Two new works on the history of Mormonism by Paul C. Gutjahr and John G. Turner elucidate an element of 19th century American life too easily neglected
Religions are affected not only by periodical revival movements but also by claims of more recent direct revelations from God. Mormonism arises from just such a claim, and these fascinating books provide impressive, but different, accounts of the result. Neither is uncritical, and Brigham Young very much emerges with his faults manifest in Turner’s impressive biography. At the same time, each of the books takes Mormon studies forward, avoiding the pitfalls of apologia and polemic.
As both works made clear, Mormonism emerged in a desperate environment. Far from being the promised land, upstate New York was poor, and it was very difficult to earn a living from the forested, rocky soil. Both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young knew acute poverty as well as family deaths. The distinctive character of American society also played a major role in the origins of Mormonism, as freedom meant a lack of ecclesiastical power and confessional homogeneity at least by the standards of the Western world of the time.
Swept by revivalist movements, upstate New York was open to another one. Paul Gutjahr, Professor of English at Indiana University and an expert on the Bible in American history, provides gripping coverage of the discovery of the gold plates that allegedly offered an account of the former inhabitants of America and Jesus’s visitation to them. Gutjahr then uses the descent of what became the Book of Mormon to provide a history of Mormonism. He does not pull punches about incredible aspects of the discovery and translation, but also helps explain its significance. Joseph Smith was in no doubt of the importance of his position. As Gutjahr points out, Smith presented himself as God’s most recent chosen instrument of grace and redemptive enlightenment. Smith thus demonstrated to his own satisfaction that God’s revelation did not cease with the apostles of the early Church but continued into the present age. He claimed that the Book of Mormon was a purer text than the Protestant Bible as it had been passed to his hands directly from America’s own ancient and inspired scribes, and had not been defiled by centuries of scribal error and Church politics.
Moreover, according to Smith, God was still speaking, and via his prophet who was to inaugurate a new biblical age. The belief in a living prophet, however, helped ensure that Mormonism could not readily fit in with the American state, although, as also emerges from both books, there was a fissiparous quality in Mormonism as too many figures were willing to step forward as prophets. Smith’s death was followed by divisions that have lasted to the present.
Internal divisions were matched by external hostility. Once organised as communities, the Mormons were seen as unwelcome, which is not surprising as the theocratic city of Nauvoo, Illinois — which they founded in 1839, had a large militia as well as a secret society, the Sons of Dan, that was like a secret police.
After Smith’s murder in 1844, Brigham Young established control and, to hold the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints together, moved west, founding Salt Lake City in 1847. It initially proved possible to reconcile Mormon ends with the lightness of federal control in the vast lands of the West. Young, indeed, became governor of the Territory of Utah, a region covering much more than modern Utah organised in 1850. But there were tensions over his bold hopes for the the state of Deseret, the Mormon term for the honeybee which Young originally envisaged as extending to include most of southern California.
Young’s control depended on excluding non-Mormons, but this goal was challenged by Utah’s position just south of the Oregon Trail. The hostile treatment of non-Mormons as well as the public endorsement of polygamy (“plural marriage”) in 1852, a means of increasing Mormon numbers, proved incompatible with federal pretensions. The Republic Party condemned polygamy in 1856, declaring it a “barbarism” equal to slavery, and in 1857 President James Buchanan decided that the Mormons were in rebellion. This led to the replacement of Young as governor by a non-Mormon and the dispatch of troops to provide necessary support.
Presenting these federal units as a destructive force, Young prepared a withdrawal into the mountains while Mormon militia burned three of the army’s supply trains. Moreover, 120 migrants en route to California were slaughtered at Mountain Meadows. War, however, was avoided as the result of an agreement in 1858, in which Young lost the governorship, the Mormons were pardoned, and the army stayed outside Salt Lake City. Conflict was also avoided in 1861 when Utah lost territory to Colorado and Nevada.
Polygamy, however, remained an issue. Lincoln attacked the notion of state sovereignty as an answer to the slavery question by asking whether Utah was to be admitted into the Union if its constitution tolerated polygamy. However, as president, Lincoln had other concerns than Utah. Polygamy remained a practice under Young, and his successor John Taylor, although it was condemned by the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act of 1862 and by the Supreme Court in 1878. Young openly violated the Morrill Act in 1863. In the event, there was an abandonment of what most non-Mormons then saw as the Church’s key characteristic, in order to gain admission to the Union. Similarly, although Young had presented African slavery as a divinely ordained institution, and felt that Utah would be better off without any African Americans, black or enslaved, he had to take note of the result of the Civil War. In 1890, Wilford Woodruff, the new Church President, announced that the Church would abide by anti-polygamy laws. Statehood followed in 1896, although the Church only began to excommunicate those who married plurally in the early 1900s. Some Mormons then formed breakaway splinter churches.
Turner, Professor of Religious Studies at George Mason University, shows how Young’s determination helped provide the Church with cohesion and purpose, and gave the Mormons a clear geographical base and a vital continuity after the death of the first Prophet. However, the autocratic and exacting nature of Young’s rule emerges clearly. This was a ministry ready to use intimidation and to condone violence, an element magnified in hostile reports. It is easy to see why the Mormons, with the Society of Dan and the willingness to use force, served Arthur Conan Doyle as the evil source of malevolent violence in his first Sherlock Holmes story, “A Study in Scarlet” (1887, even if that was explicitly historical in its linkage of present murders in London to past events in Utah). Both of these books can be recommended as studies of an element of 19th-century life too easily neglected in the customary account of imperialism, secularism, industrialisation and urbanisation.