informative, and quite readable, suffers from conceptual flaws that undermine its impact and ultimately result in a whole that is less than the sum of its more impressive parts.

City Saints is published by the New York Stake LDS History Committee, a Committee which counts among its number several impressive names. Richard and Claudia Bushman are eminent historians. Scott Tiffany is a well regarded historical filmmaker. In addition, trained historians like Allison Clark, Taylor Petrey, and Jennifer Reeder participated in the committee, while others like Brent Belnap, Kent Larsen, and Sara Anderson contributed significantly. With such collected talent employed in its creation, it would be surprising if the book did not have a lot to offer.

And the book certainly includes some real gems. For example, there is a map and explanation for a walking tour of LDS historical sites in New York City (254-69), including a visit to the residence of Charles “I cannot read a sealed book” Anthon and a stop at the lodging house where Joseph Smith once stayed.

A second highlight is the discussion of the New York temple. That section (96-115) includes a fascinating behind-the-scenes story of the initial decision to build a temple in Manhattan, as well as a discussion of the impact of the temple open house and dedication. And a third strong section is the discussion of the effects that the September 11, 2001 attacks had on the church members in the city (87-95).

In addition, the book covers the history of the early church in New York, over about the first 50 pages, with Parley P. Pratt, John Taylor, B.H. Roberts, and swashbuckling tales like the brawl caused at an anti-Mormon rally when the mission president charged the stage.

Yet even a recounting of the book’s strengths seems to make all the more clear its great weakness — City Saints is terribly disjointed. Indeed, a major reason why each of the strong sections shines — thematic unity — is absent in the book as a whole.

This is not entirely Tiffany’s fault, or the fault of the committee. The reality is that early LDS history in the city — Parley P. Pratt and Charles Anthon — is very hard to connect to present church activity here. This is precisely because the church did not build on its early New York history. Instead, it burned its bridges (or had them burned by mobs) and went west. Thus, any attempt to connect Parley P. Pratt with current stake president Brent Belnap is liable to be strained.

Yet the innate difficulties of presenting Mormon history in New York are exacerbated by some poor choices in the book. The back cover, for instance, focuses almost entirely on the early church history. From the back cover’s description, a reader would reasonably assume that the book is all about early church history in the city, when in fact New York City church history up to the Mormon Pavilion (1964) is finished by page 50 of a 250 page book.

But what is the rest of the book, you ask? I’m glad that you asked. Following the early church section (up to page 50) and the 9/11 and temple discussions (roughly through page 120), City Saints moves into over 100 pages of wildly uneven microhistory.

Richard Bushman describes this part as “a collage of people, stories, and events that depict the lives of modern, urban Latter-Day Saints.” This collage section is made up of dozens of short sections, interviews, or notes. It includes chapters on dating, marrying, and pushing strollers in the city (122-40), and other thematic clusters such as a section about artists. And following the collage is a lengthy discussion of each ecclesiastical unit in the stake. There are a number of fascinating anecdotes throughout the collage and ecclesiastical history sections. However, large portions read precisely like the Book of Omni. (“The X ward was formed in 19xx. Bishop X was its first bishop. Later, he was replaced by Bishop Y.”)

The collage section suffers from a lack of bookends. Without being rooted to any particular event, and only loosely connected to topical clusters, it sometimes meanders aimlessly. A second problem is that it is assembled from anecdotes collected and written by a number of different contributors. As a result, the tone of the anecdotes is quite uneven. In some parts, the stories are told in “just the facts, ma’am” barebones style; in other parts, they turn into personal reminiscences by members about homeless people who lived down the street from them. The back-and-forth between reminiscence, testimony, and fact recital is enough to create mental whiplash in the reader. (With differences in tone and authorial style, much of the collage portion reads like nothing so much as a big group blog!).

And the death knell is that there are enough anecdotes which fall flat that it becomes easy to lose interest. The reader emerges from back-to-back flat sections wondering why she should care about the next three stories, which are followed by a dozen more little stories. When they fall flat, many of these tales nonetheless contain enough information about familiar people and places that the New York reader may find them interesting. I would hesitate, however, to recommend them to readers who aren’t already familiar with the city and its members.

Brother Bushman is candid about the book’s formative process — he notes in the introduction that the committee put together information, that Scott Tiffany put together the first two sections (early and modern history) out of some earlier work, and that the collage section was later added in. I understand the desire to tie in the story of the early Saints to modern members. However, the book fails to marry well the sweeping Pratt stories with the sometimes meandering microhistories. And its creation by committee results in some odd repetitions and chronological confusion, such as repetition in Part IV of material already covered in Part I. A final problem builds on the rest: Perhaps with a good index, some of the earlier problems could be ameliorated, but City Saints has no index, leaving the reader to work through its sometimes difficult structure unaided.

I didn’t want to write a bad review of this book. I know many of the people who participated in its creation. I enjoyed reading much of it. And City Saints is quite useful, collecting in one place a good deal of information about church members in New York City. In addition, it is particularly difficult to criticize a portion made up of anecdotes, many of which involve people I know. However, in the end, I thought that City Saints was disappointing. With as much good material as it offers, it’s a shame that City Saints lacked the framing and editing which might have more carefully tied segments together to possibly produce a better book. I can’t help but feel that this is a book which would have benefited greatly from the discipline that an editor and publisher would have brought.

With the amount of work that went into its creation, and the interesting nature of many of its anecdotes, it seems a shame to lump City Saints into the category of “above average stake histories.” City Saints comes close to transcending the amateur stake history format and becoming a book with appeal to a general LDS public. But ultimately, its questionable organization prevents it from making that leap.

Aficionados of regional LDS history, or those with a particular interest in New York City LDS history, will want to take a closer look at City Saints. (Available in a number of places, including Amazon.com; I recommend cutting out the middleman and buying directly from the Stake Historical Society, at http://www.mormonpavillion.com ). But the rest of us are still waiting for a telling of the New York City LDS story that will appeal to a broader audience.

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10 Responses to Book Review: City Saints

  1. D. Fletcher on March 21, 2005 at 9:51 pm

    There’s a nice closeup picture of me with Ariel Bybee. Also, my grandfather (Harvey Fletcher) was one of the first Stake Presidents of the New York Stake, and my dad was born in the kitchen of an apartment on 181st Street and Cabrini Boulevard.

    I agree about the book, though — only for people already familiar.

  2. Jeremy on March 21, 2005 at 9:56 pm

    The famous acoustician Harvey Fletcher?

    (Have I already asked you that?)

  3. Kaimi on March 21, 2005 at 10:00 pm

    Yes, I noticed that picture.

    Now, if the book had come with a _recording_ of D. Fletcher and Ariel Bybee, _that_ might have changed the review entirely. . .

    :)

  4. Steve Evans on March 21, 2005 at 10:05 pm

    Did you notice the sizeable portion devoted to Sumer Thurston Evans? Or notice the witty “Home Depot” remark, made by yours truly? How dare you not like that book!

  5. D. Fletcher on March 21, 2005 at 11:04 pm

    Yes. Harvey Fletcher, father of stereophonic sound, inventor of the hearing aid, and founder/president of the Acoustical Society of America — my grandfather.

    I was in the meeting when the Home Depot remark was delivered. Yes, it was funny, at the time. :)

  6. Jason on March 22, 2005 at 12:47 am

    I have a burning desire to read about this “Home Depot” remark; can you share this with the uninitiated?

  7. Nate Oman on March 22, 2005 at 12:15 pm

    “Now, if the book had come with a _recording_ of D. Fletcher and Ariel Bybee, _that_ might have changed the review entirely.”

    Just so long as it doesn’t contain the word “Kolob.” That would just be too awkward to handle…

  8. Ann on March 23, 2005 at 10:24 pm

    I wish this review had been available before I bought the book as a Christmas gift. There were other books on the list that I might have chosen instead.

  9. Left Field on March 24, 2005 at 12:06 am

    I also had thought about writing a review when I read this book; but who would read it?

    You raised many of the same issues I would have. The lack of an index is a major flaw and annoyance. Anecdotes that fall flat abound in the section on courtship and marriage. “They met. They dated. They liked each other. They dated some more. They decided to get married. They did.” Engaging stuff.

    The coverage is very uneven. I served a mission in NYC 1978-80. Naturally, I was looking for the sections that covered the times and places I knew. Anything happening in Manhattan in the last 10 years is covered in excruciating detail. But other times and other boroughs are skimmed over. And some of the information is incomplete or just plain wrong. I was personally in the room for the creation of two branches that aren’t even mentioned. It does mention a branch being formed in New Paltz in the late ’90s. But the New Paltz branch dates to 1980. I was there. Was the original branch dissolved, and then re-formed? Inquiring minds want to know. The book says that a Spanish branch was created in Queens in 1971. Yet when I arrived in the Rego Park Ward in 1979, there was no Spanish unit in Queens. A Spanish branch was formed in 1979 from the Rego Park ward while I was there. Did they get the year wrong? Or were they refering to a previous branch, while overlooking the 1979 Elmhurst Spanish branch? These sorts of omissions were particularly annoying to me because I was hoping to be able to place my own experiences in context with previous and subsequent events.

    Some sections, as you note, are quite well done. The sections on 19th- and early 20th-century history is interesting and well written. I enjoyed some of the published interviews. The photographs of the various current Manhattan congregations all look alike (but I suppose if you include a photograph of every Mormon in Manhattan, they’ll all buy the book). I did enjoy the historical photographs, and would like to have seen more. I would have liked to have seen a chapter on church buildings and meeting sites (not just in Manhattan), with an effort to show photographs of all of the buildings. What did they look like then? What do they look like now? Are they still standing? Quite a bit of this is in the book, but it’s scattered and incomplete.

    City Saints didn’t live up to my expectations, but I’m glad to have read the book, and I was able to learn some interesting history. I look forward to a better publication in the future.

  10. Ted Weed on September 4, 2005 at 6:54 pm

    This is for Left Field;
    I did a search for our stake directory and arrived at this web site, please email me to discuss the New Paltz Branch History.
    Thank you
    ted weed

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