A persistent theme in American history is the belief in conspiracy, whether it is justified or not. Conspiracy ideas shape our modern society, casting doubt on many areas of public and private life. From the denial of the Moon landings to the JFK assassination to the 9/11 attacks being an inside job…I could go on and on.
One of my chosen areas of historical study, the origins and development of Mormonism, is also rife with ideas of conspiracy and it fundamentally shaped the direction of the church during its first generation.
From the very earliest history of the Latter-day Saint movement the sense that Joseph Smith Jr. and his followers were being unjustly persecuted by a sinister group conspiring to destroy the gospel was a persistent theme. Smith was convinced that as soon as his religious career began, as he wrote in his account, “false reports, misrepresentation and slander flew, as on the wings of the wind, in every direction. My house was frequently beset by mobs, and evil designing persons; several times I was shot at, and very narrowly escaped.”
Smith voiced repeatedly that “enemies of the gospel” were everywhere present and sought to bring the downfall of both himself and the church. He wrote to his wife, Emma Smith, while awaiting trial in Missouri in November 1838: “we are prisoners in chains, and under strong guards, for Christ sake and for no other cause,…I think that the authorities, will discover our innocence, and set us free, but if this blessing cannot be obtained, I have this consolation that I am an innocent man.” Smith couched these ideas about persecution of the innocent in the context of an overarching, well-organized, and sinister conspiracy. “Shall a man be considered bad when men speak evil of him?” he told a Nauvoo congregation in 1842. “No!” he added. “If a man stands and opposes the world of sin, he may expect all things array’d against him.”
On January 20, 1844, Smith blatantly voiced his fear that “a conspiracy is gotten up,…for the purpose of taking my life, etc.”He later reinforced these sentiments:
The opposition of these [evil] men is moved by the spirit of the adversary of all righteousness. It is not only to destroy me, but every man and woman who dares believe the doctrines that God hath inspired me to teach to this generation. We have never violated the laws of our country. We have every right to live under their protection, and are entitled to all the privileges guaranteed by our state and national constitutions….and the men who seek our destruction and cry thief, treason, riot, &c., are those who themselves violate the laws, steal and plunder from their neighbors, and seek to destroy the innocent, heralding forth lies to screen themselves with the just punishment of their crimes by bringing destruction upon this innocent people….While I live, I will never tamely submit to the dominion of cursed mobocracy. I would welcome death rather than submit to this oppression; and it would be sweet, oh, sweet, to rest in the grave rather than submit to this oppression, agitation, annoyance, confusion, and alarm upon alarm, any longer.
To avoid the mistaken impression that Joseph Smith’s beliefs in this regard were not sustained throughout his entire career, there are 354 separate entries under persecution in Smith’s seven-volume History of the Church, many of them running several pages in length. All of these claim that the Mormons suffered unjust persecution maliciously brought upon them by a conspiracy of untold proportion and malevolence.
The sense of conspiracy was present from other quarters within the early Mormon church as well. Lucy Mack Smith, the founder’s mother, addressed a church conference in Nauvoo on October 5, 1845, and expressed her belief about a conspiracy of evil. She thought that her son had suffered from intense “hardships, trials, privations, persecutions, sufferings, etc” in the name of religion and for no other reason. She also
mentioned a discourse once delivered by Joseph after his return from Washington, in which he said that he had done all that could be done on earth to obtain justice for their wrongs; but they were all, from the president to the judge, determined not to grant justice. “But,” said he, “keep good courage, these cases are recorded in heaven, and I am going to lay them before the highest court in heaven!” “Little,” said she, “did I then think he was so soon to leave us, to take the case up himself.”
She believed that the conspirators against her son and the church, some of whom had been members of the movement at one point, would have much to answer for in any heavenly trial.
The Times and Seasons newspaper in 1840s Nauvoo, Illinois also published an editorial in August 1842 entitled, “Persecution,” which summarized Mormonism’s sense of a conspiracy of evil. “If ye will live godly in Christ Jesus, ye shall suffer persecution,” it said. It was “a prophecy that has received its fulfillment in all ages, that had been known and understood by all saints, and that has been engraven upon the memories of all the faithful.” The Mormons suffered persecution, the article asserted without hesitation, maliciously brought upon them by a conspiracy of untold proportion and malevolence, some of the actors of whom were traitors to the Latter-day Saint cause.
This belief in conspiracy was expressed in other settings and by different people. Parley P. Pratt, one of the most eloquent of all Mormon writers, stated in an affidavit given before the Municipal Court of Nauvoo in the summer of 1843 that all of the problems of the church had been
caused by religious bigotry and persecution, and because the Mormons dared to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own conscience and agreeably to His Divine Will, as revealed in the Scriptures of eternal truth; and had turned away from following the vain traditions of their fathers and would not worship according to the dogmas and commandments of those men who preach for hire and divine for money, and teach for doctrines the commandments of men, expecting that the Constitution of the United States would have protected them therein.
The distorted vision of a widespread and sinister conspiracy seeking to destroy Joseph Smith personally and the Mormon church collectively represented a certain paranoia about the way in which the world worked. This is not a particularly unusual occurrence in history, but the logical extension of it was that Mormonism went to war with American society. Joseph Smith was the leader of a population that, at different times and disparate geographical locations, was at war with the larger culture. Smith failed to understand this, and labeled everything that happened to him as persecution.
This belief in conspiracy pushed early Mormonism farther and farther outside the mainstream. Those who embraced Mormonism, historian Marvin S. Hill appropriately concluded, saw little of worth in American civilization. “They wanted a society that would exclude unnecessary choices and would exclude pluralism,” he wrote in Quest for Refuge: The Mormon Flight from American Pluralism. “Above all, they wanted to diminish the secular influences that pluralism engendered.” The Latter-day Saint movement was founded on a paranoia that the world had gone awry and would subvert or coopt them if it had the chance.
A conspiracy, according to the early Mormons, was afoot either to destroy the church or to make Mormons like other Americans. The result was an effort to close off the outside world, according to Hill, “to revitalize this magical world view, combine it with elements of more traditional Christianity, and establish a theocratic society where the unconverted, the poor, and the socially and religiously alienated could gather and find a refuge from the competing sects and the uncertainties they engendered.”
It was a prescription for conflict.