A Look Back at American Religious Persecution

An imaginary conversation sometime in the future:

Twenty-first century Mormon to Brigham Young: “Religious persecution is tough!”

BY to 21cM: “It certainly is! What happened to you? Did the federal government send the army after you? Did you make plans to burn the temple and evacuate Salt Lake City? Were general church officers arrested and imprisoned?”

21cM to BY: “Well, no, none of that. But there for a while it looked like I might be forced to sell baked goods to people of whom I disapprove. That’s a violation of my rights!”

BY to 21cM: “Bless your heart, sonny.”
A few years ago I was in Newport, Rhode Island, and wanted to take a tour of the Touro synagogue, home of the oldest Jewish congregation in America. I was met at the door by a no-nonsense man with a gun on his hip who was polite but very efficient. He explained that he needed to see my ID and run a background check before they could let me in, and that I should come back in an hour. At the time, I wondered what it must be like to have to hire armed guards and do background checks to protect your church building. Then a few months later, there was a news report that somebody had walked into a synagogue/community center and started shooting people. Similar incidents have happened twice since then. It is depressingly routine, and it has been going on for over 300 years.

Even after 1776, some of the states had laws on the books preventing Roman Catholics from holding office. In the nineteenth century, hundreds of Catholics were killed by mob violence and had their property destroyed. In the twentieth century, they were a major target of violence by the Ku Klux Klan.

After Le Grand Dérangement, when French Catholics were expelled from the Canadian maritime provinces, they attempted to settle in states along the eastern seaboard of the United States. Some states did not allow the ships to enter the harbor, and thousands of men, women and children died aboard ship of hunger and cold. Others were allowed to land in some of our southern states, where they were immediately enslaved and put to work on cotton plantations.

We are the inheritors of a religious tradition whose founder was lynched while in state custody. His successor found it necessary to move the church, lock, stock, and barrel, across a continent. The federal government declared war on us, with a real army.

I recite these grim facts for a reason. Many of my friends and fellow ward members are saying that they think the American social contract is broken, that the Bill of Rights is no longer effective in guaranteeing our basic freedoms. I strongly disagree with that idea, even as I realize that freedom needs to be constantly nurtured. Sometimes it is necessary for us to step back and take some deep breaths, and get some perspective. America has seen worse than this, much, much worse. Our democracy is not that fragile. Let’s be grateful we no longer live in a time when our missionaries and members are beaten, horsewhipped, and killed, and when our leaders are no longer forced into hiding with prices on their heads.

When Gordon B. Hinckley gave his talk about cynical pickle suckers, he also said that there was too much fruitless, carping criticism of the United States. I echo these words: “What I am suggesting and asking is that we turn from the negativism that so permeates our society and look for the remarkable good in the land and times in which we live.”


  1. Thanks for this, Mark. Whenever I hear people complaining about government intrusion (vaccines) or religious persecution (cakes) part of me just thinks, c’mon people.

  2. American Mormonism is so very strange to me, even after years of being around you lot.

  3. A Non-E Mous says:

    Your introduction is off-putting, even if I think the rest of your analysis is very much spot on. I imagine you could make similar introductions based on race, gender, or sexual orientation and that you would find all of those insensitive.


    21st Century LGBT to 18th Century LGBT: Man, persecution is tough.
    18thCLGBT: Sure is. What happened to you? Did someone try to burn you alive after they found out you were attracted to men?
    21st CLGBT: Well, no. But my husband and I couldn’t receive in-state tax benefits because our state doesn’t recognize our out-of-state gay marriage.
    1thCLGBT: Bless your heart sonny.

  4. Nice point, Mark. Nineteenth-century Catholics and Mormons were largely considered to be outside the universe of religion (Protestant). That allowed for their classification as un-American and in some respects beyond constitutional protections. We are part of the religion club now, but its broadened base has brought with it expected and evolving norms. Every generation has its own angst I suppose.

  5. Curious: Did DHO ever walk back the amazingly ill-thought-out remarks, conflating the post-election experiences of a handful of Prop 8 donors with the travails of the Civil Rights Movement, that led Keith Olbermann to dub him “The Worst Person on Earth” for that week? Or is that part of his policy of not apologizing for anything?

  6. Mark Brown says:

    A Non-E Mous,

    I see your point, but you’re missing the crucial distinction. I think everybody would agree that when it comes to race or homosexuality, we are making progress. The inspiration for this post was seeing that some of us really do think things are worse than ever.

  7. Heaven forbid the idea that people do not want to be abused in any degree and can smell abusive principles before the consequences thereof become apparent; we can always cow whiners by making the conversation about degrees of abuse, that way averting critical attention away from our progressive principles.

    May you live in the world you are creating, sustaining, and supporting.

  8. Mark, I’m interested in your sources for the anecdote about the Acadians. I don’t know too many details about the Expulsion, but it would be unusual by the mid-18th century to have white settlers of any religious or cultural background forced into slavery. Is it possible that you meant either voluntary or involuntary servitude? Or were the refugees in question Métis or First Nation, in which case the reported enslavement would be primarily a racial event, not a religious one?

  9. Church members who seek to use LDS doctrine as a basis for concluding that government infringements on inalienable rights have excused them from obeying the law seem to have forgotten the principle of following the prophets. Until the prophets invoke this principle, faithful members will also refrain from doing so. We remain committed to uphold our governments and to obey their laws.

  10. Mark Brown says:


    Bona Arsenault, “History of the Arcadians”, p. 157.

    “The Acadians who had offered the most resistance to the British—particularly those who had been at Chignecto—were reported to have been sent furthest south to the British colonies of the Carolinas and Georgia, where about 1,400 Acadians settled and were “subsidized” and put to work on plantations.”

  11. Clark Goble says:

    Mark, while I agree with your point I think those who are seeing things as worse are thinking of the direction we’re going rather than thinking it’s as bad as the 19th century or even the 1950’s.

    We should keep our past in mind and realize that the things we rail against are pretty minor. Not just historically but even in the world. Conservatives make this point against feminist concerns in a world where ISIS is a thing. However what I think we miss is that we still aren’t living up to our ideals, whether religious or in terms of our national ideals. As such I think this apocalyptic mindset, while completely hyperbolic, also has an important role. In a sense it’s trying to capture that fervor of the past and apply it to the present.

    I just think the mistake is to get too myopic at times. By and large we have it pretty great.

  12. Clark Goble says:

    Mark and Amy. To continue down the tangent the distinction between serfs and slaves, while important, are also often a matter of degree. The Acadians were often de facto serfs. Arguably in large measure treated that way by the French and had freedom only to the degree they were ignored. While the British expelled them in a sense they were still treated that way.

    There’s actually a rather interesting book I partially read a while back arguing that this history of serfdom was important with the idealogical rise of racism and the mythic structures created to maintain the power of slavery. Effectively racism allowed psychologically a clearer distinction between serfs and slaves such that those whites (Scottish, English, etc.) who were still de facto serfs in the south (and elsewhere to varying degrees such as the Caribbean) would look at themselves as better than the slaves. This created distinctions that then developed but was also a form of control of the poor whites maintaining their place in class hierarchies. With the French they were even lower than the poor whites to British eyes having a place between these neo-serfs and black slaves. (This then has interesting dynamics in Louisiana where things were a bit more chaotic)

    To take the tangent back to the thread, the past really sucked. We should be glad these sorts of things don’t happen as much. (Although we should keep in mind there are an awful lot of slaves today in various types of human trafficking) We can’t stop our progress and shouldn’t merely look at the past in horror but also the future.

  13. Sure, a potential $150,000 fine doesn’t look so bad compared to rape or murder. But the motives are the same: spite. A polite statement that one doesn’t bake cakes for gay “weddings” becomes the basis for a spiteful engagement of the power of the state to destroy someone’s livelihood. And even lynchings in the Jim Crow South were nominally against the law.

  14. Putting quote marks around gay “weddings” in 2015 looks more like spite to me.

  15. Any statement that puts the word ‘weddings’ into quotation marks when referring to gay weddings isn’t polite, at least in this day and age when, more likely than not, that wedding is just as legally valid as a standard heterosexual wedding.

  16. And Kenzo beat me to it…

  17. Clark, unfree labor in America was split roughly into two systems: slavery and indentured servitude, so there were slaves and there were indentured servants. Serfs were a part of the feudal system in Europe.

    Very briefly, most labor in the earliest years of the American colonies was based on English indentured servants who used the system to escape poverty in England, but eventually that began to create a landless class that started to upset the social order (see Bacon’s Rebellion), so the Southern colonies switched over to declaring Africans and African Americans slaves for life in order to create a permanent source of unfree labor. Both labor systems continued to be used in the United States including parts of the Northeast and Midwest through the end of the Civil War.

    You can see the distinction between the two systems in Utah Territory where the unfree labor system was technically indentured servitude, with a goal of gradual emancipation. (See Rich, UHQ, Winter 2012.)

    The Thirteenth Amendment abolished both slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime, although voluntary servitude continued, as in the case of the immigrant Chinese workers who helped build the transcontinental railroad.

    The dual system did have the racial effects you mention, and our society is still coping with the fallout, and also, as you mention, with illegal slavery.

    The passage from Bona Arsenault is vague enough that it’s not entirely clear what happened with the Acadians, but even if the Acadians were Catholic, it’s unlikely that the colonies would have enslaved them; the more likely scenario was a system of servitude, which would have gradually integrated them into the society.

    The example of the Acadians does illustrate how difficult it can be to separate out political and religious and economic conflicts, as also seen with the Latter-day Saints in 1830s Missouri.

  18. symphonyofdissent says:

    Church leaders have prophecied that we may again be forced to suffer threats of violence or jail time for living our religious values. That is why it is so vital to fight for religious freedom protection and teach others about the importance of freedom of conscience.

  19. Thank you all for an interesting discussion.

    Mark, I’m astounded at your experience at the Touro Synagogue. I lived on Aquidneck Island for 5 years (1999-2004) and the Synagogue was my favorite place to take visiting friends — always an eye-opener. We never needed background checks and I never noticed an armed guard. Do you know what has happened to cause the change in procedure?

  20. Your dream of getting along probably won’t happen. Religion always needs a devil and majority religions need Devils more than minority ones do. Fear of the outsider keeps members in line. in fact, all your anecdotes cited above involved local majority religions persecuting minority religions. Maybe it’s time to stop persecuting minorities in the name of religion?

  21. Loved your post. Two thoughts: to those who think we’re being persecuted today, get real. And to those who think we’re being persecuted today, remember that Christianity flourishes best where it is persecuted.

  22. Joshua B. says:

    Well timed.

  23. Interesting points by all. In a world where some in the LGBT community are suing people just because they are refused a service that they could often times get somewhere else, and where some people of faith believe that so much as letting a gay couple walk into their restaurant is threatening their freedom of belief, this LGBT Mormon is still hoping for countries like Azerbaijan to be able to allow us the freedom to proselytize and worship without the need for government watch, and even searches and raids at times. It’s all a matter of perspective. If I work at a grocery store, and bag someone’s alcoholic beverage, does that mean I’m condoning drinking as a Latter Day Saint? When do we draw the line here?

  24. Should the government have the power tor force a black man to bake an anniversary cake for the KKK? Or make a Jew bake challah in the shape of a swastika? And if not, why not?

  25. MikeInWeHo says:

    “Where do we draw the line here?” That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? Personally I am with Andrew Sullivan who suggests the LGBT community should be gracious and not try to pursue legal relief against homophobic Christian bakers, et. al. Unfortunately, many people just don’t seem wired for that kind of thinking so I’m sure the bickering will continue for a long time.

  26. MikeInWeHo says:

    Also: I am getting so tired of these ridiculous hypotheticals that both sides fling at each other lately. I’m a gay man living in Southern California in 2015. I’m just not being persecuted. And you know what, my Mormon neighbors aren’t either.

  27. Jed F: “if not, why not?” Because anti-discrimination laws protect groups that have successfully demonstrated that they have suffered systematic discrimination, resulting in the government granting them protected status. Nazis and the KKK have not done so and do not have protected status.

  28. But we are now saying baking a cake and taking photographs are a public accomodation. Civil rights laws do not state that these laws only apply to “groups that have successfully demonstrated that they have suffered systematic discrimination” – these laws cover blanket groups, ie.all races, all colors, all creeds, etc. As difficult as it is to imagine, these “ridiculous hypotheticals” do present a legal argument why some may believe their religous beliefs and practices can and will be curtailed by government force.

  29. MikeInWeHo says:

    Well, those people are wrong.

  30. MikeInWeHo: I sure hope so.

  31. Jed F: Owning and operating a small business in the US makes it necessary to follow US laws, including anti-discrimination. If an employee refused to bake a cake, the bakery would be obligated to accommodate the customer and to determine what to do with the obstinate employee. The individual who refused to bake it wouldn’t be sued and fined directly. The bakery owners were fined because they own the business, not because they as individuals disapproved of gay marriage.

  32. “Should the government have the power tor force a black man to bake an anniversary cake for the KKK? Or make a Jew bake challah in the shape of a swastika? And if not, why not?”

    As to the second scenario, absolutely not, as baking a challah in a particular shape involves expressive conduct. The first scenario lacks specificity—if it is a regular cake without customized decoration, then absolutely yes. If it was a special order to decorate it as a klansman, then no. The question is whether the objection is based on the identity of the customer or based on the message the proprietor is being asked to convey on behalf of the customer. Sometimes it’s difficult to sort differentiate between those two concepts, but it’s the test enumerated in law.

  33. Amy T, but even if the Acadians were Catholic, it’s unlikely that the colonies would have enslaved them; the more likely scenario was a system of servitude, which would have gradually integrated them into the society I suspect that some form of indenture might have been involved in those colonies. However, most Acadians driven into the southern colonies eventually coalesced in French Louisiana and remained fairly isolated, although mixing with African-Americans and Natives, until the early/mid 1900s.

    Overall, we can certainly congratulate ourselves that things have been worse, could be worse. However, I don’t think that excuses us from being careful to prevent things from getting worse, and to see that they don’t get bad in different ways. It’s not a digital system.

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