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Mormonism: A Truly American Institution

I have to preface this by saying that I am not Mormon, and that I have no special affinity for any Mormons I know. The point of my speaking is that by reading history I have developed an affinity for Mormonism as a character in American history.

Secondly, this is not a research paper; it reflects my impressions of history from reading innumerable books on the history of the United States in the 19th Century. I'm currently in Mongolia, however, and all of my books are in storage in California, so while I can recommend plenty of books on the various topics of discussion here (and recommend a few at the bottom) I am currently unable to directly cite sources. I apologize.

Mormonism arrived at the tail end of what was known as The Great Awakening. The generation that spawned the revolution in the North was not very religious, and many of the revolutionary leaders were unitarian, at best. In the South, especially in the North Carolina upcountry, religion was the primary objection to British rule. Because no one subscribed to the Anglican church, in many places in the upcountry couples could not marry, preachers could not preach, babies could not be baptized.

The revolution eliminated the established Anglican church; the generation which grew up in religious freedom spawned countless religious sects and movements.

Early Mormons were not like the reserved do-gooders of today. Drunken, loutish behavior was common, as was free love, horse rustling and, in some cases, murder. Mormons were an extremely tight-knit community, which enabled many of its less than reputable members, not the least of which was Joseph Smith himself.

Joseph and his brother Hiram were looking for a new place to start their model community, away from what they considered the unjust persecution of the law. They intended originally to start their own nation, like a native tribe, but of course these were pie in the sky type plans. They got the best offer from Stephen A. Douglas, a state senator from Illinois, who was desperate for a new reliable bloc of (white) voters for his Democratic party. He was trying to build a platform of political connections for his ultimate goal: running for Senate from the State of Illinois.

Douglas promised the Smiths that they would be able to act like an autonomous region, which had profound influence on the events which followed. In a short amount of time, the Mormons had overstayed their welcome in the state of Illinois, drawing the special ire of Northern Missourians, who banded together to start a campaign of terror to drive out the Mormons.

The Illinois State militia was called out to restore order, including the arrest of Joseph and Hiram Smith. Unfortunately, the Illinois militia could not be depended on and they allowed a mob to break into the jail and murder the two brothers as they attempted to escape.

The Mormons shortly abandoned their settlement in Illinois and were cast to the four winds.

Some Mormons ended up in Spanish California; they were nominally under the charge of a man named Sam Brannan, who at least took all their money; he did not offer them much in the way of shelter or protection however. He had been dispatched to see if the Spanish authorities would be more receptive to Mormonism, or at least if the Mormons could be left alone.

Very shortly afterwards war broke out between Mexico and America. A Mormon Batallion was raised to occupy California; for this, each man was paid a sum of $300 and promised land. This wealth, unfortunately, for the Mormons who actually fought, was mostly confiscated so that their "leader," Sam Brannan, could start a dry goods business in Sacramento, among other ventures.

California at this time was extremely devoid of decent manual laborers. Most labor was done by enslaved natives, who for some reason had trouble working very hard. Another emigre, Johann Sutter, from Switzerland, had spent years with plans in hand but no one to bring his vision of a New Helvetia to life. Brannan's callous disregard for those in his charge suddenly gave Sutter Mormon laborers to work on his many projects. One important project they were asked to help build was a millrace on top of what became known as Sutter's Creek.

It was there one day when gold was discovered. Sam Brannan got wind of the discovery and was said to have walked the streets of San Francisco shouting "Gold! Gold! Gold!" He became rich when his claim was picked up by the military commanders in San Francisco and telegraphed to the President, desperate for something to stick in his State of the Union address to justify his divisive invasion of Mexico.

The rest of the Mormons, however, were called back by Brigham Young and other Mormon leaders who had become convinced that California was no place Mormons could be left alone.

California, unlike Utah, was swiftly admitted as a state. In fact, Utah spent the longest of any territory before becoming a state, because of the Mormon question. Utah would shortly become a Mormon theocracy, the Congress reasoned, in which polygamy was accepted practice.

At that time states were generally admitted to the Union two at a time--one slave and one free.

California, however, was admitted to the Union in 1850 offset instead by the Fugitive Slave Law; in 1854 the Congress passed the Kansas Nebraska act, which accepted the territory of Kansas and Nebraska as states too. They would not be assigned slave or free but they would be decided slave or free by popular sovereignty. These two pieces of legislation were powerful tools in the abolition of slavery, for reasons we shall see.

Slave owners in Northern Missouri, who had long intimidated abolitionists in Illinois and had really whet their chops driving the Mormons out of Southern Illinois with the blind eye of the Illinois State Militia, decided to resolve whether Kansas was slave or free by riding into the state, holding a vote for a slave constitution and petitioning Congress to be admitted as a slave state.

Unfortunately, the Fugitive Slave Act had radicalized abolitionists, and instead of passively let Missouri slave owners run roughshod over Kansas, "free-soilers" fought back, and a bloody guerrilla war followed. Those who hadn't been made abolitionists by the Fugitive Slave Act in the North were soon made it in the confrontation called Bleeding Kansas which followed.

Those Missouri riders were soon to become irregular Confederate cavalry against the Army of the West. By the time the Civil War ended, they had become battle-hardened desperadoes. They moved West to avoid capture and imprisonment. Most famous among these were the Quantrill and Jesse James Gangs. The Mormon leadership got word that their old foes were riding through Utah and set up an ambush to massacre them, but the Army got wind of the Mormon plot and allowed the marauders to sneak past, upon which they repaid America by ravaging its commerce and terrorizing its far Western citizens.


Mormonism is an American institution. Who can think of a holy site in America that people from the World around pilgrimage to that is not a Mormon tabernacle?

My feeling is that Mormonism is an uncomfortable mirror to our values. Mormons believe not only in the exceptionalism of the United States but in America as a literal Eden. We like to think of ourselves sometimes as European, but we don't drink or smoke without regret or shame. We resist Mormonism, in my opinion, because we know it is closer to our values than we care to admit.

Of course, historical Mormons and today's Mormons are somewhat different. Historical Mormons were boisterous and drunken, sometimes cowardly, often stoic, willing to suffer tremendous sacrifices to worship in peace. They were vengeful in the Biblical sense. They practiced polygamy, and excluded all people of color until an embarassingly late date of history.

They were the only significant group of people to treat with the tribes fairly (even if, for superstitious reasons).

That is, Historical Mormons were both the best of what it means to be American, and the worst of what it means to be American.

I am not advocating for or against Mormonism; I just think before you attack it, if you are going to attack it, you should at least be able to appreciate it, if nothing else, then as a very good character in American History.




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I watched a video the other

I watched a video the other day on Voices of Liberty about living free -- creating/participating in alternative libertarian lifestyles and institutions. The speaker said she used to be Mormon and has a lot of respect for the success of the Mormon welfare systems. A couple examples; instead of relying on gov't assistance, there is a voluntary food bank system in the church. They also have Deseret Industries thrift stores for members who need a job, but are unable to find work. It was interesting to hear her speak.