The Freedom Experiment — A Mormon Perspective on American Independence
The Fourth of July means a lot to me, but it did not dawn on me until this morning just how foreign my reasons would seem to most people- even my closest (non-Mormon) friends. I believe Mormons understand the value of religious freedom for everyone better than anyone and that is what occupied my mind today.
You will have to understand a bit of American and Mormon history to follow me here. And though I know a thing or two more about American history than the average American and Mormon history than the average Mormon, I am no expert in either so please add your insights and corrections in the comments below. For those who choose to look deeper, just be aware that you are venturing into one of the most heated topics of American history there is. There are many bent on framing everything negatively and saying nothing positive about early Latter-day Saints. And there are Mormons who will frame everything positively saying nothing negative about early pioneers and Church leaders. I, personally approve of neither approach, but believe the truth of the events to be mostly favorable about the character of the Church members and have virtually no effect on the veracity of the Book of Mormon or Mormon doctrines.
Important disclaimer: everything written here represents my personal views, not necessarily those of other Mormons and not the official stances of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the official name for the Mormon church).
The American Revolution
I spent the day with my family at Valley Forge, PA. It is definitely a top-5 most appropriate place to celebrate Independence Day. This is where George Washington lead his troops — predominantly white, but black and Native American, too — in remaining a thorn in Great Britain’s side for as long as it took for the empire to give up. Up to this point in 1778, George Washington was a man with a complete losing battle record, but the importance lied in the fact that he and his troops did not give up. Thousands of men died here out of sheer winter cold, disease, and starvation, but they needed to stay due to its strategic location. A couple years earlier in Philadelphia (twenty miles away) the continental congress signed the Declaration of Independence telling Great Britain that America was its own country from then on. The King’s overreach in the pursuit of world domination became clear as the empire deteriorated on several fronts around the world. The American Revolution, in my opinion, was a part of the true “World War I” since war was being waged in the Mediterranean, Caribbean, Canada, India, and Central America against the Spanish, Dutch, French, Portuguese, Indians, Native Americans and Natives in the Caribbean. The British won most of the battles, but the collective international revolt allowed America to be won and our founding fathers to perform the most impactful experiment on national governance the world has ever known.
The US Constitution
Decentralized government with no king, the idea that regular citizens have divine rights — not kings… This freedom was so new a concept for the common man to appreciate that even early Americans had a hard time living their country’s founding principles. Regardless, the Bill of Rights was established and even though its enforcers failed at horrific human cost from time to time they were constrained just enough by the law that things could be achieved here that no where else on earth could. There is one in particular for which millions of Latter-day Saints worldwide are profoundly grateful. The most defining aspect of who we are originated in the US because of its Constitution. It seems odd to people now that peacefully establishing a church without being sentenced to death would be such a feat. That is only because of the success of the American experiment of human rights and how we may lack appreciation for how it influenced civil society everywhere.
In 1820, a 14 year old boy in upstate New York claimed to have had a vision where he was visited by Jesus Christ and Heavenly Father, two distinct personages — not one. Had that happened in England, Italy, Germany, Russia, China, or virtually anywhere else — he would have been sentenced to death and few would have opposed it. Nothing thereafter could have been accomplished with such a visitation in places abroad where people were not thought to have “rights”. Years after Joseph Smith’s vision, it became known that he had supposedly received angelic visitations and translated an ancient book of scripture written by prophets of Christ in the Americas, who wrote during the same times as prophets in the Middle East and Mediterranean. This book of translated scripture even broadly detailed events of ancient American prophets envisioning European monarchs taking out the portions of the Bible they did not want their people to believe in (1 Nephi 13:21–35). Given that the printing press did not exist and rulers banned translations of the Bible, they could control theology as people relied on the few literate leaders who understood ancient Hebrew and Greek. William Tyndale was imprisoned and then burned at the stake simply for translating the Bible into English, so the masses could study it themselves. He, Martin Luther, and others laid the ground work that allowed the Restoration, as brought about through Joseph Smith, to occur.
The Establishment of the Mormon Church Could Only Happen Because of the Constitution
Three years ago my wife and I had the rare opportunity to travel 14 countries over 5 months. There were a ton of things we took away from the experience and learned an enormous amount about world history. For me, one of the prominent takeaways was the realization every step of the trip that there was absolutely no way my religion could have been reborn in the country I was visiting. Even in the US while the American Revolution was fresh in the American consciousness, the Church was barely able to form itself. That is what I detail below.
By And Large, People Hated the Church And Its Members
Mormons were preaching that the Bible had been altered? And that Christ had appeared to other people of the world? And that prophecy had not disappeared? Another book of scripture? God called Joseph Smith to be a modern day Prophet? Christ’s original church was restored and the Mormon church was it? This was absolute heresy to most people. Everything about this would have been intolerable to the point of execution virtually anywhere else on earth.
The Persecution of Joseph Smith
Of anyone in the Church who received ill treatment, it was Joseph Smith. Who better to attack than the prophet, himself? He had his baby twins die due to prolonged below-freezing cold winds after a mob kicked down his front door in a winter night and tarred and feathered his body in the street leaving him unconscious. He had been beaten several times and attacked in transit in many of his travels. There were 30–40 false accusations forcing him into courts and jails throughout his adult life. He was left in a dungeon for months and fed the most foul food, on occasion intentionally poisoned, and was even forced to eat a meal he later discovered was human flesh. Later he was mobbed from inside and outside a (different) prison where he and apostles of the Church were shot dead.
Misconceptions and Misinformation About Polygamy Has Always Alienated Us
Perhaps of all the reasons people hated Mormons it was most because of plural marriage. It weirded Americans out enough for citizens and politicians feel comfortable looking the other way when horrific attacks were being waged on them. Given that this is the most cited example of the Mormon’s unusual church history, I’ll bring up a few points. It is popular to believe that Mormon men were subjugating their women — including teenage women — to appease the men’s God-condoned sexual appetites. In reality, men died on missions abroad, converts have always disproportionately been women, and as a culture marriage has been looked at more practically than romantically. Critics often leave out the historical context that people died in their 30s and 40s back then and it was common to get married during teenage years. That is why a lot of countries of the world still legally have their ages of consent between 12 and 15 (like Mexico or Japan). All our ancestors, Mormon and non-Mormon, come from these marital backgrounds. Also, the minority of men that had more than one wife were called on to practice polygamy — it was not due to their initiation. Most importantly, they were assigned the women who were left out — including the old widows and, to put it realistically, less marriageable women. It’s juicier to tell the story like men of high spiritual ranking got to choose the most beautiful women to be their concubines appointed from God. It was not like that. The way it happened is comparable to the early Christians and Jews including the prophets modern believers revere. If Mormons subjugated their women, Utah would not have been the first state to grant their women the right to vote (with Mormon Idaho taking 2nd place). The Church ended the practice of polygamy after 50 years when it became outlawed in the US.
Mormons have always taken strong collective action to care for every member of its fold. We even tried a fiscal system with the likes of socialism modeled after an order we believe will exist in heaven. It ended in miserable failure and much resentment because, we conclude, we are not ready for it (and this has a lot to do with most Mormons’ strong advocacy toward fiscal conservatism and free trade). Right now members are in the middle of a painful navigation for how to care for those who experience same-sex attraction while staying true to doctrines revolving around the family unit. It is not easy. Neither was polygamy — it was the biggest trial of faith for most of participants, female and male. The ultimate question here, though, is how the Mormon women of polygamous relationships felt about it in practice. Some hated it and left the Church. Considerable percentages of people end up hating and leaving marriage, in general, too, though. The good majority ended up supporting it. The Polygamous Wives Writing Club is a compilation of diaries from Mormon polygamous women. Let them speak for themselves.
Persecution of Mormons at Large
Mormons’ presence alone offended most Americans. Then their numbers grew. They congregated in ever increasing numbers as missionary efforts abroad converted more and more ship loads of inbound immigrants seeking freedom. Americans have historically felt their country’s founding principles were under threat by any large number of immigrants, but to add to that, these ones were Mormon. The threat was just too great. Mormons would settle nearby, work hard as they characteristically do, and grow too quickly. (Nauvoo, Illinois rivaled Chicago at the time.) This posed too great a threat to local politics. Mobs would conspire and attack — burning down homes, tar and feather some, kill a few, rape girls and women, destroy their crops, and threaten them with worse if they did not leave. In many cases, it was the dead of winter when they were forced to leave and the dangers of being on the trail amounted to even more than remaining near violent mobs. From New York to Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa it continually got worse. Missouri even got to the point where Mormons were deemed an enemy threat and needed to be purged. Mormons opposed slavery. Their voting power could not be tolerated in Missouri. Killing them became permissible by law according to Executive Order 44, the “Extermination Order”. Shortly thereafter the Haun’s Mill Massacre occurred where a mob of 250 men ambushed 30 to 40 Mormon families and left 17 dead. None of the mob members were prosecuted. (The “Extermination Order” remained legal in the books of Missouri all the way until 1976 when the then Governor extended a heartfelt apology.)
A Legacy of the Restoration We Revere
No matter the several attempts by the many separate armed mobs, there was never an instance of Joseph Smith or any of the other witnesses of the original ancient scriptures or the translation process of the Book of Mormon to deny what they witnessed. Some of the witnesses had even left the Church with great resentment toward Church leaders for various reasons of human weakness, but none ever denied what they said they witnessed. Mormon faith was strong then and it remains strong now.
I’m proud of my Mormon heritage even if some of it is weird, and I’m proud because of the Book of Mormon.
Even in the Land of the Free, We May Fail to Protect the Freedoms of the Unpopular
American history has its sore spots in practicing its principles. Various peoples have taken the brunt of America’s imperfections. Slavery. The Wounded Knee Massacre. The Trail of Tears. Human rights abuses of Chinese railroad workers. Japanese American internment camps. The Know Nothing Movement. Many minorities have been exempt from their rights here.
The Mormon Sentiment Toward America Speaks Volumes
After the Native Americans and Blacks, if there is anyone who deserves to carry a chip on their shoulders toward the US it might be the Mormon church. And, yet, after our war veterans the minority of the Mormon population that is American today is arguably the most patriotic subculture of America. From my personal observations I think that even the Mormons everywhere else in the world revere America more than most Americans do. Despite the severe persecution of the pioneers and early Church leaders and their having to migrate to Mexican territory to find peace we still believe the Constitution to be a sacred document and we love America for it. You would never sense the slightest bit of resentment coming from Mormons toward America for its legacy of terrible treatment toward them — I don’t even think the thought crossed the minds of most Mormon readers of this article. We are profoundly grateful for this country, its heritage, and you would sense nothing else from our Church services.
I’m proud of America’s heritage even though much of it is nasty, and I’m proud because of the Constitution.
America’s Test of Minority Civil Liberties Now: Muslims
This is clearly the next test of America’s regard to its founding principles. Mormons are passing the test. They are protecting marginalized Muslims. One clear way you see their support for them is from Utah’s response to Donald Trump and his proposed measures toward Muslims. Look at the significant grass-roots message Utah sent Trump in the presidential primaries and the months since. What historically has been one of America’s most right-wing states is now showing the lowest Republican party support since 1968. Trump’s stances on Muslims (and immigrants and his flaunted moral decadence) has caused many Utahns to either begrudgingly settle for Hillary or support Gary Johnson (stimulating maybe the highest 3rd party support of any state in the country). Though Utah only contains a quarter of the American Mormon population, its concentration is not equaled anywhere else and its voting patterns reflect the members’ stances well. Look at Mormon Governor Herbert’s remarks about embracing refugees even immediately after the Brussels bombing or how much emphasis Mormons have put on aid to Syrian refugees abroad.
We understand what they are going through. We know the importance of religious freedom for everyone.
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Appendix — American Patriotism Defined By Mormon Doctrine
The roots of Mormon patriotism are not the cultural roots of the stereotypical American conservatism you see among the ‘merican South or Mountain West. It is rooted in Mormon doctrine.
Here is scripture from an ancient Prophet named Lehi in the Book of Mormon after being divinely lead here from the Middle East:
“…notwithstanding our afflictions, we have obtained a land of promise, a land which is choice above all other lands; a land which the Lord God hath covenanted with me should be a land for the inheritance of my seed. Yea, the Lord hath covenanted this land unto me, and to my children forever, and also all those who should be led out of other countries by the hand of the Lord. Wherefore, I, Lehi, prophesy according to the workings of the Spirit which is in me, that there shall none come into this land save they shall be brought by the hand of the Lord. Wherefore, this land is consecrated unto him whom he shall bring. And if it so be that they shall serve him according to the commandments which he hath given, it shall be a land of liberty unto them; wherefore, they shall never be brought down into captivity; if so, it shall be because of iniquity; for if iniquity shall abound cursed shall be the land for their sakes, but unto the righteous it shall be blessed forever. And behold, it is wisdom that this land should be kept as yet from the knowledge of other nations; for behold, many nations would overrun the land, that there would be no place for an inheritance.” (2 Nephi 1:5–8)
Here is scripture from modern prophecy:
“Therefore, I, the Lord, justify you, and your brethren of my church, in befriending that law which is the constitutional law of the land; And as pertaining to law of man, whatsoever is more or less than this, cometh of evil. I, the Lord God, make you free, therefore ye are free indeed; and the law also maketh you free” (Doctrine and Covenants 98:6–8)
“According to the laws and constitution of the people, which I have suffered to be established, and should be maintained for the rights and protection of all flesh, according to just and holy principles; That every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment. Therefore, it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another. And for this purpose have I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose, and redeemed the land by the shedding of blood.” (Doctrine and Covenants 101:77–80)