The January 15, 2007 issue of The New Republic includes an article by Damon Linker: “Taking Mormonism Seriously. The Big Test” (subscription only). I don’t subscribe to The New Republic and so have not read Dr. Linker’s article. However, it appears that Dr. Linker has struck a nerve in some people.TNR Online is hosting a debate on this issue. On January 3rd LDS author and emeritus professor Richard L. Bushman weighed in. Dr. Bushman’s response is accessible to registered users (free registration) and interesting to read. In a nutshell, he believes Dr. Linker has mischaracterized Mormonism. In my opinion, Dr. Bushman makes some good points; and some of his points are deserving of critical response. But I’ll leave that to someone else.
The part of Dr. Bushman’s response that I want to look at has nothing to do with Mitt Romney and today’s politics, but rather with LDS history. Dr. Bushman wrote:
Joseph Smith ran up against the fear of fanaticism almost from the beginning. It was the chief underlying cause of the recurrent expulsions the Mormons suffered. When non-Mormons could find no specific infractions to warrant prosecution in the courts, they resorted to vigilante action to drive the Mormons out. The Mormon presence was unbearable because they were so obviously fanatics. Quite typically, the fear of fanaticism led democrats into undemocratic extremes. Mormons were deprived of their property and the right to live and vote in a supposedly open society. In 1846, after a decade and a half of recurring attacks in Missouri and Illinois, a body of armed citizens forced out the pitiful remains of the Mormon population in Nauvoo by training six cannons on the town.
Dr. Bushman makes it sound as if the early Latter-day Saints were mistreated only because people were afraid the Mormons might do something alarming. In fact, the Mormons did alarm their non-Mormon neighbors by engaging in very alarming behavior.
Consider this portion of a speech made by LDS leader Sidney Rigdon, on the 4th of July, 1838:
We take God and all the holy angels to witness this day, that we warn all men in the name of Jesus Christ, to come on us no more forever, for from this hour, we will bear it no more, our rights shall no more be trampled on with impunity. The man or the set of men, who attempts it, does it at the expense of their lives. And that mob that comes on us to disturb us; it shall be between us and them a war of extermination, for we will follow them, till the last drop of their blood is spilled, or else they will have to exterminate us: for we will carry the seal of war to their own houses, and their own families, and one party or the other shall be utterly destroyed.
If it’s ever reasonable to fear fanaticism, the citizens of Missouri had good reason to fear after hearing that speech. This was not just empty talk by a rogue LDS member. Sidney Rigdon was a very close associate of the Prophet Joseph Smith and impressed the Prophet so deeply with his July 4th oration that Joseph Smith had the speech printed up in pamphlet form and distributed across the Mormon counties of the state.
According to LDS historian Richard Van Wagoner, on October 18th, just a few months after Sidney Rigdon’s threats,
Mormon raiders were able to ride out. Apostle David W. Patten, known by his Danite tide “Captain Fearnought,” descended on Gallatin [Missouri] with a large contingent of men and, after plundering the small village, burned most of it to the ground. Then the marauders pillaged the Daviess County countryside, depositing their spoils, which they termed “consecrated property,” in the bishop’s storehouse at Diahman” (Sidney Rigdon, Portrait of Religious Excess, 234).
LDS History of the Church records that six days after this Mormon marauding and plundering in western Missouri, Thomas Marsh, the President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, swore out an affidavit in which he exposed a Mormon vigilante group called the Danites — who had taken an oath to “support the heads of the Church in all things that they say or do, whether right or wrong” (History of the Church 3:167. Italics retained from the original). Furthermore, according to Mr. Marsh’s affidavit,
The Prophet inculcates the notion, and it is believed by every true Mormon, that Smith’s prophecies are superior to the laws of the land. I have heard the Prophet say that he would yet tread down his enemies, and walk over their dead bodies; and if he was not let alone, he would be a second Mohammed to this generation, and that he would make it one gore of blood from the Rocky mountains to the Atlantic ocean; that like Mohammed, whose motto in treating for peace was, “the Alcoran or the Sword.” So should it be eventually with us, “Joseph Smith or the Sword.” These last statements were made during the last summer. The number of armed men at Adam-ondi-Ahman was between three and four hundred. (ibid.)
The day after Mr. Marsh swore out this affidavit, on October 25th, 1838, a Mormon militia attacked Missouri state troops on the banks of the Crooked River (see Stephen C. LeSueur, The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri, 137ff). The conflict between the Mormons and non-Mormons continued to escalate but came to a screeching halt five days later when 200 Missouri troops attacked the Mormon settlement of Haun’s Mill, killing 18 Mormon men and boys. Joseph Smith soon surrendered.
A similar history attends the Mormon problems in Illinois.
It wasn’t fear of fanaticism that caused the “recurrent expulsions” of the Mormons from their homes; fanatical behavior by the Mormons brought on the predictable consequence of determined resistance from the non-Mormons, which led eventually to aggression and hostilities all around. I’m not making a judgment call on who was right or wrong; the whole affair is far too complicated to sort out here. But I am saying history clearly reveals that the Mormons were not blameless victims of violence brought on by the “fear of fanaticism.” Dr. Bushman, a history professor and author of numerous LDS historical books, knows this. I find it a bit ironic that Dr. Bushman would scold Dr. Linker with these words:
Your essay chooses not to look at the historical record, because specific facts are irrelevant in explicating fanaticism. …There is no effort to give a balanced picture. Certain key facts or incidents are made archetypal. In unguarded moments or exceptional instances the true nature of the fanatic mind reveals itself.