Paul Reeve is a professor of History at the University of Utah and author of Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness.
Much of the negative reactions to my Mormons and Muslims op-ed seem to come from Mormons who, if I understand them correctly, make this point: Mormons were peaceful settlers in the 19th century and Muslims are suicide bombing terrorists in the 21st century ergo Mormons did not deserve the labels of “murderers, traitors, fanatics, and whores” in the 19th century, but Muslims do deserve to be banned from the United States in the 21st century. The problem with that reasoning is a common misconception among 21st century Latter-day Saints–that their pioneer ancestors never did anything to raise even the slightest whiff of violence or threat to the surrounding host society.
Let’s look at some things that the Mormons did do that were designed to help the Mormons feel safe and protected on the inside of the group but that were perceived to be threatening, violent, and un-American from the outside. In Missouri Sidney Rigdon was the first to use the language of extermination in his 4 July 1838 speech: “And that mob that comes on us to disturb us; it shall be between us and them a war of extermination, for we will follow them, till the last drop of their blood is spilled, or else they will have to exterminate us.” Mormons then formed an extra-legal vigilante group called the Danites which eventually went on the offensive and attacked the homes and property of mobbers who had attacked the Mormons. One sided reports of the Danites’ actions reached the desk of the governor before he issued his extermination order.
In Nauvoo the Mormons established a militia, the Nauvoo Legion, which at its peak reached an estimated 2,500 strong at a time when the US Army included only around 8,500 troops. Joseph Smith was given the rank of lilieutenant general and also anointed king. For Mormons on the inside, the legion was seen as a legitimate defensive unit designed to protect them from forces similar to those that drove them from Missouri. Rather than an extra-legal vigilante group, they opted for a fully legal state sanctioned militia. But if you were on the outside looking in, it might seem like a little too much power in one person’s hands (JS was also mayor of Nauvoo and prophet of his church). Looks comforting and protective on the inside, but scary and threatening from the outside. From the outside it looked like a militarized theocracy on American soil, something deemed anti-republican and anti-American. Joseph Smith tempered the notion of a theocracy with democratic impulses which he called a theo-democracy. It was too subtle a distinction in a nation that had recently fought a revolution to throw off despotic power.
The Nauvoo Legion continued in Utah territory and actually was deployed to repel the US Army in the Utah War. Can Mormons today understand that that was viewed as un-American and traitorous? At the same time Mormon settlers, at the instigation of their Stake President, murdered 120 innocent men, women, and children at Mountain Meadows. This is at least a bit of context for how and why Mormons were defined as lawbreakers and threats to American democracy. Can Mormons today understand why one government official labeled their ancestors “murderers, traitors, fanatics and whores”? Is it possible to at least understand why Brigham Young was sometimes derisively called “Sultan ‘Brigham’” and Joseph Smith, “the vicegerent of Almighty God—the modern Mohammed of Mormon Allah”?
Do the actions of a few Mormons justify labeling all Mormons murderers? I don’t think so, but outsiders in the 19th century certainly did. That is the parallel to the labels thrown at Muslims today and the parallel to the blanket generalizations made about them. I wholeheartedly condemn ISIS and radical jihadists and find their ideology despicable. I also condemn the Mormons who killed 120 overland immigrants at Mountain Meadows in 1857. I’m also capable of distinguishing between their actions and ideology and the actions and ideology of peaceful Mormons and peaceful Muslims.
Latter-day Saints complain when news organizations and pop culture conflate FLDS polygamist offshoot groups with the LDS church headquartered at SLC but then sometimes fail to extend the same careful discernment toward Muslims. As far as the Cato Institute can tell there have been no Americans killed by immigrant terrorists from any of the seven banned countries in the last 40 years. Mormons killed more Americans in one day in 1857 than immigrants from the seven banned countries have killed in the last 40 years. The chances of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack caused by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion per year. I do not believe that the Mormons deserved the derisive labels applied to them in the 19th century and I don’t believe that Muslims deserve the treatment they are receiving today from the Trump administration.
My hope for the op-ed was that it might cause some of us to take a step back and try to stand in someone else’s shoes based on Mormonism’s own history as a suspect religious group and as religious refugees.