Early Mormons and Anti-Americanism

Happy America day.

General Andrew Jackson, a National Icon in Joseph Smith’s America

The Mormon relationship with the nation-state (particularly, the United States) is a classic example of how the guy/capitalists with the guns/government wins.  The earliest Mormons harbored neutral feelings towards the United States at best, recognizing that the United States would collapse soon enough anyway.   Mormon newsman W.W. Phelps warned that the United States could “well fall to the dust, with the other crumbling nations of the earth.”  Though Phelps appreciated the freedom America provided, he reminded the Saints that the Savior “asked no aid of the governments of the earth to spread the gospel.” While the world chattered on about America’s experiment in free government, the Lord was “setting up his kingdom upon this choice land above all others.”

The early Mormons entertained an oddly-royalist impulse.  In Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon, he declared that if the people of God had kings “who would establish the laws of God, and judge [his] people according to his commandments,” then  “it would be expedient that ye should always have kings to rule over you.” Joseph Smith’s upbringing gave no indication of Tory sympathies.  A young Joseph might have heard word about clerical abuses in Great Britain; how much better, the local paper boasted, was “the constitution of the United States” which gives Americans “the right of worshipping God in his own way” (Palmyra Register, November 10, 1818).

The Mormons Expelled from Jackson County

The Mormons Expelled from Jackson County

Over the next 15 years, the Saints found that democratic government was a profoundly inept instrument for protecting the rights of minorities. In 1838, Abraham Lincoln observed that the masses were inclined to resort too quickly to “the wild and ferocious passions in lieu of the sober judgments of the courts.”  Jacksonian “democracy” was in fact a web of political patronage, purchased press, and devoted bureaucrats.  Mob action allowed the common man to exact some kind of retribution against a political system over which he felt powerless.

When the Saints moved into Jackson County, two attributes stood out: their friendliness to the (rather small) slave population and their commitment to building a theocracy in the wilderness. In summer 1833, a large number of the county’s leading figures declared the Saints to be anti-republican forces conspiring to transform their society into an enclave of religious radicals.  In 1836, Missouri Governor Daniel Dunklin warned the Saints that they could not rely on the government for help.  It was up to them to “convince them of your innocence.”  If they failed, then “in this Republic, Vox Populi, Vox Dei” [the Voice of the People is the Voice of God”].  When Joseph Smith approached President Martin Van Buren for redress, he was waved off; Van Buren’s hands were tied.  Yet in fall 1838, Van Buren gladly sent troops to the northern border of New York to prevent American vigilantes from smuggling arms to Upper Canadian revolutionaries.  To prevent critics from accusing him of interfering with local government, he sold the military action as a defensive measure against the British government.

General Joseph Smith

For Mormons, democracy had become a profoundly ill-conceived experiment, a nest of “power, pride, corruption, party spirit, faction, patronage, perquisites, fame, tangling alliances; priest-craft and spiritual wickedness in high places.” Some Latter-day Saints decided to play by the mob’s rules, forming vigilance teams to defend Mormon settlements by force.  The more lasting impact of the Missouri disillusionment was an increased commitment to establishing a theocratic government.   The Saints relocated to Nauvoo, a bog on the borders of the Mississippi.  Though Joseph Smith was casting himself as a “son of America,” a “Green Mountain Boy,”  he also had acquired a generous city charter from the state of Illinois allowing Nauvoo to become a virtual city-state.  In 1844, he declared his candidacy for President and organized an elite group of men he called The Council of Fifty to be the Saints steering committee in preparation for the Second Coming and the merger of government and kingdom, a council that stood “on the summit of all earthly powers.”  They elected Joseph Smith to be “president pro tem of the world.”(William Clayton Journal, April 11, 1844)(See also here and here).

Understanding the scope of the Council of Fifty is essential for appreciating Joseph Smith’s vision for the United States.   Forged by command of direct revelation, the Council of Fifty had a distinctively oligarchical nature.  John Taylor attempted–in good American fashion–to write up a Constitution.  He failed, his thoughts stifled.  The Lord responded: “Ye are my constitution.”  Having administered the Nauvoo temple rituals (a series  of rituals entrusting a sacred catechsim to hand-picked individuals), Joseph was prepared to establish “the perfect law of theocracy.”  Joseph not only saw the Second Coming as imminent; he saw the Latter-day Saints as key figures in orchestrating events leading up to it.  By April 1844, Joseph Smith could reasonably pass as a revolutionary leader.  For all of the Constitution’s merits, it failed in one important regard: the protection of minorities.

Joseph Smith’s hopes for a theocracy were grand and perhaps premature.  Within a couple months of establishing the Council of Fifty, he was thrust back into the muddy world of mob-driven politics when he felt compelled (perhaps illegally) to destroy a press he thought incendiary. In June 1844, Joseph Smith was killed by a mob, leaving the Saints bereft of their king.  Two years later, they were on the trails westbound for the Rocky Mountains, ready to leave the Americans behind.  When Mormon Hosea Stout heard about the Mexican-American war, he scoffed, wishing only that the “war might never end until they were entirely destroyed.”  When the Saints arrived in Utah, they did not erect an American flag in their new Mexican home. They erected an “Ensign to the nations,” not of “stars and stripes,” as one observer later recalled. The Americans won the war, forcing the Saints to begin the Americanization process.

The kingdom of God is a theocracy,” Orson Pratt wrote in one of his widely-read pamphlets after becoming incorporated into the United States.  “All other governments are illegal and unauthorized.”  Pratt thought the Constitution to have “good principles” but it was provisional; “the day will come when the United States government…will be uprooted and the kingdoms of this world will be united in one.”  For those who questioned if it was right to organize a parallel government “theocratical in nature” under Constitutional governance, Pratt had no doubt.  The Constitution was fitting for the Founding Fathers, he said; but it was not to be the ultimate model for governance.  It was only important insofar as it afforded the Saints the right to local control of their government. The Saints continued to express affection for the Constitution; in some ways, they thought themselves to be its guardians, even

Apostle Orson Pratt: “The kingdom of God is a theocracy”

For the next 40-some years, the Mormons would need to come to grips with the fact that they were now Americans, even being the targets of American military conquest in spring 1858.  That they practiced a distinctively “Oriental” marriage system only highlighted their differences from the rest of the nation.  Following the polygamy raids of the 1880s and the embarrassing Reed Smoot hearings of 1904-1908, American Saints realized that they needed to embrace American identity if they were to shed their nineteenth-century reputation for radical religion and culture.

Today, American Mormons have come to accept that American nationalism is a fundamental part of their religion.  They read it into scripture, both ancient and modern.  American Mormons have not fully come to grips with the fact that Mormonism is becoming a global faith.  President Spencer W. Kimball warned the Saints that military propaganda had duped them into thinking that “we train a man in the art of war and call him a patriot, thus, in the manner of Satan’s counterfeit of true patriotism, perverting the Savior’s teaching” to “love your enemies.”

Given Mormons’ exuberance for all things America, one might think Mormon theology to be American civil religion+some cool stories about a robust and enterprising young man from upstate New York who votes Republican.  But in truth, our impulse for uber-patriotism is nothing but the mutation of our cultural DNA that has allowed us to survive in twentieth-century America.

Troops in Iraq

Johnston’s Army, 1858


2 comments on “Early Mormons and Anti-Americanism

  1. Ignacio says:

    I think that one of the things missing in many of these discussions about Mormons and their adaptation to American captialism and conservativism is the fact that no matter their efforts at education, refinement and global perspective, most Latter-day Saints then were pretty much simple people who understood very little of how the world functioned. They were, no doubt, creative in their limited thinking but they still rarely contributed anything particularly innovative that functioned beyond their limited spheres. Consequently, they were easily duped as are many Americans today who have a rudimentary understanding of politics and governance and end up usually siding against their own interests, or who protect their interest no matter the detriment to others. Early Mormons, who had little, were quickly enticed by abundance. A great example of this is Wilford Woodruff who initially wanted nothing to do with affluence and materialism but eventually had his own “summer home” and learned to live as good a life possible for the leader of a poor church. Early Saints were good people and we can see in the church (and Utah) the great things that they did, but their inability to fully understand politics, social ideologies and governance made them vulnerable to continually–at least up until the late 1970s–be seduced by America’s affluence and power. The most glaring characteristic of the LDS people and their leaders is their complete absence in the great historical ssues of our time. After Joseph’s run for the presidency, no Mormon candidate has brought anything new to the table of American politics or ideology. Mitt Romney seems to reflect Mormonism’s political “virtues”: efficiency, concern with taking care of the family, disregard for those different, and no true understanding of how the world functions.

    One only has to look at the history of BYU to note what a colleague of mine says: “we are good at developing mid-management level people but bad at developing creative thinkers who do more than simply be efficient and honest.” It might seem a harsh criticism–and I think it is becoming less true with time–but one only has to look at how so much–though not all–of Mormonism’s nonscriptural literature and scholarship dates so quickly to realize that we still struggle to think beyond the obvious.

    I believe that President Spencer W. Kimball’s proclamation that Mormonism has yet to develop fully its arts and intellectual pursuits is stil true though becoming less so in the present era. I have such great hopes for this new generration but my sense is that a lot of our innovation will come when people transcend the traditional Mormon social and intellectual spaces.

  2. […] For Hosea Stout’s 1846 response to war, see here. […]

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