Last week I discussed the idea of a founding myth. Nations and countries often have their own, but cultures and subgroups do as well. Mormonism can be considered its own, distinct subculture with its own folklore and founding myth. As on historian noted: “Utah Mormons, by way of a distinctive system of religious beliefs and because of early social isolation in the East and Midwest and geographical isolation in the Great Basin, have developed into a high context [one that shares much knowledge and experience] cultural group with strong, pervasive folkloric expressions” (Between Pulpit and Pew, ed. W. Paul Reeve and Michael Scott Van Wagenen [Logan: Utah State University Press, 2011], viii). We find our founding myth in the stories of Joseph Smith and the pioneers.
In looking at the United States’ founding myth, we see that the founding fathers of the nation have grown nearly to demigods in our eyes. They are the heroes of the country—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Franklin to name a few. In the Mormon world Joseph Smith and other early leaders of the Church have obtained a similar godlike stature in the minds of the people. Just as the United States has symbols with great meaning to its people—the eagle, the Liberty Bell, the Statue of Liberty, etc., Mormonism has its symbols—the beehive, the Salt Lake Temple, the Angel Moroni statues, etc. Founding myths have given these people and symbols meaning.
One interesting observation that I have made is that Mormonism’s founding myth has absorbed and expanded the US’s founding myth into its own, making the country a place prepared by God for the restoration of the gospel.
In what ways have we absorbed the Americas into our founding myth? They have tied important events of the country—past, present, and even prophesies of the future—into their own founding myth and vice versa. America was founded as a place for the Restoration to take place and in the Mormon mind, this nation has and continues to have a role in the Church’s course of action in the world and they will have a role in their nation’s progress and history too. In this post, I will point out various ways in which we have tied America into Mormonism’s founding myth.
Over and over again, Mormons are reminded that America was the only country with enough religious liberty for Joseph Smith to get the Church off the ground before he was killed. We often point to the fact that he was born not long after the Constitution was put in place and say that it was really the first time since the Great Apostasy had begun that conditions were such that the Lord could restore the gospel. For example, President Joseph Fielding Smith said, “The discovery [of America] was one of the most important factors in bringing to pass the purpose of the Almighty in the restoration of his Gospel in its fulness for the salvation of men in the latter days.” (Smith, Progress of Man, p. 258.) Another apostle taught that: “under the Constitution the Lord could restore the gospel and reestablish his church. . . . Both were part of a greater whole. Both fit into his pattern for the latter days.” (Mark E. Petersen, The Great Prologue [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1975], p. 75.) One Church textbook teaches that: “The restoration of the gospel and of the Lord’s true Church could not have taken place amidst the religious intolerance in Europe and early America. It was only possible in the setting of religious liberty, reevaluation of Christian thinking, and spiritual awakening that had developed in early nineteenth-century America. The Lord’s hand was evident in directing that the Restoration take place exactly when it did….
“God knows the end from the beginning and is the author of the grand design of human history. He directed the affairs of history so that America was appropriately fertile soil for the seed of the restored gospel to be planted and tended by his chosen seer, Joseph Smith.” (Church History in the Fullness of Times , 12.)
In looking at our beginnings, Joseph Smith was the central figure in the founding of the Church. He said of himself that “It is a love of liberty which inspires my soul—civil and religious liberty to the whole of the human race. Love of liberty was diffused into my soul by my grandfathers while they dandled me on their knees” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith [Salt Lake City, 1976], 313). He had been raised in America and had its culture instilled in him, as did many of the earliest converts. Being the beginnings of the Church, Joseph and the early New England converts carried some of these values into the Church and their beliefs.
In looking further at Joseph Smith and Church origins, we look at the Book of Mormon. There is a chapter in the Book of Mormon that speaks of “a man among the Gentiles” who was “wrought upon” by the Holy Ghost, and “went forth upon the many waters, even unto” the descendants of Lehi, “who were in the promised land” (Nephi 13:12). Then, following this voyage, “the Spirit of God… wrought upon other Gentiles; and they went forth out of captivity, upon the many waters” (v. 13). These other Gentiles “did prosper and obtain the land for their inheritance… [and] did humble themselves before the Lord; and the power of the Lord was with them” (vv. 15-16). Then, “their mother Gentiles were gathered together upon the waters, and upon the land also, to battle against them. And… the power of God was with them… and… the Gentiles that had gone out of captivity were delivered by the power of God out of the hands of all other nations” (vv. 17-18).
One may see the story of Columbus discovering the Americas followed by colonists coming over to the land—particularly the Pilgrims escaping persecution in England—and then facing the country they had come from in the Revolutionary War, miraculously winning due to divine intervention. What’s more, the book has been assumed to have taken place in the Americas, which it declared was “a land of promise” and “a land which is choice above all other lands” (1 Nephi 2:20) “and that it was the place of the New Jerusalem, which should come down out of heaven” (Ether 13:3). Joseph furthered this last remark, making the land sacred, when he declared: “The whole of America is Zion itself from north to south, and is described by Prophets, who declare that it is the Zion where the mountain of the Lord should be, and that it should be in the center of the land” (Teachings, 362) and “that Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent” (Article of Faith 10). The Book of Mormon—a book Mormons believe to be scripture—makes sacred the land of America and tells of ancient prophets who envisioned the country’s founding as part of God’s great plan.
To go further, the book’s teachings seem to support American ideals. One example: “because all men are not just it is not expedient that ye should have a king to rule over you. For behold, how much iniquity doth one wicked king cause to be committed, yea, and what great destruction!… Now it is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right; but it is common for the lesser part of the people to desire that which is not right; therefore this shall ye observe and make it your law—to do your business by the voice of the people” (Mosiah 29:16-17, 26). It seems that it teaches the same civic religion that Americans believe in.
We have done even more to tie this record’s origin into our national myth. Joseph was led to the book by the Angel Moroni. This messenger also oversaw his preparation to become a prophet—instructing and tutoring him in being the Lord’s chosen servant for the Restoration. Because of this, he has become an important symbol of the restoration and the Church. Later on, an apostle tied the angel into the nation’s history. In speaking of the Revolutionary War, Elder Orson Hyde said: “In those early and perilous times, our men were few, and our resources limited. Poverty was among the most potent enemies we had to encounter; yet our arms were successful; and it may not be amiss to ask here, by whose power victory so often perched on our banner? It was by the agency of that same angel of God that appeared unto Joseph Smith, and revealed to him the history of the early inhabitants of this country, whose mounds, bones and remains of towns, cities and fortifications speak from the dust in the ears of the living with the voice of undeniable truth. This same angel presides over the destinies of America, and feels a lively interest in all our doings. He was in the camp of Washington; and, by an invisible hand, led on our fathers to conquest and victory; and all this to open and prepare the way for the Church and kingdom of God to be established on the western hemisphere, for the redemption of Israel and the salvation of the world.
“This same angel was with Columbus, and gave him deep impressions, by dreams and by visions, respecting this New World. Trammelled by poverty and by an unpopular cause, yet his persevering and unyielding heart would not allow an obstacle in his way too great for him to overcome; and the angel of God helped him – was with him on the stormy deep, calmed and troubled elements, and guided his frail vessel to the desired haven. Under the guardianship of this same angel, or Prince of America, have the United States grown, increased, and flourished, like the sturdy oak by the rivers of water” (JD 6:368, July 4, 1854; emphasis added). The Angel Moroni—a central figure to the Restoration of the gospel—now became the guardian angel of the country that made it possible for Columbus to reach the Americas and the colonists to succeed in war.
Mormonism has also tied the Founding Fathers themselves into our story. Wilford Woodruff announced in a September 1877 discourse: “that two weeks before I left St. George, the spirits of the dead gathered around me, wanting to know why we did not redeem them. Said they, ‘You have had the use of the Endowment House for a number of years, and yet nothing has ever been done for us. We laid the foundation of the government you now enjoy, and we never apostatized from it, but we remained true to it and were faithful to God.’ These were the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and they waited on me for two days and two nights. I thought it very singular, that notwithstanding so much work had been done, and yet nothing had been done for them. The thought never entered my heart, from the fact, I suppose, that heretofore our minds were reaching after our more immediate friends and relatives. I straightway went into the baptismal font and called upon brother McCallister to baptize me for the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and fifty other eminent men, making one hundred in all, including John Wesley, Columbus, and others; I then baptized him for every President of the United States, except three [Martin Van Buren, James Buchanan, and Ulysses S. Grant]; and when their cause is just, somebody will do the work for them” (JD 19:230, September 16, 1877). Under the administration of President Heber J. Grant the work for these three men was finally done (see Church History in the Fullness of Times Student Manual ,417).
“In March 1894 he saw Benjamin Franklin, who he had been baptized and confirmed for in 1877 in the St. George Utah Temple. This distinguished patriot sought further ordinances through President Woodruff, which the prophet promptly saw to in the temple. This appearance of Benjamin Franklin satisfied President Woodruff that Franklin at least had joyfully received the blessings that had come to him earlier.” (Church History in the Fullness of Times Student Manual , 446; see also Wilford Woodruff Journals, 19 Mar. 1894; Cowley, Wilford Woodruff, pp. 586–87). Later, he said, “I told those brethren [that were with him in St. George] that it was their duty to go into the Temple and labor until they had got endowments for all of them. They did it. Would those spirits have called upon me, as an Elder in Israel, to perform that work if they had not been noble spirits before God? They would not” (Conference Report, Apr. 1898, p. 90).
The story does two things to tie Mormonism to the Founding Fathers. First, it indicates that Mormons value the Founding Fathers and their contributions: They had sacrificed for the country, had a belief in God and were “noble spirits before God.” Because of this, they were believed to be of the stock that they would have joined the Church, given the chance. Then, second, in Mormon belief, the Founding Fathers did join the Church of Jesus Christ in the spirit world, tying them to the Church as well.
Beyond tying events in the Church and national founding myths into each other, Mormons have linked current events in the country to their own experience. In a sense, Mormonism and America grew up together, and the process wasn’t always pretty. The saints were driven from place to place until they reached the Rocky Mountains. During the time they were persecuted and driven, Joseph Smith prophesied concerning the inhabitants of Jackson County Missouri that “the destroyer I have sent forth to destroy and lay waste mine enemies; and not many years hence they shall not be left to pollute mine heritage, and to blaspheme my name upon the lands which I have consecrated for the gathering together of my saints” (D&C 105:15). Concerning the United States, he said: “unless the United States redress the wrongs committed upon the Saints in the state of Missouri and punish the crimes committed by her officers that in a few years the government will be utterly overthrown and wasted, and there will not be so much as a potsherd left, for their wickedness in permitting the murder of men, women and children, and the wholesale plunder and extermination of thousands of her citizens to go unpunished” (Teachings, 302-303).
Later on, during and after the Civil War, the Saints looked at the devastating conflict as at least a partial fulfillment of these prophesies. This meant the war was a punishment for how their people had been treated, the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum, and the wickedness of the people. One non-member Missourian, Alexander Doniphan commented “that the devastation of Jackson county [during the Civil War] forcibly reminded him of” a prediction by Joseph Smith that he would “live to see the day when it will be visited by fire and sword. The fields and farms and houses will be destroyed, and only the chimneys will be left to mark the desolation” (B.H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church, 1:538–59). The events of the Civil War were tied to mistreatment of the Saints in the people’s minds.
Another strain I’ve heard is that the rise of Mormonism has been connected with progress in the country. Growing up, I was told by a choir teacher, a historian, and other members of the Church that the U.S. patent office was going to close in 1830 because they thought everything that could be invented had been, but after the Church was founded, inspiration began to flow and we achieved the technological advances we have today. Another version of this pointed out that when Joseph Smith was born, society wasn’t that much more advanced than the Romans—we still used wagons, etc., but after the Restoration began things began to leap forward. Such lore lays bare a belief held by Mormons that they play a central role in the history of the world. To an outsider this may appear arrogant, but the truth is that our beliefs are either true or not—if they’re not, we are a deluded and misguided people with a high perception of ourselves, but if they are, this is the Church of Jesus Christ—a central part of God’s plan for mankind—and He has made special efforts around us.
In addition to tying the Church to the United States’ past as well as ongoing events, we have also tied ourselves to the country in the future. Joseph Smith reportedly stated that “If just causes found no favor, the nation would be brought to ‘the very verge of crumbling to peices [sic] and tumbling to the ground.’ The Latter-day Saints, the people the government had disregarded, would save it. At that day ‘when the constitution is upon the brink of ruin this people will be the Staff up[on] which the Nation shall lean and they shall bear the constitution away from the very verge of destruction.’” (Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling [New York: Vintage, 2005], 404.) Brigham Young added further: “Will the Constitution be destroyed? No: it will be held inviolate by this people; and, as Joseph Smith said, ‘The time will come when the destiny of the nation will hang upon a single thread. At that critical juncture, this people will step forth and save it from the threatened destruction.’ It will be so.” (JD 7:15; July 4, 1854.) These statements have spun off various folklore focused on Mormons being the saviors of the country in a future time of need, such as beliefs that a Mormon president will be elected to save the country at a desperate time, the White Horse Prophecy (a sensationalized and expanded version of the quotes above that is not embraced as doctrine), and so forth.
Even with the rocky history with the country, prophets and apostles have expressed love and admiration for the United States of America. President Hinckley once stated: “I marvel at the miracle of America, the land which the God of Heaven long ago declared to be a land choice above all other lands.
“I love America for her great and brawny strength, I love her for her generous heart. I love her for her tremendous spiritual strengths. She is unique among the nations of the earth—in her discovery, in her birth as a nation, in the amalgamation of the races that have come to her shores, in the strength of her government, in the goodness of her people.
“God bless America, for she is His creation” (Stand a Little Taller [Salt Lake City, 2001], 195). To him, and to many Latter-day Saints, America is a land worthy of love and respect and it is a land that God set apart for important events to take place.
There is much to love and admire about America, and the founders of the Church did love their country. Mormons have sought to tie the country’s founding myth into their own in a variety of ways—through tying symbols and important people from its founding myth to their own and vice versa, tying important current events to themselves and prophesying of their role in the country’s future. Yet, is Mormonism truly an American religion? Next week, I will examine that question.