Muslims, the New Mormons

In 1890, the U.S. Supreme Court — in upheld laws intended to disenfranchise Mormon polygamists. The 1882 Edmunds Anti-Polygamy Act required voters to swear that they were not polygamists, and the Idaho Territory had passed a statute requiring voters to attest that they were not Mormons. In Idaho, church member Samuel Davis was convicted of conspiring to swear falsely in order to sidestep the recently passed statute. In Davis v. Beason, the Court ruled that “however free the exercise of religion may be, it must be subordinate to the criminal law of the country.” Idaho could disenfranchise Mormons, polygamists and monogamists alike. In Davis, the Court held that polygamy was an affront to the values of Christianity and civilization, which it viewed as inseparably connected. (See Sarah Barringer Gordon’s The Mormon Question).

Two years later (in Holy Trinity), the Court explicitly asserted that “we are a Christian people, and the morality of the country is deeply engrafted upon Christianity.” As the polygamy cases suggest, the Court sought to uphold particular forms of Christianity.

As of early 1890, the U.S. government had the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a legal vise, and it was turning the screws. Courts had incarcerated thousands of church members, including high-ranking leaders (other high-ranking leaders went “underground” to avoid arrest). The U.S. government had revoked the church’s incorporation and seized valuable church-owned property. And federal judges were refusing to naturalize Mormon emigrants.

In the 2007 PBS documentary The Mormons, Ken Verdoia observed that in nineteenth-century America, to be called a “Mormon” was like being called a “Muslim terrorist” today. There was no shortage of accusations that Mormons in Utah in particular exacted violence on Gentiles, apostates, and romantic competitors (see Sherlock Holmes’s Study in Scarlet, for example). As Patrick Mason narrates in his Menace of Mormonism, two Mormon missionaries were murdered in the post-Reconstruction U.S. South (in 1879 and 1884, respectively), and many other missionaries endured violence, threats, and harassment.

The “Muslim terrorist” / “Mormon” identification seems a bit of a stretch, but perhaps one could draw a more general analogy between the place of nineteenth-century Mormons in the United States and contemporary rhetoric about Muslims in America. My aim is not to draw an exact parallel but to raise some points of similarity.

Between its 1830 founding and 1846, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had endured several cycles of gathering, persecution, and exile in the Eastern United States. Initial objections to Mormonism centered on the church’s doctrine of gathering and the fear that once Mormons gained a majority in a particular city or county that they would tyrannize those who did not belong to their church. Once the Latter-day Saints reached Utah and announced their practice of polygamy, the latter issue dominated American anti-Mormon rhetoric, but the political conflict was as much about theocracy and sovereignty as it was about marriage and morality. Much as Protestant Americans doubted the patriotism of Catholic immigrants, so they insisted that the Mormon ethic of obedience to ecclesiastical leaders called their loyalty to the nation into question.

Were any of these fears about Mormonism well grounded? The 1857-1858 Utah War and Mountain Meadows Massacre created justifiable suspicions about whether the Latter-day Saints acknowledged American sovereignty and whether the Utah Territory was a safe place for outsiders. Latter-day Saints had some justifiable suspicions about American intentions as well. Still, by the 1880s, the idea that the Mormons posed a significant political or moral threat to the rest of the country was far-fetched at best.

Especially from the 1840s through the 1860s, large numbers of Mormons were emigrants (mostly from the British Isles), and many Americans warned about the dangers that Mormon emigrants posed to the morality and political fabric of the nation. As late as 1919, the National Reform Association (a once influential Protestant group that had lobbied Congress to insert an explicit declaration of Christianity into the U.S. Constitution) accused the church of bringing “great numbers of women and girls from other states and from foreign countries to Utah, and this for unlawful and immoral purposes.” A conference of the NRA called on the national government to expel Mormon members of Congress, ban the circulation of Mormon literature, and warn foreign governments about Mormon missionaries.

In the end, the U.S. government forced the LDS Church to abandon polygamy, and Mormons promptly became model patriots. The long history of the “Mormon question” in American politics, though, is a cautionary tale. For a half-century, Mormonism was a national political issue that occasionally took center stage (during the 1857-1858 conflict, the Mountain Meadows Massacre trials, and the Reed Smoot hearings of the early 1900s, for instance). Regardless of how one feels about the constitutionality of anti-polygamy legislation, Mormons even before they practiced polygamy had endured severe persecution and hostility.

Not surprisingly in light of its history, the LDS Church two days ago released a statement proclaiming that while the church is “neutral in regard to party politics and election campaigns … it is not neutral in relation to religious freedom.” As evidence, the church pointed to an 1841 Nauvoo, Illinois, ordinance promising “free toleration” not only to Mormons and Protestants, but also to Catholics, Quakers, Universalists, Unitarians, and — yes — “Mohammedans.”

Those rightfully appalled at Donald Trump’s insistence that all Muslim visitors to the United States are potential terrorists and should therefore be banned from entering the country should remember that anti-religious bigotry was woven into the fabric of nineteenth-century American politics and culture. The vitriol that late-nineteenth-century politicians of both parties employed against Mormons far exceeded what Donald Trump uses against Muslims today. And such ideas touched not only Mormons, but Catholics, Jews, and other groups as well. The free exercise of religion in American history has been contested, sometimes violent terrain.

Earthly Passions and Celestial Parts
Summer Reading List of American Protestant History
Changes at the Bench
A Punch in the Gut
  • dillet

    Excellent article–concise, yet thorough and accurate. Thank you.

  • sfcanative

    Other than dissimilar beliefs about a living prophet, the significance of the New Testament, ordinances for the dead and practicing polygamy — yeah, there are some similarities — like a preoccupation and obsession with virgins.

  • GeneralThade

    I encourage you to read the Book of Mormon vs. flawed Mormon hate-websites. And let me beat you to the punch – I know you’ve read the Book of Mormon many times, blah blah. Yeah right. I can smell your lies before you tell them.

  • sfcanative

    Sorry, discarded my quadruple combination when I left the LDS church, a decade after spending two years in Upstate NY as a missionary. Got it, General. Retired?

  • candide

    Mark Twain called the Book of Mormon chloroform.

  • ron_goodman

    It seems like most conservative versions of the Abrahamic religions have an unhealthy preoccupation with virginity and womens’ sexuality, not just Mormans, or Muslims.

  • Stephen Buck

    Sounds like sfcanative still lives in the 1890s

  • sfcanative

    Wow, that would make me over 120 years old. Jealous much?

  • vickyprunty

    During the same time as Joseph Smith was preaching religious freedom, he was marrying young girls into his family as plural wives. Often without his first wife knowing about it until after the deed was done. Joseph wanted others to have religious freedom, so he could have his freedom to take advantage of young girls, other men’s wife, and whatever else fit his fancy.

    In an LDS Church-approved publication “The Personal Writing of Joseph Smith” a letter from Joseph Smith was written to the Whitney family while he was in hiding at Carlos Grangers (hiding from the law). In the letter, Joseph is persuading the Whitney family to come and bring their 17 year-old daughter Sarah Anne to stay the night. Newel Whitney, Sarah’s father, had given Joseph his daughter as a plural wife only a few weeks earlier. Joseph warns the family to be “careful” of Emma because they will not be safe if she finds out. Joseph explains to the Whitney family that he is “lonesome” and wants “succor” he “ it is the will of God that you should comfort …or not at [ta]l now is the time, or never….”. He gives the Whitneys explicit instructions not to let his wife Emma know, “the only thing to be careful of; is to find out when Emma comes then you cannot be safe, buwhen she is not here, there is the most perfect safty; . . . I think Emma wont come tonight if she don’t dont fail to come to night…” p.539-40

    Religious freedom is too subjective. Many religious and non-religious men are hearing God through their pant legs.

  • bytebear

    Here’s an unofficial explanation of the letter in question. Take it for what it’s worth.

    http://en.fairmormon.org/Joseph_Smith/Polygamy/Whitney_letter

    It is interesting though, that people would offer their daughters to Smith for marriage… unless it wasn’t about sex, but, instead, the act of “sealing” was used as a way to create a spiritual dynastic link to the prophet. For example, did you know that in the early days, men were also “sealed” to Smith as brothers?

  • vickyprunty

    Many parents give their daughters up (not just for a ‘sealing’) to a polygamous leader for rewards in the after-life, or because they fear rejection. Polygamous leader Warren Jeffs wives held down a child to be raped, and in the FLDS group husbands hold their wives down while “seed bearers” (other men) impregnate them. http://www.sltrib.com/news/2451362-155/utah-judge-to-consider-removing-polygamous

    Many Mormon polygamous groups seal men to men and then trade wives and children. Ever consider that ‘sealings’ could be used to create tight bonds that serve the religious leader; no different than the brotherhood in gangs, mafia, and other secret societies.
    The unofficial explanation, which lacks veracity, is similar to the article this week about the LDS Church tour guides who changed history by only mentioning Brigham Young having 2 wives, and leaving out the other 53. http://www.sltrib.com/home/2362949-155/visitor-gets-strange-lesson-on-brigham
    “We will establish our religion by the sword. We will trample down our enemies and make it one gore of blood from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean. I will be to this generation a second Mohamed whose motto in treating for peace ‘The Qur’an or the sword.’ So it shall be with us.” Joseph Smith Oct. 14, 1838

  • rockyrd

    It sounds like he was mad. We say a lot of stupid things when we’re mad. How many times has a parent said, “I’d like to strangle that kid of mine.” It’s called hyperbole. The point is, did he do it? The answer is a resounding no!

  • vickyprunty

    Yes, this madness was a frequent topic of early church leaders.

  • Robert Conner

    Maybe the Roman Catholic Church should have used that line. Your son is being serially molested. He’s being “sealed.”

  • Blueribbon

    Thanks for the reference. Interesting apologetic few for sure. That sealing men to men business- who knows what that was all about. But as for the men seeking women….that was about sex says I- except for the dead ones of course.

  • Blueribbon

    Stories….everyone has one- the bible is full of them. Do we believe them? Up to us. Did Joseph Smith have zipper (then buttons) problems? Probably. Did he like the young sweet girls? Probably. Were the stories written accurately and honestly about his exploits? Probably not. Yet there are those who like to put forth these random stories about all the things he did. Even his journals are distorted- everyone’s are. Once we veer off the path of pure truth- we are left to wonder about a story’s validity. To me, this story is difficult to believe. You choose to believe it? Knock yourself out.

  • vickyprunty

    Just read his D&C132 collecting of virgins on earth and in the hereafter, including receiving thrones and principalities for living polygamy (in real terms it’s called narcissism or sociopath). For his wife Emma she is threatened by Joseph/god she will be destroyed, if she doesn’t go along with giving him wives. How convenient. I choose not to believe.

  • Blueribbon

    I think that you chose two perfect words to describe polygamy, narcissism and sociopath, but I would add self-interest to the list.

  • http://ejlopezemail.wix.com/eric-lopez Eric Lopez

    The history regarding this is pretty ambiguous. I would recommend reading through the following website to clear up some misconceptions. I hope this helps.

    http://josephsmithspolygamy.org/

  • vickyprunty

    According to the website an angel with a drawn sword came to Joseph twice threatening him to live polygamy, and each time he complied without telling Emma, his wife. I understand why Joseph and the Mormons were persecuted (not that it was right). History is ambiguous, and it always will be, especially when one person is having visions for everyone else. And so it continues . . .

  • http://ejlopezemail.wix.com/eric-lopez Eric Lopez

    The point of me bringing this to light was to point out that we shouldn’t base our arguments on conclusions that come from ambiguous and contradictory evidence.

    I also understand why the Mormons were persecuted. It was because of irrational fears that were being spread regarding the Mormons, as pointed out in Mason’s book, “The Mormon Menace.” Similarly today, irrational fears are spread regarding Muslims. And we are letting those fears control our politics regarding Syrian Refugees, and Muslim immigration-which is wrong.

    We should not let ambiguous evidence to fuel irrational fears that determine our politics.

  • vickyprunty

    Irrational fears? It is the LDS Church who fears gays and females.

    The Mormon Church came out last week in support of religious freedom . . . Sen. Orrin Hatch’s Religious Freedom Protection Act. Does this mean bringing back Mormon polygamy? Will Sharia law also be protected. It is ambiguous when churches get involved in public policy, instead of feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, and teaching good values. It would become even more ambiguous if a judge had to decide whose (harmful) actions, according to religion, were more justified.

    It is possible to respect religious belief, and not allow those beliefs to take precedent over “valid law” (Supreme Court, Reynold v. U.S). That gives a lot of wiggle room. It would be less ambiguous if human and civil rights took precedent over religious freedom.

  • Blueribbon

    Good points all, says I, but for some reason, something inside of me says that the trouble is not with Mormons or Muslims, it is with fanaticism that some take with power that they receive from religion in general. What is the point of all of this “I’m going to save you because I’m right and you are wrong business?” Seems like every religion out there seems to think that they are right and everyone else is either stupid or too lazy to seek the truth. As if the records of antiquity are reliable anyhow.
    Live, love, accept others, be kind, and serve others. Not much more needed than that. All this dogma and rules is a bunch of nonsense. We do not need it.

  • http://ejlopezemail.wix.com/eric-lopez Eric Lopez

    Very good points, Turner. As an admirer of you scholarly works, I continue to applaud and appreciate your fair treatment of subjects regarding Mormonism. I’m actually reading Mason’s “Mormon Menace” right now (“The Menace of Mormonism” would have been a better title I think). And I intend to read your biography on the “Mormon Jesus.”

    Thanks again,

    A student of history.

  • imfromtexas

    The article does not specifically mention Missouri’s “extermination order” issued against Mormons.

  • Meg Stout

    sfcanative isn’t the only one living in the 1890s. Luckily forgiveness and compassion needn’t disappear merely because one is the object of attacks (sometimes personal) by individuals who seem to have checked intelligence and civilization at the door before accessing their keyboard (says the woman who this week has been accused of various degrees of imfamy by those who make sfcanative seem downright urbane).

  • David Tiffany

    God has given all of us the ability to choose between the truth and a lie. Some would rather embrace tradition and falsehood rather than abandon those things and embrace the truth. The facts are that Joseph Smith was a false prophet (no fulfilled prophecies), he wrote three fraudulent books (the Book of Mormon for which there is no archaeological evidence to support it’s claims, the Book of Abraham translated from an ancient Egyptian funerary papyrus having nothing to do with Abraham, and the Joseph Smith translation of the Bible without the use of manuscripts and which Joseph Smith found convenient to write himself into Genesis chapter 50 as a future prophet.
    Joseph Smith claimed he was commissioned by God to “restore” the Gospel though the Scriptures tell us in Ephesians 3:21 that the Gospel would never be lost from the earth, “…to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”
    Mormonism teaches a different gospel. Galatians 1:8, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned.”
    So what about the violence Mormonism has caused countless people by deceiving them into following a different gospel, thus causing them to forfeit the grace that could be theirs and causing them to going to their destruction?
    You can be sure, as we are told in Galatians 1:8, that God takes notice of such violence.
    http://downtownministries.blogspot.com/

  • Jerry Staker

    Ugly, sickening

  • steveduncan1

    Why doesn’t David also quote Revelations 14:6-7 ?

  • David Tiffany

    Revelation 14:6-7, Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation, tribe, language and people. He said in a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water.”

    You can be sure of two things: First, this angel is not Joseph Smith, but an actual angel. Two, the Gospel this angel is preaching is the same as the Gospel that the Apostle Paul preached (this Gospel is the same as the Gospel of God and the Gospel of Christ–read Romans chapter 15:16, 19).

    http://downtownministries.blogspot.ca/2015/03/definition-of-grace.html

  • George Burnett

    “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
    Romans 10:13

  • David Tiffany

    Right. But you have to call on the right Jesus, not the Jesus of Mormonism who cannot save.
    http://downtownministries.blogspot.com/

  • George Burnett

    I’d hate to think that His grace is limited to the dogma as established by your finite mind…. only Jesus decides who is a Christian…

  • David Tiffany

    Which Jesus are you trusting in? And which Gospel?

    http://downtownministries.blogspot.com/2015/03/definition-of-grace.html

  • steveduncan1

    The Gospel from 1st Thess, 1:5 Thus, the one true gospel was restored with priesthood power and the gift of the Holy Ghost and with the testimony of its members testifying to its truthfulness. The angel in Revelations was to proclaim the one true everlasting gospel by his appearance to earth to a man chosen of God in these last days . The name of the angel is Moroni. It is the gospel as proclaimed in Hebrews 6:1-2,6; with a foundation of faith repentance, baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of dead; all mankind receiving immortal bodies just as Christ was resurrected, a body of flesh and bone. The gospel includes the eternal judgment of all mankind. Our Heavenly Father sent his beloved Son earth to die for the sins of all mankind. BY example Jesus commanded all the saints to pray to the Father just as Jesus himself prayed to his Heavenly Father. How can we expect to be with Jesus again, except we also pray always to his heavenly Father? . See John 5:36-37, All of Chapter five, John 8:54-55, John 7:28-29, Luke 34:36-40, John 20:25-31, John 20:15-17, John 17:1-5, etc.

  • David Tiffany

    There is no “restored” gospel. Ephesians 3:21, “…to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”

    The Holy Spirit tells us in this verse that the church would continue throughout all generations. That can only happen as the Gospel is preached and many are being added to the church. God does not lie.

    The Gospel was never lost.

    http://downtownministries.blogspot.com/2015/03/definition-of-grace.html

  • George Burnett

    This one: Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. Isaiah 40:28…

  • David Tiffany

    I take it then that you don’t believe in Mormonism’s Jesus. You know, the one who has a brother named Lucifer, born as the result of God the Father having relations with Mary and not begotten of the Holy Spirit, the one who is a polygamist, the one who died to give you a resurrection so you can work your way back to heaven by obeying the commandments, making temple covenants and keeping them.

  • George Burnett

    Jesus Christ, Son of God, Born of Mary. He atoned for our sins, died on the cross and rose on the third day. He invites all to believe and be saved. All that stuff you write about….not all that important to me….

  • David Tiffany

    So you don’t believe in Mormonism’s Jesus.

  • SKPeterson

    Can you without reservation hold entirely and unequivocally to the Christian faith as outlined in the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds? Could you do the same with the Athanasian Creed?

  • MrCorvus

    “causing them to go to their destruction”

    Mormons accept Jesus as the Son of God who died for their sins. Same as you. You have no idea what the afterlife holds for Mormons, and to pretend otherwise is the height of arrogance.

  • David Tiffany

    A different god and a different Jesus.

  • The Happy Atheist

    Prove it.

  • David Tiffany
  • The Happy Atheist

    A blog entry? That’s it?

  • SKPeterson

    Christianity:

    Jesus was born of the virgin Mary. (Isaiah 7:14,Matt. 1:23)

    Jesus is the second person of the Trinity. He has two natures, and is both God and man (John 1:1, 14,Col. 2:9) and the creator of all things (Col. 1:15-17).

    Mormonism:

    “The birth of the Savior was as natural as are the births of our children; it was the result of natural action. He partook of flesh and blood–was begotten of his Father, as we were of our fathers,” (Journal of Discourses, vol. 8, p. 115). “Christ was begotten by an Immortal Father in the same way that mortal men are begotten by mortal fathers,” (Mormon Doctrine, by Bruce McConkie, p. 547).

    Jesus is the literal spirit-brother of Lucifer, a creation (Gospel Through the Ages, p. 15).

    Christian explanation of the Trinity: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/creeds2.iv.i.iv.html

    Mormonism:

    The trinity is three separate Gods: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. “That these three are separate individuals, physically distinct from each other, is demonstrated by the accepted records of divine dealings with man,” (Articles of Faith, by James Talmage, p. 35).

    QED.

  • The Happy Atheist

    The bible is no different than any other ancient religious text. It’s not proof of anything.

    Got anything else?

  • SKPeterson

    You wanted proof that the Mormon God/Jesus was different than the Christian. I gave you explicit documented proof of that difference. If you now want to make it about something else entirely – which seems to be the de facto atheistic argumentative method of goalpost shifting – please go ahead and jump up on your soapbox somewhere else.

  • The Happy Atheist

    It’s not shifting the goal posts. I’m pointing out the circularity of your argument, which is essentially “the bible says so.” So what? Why is that a credible source?

  • SKPeterson

    I’m pointing out that you asked a completely different question than the one your positing now, and you were given express information on why there are differences between the Christian concept of Jesus and that of Mormonism. That’s not circularity, it’s compare and contrast. In response to this rather clear exercise per your original query, you are attempting to change the subject and get into a question regarding truth claims. That’s shifting the goal posts. And if you want to play the goalpost shifting game as it appears, you can engage with someone somewhere else, and beat your hobbyhorses to death there.

  • The Happy Atheist

    You said, “different god and a different Jesus.” I asked you to prove it. You replied with a bunch of bible verses and Mormon doctrinal texts. I replied that bible verses don’t prove anything because the bible is no more reliable than any other religious text. That is a coherent line of argument, not goal-post shifting.

    Look, if you can’t prove it, just say so. I know you can’t. Apparently, you know you can’t too. Trying to manipulate your way out of the discursive ditch you’ve dug is contemptible, though.

  • BarryObama2014

    Islam has bloody borders. Never let them into your borders or you will find out the hard way.

  • Robert Conner

    Mormonism is just another upstate New York 19th century religious fraud like Seventh-Day Adventism, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and table tilting spiritism. Joseph Smith pulled a hundred yards of fake “scripture” out of his inspiration hole so he could sleep with girls and other men’s wives. It’s endlessly amusing when religion writers gin out essays that skip the basic facts of Mormon history. Mormonism was the Scientology of the 1800’s and just as toxic.

  • candide

    Very true! I did vote for Romney but held my nose in 2012. How any person with common sense could be a Mormon or could stay one after childhood is beyond me.

  • Pete

    Why do you say that? What are you basing your comment on?

  • Pete

    Never mind. I just read some of your other comments. Your credability is highly suspect.

  • candide

    There needs to be limits to religious freedom. Mormonism is an obvious fraud, something P.T. Barnum would have wished to have invented. It needed to be driven out.

  • candide

    Mormons and Muslims both think they can improve on the bible which Jews and Christians have perverted and distorted. What a crock!

  • airstart

    There’s basically two world religions;
    (1) Christianity – saved by the grace of God through faith in Christ as your redeemer. No human works, no priests, popes, Imams, gurus or any other intermediary besides Christ. Christ accomplished all the work necessary for the believer to be saved.
    (2) All other religions- Salvation is achieved by human effort, works, rituals, holy men, good behavior, charitable giving, the list goes on.
    Any religion that requires works for salvation is false or errant. This includes many that claim to be Christianity.

  • Luke Seamon

    Your comparison of Islam with Mormonism is more apt than you state. Both were based on the assertions that a single man, a “prophet” had received private, special revelation from God in order to correct Judaism and Christianity from the errors than came in. Both had “prophets” who used violence to spread their power and message. Both practiced (and still practice) polygamy.

    Also not quite dealt with is the judgment of the courts from the 19th century that state that not only is Christianity foundational, but polygamy itself is an affront to western civilization and corrodes democracy and civil society. What of this assertion? In a day in which we have easily redefined marriage to suit personal preferences, is this not a fair point to consider?

  • George Burnett

    Looking at the comments….nothing like spreading a little hate in an article about religious tolerance….


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