During the summer, faithful Mormons put on musicals (or pageants) as a way of illustrating their religious history, as well has encouraging the seeker to convert to their uniquely American faith. The early Latter-Day Saints were among the pioneers who trekked into the American West, carving out a place for themselves within the mountains of Utah and in the surrounding territories. Their sacrifice, bravery and perseverance are part of their heritage, and one they are justifiably proud of. Yet there is an incovenient truth about their faith which dims the glory of this often told story, which is this: when the pioneers moved into the western territories, they were leaving a democracy for a theocratic kingdom, which quickly became the greatest anti-democratic force of that era – with polygamy the most visible manifestation of that force. How the United States government broke that power is discussed in a recent Weekly Standard article by Stanley Kurtz. After outlining the complete economic and social control that the Church wielded, he goes on to note:
The 12-year federal drive to enforce Reynolds was far more than a quest to root out polygamy. In effect, the fight against polygamy was a slow, frustrating, expensive, ultimately successful campaign to democratize Utah. (The parallels to the war on terror are eerie.) As federal agents descended on Utah, the Mormon leadership went underground, sleeping in hay ricks, hiding under floorboards, dispersing to remote mountain valleys, communicating in code, and depending on early warnings from a sympathetic populace.
Given the demonstration effect of the Civil War, polygamists knew that armed resistance was futile. Yet by evading capture and withholding the evidence needed for conviction, the Mormon leadership hoped to win a legal war of attrition. Still, Mormon resistance was limited by the fear of provoking a full-fledged military occupation, and by the thirst for statehood.
For the better part of a decade, polygamist resistance seemed unbreakable. The railroads were supposed to bring civilization (a nineteenth-century version of globalization and the Internet). Instead they brought more Mormon converts. Elections and the female franchise were supposed to sweep polygamy aside. Instead, pious women and unlettered men voted to solidify the church’s power. Then the outlines of a demographic nightmare emerged. With a fertility boom fueled by four decades of polygamy, Utah’s population was spilling into Idaho, Oregon, New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming. Mormons bragged that, with the admission of the territories, they would hold the balance of power in a politically divided America.
Back East, these threats provoked a tougher line. Attending to the social and economic foundations of Mormon power, Congress set out to break polygamist rule. By 1833, the disestablishment of churches in the American states was complete, and it had been accomplished partly by state legislatures’ setting limits to the churches’ business and property holdings. Congress now applied these standards to the Utah Territory, modeling its legislation on the original “mortmain” laws that had curbed church power in England. In this way, church control of Utah’s economy was dissolved, and erstwhile church property was used to fund public education, with a curriculum designed around democratic values.
The result was capitulation. With the economic and social foundations of theocracy destroyed, a shooting war unwinnable, and the quest for statehood hanging in the balance, the Mormons renounced polygamy and set themselves on the path to democracy.
It’s to the LDS Church’s credit that once that power was broken, it became an enthusiatic defender of American democracy, but that doesn’t negate the unpleasant reality of its early ambitions. It should trouble Mormons (and seekers) that an analogy can successfully be made between our government’s current fight to democratize the Middle East and its effort to democratize Mormon dominated territories – and that the early LDS church embodied everything that is in opposition to what they today believe to be a divinely inspired document, the United States Constitution. This unfortunate history calls into question the spirit which motivated and controlled early Church leadership, and reduces its glorious story of pioneer faith to a pious fantasy.