Religious Liberty and Joseph Smith in Park’s Kingdom of Nauvoo

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Benjamin Park’s Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier is going to be released in two weeks. You should buy it and read it. It’s a first-rate work of Mormon history–the best book about this era I’ve read since Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling–and if it doesn’t quite become the work of intellectual history that I think Park sensed writing the story of Joseph Smith and the Council of Fifty could become, it’s not for lack of trying. Park takes up the many radical threads–political, economic, racial, and sexual–which were part of Smith’s final, and greatest, effort to establish his vision of a distinct community, and weaves them together into a compelling, fascinating tale. And now that Park has provided an interpretation of Smith’s kingdom-building which no previous historian was capable of–with the minutes of the secretive Council of Fifty only finally being made public in 2016–early Mormonism will likely soon find itself occupying a new and even more important conceptual place in the never-ending academic arguments about American democracy, religion, liberalism, and pluralism. Nerds like me who delight in such arguments will keep coming back to Park’s work as a foundational treatment, and we’ll be rewarded for doing so by Park’s delightful read.

Those with more familiarity with the history of Mormon polygamy or economics might well have some bones to pick with Park’s work. For myself, I just want to elucidate one particular thread. Central to Park’s overall argument about Smith and the Council is what seems to me to be, in effect, a critique of Bushman. Bushman–who explicitly noted in his 2005 book that he’s been denied access to the Council of Fifty minutes–developed an interpretation of the Nauvoo years of Smith’s life as one of hurried, almost stereotypically American-style busyness. While Smith’s concerns–building the temple, acting as a civic leader, receiving revelations, suing and being sued by his enemies, managing (and hiding) his polygamous marriages, plotting a run for President of the United States, etc.–were hardly those of a typical mid-19th-century American resident of the frontier, there was a similarity there all the same. Bushman’s Smith, in the 1840s at least, no longer spoke of “an immediate end to the wicked world,” or of Zion as “refuge”; instead, more often than not he presented himself as a true “son of America,” looking to build (or, if necessary, flee to) a power base from which his community, rather than enjoying a communal reprieve from the complications and inequalities of the world, could build something great (Rough Stone Rolling, pp. 415, 513). Bushman gave us, on my reading anyway, a Smith who had become, after Ohio and after Missouri, an American entrepreneur, engaged in political and economic and theological and sexual speculations until the very end.

Park does not dispute that the Smith of Nauvoo, IL, was looking to make something (and himself) great, not does he deny his speculative character. Park’s access to the Council of Fifty minutes, however, allows him to bring in new details about the various political positions and arguments made by Smith and other Mormon insiders in the crucial year of 1844. Park presents a persuasive case that Smith’s kingdom vision was, broadly speaking, far more illiberal and apocalyptic than Bushman’s account implies. Not that Smith routinely trafficked in predictions about the end times, as so many other 19th-century frontier Christian leaders did; he was in fact quite notable in generally refusing to talk that way. But his conviction was that the existing American–and thus modern democratic–order was something that needed to be scrapped, and that the Mormon faithful needed to prepare themselves to step into the role of modeling for others–or even directly leading others into–what God next had in mind. As Park summarizes his argument in the book’s prologue:

Mormons [in Nauvoo] rejected many laws that they saw as oppressive or unfair. Most fundamentally, they rejected the separation of church and state…..The beleaguered “saints,” as they styled themselves, had concluded that democratic rule led to the oppression of marginalized people and voices….Rejecting democratic freedom, the Mormons felt the need to establish a new political order….Faced with the disarray brought by the voice of man, Mormons hearkened to the stability promised by the voice of God. This promised included priestly administration, coordinated voting, and patriarchy….They sought a Moses who could lead modern-day Israel out of its wilderness; the saints desired nothing less than to transform the world  (Kingdom of Nauvoo, pp.9-10).

The language there of “leading modern-day Israel” and “hearkening to the stability of the voice of God” could easily put you in mind–or, at least, it put me in mind–of Marvin S. Hill’s 30-year-old treatise, Quest for Refuge: The Mormon Flight from American Pluralism. Though dated (and rather dry) in many ways, Hill’s great theme–that Smith was an anti-pluralist almost from the beginning, dreaming of a “theocratic empire” as early as the 1830s, all as part of his longing to put an end to the squabbling voices and petty violence that constantly attended the early church–has resonance with Park’s. Except, however, that Hill associated Smith’s discontent with a “Calvinistic-like skepticism” of the ability of people to govern themselves; to Hill, Smith’s treatment of dissenters, his presidential campaign, his endless (and almost always unwise) financial investments, could all be related to his desire to see power concentrated, opposition sidelined, and the threat of faction ended–to, in short, “dissolve all distinctions between sacred and secular and make them one” (Quest for Refuge, pp. xvi, 93, 97, 138, 148). For all the insight which Hill’s research provided, I think Park’s analysis provides a somewhat different and more intellectually rich take. Park’s description of a key meeting of the Council of Fifty captures much of what is new and theoretically interesting here:

Though he was appointed “Prophet, Priest & King” at the morning meeting on April 11, that afternoon he delivered a discourse more traditionally republican in nature and centered on religious liberty. His new council would rule the world under the auspices of God’s priesthood, but Smith insisted that they should always include non-Mormons within their ranks, as the Kingdom was separate from the church. Smith even initiated three non-Mormons into the council. He declared his intent to allow any citizen to think and worship as they please, as long as they worked within the boundaries of divine law. That citizenship in the kingdom required allegiance to Smith’s prophethood did not seem to throw off that balance, at least in his view. To him, it was the only way to preserve order and reserve the religious liberties to the saints that he felt they had been deprived of. Smith became so animated during his discourse that he swung around a twenty-four inch ruler and broke it in two. In response, Brigham Young said, “as the rule was broken in the hands of our chairman so might every tyrannical government be broken before us.” The world was theirs for the taking (Kingdom of Nauvoo, p. 204).

Park’s description of this discourse, and of others subsequent to it, helps us see Smith’s vision for the early Mormons as occupying a nuanced space between Hill and Bushman (though more cynically, one might say that a historical interpretation which places Smith in such a position is just an attempt to make consistent what were, on the basis of the evidence, arguably incoherent perspectives). Rather than Smith accepting the necessity of making himself into a player on the American scene, or Smith imperially insisting that all differences of opinion are threats to the truth, Park’s Smith might be seen as suggesting a kind of rationalization of republican and religious principles. His rejection of liberalism and democracy in the Council of Fifty’s records was not premised upon a denial of individual and collective rights and differences, but rather an attempt to discipline them to an overarching and divine necessity. Put another way, Smith could be seen here as proposing that people in their communities (their publics, in republican terminology) enjoy specifically situated freedoms under God’s rule, but only insofar as such has been worked out within the particulars of His kingdom on earth–which meant, of course, by the mouth of Joseph Smith.

An interesting parallel might be the protected–though clearly distinct–dhimmi communities of Christians and Jews that existed under Islamic caliphate rule. Pluralism in belief, according to this way of reading Smith’s formulation, would be both expected and tolerated, but also necessarily accepting that such diverse interests themselves would play no role in government whatsoever. Smith saw in such factionalism only the threat of popular majorities–and the travails the Mormons had faced in Missouri, including both violent mobs and what can only be called state terrorism, clearly taught them to fear that. Hence the need for an indisputable source of authority–what Smith called, referring to himself, the “proper source” (p. 206)–to put an end to divisions which, from Smith’s point of view, simply gave license to those who use their local power to suppress others, either directly or through capturing weak law-making institutions. (It’s notable that Smith proposed in his presidential platform that the size of Congress be reduced by half–p. 188.) But nonetheless, that indisputable authority would also be committed, as a matter of faith, to republican principles that respected the self-government of distinct (perhaps even, if Smith’s late statements are to be taken as a guide to how his ideas were developing, sovereign–see p. 218) communities.

It’s not hard to see this address and others pointing in the direction of William Richards later recommendations to the Council of Fifty after Smith’s death. Since democracy, Richards argued, only works among groups of “men of congenial religions,” it’s right for the Mormons to separate themselves; to continue to tolerate the “promiscuous intermixture of heterogeneous bodies” is “distant both from pure religion & sound philosophy” (p. 250). Following these fragmentary thoughts to their conclusion, it is reasonable to read Smith’s kingdom vision as one which asserted that to do otherwise than the above–that is, to centralize all communities together, or to allow for the violence of factional pluralism–would, either way, be tyranny.

It would be easy to dismiss all this as, at best, a clever bit of utopian rationalization. Still, genuine concerns held by the Mormon faithful–concerns about ineffective governments and hostile neighbors–lay behind these ideas, and unpacking their implications is worth doing. Interesting, both Park and Hill turn to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America as part of their unpacking. Specifically, both find Tocqueville’s warning about the tyranny of the majority to have direct relevance to the story they tell; Hill quotes from that section of Tocqueville at the very end of his book (Quest for Refuge, p. 181), whereas Park sets it up at the very beginning (Kingdom of Nauvoo, p. 10). It’s a connection worth making–certainly Smith’s mature (however undeveloped) political thought absolutely deserves to be put into conversation with Tocqueville’s canonical work on what it means to exercise power democratically in a diverse society. As a final point, though, it would be interesting to imagine Smith’s response, in the midst of the heady imagining going on in the Council of Fifty, to the observation about intellectual uniformity which Tocqueville included as part of his warning. In this passage, speaking as an aristocratic foreigner taking in the very America which Smith and his followers struggled with and against, he strongly implied that the threat which he agreed factionalist majorities presented in American life was directly connected to the very American rationalist impatience with confusion, or really with anyone who disagrees with you–an impatience which Park’s Smith shows on more than one occasion:

I do not know any country where, in general, less independence of mind and genuine freedom of discussion reign than in America. There is no religious and political theory that cannot be preached freely in the constitutional states of Europe and that does not penetrate the others; for there is no country in Europe so subject to one single authority that he who wants to speak the truth does not find support capable of assuring him against the consequences of his independence. If he has the misfortune to live under an absolute government, he often has the people for him; if he inhabits a free country, he can take shelter behind royal authority if need be. The aristocratic fraction of society sustains him in democratic regions, and the democratic fraction in others. But in the heart of a democracy organized as that of the United States, one encounters only a single power, a single elements of force and success, and nothing outside it (Democracy in America, vol. 1, part 2, chp. 7, p. 244).

In the end, Park’s great work of history has given us the tools we need to start fitting Joseph Smith in with other American 19th-century radicals, and thus bring Mormon thought into dialogue with arguments over the history of, the limits of, and the importance of, liberal rights in a pluralist democracy, and whether or not a single divine law–even if “congenial” throughout a particular community!–can be part of the answer. Perhaps what I see in Park’s interpretation as Smith’s somewhat rationalized system of religious and communal political protections will be judged over time to be best forgotten (as, obviously, the church itself has; whatever lurking theocratic sensibilities exist in the church today likely owe far more historically to Smith’s electoral machinations in Illinois–see pp. 154-160–than to his sermons before the Council of Fifty). But you can’t forget something without knowing it in the first place. Park’s book opens our eyes up to the goings-on in Nauvoo close to two centuries ago, for which we readers and Mormon history nerds owe him much thanks; what we do with it now is up to us.

Comments

  1. Really interesting, thought-provoking review. Thanks.

  2. Great review. It seems prescient book for our time. Thank you.

  3. Very nice review. Looking forward to the book.

  4. Anthony Roberts says:

    Reading this review, gaining a better understanding of Mormon theocracy. And the reference about Dhimmi communities in the Caliphate. It always makes me laugh when I see any Mormon bad mouthing Muslims, the Caliphate, Sharia Law, etc. Mormons want essentially the same thing. Theocratic government. And Mormons pledge to give to the same thing (everything) when they make their oaths in the Endowment.

  5. Thanks for the review. I’ve often wondered why Mormons, who claim to revere the American Constitution, could fall for an authoritarian huckster such as Trump. But perhaps the seeds of such devotion to autocracy lie in our religious genes. It doesn’t matter where you look in LDS history—Missouri, Nauvoo, or the brief state of Deseret—whenever Mormons had the chance to establish a government, they invariably created an authoritarian institution and explicitly refused to follow the pattern of separation of powers enumerated in the Constitution. Hence, in Nauvoo, we have Joseph serving as prophet, mayor, head of the military, and even postmaster. And in Utah, Brigham wielded power with an even stronger iron fist. So maybe today’s Mormon infatuation with Trump is fully consistent with our authoritarian past.

  6. Anthony, It might be more accurate to say some Mormons have historically wanted [purported] theocratic government while others did not and do not. I say “purported” because even JS didn’t seem to believe that all his inspirations came from God, so what was proposed was more dictatorship or oligarchy believed to be or masquerading as theocracy. Also, there is more than one way to understand the law of consecration as expressed in the Endowment. I think there are a great many Mormons who do not understand it the same way it seems you may mean.

  7. Anthony Roberts says:

    Wally: YES.
    Wondering: Good point. Thank you for adding the nuance. My first goes at comments tend to be black and white and a little simplistic.

  8. Anthony Roberts says:

    Wally: YES.
    Wondering: Thanks for adding nuance. My first go at comments tends to be black and white or simplistic.

  9. I don’t always think about the ideal system of government, but when I do, I think about theodemocracy.

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