My name is (Bill) William R. Jensen and I have written a historical novel entitled Adder in the Path. Historically, this book deals with the Mormon War in Missouri (1833 -1838). I think the topic of religious wars in in United States is a fascinating one, because religious wars in the U.S. are not common and wars about religion tend to be even more violent that those fought over territory, political, or economic issues. I think the reason for this is obvious, people view religion as sacred.
Being a trained historian, I followed the actual events of the Mormon war very closely and included many of the actual participants in the text. However, I also wanted to deal with the basic drives of the human condition, e.g., being true to self, seeking love, finding spirituality in one’s own way, and maintaining a sense of self, in a conformist society.
The book begins with young Jake Devine, whose father, Sam is an abusive drunk, and beats both Jake and his mother Bessie. Jake is responsible to provide meat for the larder, and do most of the work on their little homestead. One evening, Sam nearly kills Jake’s beloved dog, Rufe for growling at him. The next day, the dog insists on going hunting with Jake, and when Jake shoots a young white-tail deer, Rufe breaks into a run, and then suddenly crashes to the ground bleeding profusely from his nose.
Jake realizes the dog is dying and panics. He tries to remember how his hypocritical father prayed, but does not remember any protocol. In desperation he begins: “Oh lord my God, bless your servant Rufe, with health and strength. “ He does not consider how trite his words sound. At that moment, a little band of Indians appear, led by an old “holy man.” The Indian heals Rufe, with a quiet, dignified ritual that impresses Jake with its imposing dignity. This event leads Jake to find spirituality in the ebb and flow of nature.
Fifteen hundred miles to the East, John Evans, his shrewish wife Agnes and their pretty and bright daughter Jenny receive a strange visitor. Amos Eddings arrived on their doorstep one evening and announced that he was selling an amazing book, entitled the Book of Mormon, which tells the story of the origins of the American Indians, who were actually of Hebrew decent. The book, Eddings said, was translated from golden plates by a man named Joseph Smith, who received prophecy, directly from God.
Agnes, a religious fanatic, was enthralled with the story, but John and Jennifer who were more open-minded and erudite were skeptical. This leads to clashes with Agnes, who is opinionated, and once her mind was made up, does not allow dissent. Agnes despised her husband for his liberal, religious beliefs and constantly ridiculed his membership in the Universalist Unitarians, pointing out that John Calvin had Michael Servetus burned at the stake with his books chained to his body for heresy. Despite her claim to be Christian, she cannot see the hypocrisy in relishing this barbaric act.
Agnes totally dominates John, but denies him any intimacy or tenderness. When Jenny was born, “John wondered if it was an immaculate conception”. Eventually, their relationship deteriorates into mutual tolerance, but they never share physical or emotional intimacy. Agnes cannot see any inconsistency between her actions and the Christian faith she so fervently professes. For his part, John considers leaving Agnes, but knows he would lose Jenny and he cannot face the grinding loneliness he had suffered as a youth.
The Evans eventually move to Kirtland, Ohio where they meet the Mormon Prophet, Joseph Smith, then to Independence, Missouri where the Mormons believe they will establish “Zion” a sinless society, where they will judge all nations and peoples.
During their travels, the Evans became more familiar with Mormon beliefs and culture, and Agnes becomes more zealous in her acceptance of the doctrine, while John and Jenny become more disillusioned. In Independence, John meets Orrin Porter Rockwell, a zealous Mormon, who John respects for his courage, confidence, and skills as a woodsman.
Almost immediately after arriving in Independence, John noticed that there is friction growing between the “Saints” and the “Gentiles” as the Mormons called anyone who was not a member of the faith. Most of the animosity rose because the Mormons, who poured in to Missouri were destitute and squatted on any land that seemed vacant. If they were questioned about ownership of the land, they told the gentiles that God had given them the land as an inheritance to establish a sinless society and anyone who questioned them would face God’s wrath.
The Mormons also established a newspaper, the Evening and Morning Star. The Star was the only newspaper in the area, and its editor, W. W. Phelps, constantly harangued the Missourians for their wickedness. John knew that this attitude of self-righteousness would lead to violence between the Gentiles and the Saints, the spark that touched off the inferno was an article in the Evening and Morning Star, seemingly inviting “Free people of color” to come to Missouri and join the “Church”. John knew that this seemingly innocuous article would incite violence, because Missouri was a boarder slave state.
John’s admiration of Porter Rockwell grows after the frontiersman saves John and his family from starvation when the Saints are driven from Independence. After Porter helps John move to Far West, in North West Missouri, John views him as the epitome of what a man should be and views himself as week and helpless.
After being driven to Far West, the Saints became even more rigid and self-righteous. Once the Prophet Joseph, flees Kirtland and arrives in Far West, they establish a secret society to maintain obedience among the Saints and act as “shock troops in case of conflict with the Missourians. John is appalled at the dictatorial society that has developed in Far West and decides he must speak his mind. He feels that he is a coward, but he makes a pact with “the Supreme being that if the opportunity arises, he will speak out against this travesty of justice.
Jenny is much like her father a free thinker and she too sees the society of Far West and demanding obedience and stifling free thought. She beings to roam the prairie on a little mare that she borrows from the friendly stable owner, to escape the smothering society of Far West. She knows that he father is terribly unhappy and that her mother treats him like a minion. In her travels, she meets Jake, and they discuss religion, spirituality and love in a secluded spot on the rolling grasslands. Eventually, they make love and Jenny feels an overwhelming sense of guilt, until she remembers something her father said, “Making love is not a sin, it is a beautiful symbol of love for another.”
Eventually both John and Jenny face their demons, and prove their moral courage, but also face disaster. John finally realizes that it takes courage to speak one’s mind in a hostile setting. When Porter Rockwell betrays him, he realizes that courage comes in many guises. One of the themes of this poignant story is that man does not have to give up his “self” to prove he reveres a superior being. Nor does he have to fight a physical battle to prove that in his heart he has courage to stand up for his convictions. I think the message is as timely today as it was in 1838.
Have you ever found yourself in a situation in which it took courage to speak your mind in a hostile environment?
For more information about Adder in the Path, visit www.adderinthepath.net, or the publisher’s web site www.belleislebooks.com