Mormons and Jews
by Steven Epperson
[p.209] It was “cloudy, breezy, [and] cool” in Jerusalem on Sunday morning, 2 March 1873. Two apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, George A. Smith and Lorenzo Snow, as well as a number of other Saints including Eliza R. Snow, Lorenzo Snow’s sister, “rode to the Mount of Olives,” pitched a tent, and assembled for a prayer meeting. With a “watchman outside” posted at the door, the small group robed themselves and “united in service in the order of the Holy Priesthood.” After an opening prayer by Apostle Snow “in which the … dedicatory sentiments were contained,” George A. Smith “dedicated” the land: “I was mouth, remembering the general interests of Zion, and dedicating this land, praying that it might become fertile … and the prophecies and promises unto Abraham and the prophets be fulfilled in the own due time of the Lord.” Eliza R. Snow later recalled that “President Smith leading in humble, fervent supplication [then] dedicated the land of Palestine for the gathering of the Jews and the rebuilding of Jerusalem.… Other brethren led in turn, and we had a very interesting season.”1
Thus thirty years after Orson Hyde’s dedication of Palestine for the return of exiled Israel and the restoration of its national commonwealth, Mormons returned to the site on the Mount of Olives to confirm the work and vision of Joseph Smith and Orson Hyde. This confirmation [p.210] by Brigham Young’s apostolic envoys forged yet another link between his administration and that of his predecessor. What was confirmed was a view of covenant Israel which repudiated the traditionally anti-Jewish theology of mainstream Christian churches. This view was forged by figures in the LDS movement who attempted to rethink and refashion their encounter with Israel in terms affirming the integrity, autonomy, and witness of both groups.
This work of affirmation and critique ranged across a broad spectrum of LDS writing, rhetoric, and action. New works of scripture (as well as “translations” of the traditional canon) were produced reemphasizing the integrity and fidelity of God’s promises to Israel. Gentile anti-Jewish bias was denounced. The righteous among the nations were enjoined to “cleave to the house of Jacob.” Prayers of dedication and blessing were invoked in Mormon temples and in the hills of Judea calling for the end of Israel’s forced exile, a gathering of its people to “lands of inheritance” in Palestine, and the renewal of its national commonwealth. Sermons, editorials, and tracts were penned affirming these notions and condemning Jewish missions and Christian theological intransigence. Voices of contemporary Jewry were sought out, and new media and terms for a Jewish/Mormon encounter explored. Israel’s witness of its covenantal integrity “from Sinai to Shechem” through the nineteenth century and beyond to the eschaton was recognized.
Joseph Smith was the artisan of this theological and practical task. His preoccupation with the relationship between Israel and the Saints was crucial for the emergence of a “tradition” within the Mormon church affirming Israel’s autonomy, covenant, and ongoing witness to the church.
However, this “tradition” was neither normative nor preeminent during the first decade. The dominant [p.211] sentiments of the Saints during the 1830s were apocalyptic and primitivist. Thus many Saints shared two basic assumptions with their Christian contemporaries. First, they believed that the dramatic advent of Christ, an event which would reverse the world order, was imminent. Second, they believed that the only true refuge from “fallen” churches and the approaching cataclysm resided in a perfect church order and in practices structured on those of the primordial Christian community.
These concerns were articulated in the 1830s by such Mormon leaders as Sidney Rigdon, Oliver Cowdery, and Parley and Orson Pratt. These men figured among Smith’s closest associates. Yet their preoccupations with the “New” Testament church and the approaching eschaton relegated Jewish people to an epiphenomenal category. Varying little from the views of non-LDS contemporaries, these Mormon eiders either derided the “Mosaic economy” as one more instance of a fallen, bankrupt religious order or classed Jewish people as final eschatalogical witnesses whose eleventh-hour conversion en masse would herald the imminent triumph of Jesus Christ and his millennial kingdom. Thus their exclusive concern was to preach the “gathering” of a restored church to as many as would listen before the final curtain descended.
Circumstances of the 1830s increasingly placed Jews and Israel’s covenantal heritage at the center of Joseph Smith’s concerns and gave rise to his atypical theology. First, Joseph became increasingly estranged from Christian churches, creeds, and traditions. He sought throughout his life for myths, symbols, narratives, and institutions commensurate to his prophetic task as advocate for the “restoration of all things.” Finding the heritage of the churches inadequate, he went far beyond the Christian primitivism of his colleagues when he turned to Israel’s scripture and covenantal [p.212] history for the compelling paradigms and institutions around which a new covenantal community could be constituted.
Second, the Parousia, Christ’s advent and kingdom, was delayed. This delay contributed to Smith’s estrangement from the apocalypticism rampant among the churches and espoused by his own colleagues. Instead he turned his attention to Israel’s historical experience. Keith E. Norman has pointed out that several events delivered crushing blows to Mormon adventist expectations and led to reinterpretation of failed prophecies.2 Smith responded to the disappointments of the late 1830s and early 1840s by concluding that the Saints could not rely on the Second Coming to deliver them from present conflicts and responsibilities. Instead the Saints were enjoined to act, to acquire the skills and knowledge which could prepare the way for the coming era of righteousness. Ten years after Smith’s death, Jedidiah Grant, a counselor to Brigham Young, succinctly summarized Joseph’s rearticulation of LDS millennial hope by telling a group of British immigrant Saints, “If you want a heaven, go and make it.”3
As the emphasis shifted to making the Kingdom of God, Smith and those who followed him increasingly embraced those aspects of Israel’s experience which abetted its enduring identity and vitality. Thus the categories and institutions of nation, people, temple, covenant, priesthood, gathering, restoration, and territoriality began to dominate in Joseph’s writings, sermons, and activity. He worked at articulating an eschatology for the Saints which would prove more serviceable for their task of building Zion than would the vagaries of apocalyptic and the ever unattainable haven of a pristine church.
But Smith went beyond the theological abstraction of a people of the Old Testament. As a student of Hebrew under Joshua Seixas and as editor of the Times and [p.213] Seasons, he attempted to listen to the lively, full-bided Jewish community contemporary with that of the Saints. It is obvious from the work of Smith and Brigham Young that this encounter had a profound impact on the theology and institutions of the LDS church in the mid-1800s. And it is not surprising that the this-worldly emphasis of Joseph’s and Brigham’s eschatology contributed to the almost universal support with the LDS church for the nascent Zionist movement and for Israel’s quest for statehood.
There persists in the LDS community to this day an elective affinity with Jewish people, an affinity forged by a comparable quest for a territorial patrimony, an autonomous state, and a unique culture. Latter-day Saints recognize the enduring debt owed to Israel’s historical, covenantal heritage. Without it there could have been no “restoration of all things,” no temples, no community, no abiding quest for Zion on this earth.
The views and acts of Smith, Hyde, and Young have been examined at some length. What follows are three brief sketches of Mormons who manifested the imprint of Mormonism’s positive evaluation of covenant Israel.
In the spring of 1840, Heber C. Kimball (1810-68) returned to direct the LDS mission in the British Isles which he had opened three years before with Hyde. Born in Shelton, Vermont, Kimball had been a blacksmith and potter. He was a close friend to Brigham Young and was the third member of the original Quorum of the Twelve.4 Kimball would be in the first company of Saints to enter the Great Salt Lake Valley, and he was chosen by Young to be second counselor in the First Presidency of the church.
The 16 August 1841 issue of the Times and Seasons published a letter by Kimball addressed to “The Editors of the Times and Seasons.”5 His letter recounts his observations of London, including his experience attending a sabbath service in “the Jewish Synagogue.” “We visited [p.214] the … Synagogue,” he writes, “to see their order of worship, which was all performed in Hebrew.” This was Kimball’s first encounter with organized Jewish religious observance: “We stayed during the whole ceremony in their worship, and at the same time some were singing … in a sweet melodious manner, some reading, some praying and others in different attitudes of worship, all of which passed off with great solemnity and order.”
Kimball then points out to Mormon readers that those entering the synagogue were requested to keep their hats on, “and no one [is] permitted to enter their place of worship” unless they comply with this rule. Kimball and his companions willingly obliged. But, he continues, “passing farther into their Synagogue, the beauty and splendor thereof caused us again to take them off.” The worshippers again reminded the Mormon visitors about their hats, and Kimball confesses that they “might have appeared … a little Clownish.”
However, Kimball’s awkwardness did not compromise his response. “During their worship,” he writes, “my mind was unusually solemn, and I looked upon those sons of illustrious sires with mingled emotions of sorrow for the unparalleled cruelties which have been inflicted upon their Nation, and joy that the day of their redemption was near.” This last statement must be understood within the context both of Hyde’s recent stopover with Kimball and others in Britain while on his way to Palestine and also Kimball’s own closing observations. After having toured the synagogue and that “part of the city in which they reside,” Kimball concludes, “They are the most spirited, ambitious, and perservering people I ever saw. They believe the gathering of Israel, in the last days, is near, and they are waiting for their restoration to the land of Palestine.”
Kimball’s response to the order of worship and to the worshippers in “the Jewish Synagogue” in London contrasts [p.215] with that of Ezra Stiles, America’s most prominent eighteenth-century Hebraist. Stiles was a Congregationalist minister, president of Yale University (1778-95), and in the pursuit of Hebrew frequently in contact with rabbis and lay Jewish leaders. Reflecting on a Jewish community in worship, Stiles wrote, “How melancholy to behold an Assembly of Worshippers of Jehovah, open and professed enemies to a crucified Jesus.”6 Stiles, scholar of the church and its traditions, could not acknowledge or allow what Kimball, the blacksmith, potter, and religious outsider, could not avoid. Ignorant of ecclesiastical histories and systematic theologies and informed instead by the positive LDS assessment of Israel’s covenant and future, Kimball in contrast to Stiles could respond with respect and affirmation.
George A. Smith, as we have seen, participated in the “rededication” of Palestine in March 1873. By June he had returned to Utah. Summoned to address various congregations that summer and fall, Smith provided both a detailed account of his travels to Europe and the Levant and an analysis of the contemporary political and religious state of affairs in those areas. His remarks on Palestine are of particular interest.7 Smith adopts a language which Saints from the water-scarce Great Basin would have doubtless understood: “the country [the region of Palestine] is dry and barren … though they have occasional rains.” He was struck by its “barrenness, desolation, scanty population” and the “oppressed, poor and despised” condition of the native Jewish population.
For two decades the Saints themselves had labored much to their chagrin under a series of territorial administrations and courts imposed by and administered from Washington, D.C. Smith’s remarks then would have sounded with particular resonance among fellow Saints when he observed that “in the land of their fathers … they [the Jews] are in bondage, under tutors, [p.216] governors, and rulers, and have in reality no power of themselves.” All of these observations caused George A. Smith, cousin to Joseph Smith, to engage in “some very serious reflections as to the causes which had operated to reduce the country to its present barren condition” and which led to the dispossession of the Jews with their “independent nation, blotted out.”
Not surprisingly his response goes back to the Deuteronimical view of the dichotomies of righteousness/blessings, trespasses/curses, which were central to Mormonism’s own theological identity. However, in the context of traditional Christian readings of Israel’s “curse,” Smith’s analysis and his conclusions are something of a surprise.
Smith finds the cause of Palestine’s desolation in three central factors. First, according to his reading of Malachi 3:8, Smith surmises that Israel “would not give him [the Lord] tithes[;] they robbed him of tithes and offerings.” Second, “they lost this power [self-government and autonomy]—they fell into the hands of their enemies … because they married the daughters of aliens, worshipped strange gods, and [were] finally broken up … scattered to the four winds of heaven.” Finally, “they have been subject to the most extreme abuse” at the hands of Christians. With sarcasm he refers to Ferdinand and Isabella as “a very pious couple,” whose edits were responsible for the banishment, death, and conversion of “probably a half a million Jews.” The Crusaders are depicted as hypocrites, who “while on their way to Jerusalem, plundered and killed thousands of the Hebrew race.”
“Not withstanding all the oppression heaped upon them continuously from generation to generation,” Smith concludes, “they still maintain their identity as the seed of Abraham.… [T]hey are a living record of the truth of the revelations of God.” The day is “not far distant,” he prophesies, “when Israel would gather, and [p.217] those lands would begin to teem with people.…” And further: “The blessing of the Lord, which we invoked on the Mount of Olives, will rest upon his people.… [T]he time is not very far distant when God will fulfill his promises concerning Israel.”
The lesson Smith draws from his observation is a “moral” and a political one “to us at home”: not that the Jews were accursed for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ but that they fell “into the same snares” which tempt the Saints. The results of not heeding Israel’s lesson, Smith warns, would be the dissolution of the compact binding the Saints as a people. “We profess to believe a great deal,” he states, “but do our acts correspond with our belief?” If the Saints would faithfully gather out from among the gentiles and “Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse,” the Lord, according to Smith, “will rebuke the devourer.… [H]e shall not destroy the fruit of your ground.… And all nations shall call you blessed.”
At the same meeting Brigham Young confirmed Smith’s analysis. The aging Mormon prophet then turned his peoples’ attention from the “Tithes and offerings” which they must render “that there may be meat in [the Lord’s] house” and the Lord’s Zion to the labor needed to produce offerings and tithes: “Hence we say, improve, be industrious, prudent, fruitful, make good farms, gardens and orchards, good public and private buildings, have the best schools. etc.”8 In his eyes these were essential components of building a kingdom of Saints.
Smith and Young concluded that Israel’s exile was the result of religious and national accommodation and imitation of neighboring and occupying states whose cultures were inimical to Israel’s covenant. Israel’s “desolation” was not tied by either man to the death of Jesus of Nazareth. Rather they preached that Israel’s exile was a cautionary tale to the Saints.
[p.218] The 12 March 1880 issue of the American Israelite noted that some thirty Jewish families were “prospering” in the overwhelmingly Mormon territory of Utah.9 Since 1857 when a Jew was reported as having been appointed chaplain to the Utah legislature along with Catholic and Mormon “clergy,” the American Jewish press ran regular reports on the small Utah Jewish community.10 These columns were often critical of Mormon religious practice, especially the practice of plural marriage, but they also noted the positive relations between the two groups. The Occident reported in 1866 that a site for a Jewish cemetery had been “donated by the Mormons”11; celebrations of the Jewish “New Year” often took place in “Mormon halls”12; and the Saints’ Millennial Star, printed in England, republished a “Resolution” issued by the “Israelites of Salt Lake,” which thanked “the Mormon Authorities formally and heartily for their kindness … in furnishing … spacious halls, free of cost, for celebrating their late religious anniversaries. The most tolerant and magnanimous religious sect we have ever known is the Mormons.”13
Edward Tullidge’s Ben Israel or, From Under the Curse: A Jewish Play in Five Acts was written in this social and religious environment of good will.14 His choice of subject for a play and his characterization of its Jewish protagonists may well have benefitted from and in turn reflected both the congenial Jewish/Mormon relations in Utah settlements and the positive aspects of Mormon thought about the Jewish people.
Converted to Mormonism as a young man in England, Tullidge later settled in Utah. Initially he was an ardent enthusiast for Young’s vision of a Mormon kingdom in the American rockies. A gifted journalist, Tullidge hoped, as described by one biographer, to be the “epic chronicler” of Young’s “experiment in godly government.”15 Expansively the thirty-two-year-old Tullidge pointed out to the Mormon prophet that “as yet [p.219] our people have no national drama … no national literature.… From the time I came into the Church, I fervently desired to see the Saints a great nation, and ranking in the first class of society … [and] to be numbered among the workers out of Zion’s social and national greatness.”16
However, Tullidge was to learn that elevating a physically and culturally isolated pioneer community into the social stratosphere was a daunting task. His plays and prose fiction suffered not only from the Saints’ insularity in the Great Basin but also from his own modest creative literary capabilities. But one aspect of Tullidge’s writing in Ben Israel rose above its author’s handicaps. Louis Harap17 and Ellen Schiff have noted how nineteenth-century American theater slavishly replicated the anti-Semitic conventions of the European stage. Jewish characters were invariably cast as Shylocks or as benighted outsiders “blinded by the wrongheaded vision of [their] people.”18 Tullidge’s Ben Israel was marred by his devotion to certain dicta of British dramaturgy, but it manifested an independent vision in its depiction of Jewish characters.
The story of Ben Israel enacts the return to England during the reign of Charles II of a band of Jews headed by one David Ben Israel. The play turns on the efforts and intrigues of members of the court to thwart the return of the Jews to England, efforts which include false representation, arson, and murder. Tullidge turns the cultural habit of dramatic anti-Semitism on its head. With few exceptions the Christians are the “challengers of Truth” and the arrogant and duplicitous devotees of a “wrongheaded vision.”
Tullidge’s Jewish protagonists variously challenge and criticize their English enemies and detractors:
Christian scoffer! Our race were princes when thy ancestors were robbers and barbarians!
A Christian’s covenant, and to a Jew! When was it kept…?
How apt these Christians are—ay wise men too—who are fortified by favored fortune—how apt to talk as if they were modern Solomons, risen to shame our great ancestor—with proverbs of the cunning of the Jews.
Yet to the Christian gave they oracles: How hath he paid his debt of gratitude? Why, meanly taken advantage of their fall.… 19
Christian enmity and meanness of spirit is contrasted with the prophetic vision which animates David Ben Israel. In a speech delivered to the British king, Ben Israel predicts:
Thou shalt marvels see. There is a spirit in our sacred race
Which, fan’d, shall send a blaze o’er all the earth.
Our seers shall rise; our psalmists sing;
Our Solomons give wisdom to the world,
And every land shall bless, not curse, the Jew.20
But finally it is given to the young Jewess Rachel to speak the play’s most dramatic and most militant lines:
But Judah shall come from under the curse
As gold from the refiner’s fire. He shall
Redeem himself, asking not Gentile grace.
We’ve kissed the rod; but henceforth, if ye smite,
Ye shall pay back for every blow,
And crawl at Judah’s feet to beg his helping hand.21
Certainly Tullidge’s role-reversal of Christian and Jew serves mythic types rather than realism, but his play is of interest in the way it challenged routine prejudices of the day. Like Kimball and George A. Smith, Tullidge registered in print the impact of the visionary evaluation of Mormon/Jewish encounter first ventured by Joseph Smith. They—and with them contemporary [p.221] Latter-day Saints—benefitted from an aspect of restoration which challenged traditional Christian ways of understanding the Jewish people.
Mormons continue to live with their fractured heritage—two traditions of thought and action concerning Jews and Judaism handed down by the church’s first leaders. But the sobering light cast by recent history is compelling Latter-day Saints to excavate those traditions and repudiate the understanding of one tradition and critically appropriate the vision of another. Mormons can be instructed by the witness of the founder of their religious community and those disciples who sought to keep that vision alive for future generations of Latter-day Saints.
1. George A. Smith, Journal, 1870-74, typescript copy, Special Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, 31, 331; George A. Smith et al., Correspondence of Palestine Tourists: A Series of Lectures. . . (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1875), 260.
9. American Israelite, 12 Mar. 1880, 6. Cited in Hynda L. Rudd, Mountain West Pioneer Jewry: An Historical and Genealogical Source Book (from Origins to 1885), Western American Study Series (Los Angeles: Will Kramer Publisher, 1980), 37.