Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Politics of Mormons (the 19th Century Kind)

In the New York Review of Books article about Mitt Romney that I quoted from yesterday, even the college professoriate around Massachusetts who watch and wonder about their former governor didn't know much more about his Mormonism:  "Concern is voiced at local dinner parties that Mitt is a Mormon, though it quickly becomes clear, amid loose talk of magic underwear and scriptures in 'reformed Egyptian,' that few of us really know much about Mormonism."

Lieutenant General Joseph Smith, Commander of the Mormon Nauvoo Legion
This 'concern about Mormonism' seems to keep coming up at all levels of our society.  Why?  The fact is that most Americans know very little about the Mormon phenomenon, yet they know it seems at times very strange, almost alien, somehow even unAmerican (though most won't put it that way, except for fundamentalist Southern Baptists like Pastor Jeffress).

I've already posted several basic articles on Mormonism here, herehere, and here, that you might want to refer to for some introductory information.  But there is much more to tell, because the more you look into the origins and history of Mormonism, the more surprises keep jumping out at you.

For example, did you know that the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, seriously ran for President?  In 1844, as Mayor of Nauvoo, Illinois, Commander of the Nauvoo Legion (a huge city/Mormon military unit about 4,000 men strong), and 'Prophet, Seer, and Revelator' of the expanding Mormon religion (about 50,000 adherents), Joseph Smith decided that he was called to be President of the United States, so he sent hundreds of his best 'elders' out around the country to missionize and electioneer for him.  He was killed by a mob in June of that year, so we don't know how that election would have turned out.  (Oh, I forgot to mention that Smith had his primary governing 'Council of Fifty' declare him 'King'.  That was one of the things--along with his 'multiple wives'--that got him so brutally shot to death.)

You've probably heard that two years later, in 1846, the new Mormon President, Brigham Young, led some 20,000 Mormons across the Great Plains to what was then Mexico and established a new and permanent Mormon colony in the Great Salt Valley.  But did you know that Young immediately made claim to the entire area (comprising about 1/6 of what is now the United States, including all or part of nine Western states) and petitioned Congress to become the State of Deseret, with him as the 'governor'?  (Wisely, Congress declined.)  It would have been the largest state in the Union, and Brigham Young would have been its leader.  Or better, dictator, because that is what he became, the effective civil, ecclesiastical, and military leader of what became the Utah territory.  The Mormons proudly referred to him as dictator, actually, because that is how he, and they, interpreted his power.

Did you know that when the Congress decided in 1857 that having Brigham Young as the governor of the Utah territory was probably not the best thing, (since he was acting as a Mormon theocrat) and tried to replace him, that the Mormons basically went to war (the Utah War) with the Federal Government, attacking the Federal army detachment sent out to accompany the new, non-Mormon governor?

Did you know that the Mormons basically ignored the laws of the United States from the time of their settlement in Nauvoo, Illinois around 1840 and for the rest of the century?  (They could do this because they were isolated out West from the rest of the country.)  If the United States said that you couldn't have more than one wife, Mormons just ignored that law and made polygamy the law of the land in Mormon territory.  (Brigham Young ended up with a total of 55 wives, each of whom had their own little apartment in his 'beehive home' there in Salt Lake City.)  It was only in 1890, when the United States basically outlawed Mormonism, confiscated its property, and turned its leaders--including the Third President, John Taylor--into fugitives from justice, that the Mormon leadership finally decided that perhaps they had better conform themselves to the culture and law of the greater United States.  Even then, polygamy continued sub rosa for decades, and still continues among the smaller Mormon groups.

Did you know that it was Mormon doctrine that the Mormons would eventually take over the United States and then the whole world, and rule theocratically in the place of Jesus Christ until his return?  They called this 'theodemocracy'.  (Again, it is no accident that scholars used to refer to Mormonism as the 'Islam of the West', because of its similarities to the religion of Mohammed, particularly its tendency to merge religion and politics/government into a theocracy.)

If all of this sounds very strange to you, then you are in good company.  So how is it that Mormons have come to be seen today as good, patriotic, family-oriented people, best known for their great genealogical library (I've been there and it is fabulous!)?  How is it that this very weird history of their origins has mostly been ignored? 

To some extent, what we were remains a part of who we are in the present.  I think the historical legacy of Mormonism has yet to be adequately assessed.  And I think that this may be why there is this inchoate, diffused concern about the Mormonism of Mitt Romney.


  1. I'm a Mormon convert , my conversion took place when I was approx 42 ,I was 12 months previously a hard drinking heavy smoking manual worker, a year after giving up smoking an drinking alcohol I came in contact with Mormon missionary's,to cut a long story short
    on my own I got down on my knees an asked the lord if the LDS church was the true church ,was Joseph Smith a prophet of God , was the book of Mormon a testimony of Jesus Christ ,well no answer so I went to bed , at three in the morning I was given the knowledge all this was true , I typed it up on my word processor an went to sleep, when I awoke in the morning I thought I maybe dreamed it but there it all was on an A4 sheet of paper in the printer .I
    was widowed after 28 years , divorced after 6 years , an am happily married now 12 years , two out of three isn't bad, to some it is given to know , some can beleave on the words of others , I have great peace of mind which I'm grateful for,I've had three maybe four heart attacks the last 25 years and have been told by Dr’s for the last 20 years I have only a few months to live ,I died over 20 years ago an was sent back , no I didn't want to come back ,I did have certain work to complete and I'm almost sure I have now completed it , I can tell you were here to overcome the trials an tribulations an temptations of this world an be nice and gentle an kind . sounds to easy doesn't it , beleave that Jesus Christ is the son of God love him an keep his commandments ,when we leave this world we get graded , higher the grade greater the glory for eternity .