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Brown: Persecuted Mormon Pioneers Would Be Critical of Their Modern Day Progeny

Library of Congress
Courtesy of William Henry Jackson [Public domain]


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 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?”

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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.

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Comments (5)

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  • J

    Jake HApr 10, 2019 at 8:42 pm

    The central idea of this article is sound: it is hypocritical to praise and celebrate your ancestors for fleeing religious persecution in their native countries by coming to America and then condemn any group attempting to do the same today.

    That being said, this article is one generalization after another. It essentially says, “All Mormons are Republicans. All Republicans are anti-immigrant. Therefore all Mormons are hypocritical anti-immigrants.” This type of generalizing isn’t just bad journalism, it’s a bad way to approach the world.

    The other fundamental problem with this article is that it assumes that Mormon pioneers in the 1800’s would be opposed to the church’s current stance on many social issues. The church’s views on these issues don’t come from a popular opinion poll or voting system. They aren’t generated by the current feelings of church members. They stem from deeply rooted beliefs that extend back to the earliest records of the church. In addition, these views come from beliefs held by much of the Judeo-Christian world for thousands of years.

    I wholeheartedly agree that hypocritical social views should be condemned. For example, a writer who pens an article preaching tolerance, acceptance, and love that does so by tearing down the religious beliefs of a subset of people, is quite hypocritical indeed.

  • J

    JohnApr 4, 2019 at 9:56 pm

    For anyone wondering, this article really is complete nonsense. I could go into specifics, but it would take too long as almost every sentence in here is seething with false analogies, hasty generalizations, and obvious bias against the church. No effort is made to know the opinions of the pioneers or modern day members, yet the articles entire premise is that the pioneers would be “spinning in their graves” in disgust at their descendants. If you actually want to know what the pioneers thought I’d be happy to provide my ancestors journals and notes, and if you really want to know what members today feel about immigration ask them for heavens sake.

    A couple of the most blatant falsehoods:
    -The church was not officially pro-abolition. The first decade saw the church switching positions several times and while Joseph Smith did run for president on a platform of ending slavery, he did not consider himself to be in the same camp as those labelled abolitionists for various reasons. Heres more info if you’re curious:
    -Saying they were “politically powerless” in Nauvoo makes no sense, most of the tensions arose because a large group of people moved in very quickly, scaring locals that they would quickly become the minority and lose influence. It’s kind of like people from Idaho today worried about the influx of Californians moving there. Joseph Smith was running for president at the time he was murdered, in a prison by a group of men dressed as Indians whom Mr. Brown kindly referred to as a “Volunteer Militia.” Nice optics.

  • M

    Michael TurnerMar 26, 2019 at 6:44 pm

    The Church has always gotten into trouble for its standards. However, we have a duty as Christians to speak out against sin. Our right to do so is still protected by the 1st Amendment (for now,) just as any who espouse alternate lifestyles have for their position. That’s the essence of our Republic. What really offends everyone is that we actively campaign with our votes (and money) for our standards, and encourage like-minded people to do the same. GLAAD and various other organizations have done the same for their position. But because we’re a church, suddenly we’re not supposed to have a place in the public forum because of a misguided interpretation of that same 1st Amendment. I remind you that the Church’s stance has been entirely consistent with our Article of Faith 12. When SCOTUS ruled in favor of gay marriage, that became the law of the land, and the state and the members of the church are duty bound to uphold it in the public sector. Balanced against the ruling is that we are not, however, required to solemnize any gay marriage any more than we are required to do so for anyone not of our faith. That is also the 1st Amendment. I also remind you, that while we have the right to demand that our members conform to our standards, which is perfectly reasonable, the Church has campaigned for equal housing rights and non-discrimination under the civil law here in Utah and beyond (which you conveniently chose to omit.) Likewise, we are absolutely in favor of LEGAL immigration; there are many in the Church who actively campaign to make the process easier and better so we do not have situations like what we’re facing at the border. Furthermore, the Church, through its humanitarian efforts is also trying to improve the situation in the countries the refugees are fleeing from so that eventually, there isn’t a border crisis. If there’s an immigration problem there it’s the Congress who’ve exacerbated it; whether that was 140 years ago or presently.
    So, no, our ancestors are not spinning in their graves at our hypocrisy, Mr. Brown. Rather, they applaud us for standing firm for our faith in an increasingly wicked world. You are merely virtue signalling a large organization that you clearly do not believe in, because it’s easier than doing something meaningful yourself.

  • R

    RandallMar 25, 2019 at 11:10 pm

    This article is a pile of garbage, and should be removed

  • C

    CaseyMar 25, 2019 at 4:45 pm

    Are you a member of the church of Latter Day Saints? Is this objective journalism? This is a generalization of thought and is hugely inappropriate. If you assume to speak on behalf of members of the church, I would like to see query data of people you interviewed to determine your sample size and collecting technique including questions asked. Using the phrase that the ancestors would be spinning in their graves is also inappropriate. You do not have the right to assume the thoughts and ideas of those that have passed in regard to modern problems. The challenges faced are simply different and to draw conclusion is short sighted and wrong. Please bear in mind that your opinions are simply that. Immigration is a very complex challenge not to be merely simplified to a “anti-refugee” opinion. Please be considerate of others and their viewpoints before publishing such slanderous comments.