Mormon narrative of persecution, religious liberty facing new light

Mormon influences on scenic Utah are noted from the naming of Zion National Park to modern restrictions on the sale of alcoholic beverages as well as other legislation. Photo by John D. Pierce.

Mormon influences on scenic Utah are noted from the naming of Zion National Park to modern restrictions on the sale of alcoholic beverages as well as other legislation. Photo by John D. Pierce.

Public schools allow release time for students to attend classes of religious indoctrination. The legislature is dominated by one religion.

Lawmakers consult with religious authorities systematically for direction on legislative agendas. Alcohol and other laws concerning public morality are determined by religious authorities of a majoritarian faith that owns or retains a stake in the largest newspapers — and many of the largest corporations and universities.

“Where?” you ask. “Colonial America?” “Somewhere in the Middle East?” Guess again.

Today’s Utah is the legacy of the early 19th-century vision of Mormon founder Joseph Smith to establish upon earth a theocratic Kingdom of God.


Majoritarian religions have long been a part of the American landscape. Establishment Congregationalists and Anglicans benefited from church-state unions in the colonial era. Many states from the mid-19th to mid-20th century, politically dominated by Protestants, allowed Bible reading in public schools and mandated blue laws curtailing various activities on Sundays.

Historically, Mormons have continuously comprised an overwhelming majority of Utah’s legislature, and hence the government. In the present day, Utah’s Mormons and non-Mormons universally agree that the Mormon Church, also known as the Latter Day Saints (LDS), oversees the state’s governance.

Alongside the Mormon-controlled legislature, LDS leaders typically remain officially silent unless legislation involves a moral issue that intersects with Church doctrine. To prevent disconnect between the state and the Church, legislative leaders routinely meet with the Mormon Church’s Public Affairs Committee, effectively receiving the Church’s blessing or veto of legislative agendas.

Church leaders explain the synergistic working relationship between Church and state as a step short of theocracy, noting that Utah is governed by Mormon legislators rather than religious authorities.

Many non-Mormons, however, are quite certain they live within a theocracy and question why the Utah legislature is allowed to violate the First Amendment separation of church from state.

They point to state-approved Mormon “seminaries” adjacent to public schools, Church-mandated restrictions on alcohol, and Mormon-driven anti-LGBT legislation(under the guise of “religious freedom”) as some of the more blatant examples of theocratic components of Utah’s government.


Adding to the surreal nature of Utah’s longstanding, quasi-theocratic government, LDS officials, claiming unwarranted persecution of their faith in the past, publicly proclaim their allegiance to religious liberty for all. Reality, however, does not match official LDS history.

Early Mormonism was not only theocratic, but also fraudulent, sexually licentious, violent and militant in nature, a narrative of which the digital age has allowed widespread dissemination through primary materials.

Faced with abundant historical evidence contradicting the official sanitized version of LDS history, many Mormon leaders, scholars and members at large, disillusioned and upset by the Church’s betrayal, have left.

LDS authorities are working to stop the hemorrhaging of members, which one Mormon scholar calls “an epidemic,” through an online public relations campaign that partially admits to, but downplays, troubling elements of LDS history.

Many scholars say the Church’s efforts to address the faith’s true history are too little, too late.


Birthed during the Second Great Awakening, at a time of religious fervor in America characterized by a desire on the part of many to restore the “true church” and evidenced in the creation of many new sects, Mormonism was the invention — according to period eyewitnesses accounts, court records and newspaper articles of the 1820s to 1830s — of a con man.

In 1832 Joseph Smith, a juggler (fraudster), treasure-seeker and sexual offender brought to court on several occasions, claimed to have had a vision from God near his home in upstate New York in 1820.

Multiple first- and second-hand stories of the 1820 vision, often conflicting, exist. Generally, the accounts purport that God revealed to Smith that Christianity was an “abomination” and charged Smith with establishing the “true church of God.”

From this and various other conflicting visions in the 1820s, Smith in 1830 published his Book of Mormon, claiming that it superseded the Bible.

Opponents of Smith then and scholars today note that Smith plagiarized from (variously) the King James Bible, the Apocrypha and several other books in circulation at the time. In the early 1830s the Palmyra Reflector in New York, for example, spilled much ink documenting the “well known” fraudulent claims of Smith pertaining to his alleged religious visions and spurious Book of Mormon.

Also in 1830 Smith and a handful of followers established the “Church of Christ” (in 1834 renamed “The Church of the Latter Day Saints,” and in 1838 “The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints”) as the world’s one true Church.


Married since 1827, Smith added sexual license in 1831 to his growing list of visions, declaring that God revealed to him that the Old Testament practice of plural marriage, or polygamy, should be reinstated in the one true church.

Smith’s vision possibly signaled his affinity for free sex as embraced by several other religious communities of the time, including the nearby Oneida community in upstate New York. Some who knew Smith noted that he was overly amorous.

Theology, however, was not foremost in the minds of the fathers and husbands whose daughters and wives Smith claimed as his own in the name of God. For years the target of numerous sexual allegations involving young women, in 1832 Smith received a tarring and feathering in Hiram, Ohio, for having sex with a teenager.

Forced to flee Ohio, from this incident the mythological narrative of Mormon persecution took root.

Concurrently in 1831, Joseph Smith decreed that God had chosen western Missouri as the place where the true church was to establish “Zion” in anticipation of Christ’s second coming. He instructed his lieutenants, “elders,” to move to Jackson County and begin purchasing large tracts of land in and near Independence upon which to settle Mormons.

By 1833 more than 1,000 Smithites had relocated to Missouri. Overwhelming the frontier county’s other residents through acquiring land, co-opting the business scene and seizing local political power through questionable means, Smith and his followers set about to create the New Jerusalem, a frontier theocracy.


Non-Mormons of Jackson County recoiled angrily at the Smithites’ efforts to supplant democracy with theocracy. One Ohio editor, following Smith’s exploits from afar, wondered whether Jackson County would be governed by popular will or “dictated by Christ.”

In July 1833 hundreds of citizens in Independence, angry at Mormon aggressions and views, demanded that the newcomers leave immediately, which they refused. Non-Mormon outrage often focused on religious literature published by the local Mormon printing press. An editorial in the Mormon newspaper speaking positively of “free people of color” in a state peopled by many southerners proved the last straw.

Like many northerners of the time, most Mormons were not opposed to slavery. Not reflective of Mormons at large and perhaps misunderstanding the seriousness of the situation, the following day the writer insisted that Mormons took no position on slavery. Unsatisfied, a group of citizens burned the printing office.

In a subsequent encounter between the citizens and a Mormon elder, the LDS leader claimed he was unjustly tarred and featured. Sworn statements from others testified that the sticky treatment was applied only after the Mormon assaulted his opponents.

Thereafter, the Smithites agreed to leave Jackson County by the end of the year. Violent clashes continued in the interim, the Mormon faithful using the conflict to further the emerging narrative of persecution.

The Mormons relocated to the Missouri frontier north of Independence, where the pattern of sexual license, fraud, intimidation, political shenanigans and violence continued. There Smith had another sexual affair, claiming polygamy as his defense. One of his lieutenants referred to the episode as a “dirty, nasty, filthy affair.”

Also in Missouri, Smith ran afoul of the law and many believers alike, who accused him of financial fraud. Many left the faith.

In 1838 some who remained loyal to Smith declared that if locals tried to “disturb” Smith they would enact “a war of extermination” upon Missourians. “We will follow them till the last drop of their blood is spilled, or else they will have to exterminate us,” Smith’s defenders decreed.

A subsequent attempt by citizens to prevent Mormons from stuffing ballot boxes led to a civil war in four Missouri counties, where a Mormon militia fought the Missouri militia in the Battle of Crooked River.

The governor of Missouri then ordered the expulsion of Mormons. Using the same extermination rhetoric as some Smith loyalists, he fueled the narrative of Mormon persecution: “The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state, if necessary for the public good. Their outrages are beyond all description.”

More military clashes followed, resulting in the defeat of the Mormons, imprisonment for Smith and the exodus of his followers from Missouri.

Escaping from prison, Smith fled to Illinois and established Nauvoo, a town designed to be the spiritual home of Mormons, now numbering more than 15,000. There the Church organized the Nauvoo Legion, soon the largest militia in the United States.


Smith also published another holy book, the Book of Abraham, allegedly translated from Egyptian papyri he had acquired. In the late 20th century, however, the papyri were located in a New York vault. First verified as authentic by the LDS church, the papyri were then translated by experts and determined to be Egyptian funerary texts. Smith’s “translation” was a fraud.

Meanwhile, Joseph Smith secretly married another woman, one of more than 30 he would marry over the next few years, many of whom were already married. Other Mormon men also began practicing polygamy.

Smith and the Church publicly denied the polygamous marriages in the Church-owned local newspaper, even as Smith quietly claimed to have received a formal revelation from God authorizing polygamy.

Firmly in control of Nauvoo, Mormons in 1842 elected Smith as mayor. He also held the title of General of the Nauvoo Legion.

Still smarting over his treatment in Missouri, Smith was briefly jailed for his alleged role in the attempted assassination of a former governor of that state. Afterward a grand jury in Missouri indicted Smith on treason, from which he avoided imprisonment.

With aspirations far greater than Illinois alone, the Mormon leader ran for president of the United States in 1844 on a platform of “theodemocracy,” or democracy under religious rule, with God as the “lawgiver.”

That same year he created a Council of Fifty (also known as the “Kingdom of God”) to “establish a theocracy” in the western United States. The Council elected Smith as “Prophet, Priest & King.”

In this role, Smith decreed, “I calculate to be one of the instruments of setting up the kingdom of Daniel by the word of the Lord, and I intend to lay a foundation that will revolutionize the whole world.”


At the same time Smith formally constructed a theology of eternal marriage and the plurality of gods as the basis of Mormon doctrine. In short, observant male members of the one true church could become gods in the afterlife, each the deity of his own planet.

As gods, each would spend eternity spiritually impregnating his wife or wives, producing spirit children who would be born as humans on the deity’s planet, the males of which in turn could one day become gods, thus perpetuating the human-to-god cycle.

Eternal marriage is part of what is known as Mormon Cosmology or Space Doctrine, a unique theological construct embedded in two popular media franchises: the Battlestar Galactica television series and the Twilight novels and movies.

Husbands of wives and fathers of teenagers whom Joseph Smith secretly married and bedded did not take his actions kindly. In 1844 a Hancock County grand jury indicted Smith for polygamy, fornication and perjury.

Irate husbands and fathers, as well as others angered at Smith’s grandiosity, broke ranks with the Church and as dissenters established an alternative Nauvoo news-paper, the Expositor.

The first and only edition of the paper condemned Smith’s sexual affairs, doctrine of plural gods, political aspirations, and ordination as king as, variously, “false doctrine,” “iniquities,” “perversion,” “follies” and the like.

His dissenters criticized Smith for attempting “to unite church and state” and deemed him the “most pernicious and diabolical character that ever stained the pages of the historian.”

In turn, Smith condemned the Expositor as printing libelous statements against him and ordered the press destroyed. Upon the burning of the newspaper office on June 10, 1844, a furor ensued as citizens, including many former Mormons in Missouri and Illinois, demanded justice.

As mayor, Smith placed the town under martial law to protect himself.


Smith, the mayor/general/presidential candidate/prophet/king, declared:

“It is thought by some that our enemies would be satisfied by my destruction, but I tell you as soon as they have shed my blood, they will thirst for the blood of every man in whose heart dwells a single spark of the spirit of the fulness of the Gospel. The opposition of these men is moved by the spirit of the adversary of all righteousness. It is not only to destroy me, but every man and woman who dares believe the doctrines that God hath inspired me to teach to this generation.”

Smith’s claim of innocence and righteousness aside, the Hancock County Justice of the Peace ordered him arrested for inciting a riot, to which the Mormon leader rallied the Nauvoo Legion in his defense.

Incensed, the governor of Illinois sent a state militia to apprehend Smith, who was eventually arrested, placed in the Carthage jail, and charged with treason.

Loyal followers smuggled pistols to the jailed Smith. Chaos ensued when a large group of angry, local citizens burst into the jail in an effort to ensure that justice was finally meted out to Smith.

The Mormon leader tried to shoot his way out, wounding and/or killing up to four men before he was gunned down. Framed by loyal Church leaders as martyrdom, Smith’s death further stoked an internal narrative of Mormon persecution.


Two years of uncertainty followed, after which one group of Mormons led by Brigham Young, Smith’s successor, trekked yet further West. Settling near the Great Salt Lake of present-day Utah, they enacted Joseph Smith’s revelations concerning polygamy and theocracy.

Shunning federal laws, the Church established schools, regulated the court system, created its own controlling political party, raised a militia and administered the irrigation system — the latter no small matter in the arid West.

In 1857 U.S. President James Buchanan sent an armed force against Young’s theocratic government for resisting federal oversight. Young, backed by the Mormon militia, vowed to resist the federal government at all costs. In the midst of the tension some Mormon militia members slaughtered an innocent party of settlers in what became known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

Despite vows to violently resist federal authorities, Young eventually backed down and accepted the U.S.-appointed governor of Utah Territory.

For the next three decades tensions characterized the relationship between Utah’s Mormons and the federal government. In the face of LDS insistence upon maintaining theocracy and polygamy, the U.S. gradually imprisoned Church leaders and tried to police polygamy.

Turning to the federal court system, Mormons charged the federal government with violating their religious liberties. The resulting Supreme Court decision, Reynolds v. United States (1878), was the first to restrict religious liberty.

Polygamist George Reynolds argued that his religion required him to marry multiple women, a violation of federal law. The court ruled the law constitutional and determined it did not violate Reynolds’ First Amendment right to free exercise of religion.


In 1896 Utah was granted statehood, but only after the LDS Church renounced polygamy. Theologically, however, the Church did not rescind Joseph Smith’s revelation of the holiness of the practice.

Polygamy in some instances is still practiced quietly in Utah, and by Mormons in other states. Although Mormon polygamy is portrayed glamorously in various reality television shows and movies, including Sister Wives and My Five Wives, many former wives and children of polygamous families speak of the emotional, psychological and physical abuse they endured.

In addition, Mormons yet dominate the state legislature to the point that common perception is that the Church Administration Building at the bottom of Utah’s Capitol Hill is the true seat of power.

Bud Scruggs, a political scientist at Mormon Brigham Young University, states rather simply the continuing influence of Mormons upon the state of Utah: “The fact is that there are religious people running the state.”

Official LDS teaching yet maintains that “The truthfulness of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rests on the truthfulness of the First Vision and the other revelations the Lord gave to the Prophet Joseph.”

Even as LDS leaders continue suppressing dissent, many otherwise faithful Mormons are publicly downplaying much of Joseph Smith’s life and teachings. Emphasis is placed on LDS business successes, social services programs, family-centric focus and patriotism. And unlike Joseph Smith, today’s Mormons consider themselves to be a part of the Christian community.

Whether or not the Church’s fine-tuning of Smith will stop the “epidemic” of desertions from the LDS faith is uncertain. Many current and former Mormons feel betrayed by the Church’s sanitized cover-up of its own history and angry at Church leaders’ disingenuous claims of “religious liberty” as the reason for Utah’s anti-LGBT legislation.

As one young, former Mormon warns, “Church leaders can crack down and continue to see members, especially young people, leave. Or they can allow church-wide dialogue and changes relating to the church’s historical and doctrinal claims, financial dealings, proselytizing and treatment of women, skeptics and outsiders.”

Utah’s quasi-theocracy may finally be unraveling. NFJ

By Bruce Gourley