Much of what the early Mormon settlers endured during the early 19th century can be serialized as a relentless campaign of brutal displacement orchestrated by various pro-slavery state governments and politically frenzied mobs on the account of religion. While it is easy to morally critique and admonish Joseph Smith, Mormon pioneers suffered unwarranted human rights abuses and were, by all historical accounts, discriminated against by their American peers on the basis of their religion and the culture of their religion. Much of what is said today about the pioneers is said in a partisan sense. From a perspective that is critical of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it is easy to rhetorically diminish the human rights abuses incurred by early Mormon pioneers when comparing them with the human rights abuses of the modern-day church. However, from a perspective apologetic of the church, the historical victimization of the Mormon pioneers has become foundational to the persecution complex the church and their apologists use in their rhetoric to justify immoral church policies and actions. On either side of the conversation, if we are to be honest about the discussion on religious persecution in relation to the church, we need to separate Mormon pioneers from their modern-day counterpart. When we do this, the early 19th century Mormon pioneer looks very similar to many other historically persecuted religious refugee groups, whereas the post-pioneer church looks very similar to many other groups historically accused of persecution.
Persecution Toward Mormon Pioneers
Mormon pioneers first settled in Missouri when Joseph Smith, compelled by a purported vision from God, moved the pioneers to Independence. Soon after establishing themselves, tensions between the Mormons and Missourians escalated to violence against the Mormon settlers. Historical scholars cite the growing economic power of the church community due to their cultural cohesion, polygamous culture and their pro-abolition sympathies (conflicting sharply with a pro-slavery Missouri) as the main reasons for the extremely hostile relations towards the Mormons in Missouri. After several episodes of mob violence towards Mormon settlers involving destruction/ransacking of property, political suppression, tar and featherings and then a final bout of violence between a group of Mormons and the Missouri Volunteer Militia, the 1838 Mormon War was declared. During the war, the governor of Missouri issued an executive order known as the “Extermination Order” which called for “the extermination or expulsion of Mormons.” After all was said and done, more than 10,000 Mormon pioneers were displaced from their homes and forced to leave the state with 22 Mormon settlers killed during battles and an unknown multitude killed due to exposure and hardship. The disenfranchised members, led by Joseph Smith, migrated to Nauvoo, Illinois where the Latter-day Saints became, once again, economically and politically powerless in the region. The same tensions that caused their exile from Missouri led to the death of their first prophet Joseph Smith and the routing of the church members out of Illinois. The Mormon settlers, desperately seeking isolation from religious intolerance, settled in what is now Utah. The culture of Mormonism would turn decisively toward justice and violence. Seeing that the federal and state governments would not protect them, they became hysterical and paranoid about protecting themselves against all perceived threats, leading to the use of violence against immigrants and indigenous peoples. Most notably, hysterical memories of Missouri and Illinois fueled the Mountain Meadows Massacre in which the Utah Territorial Militia killed over 120 emigrant non-combatants.
Mormons Toward Persecution
The state of Illinois officially apologized for the persecution of Mormon settlers in the 1840s after 160 years. In 1976, the Missouri governor rescinded the 1838 Extermination Order, saying “the treatment of the Mormon people in Missouri in the 1830s and beyond was barbaric. Women were raped and tortured. Men were killed by mobs or driven out of state. Their property was stolen.” You would think the takeaway from a half century of persecution would be a generous and inclusive ideology with non-rigid parameters for which identities are to be tolerated and included in Latter-day Saint society. However, no lesson was passed on. The modern ideology, perhaps born out of an initially rational sense of fear, isolationism and orthodoxy, is responsible for the church’s reprehensible recent actions and policies, such as funding anti-gay marriage legislative initiatives; supporting of electroshock therapy for repressing homosexuality; BYU policy which expels students for practicing homosexual behavior and those who leave the church; barring the children of homosexual parents from getting baptized unless they denounce their parent’s relationship; women, gay, bisexual and transgender people being excluded from positions of organizational power; and black men being banned from participating in religious rites until the 1970s. While the early Mormon pioneers probably wouldn’t understand these contemporary human rights abuses given — they only make sense in the modern zeitgeist of ethics and human rights — they would most definitely be able to understand the basic importance of protecting the human rights of immigrants and refugees.
The church is officially, surprisingly liberal on the topic of immigrants and refugees, but there exists a contradiction in this public support and in the voting habits of its members. Church members are among the most politically conservative religious groups in the U.S., with an overwhelming majority identifying or leaning toward the Replication Party. Yet, the GOP is without a doubt the platform for those who are anti-refugee and anti-immigration. Members of the church seem to unanimously agree that even though they are socially against restricting immigration and refugee rights, the political benefits of voting for a platform that is hardline anti-refugee and anti-immigration is worth the ancestral dishonor. There can be no doubt that explicitly or implicitly supporting the creation of unethical refugee and immigration foreign policy diminishes the memory of our ancestor’s suffering.
Just 140 years ago, the U.S. was considering its own immigration ban on European converts to “prevent the importation of Mormons into the country,” said then-President Grover Cleveland, who was trying to solve the “Mormon Question.” It doesn’t take a search on Ancestry.com to know that our pioneer ancestors are spinning in their graves whenever they see their own progeny support anti-immigration and anti-refugee American policies while at the same time shallowly honoring their memory with rhetorical dishonesty. Church members who support political platforms that refuse the human rights of refugees and immigrants must be deploying some serious cognitive dissonance. It is a case study in self-deception to allow yourself to see religiously persecuted Mormon pioneers and Muslim refugees fleeing religious persecution from radicals as two completely separate things when, in fact, they are exactly the same thing — religious persecuted groups seeking refuge from religious violence. What would your refugee and immigrant ancestors say about your anti-refugee and anti-immigrant views?
This article is part of the Poynter College Media Project. Click here for more stories and information on the topic “Are U Mormon?”
References to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in this article have been updated to reflect The Daily Utah Chronicle’s style.