Good from Evil: Another Example

Haun’s Mill
Caldwell County, Missouri

I return to the theme of a prior post, that good can come out of bad and that this offers grounds for hope.

This idea, which has recently brought down upon my head a chorus of indignation from a tiny but very vocal group of my more unbalanced critics, is enshrined in popular English sayings such as “Every cloud has a silver lining.”

It’s most memorably represented, for believers, in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which, Christians affirm, was a horrendous evil that brought about virtually infinite good.

“Well, though,” one might ask, “but where is the good that’s come from the persecution of the Latter-day Saints in nineteenth-century New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois?  You speak rather smugly, Mr. Lilywhite Peterson, about the good that has managed to emerge from the evil of black servitude in America, but you do so from a position of complacent comfort; your ancestors weren’t brought across the Atlantic in chains, against their will, in the hold of a slave ship.  How dare you, a white man, say anything about this subject?”  (Actually, for the record, the people to whose sentiments my critics have taken such passionate umbrage are all blacks, the descendants of slaves.)  “Are you willing to claim that anti-Mormon violence led to good results?”

Yes, I am.  Though it wasn’t deliberate or willed, and though the actions of murderous anti-Mormon mobs certainly prevented other goods from emerging, good actually has come from those persecutions.  For example, they helped to form a people, to forge a stronger sense of group identity than Mormons would otherwise know.  (Stephen Thernstrom’s 1980 Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups contains no entries on the Methodists, the Congregationalists, or the Episcopalians, for instance, but, significantly, it does feature an entry on the Mormons.)

In particular, the enforced exodus of the Mormons across the plains to the Great Basin (“We came here voluntarily,” cracked one Church leader, “because we had to”) and subsequent pioneering ventures throughout the American West and into Canada and Mexico created a sense of peoplehood that is quite absent, so far as I can tell, from the most numerically significant other branch of the Restoration movement, the Community of Christ (formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), which remained dispersed across the Midwest and has, to a large degree, been assimilated into liberal Midwestern Protestantism.  The Community of Christ is a religious denomination of the familiar American type, but lacks the elements of quasi-nationhood that, among other things, make the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints so distinctive.

Persecution and disdain, though always unpleasant and sometimes even lethal, commonly serve to strengthen rather than dissolve group identity and cohesion.  “The blood of the martyrs,” observed the late second-century Latin Christian writer Tertullian (Apologeticus 50), “is the seed of the church.”  Hitler’s attempted “Final Solution” to “the Jewish problem” provided a decisive impetus to the founding of a sovereign and independent Jewish state in Palestine.  (By contrast, contemporary American Jews, living in the most accepting and friendly country — next to Israel itself — in the long and often horrific history of Judaism, are in serious jeopardy of disappearing through assimilation and absorption.

These reflections are not intended in any way to justify the mistreatment of my Mormon ancestors in the American Northeast and Upper Midwest, let alone to defend Roman imperial persecution of ancient Christians, and are certainly not designed to argue for a renewed Nazi Holocaust.  They’re not intended to suggest that God willed the abuses in Missouri, the persecutions of Nero and Diocletian, or the horrors of Dachau, Auschwitz, and Mauthausen.  They’re not designed to show that good could have come in no other way or form, nor to deny that many very good things were lost because such abuses occurred.

Good can, though, emerge from evil.  And, pending the absolute disappearance of evil itself, we must hope and pray that good continues to do so.


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