Mormonism and America: Part 2

Last week, I discussed how Mormonism has welded the US founding myth into its own. This week, I’m going to discuss the relationship between Mormonism and America.

What is the relationship between Mormonism and America?

For all of our support and patriotism, as well as welding the United States to our own history and future, the relationship between the Church and the nation has been more complicated than might be supposed at first glance. The Church has been referred to as an American church and Joseph Smith an American prophet. It is true that Joseph lived his life in America and started the Church there, and from what I wrote last week, it would seem to make sense that it’s an American religion. Other beliefs of the Church seem to fit an American perspective as well—particularly the idea of agency being an essential element of our progression, a lay ministry of the people where anyone and everyone can experience the same spiritual gifts, and the idea that we all can become as great as we choose to be (in and through Christ in the Gospel context). If it were true, however, that the religion was completely in agreement with the United States culture of the time, then why would the Saints be driven from place to place until they came to a barren land that no one else wanted? Why would so much hatred be directed towards a Christian religion that agreed with the common civic religion? The answer is simply that it did not always agree.

For all of the importance the Church has placed on America and all the things they agree on, there is much that the religion the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints preaches and the civic religion (the system of values and ideas that the culture teaches) of America disagree on. In this way, Mormonism is not an American religion, but is the religion of God revealed for all mankind.

The biggest difference between Mormonism and American ideals was that they had a prophet, speaking with God and sharing his will. In America, the core principle was vox populi, vox dei, or in other words the voice of the people is the voice of God. To them, the vote was the way of determining how everything should be done—God would not speak to them, so they’d do what the individuals wanted instead and expect that to be the will of God. When God actually spoke, it disturbed them that He would have a personal involvement in their lives and tell them things they did not want to hear. In addition, it caused fear that Mormons would feel they were above the law of the land—that they might think the laws of God were superior and they would do what they wanted, regardless of what had been voted into practice.

There were other differences as well. For one, the mainstream US religious thought was Protestantism. Beliefs of the LDS Church as taught by Joseph Smith went counter to their beliefs—continuing revelation, a corporeal God the Father who was separate in being from Jesus Christ, priesthood power, being able to become like God, baptisms for the dead, polygamy, and the Book of Mormon to name a few. These doctrines ran counter to their traditions and beliefs. Beyond religious differences, there were many things that ran counter to the culture—polygamy (again) was a big one when it took hold, shocking the normal monogamous society of the time, but the United Order was another. The traditional American value of capitalism—working hard to achieve everything you can and get as much gain as possible—is not compatible with a law of giving everything up to the Church to live the law of consecration and help other people. First off, it was counter to the economic ideals of capitalism to share if it doesn’t help you, and second off, it put too much power in the Church’s hands (in the peoples’ views). The idea of a constitutional government was to limit the power of the ruling body as much as possible while allowing it to function, since government was a necessary evil. Thus, when the Church demanded absolute devotion and consecration, it flew in the face of the independence of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” Americans expected to have and still does, even for many Church members who have grown up in America. So, there are differences in theology and economic ideals between the two groups.

Examples of these conflicts may be found in the apostates and critics of the early Church. When Joseph Smith attempted to reinstitute consecration of properties at Far West in 1838, Reed Peck charged that “no monarch on earth ever had supreme power over his subjects more than they over the inhabitants of Caldwell county” (Peck, Historical Sketch, 35-36). When John Corrill apostatized around the same time, he justified himself by stating that “he will not yeald his Judgement, to any thing porposed by the Church, or any individuals of the Church, or even the voice of the great (I am,) given through the appointed organ, as revelation, but will always act upon his Judgment.” He further “says he will always say what he pleases, for he says he is a republican, and as such he will do, say, act, and believe, what he pleases” (JS, Journal, Aug. 31, 1838, in PJS, 2:279). These men drew upon republican and American ideals and language to put the Church in a negative light—Joseph Smith as a despotic tyrant ruling over the masses with an iron hand, removing the rights of individuals from the equation, and the apostates were men who stand up for their republican rights to choose what they want. These men used their cultural and traditional beliefs to attack the Church and show why they apostatized.

Traditions and cultures can lead us to sin. In looking at our beliefs, our practices, and our attitudes, even (and especially) today we need to be careful to sift out and separate what are opinions, what is doctrine, and what is culture—Utahan, Mormon, Yankee, or otherwise. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees at one point by stating: “Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?… Thus ye have made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition” (Matt. 15:3, 6). An article I recently read in the Deseret News about freedom in Islamic countries commented that there are practices in those countries and their varied cultures that are contrary to their religion. We are not free from that either and need to learn what is culture and what is doctrine. Tradition can defile us by causing us to transgress the commandments of God.

Another outstanding example of this comes from the proceedings of Oliver Cowdery’s excommunication. One the charges levied against him was that he was “virtually denying the faith by declaring that he would not be governed by any ecclesiastic authority nor Revelation whatever in his temporal affairs” (JS, Journal, Mar. 13, 1838, in PJS, 2:219-20). “In response to the charge of selling land in Jackson County, Cowdery launched into a discourse about ‘allodial’ tenure as contrasted to ‘feudal’ tenure, strange language for a Church court. Allodial holdings allowed a person to dispose of land without the permission of an overlord. In America, he reminded the council, land was held alloidially, unlike under the feudal regimes of Europe. He might have added the freehold tenure was widely considered to be the economic basis of a republican society. By limiting land sales, he implied, the Church had reverted to feudalism. He was unwilling, the letter went on, to subject himself to ‘any ecclesiastic authority or pretended revelation.’ He based his actions on ‘the three great principles of English liberty… “the right of personal security; the right of personal liberty, and the right of private property…. This attempt to control me in my temporal interest, I conceive to be a disposition to take from me a portion of my Constitutional privileges and inherit rights.’ Cowdery was speaking as a citizen of a republic rather than as a member of the Church that he had once thought was the kingdom of God on earth.

Photograph of Oliver Cowdery

“Cowdery’s letter is a reminder of the complex ideological environment of Mormons in the 1830s. Most of the time they spoke Kingdom of God language, using words like ‘faith,’ ‘righteousness,’ ‘Zion,’ ‘gathering,’ ‘priesthood,’ and ‘temple.’ At the same time, as American citizens, they knew the political language of rights and freedom…. Cowdery showed how easily a disaffected member could slip out of millennial, scriptural discourse into political talk, using republicanism to discredit Church leaders. Democratic discourse transformed obedience, faith, and loyalty into fanaticism and blind subjection.” (Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, 348.) Oliver Cowdery left  the Church for a number of years but eventually came back. He had used democratic language to excuse himself, but a little over ten years later he asked to be readmitted, saying “I now desire to come back. I wish to come humble and be one in your midst. I seek no station. I only wish to be identified with you. I am out of the Church, but I wish to become a member.” (Stanley R. Gunn, “Oliver Cowdery Second Elder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: A Thesis Presented to the Faculty of the Division of Religion, Brigham Young University,” [1942], 166.)

So, as the examples above point out, from the American perspective of the 1800s, Mormons were not in line with their culture or civic religion. On the flip side, however, America wasn’t in line with the gospel from the Mormon point of view. The Book of Mormon, with its chapter on the founding of the country, is more focused on Lehi’s descendants (believed to be the Native Americans) than America, the restoration of the house of Israel than the founding of liberty, and repentance than expansion. One historian observed: “In the classic version of America’s past, the first settlers flee the oppressions of Europe to establish themselves as a free people in the new land. When oppressed by their mother country, Americans rise in revolt and establish an independent empire of liberty. This story makes a cameo appearance in the Book of Mormon… but the American story does not control the narrative. The Book of Mormon allots just nine verses to the deliverance of the Gentiles, and the rest of the book concentrates on the deliverance of Israel…. American constitutionalism is faintly invoked and then dismissed. Book of Mormon governments are monarchies and judgeships, Old Testament governments, not democratic legislatures and elected presidents. Monarchy is terminated at one point in the Book of Mormon, surely a republican moment, but not by revolution….

“There is one apparently democratic gesture at this turning point. The first judge is selected by the voice of the people. But this step toward democracy is immediately retraced. Successors to the chief judge inherit their office—the aristocratic turn toward the hereditary officeholding that Americans most feared. Thereafter, judges are appointed. The voice of the people is consulted only when the former judge’s sons fight over the judgment seat or no natural successor is available….

“… Instead of tracing the history of liberty, as a nationalist work might be expected to do, the Book of Mormon endlessly expounds the master biblical narrative—the history of Israel…. The restoration of Israel was the centerpiece. The rehabilitation of the world was to begin with literal Israel and expand from there….

“… The general import of the Israel story was that the world had come to a turning point when the favor of God was shifting from one people to another. The mighty Gentiles were falling, and forgotten Israel was being restored. The Gentiles must serve these lost ones, the outcasts, and then join them or lose their place in history….

“All this turned American history upside down…. Literal Israel stood at the center of history, not the United States. The book sacralized the land but condemned the people. The Indians were the chosen ones, not the European interlopers….

“… the Book of Mormon contests the amalgam of Enlightenment, republicanism, Protestant, capitalist, and nationalist values that constituted American culture. The combination is not working, the book says. America is too Gentile, too worldly, too hard-hearted. The Gentiles ‘put down the power and miracles of God, and preach up unto themselves, their own wisdom, and their own learning, that they may get gain, and grind upon the faces of the poor.’ The nation must remember God and restore Israel—or be blasted.

“… A NO can be heard in the Book of Mormon’s condemnation of an America without righteousness” (ibid, 102-105).

“A NO can be heard in the Book of Mormon’s condemnation of an America without righteousness”

Similar themes can be found in many of the revelations Joseph received in the early years. At first, the focus was upon establishing Zion and the United States was just another of the nations of the earth facing condemnation if they did not repent and unite themselves with them. The government wasn’t special—in the millennium the Lord of Lords and King of Kings would reign over all the earth. One of the earliest revelations that specifically mentioned existing places was given in December 1832 and was more a warning than anything: “Verily, thus saith the Lord concerning the wars that will shortly come to pass, beginning at the rebellion of South Carolina, which will terminate in the death and misery of many souls; and the time will come that war will be poured out upon all nations, beginning at this place…. And thus, with the sword and by bloodshed the inhabitants of the earth shall mourn… that the cry of the saints, and of the blood of the saints, shall cease to come up in the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth, from the earth to be avenged of their enemies. Wherefore, stand ye in holy places, and be not moved, until the day of the Lord is come; for behold, it cometh quickly, saith the Lord. Amen” (D&C 87:1-2, 6-7). These revelations were focused on the kingdom of God more than America, which was just another nation of the world.

Later, the revelations warmed up to the US and particularly the Constitution. Revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants state such things as: “that law of the land which is constitutional, supporting that principle of freedom in maintaining rights and privileges, belongs to all mankind, and is justifiable before me. Therefore, I the Lord, justify you, and your brethren of my church, in befriending that law which is the constitutional law of the land” (D&C 98:5-6; August, 1833). Then, a few months later than that: “it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another. And for this purpose have I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose, and redeemed the land by the shedding of blood” (D&C 101:79-80). In the dedicatory prayer of the Kirtland Temple (27 March 1836)—an inspired document prepared by Joseph Smith by revelation beforehand—the prophet said “have mercy upon the rulers of our land; may those principles, which were so honorably and nobly defended, namely the Constitution of our land, by our fathers, be established forever” (D&C 109:54). These revelations taught that the Constitution was inspired by God himself for the cause of freedom and the Saints were justified in befriending the law.

In non-canonical contexts, Joseph Smith stated that “the Constitution of the United States is a glorious standard; it is founded in the wisdom of God. It is a heavenly banner; it is to all those who are privileged with the sweets of liberty, like the cooling shades and refreshing waters of a great rock in a thirsty and weary land. It is like a great tree under whose branches men from every climb can be shielded from the burning rays of the sun…. The Constitution of the United States is true” (Teachings, 147). “I am the greatest advocate of the Constitution of the United States there is on the earth” (ibid., 326). Other prophets—especially President Ezra Taft Benson—and Church leaders have supported and upheld the Constitution and the Americas—stating that it is an inspired document and a blessed land. Some have even suggested that Isaiah’s phrase “out of Zion shall go forth the law” (Isaiah 2:3) is a reference to the idea of democracy spreading out from the Americas. These ideas have inspired an almost holy reverence for the Constitution and country for Church members. The constitution and (to a limited extent) the county have support from these prophets and Church leaders.

Signing of the Constitution of the United States

There must always be balance, however. Some Church members almost take the Constitution to be a perfect document. Yet, within the Church, even the scriptures—Bible or modern revelations—are not considered to be completely perfect and infallible. Why should a government document be considered as such? I doubt we’ll hear many debates in Sunday school about how many fifths of a person a slave really equals, nor should we. Even Joseph Smith (the greatest advocate of the Constitution) recognized it had weaknesses and problems: “Although it [the Constitution] provides that all men shall enjoy religious freedom, yet it does not provide that all men shall enjoy religious freedom, yet it does not provide the manner by which that freedom can be preserved, nor for the punishment of Government officers who refuse to protect the people in their religious rights, or punish those mobs, states, or communities who interfere with the rights of the people on account of their religion. Its sentiments are good, but it provides no means of enforcing them” (Teachings, 326-27).

Further, while there are teachings about America being a blessed place and that God had a hand in its founding, ultimately, God is the Father of all mankind, American or not. The Church of Jesus Christ is a worldwide church, with over eight million out of fourteen-and-a-half million members living outside of the United States. After all, “God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him” (Acts 10:34-35). “He giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; and hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth” (Acts 17:25-26) and “looks upon the whole of the human family with a fatherly care and paternal regard” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith [2007], 39). He cares for all mankind, and all have the same chance of exaltation.

The Constitution is not perfect, but an inspired document to preserve freedom. The United States is a blessed land, but the people are under the same condemnation as any other people if they do not repent. It has ideals that are in line with the gospel and some that run contrary to it. Yet, the Church has tied the nation’s history and founding myth into its own and finds its headquarters in its midst. At the same time, the people are of the same stock and type as every other human being in the world—children of God and capable of the same exaltation or damnation as everyone else. We may honor, love, and respect America for its goodness and its part in the gospel plan, but realize it is not perfect. It is a hard balance to find, but one that we must to stand strong in supporting and guiding it along the path it needs to be. For our own sake and salvation, we must sift through culture and doctrine, keeping that which is good from all cultures and rejecting that which is bad. If we do this, we will be more pure than we were before and more fit for our God. Thus, the relationship between America and Mormonism is somewhat complex, but one that many things can be learned from.

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