“As a Thief in the Night”
by Dan Erickson

Chapter 10

[p.223]Within the nineteenth-century debate between optimistic postmillennialists urging patience and effort in their quest for millennial peace and pessimistic premillennialists awaiting a savior from on high to deliver society from sin, the question became which view carried the greater legitimacy. As John Updike suggests, “What matters in a myth, a belief, is … Does it enable us to live, to keep going? … The crucial question isn’t Can you prove it? but Does it give us a handle on the reality that otherwise would overwhelm us?”1 In the midst of this controversy early Latter-day Saints used their eschatology to make sense of the world.

From the Saints’ earliest days, apocalyptic fervor accompanied their quest for salvation. The intensity and essentiality of early Mormon belief in an imminent millennium must be examined by anyone who wants to understand the early Mormon mind and how their cosmology influenced Mormon-gentile interaction. Initiated with Joseph Smith’s earliest religious experiences, Mormon passage through linear time in search of the Millennium fed the Saints’ hunger for divine intervention. Persecutions in New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois were viewed in strictly religious terms and merely confirmed the Saints’ belief that the refiner’s fire of purification was about to bear fruit. The suffering of the Saints and the events of the day were but part of God’s eternal plan, with Mormons soon to inherit “a new heaven and new earth.”

[p.224]Born in an age of uncertainty, Mormonism’s “totalist” creed exerted a powerful attraction.2 Yet Americans were expected to be loyal to the greater “civil religion.” Theological peculiarities could only be accommodated as long as the group stayed within the bounds of accepted standards.3 Like most of the new nation’s attributes, religious pluralism was the American way of doing things because it worked.4 But when a group diverged too radically from societal norms, persecution could result. From its genesis, friction between Mormonism’s separatist doctrines and practices and nineteenth-century America ruled the lives of Latter-day Saints.5

The institutional church’s intent was to develop distinctions necessary to identity Saints from gentiles, just as God had kept Abraham’s chosen seed separate from the rest of society.6 As Laurence Moore has pointed out, in many ways “Mormons were different because they said they were different and because their claims, fre-[p.225]quently advanced in the most obnoxious way possible, prompted others to agree and to treat them as such.”7 Exploiting a “rhetoric of deviance,” Mormons emphasized their differences from outsiders whom they considered corrupt, creating a context of Mormon separatism and cultural isolation.8 Mormons have always held that their “enemies” were in Satan’s hands, their history a quest for separation from the wicked world, leading to a series of millennial expectations and disappointments. Although the Saints recognized that their millennial anticipations of the 1830s or 1840s were mistaken, eschatological hopes of an imminent advent refused to fade from Mormon consciousness.9 As such, throughout the nineteenth century Mormonism continued to be an alien culture searching for security in a hostile environment.

After Joseph Smith’s death, those who followed Brigham Young visualized the trek as a literal repetition of Israel’s sacred journey under Moses, as authentic as the Hebrews’ deliverance from Egypt. Reinforcing a sense of distinctiveness, Young led the Saints away from their persecutors, away from the confusion of religious pluralism, to a place where the elect could be isolated and gathered. Here they would claim their inheritance, the goal to establish a righteous people in a holy land where God’s kingdom could be built in preparation for the Parousia.10 As each new wave of immigrants made the pilgrimage of faith, the thought of new Saints entering Zion rejuve-[p.226]nated the Mormon sense of an extraordinary people arriving at the “place prepared” in the West.11

In the Great Basin the Latter-day Saints attempted to remain unspotted from the world through unification of the political, social, and economic aspects of life. Once again their intense millennial hope accompanied LDS cosmology during the reformation and the Utah War. The invasion of federal troops crystallized Mormon suspicion and contempt for “outsiders,” creating a garrison mentality of both self-righteousness and separatism.12 The Saints were sure that U.S. aggression would lead to its destruction and usher in the Millennium with the Messiah’s return at the door.

With expectations of the Parousia carrying into the 1860s, Mormons saw the North and South poised to destroy each other, leaving the Saints to establish Christ’s kingdom on the scattered ruins. At last God was avenging the murders of Joseph and Hyrum Smith and the persecution of the Saints. When the Civil War ended in a continuance of the Union, the federal government’s focus on polygamy fed the next round of millennial anticipation. Surely this intense pressure was a test of the church’s fortitude, the bearing of persecution a badge of courage and a sign of members’ strength, a prelude to imminent deliverance. Soon the Saints would find their just reward as God’s earthly kingdom was approaching.

Preparing a domain where Christ could reign, nineteenth-century Latter-day Saints built their institutions separate from and juxtaposed to gentile society. As a symbol of their separateness, the most obvious practice was polygamy. Therefore plural marriage, as a sign of institutional separateness, had to be defended by polygamists and monogamists alike. External pressure, particularly political pressure from the federal government which climaxed in the anti-polygamy campaign, played such a tremendous role in shaping [p.227]Mormon pioneer history that its influence cannot be ignored. As such, scholarly consensus points to the 1890 Manifesto as the breaking point between past and present. The federal government had made it clear that internally designated borders could not be tolerated, and the Manifesto broke the boundaries that had separated Mormon from American society. The ending of plural marriage was such a disconcerting development it thrust the Saints into a new cosmology.13

Late nineteenth-century church presidents Wilford Woodruff and Lorenzo Snow continued to assure members that they would yet witness the winding-up scene. But in the end the day of harmony and peace destined to encircle the world was not to be. As the century closed, old leaders died, leading to both internal and external pressure for change. Whereas Mormonism had risked annihilation and pushed separatism to the brink, when confrontation with America left no room for compromise many Mormons refused to forfeit all in a fruitless attempt to remain autonomous from the larger society.14 With separatism and isolation no longer possible or acceptable, church leaders abandoned further risk of organizational destruction.

Due to unfulfilled millennial expectations, the fate of millenarian movements is either failure and collapse or they cease to remain millenarian. In order to survive, the movement must generate rational explanations for the delay of the Millennium and redirect prior millennial desire to new aims. Alternating strategies included reaching out to persuade others of their religion’s truthfulness and channeling energies from preparing for the Millennium to developing institutional structures. In so doing they must suppress the memory of their millenarian past and transform former millenarian vigor into other forms of action.15

[p.228]Repeatedly, Latter-day Saints had been forced into cognitive dissonance, compelled either to explain away the non-event in spite of prophetic declarations or discard eschatological assumptions. Earn disappointment gave rise to a new round of predictions until multiple failures broke the cycle. Under collective stress, the church faced either dissolution or revitalization, and when continuance of an apocalyptic cosmology was no longer feasible, transformation and accommodation became necessary. If they continued in the same mode of thought and behavior, they risked losing continuity, unable to meet the new demands of a changing environment. By changing their world view, they could use new energies and talents to effect a new perception of reality.16

The institutions and theology crucial to the early Saints-millennialism, communitarianism, theocracy, polygamy-and which separated Mormons from American culture gave way both culturally and intellectually to the need for survival, the quest for statehood, and accommodation.17 John Gager contends the countercultural aspects of millenarian movements, such as

unrestrained prophecy, visions, revelations, and new patterns of sexual activity—including polygamy—are precisely what we would expect of a millenarian lifestyle in nineteenth-century America and precisely what we would expect to disappear in those millenarian movements that survive the initial rush of enthusiasm, that cease to be properly millenarian.18

For nineteenth-century Mormons, millennial separatism isolated them from profane Babylon. As Martin Ridge suggests, “[W]ithout [p.229]‘the gathering,’ without compelling millennialism, without an overly intrusive temporal kingdom, and especially without polygamy, the church stood at a threshold of a new century.”19 Prior to the Manifesto and Mormon capitulation, the LDS belief system exalted defiance of non-Mormon America.20 But with Christ’s second coming continually delayed, the onslaught of the federal government’s legal aggression left church leaders with no option other than religious surrender. Faced with either remaining committed to plural marriage or surviving as an institution, the church chose to survive.21

Although what church president Wilford Woodruff hoped for with his Manifesto was an expedient compromise to buy time for chiliastic salvation, when the Advent was delayed, its consequence was the fading of hope in apocalyptic deliverance. With accommodation to the dominant American culture a fait accompli, revolutionary millennialism could no longer provide a feasible method of viewing the world, giving birth to a new era of Mormonism. For eighty years Joseph Smith’s followers had known the Second Coming was nigh. But at the turn of the twentieth century, the Saints’ deliverance remained on the horizon, farther from sight than ever before.



1. Updike, The Coup (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978), 139-41.

2. E. R. Dodds, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1965), 133.

3. Lawrence Foster, “Cults in Conflict: New Religious Movements and the Mainstream Religious Tradition in America,” in Uncivil Religion: Interreligious Hostility in America, eds. Robert N. Bellah and Frederick E. Greenspahn (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1987), 196.

4. William A. Clebsch, From Sacred to Profane America: The Role of Religion in American History (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1968), 212.

5. Larry M. Logue, A Sermon in the Desert: Belief and Behavior in Early St. George, Utah (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), xii; Thomas G. Alexander, “The Odyssey of a Latter-day Prophet: Wilford Woodruff and the Manifesto of 1890,” Journal of Mormon History 17 (1991): 182. Illinois governor Thomas Ford recognized this, concluding that Mormonism “surprises the people … [who] cannot rise above the prejudices excited by such [religious] novelty.” See Ford to Brigham Young, 8 Apr. 1845, in Robert Flanders, Nauvoo: Kingdom on the Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965), 331.

6. Jan Shipps, “In the Presence of the Past: Continuity and Change in Twentieth-Century Mormonism,” in 150 Years: The Latter-day Saints in Sesquicentennial Perspective, eds. Thomas G. Alexander and Jessie Embry (Provo, UT: Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, 1983), 18.

7. R. Laurence Moore, Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 31. See also Dernard DeVoto, The Year of Decision: 1846 (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1943), 79-84.

8. Moore, Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans, 33; Ephraim Edward Ericksen, The Psychological and Ethical Aspects of Mormon Group Life (1922; reprint, Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1975), 30.

9. Davis Bitton, “Early Mormon Lifestyles; or the Saints as Human Beings,” 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), 288-89.

10. Shipps, “In the Presence of the Past,” 19-20; Moore, Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans, 38.

11. Martin Ridge, “Mormon ‘Deliverance’ and the Closing of the Frontier,” Journal of Mormon History 18 (Spring 1992): 143; Ronald K. Esplin, “‘A Place Prepared: Joseph, Brigham and the Quest for Promised Refuge in the West,” Journal of Mormon History 9 (1982): 85-111.

12. Bitton, “Early Mormon Lifestyles,” 290.

13. Shipps, “In the Presence of the Past,” 9-12, 23-25.

14. Foster, “Cults in Conflict,” 195.

15. John G. Gager, “Early Mormonism and Early Christianity: Some Parallels and Their Consequences for the Study of New Religions,” Journal of Mormon History 9 (1982): 57; Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter, When Prophecy Fails (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1956), 3-32; Klaus J. Hansen, Quest for Empire: The Political Kingdom of God and the Council of Fifty in Mormon History (Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1970), 18-20.

16. Michael Barkun, Crucible of the Millennium: The Burned-Over District of New York in the 1840s (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1986), 19, 58-59.

17. Klaus J. Hansen, “Mormonism and American Culture: Some Tentative Hypotheses,” in The Restoration Movement, 2.

18. Gager, “Early Mormonism and Early Christianity,” 58.

19. Ridge, “Mormon ‘Deliverance’ and the Closing of the Frontier,” 151.

20. Logue, A Sermon in the Desert, 12.

21. Edwin Brown Firmage and Richard Collin Mangrum, Zion in the Courts: A Legal History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830-1900 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 259. Nevertheless, they surreptitiously continued to authorize new polygamous marriages for the better part of two decades.