The years flanking the start of the twentieth century represented a time of transition for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Seventy years old in 1900, the Church and the larger Mormon society in which it resided still displayed much of their traditional character. Although some members congregated in urban densities that edged out along the Wasatch Front from Salt Lake City (Utah’s capital and the Church’s headquarters), most still lived in small, relatively self-contained agricultural communities in the Great Basin’s interior. Wherever they lived, however, they expected charismatic leaders to continue organizing the Church, directing devotional life, and keeping the federal government at arms length. That formula had held sway during the Saints’ half-century-long occupation of the Intermountain West, allowing a unique intermixing of civil and ecclesiastical institutions to develop. Change was in the wind, however, and indeed had been for decades.
Increasing contacts with the gentile (non-Mormon) world had resulted in Utah’s increasing implication in national economic and political networks. Brigham Young, who directed the migration to Utah in 1846–47 and led the Church until his death thirty years later, had steered the economy in the direction of Mormons’ self-sufficiency, preferring short-haul exchange to national trade; stressing local, cooperative manufacturing over mining (which in California and Nevada had quickly attracted outside interests); and accepting commercial banking only grudgingly. Completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 had, however, begun Utah’s integration into American capitalism, a process well along by the 1880s.1 The long struggle to obtain Utah’s statehood had culminated successfully in 1896, but only after LDS leaders agreed to abandon their unique marriage system and extricate the Church from its long-standing embrace of the civil state. Latter-day Saints were once again full-fledged citizens of the United States, but any lingering sense that old gentile enmities had died and that they could continue to live without overmuch federal surveillance were dashed by the uproar over seating Reed Smoot, a Mormon Apostle, to the United States Senate. As Kathleen Flake has suggested, the public hearings that exercised the Upper House between 1903 and 1907 gave the American people a fuller understanding of Mormonism and left no doubt among the faithful that the federal government would regulate and, if necessary, defang any religious group it deemed un-American.2 All of these changes worked their influence on Temple Square. As Utah’s gentile population increased, free markets took hold, and the government in Washington struck down Mormon legal and matrimonial arrangements, the Church moved to bring its internal workings in line with the new circumstances, developing a more rationalized bureaucracy, systematizing its internal workings (including its theology), and altering its relationship to the civil state. Joseph Keeler played an important role in these changes. Although virtually unknown to non-Mormon scholars, Keeler, whose life spanned the transitional era, helped transform the Church from a body bent on building the Kingdom of Zion in relative isolation to a dynamic, corporate religious institution that, by the end of the twentieth century, had established itself internationally. His writings, emblematic of a shift in Mormon print culture noteworthy in itself, helped facilitate the rationalization of the LDS Church.
Joseph B. Keeler (1855–1935):
An Overview of His Life
Keeler’s roots thrust deep into the soil of Mormon historical experience. His father, Daniel, a first-generation convert born in New Jersey, apprenticed as a stonemason in Philadelphia and worked in various places along the East Coast, including New York City, where he joined the Church in March 1840. That summer, he journeyed to western Illinois, joining those Saints who were building the city of Nauvoo. Daniel laid stone for a number of Mormon buildings, including the Nauvoo Temple, prior to the Mormon Exodus. Keeler’s mother, Ann, joined the Church in New Jersey following her migration from Lancashire, England. Both of Keeler’s parents had married, raised children, and been widowed before finding each other.3 Joseph, their first child, was born in Salt Lake City on September 8, 1855. His given names, Joseph Brigham, paid tribute to the Church’s past and present prophets, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. During the Utah War of 1857–58, when U. S. troops threatened Salt Lake City, the Keelers, along with virtually the entire population of the city, abandoned the capital and relocated forty-five miles south to Provo. When the emergency was over, most of the refugees returned to their homes in Salt Lake City, but the Keelers elected to remain in Utah Valley. There, Joseph Keeler and his wife, Martha Alice Fairbanks (June 29, 1860–October 2, 1938), whom he married in 1883 and with whom he raised ten children, spent most of their lives.
Keeler learned about hard physical labor at home, assisting his father in the construction business. During the 1860s, he helped build Provo’s first tabernacle, and from October 1874 to March 1875, he served a building mission in southern Utah, helping to lay the stone foundation of the St. George Temple, the first such structure that the Latter-day Saints completed in the Great Basin. But his family also encouraged reading, and, like so many nineteenth-century Americans, his introduction to print culture began with scripture. His mother regularly read to her children from the family Bible that she had brought from England; young Keeler first learned his capital letters from its pages. In an early journal he recorded, “I was impressed with the thought that I was sent to earth to perform a mission—I began, therefore, to improve my mind by reading and studying good books.”4 These volumes were both secular and religious. In addition to Keeler’s own efforts, Karl G. Maeser, the first principal of the Brigham Young Academy (BYA), which was established as a kind of high school in Provo in 1875, exercised a great influence over him.5 Keeler enrolled in 1876 as one of BYA’s initial students and the next year began as a reporter for the Provo Territorial Enquirer, gaining a good introduction to the printing business. After graduating in 1877, he served as the first president of the BYA Polysophical Society, a student group devoted to discussing books and ideas.6
Keeler’s calling as a writer had manifested itself by the time he reached adulthood. He first gained a measure of literary notice and public visibility when the Territorial Enquirer published letters that he penned from Georgia during his service as a full-time proselytizer in the LDS Church’s Southern States Mission between April 1880 and March 1882.7 He also kept a personal journal of his mission and published his first pamphlet, How to Get Salvation: The Faith and Teachings of the Latter-day Saints (1880), a brief overview of Christian history from a Mormon perspective.8 Following the organizational lead of forerunners like Orson Pratt and Orson Spencer, Keeler took his readers from the Church’s beginnings through what Mormons considered the apostasy that spewed out the “great and abominable church” (1 Ne. 13:6), whose continued sway necessitated the Restoration of lost authority and gospel truth that Joseph Smith, guided by heavenly visitations, made possible by revealing lost scripture.9 Keeler published his ambitious pamphlet at a time when it was becoming less usual for missionaries to develop such aids for evangelization, since treatises written by Church leaders that explained Mormon history and doctrine were becoming more available and were widely considered throughout the community of Latter-day Saints to be more appropriate guides for spreading the faith than those penned by missionaries themselves.10
Keeler well exemplified the pattern, common among nineteenth-century Mormons, of combining civic and educational work with Church callings. Following his mission, he began his long career as a faculty member and administrator at Brigham Young Academy (later, University). He joined BYA in 1884, the same year in which he was called as the first counselor to the president of the Utah Stake Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association (YMMIA), an organization for improving the religious knowledge, values, and morals of young Mormon men.11 His ecclesiastical, educational, and civic prominence increased in concert. He was called as president of the Utah Stake YMMIA in 1893 and bishop of the Provo Fourth Ward two years later. He became in 1898 the first Church official to authorize single women to undertake full-time missions for the Church.12 In 1892, having the previous year taken a Master of Accounts degree from Eastman Business College in Poughkeepsie, New York, he became a counselor (that is, a vice president) to President Benjamin Cluff at BYA. He served as Provo city treasurer, and, in 1897, gained election to the Provo city council. Meanwhile, he continued to write for the Territorial Enquirer and publish on both secular and religious topics. In 1891, he gathered his previously published essays on science and religion into a small book, Foundation Stones of the Earth, and Other Essays, a typical rejection of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution on grounds that it transgressed a literal reading of Genesis. Keeler could not accept any account of life’s origin that excluded either divine design or the Deity’s active participation.13 His rejection of evolution had an impact later at BYU. The next year he shared the technical knowledge gained at Eastman in his first textbook, A Student’s Guide for Book Keeping.14
As part of a larger movement to decentralize local Church government, Church leaders in January 1901 met in Provo to divide the large Utah Stake into three smaller stakes: Utah, Nebo, and Alpine. David John, the new president of the Utah Stake, called Keeler as his first counselor. It was in this capacity and then as stake president in his own right (he was called in 1908) that Keeler made his most important contributions to Mormon print culture. Understanding his impact requires a brief sketch of how that culture had developed.
Early Mormon Print Culture
Nineteenth-century Saints were people of not just one book, but of books in general, and periodicals too. The Church emerged at the same time that the young republic experienced a proliferation of printing presses, technology that Church leaders seized upon to announce and spread the latter-day truth. The paramount Mormon publication was, of course, the Book of Mormon (1830), whose appearance antedated the Church itself, but although most people then (and now) associated Mormons most strongly with that single text, Saints in fact immersed themselves in a wide variety of printed matter from the outset. Almost immediately following the Church’s organization, leaders began newspapers to communicate with dispersed believers and inform the public. A compilation of Joseph Smith’s revelations appeared first in 1833 and in revised format two years later; periodic editions inserted additional revelations regarding doctrine and practice that Smith, who insisted that prophecy did not end with the biblical age and that God still reveals his will in the present, continued to disclose. Pamphlets and books defending and explaining Church doctrine appeared as well.15 From the pens of its most articulate converts, many of them Church leaders, came missionary pamphlets and books. Two brothers, Parley P. and Orson Pratt, proved especially productive and influential during the first generation. Parley’s death in 1857 helped bring the initial era of Mormon pamphleteering to an end, though other factors played a role too. Mormon publishers overestimated their markets, leaving large quantities of books unsold, and Brigham Young wanted to husband the Church’s precious resources, sorely depleted by the move into a virtually uninhabited desert, for such projects as aiding even the poorest Latter-day Saints to gather in Zion and building the temple. He also thought that too much analysis of Mormon doctrine would kill the spirit of its central belief in continuing revelation and an open canon.16
The second phase of Mormon print culture, in which Keeler would so prominently figure, opened about a decade later in response to wholesale demographic, social, and economic changes that challenged Mormons’ painfully constructed group cohesion and moral sensibilities. The transcontinental railroad made the Intermountain West more accessible to gentile influence, ending Mormons’ self-imposed isolation and threatening their self-sufficiency. Non-Mormons crowded into the territory, bringing with them such examples of gentile culture as the popular dime novel, whose consumption Church leaders considered a waste of time and money, not to mention inimical to Mormon industry and morals. To combat such influences, the Church, led by Brigham Young, took some institutional steps to improve religious education, creating mutual improvement associations for both adolescent women (the Young Women’s Mutual Improvement Association, or YWMIA )17 and young men (YMMIA ). Sunday schools, imported by English converts from Methodism, first appeared in the Salt Lake Valley as early in 1849, but not until 1872 did the Deseret Sunday School Union organize fully.18 The Church’s campaign to protect the next generation included creating periodicals such as the Juvenile Instructor (January 1866), The Contributor (October 1879), and Improvement Era (November 1897), all efforts to reach younger readers by providing them literature supporting LDS values and perspectives.
Although directing most of these efforts toward young adults, the Church also made sure to provide more systematic instruction for children. The Primary Association, an analog to the YMMIA and YWMIA, was founded in 1878 to instruct children aged three to twelve.19 Some of Smith’s early revelations had called for creating books to instruct juveniles, but the pressures of building Zion in an arid wilderness with minimal resources necessarily delayed these directives’ implementation. Indeed, the first major breakthrough issued from a press overseas. In 1854, the Church released John Jaques’s Catechism for Children, Exhibiting the Prominent Doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Liverpool, following its serialization in the LDS Millennial Star, an English Mormon newspaper, the previous year. Jaques’s Catechism proved very popular among the Latter-day Saints, appearing in ever-larger English-language printings up to its Salt Lake City edition of 1888, which brought the total to 35,000, not counting the printings in other languages. The need for Mormons to have such a basic instructional work is reflected in the fact that, notwithstanding its title, parents read it for themselves as avidly as to their offspring.20
The Church’s primary printing operation outside the Liverpool mission publishing concern was the Church-owned press that began issuing the Deseret News in Salt Lake City in 1850 and also published books, booklets, handbills, and other printed material under the name Deseret News Press. George Q. Cannon, Brigham Young’s counselor, provided another outlet for Mormon publications when he established his own business in the 1860s; it was soon printing periodicals, books, and other items.21 He also operated a bookstore. The Church acquired Cannon’s business enterprises before his death in 1901, combined them with other publishing and bookselling ventures, and in 1920 renamed the operation Deseret Book Company, the flagship of LDS publishing and distribution to the present day. Deseret News Press constituted the Church’s main publishing operation throughout the period under discussion, and it printed nearly all of Keeler’s works.
Most of the Church’s fundamental doctrines and practices had appeared in print by the 1870s, if not earlier, but regularly printed and systematically prepared guides for administration, handbooks for Church government, and lesson manuals for Latter-day Saints of all ages were still lacking. Keeler’s greatest accomplishments in using print to help the Church accommodate to Utah’s increasing integration into American life came in these areas. Three particular projects warrant attention here: his rationalization of the bishop’s court, his calls to standardize the Church bureaucracy, and his innovative program for organizing the Aaronic Priesthood.
The Bishop’s Court: Its History and Proceedings
In February 1901, Keeler delivered a lecture about the institution of the bishop’s court to the Utah Stake high council, a group of twelve men called to assist the stake presidency in administrating the unit’s affairs.22 Prior to the talk, Keeler sent Anthon H. Lund, a member of the Church’s First Presidency, an outline. Reviewing what he himself knew about LDS history, Lund complimented Keeler on his thorough study of the courts, noting that the variations in their judicial proceedings from ward to ward called for a more standardized approach to their operation.23 If Lund read the lecture published the next year, as he undoubtedly did, he must have been quite pleased.
Keeler’s twenty-two-page pamphlet addressed an important and complex issue, for, during the course of the nineteenth century, Mormon bishops had accumulated civil powers far exceeding those of ecclesiastical officials in any other American religious body. Their authority had to be delimited both to clarify their role within the LDS hierarchy and to dispel any objections that their courts transgressed popular American notions about separating church and state.24 From the office’s inception, Mormon bishops had exercised control over temporal as well as religious affairs. During the Nauvoo, Illinois, period (1839–46), the Church assigned them responsibility for geographical areas called wards, so-called because of their concurrent use as voting districts. Once ensconced in the Great Basin, the Church formalized the ward system, assigning bishops and ordering the construction of chapels in every one.25 Considered by the LDS hierarchy as “judges in Israel” (D&C 58:17), bishops held authority to settle family arguments, adjudicate disputes among neighbors over property and water rights, receive tithes and freewill offerings on behalf of the Church, and care for widows and orphans. They also dealt with members’ conduct and standing in the Church. As spelled out in Joseph Smith’s early revelations, a bishop was technically the highest office in the Aaronic Priesthood—the lower of the two Mormon priestly orders that holds authority to, for instance, baptize individuals—but as ward structures evolved, two officers came to lead local congregations: the bishop, responsible for temporal affairs, and the presiding high priest, responsible for spiritual ones. During the 1850s, Brigham Young merged these two positions into a single post that, despite retaining the title “bishop,” dealt with more than just mundane matters. The task of counseling the ward bishops and overseeing their work fell to the Church’s Presiding Bishop, who reported to the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the Church’s highest governing authorities.
The judicial system of the early LDS Church took shape in the interaction between scripture, Smith’s revelations, and the Saints’ experience. One of Smith’s earliest revelations held that transgressors were to be “dealt with as the scriptures direct” (D&C 20:80), which left a great deal of latitude about how to proceed. Absent clear instructions and precedents, Church courts initially employed at least three practices for treating ecclesiastical malfeasances: (1) a mild form of exclusion that limited the wrongdoer’s participation in the religious community for a short period; (2) a more formal ban, which deprived the person of all religious privileges for a longer or indefinite period; and (3) a complete excommunication from the religious community. Soon a more formal judicial system superseded these decentralized practices. By 1835, the Church had constituted three main courts: the bishop’s court (D&C 42; 107:68, 72), the stake high council court (D&C 102), and the council of the First Presidency (D&C 102:78–81), although use of these courts was inconsistent until much later. Essentially, bishops’ courts served as units of judicial origin, with the other two acting as courts of appeal or, in more serious cases, courts of origination. Until the 1840s, bishops had regional as well as local responsibility, but by 1842 the Church had identified the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles with the quorum of twelve high priests identified in Doctrine and Covenants 107:78–84, thereafter granting it the highest judicial authority.
The priesthood’s judicial functions increased as the Church moved West.26 In 1852, after two of the three judges federally appointed to the Utah Territorial Court “ran away” from their posts (for a variety of reasons),27 the Utah legislature transferred original jurisdiction for criminal matters from federal to local probate courts. Mormon bishops presided over most probate courts, which consequently took on far-ranging civil functions as well as ecclesiastical ones. Until 1874, when Congress passed the Poland Act, stripping the courts of their criminal jurisdiction, Mormon bishops heard both civil and criminal matters that, outside Utah, belonged to exclusively “secular” jurisdictions. The probate courts’ extended authority was one of many problems facing Mormon leaders as they attempted to achieve Utah’s statehood.28 Bishops’ extraordinary competence suggested to non-Mormons that little if any separation existed in Utah between church and state, a parlous constitutional situation. Aware of these public perceptions, Keeler in 1902 drew upon his own episcopal experience and his research into LDS history to author The Bishop’s Court: Its History and Proceedings,29 which established more clearly than had any previous work the institution’s proper organization and function under both LDS and federal law.
Following a short introduction, the pamphlet discussed the court’s history and development. Keeler underlined the absence of systematic recordkeeping in the courts, the lack of procedural uniformity, and the need to establish a single method for governing wards.30 The essay’s remainder provided just such standard procedures, including the forms to be used for complaints and summonses. He also described the proper process for a trial and drew up sample forms for taking down testimony, reporting the court’s decision, issuing a notice of appeal, and excommunicating the worst offenders. The two last pages summarized and reviewed the steps to be observed in such disciplinary matters.
This brief work, a first in Mormon print culture, provided the basis for regularizing the courts.31 As late as 1939, a handbook of Church government compiled by a leading member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles recommended using several of Keeler’s forms.32 The Bishop’s Court settled the jurisdiction of the courts, removing gentile doubts about their possibly usurping civil functions, and systematized the judicial process of Mormon ecclesiastical courts, a reform that helped preserve their popular legitimacy even as the locus of much LDS disciplinary activity moved away from rural villages, whose courts were adequately served by informal procedures, into urban areas, where the volume of business, if nothing else, necessitated formal ones.
Theology Department Courses
Keeler’s careful and systematic approach toward legal and organizational matters also manifested itself in his work as a teacher and director of the Theological Department at the Brigham Young Academy. In 1902–3, he prepared materials for four theology courses. Their subject matter addressed several of his ongoing interests in standardizing the Church’s operations, such as systematizing the teaching of LDS administrative history to young Mormons and encouraging the Church bureaucracy’s standardization.
The first two courses covered the Lesser (Aaronic) Priesthood in thirteen lessons; the second expatiated on Church government in nineteen.33 In October 1903, BYA became Brigham Young University, and the next August, Deseret News Press published the course materials as The Lesser Priesthood and Notes on Church Government.34 It quickly sold out, requiring a second edition in 1906. Issued with the strong approval of the First Presidency, the work won lauds from the Deseret News, which published both a detailed article surveying the volume’s content and a short editorial praising it.35 Proud of its favorable reception, Keeler had a small broadside printed that quoted the coverage, publicizing the newspaper’s recommendation that every Latter-day Saint library ought to have a copy.36 He also called attention to part 4, “A Brief Concordance of the Doctrine and Covenants,” highlighted in another issue of the Deseret News.37
Such publicity clearly boosted sales, and Keeler’s own leaflets spread the word further. A letter from J. W. Paxman, president of the Juab, Utah, Stake, suggests the enthusiasm with which this volume was greeted:
I have read your leflets—every one of them—and enjoyed them very much. I placed the Leaflets, at my personal expense, in the Lesser Priesthood Quorums in this stake. . . .
I have recommended the work lately in the wards, as far as I have visited them and will speak of it in all the wards in the stake during the winter.
[I] would like to see a copy of it in every home among the saints. It fills a long-felt need, and the Saints will have a much better understanding of the excellency of our church and its government by reading its pages.38
Joseph F. Smith, President of the Church, was hardly less complimentary: “You deserve great credit for your book and I commend your work. If there is an error in fact or doctrine in it I have not discovered it. It will be an excellent help to students of Church Organizations and Systems of Government and Discipline.”39
In 1929, a third edition appeared, and it, too, was advertised by the publisher in specially printed bookmarks as a work that had “inestimable value for every member of the Church.” The Lesser Priesthood’s influence extended well beyond Keeler’s death. The work that succeeded it, John A. Widtsoe’s Priesthood and Church Government (1939), owed much of its structure and contents to Keeler’s work, as evidenced by Widtsoe’s incorporating sixty-one excerpts into his own book.
First Steps in Church Government
During the winter of 1906, Keeler published First Steps in Church Government: What Church Government Is and What It Does.40 Recommended and then adopted as the lesson manual for the Lesser, or Aaronic, Priesthood, it was reprinted in 1912 and 1924. To fully appreciate what Keeler was doing with these works, a brief overview of the nineteenth-century Mormon concept of priesthood, especially the Aaronic Priesthood, is necessary. Today, young Mormon males enter the Aaronic Priesthood at age twelve and advance through three offices: deacon (ages 12–13), teacher (14–15), and priest (16–18). The ward bishop takes a major role in guiding these young men, reflected in the fact that his office is technically the highest in the Lesser Priesthood. At age eighteen, all faithful, worthy young men are given the Higher, or Melchizedek, Priesthood and are then ordained to the office of an elder. The Aaronic Priesthood offices provide a series of mentoring experiences for young boys as they mature. These callings school them in the basic duties and responsibilities of Church service and leadership. In addition to helping keep them active in the Church, this training better prepares them to undertake full-time missions and to serve both the Church and society at large.
Until the end of the nineteenth century, however, men, not boys, generally held the Aaronic Priesthood.41 Those called to serve in its offices were usually designated “acting deacons” or “acting teachers.” Few boys were considered mature enough to enter the priesthood, and those deemed acceptable were given the Melchizedek Priesthood. Keeler himself never received the Aaronic Priesthood in his youth, but while working in the YMMIA, teaching at BYA, and serving as bishop, he came to see the great value such callings could have for young men.
As a newly called bishop, Keeler found himself presiding over 150 young boys living in his ward. Church leaders since Brigham Young had struggled with how to rein in such fellows, who did not always adhere to Mormon values and teachings.42 The YMMIA was established to be one of the solutions, and some of the larger wards formed literary societies43 for reading and debate, but these efforts attracted mostly those who were already self-motivated, and even the most active ones failed to provide their members with regular instruction. Passing the faith of the pioneering parents to the next generation proved harder than anyone had supposed, especially since by the late nineteenth century young men were moving out of the hamlets and villages that had constituted the bedrock of Mormon Utah society. They still met weekly with other ward members and took on various obligations to their neighborhood or ward, but these tasks involved mainly manual labor like cutting wood or cleaning the chapel and did little to improve their spirituality or dedication to Mormon values. When adolescent males did meet to study, they might read adventure novels as readily as they did scriptures.44
Keeler’s experience in both academic and ecclesiastical settings prepared him, as a new bishop, to organize and structure lessons for the young men in the Aaronic Priesthood.45 Eventually, he expanded his handwritten notes and printed them, first as his theology lectures at the BYA, then as The Lesser Priesthood and Church Government in 1904. In 1906, his First Steps in Church Government systematized these lessons for the Aaronic Priesthood quorums.
The founding generation of Utah’s Mormon leaders worried that young boys were not yet spiritually mature enough to handle official responsibilities. There is no evidence, for instance, that even Brigham Young’s sons had been given the Aaronic Priesthood. Keeler, on the other hand, trusted them and established workable training regiments for them,46 beginning with his own son, whom he ordained a deacon at age twelve. Soon, he was instructing other boys in his ward in their callings as well. His published works played so important a role in spiritually developing the Church’s young men that they drew further notice to him. In 1908, Keeler was called to serve on the Church’s General Priesthood Committee on Outlines, the same year he was called to the presidency of the Utah Stake.
Other contributions followed. He was invited to write articles for The Improvement Era, the main English-language Church periodical. In July 1913, he published “Organization and Government of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” then, in June 1914, he surveyed the contents of “A Typical Ward Service.”47 He addressed general conferences of the Church in 1902, 1911, and 1918, testimony to his stature as a stake president. His publication A Concordance of the Doctrine and Covenants was officially sanctioned by its inclusion in the 1918 edition of those revelations issued by the Church.48
Summary and Conclusion
Joseph B. Keeler witnessed the passing of Mormonism’s founding generation. With it went plural marriage, millennial expectations, and an emphasis on the immediate establishment of a political and economic Kingdom of God. Keeler’s own generation experienced the shift from a rural, village community to an urban world in which the Church needed to help foster piety in the ward and nuclear family. His work proved central in several ways to standardizing and bureaucratizing the Church hierarchy, processes that themselves were part of a larger modernizing trend shaping not only the LDS Church but much of American life in the early twentieth century.49
Nineteenth-century Mormonism generally sought to maintain a stable society, often forced through circumstance into self-contained and isolated communities. Communication among members remained primarily oral but was supplemented by their printed newspapers. Face-to-face communication, centered in extended family and kin networks, was the norm. Such a traditional society was also reflected in its social structure and political organization, controlled as it was by an elite leadership class that seldom distinguished between the secular and the sacred. Plural marriage extended and reinforced this reality. The failure to separate church and state only added to the growing conflict with the larger society.
But by the end of the nineteenth century, modernization was making inroads and forcing a more dynamic challenge to Mormon group cohesion. Market forces and job patterns, the gradual movement from rural to urban settings, and the increasing melding of Utah politics with national power structures and national financial networks provided strong centrifugal forces on the Mormon Church and its members. These same forces, strongly at work in American society as reflected in the rise of the modern manufacturing system, the growth of transportation and communication networks, specialization in the job market, and a growing international outlook that was reflected in the Spanish-American War, were all part of the larger context of Joseph Keeler’s life. While Mormons like Keeler did not produce novels that raised serious questions about what all these changes meant for Americans, their response certainly provides another window into the way churches and religious people adjusted to the challenges that Theodore Dreiser, William Dean Howells, and Mark Twain raised in their novels. Mormons were not as innocent or as ignorant as the main character in Sister Carrie, but they could relate to Silas Lapham’s need to keep the old values while confronting the amoral modern urban world. And Mormons could only partially identify with Twain’s Connecticut Yankee Hank Morgan, who admired ingenuity and inventiveness but failed to see the costs of industrialization and its challenges to the core values of a traditional society. Mormonism came to feel at home in the modern world but has never lost the central core of the family-oriented values that had its roots in an earlier traditional society. Institutional shifts and adjustments encouraged by individuals like Keeler helped the Church step into a new century while keeping a solid foot in the old one.
For one thing, Keeler played a significant role in what might, following Alfred Chandler, be denominated Mormonism’s “managerial revolution,” the rationalization of its ecclesiastical structure into corporate-like forms staffed by “professional executives” (Church authorities) thoroughly prepped for their tasks. In the American economy, the managerial revolution realigned business organizations, enabling them to compete against national (and international) rivals, and created a steady supply of trained labor.50 Out of deeply held religious conviction, Keeler saw that inducting the Church’s young men into the Aaronic Priesthood earlier than had been conventional and educating them in their wards and schools developed a similar pool of leaders necessary to run a corporate religious headquarters or compete with missionaries from other faiths throughout the United States and abroad. This standardization of training would prove instrumental to the tremendous growth of the Mormon Church in the twentieth century. Keeler’s printed works suggest that Mormon writing was moving away from its more polemical and freelance origins in the nineteenth century to a more standardized discourse that was carefully crafted and focused on institutional consumption. As the LDS Church entered the new century as a recognized church in the newly created state of Utah, its partisans’ rhetoric became less defensive and more geared toward working out the Church’s place in a larger world.
Keeler encouraged the Church’s fiscal modernization as well. In 1897, he published a pamphlet on tithing.51 At a time when the Church, intent on shoring up finances depleted by fending off the antipolygamy crusade, was coming to rely solely on cash contributions to fund its operations rather than accepting commodity donations-in-kind more typical of a frontier-exchange economy, securing a regular flow of an instantly negotiable medium was crucial for maintaining the stability of an increasingly large-scale bureaucracy. That LDS leaders recognized this situation can be seen in the Instructions to Presidents of Stakes, which the Church began to issue in 1898 and which contained significant pronouncements on fiduciary as well as spiritual matters.52 Keeler also worked hard to place BYU on a stronger financial footing.
Keeler’s life reveals other dimensions of Mormon modernity. Church leaders had encouraged Mormons to abstain from tea, coffee, tobacco, and alcohol ever since Joseph Smith had revealed the Word of Wisdom (D&C 89) in 1833, but nineteenth-century Saints, including Smith himself, sometimes honored it more in the breach than in the observance. Active in the national temperance movement that would lead to Prohibition, Keeler encouraged Mormons to obey Smith’s injunctions to the letter. Church leaders, influenced by their own experiences, came to a similar conclusion, making abstinence not just a voluntary act but prescribing it as a requirement for full Church worthiness. Keeler’s work with boys in the Aaronic Priesthood was a natural outgrowth of his concern for those most vulnerable to the temptations of demon rum and stimulants of all kinds.53
Finally, Keeler early caught the vision of promoting Mormon family life and family history, the latter a most characteristically Mormon engagement with print culture that inscribes not just a Saint’s love for and interest in immediate, living kin, but that also situates the individual among people who, Mormons believe, will remain one’s family for eternity. Pressured to end plural marriage and the sealing of nonbloodline relatives, the Church replaced these practices, which non-Mormons found particularly repellent, by facilitating individuals’ research into their lineages and then doing temple work to seal direct family lines. In 1894, the year President Wilford Woodruff ended nonbloodline sealings, the Church organized the Utah Genealogical Society, forerunner of its Family History Library, the largest archives of genealogical records in the world.54 Keeler wrote a manuscript genealogy of his family in 1891 and a larger, printed one in 1924.55 Emphasis on such family ties evolved into the Church’s regular family home evening, which encouraged members to set aside one evening per week for developing family relationships and teaching the gospel. Following the implementation of the program by President Frank Y. Taylor in the Granite Stake in 1909,56 Keeler introduced the practice into the Utah Stake in January 1910. The Church as a whole adopted the program in 1915. The family home evening remains a central Mormon domestic devotion, although the day itself has changed from Wednesday to Monday.
The manuals and handbooks that Keeler and his generation produced had a lasting impact on the Church. His printed works made foundational contributions to the institutional coherence of the LDS Church and the growth of a major American religion, even though most Latter-day Saints, let alone Gentiles, have forgotten them.