The Huffington Post Swings and Nicks or Mormonism’s Political Neutrality, Part 2: 1846-1898

The Huffington Post recently took a stab this morning at how Mormonism would influence his views on war and peace.  I’ve seen it done worse.  Ask a Mormon how Mormonism see war.  If they gush on about Captain Moroni without mentioning the Anti-Nephi-Lehies, just smile.  You’re talking to a Mormon who has embraced American nationalism.  As Patrick Mason has argued, Mormonism offers “no consistent message” on matters of war and peace.  The broader question, of course, is: how patriotic is Mormonism? On July 24th, 2011, the Latter-day Saints celebrated Pioneer Day with a tribute to veterans of the armed services.   That Brigham Young had spoken (in typical Brigham Young fashion–with tremendous hyperbole) of cutting American soldiers’ throats only a block away shows how dramatic the Saints’ embrace of American nationalism has been.

By comparison to the rest of the United States, the Mormons had a relatively quiet 19th-century.  During the Mexican-American War, James K. Polk was fearful that the embittered Mormons were going to leave the country and ally with the British in the Oregon territory.  So he asked the Mormons to send a few hundred men–a Mormon Battalion–on a march across the plains and northern Mexican wilderness.  Brigham Young agreed; they needed the money.  Most Mormons were not particularly concerned.  Hosea Stout, the village tough and occasional hothead wrote in his journal: “I confess that I was glad to learn of war

The Commissioning of the Mormon Battalion

against the United States and was in hopes that it might never end untill they were entirely destroyed for they had driven us into the wilderness & was now laughing at our calamities.”  The worst battle this battalion saw was a skirmish with a herd of bulls in northern Mexico.   Modern Saints should not see Mormon involvement as an act of patriotism.  The Mormons were essentially mercenaries working for what they believed to be a now-foreign government.   Even when Utah was integrated into the United States as a territory and Brigham Young became governor, the Mormons didn’t see themselves as Americans but as Constitutionalists.  The Constitutional “just and holy principles” they embraced so loyally were principles of local control and “mind-your-own-business”-ism.

Ten years later, President James Buchanan sent 2,500 troops to the territory to subdue what he believed to be a Mormon revolt.  The Eastern press had been humming with alleged Mormon atrocities for years.  Mormon villains were stock characters in the 1850s dime novels.  Most newspapers were more than ready to, as Brigham wrote it, “hash up a dish of bloody interest”for the readers of Victorian America.  Death, romance, and deceit in the heart of this strange mountain people scintillated the hearts of America’s readership.   When Buchanan received word that the Mormons were mounting a rebellion, the news resonated with most Americans.   He sent 2,500 troops to forcibly remind the Mormons that they were still Americans.

If there was a time when the Mormons thought, spoke, and acted like an independent nation-state, 1857 was it.  They mounted a full militia and prepared for war.  Outsiders needed passports to travel through the territory.  On a few occasions, Mormon scouts executed passing traders believed to be spies (the degree to which they were authorized to carry out these killings is a topic of much debate among scholars). The most horrendous of these killings (and certainly the most popularly known) was the killing of over 150 emigrants passing through southern Utah in September 1857.  The emigrants’ civilian status, and the Mormons’ generally unearned reputation for fanatical violence turned the massacre into a monument to exactly what was wrong with Utah Mormonism.

Cooler heads soon prevailed.  Through the tact and diplomacy of Colonel Thomas L. Kane, and the

Federal troops invade Salt Lake City

President’s Peace Commissioners Benjamin McCullough, and Lazaraus Powell, the federal government and the Mormons held a peace conference, and Brigham Young agreed to step down as territorial governor.

The Civil War was of little interest to the Mormons.  They had been expecting it as the just fate for a wicked nation. Brigham Young was far more interested in how the war would divert the Americans enough to allow for the Saints to “annex all of Mexico.” Of far greater interest was an obscure law sponsored by Congressman Justin Morrill, signed hesitantly by Abraham Lincoln (who, frankly, had a war on his hands).  The Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act officially disenfranchised the Church and outlawed bigamy. This legislation would provide the legal backbone for the next 25+ years of anti-polygamy prosecutions against the Utah Mormons.

The efforts culminated in the dramatic (though overemphasized) anti-polygamy raids of the mid-1880s when Church leaders went into hiding, wore disguises, and dodged authorities. Further legislation strengthened the Anti-Bigamy Act and threatening to seize Church land and their much beloved Temple Block.  Recognizing that they had been beat, the Saints offered the Republican government a deal: if they would stop the offensive, Mormon leaders would stop contracting (but not stop practicing) plural marriage anddeliver Utah as a Republican state.    An immigration agent (who had threatened to cut off all Mormon migration) lit up at the prospects: “If it’s going to be a matter of politics, that changes the affair entirely.”  Most importantly, Cannon penned a letter sent to federal officials assuring them that they were not a sovereign state, had no territorial designs, and

Mormon Polygamists Jailed for Unlawful Cohabitation

would succumb to federal authority in all temporal matters.  To demonstrate the Church’s earnestness, George Q. Cannon, a member of the First Presidency and unofficial spokesperson for the Church with Washington politicos, began living with only one wife. When it was necessary to share a meal, his other wives sat at their own tables.

The end of polygamy also meant the beginning of political parties in Utah.  Although Utah was offered up as a Republican state, the children of polygamists such as James Henry Moyle saw what the Republicans had done to their parents and embraced the Democratic party for its lasseiz-faire attitude in matters of personal morality.  The Democrats were concerned with food, water, and money, they maintained; the Republicans cared only about who a man slept with.  Regardless of whether Utah was a Republican or a Democratic state in reality, the federal government had won.  Utah was now playing by the American rules.

Richard W. Young, Brigham Young’s Grandson and Spanish-American War Veteran

In American life, there’s no better way of proving patriotism (and manliness) than by picking up a gun and killing someone.  In 1898, word spread across the country of the alleged Spanish attack on the Maine in the harbor of Cuba.  Most Latter-day Saints knew nothing of Cuba and cared little about the decline of the Spanish Empire in America.   Their state had just been admitted to the Union in 1896.  Mormon young men, largely born in the late 1860s had grown up watching the old order fall apart.  They watched as  Brigham Young’s own son even studied at West Point Academy. Mormon men now recognized that if Mormons were ever to integrate into American society, they must fight.


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