Today, as some Mormons bask in the red-white-and-blue patriotic fervor of Independence, historical awareness continues to provide interesting instances of irony. As the Saints fled Nauvoo for the west, they did so to escape the United States. It was more than 68 years after the U.S. secured freedom from Great Britain that Brigham claimed (in 1845): “I never intend to winter in the United States [again]” and Orson Pratt wrote, “‘It is with the greatest of joy that I forsake this republic; and all the saints have abundant reasons to rejoice that they are counted worthy to be cast out as exiles from this wicked nation.’ The last editorial of the church’s newspaper in Nauvoo proclaimed : ‘All things are in preparation for a commencement of the great move of the Saints out of the United States.’…Six months after [Brigham] Young founded Salt Lake City in July 1847, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War. On 2 February 1848 the new Mormon gathering place became part of the United States dominion.”1
Liberty and Justice for All?
Many don’t realize that in January 1852, at the direction of Brigham Young, the Utah Legislature legalized black slavery (although not of Indians). Brigham’s justification: “we must believe in slavery.”2
In February 1852, “Brigham Young announces policy of denying priesthood to all those of black African ancestry, even ‘if there never was a prophet, or apostle of Jesus Christ spoke it before’ because ‘negroes are the children of old Cain….any man having one drop of the seed of Cain in him cannot hold the priesthood.’ Contrary to Joseph Smith’s example in authorizing the ordination of Elijah Abel [a black man], this is LDS policy for next 126 years.”
At the same time, (February 1852), “Utah’s legislature legalizes voluntary indentured servitude, and authorizes county selectmen or probate courts to put into indentured servitude ‘any idle, vicious or vagrant minor child without his or her consent, or the consent of the parent or guardian of such minor child, if such parent or guardian neglects, refuses, or otherwise fails in properly controlling the actions and education of such minor, and does not train him or her up in some useful avocation.’” If similar laws were still in place today, effectively all the teenagers in my ward would have been forced into indentured servitude prior to serving full time missions. Harsh laws indeed.
In August 1859, the “New York Daily Tribune publishes Horace Greeley’s recent interview with Brigham Young: ‘H.G. What is the position of your church with respect to slavery?’ ‘B.Y. We consider it of divine institution, and not to be abolished until the curse pronounced on Ham shall have been removed from his descendants.’”
Although subsequent disagreement regarding Utah’s policy on legalized slavery was manifest by various general authorities, Utah’s unwillingness to rescind this law appears to have played a significant role in the Federal Government’s denial of statehood prior to the Civil War. Had Utah been a state, it appears they may well have joined the Confederacy, not the Union, as the South was willing to tolerate polygamy while the North was not.
It may be important to consider that, with only small variances to the actual historical record, things might have been much different. In fact, had things gone the way LDS Church leaders often wanted during the Civil War, we would proudly be waving the Union Jack instead of the Stars and Stripes today. It’s almost unfathomable what that might have done to the Fox News color scheme, nonetheless:
In October 1864, “Brigham Young prophesies to general conference: ‘Will the present struggle [of the U.S. Civil War] free the slave? No…and men will be called to judgement for the way they have treated the negro.’ U.S. president Abraham Lincoln has already signed 20 June 1862 law which prohibits slavery in all federal territories, and this emancipates the few dozen slaves in Utah. On 1 Jan 1864 Lincoln has also issued his proclamation which emancipated all slaves in Confederacy but does not free slaves in Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri. The 13th Amendment legally ends slavery everywhere in United States in 1865.”
In March 1865, “Heber C. Kimball tells Apostle Woodruff: ‘The North will never have the power to crush the South…No never.’” The Confederacy surrenders the following month.
Fifteen years later the President of the United States would formalize a concern that would characterize the United States’ overall attitude toward the Mormon Church for next several decades, due at least in part to Brigham’s iron-fisted political control over Utah:
“Ultimately, only the federal government was able to break the Mormon lock on Utah politics by passing anti-polygamy laws. ‘Laws must be enacted which will take from the Mormon Church its temporal power,’ U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes explained. He added: ‘Mormonism as a sectarian idea is nothing, but as a system of government it is our duty to deal with it as an enemy to our institutions, and its supporters and leaders as criminals.’3
So, as we consider the serendipitous if not ironic series of events that brings us to the celebration of freedoms in the U.S., we ought to ask ourselves how future writers of history are likely to misconstrue today’s current events to rally the once disenfranchised in support of celebrations of freedoms not enjoyed by their predecessors.
1 Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy, p. 236
2 Ibid, see Appendix 5 for all subsequent quotes
3 Ibid, p. 264