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.
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.
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.