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|
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 Indeed, their prophet was constantly delivering new revelations and prophecies, which superseded both the Bible and the Book of Mormon.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|
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.
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|
Mormonism had started down the path to becoming what it is today, a perfectly normal, very successful and rich American religion.