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.
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.
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.” 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.
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.
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.”
 The complete text can be found online at D. Calvin Andrus’s website.
 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.
 George Cobabe has a cautious and skeptical analysis of the White Horse Prophecy at FAIR.
 “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.