A Red Horse Prophecy?

We spent the weekend in Washington DC, visiting our own Karen H. (newly returned from Central Asia), and seeing the sites. One of the first museums we hit was the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI*) — an impressive new branch of the Smithsonian that has opened during the decade since our last visit. The NMAI was designed by Native Americans and is devoted to telling the stories of the original peoples of the western hemisphere in their own voices. The museum includes three major exhibit spaces labeled: “Our Lives” (contemporary stories of Indians today), “Our Universes” (traditional Native cosmologies and world-views), and “Our Peoples” (history from the Indian perspective).

Imagine my shock when I saw that the exhibit in the “Our Peoples” section devoted to native religion was dominated by an art installation representing the (Mormon) White Horse Prophecy.

White Horse Prophecy display

In the display, a number of Indian artifacts sit atop a blanket that is half red and half black. There are four pieces of rolled cloth, set out in cardinal directions. The red is embroidered with the label “RED HORSE,” the black with “BLACK HORSE,” the beige with “PALE HORSE,” and the white (curiously) is labeled “REV. 6.”

You may not have heard of the White Horse Prophecy by name and you probably haven’t read its text, but the most famous part should be familiar:

You will see the Constitution of the United States almost destroyed. It will hang by a thread as fine as a silk fiber.[1]

The famous Constitution shall hang by a thread part of the prophecy is actually embedded in a larger allegory of four horses of the Apocalypse. The sixth chapter of the Book of Revelation contains a vision of four horsemen: Pestilence riding a white horse; War riding a red horse; Famine riding a black horse; and Death riding a pale horse. The White Horse Prophecy, by contrast, is an allegory about the horses themselves rather than their riders.

The text we have today indicates that Joseph Smith gave it to a few intimates in May of 1843. In the allegory, Mormons are likened to the White Horse and it is predicted that they will go to the Rocky Mountains where they will be “a great and mighty people.”[2] The Pale Horse represents non-Mormon whites of the United States — from which Mormon missionaries will yet gather those who are “honest in heart.” The Black Horse represents the slaves of the South who will rise up against their masters during a predicted British invasion: “armed with British bayonets, the doings of the Black Horse will be terrible.” Finally, the Red Horse represents the Indians.

According to the prophecy, the U.S. Constitution “will be preserved and saved by the efforts of the White Horse, and by the Red Horse who will combine in its defense,” because when the world devolves into universal war and “peace and safety in the Rocky Mountains will be protected by the Guardians, the White and Red Horses.”

Ultimately the Messiah will come to lead his people, the Lost Ten Tribes will return, the Temple in Jackson County, Missouri, will be built, and:

Power will be given to the White Horse to rebuke nations afar off, and you obey it, for the laws go forth from Zion. The last great struggle that Zion will ever have to contend with will be when the whole of America will be made the Zion of God. Those opposing will be called Gog and Magog. The nations of the Earth will be led by the Russian Czar and his power will be great, but all opposition will be overcome and then this land will be the Zion of our God. Amen.

All in all, the prophecy is a fascinating window into the 19th century Mormon Millennial world-view. It is also striking that the Book of Revelation’s colored horses become colored races in the Mormon prophecy. While the red and black identifications are predictable, it’s interesting that Mormons have begun to think of themselves as the true whites — separated out from the Pale Horse of other Americans because Mormons have pure Israelite lineage, rather than mixed Isrealite and gentile.

Interesting though it may be, the White Horse Prophecy has one key liability: in the form we have it, it’s clearly a fraud. Filled with anachronisms, the text seems to fit the perspective of Utah in the 1850s much more clearly than that of Nauvoo in 1843. This interpretation is supported by the fact that the text we have today was first “remembered” by two Mormons in the 1850s (and only later recorded by a third) and also because the horse allegory only becomes known and popularized at that time.[3]

Fraud or no, we may ask how did this Mormon prophecy make its way into the National Museum of the American Indian?

According to its interpretative panel, the White Horse Prophecy display, entitled “Eye of the Storm,” is:

A work of installation art by Edward Poitras (Saulteaux/Metis). This is a place of stillness, a space in time where Indians regrouped, adopted elements of the storm to keep their cultures alive. The piece features evidence of Native survivance: seeds of corn, cardinal direction markers, pages from the Biblical book of Revelation, and the hat similar to one worn by Wovoka (ca. 1858-1932), a Paiute holy many whose prophesies of regeneration inspired the Ghost Dance movement of the 1890s.

How does it fit together? The Paiute prophet Wovoka hailed from the deserts of Nevada. When his Ghost Dance movement arose, U.S. government officials immediately assumed the Mormons were behind the Indian unrest; a charge the Mormons disputed. Reviewing the Mormon sources, Lawrence Coates concluded:

Close examination of the evidence shows that Mormons did not conspire with the Indians in promoting the Ghost Dance…. Nor is it any more likely that Mormon doctrines were any more influential in shaping the ideas of the [Ghost Dance] movement than the ideology of other Christian denominations.[4]

While Mormons seem to have been just as bewildered by the Ghost Dance as U.S. officials, if the NMAI exhibit is any indication of the actual content of Wovoka’s prophecy, the second portion of Coates’ conclusion may not hold up. Mormons and Indians may not have conspired, but they were neighbors. At the time, Mormons had an apocalyptic world-view that included a belief that the Red Horse — American Indians — would play a key role in the end times that were very close at hand.

While it’s premature to say so definitively until the basis of the NMAI display is known, it appears to me that Wovoka may have absorbed some of his neighbor’s beliefs in the White Horse Prophecy and envisioned his own version: a “Red Horse Prophecy.”

Red Horse pillow

NOTES

[1] The complete text can be found online at D. Calvin Andrus’s website.
[2] A brief analysis of the White Horse Prophecy can be found in Appendix B of Newell G. Bringhurst and Craig L. Foster, The Mormon Quest for the Presidency (Independence, Missouri: John Whitmer Books, 2008), 282-292.
[3] George Cobabe has a cautious and skeptical analysis of the White Horse Prophecy at FAIR.
[4] “The Mormons and the Ghost Dance,” Dialogue 18:4 (1985), 89-111.
[*] The original post mistakenly used the abbreviation NMIA instead of NMAI, which David G. pointed out and corrected.

Comments

  1. The Museum is amazing and long over due. I was there right after it opened a few years ago and the exhibits are beautiful. I wish that I would have been able to pick this one out and to look at it more closely.

  2. Larry the cable guy says:

    Those opposing will be called Gog and Magog. The nations of the Earth will be led by the Russian Czar and his power will be great,

    I’m just glad we don’t have a czar in Russia anymore to worry about. That lets me rest easier.

    Has anyone else ever wondered if Putin’s middle name is ‘Ras’?

  3. StillConfused says:

    I represent a Native American healing center and the Native leader (who happens to also be LDS) explained the four horses differently to me. He explained it as a chain of events. First the Americas were ruled by the Native (red man); then by the White Man; next it will be ruled by the Black Man (some speculate that this has to do with Obama) and finally by the Yellow Man (know of any Asian politicians?). After that time, the Earth will be cleansed and the Native will rule the Americas again (something along the lines of the last days type analogy).

  4. Is that Ghost Dance article in Dialogue any good? I was unaware of the horse prophecy connection.

    I know that I am a broken record on this, but I think it is important to note that the constitution-hanging-by-a-thread has several sources in JS sermons other than the white horse prophecy.

    And never one to be shamed away from self linking, I once wrote a bit on twentieth century fear-mongering that touched on the WHP.

  5. John, thanks for this. That’s a museum that I definitely need to visit.

    Couple of questions: Why NMIA rather than NMAI?

    Also, am I right to assume that there’s nothing on the exhibit itself that indicates a Mormon origin? I see no compelling reason to assume from the exhibit itself (as you’ve described it) that the White Horse Prophecy is a better source than Rev. 6. Although Rev. 6 does mention horsemen, it’s the horses that are colored. Furthermore, it seems a stretch that just because Poitras included an image of Wokova’s hat that the artist was reconstructing some of the prophet’s teachings. Even if Poitras was reconstructing Wokova’s teachings, there still is next to no evidence that Wokova got his inspiration from the WHP or any other Mormon teaching.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Very interesting, John.

    (Newell and Craig gave an expanded presentation on the WHP at the FAIR conference in August.)

  7. John Hamer says:

    Hans (1): I liked the museum a lot, but not everyone I went with agreed. It isn’t set up in a western linear, chronological, or geographical fashion, which I gather is part of the idea.

    Larry (2): Don’t count the czars out yet!

    SC (3): Did the leader you know explain where his understanding about the horses came from? I wasn’t suggesting that Wokova or other Native Americans adopted the WHP as we have it written — just that its symbolism may have inspired their own apocalyptic vision.

    J (4): On the question of the WHP generally, yours sounds like the most reasonable explanation. Joseph may have made statements to the effect of “the Constitution is hanging by a thread.” Then the authors of the WHP included that phrase in their allegory in order to give the whole work an authentic resonance. In terms of the Dialogue article, it looked like a good summary of the U.S. suspicions and Mormon denials, but it didn’t include much information about Wokova’s actual teachings. I think that’s where my hunt needs to take me.

    David (5): You’re right about the NMAI abbreviation, I’m making that correction.

    I’m definitely considering my deductive leaps “premature,” as I say above. Right now I’m just observing a couple of interesting coincidences, which (as you point out) may be nothing more than that. To follow up, I want to look at whatever I can find of Wokova’s teachings to see what he says about the four horses. If can’t find a thing, I’ll see what I can do to track down Poitras and ask him about the source for his inspiration.

    Kevin (6): I’d been planning to go to that session of FAIR; I wish I’d made it.

  8. I eat up this kind of thing. Thank you–probably the coolest thing I’ll have read this month.

  9. Hamer, you gotta read Taylor’s PhD dissertation (Telling Stories, SUNY ca 2000) if you like this. There is actually a circulating Indian legend that Handsome Lake taught Joseph Smith the stories from which Smith wrote the Book of Mormon.
    Stapley’s right that the WHP captures themes circulating as early as the 1830s, both the notion that the holy constitution was threatened (e.g. by the Missouri Mormon War) and the idea that the remnant of Jacob would save America from the Protestants (=Gentiles). Death was often taken to be riding the Pale Horse, including in a painting Smith proudly considered in the 1840s (Benjamin West I think, though I don’t have sources by me). I wonder whether the doomed Gentiles were associated with death and the loss of civilization rather than a commentary about ethnic Whiteness.

    Taylor is really only the beginning of what could be a fruitful line of research–the intermixing of Mormon and Native folklores. The Handsome Lake as Smith’s use folktale is the best so far.

  10. Smith’s use = Smith’s muse.
    sorry

  11. John, I seriously love your posts. This is fascinating and sets me up for looking at further reading material.

    Also, I covet your weekend in DC with Karen. Just for the record… ;)

  12. I seem to recall (I’m pretty sure actually) reading that Jack Wilson (Wovoka) lived with a Mormon family when he was quite young, though I cannot find this information on the web.

  13. Thanks John, I really enjoyed hearing about this after you visited the museum, and was hoping you’d post about it soon. Looking forward to hearing if your research finds any more links.

    Was great to hang out with you this weekend. Tracy, actually you should be coveting my weekend with John!

  14. John Hamer says:

    We loved hanging out with you, Karen (13), and I wish you’d have been there, Tracy (11) — we’d have had a real ball.

    MPB (8): Very glad to oblige, thanks for the kind feedback.

    Djinn (12): That’s the kind of thing I need to track down.

    SMB (9-10): I could see the gentiles being connected to the pale horse because of their impending death, but logically that makes Mormons a pestilance upon the land…

  15. Found the ref:
    Lori Elaine Taylor, “Telling Stories about Mormons and Indians,” Ph.D. dissertation, State University of New York at Buffalo, 2000.

  16. John, I’ve been trying to trace a “prophecy” purportedly written by John Taylor which was used to frighten all of us Utahns back in the 1960s. I had thought it was the Whitehorse Prophecy, but was later told it was the Horseshoe Prophecy. I chatted with Newell Bringhurst about it when he was in town. He, as part of the National Guard, had been put on alert for what we all assumed was about to happen: blacks would come en masse to Salt Lake City, enter the temple, rape women, pillage, etc. Darius was shown the plans (including sniper posts) for dealing with the incoming calamity. My home teacher solemnly read my family the letter–which I remember vividly. (It was ultimately repudiated over the pulpit.) I’ve found allusions to it in the folklore collection at Special Collections at BYU, but have never found the letter. One phrase is in both “prophecies,” I believe: Blood will run down the streets.

  17. Margaret- do you mean this one?

  18. BruceC–that could well be it. I did find that letter in my research, but my memory associates the letter I heard with particular fear-mongering over Blacks entering SLC. Something was in the air back then. People were arming themselves and had a full-scale plan of counter-attack for when the Blacks reached Utah. I’m guessing that the letter you linked was embellished. If I’m right, I sure wish I could find the embellishment.

  19. Margaret (16,18): Interesting! Newell has been talking about writing a monograph about the White Horse Prophecy with Craig Foster. I’ve been arguing with them that there’s a lot more out there and they need to cast their nets widely on this thing. It’s shocking to me that the only book on this topic was a Fundamentalist apologetic work by Ogden Kraut.

  20. Hamer, that volume would be very important if they, as you say, cast their nets widely.

  21. Margaret, my memory is fuzzy, but I can also remember the grown-ups talking about how the people rioting in Watts were on their way to Utah and that they would stop at nothing.

  22. FWIW, we had a section in Special Features of the documentary about the Horseshoe Prophecy, but chose not to use it because we couldn’t find the actual letter I remembered hearing as a teenager. But the Chief of Police really did show Darius the city’s plan for taking down the onslaught.

  23. To me, both of these folklore prophecies should be discarded by the Church. They are only fear mongering and racist. Neither even comes close to commonsense.

  24. Bob, am I missing something? Maybe you are saying the Church should do something to discredit it similar to what it has done re the statement about today’s youth being generals in the war in heaven? I understand that Joseph F. Smith did so in 1918. I’ve only ever heard of the prophecy in historical articles such as John’s, in a few news stories about Romney, and in crazy conversations about other nonsense such as the “dream mine” while I was a student at BYU.

  25. John Hamer says:

    Bob (23): as mpb (24) points out, there’s a pretty long tradition of LDS leaders rejecting the bulk of this prophecy. The WHP is pretty well discarded by the LDS Church except for the “hanging by a thread” line — which J. Stapley pointed out (4) has a distinct origin.

  26. John Hamer says:

    Ok, big update.

    I had a long phone call with Newell Bringhurst. Newell explained to me that the WHP doesn’t show up in published sources until the 1890s and early 1900s. He also points out that the text actually fits the 1880s and 90s and not the 1850s because the Black Horse are not depicted as slaves, they are afraid of “[be]coming slaves again.” After 1877, African Americans were losing the rights they had enjoyed during Reconstruction. Newell also cited the references to the Russians as the anti-Christ and the “heathen Chinese” as founded in late 19th Century “Yellow Scare” and concerns about Russian Imperial expansionism.

    An 1880s/90s date for the origin of the White Horse Prophecy is certainly intriguing given the date of the Ghost Dance movement: 1890. Still just a coincidence, but one that Newell has promised to look into.

    Newell said that the “hanging by a thread” line first appears with Brigham Young in the 1850s and Brigham attributed it to Joseph Smith. Although contemporary sources confirm that Joseph was concerned that the Constitution was imperiled, we don’t have any indication that the thread metaphor was employed by him.

    All in all, it does sound like the makings of an important book:

    WHP Book Mockup
    Mockup for a proposed book on the WHP.

  27. #25: “There’s a pretty long tradition of LDS leaders rejecting the bulk of this prophecy.” If you are saying a rejection in 1918 is the long tradition, you are right. (McConkie also rejects it in his book)
    I am saying that many GAs and a lot of Church members are still use these prophecies. Anytime the phase “hanging by a treat” is used, it gives it a realness. Anytime people write a book or paper, it gives it a realness.

  28. #28: That’s ‘thread” ( I was eating a Tootsie Roll Pop at the time)

  29. The connection between the Mormons, Wovoka, and the Ghost Dance goes way back. James Mooney, an anthropologist, was to my knowledge the first one to do an in-depth study of the Ghost Dance and the massacre at Wounded Knee. He published his report in 1890, the same year Wounded Knee occurred. He unequivocally asserted that Wovoka and the Ghost Dance movement had been influenced by Mormons. Mormon missionaries had made some converts amongst the Paiute people, Wovoka had met with them, at least briefly, and he had some family members who had converted. The story goes, if I recollect correctly, that when Wovoka heard about the power of Mormon garments, he asked one of the missionaries if he could buy his and the missionary complied (this is where one begins to doubt the veracity of the story). At any rate, Mooney and other historians since then have made the connection because of Wovoka’s idea, and the Indians adoption of, the “Ghost Shirt.” Wovoka spread the idea that donning special shirts and pants, upon which symbols had been painted, would make the Indians invincible to bodily harm, particularly the white man’s bullet. Thus, historians believe the Indians got this idea about special protective clothing from the Mormons.

  30. Awesome mock-up, John. I think you should get a nice rustic hemp rope though.

    You got me to look up the sources I had, and this is what I came up with:

    The Corays recorded JS’s July 19, 1840 sermon:

    We shall build the Zion of the Lord in peace untill the servants of that Lord shall begin to lay the foundation of a great and high watch Tower and then shall they begin to say within themselves what need hath my Lord of this tower seeing this is a time of peace &c—Then the Enemy shall brak come as a thief in the night and scatter the servants abroad when the seed of these 12 Olive trees are scattered abroad they will wake up the Nations of the whole Earth Even this Nation will be on the very verge of crumbling to pieces and tumbling to the ground and when the constitution is upon the brink of ruin this people will be the Staff upon which the Nation shall lean and they shall bear away the constitution away from the very verge of destruction (9)

    (9) This is the only known contemporary account of this well-known prophecy of Joseph Smith (cf. 2 April 1843 (1), note 9, and 6 May 1843, note 1; see also Journal of Discourses 6:152; 7:15; 12:204; 21:8, 31; 23:104, 122-23).
    (Ehat and Cook, Words of Joseph Smith, 416.)

    Ehat and Cook also include a reminiscence of a May 6, 1843 discourse (unfortunately, they don’t give the date of the reminiscence). The three contemporary accounts don’t include the constitution detail:

    In the month of May 1843. Several miles east of Nauvoo. The Nauvoo Legion was on parade and review. At the close of which Joseph Smith made some remarks upon our condition as a people and upon our future prospects contrasting our present condition with our past trials and persecutions by the hands of our enemies. Also upon the constitution and government of the United States stating that the time would come when the Constitution and Government would hang by a brittle thread and would be ready to fall into other hands but this people the Latter day Saints will step forth and save it.

    General Scott and part of his staff on the American Army was present on the occasion.

    I James Burgess was present and testify to the above (James Burgess Notebook, Church Archives).
    (Words of Joseph Smith, 279)

    I have in my notes that the Coray account was included with commentary in the “Historians Corner” of BYU Studies (1979) vol. 19 no. 3.

  31. #29: I don’t know if any of this get us beyond Folklore. Indian or Mormon. I know some Church leaders have tried to get this folklore out of Mormonism, but it’s still there.

  32. True or false, prophetic or no the WHP and such should teach us not to operate with our heads in the sand. If anything it should encourage us to be aware of our world, current events and the lessons learned from our past.

  33. I don’t know about a red horse prophecy, but here’s a dark horse prophecy: Max Hall for Heisman.

  34. Margaret, there is a photocopy of a typescript signed by Edward Lunt in BYU Special Collections of the prophecy BruceC links to in #17. It reads the exact same as the version posted on the page in BruceC’s link, except that it is dated the 29th of June (not the 28th). I’ve been immersed in John Taylor’s revelations all summer, and that is the earliest source of the alleged prophecy I have found.

    I’ve heard from others similar stories to what you remember about a letter linking the prophecy to fear of the infiltration of blacks, but have been unable to find anything documenting those stories.

  35. Re the Horseshoe Prophecy:

    The Curse of Cain (10-11)

    Paradox of Mormon Folklore (4-5)

    Certain Apocryphal Reports (46-50)

  36. You are King, Justin.

  37. #35: Justin, thanks for the good reads. I really liked #2. As a child and teenager, the telling of these tales was the heart of our Testimony meeting on Fast Sunday.

  38. Thanks Justin! Wonderful links! It saddens me that I remember some of those awful jokes. What on earth were we thinking???

  39. I’ve never heard a single one of those jokes before. Not one.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 8,395 other followers