' Skip To Content
The Mormons | Article

Interview: Jon Butler

By tracing dissent, polygamy, and persecution through Mormon history, Butler illustrates the "crisis" faced by Mormons while reconciling their history with the challenges of a growing, modern church. This is the edited transcript of a May 2006 interview.

... Can you help viewers understand why we should care about [Joseph Smith]?

... Joseph Smith is one of the most fulsome characters in 19th-century American history: a visionary, an organizer, a schemer, a mover of people, an inventor of a religion that brought polygamy to American society; someone who was assassinated and also, in a sense, created an entire state, the state of Utah. And in the 19th century, it is important to understand that he was extraordinarily controversial. There's a reason he was assassinated, because he was so bitterly hated as well as so warmly loved.

The way he's been looked at in the past half-century has really opened up our understanding of Smith in ways that are really quite remarkable. For example, historians and others are interested in polygamy, but now they understand it in the context of 19th-century American marriage; they understand it in the context of feminism. They understand his history in the context of organization. They understand his history in the context of visionary experiences. They understand his history in the context of simply organizing and moving massive numbers of people to new communities and creating new communities. When we think about Smith, we can really think about the whole of the 19th century: the creation of a visionary American society, a society that's going to undergo the Civil War, that isn't connected to Mormonism, but that reveals the upheaval in 19th-century American society in the way that it looks at the whole of the world, that it looks at the internal experience of Americans. And in that regard Joseph Smith is a quintessentially American man. ...

Talking about the axis of fraud or prophet, he's more complicated than both of those extremes. ...

The difficulty of interpreting Smith as either a fraud or a prophet is that Smith works all elements. That is, on the one hand he is prophetic. He is prophetic in that he enunciates a new Scripture. He translates a new Scripture through the help of revelation. Understandably, those who oppose his Scripture see this as fraud. But we also ought to see it as an act of creation. We ought to see it as an act of revelation if we accept the idea of revelation.

We also ought to see it as the first step in the creation of an extraordinary organizational and disciplinary system. His emphasis on organization and discipline also leads to charges of fraud, because in creating that kind of a system, he inevitably made bureaucratic decisions, personnel decisions, decisions about the future of the organization that are going to lead to dissent. They would lead to dissent in New York; they would lead to dissent in Ohio; they would lead to dissent in Illinois. After his assassination in Missouri they're going to lead ultimately to dissent in Utah. That's a normal part of the organizational experience of many religious groups. But when we think about that, we also could remember that in explaining that dissent, the dissenters will always charge those who have made those decisions with fraud or with deceit, and this is a commonplace in almost all religious systems, just as it's a commonplace in almost all organizations.

When we concentrate on those two issues only, what we don't see is the achievement. What we don't see is what Joseph Smith created, whether we like what he created or we don't like what he created. What he created was one of the great religious systems, if by great we mean numerous. If we understand that Mormonism is now a worldwide system that has its origins in 19th-century America, that has its origins in an obscure New York man who, by his account, received revelation from Angel Moroni, we have in America the creation of a kind of spiritual hothouse that puts into play one of the world's most transforming religious systems.

Why don't we talk about that spiritual hothouse right now? Describe the ecstatic landscape from which he came. ...

Smith came out of an extraordinary spiritual hothouse that was the result of the American Revolution -- an unintended result, but a result nonetheless. Why? Because Americans were freed by the First Amendment of the federal Constitution to create their own religion aside from the government, aside from the state. It produced exceptional results. It revivified religion in America. It led to revivals; it led to visions created by many kinds of revivalists, especially Methodist itinerants who created their visits to heaven, their visits to hell, and they discussed Methodism with their potential converts in the 1810s and '20s.

So Smith's enunciation of visions in his own world, his reception of revelations that created the Book of Mormon, was not particularly unusual. Smith was also not unusual in his organizational genius. He, in fact, was a latecomer in the world of organization, but he perfected it by following the example of Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian [sects], all of whom developed extraordinary organizational schemes to boost the place of their own religious groups inside 19th-century American society. ...

And it was a modern America; it was a plural America; it was a visionary America; it was a difficult America; it was a contentious America. All of these groups competed with each other. They competed for attention; they competed for religious space; they competed for visionary acumen; they competed to define who they were as a people. And in many regards they succeeded, because by the time of the Civil War, America was a society in which religion was more powerful rather than less powerful than it had been at the time of the American Revolution. ...

What is it [Joseph Smith] offered that took off? Why did he succeed?

Smith succeeded in part because he made America the center of his religious vision, or at least he offered America as the center of Mormonism. [It] was not in the Middle East; it wasn't in the Old World; it was in America. It was in America that the battles described in the Book of Mormon were fought. It was symbolic of Smith's major point, which was it was in the soul of America that the future of the nation would be decided, and that soul was an American soul. That soul was an American gift; that soul was an American creation. It was Smith's creation; it was the creation of the Angel Moroni.

It was Smith's genius for organization. Smith really developed organization as part of his prophetic vision: that he would fan out, and his believers would fan out across America. They would redefine the way men and women lived their organized lives. They would attach themselves to families in a way that wasn't true for many Protestants or even Roman Catholics in the U.S. in the 19th century. They would, in fact, create a society inside a society, and in doing so they believed they would reshape the whole of society. In that regard 19th-century Mormonism is one of the most astonishing creations ever put forward in American society and certainly ever put forward in American religion. ...

He was in a line of big, difficult prophets. People forget that Moses was also a complicated character.

Smith stood in a line of enormously complicated Old Testament prophets just as he stood in a line of enormously complicated historical figures in the history of Christianity: Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Joseph Smith. Each one of them was a difficult figure. Each one was famed for emotional outbursts. Each one lived lives that weren't always perfect. And each one, including Joseph Smith, was magnified almost [as much] by their sins and their difficulties as they were magnified by their writings or the revelations -- in Smith's case, that he received from Angel Moroni -- so that Smith's faults, his difficulties, his outbursts, his cantankerousness, his duplicity could also be seen by his followers especially as signs of the voice of God speaking through a real human being; voice of God speaking through someone they knew; voice of God coming through precisely because they knew him as a human being.

That, rather than marginalizing Smith, rather than diminishing Smith as a figure, actually accentuated his stature, made him real, made his vision and made the validity of the Book of Mormon all the more real. In short, he was a prophet; that is, a human being through whom the divine spoke. Therefore he didn't surrender any of his humanity. His humanity magnified his divinity. ...

In quite a concrete way, because people know nothing about his life, why was he such a polarizing figure? Why was he so controversial? What was it he did, and what just agitated people?

Smith was controversial because his views were controversial. Smith was controversial because what he wanted to create was difficult. He upstaged the Christian Gospel by translating the Book of Mormon into a published text that upended the Old and the New Testament as the final books of Christianity. That alone was enough to create doubt, worry and real anger among American Christians. Here was someone who presumed to say: "Aha! There's another book in Christianity, the final, the perfect book in Christianity, and it is the Book of Mormon."

He was controversial because of his creation and backing for polygamy. Here he upended contemporary notions for marriage, contemporary notions of the family, contemporary notions of childhood, contemporary notions of sexuality. For this alone he would have been controversial.

Finally he was controversial for his organizational genius linked to a ruthless and willful discipline within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He elevated some; he diminished others; he made crucial decisions about the future direction of the church. He micromanaged in an extraordinary way.

Not every one was happy, so when you think about his upending of the Christian Scriptures, when you think about his creation and backing for polygamy, and when you think about his organizational genius that led to exceptionally difficult decisions about how to proceed, it's not a wonder that Smith in fact became a difficult figure, a controversial figure, a hated figure within American society. ...

... What did he put together that survived all of his self-destructive tendencies? What was it he put together?

Smith was the father of chaos within Mormonism, the father of chaos within this new religious movement. At the very same time he was also the father of its organizational genius and its intellectual genius. Its intellectual genius -- Smith has to be given credit for the creation and the distribution of the Book of Mormon, of the creation of an entirely new way of thinking about Christianity and about religion. He has to be given credit for the creation of the priesthood within Mormonism so that it has a basic organizational structure that's linked to its religious doctrines. He has to be understood as the father of at least several of the different forms of communitarian settlement in early Mormonism that held the movement together, even sometimes as the experience of communitarian settlements pulled the movement apart. He has to be understood as, above all, as the father of hierarchicalism within Mormonism; that is, the exercise of authority within a largely hierarchical structure, which he could defend in a wildly, almost chaotically democratic society. So that, as with Methodism, for example, which also was a hierarchical religious organization, Mormonism would relish hierarchy as a way of organizing believers inside an open, democratic society. It was a way of organizing authority inside that society. Smith has to be given credit for his achievements, as well as criticized for the difficulties that he introduced into the very movement in which he was the founder. ...

In Palmyra, [N.Y.,] Smith moved from being a critic, a confused young man, a fortuneteller, to the translator of the Book of Mormon which he received from the Angel Moroni; someone who began to discuss his beliefs with others, published the Book of Mormon and began to create an infant religious movement. When he moved to Ohio, he began to experiment with group organization, with a larger-scale movement, with a movement that sent missionaries out, other prophets out into the countryside to seek comfort. In Ohio he began to experience chaos inside the Mormon movement because he had to struggle with ways to define Mormonism no longer as simply a vehicle for his own prophecy or the prophecy brought to him by the Angel Moroni but as Mormonism as a church, Mormonism as an institution. When he moved to Nauvoo, [Ill.,] he began to perfect notions about hierarchy. Those were exemplified in the creation of Mormon buildings in Nauvoo. ...

Talk to me about the world of magic that he lived in and practiced himself, and why that makes Mormons nervous.

Smith came out of an American world of magic. It may surprise many Americans to understand that magic was something that actually was quite commonplace in 19th-century America, but [it] simply is true. There were hundreds and hundreds of books about astrology published in America in the 19th century. There were still concerns about witches 120 years after the Salem witchcraft trial. There were efforts -- there were many Americans trying to find fortunes, of whom Smith was one, by digging up hills all over New England, or efforts to use divining rods.

And of course the world of magic was connected, I think, to the world of visions, to the world of understanding heaven and hell. So Smith came out of a vibrant world of magic, occult practice. What Smith and his followers would ultimately say is that they didn't practice magic. They would also ultimately say that this was a world of Christianity; that this was a world of the miraculous; that this was a world of God intervening in daily affairs as God had intervened in daily affairs in the medieval period, as God had intervened in the daily affairs at the time of the life of Christ. They saw God's intervention in the modern world as vividly as they believed that the prophets of the Old Testament and the disciples in the New Testament had seen it in their own time.

What kind of magic did Joseph Smith engage in?

We know that Joseph Smith engaged in a kind of fortune finding, that he attempted to use occult means, mystical means to help find fortunes buried in the earth -- gold coins, gold itself. Smith engaged in what was called money digging, and he was one time brought to court on charges of being a money digger, meaning that he was regarded as being a fraudulent money digger. So Smith always acknowledged those in later years, and there's a controversy that surrounds Smith's money digging. Some Mormons and some Mormon historians have argued that this is just the world that he came from, and some Mormons have found those charges difficult and have always denied them. But in fact they're true, and this was simply the world in which Smith lived; this was the world in which he grew up, and there wasn't anything particularly unusual about it.

Talk a little bit about ... the miraculous healings and what we know about that early part of Mormonism that helped its growth.

Many new religious movements, including Christianity, have used miracles as a way of testifying to the truth of the religious system, of the religious movement. That was true in early Christianity. Mormons did that, and Smith did it between 1831 and 1835. That is, Mormon missionaries, Mormon apologists, Mormon preachers moved into the New England countryside and began to heal. They began to heal the sick, and in some places they have claimed to have raised the dead. But in 1835, that particular form of Mormon activity stopped. It isn't clear exactly why it stopped. In fact, Smith in his own writings reports that he wandered into a discussion among Mormon elders about this topic, and after three hours of discussion he decided and this movement decided that they would no longer pursue healing as a way of demonstrating the truth of Mormonism. It isn't exactly clear why it happened. Smith never explained his action, and the movement never after that used healing ... .

The Book of Mormon has been variously described as a riveting, faith-inspiring document and also, as Mark Twain described it [in Roughing It], as "chloroform in print." What accounts for its power among the believers and for all of those who struggle to read it and can't get through it? What is it, what did Joseph Smith claim it to be, what do Mormons claim it to be, and why does it turn off as many people as it rivets others?

The difficulty with the Book of Mormon when it was published, from nonbelievers' [view], is, first of all, that it simply presupposed, it had the arrogance to assert, that it was the continuation or a perfection of Christianity. That, of course, is going to cause enormous problems among orthodox Christians in the United States in the 19th century.

Why, then, would people find it fascinating? Who would believe it? Many people believed it because they were tired, like Joseph Smith was, of theological controversy in 19th-century America. They were tired of the arguments about Unitarianism; they were tired of arguments about different kinds of denominations all based on an understanding of what Christianity was supposed to be. Here was a new text that opened up a new world, that was uncontroverted if you believed it; that is, there weren't any arguments about who wrote this book or who wrote that book within the Book of Mormon. If you believed the Book of Mormon, there weren't any arguments about the meaning of the text that could go back 50 years or 100 years or 200 years or 500 years, because the text was brand-new. It was a virgin text in a peculiar kind of way. Therefore many believers found safety in that virginity, in that newness, because there weren't arguments about the meaning of the text except if you rejected it altogether.

In addition, many Americans who believed it found it intriguing that the center of the religious [world] was America, the center of the religious world were battles among the lost tribes of Israel headquartered in America, found in America, living in America. This was an American text. It wasn't a European text; it wasn't a Middle East text. Between the American locale and the shared newness of the text, here was a text that believers could embrace because it was here, it was now, and it was uncontroverted. ...

Dissent: As an outsider to this religion, how do you feel, in contemporary Mormonism right now, ... dissent and challenge is received in this church?

My sense of dissent within Mormonism is that it is as difficult for the church as it is for the dissenters. Dissenters, in fact, feel extraordinarily loyal to Mormonism. They feel extraordinarily loyal to the ideals of Mormonism. They feel extraordinarily loyal to the Book of Mormon. They feel extraordinarily loyal to their experience growing up within the Mormon faith, within the Mormon tradition. Dissenters are usually, rather than being individuals who want to perfect the church, they want to change it. They wanted [it] to realize its own heritage; they wanted [it] to realize its own possibilities.

Most dissenters in modern Mormonism, in fact, will usually make the argument that they're not out to destroy the movement; they're out to help it realize its potential, which they see as being suffocated by a kind of contemporary effort to downplay difficulties inside the church, to downplay social and moral issues, to downplay themes that have run through Mormon history, including the history of dissent. Some of them will point out that the Mormon faith, the Mormon Church, has never been a church without dissent, has always had dissent, has always had controversy, and that Smith thrived on that controversy. Smith thrived on his own exchange with elders inside the Mormon Church to create a better church. That's what helped create Mormonism in the 1830s, in the 1840s, and that's what helped create Mormonism and sustain Mormonism in the 1850s, '60s and '70s, after Mormons moved to Utah.

The modern dissenters see themselves standing in the line of the entire movement, particularly in the 19th century. And it's somewhat ironic that the church doesn't accept that. It's somewhat ironic that the church finds dissent paralyzing, that the church finds dissent so difficult that it feels it has to excommunicate them.

Talk about the history of the disciplining of dissenters from the early days until now. The excommunications and discipline -- how unusual is that?

Virtually from Smith's early time, from the publication of the Book of Mormon until his assassination, Smith constantly engaged in disciplining believers and thrusting some believers out and not accepting others, in ex-communicating them. In that regard Smith isn't unusual. It's something that happens in the history of early Christianity; it's something that happens in the history of early Lutheranism; it's something that happens in the history of early Methodism. It's something that happens in the early history of almost all religious groups; that is, groups have to figure out how they're going to define authority and what boundaries they set on authority as they emerge into a kind of full institutional bloom. Oftentimes the church has become much less tolerant, after they have moved through a period of toleration, than they were in their own early history. They oftentimes frankly misunderstand their own early history. They oftentimes take those early disciplinings as ironclad rules when in fact they were events that helped shape the movement, not in a difficult way but in a very helpful way.

How is Mormonism's relationship to intellectuals unique?

Mormonism's relationship to intellectuals has become difficult because of the interest in Mormon history. The interest in Mormon history has uncovered and revealed complexities, peculiarities, oddities, difficulties inside the history of early Mormonism that has become difficult for contemporary church leaders to accept. Contemporary church leaders find it difficult to accept the idea that Joseph Smith really was a money digger, for example, in his early youth. They find it difficult to accept the varieties of opinion and viewpoint inside Mormonism in the early 1830s and the 1840s, when the church was relatively unformed. They find it difficult to accept variant readings of what we could call orthodox Mormon history, a kind of clean Mormon history that looks nice and pretty in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Difficulty with that, of course, is that the past is always messy; the past is always difficult; and the history of Mormonism is no less messy and no less difficult than the history of most religious organizations, whether it be Christianity in general, Judaism, Catholicism, Lutheranism, Methodism. If we look at each one of those histories, those histories are always complex; they're always difficult. What Mormons seem to find some trouble with is accepting those difficulties and then moving beyond them, accepting them as part of a very complicated, twisted, peculiar kind of intellectual world that isn't always easy to sort out, and most importantly that wasn't easy for Joseph Smith to sort out, wasn't always easy for Brigham Young to sort out this world. Yet they lived in it; they moved in it; they moved through it; they overcame it.

That's what modern church authorities need to do. They need to come to grips with the modern understanding of the history of Mormonism as something that doesn't intrude upon the practice of Mormonism.

[There's a] paradox that this is a religion that celebrates its history and yet seems scared of it.

Well, Mormonism is a movement that celebrates its history, and yet it seems to be quite afraid of its history. On the one hand Mormons really love to buy Mormon books; they buy Mormon manuscripts; they will even buy forged Mormon manuscripts because there's a market for them. On the other hand Mormons appear oftentimes afraid of real historical investigation: What did Joseph Smith think about the practice of magic? [To what extent] did Joseph Smith involve himself with the Masonic movement? To what extent did Smith accept Masonic symbols in the creation of Mormon temples and buildings? To what extent did Joseph Smith really practice money digging? To what extent did he forge documents? To what extent did he engage in illicit sexual behavior? To what extent did he really act in a sort of surreptitious fashion when he began to create the system of polygamy?

All of those are questions that aren't particularly unusual in the formation of most any kind of religious system. Most any kind of religious system has moments in which its founders moved in this direction, they moved in that direction, and then they finally chose a direction. They were imperfect human beings who engaged in imperfect behavior. Some Mormons have troubles accepting that. They want a kind of sanitized history. A sanitized history isn't a real history. A sanitized history isn't a human history. Above all, a sanitized history isn't a real religious history. ...

When you look at the Mountain Meadows event [in which Mormon militia men killed at least 120 men, women and children on a pioneer wagon train from Arkansas], there are many ways to look at it, but in terms of the Mormons' relationship to their history, their growing acceptance, is the Mountain Meadows emblematic?

The controversy over the Mountain Meadows Massacre is emblematic of the Mormons' difficulty in dealing with the complexities of their own past. The massacre probably happened at the instigation of Mormon leaders and under the hand of Mormons. Mormons are human; Mormon leaders might have made mistakes. So might Lutheran leaders in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, and so might Calvinist leaders in Nazi Germany and Roman Catholic leaders in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. These things happen. They happen inside religious institutions, and they probably happen inside and outside the Mormon Church. Only by acknowledging the mistakes of the past, figuring out the mistakes of the past, especially the rationalization for those mistakes, can you figure out what went wrong, why it went wrong, and you hope something might never go wrong again in the same way. That's what Mormon leaders have to figure out. As long as we continually rationalize and deny the existence of problems in the past, you can't solve the problems of the future.

[It's been said] that Mormonism is undergoing a crisis; they're such a new religion and "have no place to hide." ...

Contemporary Mormonism is undergoing a crisis, and it's undergoing a crisis in part because it's such a new historical religion. That is, it's unusual in having such a wide swath of documentation; it's unusual in having so many documents that come to light year after year about the history of its earliest years. We don't have that for the history of Christianity. We have very, very little documentation about the history of Christianity in its earliest years. We have the New Testament, and we now have the Gnostic Gospels, an occasional document that comes to light. But in the history of Mormonism we have journal after journal, newspaper after newspaper, letter after letter, account book after account book, family memoirs, letters from families who were peripherally involved in the movement, and they're always exposing new facets of Mormonism, new details. So whether or not Mormon authorities want to deal with Mormonism, the past is thrusting itself up in front of the Mormons, day after day, almost hour after hour. It's difficult to comprehend; it's difficult to deal with. And like much in the past, it's very messy; it's very difficult; it doesn't fit neat patterns. Not all of our expectations about the past are going to be upheld in all those documents. ...

Smith's claims are, in fact, extravagant, extraordinary, difficult. He's way out there at the end of a diving board. He's claiming a miracle in America. He's claiming a miracle, having seen an angel. He's claiming the creation of a new biblical text that he is delivering through a revelation that he had through a seer stone. These are claims that are really in the line of the claims made by the origin of Christianity -- life over death -- in the origins of Judaism, in the origins of Islam. They are exceptional. They're really unlike that of so many other religious movements which emerged in one step or two steps out of existing religious systems. Smith simply transcends Christianity through the miraculous and perfects it at the same time. So he opens up a whole new world that simply didn't exist before, and it is a whole new world. It's a world with a text; it's a world with an angel; it's a world with a prophet. And it didn't exist before Joseph Smith. And that is truly extraordinary.

Can you talk about the Mormons' need to root their whole religion not in metaphor, but in a literal reading of their texts, and perhaps the dangers of that?

Well, the peculiarity of Mormonism is that on the one hand it's a profoundly historical religion for which evidence is sorely lacking, and yet that has never prevented Mormons from believing deeply in their religion and believing deeply in their practice. So Mormonism on the one hand is a religion that finds it difficult to establish as a scientific or archaeological fact the actual events of the Book of Mormon. In a peculiar kind of way, the events of the Book of Mormon have proven unnecessary to the fulfillment of the Mormon mission to recreate Christianity, to perfect Christianity, to transcend Christianity in a new form, and that has to do primarily with family life, with morals, with ethics, ultimately with politics.

Ultimately Mormonism is not a historical religion; it's ultimately a religion of personal transformation and the perfection of personal religious beliefs in the family especially, in the community and then in society. It's therefore a living historical religion in a peculiar kind of way. It's a living religion in that it actually emphasizes contemporaneous belief and practice. It founded its faith on a history that is in fact difficult to ascertain as what we might say is a scientific fact.

We have almost no archaeological evidence that any of the events that are described in the Book of Mormon occurred in America, yet Mormons transcend that difficulty by living out a historical faith. They believe in that faith as a matter of faith. They believe in that history as a matter of faith. Yet at the same time they practice a modern faith that dedicates itself to the reconstruction of the individual, the reconstruction of the family, the community, and ultimately the reconstruction of society.

Most religions, most societies, think about families as the foundation of the society, but what distinguishes the Mormon view of family from other religions'? ...

I'd say that the Mormon emphasis on the family compared to Protestantism in general or Catholicism or Judaism is a difference in degree. It's the fixation on the family as a coherent unit that's so important. In many other religious systems, what is important is the belief in the individual, the belief of the child, the belief of the parent, the parent's belief transferred to the child, but the child still remains an independent unit.

Within Mormonism there is an emphasis on the collective: the collective sense of the family, the collective sense of moral responsibility, the collective sense of an enterprise. The family is in turn related to the church. That is, the family is collectively responsible for the church; the family is responsible, for example, that it's young adults that [are] engaged in missionary tours for the church. That is not just an individual matter; it's a family matter.

That is different, I think, than the Roman Catholic understanding, for example, of religious women or men going into the priesthood. That's not a family responsibility; that's the individual responsibility of a young woman or a young man. It's not the typical Protestant understanding of conversion, for example. That's very individual. And Judaism and Jews maintain a responsibility to the larger group but in the context of extraordinary individual freedom. So the Mormon emphasis, collective emphasis on the family, is a difference in degree, but a difference in degree that makes an exceptionally coherent, independent pattern within the larger context of Western Christianity or Western religion.

Can you talk about the Mormons' emphasis on the family evolving over time? Give me a sense of the growth of this idea that is so central to Mormonism.

In the early years of Mormonism, the emphasis within the Mormon movement was on individual conversion and on the creation of followers who would join the Mormon Church. As Joseph Smith created the idea of polygamy, that notion itself emphasized the idea of family; it also redefined the notion of family. The family became the patriarch with several wives and many children. In a peculiar kind of way, the end of polygamy led to an incessant, insistent emphasis on the family as a unit, now the traditional family.

So the oddity of the history of Mormonism -- it moves from individual conversion to polygamy, then to family -- ... I'd make the argument that the emphasis on family in 20th-century, in 21st-century Mormonism is in an odd way the emphasis on polygamy in the 19th century. It's a cleansing of polygamy; it's the cleansing of the institution. But polygamy always assumed and asserted the importance of the family. It just redefined the family in ways, of course, that most Americans rejected, and certainly the American government and American law would reject.

Can you talk about polygamy in the context of a lot of social experimentation that was going on in the 19th century, that was pushing the boundaries?

Nineteenth-century America was a kind of laboratory in the history of the family. It was a laboratory in the history of the family in a tragic and cruel way through the institution of slavery, because slavery -- which so many white Americans practiced, obviously in the South, but supported in many regards in the North -- redefined the family by slicing it to pieces, by simply removing fathers from mothers, by removing children from their parents, and did so consistently decade after decade. It was widely regarded as one of the most cruel experiments in the history of the family. I think many Americans were aware of that history.

In addition, there was considerable experimentation on communistic settlements in the U.S. There were a number of them in upstate New York, in the very area that Joseph Smith received his revelations. There were new farms. There were new efforts at communal settlements in a variety of places in the United States. Joseph Smith was one of many who began questioning sexual practice, family practice, the way that family would be defined. Mormonism was simply part of a larger history of experimentation with the family, some of it cruel, some of it interesting, some of it prefacing modern experimentation that would ultimately lead to a redefinition of the law about the family; for example, the widening effort to create divorce, make it possible for men and women who couldn't get along inside marriage to separate. This was part of a larger American experiment that ran through the 19th century and well into the 20th century.

What was being practiced? Give us a concrete sense of the kind of experimentation.

Joseph Smith came out of extraordinary experimentation in family life, family practice throughout 19th-century America. The Shakers experimented with celibacy, for example. The Oneida settlement experimented with multiple marriage partners. Joseph Smith invented polygamy. He was one of many who will redefine the notion of marriage. Many women in the United States [were] pressing for new divorce laws to define the nature of the family; women and men who would redefine the nature of the family by emphasizing education, education for young children which would place them in a different place in the family. That they weren't just wage earners; they were also people with minds. So whether you think about the family as sexual practice or the family simply as an educational institution, the family as a cultural institution or the family as a place for procreation, 19th-century America experimented with it all.

And is it true that 19th-century Americans were shocked by the notion of polygamy, unaware that it had been practiced in four-fifths of the world?

There was hypocrisy in the American reaction to polygamy when it was revealed that this existed in Mormonism, because of the wide variety of marriage practices that existed in the United States, the long history of polygamy in the history of the world, which many Americans were aware of in the 19th century. They really came down on the Mormons very hard when, in fact, they had the whole world to criticize and the whole of human history to criticize. But because Mormonism was practicing polygamy within the U.S., within its borders and inside a somewhat odd, mysterious and difficult, secretive religious group, then federal authorities came down on Mormonism with extraordinary power and simply shut it down. ...

[Talk about the persecution of the Mormons.]

The hatred of Mormonism is mysterious. It's fascinating; it's perplexing. Mormons were plain old, largely white, English-descended American farmers who were God-fearing, lived in agricultural settlements and wanted the best for the children, for their wives, for their families. Why would they be so hated? It has to do with the fear of the unknown: the fear of unknown personal practices, polygamy; the fear of unknown beliefs, the Book of Mormon. [In] the same sense that American Protestants feared Roman Catholics, because they feared what was going on inside the Roman Catholic Church. Fear of power and hierarchy: Could the Mormons really think for themselves, or did Joseph Smith think for them? The fear of collective behavior: Why is it that they behave so collectively in such an organized fashion when the rest of us are chaotic or we don't follow our religious leaders? Yes, we're Presbyterians, but maybe we pay attention, maybe we don't.

All of these things made the Mormons feared. It made Americans worry about them. Yet underneath there's still something else that's hard to get at. There's still something else about Mormons that seems so odd, that seems so peculiar, and yet it's difficult to put a historian's finger on what that is.

Well, I think it's the fear of the unknown; it's the fear of the new; it's the fear of the strange. The Mormons were all of those things even though they were so normal. They were all of those things even though they looked like everybody else. You'd have a hard time picking them out. They weren't like the Amish, who dressed in odd clothing. They didn't drive in special buggies and so separate themselves from the rest of society, and maybe that's exactly why they were so feared.

They were so insidious because they were so normal. They were so insidious because they looked like everybody else. And yet underneath we all knew they were different. Underneath we knew they believed differently; they behaved differently; they thought differently. And therefore they were alien. ...

Many Mormons will say that no religious group in America has ever been as persecuted as the Mormons. What was the nature, degree and intensity of Mormon persecution ...? How does it compare in degree and kind to the persecution of other groups?

Charges about the persecution of Mormons run the gamut from the argument that Mormons had been the most persecuted single group in American religious history, and in American history, to the understanding that Mormonism fits somewhat somewhere in the middle of a spectrum of persecution in America. If we understand that most religious systems have not found their spiritual founder or leader assassinated in America -- that is, not very many rabbis, not very many ministers, not very many priests have been murdered or assassinated in America for their religion -- then Mormonism, because of the assassination of Joseph Smith, becomes a prime candidate for the single most persecuted group in America.

Mormonism was under attack in Missouri as well as ultimately in Utah, part because it was a sectarian group and part because local residents feared it. It was under attack from neighbors; it was under attack from the federal government after the creation of a polygamous society in Utah in the 1870s, '80s and '90s.

At the same time, it also could be argued that Mormonism experienced modest persecution in comparison to resistant persecution that Roman Catholics experienced in the United States from the 1810s and '20s well through the presidential election of 1960. It could also be thought that Mormonism was a movement that experienced only momentary persecution compared to Jews, for example, who found themselves somewhat persecuted in America through the 1880s, and then experienced significant anti-Semitism and legal persecution in the United States for being Jews in the 1880s up into the 1950s, when housing covenants and restrictions on Jews in American hotels, for example, were commonplace.

So depending upon how we want to think about persecution: Do we want to emphasize the assassination of Joseph Smith? Do we want to emphasize physical violence against Mormonism? We might think of Mormonism as somewhat comparable to persecution against Roman Catholics. If we want to think about legal persecution, we can indeed emphasize anti-polygamy legislation passed by the federal government. We also can place it in the context of anti-Semitic legislation passed by many, many states and municipalities in the United States from the 1880s until the 1960s. So Mormonism either is or isn't the most persecuted religious group, depending on your point of view. ...

Describe ... the nature ... of Mormon persecution.

In the 19th century, Mormons experienced persistent difficult persecution. They were persecuted locally by fearful neighbors, as many religious groups had been persecuted by local, fearful neighbors who wondered, ... what they were thinking? What they were doing? They were persecuted by legal authorities in Ohio and in Missouri, who didn't [trust] Mormon organization, who didn't trust what the Mormons were up to, who found necessary or believed it was necessary to apply the force of local government and state government to the "Mormon situation." They were ultimately persecuted by the federal government, which was extraordinarily distrustful of the institution of polygamy, seeing it, as many Americans did, [as] the destruction of the American marriage system, as a destruction of the American way of life. Ultimately the federal government would declare war on the Mormons, would in fact use troops in Utah, and would in fact force Mormons to abandon polygamy as a way of achieving statehood for Utah. It was very clear that unless the Church abandoned polygamy, that Utah would not become a state. That happened, and Utah did become a state.

After the achievement of statehood in Utah, Mormonism in a peculiar kind of way moved in almost an opposite direction. At first it was seen as a radical religious movement, and since the 1890s, 1900, 1910, Mormonism has been touted as an extraordinarily conservative religious movement. We've had an almost complete shift in the public image of Mormonism and, in fact, in the shift of Mormon views about themselves as a religious movement, moving from seeing themselves as religious radicals and visionaries in the 1830s to conservatories of the Christian tradition in the 20th century.

There is this myth of innocent persecution. Wasn't part of Joseph's brilliant marketing strategy to anticipate persecution, to use it, make claims about it as a way of forging an identity?

Persecution is a complicated phenomenon in part because there are ways in which Smith almost invited it. That is, Smith invited it by the way in which he wrote the Book of Mormon. He invited it by the way in which he organized communitarian Mormon settlements. He invited it by beginning to invent and create the system of polygamy that he knew well would upend the American ideas about marriage; that he knew well would upend social relationships in local communities with non-Mormons who would find themselves extraordinarily fearful of the Mormon practice of polygamy. He invited it by his high-handed treatment of dissenters within the Mormon movement. He invited schism. He loved to exercise his own authority; he loved to exercise his sense of prophecy and prophethood. He loved the place that he had achieved within the Mormon movement.

All that brought controversy, and ultimately in many regards it would bring his own persecution. Ultimately in the end it had been suggested by a number of historians that Smith almost invited his own assassination because of the way that he consistently pushed and pushed and pushed in Missouri and Illinois the Mormon vision for the future, the Mormon right to practice polygamy, the Mormon vision for the future of America. He antagonized local residents who were un-Mormon. He antagonized local government. He antagonized town officials, constantly pushing. Ultimately he was assassinated. And there had been more than one historian who suggested that perhaps there was almost something unconscious in the way that Joseph Smith was behaving at that time, that he wanted to be assassinated as a way of proving his own prophecy by creating himself as a martyr.

Can you go back to the moment after Joseph's death and talk about how the Mormon Church survived that chaos? Can you explain its success after the murder of its prophet?

The mystery of Mormonism at the assassination of Joseph Smith is why it had survived, how it had survived. It shouldn't have survived. Mormonism by all accounts should just have disappeared. Its principal leader was dead; many of his followers also had been murdered. They had been hounded by authorities in both Missouri and Illinois. Their organization should have been shattered. But Smith had given them cause to believe in the validity of his own prophecy. His own death really expounded the validity of the movement. His own prophecy drew them together in a way that they may never have been drawn together before. And having been drawn together, the gift that had been given them in the decade and a half earlier, the gift of organization, the gift of a belief in hierarchy, allowed Brigham Young to step in and exercise a leadership that was extraordinary, that was vivid, that was clear-minded, that was oftentimes not as conflicted as Smith's own leadership.

Young simply was allowed the capacity to now lead a movement in a more uncomplicated, simpler fashion that Smith had never been allowed. Smith led by the force of his personality. Young had a vivid personality, but it wasn't as complicated as Smith's, and he had an organizational scheme, an organizational vision that built on Smith's own sense of hierarchy and organization, that led the Mormons to Utah. ...

The idea of persecution -- and its reality -- helped forge the Mormon identity. Is there a downside to the Mormons having internalized persecution as a part of who they are?

The downside of persecution is that it leads in part to paranoia; it leads in part to fear of the world; it leads in part sometimes to fear of historical change, fear of internal dissent. It makes people suspicious of people inside the movement, not just suspicious of people outside the movement. So it can have very deleterious effects. In a peculiar kind of way, persecution can come to be the undoing of the religious group itself, from the inside as well as from the outside. In a peculiar kind of way, persecution from the outside can actually induce a kind of internal collapse, because the movement becomes so suspicious, so paranoid, that it can no longer operate. That was the potentiality in some regards for Mormonism in the 19th century: Would it become so paranoid, so obsessed with the idea of persecution that it destroyed itself from the inside? No one would trust each other. No one would ultimately trust Joseph Smith; no one would ultimately trust Brigham Young. In a peculiar kind of way, given the power of persecution against the Mormons in the 19th century, it's somewhat surprising that Mormonism didn't give way to that internal suspicion that leads to the unraveling of the movement from the inside.

We often think of persecution that comes [from the outside], destruction from the outside, and that happens. That happened in the case of Louis XIV's disruption of French Protestantism in 1685, when he destroyed 100,000 French Protestants outside of France and in fact actually ended Protestantism's effective political and, for that matter, religious presence in France, even though a tiny number remained and still remain in the 21st century. It happened in many regards, obviously, to the Jews in the Holocaust. You can destroy the presence of Jews and Judaism in contemporary Europe by killing them, and that can happen. But you can also destroy the movement from the inside, and sometimes persecution could do that as well.

Do you think any of the negative effects of persecution have lived on in the Mormon psyche?

Well, I think the negative effects of 19th-century persecution live on in the 20th century, and the rhetoric of modern Mormonism is still frequently the rhetoric of victimization. Even though the movement is extraordinarily successful, politically successful -- there are Mormon congregations in all 50 states; Mormons have huge numbers of worldwide converts as well as millions of Americans who follow the movement -- the rhetoric of the movement is still to some extent the rhetoric of victimization: of a movement that's hounded, of a movement that's not respected. I don't think it matches reality.

In a peculiar kind of way I think it limits modern Mormonism, because Mormonism in a peculiar kind of way can't be triumphant. It's hard to be triumphant and feel victimized at the same time. In a peculiar kind of way, Mormons aren't able to enjoy their success. Even though they do trumpet their success, there's still an odd limiting factor about modern Mormonism that somehow it's a religion that isn't respected. Individually Americans might feel suspicious of Mormons when Mormon missionaries come to their front door, but probably no more suspicious [than] when they visit with someone from Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, who leave a little booklet behind. Mormonism is part of the modern vocabulary and the modern religious and political landscape. Yet it's apart; yet it's separate. And part of that being apart and separate resides in its own language of victimization, in its own sense of persecution of the 19th-century past.

Do you think the Mormons' sense of having been victimized contributes to any fearfulness they have about new ideas?

The sense of persecution has an intellectual limitation, and the intellectual limitation is also linked, ironically, to the Mormon sense of the past. The question is, "Can the Mormons develop a modern theology?" It's hard to develop a modern theology, a theology for the 21st century or the 22nd century if on the one hand you're still obsessed by ideas about persecution in the 19th century or the 20th century and if you insist that all theology is really suspect, because the only theology that ought to exist is the theology of Joseph Smith, is the theology of the Book of Mormon, is the theology of documents that Smith prepared in his own lifetime. That's not the history of the Roman Catholic Church; it's not the history of Lutheranism; it's not the history of Judaism.

Where would modern Catholicism be without Roman Catholic theologians of the medieval period, the 19th century and the 20th century? Where would modern Judaism be without modern Jewish theologians? Where would modern Methodism be without modern Methodist theologians? The question is, where are modern Mormon theologians? Where are modern Mormon intellectuals? Do they have a place inside Mormonism in the 21st century? The difficulty for Mormonism is, if it is so historical, will it have a history? Will it have a future? Its history will be tied up into honoring myths about the Mormon past at the same time that it compromises development of Mormonism in the 21st and the 22nd centuries. Because if you don't accept the idea of historical change, if you don't accept the idea that the explication of a system and the religion may change as one moves to different times, then the religion will die.

Don't many religions face this crisis when they have to confront their histories and have to separate what is myth from what is fact? Isn't this often the moment when they move to metaphor?

All religious systems have to move beyond their own creation, have to move beyond their own founding, and many religious systems have found that very difficult to do. Christianity did it; Islam did it; Judaism did it. The question is, can Mormonism do it? In a peculiar kind of way, can Mormonism survive its history, survive its present? Can it move into the future? If it tries to move into the future as an antique reproduction of the past, it's very unlikely that it will survive, because it will be very difficult to recreate that antique reproduction of the past relevant to modern men and women. Christianity had to modernize in the fourth century, had to modernize in the sixth century. Judaism had to modernize in the Diaspora. Lutheranism had to modernize in the Industrial Revolution, Roman Catholicism through all of its centuries of history.

Some say, well, each one of those modernizations compromised true Roman Catholicism, true Judaism. And of course most of those religious systems are replete with movements that are called restoration movements; that is, they try to take the movement back to the origins. But even in restoring the past, they also create a new past. As long as Mormonism could do that, can do that, it will succeed in the 21st, 22nd centuries. But if it can't do that -- and if it allows so little place for intellectuals, for new ways to express elemental and essential Mormon beliefs and convictions -- then it's going to die.

What do you think when you hear President Hinckley saying at General Conference that there are only two ways of looking at Mormon origins -- either it all happened exactly as Joseph Smith said it happened or that it's all a fraud. What do you think of his dismissal of the middle ground?

The difficulty is, the origins of all religious movements are so complicated that no successful religion has ever been able to define its origins in pristine terms. The origins of the history of Christianity are the subject of enormous debate within Christianity itself. That debate gives life to Christianity. The origins of Judaism, the nature of Judaism, the meaning of the Books of Moses are subject to enormous debate. They're the reason for the Talmud. Those debates give life to Judaism. If Mormonism insists there is no debate, Mormonism won't have life, and therefore it won't have a future.

As you look at the history of Mormonism, do you see, in terms of Christianity, the beginning of our own religion as well? Is it not only peculiar, but familiar as well? Do Christians see their own beginnings as well?

Mormonism really replicates the history of early Christianity, from controversy about Jesus to controversy about his death, his resurrection, to difficulties in accounting for that death and resurrection -- the story of Judas, for example -- to difficulties with the early disciples. The letters of Paul really recount difficulties in the history of early Christianity, not a pristine, perfect history, but troubles in the congregations, dissidents. This is the history of Mormonism in the 19th century, almost exactly step by step. Controversy over how it is that Smith got the revelations from the Angel Moroni. What happened to the golden tablets? How did he translate the Book of Mormon? Who were his earliest converts? Which converts fell away, and did they have to renounce? How was he going to organize the early church? How is he going to organize congregations, dissidents he had to expel? Ultimately Jesus was executed; Smith was assassinated. What would then happen? Christianity had its Paul; Mormonism had its Brigham Young. It's an almost perfect replication of the history of Christianity, almost perfectly aligns itself with the early history of Christianity if you accept the early history of Christianity as complicated, difficult and in some places unknown.

But if you don't accept that, then, in fact, you're in trouble, because if you accept a Mormon history that's laid out perfectly in which there are no dissidents, every event happened as some think it happened, then I would make the argument that you don't really accept Smith, because Smith himself gives contradictory accounts of events; he has contradictory letters, contradictory instructions. Which one should we accept? Which ones are the real ones? How did polygamy come into practice? There are many different accounts of that, not just one.

Editor's Note
Due to limitations of time and resources, all the interviews conducted for this program could not be published.

Support Provided by: Learn More