The "Mormon Problem"

Mormons' history of persecution in the 19th century is a part of understanding who they were, who they are and how they present themselves in the world.

Kathleen Flake
Kathleen Flake is a religious historian and author of The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle.

What were the reasons for the persecutions of the Mormons in the early nineteenth century? ….

I think ... the high level of fear that was expressed about the Mormons had to do with the extent to which antebellum America was wrestling with issues of power -- church and state certainly, but also regional power. Remember, this is pre-Civil War years, where they are still trying to struggle with South/North, the meaning of the frontier and how that was going to affect the balance of power in the nation.

The Mormons are out there on the frontier, and out there as a bloc. They're also out there with specific ideas that run counter to the establishment. They believe not just in a moral conformity of state and religion; they believe that religious leaders should provide the leadership for the town as well. Even the Puritans didn't believe that.

They're building cities, and these cities are meant to stay, and they're meant to govern a geographic region, and that region keeps getting bigger and bigger as their numbers enlarge. They're gathering to them all these immigrants as well. People from different parts of the region are coming in, and eventually you'll have people outside the United States. So all of those anxieties are getting aggravated by the Latter-day Saints in the way they bring together temporal, political concerns and religious, ecclesiastical concerns.

From those who were doing the Joseph Smith Papers, there's some evidence that the expulsion of Mormons from Missouri is based on an enormous land grab, which we don't often take into account. We talk about Mormons coming in and dominating the economies, but we never think of the lands they possessed on the frontier when others were seeking to do other things with those lands.

The persecution theme is important in the way Mormons think of themselves. One historian said there's no excuse for the persecution, but the Mormons were strategic in using it. How important is persecution [as] a way of forging their identity?

Mormonism's history of persecution is part of understanding who they are and who they were and how they understood themselves to be and how they present themselves in the world. There's no question about that. I think historically that persecution became a measure of their righteousness, as religious [people] are wont to do. I think that it also shored up their external boundaries against Protestant America.

I think in the contemporary world, however, persecution largely is not [of] that much interest to Latter-day Saints. They think of themselves as having won. If there's one way to understand the importance of conversion numbers to them, I think it's a sign that they've made it, that they survived, that they triumphed over adversity. But I don't think they focus on persecution itself as being a part of their present. I don't think they have any axes to grind. …

Ken Verdoia
Ken Verdoia is a Utah historian and has made several documentaries about the Mormons.

Every political observer in the United States expected the Mormon empire, as they described it, to collapse with Brigham Young's death in 1877. Doesn't happen. ...

In the 1880s, Congress looks at the Utah Territory and says, in effect, "We are going to break the Mormon Church, [its] hold on the Utah Territory and the hold on the Utah people, and this affront," as they characterize it, "to the American experience."

They pass the Edmunds Act in 1882, and this is aimed specifically at men and women who are involved in plural marriage. ... They bring a tough new judge to the territory, Judge Charles Zane, and he cracks down, and he starts sending a steady stream of Mormon men to the territorial penitentiary. ... This in and of itself is not effective enough. The individuals go to prison; they come out as heroes to their fellow church members.

In 1887, they pass the Edmunds-Tucker Act. No longer is it aimed at the individual; now we will target the church itself. We will seek to prohibit the immigration of people to the United States who are Mormon. We will disenfranchise members of the Mormon Church: They will not be allowed to sit on juries; they will not have the right to hold office; they will not have the right to vote. And we will seize the property of the Mormon Church. This includes the temple; this includes church office buildings. ...

Jeffrey Holland
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland is a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and a former president of Brigham Young University.

... How do you think Mormons were perceived by the ordinary 19th century man or woman on the frontier? ... What were they so afraid of?

In a way, I still ask that in the dawn of the 21st century. Why are people still so afraid? Why do we evoke the emotion and the startled, sort of eyes-wide-open experience? Why do we engender that? I don't know that I know the answer to it. ...

On the frontier, I think part of the threat was that we were so focused. The frontier by definition was ragged or rugged or both. ... It was wild and woolly, and people were unorganized and disheveled. And here come the Mormons, ... with order and focus and determination and some beginning of power. ... Joseph Smith wanted to run for president of the United States. ...

We're still pretty organized. ... I'm proud of that, when in a tragedy like [Hurricane] Katrina you can count on the Mormons. They'll be there. They'll be there with their hammers and their saws and their donated labor. And ... when they're through with this community, they'll go on to the next.

I'm proud of that kind of that order, but I think it can be threatening. I think it was threatening then, and I think it can be threatening now. Katrina is an example of some people who did not want our help simply and solely because we were Mormons, not one other reason in this world. People would say: "No, thank you. We'd rather do without than have the Mormons enter these premises." That I struggle with. That I do not understand. ...

... Why are we opposed? Why are we hated? ... My belief and our doctrine is that there is evil in this universe. There is a devil; there is a Lucifer. ... His great quest -- I believe this literally and truly -- ... is to make all men miserable, like unto himself. ... I do believe that force exists in the world, and I do believe that it's part of the opposition to the movement of the church and probably the [opposition] of any good person, anybody trying to do good. He's constitutionally opposed to goodness. ... I'm not imputing the evil to the person [who opposes Mormonism]; I'm talking about a more universal, theological evil that I believe is exploited and is at work. …

Teryl Givens
Terryl Givens is a professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond and author of By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion.

And for you the heart of [Mormon persecution] is what?

Well, in my own study of Mormon persecution, I was not looking for any single cause, but I was looking if there any constant threads in Mormon persecution. Of course polygamy comes to mind immediately in any discussion of the Mormon problem. However, polygamy wasn't publicly announced until 1852, and it wasn't widely known until really the mid-1840s, and the persecutions had begun several years before that time.

My reading of popular fiction, in which Mormons prominently figured as villains throughout the 19th century, as well as historical sources, convinced me that one of those common threads that existed from the very, very beginning was Mormonism's propensity to redefine the conditions of faith. ... In other words, Mormonism tends to collapse that distance that generally is held to be an absolutely essential ingredient in our experience of the divine, that sense of worshipful distance that should [be] attain[ed] between man and his God. The Mormons collapsed that over and over and over again. ...

In many cases, I think it was just the level of specificity [and] the brazenness with which Joseph's gaze penetrated the veils of heaven. I think it's significant that when he described, for example, the visitor, the Angel Moroni, he even describes the clothing he has on. He says he could see that he wore nothing under his robe, that it was a seamless garment. That level of detail and specificity we're not supposed to be able to obtain when we're talking about things that are supposed to be ineffable or transcendent or beyond human gaze. ...

How would you characterize the stereotypes of Mormons that were prevalent in the 19th and then even later in the 20th century?

I think the apotheosis of anti-Mormon sentiment was probably evident at the scientific meeting in New Orleans in 1861, when two men stood up to present their findings as what they referred to as a new racial type, which was the Mormon race. They even described what they thought was the physiognomy that was typical of this new race of Mormons: sunken yellowish-greenish eyes, cadaverous visage, gelatinous constitution -- all of these delightful words. ...

Much of this was carried out through the characterization of Mormons in popular fiction of the 19th century. Beginning just a few years before the Civil War, it became increasingly common to use Mormons as a kind of stock villain in dime novels, boys' adventure stories, pulp fiction....

When did these anti-Mormon stereotypes and sentiments come to a crescendo?

... Much of this was a pretty immediate response to the public announcement of polygamy in 1852, because it was the very next year that the first anti-Mormon novels emerged. Many of them depicted Mormons as a kind of white slavers, who would raid caravans or wagon trains in order to secure brides for the harem of Brigham [Young] or other high-profile church leaders. …

Marlin Jensen
Marlin K. Jensen is the executive director of the LDS Family and Church History Department and a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy.

Why is there persecution? [Historian] Richard Bushman said, "There is a mysterious layer of hatred that I can't understand." Do you find that?

That's really a novel thought, that there is an inexplicable dimension to our persecution as a people. Obviously if you think about Mormon doctrine and the idea that there needs be an opposition in all things, that part of our plan in life contemplates opposition, adversity, infirmity, you could say, well, it's either caused by the devil or it was created by God in order to make a better people of us. ... That might explain, at least in part, this sort of inexplicable part of our persecution. ...

I keep thinking to myself -- and this may sound not very humble -- but as I associate throughout the church and I keep meeting these tremendous people, educated people, accomplished people, artistic people, who are totally devoted to this religion, whether it's [former Mass. Gov.] Mitt Romney or some world-class scientist or whoever it may be, I keep thinking to myself, there must be something right about Mormonism. When is someone going to take notice that there are fine people here in America who, by and large, are going places? ...

I have wondered and worried about why we aren't gaining greater acceptance more quickly and why, for instance, a presidential candidacy by Mitt Romney or anyone else who's a member of the church would be problematic to anyone. …

Sarah Barringer Gordon
Sarah Barringer Gordon, a constitutional law and history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in 19th Century America.

In my own reading of Mormon history, I've been struck by how much has been invested by historians in the idea that Mormons suffered unfairly and unjustly. Everyone agrees that the government went too far. There's no defending everything that the government did. There is, however, a way that is also fair to look at the Utah church in the 1850s, '60s, '70s, '80s as openly defiant of the rest of the nation and posing a real, genuine challenge about what kind of political entity would be contained with the United States in the form of Utah. In that sense there's a real conflict going on, ...

So that when we focus only on the suffering imposed on families whose husbands went to jail and so on, we're not really taking a look at the big picture. What did it mean when the church said, "We openly defy the laws of the United States"? What kind of challenge is that? And what does it mean to claim the legal right to do so? Did it mean that Mormons claimed that they were not bound by the rules everyone else had to live by? That's what many anti-polygamists thought, and that's what they acted on.

So that persecution is there; there's no doubt about it. It's not only persecution, though, and I guess that's where the story gets complicated. But to the extent that there was a much less simple story of innocent, separatist, utopian existence stomped on without provocation by the rest of the country, then I think we missed the really interesting part of 19th-century Mormonism, which is that they claimed a separate political life and the power to control those within their borders and the ability to keep the rest of the world out of that control. ...