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Mormons and Militias??

LDS Culture is not tied
to the militia movement

Analysis by Jeff Lindsay

This article is based on a letter-to-the-editor by Jeff Lindsay to the Post-Crescent newspaper of Appleton, Wisconsin, in response to an irresponsible article claiming that Mormon culture breeds a militia mentality. These are my own comments, for which I assume full responsibility. Any errors are mine.

The Associated Press released an article in early May of 1995 (published May 6 in my local paper, the Post-Crescent) entitled "Utah militia tied to Mormon culture." This article stunned me with its inaccuracy. It said that Mormons have long been part of militia movements and that LDS theology breeds a militia mentality and encourages stockpiling weapons. I grew up in Utah, thoroughly steeped in "Mormon culture" and theology, yet I had never even heard of local militia until I moved to Wisconsin in 1987 and was warned of the Posse Comitatus. The Posse is not representative of Wisconsin culture, nor are fringe militia groups in Utah representative of "Mormons" (the common nickname for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints).

In Utah, I knew of very few Mormons who owned guns (if they did, I had no clue), though my mother bought a 22-caliber rifle a few years ago and may have wounded a few aerosol cans. [Addendum, 11/28/96: I have received e-mail reminding me that deer hunting is about as popular out West as it is in Wisconsin, and I do remember some kids being gone from school when deer hunting season began. Obviously, hunters own guns and Utah has hunters. But hunting was not a factor in my circle of friends and played no part in my experiences in Utah that I can recall - with the possible exception of once (twice?) eating venison given to us by a friend of my parents. I honestly don't recall ever seeing a gun during my years living in that state, except for a hobbyist's old black powder rifle. My point is simply that a gun-crazy Utah does not jive with my experiences there.]

What pained me most about the article is that its message was completely opposite to the truth: "Mormons" tend to go the extra mile to be good citizens. The basic doctrines of the Church teach respect for law and government. One of our Articles of Faith is: "We believe in ... obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law." The Church teaches its members across the world to find peaceful, legal, orderly solutions to problems, even when those problems might be bad laws or oppressive governments. The leaders of the Church have always taught that the solutions to the problems of the world will not be found in tanks and guns, but in living the Gospel of Christ.

Contrary to the allegations in the article, "Mormon" culture and the doctrines of the Church urge us to be good citizens and to respect law and government. The Church teaches its members across the world to find peaceful, orderly solutions to problems, even when those problems might be oppressive governments. The leaders of the Church have long taught that the problems of the world will not be solved by guns, but in living the Gospel of Christ.

The purpose of the Church is - and always has been - to bring souls to Christ. It does so through helping individuals and families to live the Gospel of Christ. There is nothing in the teachings of the Church to encourage the stockpiling of weapons, but there are many warnings against those who trust in weapons. For example, in 1976, Church President Spencer W. Kimball warned that we have have become a "warlike society" that equates war with patriotism. He said the national quest for security in weaponry was a form of idol worship and urged all people to turn their hearts to Christ, not to armies and weapons. More recently, Elder Dallin H. Oaks, one of the Twelve Apostles of the Church, spoke to hundreds of local priesthood leaders in Milwaukee on April 29, 1995 and warned against the type of extremism that leads people to stockpile weapons and join militia groups. The Church wants nothing to do with the radical militia groups of our day and does not tolerate those who try to use the Church to advance their own political agendas.

The article spoke of "fundamentalist Mormons" (especially polygamists) who stockpile weapons, and mentioned Bo Gritz in particular. These "fundamentalist" polygamists and militants are excommunicated Mormons who stand as enemies of the Church, not representatives of it. The article treated these few fringe elements as reflections of LDS theology, but they are not - no more than Kato reflects mainstream Wisconsin culture. The article also treated the testimony of another excommunicated LDS critic as if he were an objective authority.

What about Mormon history? Didn't Joseph Smith form a militia in Nauvoo, Illinois? Yes, he did - under a legal charter from the state of Illinois. In the American frontier of the 1840s, law and order was maintained largely by properly authorized local militia. Many small towns had their own militia groups which were usually formed with legal authority. An authorized, chartered militia for law enforcement is quite different than the rogue militias that make me and many others nervous in the 90s.

Unfortunately, in several instances, local militias in both Missouri and Illinois became violent mobs that massacred Mormon families and drove thousands of Mormons away from the communities they had built. The Latter-day Saints turned to state government and finally the federal government seeking protection under the Constitution. The federal government and state governments refused to provide assistance. President Martin Van Buren would later tell Joseph Smith, "Your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you." With few options left as angry mobs gathered around the Saints in Missouri, they defended themselves with force, leading to an outcry of insurrection that brought the full power of the state of Missouri against the Mormons in 1838. Governor Lilburn Boggs issued an "extermination order," requiring Latter-day Saints to leave the state or be exterminated. LDS people were disarmed and further plundered and driven out into the winter. (Extensive details on the Missouri conflict, and the common allegations about Mormon violence, are discussed on my new page about the Danites and the 1838 Mormon War.)

After having being driven out of Missouri by mobs and state militia groups, some Latter-day Saints settled in Wisconsin, establishing at least seven congregations by 1844. But most of the fleeing Latter-day Saints ultimately settled in Nauvoo, Illinois, turning swamp land into a beautiful city. Joseph Smith received a legal charter from the State of Illinois on Dec. 16, 1840 to establish local government in Nauvoo and to establish the Nauvoo Legion, which technically was part of the state militia. The Legion, besides being properly authorized by state government, was necessary for the defense of a persecuted people. Soon, however, mob action against the Latter-day Saints returned, fueled by religious misunderstanding, fear of Mormon power, and by deliberate agitation of enemies of the Church. Joseph Smith and other Church leaders were jailed on false charges of treason. Though he knew it would mean his death, Joseph peacefully submitted to the law, knowing that opposition would lead to a massive assault of state militia against Nauvoo to "bring the traitor to justice." Governor Ford of Illinois had promised to protect Joseph in the Carthage town jail, but withdrew his troops to allow local anti-Mormon militia units from Carthage and Warsaw to attack the prisoners. Joseph and his brother Hyrum were killed in a hail of gunfire.

The mobsters who murdered Joseph went into hiding, fearing an attack by the Nauvoo Legion. There was no vengeance, no counterattack, only mourning. Violence is not part of Mormon culture! The Latter-day Saints saw that they could not stay in Illinois or even in the United States. They had been denied any form of protection of life and religious freedom. They thus made preparations to go west into what was then Mexican territory but was soon to become US territory. (On the other hand, there was a small group of Mormons in southern Utah who did seek vengeance on a group that they believed to be their former enemies - I refer to the disastrous Mountain Meadow Massacre. But the man responsible for this effort was excommunicated and executed under the law, and the Church did and always has renounced such terrible crimes.)

As a testimony to Mormon respect of law and government, please consider what happened next. As the Mormons began the long trek westward, before they had even reached the Salt Lake Valley, the United States government requested that the Mormons provide 500 volunteers for the newly erupted war against Mexico. Possibly with an eye toward statehood in the United States, and needing the capital that would be provided, yet in an act of true cooperation nevertheless, the Church recruited 500 men to form the "Mormon Battalion" under direction of the US army. This was at a time when the men were sorely needed for the difficult westward journey. They served well and won great praise from their commander during their 2000 mile march. (Fortunately, as Brigham Young had prophesied, they never did have to fight.) I feel that this act of cooperation with US government during a time of great hardship shows something important about Mormon culture: we want to be good citizens. We are taught to "renounce war and proclaim peace," but we are also taught to be patriots and to serve our country.

It is unfair to link "Mormon culture" to any particular political movement and even to any particular state. The 9-million member Church is remarkably diverse. Among its leaders can be found a variety of political views and a variety of nationalities, yet there is unity through the Gospel of Christ. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not just a Utah church or an American church. In fact, Utah Mormons are a minority in the Church (about 20%) and North American "Mormons" are about to become a minority as the Church blossoms in South America, Africa, and elsewhere. It is a global church that refuses to be caught up in local political aberrations.

Latter-day Saints are far from perfect and suffer from many of the problems that afflict the world today, but we subscribe to a universal culture with eternal ideals, ideals that are centered on Christ as our Savior, the Prince of Peace.

By the way...

The common allegation by our critics that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints promotes violence could just as well - and just as unfaily - be turned against the original Church of Jesus Christ. If our critics were living 2000 years ago, they might condemn Christ for his talk of establishing a kingdom, for being escorted by armed men who weren't afraid to use their swords (Peter, for example), and for his inflammatory, threatening sermons and seeming acts of violence ("he got a whip and drove my husband out of the temple, nearly destroying his money-changing service").

A Related Issue: The Mountain Meadow Massacre

The Mountain Meadow Massacre was a most terrible event, in which some Latter-day Saints in southern Utah a century ago ruthlessly killed a group of people passing through their territory. The actions were denounced by the Church and those responsible were held accountable. The leader of the event, John D. Lee, under proper legal procedures, was found guilty and executed by civil authorities. But anti-Mormons continue to claim that Brigham Young was responsible (or some even pin the blame on Joseph Smith, who was long dead when the event occurred) - without any real evidence.

There have been some widely publicized new books on the Mountain Meadow Massacre by non-historians seeking to smear the Church. I suggest reading the reviews of these books beginning with the page, "Church Response to Under the Banner of Heaven / Jon Krakauer" in the Newsroom. Further details are provided by Richard E. Turley in Faulty History: A Review Of Under The Banner Of Heaven at the site, which is a review of Jon Krakauer's recent book, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith (New York: Doubleday, 2003).

Attempts to blame Brigham Young for the massacre are based upon highly creative contortions of the evidence. And they must ignore vital evidence, such as the fact that Brigham Young took direct steps to prevent the violence that occurred. According to Turley's article (p. 4):

Like other recent writers, Krakauer must somehow confront the fact that when Brigham Young learned about a possible attack on the train, he sent a letter ordering the southern Utahns not to meddle with the emigrants. The letter is clear on its face, though some writers, anxious to prove a circumstantial case against Brigham Young, try to make no mean yes by asserting that the order not to attack the train was really just the opposite. To further undermine the letter, Krakauer asserts:
The actual text of Brigham's letter remains in some doubt, because the original has disappeared (along with almost every other official document pertaining to the Mountain Meadows massacre). The excerpt quoted above is from a purported draft of the letter that didn't surface until 1884, when an LDS functionary came upon it in the pages of a "Church Letter Book."
Although the letter was indeed cited in 1884, it did not first surface then, and its "actual text" does not remain "in some doubt." Most correspondence from Brigham Young was copied immediately after it was produced and before being sent. The copies--equivalents of today's photocopies--were made by pressing the original inked letters between wetted pages of a bound book of onionskin. The moisture caused fresh ink from the originals to seep into the onionskin, creating mirror images of the letters. A perfect mirror image of Young's famous letter is right where it should be in Brigham's 1857 letterpress copybook. It is a contemporaneous copy and was available to and used by the prosecution in the trial that led to John D. Lee's conviction and subsequent execution in the 1870s.
Krakauer and others may wish to ignore well-known, easily available, and highly significant evidence such as the original image of Young's letter, but in so doing, they reveal that their object is not to explore history but to attack.

The Mountain Meadow Massacre was a terrible moment in our history, and the man behind it, John D. Lee, was executed for his role. His actions were in opposition to Brigham Young and the Church, and it is improper for Krakauer and others to claim otherwise.

Will Bagley and Blood of the Prophets

A controversial book, Blood of the Prophets by Will Bagley, has received a lot of attention for claiming to prove that Brigham Young was reponsible for the massacre. However, his approach is rather deceptive. For details, see Robert D. Crockett, "A Trial Lawyer Reviews Will Bagley's Blood of the Prophets," FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 15, No. 2, 2003, pp. 199-254 (available online for FARMS subscribers).

As Daniel C. Peterson wrote in his "Editor's Introduction" to FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 15, No. 2, 2003, pp. ix-lxii:

Will Bagley's Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows, for example, has received media attention and kudos out of all proportion to its merit as history and on the basis of little or no significant new evidence. In their highly critical review of Blood of the Prophets published in a recent number of Mormon Historical Studies, W. Paul Reeve and Ardis E. Parshall--respectively a professor of history at Southern Virginia University and an experienced independent researcher based in Utah Valley--acknowledge that the book has some good qualities, but find those seriously outweighed by its defects. [W. Paul Reeve and Ardis E. Parshall, Mormon Historical Studies 4/1 (2003): 149-157.]

Bagley's research is extensive and takes advantage of sources not known to Juanita Brooks. His handling of those sources, however, is problematic and at times is manipulated to fit his thesis, and both his prejudices and biases quickly become apparent. Bagley is intent upon implicating Brigham Young in the massacre. To do so, he repaints nineteenth-century Utah with blood. . . .

Bagley is a superb storyteller. Yet the manner in which he constructs his story is designed to reinforce the notion that nineteenth-century Utah was a corrupt cauldron of blood, vice, and hypocrisy. Bagley's prejudices and unexamined assumptions permeate the narrative. In countless places, Bagley labels Mormons and anyone with a kind word for them as ridiculous or worthy of dismissal. [Ibid., 150.]

"In some cases," they say, "Bagley substitutes unsubstantiated gossip for evidence." [Ibid., 154.] They excoriate him, moreover, for his "manipulation of information" and for announcing conclusions that "go well beyond his evidence." Worse, at a very crucial point in his argument, Bagley has misrepresented the contents of a vital document, an inexcusable act that Reeve and Parshall identify as "a direct violation of the American Historical Association's Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct." [Ibid., 152.] On Bagley's truly spectacular distortion of a piece of evidence that is fundamental to his argument, see also Lawrence Coates's review of Blood of the Prophets, by Will Bagley, BYU Studies 41/1 (2003): 153-158. Two other valuable reviews of Bagley's book, by Paul H. Peterson and Thomas G. Alexander, accompany that of Coates in the same number of BYU Studies, at pp. 159-166 and 167-174, respectively.] "Perhaps the real message in Blood of the Prophets," they suggest,

is that considering Bagley's extensive research, he could come up with no better evidence than Dimick Huntington's journal to link "Young to facilitating the murders." And to make even that unsustainable claim, he had to put a new word into Huntington's pen. [Reeve and Parshall, 156.]
"Even though Bagley claims to be aware of 'the basic rules of the craft of history,'" Reeve and Parshall report, "he consistently violates them in Blood of the Prophets. As a result, Juanita Brooks' The Mountain Meadows Massacre remains the most definitive and balanced account to date." [Ibid., p. 149.]
Sadly, some Mormons have turned to violence at various times, but as with other sins, this has been clearly contrary to the teachings of the Church and to the core of "Mormon culture."

Go to:

Jeff Lindsay's home page

Jeff's Introduction to the Church

Introduction to the Book of Mormon

"Frequently Asked Questions About Latter-day Saint Beliefs"

Mormon Self-defense: The "Danites" and the 1838 "Mormon War" - history of a complex and painful era.

The Minus Y2K Bug - My spoof page about the bug that toppled ancient Egypt and freed the Hebrew slaves. Stop the ignorant hysteria about Y2K! By learning from the past, we can have reasoned, informed hysteria.

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Created: 1995. Last Updated: Oct. 24, 2004
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