Making the dead our own

As a people, Mormons are not afraid to see their chrism in the dead and take them as their own. We take heroes and poets. God has inspired many and their words and examples are a balm to the Church. Sometimes, even, we have changed enough to accept our enemies as friends.

Most of us will remember C. S. Lewis – Maxwell’s muse. Friberg’s portrait of General Washington praying at Valley Forge adorns many of our offices and homes. Woodruff’s night vision of the Founders and his research culminated in one of the enduring symbols of 19th century temple work; but Abraham Lincoln is one who we needed to heal us.

While the April 1914 Relief Society curriculum proclaimed that Abraham Lincoln merited our respect and love, our 19th century progenitors viewed him with antipathy. At the cusp of the Civil War our leaders felt the press of the federal government and the coming war was welcomed as a diversion for them. The leaders of the Church were even cheered by the early success of the confederacy (1). In 1861, President Young was ambivalent over Lincoln:

[The President] remarked that Abel Lincoln was no friend to Christ, particularly, he had never raised his voice in our favor when he was aware that we were being persecuted. He was acquainted with Joseph & Hyrum, and had been a Master Freemason, and that time would show what course he would pursue. (2)

Later that year Brigham confessed that he believed that Lincoln was hostile to the Mormons (3) and in the Spring of 1862 Brigham told H. C. Kimball that though “sagacious,” Lincoln was a wicked man (4).

The antipathy was apparently mutual. As cited in Allen and Leonard’s, The Story of the Latter-day Saints (pg. 313) Lincoln once told a visitor from Utah that the Mormons were like some logs in the fields of his youth, “too hard to split, too wet to burn, and too heavy to move,” and added “You go back and tell Brigham Young that if he will let me alone I will let him alone.”

After Lincoln ordered an army from California to Utah, Brigham told Willford Woodruff:

I pray daily that the Lord will take away the reigns of Government of the wicked rulers & put it into the hands of wise good [men]. I will see the day when those wicked rulers [are] wiped out…I do and always have supported the Constitution but I am not in league with such Cursed scoundrels as Abe Lincoln and his Minions…The feelings of Abe Lincoln is that Buchannan tried to destroy the mormons & Could not. Now I will try my hand at it. (5)

Ultimately, Lincoln was murdered and the Saints moved on. After a generation we forgot the pain and exalted Lincoln into the pantheon of greatness. When I first considered this transition, I thought of 100 years after the Civil War. I thought of the civil rights movement and of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Perhaps, in time, we will distill from Dr. King’s work the oil that will restore us. We will forget any allegiance to antiquated and unrighteous traditions. We will claim him and his work as our own and we will all be free.


  1. Fred C. Collier, The Office Journal of President Brigham Young, 1858-1863, Book D, (Hannah: Collier’s Publishing Co., 2006), pg. 285
  2. ibid. pg. 220.
  3. ibid. pg. 277-278.
  4. ibid. pg. 362.
  5. Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, vol. 5, pg. 606


  1. I remember the response to the log analogy was that the farmer ploughed around it. I recall that is what Lincoln did with Mormonism since he was too tied up in dealing with the other relic of barbarism. I think Mormons would have had a bigger beef with Douglas betrayal.

    Anyway, this is the first time I’ve heard of Lincoln sending troops to Utah and BY bitter comments regarding the matter. Maybe Mormons already accepted Abe as our own until you reminded us of this old chasm. Interesting post. I think its a stretch, but interesting.

  2. Nice post. 2 thoughts.
    I think the portrait, the Apotheosis of Lincoln, in which blessed George, now an angel takes Abraham to heaven as an American God (I’ve seen about 4 different similar paintings) suggests a mighty hagiographic tradition for the Saints to battle against if they are to avoid loving Lincoln.
    2. Amen on Reverend King. Some of us already revere his memory.

  3. Not to prove my ignorance or anything, but what is a chrism?

  4. Ardis Parshall says:

    And yet when word of the assassination reached Salt Lake on April 15, the city immediately went into mourning. Business immediately closed down, prayer vigils were held, and the “Extras” of the newspapers were filled with words like “mournful” and “frightful” and “sad” and “horrible.” Brigham Young refers to the assassination in his letters over the next few days in a matter-of-fact way, without any weeping and wailing, it’s true, but without any expression of approval, either.

  5. HP:

    J., very melodramatic but — does the closing sentiment rely on some assumption that Latter-day Saints reject MLK? Do you feel I am far off the mark to observe that SMB is not alone or marginal in “already rever[ing] his memory”? I am guessing that you are relying on ETB’s dislike of MLK based on ETB’s suspicions that MLK was a communist and hedonist. I am not sure that is enough to paint all Latter-day Saints as rejecting MLK and his work — even those Latter-day Saints who appreciate it without approving of other things about him.

  6. AP, I’m sure there are those out there who argue that BY either ordered the assassination, condoned it, or at least created or contributed to an environment or atmosphere that led to or caused the assassination. After all, BY had strong opinions AND he was Mormon. A nineteenth-century public figure is allowed to have been one or the other but not both, it seems.

  7. “without approving of other things about him”

    It’s always this last bit that makes it look like the LDS attitude to MLK is often “I like him, but…” We rarely mention the motes in our other heroes.

  8. john, you might want to read through the comments on the MLK Day threads at T&S for evidence that, while Sam is certainly not alone, there are also at least some folks in the Church who are almost exclusively focused on the bits of his life they don’t approve of.

    And I don’t think anyone even remotely suggested that BY was involved in the assassination or the “climate” or whatever. There’s no need to come barreling in with all your rhetorical guns blazing.

  9. Thanks for that perspective, Ardis. I am not very familiar with the grass roots conceptions of Lincoln in UT and therefor Brigham may have been anomalous. It does seem that there were a number of church leaders that agreed with him, though.

    Sam, I agree that there is a significant and powerful cultural imperative to revere Lincoln (DKL not withstanding).

    John f., I do think there are plenty of Saints who revere Dr. King. And maybe it is my limited perceptions, but I find there is significant wariness of the civil rights movement and reverence for Dr. King among our people. I would be happy to be mistaken, though. I can even understand why, I don’t care how true a cause might be, if you threaten to picket our general conferences, there are going to be some bad feelings…but I imagine, no worse than the feelings toward a military subjugator.

  10. Good point Kristine, I mean about my superfluous BY comment.

  11. Ronan, sure you do. I am guessing you wouldn’t say something nice about Ronald Reagan without qualifying it with appropriate disclaimers. Or George W. Bush, if there is anything at all you like about him. So why should MLK be different for people who disagree with some of his behavior? Why should their disclaimers invalidate their appreciation of his overall work or justify a statement or understanding that Latter-day Saints reject MLK? I honestly don’t think they do.

  12. [I mean, I honestly don’t believe Latter-day Saints by and large reject MLK.]

  13. [I mean, I honestly don’t believe Latter-day Saints by and large reject MLK.]

    I agree with that.

  14. Aaron Brown says:

    Growing up in the Church in Southern California, I often heard how outrageous it was to venerate MLK, given his adultery. I don’t really know how widespread this attitude was, and it probably wasn’t a unique Mormon attitude, but I suspect it was common enough. Probably still is.

    Ronan is correct that many like to apply a standard to MLK’s life and behavior that they don’t apply to others.

    Let’s also not forget the Apostle (?) some years back (yet I’ve admittedly forgot which one) who deplored the tendency to venerate public or historical figures for this or that accomplishment while simultaneously downplaying or ignoring their moral failings. (Can anyone provide a cite for this?) This teaching, which I’ve heard invoked in conversations about MLK, Princess Diana, etc., plays a huge role in perpetuating these attitudes.

    Also, can one spend an MLK holiday at BYU without hearing ad nauseum about how we should call it “Human Rights Day” instead? Not when I was there. It’s hard not to understand this phenomenon in light of the widespread animosity toward MLK among many Churchmembers.

    Aaron B

  15. I’m talking about Mormon heroes, john. When someone rises to Mormon hero-hood, they do so with their blemishes air-brushed out.

  16. #15. Except Ronan, who is well air-brushed and quite heroic.

  17. Ronan, I don’t think it is quite that simple. Lots of us get heartburn over JS’s expansive definition of marriage but are perfectly willing to overlook all kinds of degenerate behavior in our more secular heroes.

  18. We accept many “enemies” as our friends. I mean, we all read and love Mark Twain.

    On Lincoln, I would say that “It seems that there were a number of Church leaders that agreed with [BY]” is a statement that is somewhat unsupported at this point. Further, I think evidence has shown that Lincoln was not an enemy to the church, and so we have no cause to dislike him. (Saying we are like logs is a compliment, not an attack, in this case.) Also, I have never read any report that notes that troops were deployed to Utah in the tenure of Lincoln, but have read that Lincoln, in fact, I have only read that Lincoln refused to do such. I have also read that Lincoln was the first president to check the BOM out of the Library of Congress.

    In short, I think history has shown that Lincoln’s character is fairly worthy of honor.

    Perhaps after 2027[when his files are released to the public], concerns will be put to rest regarding King’s purported infidelities. Or perhaps they will be blown up and exacerbated.

    And as for Ronan’s comment about all our “other heroes” I say poppycock. Are we not even here saying “BY is our role-model, except…”

  19. Matt,
    Nope. “We” does not equal “Mormons in general.”

  20. Ronan, come on, loads of Latter-day Saints love Mark Twain. That was a really good example. And MLK wasn’t a Latter-day Saint, so your idea about air-brushing out flaws doesn’t really make sense applied to him. And if that’s the case, what is the argument against a “yes, but” approach when discussing him. To return to the RR example, you might ascribe some honor to some things RR did but I would imagine that you would apply all appropriate disclaimers. It’s just politics, not something religious.

  21. Ronan was referring to the we in “BY is our role-model, except…” not the we in Mark Twain…

    And frankly, I think this is because MLK is a lot better covered than BY, historically speaking. Further, I am “Mormons in General” so far as my experience has permitted me to see.

  22. No way, Matt, just being here means you joined the dark side ages ago…

  23. Thomas Parkin says:

    I was in SLC the Sunday before MLK this day, and as always attended the ‘Music and the Spoken Word’ broadcast at the convention center. The spoken word was a tribute to MLK. It was attended by an all African-American women’s choir from a Chritian school in Georgia. This isn’t an official organ of the church, but still – it’s an old part of the traditional culture.

    Tangentially connected rant to follow:

    I don’t give a rat’s azz about anyone’s politics. Am a-political so far as I’m capable of it. And dislike few things more than seeing nominally believing LDS whose views seem to flow more from a political sensibility, left or right, than from a humble, neccesarily contigent, search for truth through righteous living and personal revelation. (There is plenty of material, both on the poltical right and the political left, that can be plugged whole cloth into the gospel – but we ought to be, on balance, a different beast.) Is there anything more distorting to a truthful viewpoint than a political platform? Maybe the dominant sensibilities of the historical moment. Everyone sees reality through the spectrum of their beleifs – and if one’s eyeglasses are blue or red, you’ll see the world as blue or red. Among other things, it’s d**ned tiresome.


  24. Steve Evans says:

    Joining this thread a bit late, but I am having a hard time seeing why ol’ Fowlesie is so agitated. Nasty kippers for breakfast, John?

    I mean, if all you’re mad about is a feeling that mormons in your experience treat MLK just fine, then let’s move on (and try not to think about what happened with MLK Day in Arizona, heh heh heh).[1][2]

    [1] That last parenthetical was just to egg you on, John. I BEG YOU not to make any mention of it.

    [2] Reserved for Stapley’s benefit.

  25. Sometimes, even, we have changed enough to except our enemies as friends.

    I always except my enemies as friends.. and find that the healing only begins when I find ways to accept them as friends.

    /The more you know..

  26. Steve, I’m not mad that Latter-day Saints treat MLK just fine. I think that’s great and it’s actually the point I wish to make and it sort of invalidates the assumption required for Stapley’s original post.

  27. and by, I am a crappy copy editor. The typo is fixed.

  28. Steve Evans says:

    John, I think God smiles whenever you get upset on blog threads. I know I do, at least a little.

  29. Quite often, just as prophecy only becomes clear after the fact, our reverence for some of these figures grows as we get some distance from contemporary stresses.

    Brigham Young saw the army at Camp Floyd depart for the Civil War, only to have Colonel Connor and the California Volunteers, no friend to the Mormons, establish Fort Douglas, with his cannons overlooking the city. Connor was disappointed to not be going to the war, and was spoiling for a fight, He was quite antagonistic with the Mormons in the city, and only after he went after the Indians at the Battle of Bear River, and received much assistance for his wounded and frostbitten soldiers, did he back off at all from his confrontational attitude, and then only a little. No wonder BY had negative feelings towards Lincoln.

    As to MLK, Pres Benson in his apostolic days, knew and was a confidant of J. Edgar Hoover, who was very fond of chasing out suspected communists or liberals. No doubt that Pres. Benson’s attitude was shaped by such information, as he was such a virulent anti-communist during his days as an apostle. Interestingly, his public pronouncements of right wing conservative views just about disappeared after he became President of the Church. His legacy was maintained by publishers and opportunists, but he said really nothing radical under the mantle of prophet. I found that personally very comforting, as I had previously had serious reservations about those political views, and figured that if he became the prophet, I would either have to change my own political views, or he would quit talking about his. I still have my old liberal views.

    That being said, I think we are seeing that distance start to clarify the good that Dr. King accomplished for all of us reflected in the church’s public face, and becoming more a part of the church population in general.

  30. As a member of the church, I found common ground with Dr. King the first time I read “Letter From A Birmingham Jail.” I think it is impossible to read his words and hear about the courage he showed in his struggle without feeling a reverence for his work and honoring his memory. I know nothing certain concerning his personal life except rumors and I do not consider those things when I think about him as a person. To me, his legacy is secure. I do not have to believe that he was perfect, or even close to it to revere his work. The same could be said about Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, or any of my other heroes. Even in the church, we never have leaders or heroes who are perfect and we shouldn’t expect to.

    I have heard some “qualifiers” expressed by members of the church when speaking of Dr. King, and in recalling the wrangling over the holiday, I found both to be disappointing, but not unexpected when considering that he is not part of our religious or cultural tradition in Utah or in the church. I have found that when church members learn about his work and read his words they are as inspired as I have been.

  31. Space Chick says:

    Kevin, I’m impressed–I suspect most of us, at the time Ezra Taft Benson became President, were too young or too uninterested in politics to have a firm understanding of what his views were, let alone thinking about the potential impact if he had continued to express those same views as Prophet. How old ARE you? (don’t answer, it’s a rude question…)

  32. Space Chick, I will only say that I was politically aware at a very early age!