Saturday, 18 April 2015

Review of "The Rocky Mountain Saints" by T B H Stenhouse

This is an interesting piece of 19th century anti-Mormon literature.  Thomas Stenhouse (1825-1882) was a Mormon journalist who fell out with the church.  He published the book in 1873 as an expos√© of what had gone on in early Utah, which he depicted as a repressive theocracy.

When the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith died in 1844, his followers were living in a town called Nauvoo in Illinois.  Smith died young - he was shot by a mob of anti-Mormons - and he had made no serious provisions for his succession.  A struggle ensued, and a man called Brigham Young emerged as the leader of the majority of Smith's followers.

Smith had been a charismatic leader - constantly spouting scriptures, rituals and revelations. Young was a different kind of man altogether. He was a politician and an administrator. Smith founded a radical end-times sect which experimented with polygamy and communism; Young founded a society and a state. The whole story is a case study in the Weberian routinisation of charisma. Mormons today remember Young as a larger-than-life character - a tough-talking but essentially benevolent patriarch. There is some truth in this, but Brigham Young was something else as well. He was a natural born authoritarian. He was not without benevolence, but his benevolence ended the moment that his power was called into question.

By the time of Smith's death, the Mormons had outstayed their welcome in the eastern states.  There was strong enmity between them and their neighbours, and a disturbing history of violence on both sides.  The Mormons had created their own militia and had been getting involved in politics.  For their part, the non-Mormon population worried that a theocracy was being built in their midst:
No one unacquainted with the history of the Saints at this time could possibly imagine the recrimination and bitterness of feeling that existed between the Mormons and anti-Mormons of Nauvoo and the surrounding districts.  It was worse than civil war, worse than a war of races; it was religious hate!  It was fed by fanaticism on both sides - a fanaticism that was truly despicable....  With the faith of the Saints that they were building up "a kingdom," it was very natural that they should act differently from the citizens of a Republic, and that they should seek to control, and not submit to be controlled.  With no faith in that religion, it was as natural for "the Gentiles" to view with alarm every influence and power in the county passing into Mormon hands.  The idea of subjugation was at the bottom of their thoughts, and they were determined not to submit.
What the anti-Mormons saw as resistance to dangerous fanaticism, the Mormons saw as religious persecution.  They decided that they had had enough.  In 1846-48, Young led his followers in an epic trek across the plains to what is now the state of Utah.

Utah was originally Mexican territory, but from 1850 the settlers found themselves in the uncomfortable position of living under United States jurisdiction.  They would much rather have been let alone to govern themselves.  They tried to set up their own state within the Union, named "Deseret".  But they were rebuffed by the US Government, and Utah became a federally administered territory of the USA.

All was not lost.  Brigham Young was permitted to serve as Governor of the new Utah Territory.  Other federal officials appointed by Washington, if not Mormons themselves, tended to be won round to a pro-Mormon position in a rather corrupt, you-scratch-my-back kind of way.  Yet the underlying separatism of 19th century Mormonism did not abate.  The Mormons were openly hostile to the American Republic.  Young even maintained an unofficial collection of parallel state institutions in existence to keep alive the dream of a Mormon nation of "Deseret":
Nominally, the civil authority is Utah: de facto it is Deseret. The Government pays the Territorial legislators their per diem for making the laws of Utah, and hands them their mileage at the end of the session.  On the day succeeding the close, Brigham, as governor of Deseret, convenes them as a State legislature: reads his message to them, and some one proposes that the laws of the legislature of Utah be adopted by the State of Deseret.
Once they were settled in their new mountain fastness, the Mormons could practise their religion largely unmolested, including its more extreme manifestations.  Polygamy is the best known example of this: it was practised openly from 1852.  A few years later, in 1856, there arose a radical revivalist movement known as the "Reformation".  Ignited by a polemical sermon from the Mormon apostle Jedediah "Jeddy" Grant, this seems to have resembled a kind of Maoist cultural revolution:
The most extravagant language and bitter denunciations were uttered against the Saints, and strict, unquestioning obedience to the priesthood was commanded in all things, with the consecration of body, soul, and property to the Church.  Individuals were hinted at and sins imputed to them which they dared not deny, nor even attempt to defend themselves, however innocent they might be.
People's private lives were ruthlessly scrutinised.  Women - and men - were pressured into polygamy.  Violence was meted out to people of blameless character.  Most worryingly of all, the Reformation seems to have been the origin of the infamous Mormon doctrine of Blood Atonement, which maintained that certain sins fell outside the atonement of Jesus Christ and could be forgiven only if the sinner's blood was shed.  (This doctrine is disavowed by the modern Mormon church.)  Occasionally, there were interludes of black humour:
On one occasion a public meeting was called at the Social Hall, which was very largely attended by the priesthood or male members only.  Brigham, Heber, 'Jeddy,' and others addressed the elders.  Blind and burning zeal prompted the meanest accusations and aspersions.  The confessions, as before observed, were groundwork for reproofs, rebukes, and denunciations.  Brigham in his speech put a motion as follows: 'All you who have been guilty of committing adultery, stand up.'  To the surprise of some, and the chagrin of the presidency, more than three-fourths stood on their feet.
Fittingly, Jeddy himself died as a result of a bout of pneumonia which he contracted while being re-baptised amidst the enthusiasm which he had done so much to stir up.

At this point, the US Government decided that enough was enough.  President James Buchanan determined to remove Young as Governor of Utah Territory.  In November 1857, the new nominee for Governor, Alfred Cumming, declared that the Mormons were in a state of rebellion.  The US Army was sent to escort Cumming and his fellow federal officers into Utah.  Young himself was indicted for treason.

Inside Utah, feelings ran high.  Young declared martial law, and the Mormons readied themselves for a bloody and destructive conflict.  The Army initially retreated in the face of poor conditions and Mormon resistance.  For a brief moment, the Mormons thought that they had finally realised their dream of an independent theocracy.  It was not to be, however.  It turned out that neither side's leaders really wanted an armed showdown.  Colonel Thomas Kane, an Army officer known to be sympathetic to the Mormons, acted as a go-between; and in April 1858, Governor Cummings entered Salt Lake City peacefully.  Young gave up his seal of office and President Buchanan extended a pardon to the rebels.

The US officials tried to clean up some of the mess that had been left by the fanaticism and violence of the Reformation and the preceding decade of Mormon rule.  In 1859, a federal judge said:
Until I commenced the examination of the testimony in this case, I always supposed that I lived in a land of civil and religious liberty, in which we were secured by the Constitution of our country the right to remove at pleasure from one portion of our domain to another, and also that we enjoyed the privilege of 'worshipping God according to the dictates of our own conscience.'  But I regret to say, that the evidence in this case clearly proves that, so far as Utah is concerned, I have been mistaken in such supposition.  Men are murdered here.  Coolly, deliberately, premeditatedly murdered.  Their murder is deliberated and determined upon by church council-meetings, and that, too, for no other reason than that they had apostatized from your Church, and were striving to leave the Territory. 
You are the tools, the dupes, the instruments of a tyrannical Church despotism. The heads of your Church order and direct you.  You are taught to obey their orders and commit these horrid murders.  Deprived of your liberty, you have lost your manhood, and become the willing instruments of bad men.
The heat was soon taken off the Mormons, however, by the outbreak of the American Civil War.  When the Southern states attempted to break away in 1861, the US Army discovered that it had better things to do than cool its heels in the Rocky Mountains.  Predictably, the Mormons backed the Confederate rebels.


Brigham Young's Utah was a theocratic polity governed by an "infallible priesthood".  The priesthood nominally consisted of all male Mormons, but they were tightly governed by a hierarchy of church leaders.  At the top of the pile sat Young himself, a kind of spiritual dictator in the midst of a secular republic:
Nothing was ever undertaken without his permission - he knew of everything.  No person could enter into business without consulting him, nor would any one ever think of leaving the city to reside in any other part of the country without first having his approval.  Merchants who went East or West to purchase goods, had to present themselves at his office....  Some, no doubt, may have sought his counsel on their proposed undertakings and journeys, believing that his superior wisdom could aid them, but in his own mind he claimed that the Saints should do nothing without his knowledge and approval.  That oft-reiterated expression, that it was his right to dictate and control everything, "even to the ribbons that a woman should wear, or to the setting-up of a stocking," was the truthful illustration of his feelings.
The Mormons believed that their church-state - "the Kingdom" - was the only legitimate government on earth.  God was shortly to cast down all other earthly authorities - for the end of the world could not be far off.  It is important to note that the rulers of Mormondom were not cartoon villains.  As Stenhouse observes, "apart from religion, the ruling men in Utah would be considered good citizens in any community".  But they were absolutist and uncompromising in their claims.  And this could only have a deleterious moral effect on their followers:
Those who have not lived under the influence of an "inspired prophet" can form no idea of the facility with which a religious people can be taught any doctrine, and be led on to lay aside their education, or their sense of morality, and thus be cast in the mould of a teacher's mind.
Young's approved candidates invariably won Utahn elections, and he openly treated Mormon politicians as representatives of the priesthood rather than the people.  Within the church itself, a kind of charade version of democracy held sway.  In Soviet style, formal votes were held without the people exercising any truly free choice:
Brigham's notions of freedom of voting are singularly amusing.  He works up his audience to the affirmative of what he has to propose, and as he calls for an expression of the people's mind by a show of uplifted hands, he stands up in the congregation to watch the operation.  He then asks for a negative vote, and should any unfortunates differ from him they are captured.  He has more recently added to this amusement of free voting the instruction beforehand to the congregation: "Now, brethren, look around you, and see who are voting; we want every one to vote one way or another."  Should the voting be the "one way," all is serene; should it be "the other way," he then forces a collision....
This sort of thing shows the sinister side to Young's character.  And when aroused, Young could be very sinister indeed - more mobster than minister.  This was shown vividly by an encounter in 1851 with a federal judge who had made an anti-Mormon speech:
It was on this occasion that Brigham immortalized the crooking of his little finger. "If," said he, "I had but crooked my little finger, he would have been used up; but I did not bend it.  If I had, the sisters alone felt indignant enough to have chopped him in pieces."  Since that memorable day he had not infrequently warned the troublesome of the danger of crooking that finger, and it was no idle threat when he said: "Apostates, or men who never made any profession of religion, had better be careful how they come here, lest I should bend my little finger." 
Total obedience was required of the subjects of the Kingdom.  Those who refused were cast out as heretics.  Stenhouse describes a purge that took place in 1869 in terms which would be recognisable from Stalin's Russia:
[The dissidents] awaited the charges of the apostle and manfully contended for the right of private judgment in all matters of faith or "counsel;'' but the apostle Cannon maintained that "it is apostacy to differ honestly from the measures of the President [Brigham] - a man may be honest even in hell;" and counsellor Daniel H. Wells volunteered the extraordinary statement, that the accused "might as well ask the question whether a man had the right to differ honestly from the Almighty!"
Excommunication from the church organisation was the least of a dissident's worries.  It should be apparent from what has been said that people who crossed the church placed themselves in physical danger.  So did innocent non-Mormons who chanced to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  The best known example of this is discussed in detail by Stenhouse.  In 1857, a group of Mormons attacked a train of settlers from Arkansas heading west - the infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre.  The Mormons killed around 120 men, women and children, and blamed the attack on the Indians.


Stenhouse is not a neutral commentator on Mormon society, nor does he claim to be.  He fell out with the Mormon church and was explicitly writing as a critic.  It is likely that he made mistakes; he certainly takes little trouble to give the Mormons' side of the story.  But most of what he says sounds all too plausible in the context of what we know about repressive religious (and secular) cultures.  This book may be read as a cautionary tale in the potential for oppression when political and social hierarchies come to be seen as having transcendent value.