Tag Archives: Mormonism

Good Ol’ Fashioned Racist Humor

Reports the Deseret News, December 26, 1855:

An Irishman, on arriving in America, took a fancy to the Yankee girls and wrote to his wife as follows: “Dear Norah–These few lines are to inform you that I died yesterday and I hope you are enjoying the same blessing. I recommend you to marry Jemmy O’Rourke, and take good care of the children. From your affectionate husband till death.”

Those Irishmen. Scamps, every last one of them.

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Mitt Romney: A Failed Mormon Prophecy

Well, it’s official. Barack Obama has been sworn in for his second term as president, and the news media has parsed all the important issues: eye rolling, lip syncing, and age-appropriate hair. Finally it feels appropriate to share an observation out of Mormon history when it should have none of the sourness of political partisanship (which I try so desperately to avoid).

In the Winter of 1855, with full blown war with the federal government on the not-so-distant horizon, Brigham Young, governor of the Utah Territory and leader of the Latter Day Saints, envisioned a time when America would fall into such a state of disrepair that the people would call on a Mormon to save them:

Brethren and sisters, our friends wish to know our feelings towards the government. I answer, they are first rate, and we will prove it too, as you will see if you only live long enough, for that we shall live to prove it is certain; and when the Constitution of the United States hangs, as it were, upon a single thread, they will have to call for the “Mormon” Elders to save it from utter destruction; and they will step forth and do it.

Photo: Luke X. Martin

If the LDS church’s loudest public voice is to be believed, America has reached that precipice. Then why the monumental failure of Mitt Romney to secure the presidency and save America? Could it be that Glenn Beck is wrong and ACORN, radical Islamic militants, and Reform Jews didn’t conspire to put a socialist race-warrior into office? Or could he perhaps be right and Satan still holds the world in his thrall, leaving the saints to wait for the nation to get just a little bit worse before their final vindication? Is it possible that the Mormons in general and Brigham Young in particular were not actually gifted with any special ongoing revelation from God?

Let’s table all those wonderfully provocative suggestions for the moment and consider another. One year earlier, Brigham Young had delivered a Fourth of July address as part of a series of speeches by prominent Mormons taking America to task for its partisanship and its failure to realize the lofty goals of the American Revolution. Young had his own observations about failures of the US in its highest office and proposed a different set of qualifications for the highest office. Maybe Romney failed to be the great Mormon savior of America because, it turns out, he’s not the kind of man Mormon’s thought the nation needed and the people deserved:

The people should concentrate their feelings, their influence, and their faith to select the best man they can find to be their President, if he has nothing more to eat than potatoes and salt–a man who will not aspire to become greater than the people who appoint him but be contented to live as they live, be clothed as they are clothed, and in every good thing be one with them.

[A man] capable of communicating to the the understanding of the people according to their capacity, information upon all points pertaining to the just administration of the Government. He should understand what administrative policy would be most beneficial to the nation. He should also have the knowledge and disposition to wisely exercise the appointing power, so far as it is constitutionally within his control, and select only good and capable men for the office. He should not only carry out the legal and just wishes of his constituents, but should be able to enlighten their understanding and correct their judgment. And all good officers in a truly republican administration will constantly labor for the security of the rights of all, irrespective of sect or party.

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The Wisdom of George Sutherland

George Sutherland–a lapsed Mormon and the senator from Utah in 1907–uttered these words with regard to the controversial seating of Mormon apostle Reed Smoot in the Senate. They can, and should, be removed from this context, however, and applied more broadly. They express a truth which in our contentious times could stand to be remembered:

The melancholy fact runs through all history that nothing has been too absurd, nothing too cruel, to be believed and taught and done in the name of religion…You can not reason with a false religious belief any more than you can argue with a case of typhoid fever. It simply runs its course and mental health returns.

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The Wisdom of Parley Pratt

From a historical standpoint, the following obviously needs to be read in the context of Pratt’s ardent Mormonism, which brings to the quote a subtle endorsement of the divine authority of Joseph Smith generally and the Book of Mormon specifically. In a strictly inspiration context, however, one can view Pratt’s sentiment as a bulwark against the perennial temptation of bibliolatry; in it can even been seen a hint of the Orthodox notion that all things good and true function as icons directing a person toward God who is Goodness and Truth. In “The Fountain of Knowledge,” Pratt argues:

The scriptures are sacred and true, and useful in their place. Although they are not the fountain of knowledge, nor do they contain all knowledge, yet they point to the fountain, and are every way calculated to encourage men to come to the fountain and seek to obtain the knowledge and gifts of God.

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Mormons Grapple with Sacred History

All my life I have never heard of anything but progress in the growth of the Mormon faith. With Mormon friends in my youth, I accumulated scores of anecdotal evidence about the triumphs of Mormon missionaries (though I never became remotely convinced of the truth of their message). This perception was reinforced as an undergraduate studying under, and eventually working under, a specialist in religious statistics. Mormons are one of the largest religious groups in America, and however much my professor qualified the statistics with references to natural growth, no one denied that aggressive evangelism and a certain social appeal of the religion were major contributing factors. Some time ago, however, an article awoke me to the fact that whatever may be said about the continuing growth of Mormonism, there is also a substantial amount of disaffection. There has been a sharp rise in “apostasy” in the last ten years, and a recent survey suggests that 39% of those leaving cite church history as the primary reason for losing faith, 84% at least a strong or moderate factor.

Mormons, like Christians, have a strong sense of sacred history. One of the peculiarities of the Mormon history, however, is that it includes a rejection of the standard Christian retelling of history in favor of a latter day reinterpretation. It is grounded in the belief that the initial revelation on which the church was founded was incomplete and open to misinterpretation by subsequent Christians. The result is a period of profane history between Christ and Joseph Smith before the narrative is once again picked up and purified. “Put another way,” in the words of Hughes and Allen, “early Mormons, by rooting themselves int he primal past, simply removed themselves from history and the historical process and claimed instead that they had sprung full blown from the creative hands of God. In April of 1830, they said, their prophet had restored to earth the ancient church with all its gifts, miracles, and visions.” The problem which arises from this is that, in the cold light of day, it is easy for Mormons to look at the supposedly restored, ancient church–born as it was directly form the mind of the divine–and to become disenchanted with what they see.
The article mentions the rather conspicuous blots of polygamy–which was undeniably abandoned not out of religious conviction but political expediency in the Utah statehood process–and racism–particularly the ban on people of “African descent” participating in sacred rites or ordination which was not lifted until the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. These deserve scrutiny, given that the Mormon faith is rooted in the more perfect revelation of God given to its leaders in the nineteenth century. If this revelation really was intended to correct and redeem Christianity out of its flawed state, why were so many of the special beneficiaries of God’s revelation so utterly misguided? Why did Joseph Smith and Brigham Young endorse polygamy? Why did their racial attitudes seem to reflect the lowest common cultural denominator rather than an eternal God? Most importantly, why were both these issues reformed under the guise of “new revelation” at moments in history when it was most politically expedient to do so?

There are of course other issues from a historical perspective. Early apostates give an interesting alternate account of the beginnings of the faith, particularly those who were supposed eye witnesses to the first miraculous underpinnings of the movement. There is also, of course, the wealth of outlandish mythology which dominates Mormon narrative, made all the more difficult to accept because it lacks the antiquity and alien culture of traditional Jewish and Christian myth (whether they are factual or not). Consider also the driving belief among early Mormons that the absence of abundant charismatic gifts (e.g. healings, visions, prophecies)–now muted in the contemporary church–indicated the absence of divine approbation. The list could, obviously, go on.

Nevertheless, the purpose here is not to try to convert Mormons–mostly because I doubt many are reading this. Instead, it is to highlight the peculiar problem which history ought to (and apparently does) pose for Mormons. The strong root of the faith in corrective revelation makes the historical stumblings (which is a grossly inadequate euphemism for a century of institutional racism) of the religion that much harder to reconcile with. After all, it is easy for me to distance myself from the Crusades or the Inquisition (grossly misunderstood as both are by uninformed modern critics) or, more to the point, “Christian” defenses of slavery in the antebellum South. God did not inspire those events, and I can specifically point to the authoritative text which joins me in my condemnation of them. Mormon history is not so easily dispensed with. The gross errors are those of the authoritative actors themselves operating within a normative, sacred history. Their best defense has been to duck behind a progressive revelation which declares polygamy, for example, appropriate for one time and inappropriate for another. Except I think we all know intuitively that racism was never appropriate for any time. Apparently, there are Mormons coming face-to-face with their own history and finding that they know that intuitively as well.

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