Mormons Correct and Soften Smithsonian Exhibit

Today’s online Salt Lake Tribune includes an article about a relatively new exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution. “American Origins” contains portraits of prominent Americans from 1600 to 1900; therefore, it contains images of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.

Before the exhibit opened in July some LDS Church members got a sneak-peek. They were concerned about some of the captions accompanying the images of the Mormon prophets, having noted factual errors and a “negative slant” in the text. One thing led to another and soon an email was circulating among Latter-day Saints that said, “the exhibit claims Joe Smith was lynched and that Brigham Young was a tyrant.”

The Salt Lake Tribune article notes:

While it is technically correct that Smith was lynched – or murdered by a mob – the term today is widely understood as meaning a person was hanged by a mob.

When concerns over the captions were brought to the attention of the Smithsonian, the museum agreed to corrections and changes. A local Mormon authority asked LDS scholar Richard Bushman to rework the captions, which he did with the help of LDS historian Ronald Esplin and an unnamed Smithsonian curator.

“Labels can have attitude but this was not only inaccurate but it was also slightly mean-spirited and not sort of the neutral position that labels normally go for, especially in a public institution,” said Bushman…

The captions reportedly contained errors in the dates of the conversion of Brigham Young and the founding of the LDS Church. Dr. Bushman rightly corrected these errors and added additional details,

such as Young’s role in colonizing the West, sending thousands of Mormon pioneers out to settle remote parts of the territory. And he softened the tone in other parts.One passage that portrayed Utah’s settlement as a “communal, undemocratic and separatist venture . . . antithetical to the ideals and structure of the national government” gave way to one noting that Young was elected governor before being replaced by an appointed territorial governor. However, it still described the new-founded empire as a “separatist communal and theocratic venture.”

In another change, a passage on the Utah war was removed that said, “Eventually the government forced the Mormons to renounce polygamy and accept its authority. The struggle set the limits of federal toleration for separatist groups and was an important precedent in the decision to prevent the South from seceding in 1861.”

That was replaced with an explanation that continuing conflicts led “the United States to dispatch troops to Utah in 1857 and assert federal authority. Young was notorious for his many wives, a practice taught as a religious principle by his predecessor, Joseph Smith.”

I found these caption changes interesting in light of an article that appeared Saturday in the LDS Deseret News. This article reports on the Utah Historical Society’s exploration of Brigham Young’s role in the Utah War. Consider these reported portions of presentations from the Historical Society’s annual meeting:

  • Historian Will Bagley, for example, said many Utah histories side too much with Mormons, and tell how “the United States sent an Army to persecute our long-suffering Mormon ancestors, and how we beat them in a fair fight … (and) Brigham Young acted as a dedicated peacemaker throughout the entire affair.””This history has one serious problem. It never happened,” Bagley said.

    According to Bagley, contemporary LDS accounts of the war told how Brigham Young was “determined to fight an apocalyptic war” against Washington with the help of Indians, hoping to end non-Mormon influence in the region, and help usher in the millennial rule of Christ.

  • Historian Ardis Parshall said disagreement has long existed over whether Mormons or federal officials deserved most blame for the war. “The truth probably falls somewhere between the two extremes, and every Utah War scholar will produce his own catalog of ‘whys,”‘ Parshall said.”From the federal perspective, the people of Utah were out of control and required the strong hand of discipline to bring them into subjugation.” She said that came as the public perceived Mormons as being more loyal to Young than to the government and courts. The public also detested the then-church policy of polygamy as threatening to families.

    But she said, “The Mormons, on the other hand, saw their treatment by the federal government as outrageous.” They viewed federal appointees in the territory as corrupt political hacks who meddled in the social and religious affairs of Utah. They said such officials slandered them in false reports purporting rebellion.

  • Historian David L. Bigler said Mormons caused many of the problems and misunderstandings that led to the war.Young began acting in defiance of Washington officials after they refused to consider a petition for statehood in 1856, he said. Young proclaimed that the Utah territory would soon be either a “sovereign state” or an independent nation…

    Bigler said a conflict may have been inevitable because Mormons believed they lived in a theocracy ruled by God, which is not compatible within rule of a republic. He said the two systems “cannot exist or live together in peace. Instead, there will be a struggle for supremacy.”

Given these facts, it seems to me that the “softened tone” of the Smithsonian captions has swung the pendulum too far. Visitors to the exhibit will walk away with a vague notion that Brigham Young and his followers sacrificed much to further the expansion of the United States, were a blameless people who just wanted to be left alone, but who were instead oppressed (bullied) by the United States government.

While not offering any context or reasons behind these historical details, Dr. Bushman noted in his caption changes:

  • Brigham Young was elected governor, but was replaced by a U.S. appointee
  • Because of continuing (unnamed) conflicts, the U.S. dispatched troops to Utah to assert federal authority

Is it just me or do the new captions seem to have a negative slant against the United States government?

About Sharon Lindbloom

Sharon surrendered her life to the Lord Jesus Christ in 1979. Deeply passionate about Truth, Sharon loves serving as a full-time volunteer research associate with Mormonism Research Ministry. Sharon and her husband live in Minnesota.
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2 Responses to Mormons Correct and Soften Smithsonian Exhibit

  1. rick b says:

    The Salt Lake Tribune article notes:

    While it is technically correct that Smith was lynched – or murdered by a mob – the term today is widely understood as meaning a person was hanged by a mob.

    What the LDS seem to never tell anyone is, JS fought back, shot three people, two of which died, then tried jumping out the window to get away.

    I did an article on my blog about that sugject, I was almost lynched over it. Sadly the LDS only tell you what they want you to know, then they change the rest of the story. Just like when they changed what the Smithsonian was oringaly going to say. Rick b

  2. hock says:

    Why is Joseph Smith so unpopular with people?

    Even his closest associates, some claiming to witness the gold plates, left him not long after joining the Mormon church.

    Joseph Smith’s wife also doesnt see eye to eye with him. And even JS’s father seemed to say contradictory accounts of JS’s BOM translation even!

    There were other religions during JS’s time but many if not all dont suffer so much persecution as JS did.

    Remember this, JS lived in a closely knitted county. Many people knew him, his wife and family very well.

    Something is just not right about Joseph Smith for him to be hated by so many of his close associates and friends.

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