God’s Country, Uncle Sam’s Land

On July 4th 1885, many residents of Salt Lake City flew their flags at half mast to signal their distress at the hands of the US government (see here and here). Though not yet a state, Utah was in the grip of the US territorial government, an institution that designed to reconstruct the Mormons in its own image. The media response was brutal and the First Presidency indicated that it was foretold time when the Constitution was to hang by a thread. This specific instance was not considered by Kerstetter in his recent book God’s Country, Uncle Sam’s Land: Faith and Conflict in the American West, but on this 121th anniversary, it is an image whose iconoclasm to contemporary Mormonism underscores his thesis.

July_2006_UncleSamTodd M. Kerstetter (2006) God’s Country, Uncle Sam’s Land: Faith and Conflict in the American West. University of Illinois Press. Urbana and Chicago, IL.

In this new release, Professor Kerstetter compares three conflicts in an effort to answer a series of questions about freedom, religion, government and the American West: 19th century Mormonism with an emphasis on the Utah War; the Ghost Dancers and the Battle at Wounded Knee; and the Branch Dividian standoff at Waco, Texas. In summary, despite rhetorical religious freedom, the US has strict limits, delineated by mainline protestant morality, which limits it will enforce with federal military force.

The Ghost Dancer movement was an aboriginal fundamentalist religion originating from a Nevada Piute prophet in 1889. This prophet, Wovoka, taught that adepts should not make trouble with whites. However, the religion prescribed a regular dance, in the normative tradition, which when coupled with good living (honesty, peace, and the abandoning of warlike accoutrements) would instigate the cataclysmic cleansing of the whites, a universal Indian resurrection and subsequent paradisiacal existence.

The religion spread across the bulk of America within a year, reaching the Lakotas in 1889-90. As individual tribes adopted the religion, they adapted it to their regional needs. The Lakotas, however, added a militant flavor that included the timed coming a Messiah who would lead the Lakotas in victorious battle over the non-native overlords.

Ultimately, and for reasons outlined in the book, Sitting Bull was essentially assassinated and a group of dancers (~120), including women and children, were slaughtered by the US army. Once the killing began, it did not stop until all were dead.

Kerstetter draws many parallels between the Ghost Dancers and the Mormons. Both were viewed as barbaric to the eastern and civilized Americans. Polygamy, prophets that communed with God, forced evacuation to remote dwellings, standing militias, eschatological world-views and Federal policies designed to remake them both in Protestant American terms.

Critically, while Kerstetter does outline the American’s perception of Mormon and Ghost Dancer militarism, he does not note the extent to which the Nauvoo Legion in both Illinois and Utah consistently eschewed antagonistic conflict and ultimately refused confrontation by dictate of its officers or Church leaders. Kerstettler asserts that Joseph Smith’s revelations regarding the US government were foundational to the Mormon response; whereas, it was the nineteenth century popular interpretation of Joseph Smith’s revelations and therefore the beliefs of Brigham Young and others that were primate in policy justification. The author also mischaracterized the concept of blood atonement.

Aside from these minor criticisms, Kerstetter’s work does resonate because there are significant and profound parallel’s in his case studies and he delineates them with lucid and thoughtful prose. While I recommend this book to the Mormon audience, which will find no problem sympathizing with and enjoy being compared to the Lakota Ghost Dancers, they will find discomfort in being contrasted against the Branch Davidians.

The Branch Davidians are a Seventh Day Adventist schismatic group founded by excommunicants that eventually found leadership in brilliant guitar playing self-taught bible scholar who changed his name to David Koresh (for religious purposes). While there are similarities (written revelations, a literal kingdom of God headed by a Davidic king-priest with the power to unlock that which is sealed and polygamy), there are also many dissimilarities (suicide death wishes, armed aggression, and an eschatological battle to be fought by the members against the Feds).

The discomfort in such comparisons extends the value of this book for the Mormon reader. There is no doubt that the American popular and media response to the Branch Davidians, Ghost Dancers and Mormons were very similar. Branch Davidian activities were repugnant and illegal and most if not all Mormons were part of the American condemnation, supporting Federal intervention (the exact opposite of their position 150 years ago). The reader will find that the execution of justice against the Davidians was distorted, as it was against Mormon founders.

Mormons, myself included, recognize God’s providence in the establishment of the United States. Despite this, 150 years ago our prophets cursed the US government and their band of 2,000 invaders. They also suffered in their hands and their resurrection as a part of the US whole was unjust and painful. One of the great miracles of Mormonism is that they forgave the US and joined them. We should all remember that it was our people who suffered, our progenitors, and as such we are not naturally part of this whole. Kerstetter’s book is excellent in its stated aims, but is also excellent in reminding the Saints that we are wanderers in a foreign land.

I believe in America and her self professed values. Her amber fields of grain. Her alabaster cities, though brittle and some places cracked. Her majestic mountains, which shelter the aborted Deseret. I am American. I used to flinch at the outsiders who doubted her grace. This fourth I remember that I too am part outsider and commit to the defense of her poor, tired and different.


  1. No one has ever been able to produce for me the supposed “hang by a thread quote” by Joseph Smith. I’m quite convinced it doesn’t exist.

  2. JamesP, there are generally two different discourses or sources for the quote. The first is a recollection by James Burgess. See The Words of Joseph Smith pg. 279. There is a primary and contemporary account of a different discourse recorded by Martha Coray which is on page 416 (see also footnote 9). This latter account is also published with a lengthy discussion in the Historians Corner of BYU Studies (1979) vol. 19 no. 3.

  3. While that Joseph Smith quote is based solely on hearsay at this point, it is my belief that it is pretty accurate. Over on my blog I’ve been debating with a friend (a lawyer) on the issue of gay marriage and legal rights. Down a bit in my lengthy post, I quoted several founding fathers who would probably look in shame at what we’ve done to their constitution.

    On the other part of this post, Independence Day has special meaning for me. It was 24 years ago on July 4, 1982 that my mom, my sister, and I arrived in the United States. My father had escaped from Romania a few years earlier and was able to get us out. I recently talked with my father (with whom I’ve not had the best of relations) and posted our conversation on my family’s blog, here if you want to see how he escaped.

    America is a wonderful country. It has many flaws, like all other countries. It is still the light of the world, and the best example for all other nations to follow.

  4. JamesP, look these up:

    JoD. vol 6, p. 15 (Brigham Young, 1854)
    JoD. vol 7, p. 152 (Orson Hyde, 1858)
    JoD. vol 12, p. 204 (Brigham Young, 1868)
    JoD. vol 21, p. 31-21 (John Taylor, 1879)
    JoD. vol 21, p. 8 (John Taylor, 1879)
    JoD. vol 22, p. 143-144 (John Taylor, 1879)
    JoD. vol 26, p. 38-39 (John Taylor, 1884)

    All of the references are from those men relating what they remember hearing Jospeh say. There are different variations of what Joseph said, which is why there is no single quote of what he said. But they are all pretty much the same, and from first-hand witnesses.

    One quote from the above list, typed straight from my JoD book:

    JoD, vol, 7, p 15, Brigham Young:
    “Will the Constitution be destroyed? No: it will be held inviolate by this people: and, as Joseph Smith said, ‘The time will come when the destruction of the nation will hang upon a single thread. At that critical juncture, this people will step forth and save it from the threatened destruction.’ It will be so.”

  5. Sorry. I messed up the first couple of references:

    JoD. vol 6, p. 152 (Brigham Young, 1854)
    JoD. vol 7, p. 15 (Orson Hyde, 1858)
    JoD. vol 12, p. 204 (Brigham Young, 1868)
    JoD. vol 21, p. 31-21 (John Taylor, 1879)
    JoD. vol 21, p. 8 (John Taylor, 1879)
    JoD. vol 22, p. 143-144 (John Taylor, 1879)
    JoD. vol 26, p. 38-39 (John Taylor, 1884)

  6. I sometimes wonder whether American diversity and the the country’s tolerance of extreme difference (when we do tolerate it) is compatible with real community (for example, the elimination of poverty, crime, and racism). Can individuals believe in sacrificing for the collective good when the collective is really just a collection? I believe it is possible, but it will require some genius to advance political science far enough to really make it work.

    In the meantime, I guess I’ll just aim to better my own situation and occasionally check for (and vote for) the geniuses.

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