Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Why America Didn't Like the Mormons In the Beginning

So, what's not to like about Mormons?  They are polite, generous, thoughtful, family-oriented, well-educated, articulate, loyal, devout, patriotic, self-reliant, industrious, frugal, self-disciplined, sober, neat, well-dressed, and, sometimes, quite wealthy.

Case in point: Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman.  Look at them, and you will see Mormonism at its best.  Just put aside your (or their) political or religious orientation for a second, and simply look at them as individuals and American citizens, and I think you'll agree.

(Now occasionally someone goes off the reservation, so to speak.  Case in point: Glenn Beck.  But perhaps you can chalk that up to the fact that he's an adult convert and not a cradle Mormon.)

Mormon boys at Worship
 This is the amazing image that Mormons have sought to convey over the last century or so, and they have largely succeeded.  And it's the reason Mormons are one of the fastest growing religions in the world.  They seem to have something that a lot of people admire and want.

Yet, it's not always been that way.

As I stated in my last post on Mormonism, the original Mormon movement--involving thousands of people even in the early years--moved en masse four times in 17 years between 1830 and 1847.  Why?  Primarily because they were so disliked by their neighbors, to the point where their Mormon way of life, and sometimes even their very lives, were in danger if they stayed where they were.

What was it about those early Mormons that upset their neighbors so much?  It's not always clear why that was the case, but there are several reasons that stick out when you study the matter closely.

First of all, wherever Mormons went, they stood apart from the rest of the society around them in their religious views.  They read from a sacred text other than the Bible--the Book of Mormon--which they thought of as scripture.  Furthermore, they considered all other Christians in the world as corrupted and apostate, and only themselves as the true church of Jesus Christ  They treated their leader, Joseph Smith, as a prophet like unto Moses and Elijah, and eventually, like unto Jesus Christ himself, which tended to be offensive and almost blasphemous to your more 'run-of-the-mill' Christians.  Indeed, their prophet was constantly delivering new revelations and prophecies, which superseded both the Bible and the Book of Mormon.  (These revelations eventually became a part of Mormon scripture, in what is known as the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price.)

These purely religious differences, by themselves, wouldn't necessarily have gotten the Mormons into trouble, however.  People on the American frontier were used to religious diversity, as well as new, enthusiastic religious groups (of which there were many in those days of the Second Great Awakening) so that alone wouldn't likely have done it.

Lieutenant General Joseph Smith in Nauvoo
 The second reason Mormons got into trouble was that they tended to use their growing political power to get their way and to take political control.  Whenever thousands of Mormons moved into a new community, especially like those on the frontier that weren't that large to begin with, they would very shortly be seen as a political threat to those who were already there.  And in the case of the Mormons, they normally voted in a block, as determined by their leaders.

This was particularly true in Missouri and Illinois.  In those Mormon settlements, there was a distinct theocratic interest on the part of Joseph Smith and the other Mormon leaders.  In other words, they wished to set up a political Kingdom of God, (what Smith called a 'theodemocracy') in preparation for the coming millenium of Jesus Christ, which they expected in the very near future.  We see an extreme case of this in Nauvoo, Illinois, where Joseph Smith successfully secured a charter for the Mormon city from the Illinois legislature, which essentially allowed him to establish an independent city-state, with himself as the civil, ecclesiastical, and military leader, all rolled into one.

It is no accident that Joseph Smith actually ran for President of the United States in 1844 from Nauvoo, believing that he could establish a Mormon theocracy in the entire United States.  His drive for political power was no doubt a part of what led to his death at the hand of a mob in June of that year.

The third reason the early Mormons got into trouble with their non-Mormon neighbors is the issue of Joseph Smith's adulterous sexual behavior, which he termed 'plural marriage' and which eventually became the standard and accepted 19th century Mormon polygamous lifestyle in Utah and other Mormon-dominated communities.  Quite early on, Joseph Smith began to seek out sexual relationships with women other than his wife Emma.  These were sometimes young teenage girls, and sometimes they were the wives of his Mormon followers.  He tried to keep it hidden, both from his wife and most other Mormons, yet that is obviously easier said than done.

So as time went on, more and more of his own followers became outraged with Smith's sexual mores and would let the word out that some really immoral things were going on.  Most Mormons didn't believe that their prophet would do such a thing, and he in turn denied it publicly.  Yet, simultaneously within his inner circle of male followers, he began to push the idea of 'plural marriage' as a Mormon 'privilege', along with the theological justification for it. 

Eventually, this unacceptable sexual behavior was the immediate cause that led to Joseph Smith's death.  It was the intense disagreement over this issue of polygamy that generated severe internal dissension among Mormons in Nauvoo, which led to the formation of an opposition newspaper, which led to Smith's attack on and destruction of the newspaper, which led to his arrest and imprisonment, and which finally led to his assassination by an anti-Mormon mob.

In some ways, it is almost a miracle that Mormonism survived the death of Joseph Smith (and I assume that Mormons do indeed consider it a miracle).  And perhaps it wouldn't have survived in any significant way, except that Brigham Young, Smith's replacement as 'prophet', decided to take whatever Mormons would go across the Great Plains on a 1,300 mile 'great trek' to somewhere they could live free and apart from non-Mormons and the United States government, which they considered their enemy. 

So the Mormon faithful left Nauvoo by wagon train in 1846, and over the next year or two, some 20,000 Mormons emigrated from the state of Illinois into the unsettled, frontier lands beyond the Rockies, then belonging to Mexico.  They immediately established what they called the State of Deseret, and began to colonize the entire region in order to make it into their very own Mormon Kingdom of God.

And they largely succeeded for the next several decades.  What became the Territory of Utah was the Mormon Church's and Brigham Young's own little theopolitical Kingdom, and he ran it with an iron hand.  The Mormon religion was the effective established religion, and the Church dominated the political system, the economy, and the culture.  Polygamy became the public order of the day and the normative way to structure marriages and families. 

Non-Mormons were persona non grata in Utah, sometimes leading to such infamous atrocities such as the Mountain Meadow Massacre.  Dissenting Mormons were shunned, and sometimes even murdered by the Mormon thugs called Danites, under the Brigham Young doctrine of 'blood atonement'.

I think it is possible to say that, for the first two decades of its existence at least, Mormon Utah was, for all intents and purposes, a near-totalitarian, theocratic, patriarchal society, under the total control of the Mormon hierarchy (15 men) and their leader, Brigham Young.  Not all that unlike Saudi Arabia, perhaps, just without the oil and robes and camels.

As word got out to the rest of the country throughout the middle of the 19th century, of the strange goings on in Mormonland, alarm bells rang out and the federal government became more and more concerned.  They attempted to exert control over the terrriory through non-Mormon governors and U.S. marshalls, and finally, in the late 1880s, laws were passed in Congress that outlawed polygamy, and when this wasn't sufficient, laws that outlawed the Mormon Church itself.  Mormon Church properties were seized and its polygamous leaders imprisoned (or they went underground, such as in the case of the Third President, John Taylor, who died on the run from the law).

Mormon polygamists in Utah jail, 1888
 And that did it.  Beginning in 1890 with the famous Manifesto, and certainly by the onset of World War I, the Mormon Church accepted the fact that it had to begin to accomodate itself to the federal government and to American culture.  Polygamy went underground, practiced mostly by renegade fundamentalist Mormons, and the bulk of the Mormon Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, went mainstream.  Meanwhile, many more non-Mormons had moved to Utah, reducing the Mormon majority and creating a more diverse community and state.

Mormonism had started down the path to becoming what it is today, a perfectly normal, very successful and rich American religion.


  1. I have been reading your research on Mormonism. Thank you for doing all the legwork so that I can enjoy. I envision that in the beginning, Mormonism acted a little like Al Quaeda, requiring fealty, circling the wagons around the faithful, and being despised for grandiose political ambitions (ie: establishing a Mormon Theocracy) and acquisition of wealth and property. Their polygamous practices might have been based on sexual predation or simply a faster way to produce more Mormons. It didn't fit in with the Puritan model back then. Today, the Mormon religion has become more mainstream and Republican, but I don't think it or its practitioners have completely abandoned the political or societal ambitions. I am open to looking at reasonable solutions to our problems but even I am skeptical about the religious political agendas of Mormon Presidential candidates. (I probably should be skeptical of the beliefs of all candidates of all faiths to be consistent.) I was brought up Catholic and when JFK ran for POTUS, even I was leery of his decision making considering it could be influenced by his/my religion. I no longer can rely on the separation of church & state to keep religious dogma from creeping into our government. That is my quandry about electing a Mormon as president.

  2. The Queen of England is also head & protector of the church of England and seems to manage OK ,also her majesty does have great political clout in spite of claims to the contrary, trust me I'm a Mormon I know about these things

    1. hi Carl I'd like to see America ruled by combined church & state
      wouldn't mind if an American Mormon President was declared King an ruled along the same lines as royalty in Britain, wouldn't the USA be a wonderful family orientated country governed by the Mormon Church an what wonderful Mormon teeth you'd all have just like the Osmond's, seriously the Church would make a good ruling body, be honest the Mormons today take a lot of beating lifestyle wise

    2. Looking back on how Briggy treated those who were dissenters from the church back in the 19th century, with his wonderful doctrine of 'blood atonement' and the subsequent murder of God knows how many, I think having a devout Mormon as US sovereign would be like Lenin or Stalin in Russia. Bloody and tyrannical. Read 'Tell It All' by Fanny ex-Mormon who 'tells it all'....I have no reason not to believe her, frankly....her memoir rings true. That's what you get when fanatical religious leaders also get political power. Not good.

  3. I like that, 'Mormon Tony''d have to agree, it's a pretty accurate history of the Mormon movement, right?

  4. I agree its an interesting history of the Mormon Movement , not so sure if its accurate , you don't think it might be a bit bias, we've been tarred an feathered an run out of a lot of places , I think its still legal to shoot a Mormon on sight in Missouri was Blogs law ever repealed, putting aside what you think of Joseph Smith wasn't Brigham Young an amazing man he brought up five daughters after his wife died , an if you believe the stories 50 wives an only one divorced (I can say i have something in common with him one divorced me an she was Mormon) no internet, radio or TV to glean info from he was an amazing man, the federal government had a survey done of the Salt Lake area an concluded even the indigenous natives couldn't scratch a living there an lost interest in it an Look what Brigham Young turned it into bet you'd like some real estate there today

    1. I agree with you, Tony, that both Smith and Young were amazing men and incredible leaders. Otherwise, we wouldn't be talking about them. But as spiritual leaders and moral exemplars, to me they leave a bit to be desired. I'll stick with guys like Jesus of Nazareth, Paul of Tarsus, Francis of Assisi, and John Wesley. LOL

    2. Jesus Christ of course cannot be faulted in any way what a perfect Example to try to emulate .Paul of Tarsus is a favorite of mine what a spiritual conversion , but before that as a zealot Jew he was very enthusiastic hunting down christian converts with the backing of the Sanhedrin , Just shows how people can change.

    3. Thought you'd like to know Carl
      Official Church update on the IDS site
      15,082,028 Mormons to date
      83,035 Mormon Missionaries