Justin Butterfield, Mormon Wasp and Nauvoo Neighbor
by Christian Y. Cardall
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.)