History of Fanaticism

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.

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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8 Responses to History of Fanaticism

  1. HiveRadical says:

    There’s a serious issue with your point because, before all the items you posit came to pass, the degree and length of persecution the Saints had already endured was tremendous.

    This is also placed outside the context of the fact that the very people you quote were ex-communicated and their words and sentiment and actions were not extentions of prophetic command nor actions that were in anyway official actions of the church.

    So this removal from context, especially the context of the massive amount of persecution that occured prior to any of the incidents you mention, demonstrates that your point is rather pointless. If massive mobs decend on Utah and Mormons in General in the US and start harassing us at the present and some eventual reprisals occur THEN I could see your comments MAYBE having some relevance to the whole debate. But presently it simply seems to be an attempt to take the frustration of a few LDS members and leaders that ensued AFTER extensive persectution that included killing, ravaging, plundering, harassing and beating and try and portray that as proof that the “Mormons” of the day some how incited or initiated the violence against them.

    Sorry. They were certainly not perfect neighbors, but the Saints did not commit the first or the second of the third or the fourth or the seventieth offense. Reprisals from our community came after LONG longsuffering with EGREGIOUS offenses. And when they came they were generally NOT supported by the prophet.

    And you fail to mention the fact that the government of the day utterly failed to even attempt to halt the violence or uphold any semblence of justice. Rather they generally consentented to either watch or facilitate the aggressions.

  2. Jack says:

    I fail to see the relevance of this whole story. What makes it important today? People 150 years ago had to defend themselves the best they could. The west is replete with such stories. What makes this one different or more worthy of note except those who have an anti Mormon agenda?

  3. Sharon says:

    Hive Radical wrote:
    “So this removal from context, especially the context of the massive amount of persecution that occured prior to any of the incidents you mention, demonstrates that your point is rather pointless.”

    Context is important. And as I wrote in History of Fanaticism, the history of Mormon/non-Mormon hostilities is complicated. But here is one more piece of the puzzle, published in the Liberty [Missouri] Western Star newspaper on September 14th, 1838:

    “Until the 4th of July we heard of no threats being made against [the Mormons], in any quarter. The people had all become reconciled to let them remain where they are, and indeed were disposed to lend them a helping hand, but one Sidney Rigdon, in order to show himself off as a great man, collected them all together in the town of Far West, on the 4th of July and there delivered a speech containing the essence of, if not treason itself. This speech was not only published in the newspapers, but handbills were struck for distribution in Caldwell and Daviess Counties. We have not the speech now before us, but we recollect amongst other threats, that this author said: ‘We will not suffer any vexatious lawsuits against our people; nor will we suffer any person to come into our streets and abuse them.’ Now, if this is not a manifestation of a disposition to prevent the force of law, we do not know what is.” (quoted in Stephen C. LeSueur, The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri, 52)

  4. HiveRadical says:

    There’s issues with even that last point. Five years BEFORE that report was made the inhabitants of Misouri had already assebled together and openly attacked, primarily, the oddity of the Mormons.

    Here’s a more exacting telling–

    “Terry L. Givens thoughtfully explores this issue in his book, The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 40-59). He notes that critics have long had a vested interest in emphasizing nonreligious reasons for the persecution of the Latter-day Saints, and historians have also focused on causes of the conflict other than religious bigotry. However, Givens notes, even before the Missouri Wars began, “the hundreds of mobbers involved at the outset were good enough to commit their complaints to paper” (ibid., p. 44), referring to a document “drawn up at a mass meeting in Jackson County, Missouri, in July 1833” that shows the significance of religion in the minds of the mobbers. It begins with lip service to the notion of leaving the “grossest supestition” of Mormon religion out of the conflict, but quickly launches into attacks on LDS beliefs. The authors raise the specter of Mormon “swarms” invading their land, people “who do not blush to declare, and would not upon occasion hesitate to swear, that they have wrought miracles . . . and supernatural cures, have concourse with God and His angels, and possess and exercise the gifts of divination and of unknown tongues” (ibid., p. 44). There follows a brief reference to LDS antiabolitionist tendencies – the only attempt in the document to provide a legal reason for opposing the Mormons – followed by a reiteration of a religious attack on the Mormons. Givens writes, “Rather than mount a serious attack on Mormon racial views in a way that would lend legitimacy – or at least mitigate – their violent solutions [in the context of a pro-slavery state], the mobbers repeatedly invoke and caricature Mormon religious heterodoxy” (ibid., p. 44). In many of the actions against the Mormons, local religious leaders played significant roles. For example, affidavits signed by three members of the Church indicate that when Joseph Smith was court-martialed and sentence to death at Far West by the Missouri Militia, that “seventeen preachers of the gospel were on this court martial; and, horrible to relate, were in favor of this merciless sentence” (Clark V. Johnson, ed., Mormon Redress Petitions: Documents of the 1833-1838 Missouri Conflict (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, BYU, 1992), p. 407).”

    taken from


    And even that last instance of court martialing and sentencing to death of their leader (under false or non-criminal charges), the one with seventeen supposed “Christian” preachers participating in his condemning, happened about six months BEFORE Sidney Rigdon’s statement regarding war.

    So the statement you quote “Until the 4th of July we heard of no threats being made against [the Mormons], in any quarter.” is an absured claim, even if made historicaly, when you consider that six months previous there was a conserted effort to kill their leader without any real legal complaint against him.

  5. Sharon says:

    Historian Stephen C. LeSueur recorded details of a court-martial that occurred on November 1, 1838:

    “Sketchy evidence makes it difficult to determine who attended and who voted at the trial [of Joseph Smith at Far West]. According to Mormon accounts, Judge Austin A. King as well as seventeen ministers attended the court-martial, but this claim is not verified in other sources” (The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri, 182).

    Hive Radical mistakenly places this event six months before Sidney Rigdon’s July 4th oration and submits it as proof of pre-July 4th hostilities against the Mormons. However, this court-martial took place 4 months after Sidney Rigdon’s provocative speech, the charges being brought against Joseph Smith as a result of the Mormon War.

    Further evidence of good relations between the Mormons and the Missourians before July 4, 1838 is found in the early LDS periodical The Elders’ Journal. Published in Far West, Missouri, under the issue date of July 1, 1838:

    “The Saints here are at perfect peace with all the surrounding inhabitants, and persecution is not so much as once named among them” (Volume 1, number 3).

  6. HiveRadical says:

    I did mistakenly place the trial date. I think I knkow how I did it now that I look back on what I was referencing. I got the time of departure from Kirtland confused with the event of the trial.

    But the claim that they were at “perfect peace” with the surounding inhabitants needs to be taken with relation to the fact that they’d been effectively cordoned off to caldwell county. Note in the statement “and persecution is not so much as once named among them” is saying nothing more than that this is a repreve and relative calm.

    It’s also important to realize that Sidney Rigdon’s speach was focused at the disension of those from within to forstall those who were turning on the saints from within, and those that might be incited by such on the outside, from effecting what the Saints had already endured multiple times.

    The whole thrust of what is being attempted to be portrayed here is that the Mormons “got what was comming to them”

    If you were to take an individual that had been subjected to two or three previous situations in which he or shee was made the subject of unwarente abuse and assault and that person, on the appearance of another instance of such a circumstance appears to ‘jump the gun’ in certain aspects, is it really fair to try and paint that individual as either a fellow fanatic along with their past adversaries OR as being immune from the natural human survival instinct that accompanies being thrice bitten without any provocation?

    Do I think what Rigdon said was intelligent or all of revelation? No. But does that rhetoric justify IN ANY WAY, the attrocities carried out by many of the citizens of Missouri against the saints?

    To bring it in a modern day context and relate it to something we’ve all recently witnessed. Are items like the Muhamed Cartoons or the comments of the Pope inherently and utterly benign? Even the rationality of placing these things, knowing the mentality of some in the larger muslim community, can be brought into question. But to try and paint the cartoonists or the pope as coming anywhere near as close, in fanaticism or irrationaility, as those muslims that kill and burn and destroy at such provocations is inane.

    Likewise. To say, or imply, that the events and doings against the Mormons in Missouri in anyway met the magnitude of any errors they did is absured. They broke no law. The dixie chicks are abhored at people smashing their CD’s and not listening to them for making comments about Bush. Yet the Saints, actually having a large reserve of reasons to believe such rhetoric may be needed (their past expulsions, the trouble dissenters were threatening, the previous speaking against them by Missourians since their arrival many years previous etc.) are made subject to killings, imprisonment, plundering, rape, pillaging and many other attrocities simply for the statements of a few members jumping the gun.

    But you being of the “Mormon Research Ministries” have a vested motive in making these attrocities appear explainable in any other way beyond religious persecution. If our ancestors brought it on themselves then you can paint their trials, and by extension, their faith, as situations fabricated and as artificial as a flagellant’s self-flogging.

    Were the saints perfect? NO. Did they do and say things unwise? YES. Were the attrocities commited against them in anyway called for or their fault? An emphatic NO.

  7. Sharon says:

    Hive Radical wrote: “The whole thrust of what is being attempted to be portrayed here is that the Mormons “got what was comming to them”

    Actually, the point of the article, as I wrote, is this: “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.'”

    An honest look at the Mormon War in Missouri irrefutably shows that there were depredations committed by and against both the Mormon and non-Mormon communities. I have never condoned the violence or hostilities of either side. But I dislike the spinning of historical facts that makes it appear as if one side was guilty and the other innocent. That’s just not the way it was, and no good comes of pretending otherwise.

  8. Ginger says:

    Sharon, although you claim not to take sides in this issue, your written words belie that sentiment. This said, I do believe that you’d LIKE to not take sides–that you truly want to come across as unbiased. I think that’s what hiveradical was getting at.

    Are you telling me that if most of your family members and friends had been beat up, spat on, raped, robbed or even killed that you would not want some kind of retribution? Mormons are human. Put the lives of my children at risk every day and I will do “whatever it takes” to keep them safe.

    There also seems to be some kind of common misconception among non-Mormons that everything that any of the early Saints said or did is to be considered as representative of ALL the Saints. In any group that doesn’t hold true, then or now.

    Did Joseph Smith complain about the torture and trials he endured for years before his murder? I wasn’t there, but I know that I certainly would! I’d at least say something to my closest friends. What if one or more of my friends wasn’t truly a friend? What if they WANTED retribution, so heard what they wanted to in the complaint. When most people repeat part of a conversation or write it down later, it’s not exact at best and totally twisted at worst.

    As an expert of human nature (sociocultural anthropologist), I’d say that speculation and discussion are the best ways to deal with a matter such as this. I appreciate the candor and research involved in your writing as well as a definite lack of “arguing”. 🙂

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