Nauvoo and the Myth of Mormonism’s Persecuted Innocence


A map of Nauvoo, Illinois, at the time of the Latter-day Saints in the early 1840s.

No aspect of the early Mormon experience  has been less critically explored than the bristling and sometimes violent relations of the Mormons to those living nearby. At virtually every turn in the 1830s and 1840s the Latter-day Saints under the leadership of Joseph Smith Jr. excited violence. In Missouri they were violently turned out of Jackson County in 1833, and then out of the state in 1838.

In Illinois in 1844 Joseph Smith, Mormonism’s founding prophet, and his brother Hyrum were assassinated in Hancock County’s Carthage Jail on June 27, 1844. A “Mormon War” in 1845 led to the exodus of most of the Mormons from Illinois the next year, and the eventual migration of a group under Brigham Young to the Great Salt Lake Valley.

For too long, the trouble between Mormons and non-members has been understated rather than understood. One reason, surely, is that the vast majority of scholars interested in Mormon history have been believing Latter-day Saints, for whom the Mormon past is a sacred drama.

These scholars, honest in intent and sound in methodology, have seldom explored beyond the safe boundaries of the Latter-day Saint faith story to analyze these events for what they are. To do so in an honest manner would explode the Mormon myth of persecuted innocence at the hands of an immoral mob.

While a thorough discussion of Mormon myth is beyond the scope of this blog post, although I may return to it at another time, some commentary is essential to understanding the troubles seemingly always erupting between the Mormons and those surrounding them. In particular, the myth of innocence, which is ubiquitous in Mormonism to this very day, reveals that the retreat from American religious pluralism to a theocratic separatist community represented an escape from moral ambiguity, from the fear of making the wrong choices.

We see this most clearly in Nauvoo, a town founded on the banks of the Mississippi River in Illinois by Joseph Smith in 1839. As a religious city-state under Smith’s tight control, Nauvoo was a haven where the followers of Joseph Smith had their most important choices—what they should do to serve God—made for them.  They went on missions, worked on the temple, and served in various church offices at the prophet’s direction.  Also, their devotion to the Mormon millennium was defined by him, and their identity as God’s chosen people was assured through him.  Their innocence was thus guaranteed, and their sense of potential for evil was minimized.

Joseph Smith Jr.

As is common in such situations, the threat of evil was projected onto others—in this case the non-Mormons—who were regarded as ungodly enemies. Another way of saying the same thing is that a chosen people always defines itself against an unchosen opposite, and through that mythic dichotomy differences in human culture (beliefs, values) are transmuted into differences in human nature (the good versus the evil).  Hence, at Nauvoo the innocent children of God realized their identity through their struggle against the evil followers of Satan, who dominated American society everywhere else except in the city of the Saints.

The problem, of course, with this kind of dichotomous myth is that for the people who hold it, guilt and innocence are matters of belief, not of evidence. Thus at Nauvoo Joseph Smith could engage in secret polygamy, lie to his followers about it, and when accused publicly, he could go into a public meeting, denounce his accusers, and be regarded by the Mormons as a persecuted innocent. He could repress the civil rights of his critics, denying them due process of law, freedom of the press, and the right to promote their church unmolested, and then be celebrated by his followers as a champion of righteousness, protecting the innocent community of believers. And the identity of the Mormons as the inherently innocent, and of Smith as the archetype of Mormon innocence, was verified in the process.

Conversely, men of integrity who criticized the prophet, such as William and Wilson Law, could be defamed as enemies of the people and instantly regarded as—to quote Willard Richards from 1844—”thieves, counterfeiters, bogus-makers, gamblers, debauchers, murderers, and all that is vile.” The dissenters, by their very act of expressing dissent, were cast out of the ranks of the inherently innocent in the Mormon mind, and into the inherently evil.

Dissenters were always characterized as misbegotten, woeful malcontents whose arguments were without foundation. The problem was with the dissenters’ characters, not with the church or its leadership. Often the personal sins of the dissenters were trotted out for public display. If there were none immediately at hand, they might be trumped up. Crimes real and imagined were described in a depth not seen except in the most vicious political campaigns.

The dissenters, because of supposed flaws in their characters, were threats to the integrity of the gospel and were deserving of expulsion. The institution was always judged to be sound, the dissenters themselves were defective. Commenting on this practice, historian Gordon D. Pollock concluded:

Defectors became a kind of bogey to haunt all inhabitants of the Mormon kingdom.  Without vigilance and strength of character they [other members], like the defectors, could become overwhelmed by the baseness of their character and, thus, open to Satan’s enticements. In this way blame was shifted from the kingdom to the individual defector. More importantly, dissent was portrayed as the outward sign of personal weakness and sin. Dissent, therefore, could no more be tolerated than sin itself.  This attitude within the kingdom militated against any legitimate expression of doubt.  There was no loyal opposition within the kingdom of God. As no dissent from orthodox opinion was allowed either the inhabitant accepted it or he was compelled to withdraw.

This process served as a defense mechanism for Mormonism in the 1840s and greatly contributed to difficulties between the Mormons and their neighbors in the first generation church.

Photograph of Nauvoo in the latter 1840s with the Mormon Temple in the background

This mythic shift, the transmutation of the dissenters from innocent to evil, justified any and all acts of aggression on the part of the church against them. Of course, the tragic irony in all this is that the myth of innocence prevented the Mormons from learning from this history. So they reenacted it, with themselves in the role of the aggressors.

At the same time, the non-Mormons developed their own myth of innocence, and in this case they were reacting against an oppressive anti-democratic force in the Nauvoo region. As a result they believed they were totally innocent of any wrongdoing. Instead they were acting in self-defense of the cherished principles of the American Revolution and in the process creating their own myth.

Using rhetorical arguments that went back to the American Revolution, non-Mormons justified violence against Mormons as necessary to avoid subjugation to the theocratic elements of Joseph Smith. They put forward a cohesive, if ill-informed, conspiracy by the Mormons to rob Americans of their democratic rights. Ultimately, they argued that a grand conspiracy was underway to enslave Americans, and that they were compelled to stand together to defend their liberties and defeat a determined oppressor.

Interestingly, the liberty/slavery rhetorical imagery had the potential to inflame many Americans in that antebellum era, since they saw the dichotomy between freedom and slavery every day in Missouri and the rest of the South. A conspiracy to enslave white Americans, therefore, was an especially potent force in motivating non-Mormon opposition.

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11 Responses to Nauvoo and the Myth of Mormonism’s Persecuted Innocence

  1. Jason Alder says:

    I fail to see how, regardless of the Mormons’ holier-than-thou attitude, they did anything to deserve the invasion of their city, the attacking and raping of their citizens, and the murdering of their leaders along with the eventual burning of Nauvoo. They may have been naively (and obnoxiously) self-righteous like you and others say, but by all documentation, they were isolationist, peaceful, and avoidant of the general society. They almost exclusively kept to themselves and even moved farther and farther away from the US population. That doesn’t seem like a very valid reason to attack, evict, imprison, and kill them or to enact an extermination order of them like the state of Missouri did (and was still legal until 1972). They might be weird, but your post doesn’t give any reason to think they did anything to deserve persecution besides be different and isolationist.

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    • launiusr says:

      Mr. Alder, I would urge you to read more broadly in Mormon history. There is a long history of Mormons engaging in all manner of aggressive behavior toward non-Mormons. As only one example, shortly after the Mormons arrived in Illinois and before much political antagonism had developed, non-Mormon residents noted a significant increase in theft. Livestock, food, clothes, and other items were taken, and the Mormons were immediately blamed. As early as July 15, 1840, for example, the Warsaw Message reported that Hancock County residents were griping about “petty depredations…such as the loss of various small instruments of agriculture.” There is considerable other evidence that suggests that Mormon leaders may have used deliberate non-payment as a means of getting back from non-Mormons the supplies that violent Missourians had taken from them. William Law, a member of the First Presidency under Joseph Smith, Jr., recalled a meeting with the prophet, Hyrum Smith, and others at which the idea was floated that Mormons should intentionally run up bad debts. William Law asserted, in an interview that appeared in the Salt Lake Daily Tribune on July 31, 1887, that Hyrum Smith made the case: “The Missourians have robbed, plundered and murdered our people. We should take our revenge on them as thoroughly as possible, and regain what we have lost in Missouri. The simplest way would be if our people would go to Missouri and buy their horses and cattle on credit, and then not pay for them; and our merchants would go to St. Louis and take their large quantities of goods on credit and then, when the notes became due, simply not pay them;…Some of those present applauded the proposition, and said that would be only fair.” When Law objected that such a plan would “punish the innocent to hurt the guilty,” the meeting broke up in disagreement. In any case, to many Mormons local non-members were enemies–part of the wicked world that God’s chosen people had to contend with–so unscrupulous dealing with them may have seemed justifiable. I could cite for you a lot of other instances of this and other types of poor relations. The Mormons were not blameless in all of this.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Joe says:

        Again, in the above, No proof, merely supposition. As has been the case in the whole history of Nauvoo. Prove that the statement by William Law was made as you say. The sad state of affairs is the very clear: Nauvoo suffered the results of God-less men under the so called protection of the Governor and murdered innocent people who under the law are innocent until proven guilty. But, that has always been the case with God-less men: They always work under supposition but can never follow there actuations to a reasonable end of following correct procedure of solution within the law, but must always act as a law into themselves… hence they are always wrong.

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  2. launiusr says:

    I think this comment supports the contention: “The problem, of course, with this kind of dichotomous myth is that for the people who hold it, guilt and innocence are matters of belief, not of evidence.”

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Polly Aird says:

    Clear and lucid explanation of Mormon persecution/persecuting. Thanks, Roger.

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  4. Pingback: The Divide in Nauvoo | Runtu's Rincón

  5. Mel Johnson says:

    Excellent analysis, Roger. The unwillingness of the naysayers to explore your thesis merely reinforces it.

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  6. I like your article, but I’d really love to see links to supporting information. I’m sure there will always be a disagreement of who was at fault, but it would be interesting (to me, at least) to more deeply explore the negative actions Mormon settlers made or their leaders encouraged. Obviously, nothing “excuses” violence, but (like you) I believe they weren’t fantastic neighbors.

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    • launiusr says:

      Thanks for you comment. I do not include notes in my blog posts, but they are in “Cultures in Conflict,” a book I co-edited that was published by Utah State University Press on the Mormon war in Illinois. It lays out this thesis with references.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Bertrand Mullen says:

    No matter the pass history mormonism today is not what it wants people to believe it is.It is an evil cult portraying itself as the “True Church” when in fact it disputes Gods word and puts forth it’s own doctrines . Smith was not a prophet who saw God and he lied about it all from the beginning.Today mormonism is a huge profit making business paying it’s leaders huge sums under the table, not paying taxes , the apostles living in million dollar houses,and leading millions down the road to hell.Bertrand Mullen

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