“As a Thief in the Night”
by Dan Erickson
[p.1]In 1952 Ira Brown lamented America’s millennial past as being “among the most neglected … themes in the history of American thought.”1 Over the past forty years religious, social, and intellectual historians of the American experience have moved to rectify this omission and an explosion of new scholarship has developed a depth of millennial historiography.2 Commenting on this phenomenon, James Moorhead contends scholars now find millennialism everywhere and it has “proven to be one of the most fertile areas of investigation in American religious history.”3 Leonard Sweet declares: “[T]he word millennialism has become almost synonymous in recent years with American religious history.”4 This outpouring of [p.2]new knowledge has coincided with an equal intensity of scholarship regarding Mormonism.5 Yet the combining of these two elements remains in its infancy, and Mormon millennial historian Grant Underwood has asserted the meaning and force of millennialism in Mormon thought “is just beginning to be plumbed.”6
For many religious historians of this period, Mormon millennialism has been difficult to classify. Ernest Tuveson admitted that he had trouble categorizing Mormon eschatology. Although he contends they “maintain a millenarian doctrine” (premillennialists), he later argues “they certainly do not think that the course of history is one of increasing decline, which can only be ended by the personal intervention of the Lord.”7 Gordon Wood concurs that Mormon belief regarding the Second Coming “cannot be easily fit into any single pattern of millennialism.”8 John F. C. Harrison identifies Mormonism as a unique form of millenarianism emphasizing “Zion was to be built in the American West, and that in the near future.”9
In placing Mormon eschatology within the greater context of nineteenth-century American millennialism, the historiography of Mormonism has focused primarily on the pre-1850 period or has stressed that millennialism was but part of the continuity of Mormon thought from the early days to the present.10 This study approaches [p.3]Mormon millennialism from the point of view of its separatist tendencies, a perspective initiated with Joseph Smith’s first religious [p.4]experience and which continued to the end of the nineteenth century.11
Since the LDS church’s organization in 1830, Mormons and other members of American society have experienced varying levels of contention. The backlash of Mormon-non-Mormon friction initially led the Latter-day Saints to move from New York, seeking refuge by “gathering” in Kirtland, Ohio, in 1831, then in Jackson County, Missouri. This trek was initiated by prophetic revelation and a belief that a righteous people should be gathered at the city of “Zion” to receive Jesus Christ at his coming. The Saints eventually fled both locales to settle in Far West, Missouri. Driven out of Missouri in 1838-39 by Missouri governor Lilburn Boggs’s well-known Extermination Order, they crossed the Mississippi to found the city of Nauvoo, Illinois.12
[p.5]Motivated by their experience in Ohio and Missouri, and their lack of political power in each location, the Mormons in Nauvoo established a virtual independent city-state.13 Within its charter Nauvoo was granted a municipal court with the power to issue writs of habeas corpus and the authority to create its own military establishment, the Nauvoo Legion. Mormon interpretation of Nauvoo’s charter and the new-found Mormon sense of political power further alienated non-Mormons who viewed the Mormon stronghold as a bastion of lawlessness and the Nauvoo Legion as a potential armed aggressor.14 The murders of the prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum in 1844 precipitated the Mormons’ expulsion from Illinois and United States territory, initiating their migration to the Great Basin.
The contentious relationship between the Mormon church and American society continued in the West. Although much of the conflict may be viewed as resentment by non-Mormons in Utah toward the church’s theocratic control of Utah Territory, the main impetus for opposition was the practice of plural marriage or polygamy.15 All of this culminated in the anti-polygamy campaign. Resisting the federal government’s outlawing of both polygamy and cohabi-[p.6]tation, and considering polygamy a vital tenet of their faith, church leaders refused to succumb to the pressure to assimilate into mainstream America.
Mormons viewed the federal anti-polygamy campaign as a “last days” persecution leading to the anticipated Millennium, and the Saints, under the leadership of church president John Taylor, sought to evade assimilation. In a final attempt to preserve the institution of polygamy, Taylor’s separatist strategy included church leaders going “underground,” authorizing establishment of a polygamist bastion in Mexico outside the United States, and initiating a potential polygamous retreat in Canada. But the national government’s anti-polygamy campaign proved successful, ending with Mormon church president Wilford Woodruff’s 1890 Manifesto admonishing church members to obey the law of the land.
The attempt to maintain the institution of polygamy in the face of U.S. government pressure followed earlier Mormon separatist actions and was based on the Mormon millennial world view. Over its first sixty-year history, much of the LDS-gentile conflict was influenced by expectation that the Second Coming was imminent, an event that would transform the earth and deliver the Mormons from their enemies. The short-term nature of their millennial anticipation, particularly during the Ohio-Missouri-Illinois period, kept an us-versus-them mentality in the forefront of their consciousness. But Mormonism was repeatedly forced to accept a delay of the promised “winding-up scene.” In the 1830s Zion (in Missouri) went unredeemed, and the 1840s saw Joseph Smith murdered and the Saints expelled from Illinois. The 1850s-1860s witnessed the proposed State of Deseret become Utah Territory under U.S. government control rather than the desired Mormon theocracy. And then the “official” abandonment of polygamy in the 1890s “turned out to be a prologue to modern Mormonism” rather than the Saints’ apocalyptic triumph.16
[p.7]Despite its claim to Americanism, Mormonism was “consistently seen as un- and anti-American.”17 Political solidarity, block voting, and economic communitarianism offended Jacksonian republicanism. Joseph Smith’s desire to establish a political kingdom, including his candidacy for the U.S. presidency, demonstrated to outsiders that Mormons were not “Americans” in the true definition of the term.18 Polygamy, first made public in Utah, further offended non-Mormons and resulted in a new round of Mormon-American confrontation. Unwilling to live with and among “gentiles,” Mormons were convinced that only in maintaining their separateness from pluralistic America could they prepare a people for the coming of the Lord. As such, conflict persisted between some aspect of American society and the Mormons for over fifty years.19
The nineteenth century ended with the Mormon church forced to conform with American values. In viewing this transformation, Klaus Hansen contends that Mormons initially were dissenters who by the twentieth century had become “active and approving participants in modern America.”20 Anthropologist Mark Leone asserts Mormon church accommodation replicates social reality and change “creating and recreating Mormonism.”21 Yet in examining this adaptation process much of the intensity of early Mormon millennialism has been neglected. Nathan Hatch contends the tendency to overlook this aspect of early Mormonism is due to modern elitist frameworks based on current value systems. “We are scandalized by the reality that most popular religion is vulgar religion,” and certainly primitive [p.8]Mormonism remained “radical, apocalyptic, absolutist, [and] extreme.”22
Focusing on millennialism as the impetus for Mormon separatist behavior, this study examines the near unanimity of Mormon belief in the establishment of God’s separate kingdom on earth, with his righteous servants awaiting deliverance from their enemies at Christ’s return. This Mormon millennial world view, with its goal of separating the Saints from non-Mormon Babylon, continued until the church’s capitulation near the beginning of the twentieth century.
The Mormon view of history, like that of ancient Hebrews, is teleological, linear, proceeding in a straight line toward a predetermined, divinely intended culmination (the coming of the Messiah).23 Yet an historical study of the Latter-day Saints entails unique challenges. In examining Mormonism within the context of nineteenth-century American religious experience, Jan Shipps argues Mormonism’s differences with mainstream Christianity are so profound it must be classified as a new religious tradition like Islam or Christianity.24 Sydney Ahlstrom demonstrates his difficulty in categorizing Mormonism when declaring, “One cannot even be sure if the object of our consideration is a sect, a mystery cult, a new religion, a church, a people, a nation, or an American subculture; indeed, at different times and places it is all of these.”25
Additionally, Mormon belief in modern revelation amplifies the problem, particularly in determining the tenacity and permanence of theological tenets. Ascertaining what is revelation or scripture com-[p.9]plicates the process. One must unravel and decipher both ancient and modem scripture, oracles from the church hierarchy, private revelation (including personal inspiration and patriarchal blessings), non-canonized scripture, temporary (and sometimes changing) scripture, and other revelatory forms of the Mormon religious creed.26
Historians faced with the task of dealing with studies focusing on religion must also confront methodological ramifications. Recent discussion of the objectivity question has left many believing that any quest for objectivity is futile. Eugen Weber has declared that “all that the historian may hope to do is to record a passing point of view as honestly and as thoughtfully as he knows how.”27 While accepting the notion that absolute objectivity is impossible, a position may be argued that somewhere between the great divide of absolute objectivity and inevitable subjectivity falls the realm of appropriate scholarly pursuit. What an historian must attempt to do when confronting religious history is to perform the task, to the fullest degree possible, of understanding and explaining the forces which give rise to the thoughts and actions of the players within the historic drama.28 And although religious history is a process that must appeal to factors that are subject to public inspection and scrutiny, this does not preclude “the possibility that the projected meanings may have an ultimate status independent of man.”29
Yet in examining evidence and motivation how must religious experience be evaluated? Philip Barlow asks: “Should scripture and religion be viewed from the perspective of culture, or should [p10]culture be viewed through the lens of scripture and religious faith?”30 If God exists, and, acting through men and women, influences historical circumstances and outcomes, mere mortals still must interpret such divine intervention through the lens of human experience. Whether or not one believes, or whether or not revelations and spiritual manifestations are authentic, their interpretations still must be analyzed and examined in terms of cultural and environmental forces.31 Kenelm Burridge describes the dilemma: “If we are confronted with evidence of a divine revelation, we cannot declare it irrelevant or irrational or fantasy or wishful thinking. We must take it seriously and try to account for what actually occurs. Even if our own private assumptions do not admit of such a thing as divine revelation, we must admit that for others it does exist.”32
Historians of the Mormon experience have acknowledged and attempted to breach the objectivity divide in a variety of ways.33 The methodology used in this study approaches the search for historical understanding of sacred causes and consequences by relating “events as participants experienced them.”34 Insofar as religious experiences and revelations were authentic to those who acted on those beliefs, they will be treated as such in the discussion that follows, since a good-faith attempt to relay to the modern observer the motivation [p.11]and perceived reality of these historical actors is always a worthwhile endeavor.
Weighing these sometimes conflicting elements, this study aspires to evaluate critically the importance early Mormon millennial enthusiasm played in nineteenth-century Mormon history. Hopefully, the result will share William McNeill’s vision of what historians can achieve when they “bend their minds as critically and carefully as they can to the task of making their account of public affairs credible as well as intelligible to an audience that shares enough of their particular outlook and assumptions to accept what they say.”35
Approaching Mormon history within a framework of millennial aspirations, the present analysis argues that for their first sixty-year history the Latter-day Saints were apocalyptic premillennialists—but with a difference. From this difference emerged a new religious group embracing modern scripture and revering modern prophets who received divine communication, a people commissioned to build a literal kingdom of God on the American continent to prepare for the imminent return of the promised Messiah. Their millennial passage, ambiguous, evolving, always waiting, anticipating, and eventually capitulating to the dominant American society, is the essence of this study.
2. See David E. Smith, “Millenarian Scholarship in America,” AmericanQuarterly 17 (Fall 1965): 535-49; Hillel Schwartz, “The End of the Beginning: Millenarian Studies, 1967-1975,” Religious Studies Review 2 (July 1976): 1-15; Leonard I. Sweet, “Millennialism in America: Recent Studies,” em>Theological Studies 40 (Sept. 1979): 510-31; Dietrich G. Buss, “Meeting of Heaven and Earth: A Survey and Analysis of the Literature on Millennialism in America, 1965-1985,” Fides et Historia 20 (Jan. 1988): 5-28.
10. See Marvin S. Hill, “The Role of Christian Primitivism in the Origin and Development of the Mormon Kingdom, 1830-1844,” Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1968; Hill, Quest for Refuge: The Mormon Flight from American Pluralism (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989); Hill, “Quest for Refuge: An Hypothesis as to the Social Origins and Nature of the Mormon Political Kingdom,” Journal of Mormon History 2 (1975): 3-20; Hill, “The Shaping of the Mormon Mind in New England and New York,” Brigham Young University Studies 9 (Spring 1969): 351-72; and Gordon D. Pollock, In Search of Security: The Mormons and the Kingdom of God on Earth, 1830-1844 (New York: Garland Publishing, 1989). Grant Underwood’s studies, centering primarily on early Mormon millennialism, are found in his “Early Mormon Millennialism: Another Look,” M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, 1981; Underwood, “Seminal Versus Sesquicentennial Saints”; Underwood, “Millenarianism and the Early Mormon Mind,” Journal of Mormon History 9 (1982): 41-51; Underwood, “Early Mormon Millennialism: Another Look,” Church History (June 1985): 215-29; Underwood, “Re-Visioning Mormon History,” Pacific Historical Review 55 (Aug. 1986): 403-26; Underwood, “Apocalyptic Adversaries: Mormonism Meets Millerism,” John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 7 (1987): 53-61; Underwood, “The Religious Milieu of English Mormonism,” in Mormons in Early Victorian Britain, eds. Richard L. Jensen and Malcolm R. Thorp (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1989), 31-48; Underwood, The Millenarian World of Early Mormonism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press), 1993. A noted exception is Louis G. Reinwand’s study of Mormon millennialism in Utah in the nineteenth century and, to a lesser extent, emphasized millennialism as one of many important doctrines to the early Saints. See Reinwand, “An Interpretive Study of Mormon Millennialism During the Nineteenth Century with Emphasis on Millennial Developments in Utah,” M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, 1971. Klaus J. Hansen ties Mormon millennialism to the Mormon Council of Fifty. See Hansen, Quest for Empire: The Political Kingdom of God and the Council of Fifty in Mormon History (Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1970). 1-23; see also Hansen, “The Metamorphosis of the Kingdom of God: Toward a Reinterpretation of Mormon History,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 1 (Autumn 1966): 63-83; Hansen, “Mormonism and American Culture: Some Tentative Hypotheses,” in The Restoration Movement: Essays in Mormon History, rev. ed., eds. F. Mark McKiernan, Alma R. Blair, and Paul M. Edwards (Independence, MO: Herald Publishing House, 1992), 1-25; and Hansen, Mormonism and the American Experience (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).
11. Thomas G. Alexander concedes that up until 1890 pre-millennialism and the imminence of the prophesied apocalypse played a central role in Mormon thought. Nevertheless he contends that emphasis must be placed, particularly during Mormon church president Wilford Woodruff’s administration, on shifting the church’s organizational focus from millennialism to temples and salvation of the dead as the means of preparing for Christ’s return to establish his kingdom on earth. See Alexander, “Wilford Woodruff and the Changing Nature of Mormon Religious Experience,” Church History 45 (Mar. 1976): 69; see also Alexander, Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986), 1-15; Alexander, Things in Heaven and Earth: The Life and Times of Wilford Woodruff, a Mormon Prophet (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1991); Alexander, “‘To Maintain Harmony’: Adjusting to External and Internal Stress, 1890-1930,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15 (Winter 1982): 44-58; and Alexander, “The Odyssey of a Latter-day Prophet: Wilford Woodruff and the Manifesto of 1890,” Journal of Mormon History 17 (1991): 169-206.
12. Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Atchison’s Letters and the Causes of Mormon Expulsion from Missouri,” Brigham Young University Studies 26 (Summer 1986): 3-47; Stephen C. LeSueur, The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987); Leland H. Gentry, “A History of the Latter-day Saints in Northern Missouri from 1836-1839,” Ph.D. diss., Brigham Young University, 1965.
13. Robert Flanders, Nauvoo: Kingdom on the Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965), 104; James L. Kimball, Jr., “The Nauvoo Charter: A Reinterpretation,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 64 (Spring 1971): 66-78; James L. Kimball, Jr., “A Wall to Defend Zion: The Nauvoo Charter,” Brigham Young University Studies 15 (Summer 1975): 499-526.
15. Works advocating political domination factors for Mormon-non-Mormon conflict include Gustive O. Larson, The ‘‘Americanization’’ of Utah for Statehood (San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1971), viii; and Hansen, Quest for Empire, 171. Works whose position supports the primacy of polygamy as the catalyst for conflict include Edward Leo Lyman, Political Deliverance: The Mormon Quest for Utah Statehood (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986), 2; B. Carmon Hardy, Solemn Covenant: The Mormon Polygamous Passage (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 58-59; and Alexander, Things in Heaven and Earth, xiii.
16. Jan Shipps, Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985), 148. See also Harold Bloom, The American Religion: The Emergence of a Post•Christian Nation (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), 70.
20. Hansen, Mormonism and the American Experience, xvi. See also Philip L. Barlow, Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-day Saints in American Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), viii.
23. Allan J. Lichtman and Valeri French, Historians and the Living Past (Arlington Heights, IL: Harlan Davidson, 1978), 86-87; Roger D. Launius, “Mormon Memory, Mormon Myth, and Mormon History,” Journal of Mormon History 21 (Spring 1995): 12.
27. Eugen Weber, A Modern History of Europe (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1971), 1125 (emphasis mine). For a discussion of the abandonment of objectivity, see Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 522-629.
34. See Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press), 3. Bushman’s approach to Mormon history, which attempts to reconstruct the past from Joseph Smith and his followers’ perspective and world view, is criticized by Nathan Hatch as “one-dimensional scholarship.” See Hatch, “Mormon and Methodist,” 36-37.