From its very beginnings, Mormonism seemed destined to attract ridicule and persecution of every variety, of every intensity, and from every direction — be it religious, secular, or political. Even Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith, noted about himself:
It seems as though the adversary was aware, at a very early period of my life, that I was destined to prove a disturber and an annoyer of his kingdom; else why should the powers of darkness combine against me? Why the opposition and persecution that arose against me, almost in my infancy?
Whether you agree with the doctrines and practices of Joseph Smith and Mormonism (and there is much to disagree with no doubt – for many of them are strange, and even offensive), the horrible abuse and religious persecution of the Mormon people at the hands of their oppressors (which included not only private persons, and mobs, but also state and federal governments) was shocking, horrific, and is completely unparalleled in the history of the United States.
Since the very beginnings of Mormonism in the state of New York, they were often treated harshly by their neighbors. This mistreatment, which involved everything from mistrust and slander to murder and rape, caused the body of the Church to move from one place to another—to Ohio, to Missouri, to Illinois, and finally on to the land that would become Utah. In fact, murder of Mormons was still officially sanctioned by the state of Missouri until June of 1976.
Being abused and driven continually from place to place quickly becomes old, and can be tolerated for only so long. In all these tribulations the Mormons had petitioned the government (both state and federal) several times to aid them in their plights. Perhaps most famously President Van Buren is reported to have said, when asked for aid, “Gentlemen, your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you. … If I take up for you I shall lose the vote of Missouri.” Oh, the politicians!
The first wagon company entered the Salt Lake Valley on July 24th of 1847. Brigham Young stated then that if they would be left in peace for 10 years, they would ask nothing further of the government. Ten years later to the day, on July 24th of 1857, the saints were celebrating Pioneer Day up Big Cottonwood Canyon at Silver Lake, with the Stars and Stripes flying in the breeze, when word came to the territory of Deseret that the United States was sending an army to crush a supposed Mormon rebellion.
Of course the rumors of rebellion and lawlessness in the territory were exaggerated well beyond the point of lies, and were used as false pretense for military action. Ultimately this proved very costly for the government, and embarrassing for President Buchanan (the Utah War is sometimes referred to as Buchanan’s Blunder). The real reasons for sending a sizable chunk of the army into the western wilderness was all done for political reasons and had nothing to do with the disloyalty of the Mormon people (for they were not disloyal to the United States – and never have been). Rather, the reasons had to do with the impending civil war (the massive military force, trudging across the plains at this critical time, left many federal arsenals and military stores unprotected in the South), and the recently adopted Republican Party platform (adopted at the GOP convention of 1856 in Philadelphia) to rid the US of:
“the twin relics of barbarism,
polygamy and slavery“.
After receiving the news about the approaching army Brigham Young told the people to finish their Pioneer Day celebrations, and then they began making plans and preparations. The plan they decided on was to stall the army, thru bloodless guerrilla warfare, as long as possible from entering the territory (the stories of Lot Smith and Porter Rockwell are fascinating and entertaining, but sadly too long to relate here). This was to buy them time to clear up the misunderstandings, misrepresentations, and outright lies that were circulating in the East about the Mormon people. Ultimately, the plan was carried out in a brilliant manner, and was successful in its aims.
Here is what Brother Brigham had to say about the situation:
It is a pretty bold stand for this people to take, to say that they will not be controlled by the corrupt administrators of our General Government. We will be controlled by them, if they will be controlled by the Constitution and laws; but they will not. Many of them do not care any more about the Constitution and laws that they make than they do about the laws of any other nation. That class [of people] trample the rights of the people under their feet, while there are so many who would like to honor them. All we ever asked for is our Constitutional rights. We wish the laws of our Government honored, and we have ever honored them; but they are trampled under foot by administrators.
I do not lift my voice against the great and glorious Government guaranteed to every citizen by our Constitution, but against those corrupt administrators who trample the Constitution and just laws under their feet. They care no more about them than they do about the Government of France, but they walk them under their feet with impunity. And the most of the characters they have sent here as officers cared no more about the laws of our country and of this territory than they did about the laws of China, but walked them under their feet with all the recklessness of despots. – Millennial Star, No. 3, Vol. 20, pg. 33
So remember this Pioneer Day, that this day is about religious liberty as much as it is about settling a strange land and making the desert blossom as a rose. I leave you with the inspiring words of Connor Boyack, who wrote a beautiful guest opinion for the Daily Herald (the original article can be found here). His words are reproduced here in their entirety:
July 24 is Utah’s second summer celebration of independence. On this state holiday, we remember the pioneers who on this date in 1847 arrived in the Salt Lake Valley to settle the area.
Fleeing from a mob and exiting the borders of the American states, Brigham Young and his Mormon followers started a new society in the desert, independent from the government that had forsaken them. In a letter to the U.S. president summarizing their intent, Young declared:
“We would esteem a territorial government of our own as one of the richest boons of earth, and while we appreciate the Constitution of the United States as the most precious among the nations, we feel that we had rather retreat to the deserts, islands or mountain caves than consent to be ruled by governors and judges whose hands are drenched in the blood of innocence and virtue, who delight in injustice and oppression.”
There are many reasons for which the early Latter-day Saints were persecuted, religious discrimination and concerns about concentrated political power among them. Of course, polygamy also played a role; it was only a few years later that the Republican Party was founded, focused on the abolition of two “barbarisms”: slavery and polygamy.
The decades that followed saw increasing intervention into this polygamous lifestyle by federal agents enforcing newly enacted laws against what had by then become the territory of Utah. LDS Church leaders went underground to avoid prosecution, and Mormon culture became insular and to some degree anti-government, so much so that the “Mormon Creed” was born and widely used, even featured as art in one LDS temple.
That motto? “Mind your own business. Saints will observe this, others ought to.”
The rest is history, but forgotten history for many in Utah. Raids against and imprisonment of many of our ancestors is so far distant from today’s society that it doesn’t get much attention.
It should — if for no other reason than the fact that many plural families continue to live amongst us, practicing their faith and living as best as they can, branded as they are as felons by their own government. We can more appropriately honor Utah’s polygamist pioneers who stood up for what they believed in, on Pioneer Day and every day, by not perpetuating the same oppressive policies against which they protested.
We’re all aware of the examples of abuse, fraud, and outright perversion in some polygamous circles. This does not, however, justify widely branding a population to which so many of us have a close connection.
In other words, a few bad apples doesn’t mean the whole bunch should be tossed out. There are numerous examples of consenting adults and loving families creating a safe and supportive environment for their children and one another.
Utah’s celebration of Pioneer Day is inherently connected to polygamy; the day is a memorial of unfair persecution based on religious and cultural differences. For a modern society that claims to increasingly support diversity and inclusion, the continued persecution of the posterity of the very people for whom the holiday exists stands as a hypocritical anomaly worth pointing out.
A modern leader in the LDS Church had something to say about this:
“Our pioneer ancestors were driven from place to place by uninformed and intolerant neighbors. They experienced extraordinary hardship and persecution because they thought, acted, and believed differently from others. If our history teaches us nothing else, it should teach us to respect the rights of all people to peacefully coexist with one another.”
The very state government that has institutionalized this holiday, and that was created by those persecuted in part for their support of polygamy, now criminalizes this lifestyle as a felony. Separate laws allow for the prosecution of those actually guilty of a real crime — sexual abuse, fraud, neglect, etc. Going further to punish a consenting adult relationship is inherently unjust.
Yes, let’s celebrate Pioneer Day (or, for some, pie and beer day), but let’s take up the torch of the pioneers we celebrate by putting an end to the oppression from which they fled, and which many of their posterity are subjected to still.
Connor Boyack is president of Libertas Institute, a free market think tank in Lehi, and author of 14 books.