Thursday, March 09, 2006

Justin Butterfield, Mormon Wasp and Nauvoo Neighbor

Q: How does Justin Butterfield, proprietor and editor of Mormon Wasp, know so much about Mormon history? A: As anyone who has read Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling knows, he lived it firsthand as the U.S. Attorney for Illinois during the era of Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo.

Butterfield, then and now, seems to be a straight-shooting, just-the-facts ma’am sort of guy, whose occasional presence on both ‘sides’ suggests an aversion to overtly ideological or partisan agendas. Back in the day, he could on the one hand relentlessly dissect Joseph’s opaquely byzantine financial arrangements in an attempt to recover a debt Joseph incurred in the purchase of a steamboat that wrecked only weeks after its purchase, while simultaneously saving Joseph’s hide in an unrelated case, by successfully convincing both governor Thomas Ford and the Illinois Supreme Court that the extradition of Joseph to Missouri was unconstitutional. In the modern era, Butterfield holds the Church’s feet to the fire with contexts and differentials highlighted by juxtapositions with original documents, while also calling demagogues on the carpet as they grind their axes and deploy them in hatchet jobs against Mormonism.

What are we to make of this superannuated lawyer/historian, who can be both Wasp to the Mormons and Neighbor of Nauvoo? (Butterfield’s blog has used both names. Original readings are available for both of these Nauvoo newspapers—The Wasp, and its successor, The Nauvoo Neighbor. Their mottoes, reflective of Butterfield’s two modes: “Truth Crushed to Earth Will Rise Again,” and “The Saints’ Singularity—Is Unity, Liberty, Charity.”) Some might think the name a bizarre coincidence, or a clever pseudonym (of who? Jed Woodworth, young Mormon scholar and prominently-named assistant for Rough Stone Rolling?). I prefer to think he’s one of the Three Nephites, called ensure the long-term viability of God’s work by both keeping it honest and defending it from unfair critics. (To cite another motto of more recent vintage, The Truth is Out There.)


You know, Justin is a bit of an enigma, however I don't know how much it matters considering his content is AMAZING. You are wrong, though; it is not Jed. Perhaps he simply is Justin Butterfield. 

Comment by J. Stapley | 3/09/2006 01:04:00 PM  

J., I take you to mean you don't subscribe to the pseudonym theory, but instead that Justin Butterfield is his real name? In that case, do you subscribe to the coincidence theory or the superannuated translated being theory? ;-)

But I agree it doesn't so much matter, which actually is kind of the point of this post: it's a dilettantish sample of mythmaking on my part, the generation of a transhistorical hero who exemplifies certain truths that are larger than the historical/factual (or not) particulars of the people (or person ;-> ) who inspired the story.  

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 3/09/2006 01:55:00 PM  

It's certainly a pseudonym. I've been curious who Justin is for a while now. He or she is either the fastest in-depth researcher ever, or he or she has a stockpile short papers and research projects that he or she can rely on. I don't think it's Jed (not a bad guess, though), because I'm fairly certain he or she is a lawyer, and he or she seems older than Jed.

Greg | 3/09/2006 07:53:00 PM  

I don't know Justin's real identity, but I have communicated with him and found him to be incredibly friendly and helpful. I always vote for his blog in the blogger popularity contests, but he never wins. I wonder why there are not more comments on his doesn't help that the comment feature doesn't work so well. 

Comment by ed | 3/09/2006 08:22:00 PM  

So has it been obvious common knowledge for a long time that it was a pseudonym? If so I'll feel foolish. I had not the slightest inkling until noticing the name in RSR.

Greg,  Hmmm, older... lawyer... knowledgeable of Nauvoo legal minutiae... Elder Oaks!

I don't know about the older thing. I'd be surprised if he or she is over 40 (I'll go out on a limb and say probably under 30). Choosing a historical legal figure is suggestive of a lawyer of course, but lawyers typically don't strike me as the type to go for pseudonyms. That sort of caution, and the interest in the fate of the JFS institute, suggest to me a young historian cautious about keeping possibilities open with BYU. (Or possibly someone already there.)

What I'm really curious about it what the persona means to this person.

ed, That the comment hack is non-functional might be one thing (you have to find your way to the pop-up comments), but also he or she doesn't seem that into engaging the commenters. Do the document dump and that's it. (And of course reading carefully through document dumps isn't everyone's cup of tea.) 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 3/09/2006 08:58:00 PM  

Definitely my cup of tea, however.

Justin Butterfield is perhaps the most mysterious of major pseudonymous Mormon bloggers. I bet he's actually a young, female Washington, D.C., intern with a scandalous sex life... 

Comment by RoastedTomatoes | 3/10/2006 12:58:00 AM  

That would explain why she can't find the time to fix her comment hack...

Come to think of it, Butterfield has shown some specific interest in Mormon Womens' studies as I recall, so the female angle might be interesting. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 3/10/2006 06:14:00 AM  

Au contraire, Christian, Justin often responds personally to every comment. For example, recently I posted a comment wondering which church president had been most often divorced, and within minutes Justin came back with a full list of the number of marriages and divorces for all the polygamous presidents since Brigham. (FYI, BY was the most divorced, but just barely...WW had the highest divorce rate, with half of his 10 marriages ending in divorce.)


Comment by ed | 3/10/2006 03:19:00 PM  

Yeah, it does seem he likes to make factual comments and answer factual questions. But opinions, debates, analysis, conversation, witty repartee? I haven't really seen that from him. It's the all sources all the time channel. The guy's a machine.  (A fascinating resource, to be sure, as you point out! I don't mean this as a criticism.) 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 3/10/2006 04:14:00 PM  



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