Why Did People Act That Way?

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“Why Did People Act That Way?” Ensign, Dec. 1978, 21

Why Did People Act That Way?

Some observations on religious intolerance and persecution in the American past

In October 1838, an anti-Mormon mob fell upon Smith Humphrey, pillaged his Missouri home, burned it, and ordered him to leave the area. He did, but not long afterward another mob abducted him, took four hundred dollars in cash from his wagon and a thousand dollars worth of goods, and drove him out of the state. (History of the Church, 4:62)

Experiences such as this happened again and again in the early days of the Church. The Mormons received brutal treatment almost steadily from the time Joseph Smith announced his first vision in 1820 until nearly the end of the century. And we cannot help asking: “Why were the Saints so severely persecuted?”

We do not know all the reasons, of course, but we do know that through revelations to the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Lord gave at least three answers. When part of the Book of Mormon manuscript was stolen, he spelled out the role of Satan:

“Verily, verily, I say unto you, that Satan has great hold upon their hearts; he stirreth them up to iniquity against that which is good. …

“And thus he has laid a cunning plan, thinking to destroy the work of God.” (D&C 10:20, 23)

Another reason for the persecution came many years later, as Joseph Smith languished in prison at Liberty, Missouri. Here he was assured that one purpose in all his trials was to strengthen him: “Know thou, my son,” the Lord said, “that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.” (D&C 122:7)

Thirdly, after they had been driven out of Jackson County, Missouri, in 1833, the Lord assigned much of the blame to the Saints themselves. In Jackson County they had been challenged to live the Law of Consecration, but it was soon apparent that they were not yet spiritually ready. Repeatedly they had been warned by Church leaders of the need for achieving greater perfection in their lives before the Lord would fully support them, but when the fateful mobbings came, the Lord made this tragic judgment:

“I, the Lord, have suffered the affliction to come upon them … in consequence of their transgressions. …

“Therefore, they must needs be chastened and tried, even as Abraham, who was commanded to offer up his only son.

“For all those who will not endure chastening, but deny me, cannot be sanctified.

“Behold, I say unto you, there were jarrings, and contentions, and envyings, and strifes, and lustful and covetous desires among them; therefore by these things they polluted their inheritances.

“They were slow to hearken unto the voice of the Lord their God; therefore, the Lord their God is slow to hearken unto their prayers, to answer them in the day of their trouble.

“In the day of their peace they esteemed lightly my counsel; but, in the day of their trouble, of necessity they feel after me.

“Verily I say unto you, notwithstanding their sins, my bowels are filled with compassion towards them. I will not utterly cast them off; and in the day of wrath I will remember mercy.” (D&C 101:2, 4–9)

The Saints were not guilty of lawbreaking or of aggression against their neighbors. Rather, they simply failed, according to this revelation, to live the spiritual laws the Lord had given them, and for this he allowed them to be chastized. (See History of the Church, 3:32–62.)

But these were not the only reasons for anti-Mormon persecution. There was obviously something in the character of the persecutors themselves—many of whom seemed to be respectable citizens otherwise—that allowed them to condone or justify such actions. The Mormons, in fact, were not the only people persecuted for their beliefs and in some ways the history of America in general was a history of intolerance. In spite of democratic, freedom-loving traditions, persecution was not uncommon.

In August 1677 Margaret Brewster had been preaching her Quaker religion rather forcefully in the colony of Massachusetts. She was arrested, brought to trial, and punished by being stripped to the waist and whipped with twenty lashes.

On the night of 11 August 1834, mobsters began to collect around a Catholic convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts. A little after midnight they set fire to both the convent and the nearby farmhouse belonging to the nuns. The following night they burned fences, trees, and anything else they could find on the convent grounds.

Elijah Lovejoy, a dedicated antislavery crusader, found himself the object of extremely bitter antiabolitionist sentiment. When a mob attempted to destroy his press in November 1837, Elijah Lovejoy was killed trying to defend it.

Why did people act that way? Understanding why some Americans persecuted other minorities may help us understand why they also persecuted the Saints.1

One reason was strictly religious. Though complete freedom of religion eventually became part of America’s Constitutional system, that development was a long time in coming, with some Americans never fully accepting all its implications. When highly committed people see their own religious establishments threatened by the loss of converts, they sometimes attack with alarming vengeance whatever threatens them. It is a kind of self-defense mechanism that historically has taken various forms.

In colonial Massachusetts, for example, the Puritans controlled the government. Believing that their religion was God’s only true way, they reasoned that it was against God’s will to allow any other faith in their midst. Thus they would not even permit missionaries from other faiths to preach in Massachusetts. The Quakers received especially harsh treatment, for in their extreme zeal they frequently returned to the colony after being expelled. They were whipped, imprisoned, and, in a few cases, even put to death for violating the law.

This kind of legal persecution did not last long, but even after freedom of religion had been established legally in all the American states, some people still feared any threat to their particular religious institutions. The Campbellites, for example, were particularly irate when the Church attracted many of their numbers in Ohio. It captured the loyalty of some of their most prominent ministers, including Sidney Rigdon. Significantly, the Campbellites were the source of much of the anti-Mormon propaganda in the 1830s.

But religion does not explain all the persecution. The most bitter accusations against the Mormons, as well as other persecuted groups, were usually greatly distorted or downright untrue. Unfortunately, truth does not always govern actions. People act according to what they believe is true (or, frequently, what they want to believe). History is filled with examples of bitter, but imaginary, charges leading believers to take up crusades against minorities who were made out to be both dangerous and subversive.

Many Americans in the nineteenth century were particularly ready, it seemed, to listen to the lurid exposés of apostate Catholics, lapsed Masons, or excommunicated Mormons, and nearly always these so-called “confessions” emphasized tales of horror and corruption. The anti-Catholics, for example, thrived for a time on a book by Maria Monk, Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery of Montreal, that was published in 1836 and sold 300,000 copies before the Civil War. Claiming to be a former nun who had escaped from a Canadian convent, Maria Monk told of lustful priests who took advantage of helpless nuns, of babies born to those nuns and then murdered, and of other sensational happenings. Though her claims were proved completely untrue, the most extreme Catholic-haters refused to believe the truth and reveled in continuing to publish her works.2

In the same way, the Mormon image in the nineteenth century was affected by a huge mass of literature claiming to come from “ex-Mormon wives.” They told of brutal, slavelike treatment in Utah, perilous escapes, and dangerous flights over the mountains and deserts to where they could finally tell their stories. Such blatant sensationalism, like Maria Monk’s “disclosures,” was designed mostly to line the pockets of the authors and publishers, but tragically, was also believed and acted upon by many credulous Americans.

Another cause of American intolerance was economic. Anti-Semitism, for example, appeared in relatively mild forms in the midnineteenth century, but early in the twentieth century, it began to take on more ominous—even violent—proportions. Fearing that the Jews were out to take over the financial institutions of the country somehow, some other Americans felt their financial independence threatened.

Other ethnic groups also created economic fears. For example, some Americans felt that Southern European immigrants threatened their jobs in American mines and factories. Late nineteenth-century anti-Japanese and anti-Chinese sentiment was also partly the result of a perceived threat to job security. This feeling resulted in the Chinese exclusion act of 1882, the first American restriction on immigration.

The Mormons did not escape similar images. In both Missouri and Illinois, the economic cooperation and apparent success of the Mormons contributed to fears that, with their growing numbers, they could threaten the economic well-being of other people in the area. Many years later some of the most vicious national anti-Mormon propaganda accused the Church in Utah of plotting to take over all the major economic institutions of the nation. Such charges suggest that many Americans were ready to believe the worst about a religion they already mistrusted, and were therefore eager to read such exposés.

Much of the nineteenth-century intolerance was directly related to a movement known as “American nativism.” Even though nativists accepted such hallmarks of the American system as freedom of speech, press, and religion, they also believed that certain groups so threatened traditional American institutions that they should be eliminated. In effect, nativist extremists allowed themselves to be drawn into a conspiracy against imaginary “conspirators,” against American society. They entered into secret organizations and finally formed a short-lived political party in the 1850s called the American Party. Its critics dubbed it the “Know-Nothing Party” because as a secret organization it originally used the phrase “I don’t know” as a password. Immigrants, Catholics, Masons, and Mormons were all attacked by nativists in the mid-nineteenth century, as were Jews toward the end of the century.

In his fine essay “Some Themes of Counter-Subversion: An Analysis of Anti-Masonic, Anti-Catholic, and Anti-Mormon Literature” (see footnote 1), David Brion Davis helps us understand the nativist movement. “During the second quarter of the nineteenth century,” he writes, “when danger of foreign invasion appeared increasingly remote, Americans were told by respected leaders that Free-masons had infiltrated the government and had seized control of the courts, that Mormons were undermining political and economic freedom in the West and that Roman Catholic priests, receiving instruction from Rome, had made frightening progress in a plot to subject the nation to popish despotism.” It made little difference whether such wild charges were true: people believed them, and this belief was strong enough to compel some of them to violent action.

Those of us who know the fervently patriotic nature of the Mormon people and who understand their belief in the inspiration of the American Constitution find it strange that early Mormons were accused of disloyalty and subversion. The Mormons of that day found it equally surprising. Why then, was this so?

Professor Davis explains that many Americans were becoming intoxicated with the “glorious heritage and noble destiny” of their country. At the same time, it was a restless age, with large segments of the population always on the move and always facing economic problems. Psychologically, Americans felt an intense need to have firm cultural roots and to demonstrate their loyalty to well-established ideals and institutions. Because some groups appeared different, they were natural targets for frustrated Americans who were ready to attack the loyalty and integrity of others in order to demonstrate their own. This was the worst form of paranoia, and fortunately only a minority of Americans succumbed to it. But there were enough who acted on such impulses that their writings created seriously negative images for these groups.

What could the nativists find to criticize? For one thing, they were suspicious of conflicting loyalties. The highest loyalties of a good American, they surmised, must be to the Constitution, Christianity, and American public opinion. They immediately looked with suspicion upon any group, religious or otherwise, that almost wholly dominated its member’s lives and demanded unlimited allegiance as a condition of membership. This meant that America itself was not their highest loyalty. In addition, nativists were suspicious of a society that kept things secret, assuming that any activity kept from the public gaze must somehow be against the public interest.

How did persecuted groups seem guilty of such anti-Americanism? Masonry, for example, required secret oaths of its members. In 1830 it was alleged that the Masons had murdered William Morgan, a former member who had published their private ceremonies, and this was “proof” enough that the Masons were guilty of diabolical, anti-American plots. Nativists also charged that Catholics placed their loyalty to the pope of Rome ahead of their loyalty to America, and therefore were ready participants in whatever plots the pope might hatch to gain political power in America. Any organization, they said, that demanded unconditional loyalty from its members and had no prior loyalties outside itself must fall in the same class.

The Mormons, too, were said to do things in secret. And they were charged with giving their greatest loyalty to the Kingdom of God as a political power, rather than to the American Constitution and government. Thus some of the most important aspects of the Mormon faith—reverence for priesthood authority and belief in continuing revelation through a prophet—actually worked against the Church when they were distorted through the pens of nativist propagandists. Again, it made no difference that their charges were untrue: what mattered was that some, even though a minority, believed the sensationalist literature enough to let it govern their attitudes and actions toward the Mormons.

It is important to observe that nativist literature exuded a high moral tone and a sense of righteous purpose. In attempting to establish a great moral tradition for America, nativists dwelt at length on the virtues of the Pilgrims, minutemen, and Founding Fathers: integrity, stability, public morality, and respect for divine law. Although these were evaluations the Mormons could readily agree with, the nativists made every effort to portray the character of the presumed subversives as just the opposite. Rather than being virtuous and noble, these organizations were said to be founded on “the grossest frauds and impostures, and based on the wickedest impulses of human nature.” These groups were made to appear as the antithesis of the American dream—enemies of American institutions—and thus worthy of destruction.

Ironically, the Latter-day Saints had as much, if not more, reverence for America and its institutions as any other people. They believed that the continent had been specially prepared for the restoration of the gospel, that the American Constitution was a divinely inspired document, that it was their obligation as citizens to obey all the Constitutional laws of the land, and that America yet had a great and important destiny. It was one of the tragic ironies of history that such a people could be maligned and persecuted as subversives—as a threat to American institutions and American ways of life. But such was the case.

In part, therefore, Mormon persecution was a reflection of certain general attitudes and suspicions that seemed almost second nature to some Americans. They distrusted anything they were not familiar with, or any groups whose customs seemed different from their own.

Mormons understand, of course, that there were other reasons for such persecution, including the continuing efforts of Satan to stop the progress of the Kingdom. But by viewing the intolerance and prejudice displayed against the Church in its broader setting, as we have done here, we can better understand the other historical forces leading people to write and act the way they did.

The Savior told us to “love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” (Matt. 5:44) We can never excuse or justify the actions of those who persecute, but, at least, in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, we can try to understand them.

In the early days of the Church, mobbers attacked the Saints, destroying their property. (Painting by C. C. A. Christensen, 78″ x 120″, oil, Brigham Young University Collection)