American Experience: The Mormons (Part 2)

This is the second part of my notes on the PBS American Experience show, The Mormons .

In September, 1857, Mormons in Utah launched a series of attacks on the Baker-Fancher emigrant wagon train, which resulted in the mass slaughter of the emigrant party from Arkansas. It is known as the Mountain Meadows massacre. (Utah was a part of the U.S. by then.) The Mormons tried to cover it up by saying the Indians had done it and they killed anyone they thought old enough to be a potential witness (anyone over 8). How did these decent, religious men who had sacrificed so much for what they believed become mass murderers? The Mormons were concerned that they might lose their land to these people. (If you can get people to believe they are doing God’s will, you can get them to do anything.)

The origins of polygamy are unclear. Smith authorized the revelation of plural marriage in Nauvoo in the 1840s. He had an affair with a 19 year old girl who served as a maid in his home that he probably married. It is possible his sexual desire drove the practice and he found a way to sanctify it.

Smith turns to Young and tells him he is being called to enter into the practice of plural marriage. He wishes he were dead rather than having to do it, but he does it. Young, on the other hand, married more than 50 women. Most are widows and women he cared for economically and not all lived with him as man and wife. The thought was that anyone living polygamy was living a higher order. But the reality was heart breaking. It’s the idea of perfect obedience. Perfect obedience is part of being a good Mormon.

This created a frenzy of Mormon bashing. There were reports that Mormons were sacrificing wives to God. For 47 years, Utah was denied entrance to the U.S. as a state unless the Mormons would renounce polygamy. What people really feared, however, was theocracy. The Democratic process meant nothing to the Mormons.

Congress comes after the Mormons with every weapon at their disposal. They target the church itself. They prohibit the immigration of people to the U.S. that are Mormon. They will not have the right to vote, hold office, etc. as long as they are polygamist. So Wilfred Woodruff, head of the Mormon Church at the time, denounces Polygamy. This was probably more of a device to get the government to back off. It lead to statehood for Utah in 1896. But many Mormons continued to practice polygamy secretly. This was intricately linked to how the Mormons saw themselves as Mormon. The largest consequence of these demands likely created the development of fundamentalism which occurred in the 20th century.

The church develops a close working partnership with local law enforcement to make a break with polygamy. But in 1953, the police come to Short Creek and arrest polygamists. The families were ripped apart and the children put into adoptive homes. The Mormons who practice polygamy today claim they are the real Mormons and will not renounce the practice that the church has renounced. The evidentiary photos start getting published in magazines and the public says “leave these people alone”.

Smoot Hearings – 1907. Smoot became a major power broker in the Republican Party and he became the the poster boy of Mormonism. After the hearings, the Mormons embraced capitalism. This was a huge shift from the Mormon Churches early days of Christian Socialism. The Mormon Church turned into a sophisticated management organization. To be of good standing all members must tithe 10% which has helped make it the wealthiest church per capita in America today. It is also very secretive of its full financial wealth to both it’s members and the wide world.

The Tabernacle Choir has been a tremendous ambassador to the world. The Mormons have also changed their logo and made the name Jesus Christ much larger than the other words. They want to be seen as a mainstream Christian faith, however Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, etc. do not accept Mormonism as fully Christian so a tension remains.

The church’s position used to be that black folks were here to represent Satan to have a balance against the white folks who were here to represent Jesus. Blacks were not allowed to be part of the priesthood and being part of the prist hood was central to male membership in the church. Blacks in Africa founded their own Church of Latter Day Saints and received no help from Salt Lake City. In 1978, there was a meeting in Salt Lake City and a feeling came over everyone that they had to lift the ban on Black Priesthood. It made the church fully acceptable after the civil rights revolution and was the modernization of the Mormon Church.

At one point church outreach was just for church members – that was about survival. But now they extend services all over the world. In Katrina, the Mormon relief trucks were on the way before the hurricane had even made landfall. According to Louisiana residents, the Mormons in their yellow t-shirts were there on the ground helping and they were about the only people helping in the beginning. They were extremely organized.

The Mormon perception has come a long way – Mitt Romney, a Mormon, is running for President in the 2008 election. But people are still very hesitant to put a Mormon in the White House. The problem is that you want to be mainstream enough that you can fraternize with everyone else. But you don’t want to be so much the same that you no longer longer see yourself as distinct.

Each year 50,000 19 year old missionaries set off all over the world to try and win converts. In the early days, missionaries weren’t trained, they were commissioned. Everyone who joins the church is a missionary. The early missionaries said you had to believe in the Book of Mormon, you had to believe in Baptism, and you had to move to Utah. Today, missionaries go through intense training.

Over 50% of church members fall away from their faith today. The Church has a real problem keeping new members. They do a great job finding converts but spend less time and less effort helping new members find their way in the church. It is also a radical change. Members have to tithe 10% of their gross income and the church demands almost all of their discretionary time. It also demands a great deal of it’s young missionaries.

There is an anti-intellectual strain in LDS. If you want to write about Mormonism, there are just certain things you cannot say about them. You can’t raise any sort of feminist question. You can’t talk about the temple. You can’t question authority in any way. There is a great fear in the church that if you openly look at things, you will begin to doubt and doubt destroys the purpose of life. (To be certain?)

Brigham Young said you are with us or against us. If you are a part of this people, you have to fall into line. Never forget that all we have is each other. If we undermine each other’s faith, we destroy each other. There is the highway or there is our way. Leave if you do not adhere to the rules.

In 1945 Fawn Brodie wrote a book on Joseph Smith and was excommunicated. In 1950 Juanite Brooks published a full account of the Mountain Meadows Massacre and she and her husband were shunned by the church. In the last generation, there has been more excommunications, disciplining, etc. Apostle Boyd K. Packer has emerged as the strongest voice of Mormon orthodoxy. He says one of the greatest dangers to the church were gays, feminists, and intellectuals. Packer claims this is a part of the alerting to the members.

The most contentious issue is the scientific investigation on the Book of Mormon. Israelites are said to be ancestors of Native Americans. There is no evidence of Hebrew language or archaeological sites of grand cities that are described, etc. Mormonism is not the only religion that faces this problem. There is no archaeological justification whatsoever that the Old Testament Exodus took place.

All of the issues that were being discussed and debated among Joseph Smith’s friends and families are what is found in the Book of Mormon. Some Mormons have trouble accepting that Joseph Smith was an imperfect human being. Many Mormons want to sterilize their history.

Margaret Toscano was threatened with excommunication in 1993 – she was not allowed to speak about women in the priesthood or the Mormon concept of heavenly mother. Toscano had written that Smith had believed women should have been part of the Priesthood. She was excommunicated which is the same as being cut off from eternal salvation. Tocsana said what struck her about this is that they were very nice about it but the niceness was just a mask of the violence of what it is was they were doing. If you are part of a large Mormon family, the excommunication hurts your relationship with your family deeply. Dissent in LDS is limited to the greatest extent possible.

Joseph Smith became utterly preoccupied with sealing families together. (Husband to wife, children to parents, one generation to another, for all eternity). The family is not an entity of social organizations but one that has it’s roots in the pre-mortal world and will continue into the immortal world. Every Monday night is family night in Mormonism.

Mormons organize themselves geographically. There is no professional clergy. Nobody gets paid. It’s all voluntary. Mormon women are plagued with the perfect woman figure. She bakes cookies, bread, and looks wonderful and is always smiling. The totally impossible woman. Your eternal salvation and the salvation of your children is the question you have to ask yourself if you take a job, for instance. There is a huge use of anti-depressants among women in the LDS Church.

The role of women is to nurture the children. It is subordinate to what the men are doing. (Mormons actively combated the ERA.) If you measure up to the cultural ideals, it can be very nice. If not, it can be Hell. Being gay and Mormon is Hell.

The Mormons will baptize anyone dead, even those who were not Mormon but could have been which is basically the entirety of the world’s dead. They have baptised over 1 billion dead people. A Jewish man claimed that he was utterly shocked when he discovered this. Much of his family was killed because they were Jews. He does not at all appreciate his dead Jewish family being baptised into Mormonism by the Mormons because he wants them to remain Jewish. Harold Bloom says that original Mormonism defies death. It is an attempt to give meaning to the meaninglessness of it. (Baptism of the Dead may be theologically tenuous, but it speaks to a human need to be linked with past generations.)

The question asked at the end of the film: All religious systems have to move beyond their own creation. Can Mormonism do this?

American Experience: The Mormons (Part 1)

These are notes from the PBS show on The Mormons. (The full program is available on-line).

Joseph Smith was born December 23, 1805 in Vermont. During the 1820s and 1830s, the American frontier was in upstate New York. At that time, there was tremendous evangelical fervor, in part because the early inhabitants were not used to controlled religion. All kinds of sects developed. 

Smith hears all of the arguments going on about which church is right and during his own search for what is right, experiences an intense light as well as embodied beings whom he said was the Father and the Son. Smith asks of the embodied beings, “Which of the churches is true?” The answer he receives is that “none of them is true”. (He came from a tradition of visionaries. His father and grandfather had dreams, too.)

His story evolved and took on more miraculous characteristics. He became a greater character with greater esteem in God’s eyes with each evolving story and it’s the last story that is considered to be the official story. The angel Meroni told Smith where some golden plates were to be found. He discovered the plates which were written in Egyptian hieroglyphs. He claims to have translated the plates through devination and then returned them to Meroni. According to Smith, the translation claims that Christ is said to have come to the Americas in his resurrected being. 

Mormonism is a USA made religion. Smith is a homegrown prophet, and Mormonism is homegrown religion for the poor. He situated the U.S. within the history of the Biblical story and proclaimed his church was the one true church. He had 40 converts by the end of May and just as many enemies. According to Smith, God had restored the office of prophet and He was God’s prophet for the new age.

Traditional Christians were outraged and he was chased out of town and settled in Kirkland. 70 people followed him. (Brigham Young, who was penniless and had been joining church after church, was an early convert.) Smith was extremely charismatic and confident and didn’t talk down to people. He taught that everybody had the ability to speak directly to God. In 1831, he began sending missionaries out across America. A few years later, Kirkland had 3000 people and the majority were Mormon.

He built a temple rather than a church in the tradition of the Old Testament. In 1836, Smith enters into a bunch of enterprises and then the bubble bursts and everybody loses money and their faith in Smith. Smith left Kirkland and went to Missouri and does the same thing all over again in Missouri!  

By this time, the Mormons were spread across 6 states. They were white, English descended farmers who were god fearing, lived in agricultural settlement and wanted the best for the families and their wives. And they were hated.

People feared their bizarre practices like polygamy. They were also afraid that the Mormons would take their land. There were 5000 Mormons in Missouri and Smith had declared Jackson County the New Zion (the new Chosen Land). The Missourians declared war and the Mormons did not turn the other cheek. They fought.

In October, 1838, a group of up to 200-300 horsemen surrounded the blacksmith’s shop and were shooting anything that moved. They killed 17 Mormons and wounded more. They hacked an elderly man to death and killed a ten year old point blank. Nobody was arrested for this.

For the first and only time in U.S. history, the government issued an extermination order. The Mormons were forced to surrender their positions and had to move out of Missouri by spring. The persecution brought them conviction because God’s prophets had never been welcomed in their own lands.

They made a journey from Missouri to Illinois, with Brigham Young in charge of keeping the exodus orderly. People in Illinois were shocked by the atrocities in Missouri and welcomed the Mormons. By 1844, Nauvoo had risen to the size of Chicago and was primarily Mormon. Smith has a new revelation – celestial marriage (plural marriage). Nauvoo became a theocracy which concerned his neighbors. The political and economic power the Mormons are gaining also create concern. When Smith orders the destruction of a printing press that revealed his polygamist practices and destroying a printing press, that was the last straw. 

Smith at first flees, but then turns back to face his prosecutors. He is killed by a mob while in jail. People hoped Smith’s death would be the end of Mormonism, but his death reinforced the Mormon faith. Mormonism, for Smith’s followers, was the American dream writ large.

Brigham Young arrives and commands the attention of the Mormons and earns their confidence among the chaos in Nauvoo after Smith’s death. Illinois demands the Mormons leave and Brigham Young leads the way to Utah. At the time, Utah was part of Mexico and many (including Smith’s wife and son), refused to go. But follow Young. It was one of the largest mass migrations in the history of the U.S.

In February of 1847 Brigham Young falls ill and has a dream. he finds himself in a room with Joseph Smith. Young asks Smith, how can I be a prophet? Smith tells him, listen to the still small voice. If you listen for God’s inspiration he will always direct you. Young wakes up and is transformed and all of his second guessing is gone. He assumes the mantle of Joseph.

The exodus was heroic. They had to go 1000 miles often using pull carts. People were dying by the dozens and sometimes by the hundreds. This pilgrimage is what forged the people. They envisioned themselves as saints walking to Zion.

On July 24, 1847, Brigham Young finally reached the valley of the Great Salt Lake. It’s still Mexican territory and it’s desert. People thought he was crazy for settling here, but Young felt that being off the beaten path was good. That it was rugged and difficult to make work was even better. It would bring them closer together.

To be continued…