The Mormons

In the westward overland migration the Salt Lake Valley Mormons played an important part. These strange people had but recently taken up their abode in the desert. That was a fortunate circumstance, as their necessities forced them to render an aid to the migration that in better days would probably have been refused.

The founder of the Mormon Church, Joseph Smith, Jr., came from a commonplace family.

Apparently its members were ignorant and superstitious. They talked much of hidden treasure and of supernatural means for its discovery. They believed in omens, signs, and other superstitions. As a boy Joseph had been shrewd enough and superstitious enough to play this trait up for all it was worth. He had a magic peep-stone and a witch-hazel divining-rod that he manipulated so skillfully as to cause other boys and even older men to dig for him as he wished. He seemed to delight in tricking his companions in various ways, by telling fortunes, reeling off tall yarns, and posing as one possessed of occult knowledge.

According to Joseph’s autobiography, the discovery of the Mormon Bible happened in this wise: on the night of September 21, 1823, a vision fell upon him; the angel Moroni appeared and directed him to a cave on the hillside; in this cave he found some gold plates, on which were inscribed strange characters, written in what Smith described as “reformed Egyptian”; they were undecipherable except by the aid of a pair of magic peep-stones named Urim and Thummim, delivered him for the purpose by the angel at Palmyra; looking through the hole in these peep-stones, he was able to interpret the gold plates. This was the skeleton of the story embellished by later ornamentation in the way of golden breastplates, two stones bright and shining, golden plates united at the back by rings, the sword of Laban, square stone boxes, cemented clasps, invisible blows, suggestions of Satan, and similar mummery born from the quickened imagination of a zealot.

Smith succeeded in interesting one Harris to act as his amanuensis in his interpretation of these books of Mormon. The future prophet sat behind a screen with the supposed gold plates in his hat. He dictated through the stones Urim and Thummim. With a keen imagination and natural aptitude for the strikingly dramatic, he was able to present formally his ritual, tabernacle, holy of holies, priesthood and tithings, constitution and councils, blood atonement, anointment, twelve apostles, miracles, his spiritual manifestations and revelations, all in reminiscence of the religious tenets of many lands.

Such religious movements rise and fall at periodic intervals. Sometimes they are never heard of outside the small communities of their birth; at other times they arise to temporary nation-wide importance, but they are unlucky either in leadership or environment and so perish. The Mormon Church, however, was fortunate in all respects. Smith was in no manner a successful leader, but he made a good prophet. He was strong physically, was a great wrestler, and had an abundance of good nature; he was personally popular with the type of citizen with whom he was thrown. He could impress the ignorant mind with the reality of his revelations and the potency of his claims. He could impress the more intelligent, but half unscrupulous, half fanatical minds of the leaders with the power of his idea and the opportunities offered for leadership.

Two men of the latter type were Parley P. Pratt and Sidney Rigdon. The former was of the narrow, strong, fanatic type; the latter had the cool constructive brain that gave point, direction, and consistency to the Mormon system of theology. Had it not been for such leaders and others like them, it is quite probable that the Smith movement would have been lost like hundreds of others. That Smith himself lasted so long as the head of the Church, with the powers and perquisites of that position, can be explained by the fact that, either by accident or shrewd design, his position before the unintelligent masses had been made impregnable. If it was not true that Joseph Smith had received the golden plates from an angel and had translated them–again with the assistance of an angel–and had received from heaven the revelations vouchsafed from time to time for the explicit guidance of the Church in moral, temporal, and spiritual matters, then there was no Book of Mormon, no new revelation, no Mormon Church. The dethronement of Smith meant that there could be no successor to Smith, for there would be nothing to which to succeed. The whole church structure must crumble with him.

The time was psychologically right. Occasionally a contagion of religious need seems to sweep the country. People demand manifestations and signs, and will flock to any who can promise them. To this class the Book of Mormon, with its definite sort of mysticism, appealed strongly. The promises of a new Zion were concrete; the power was centralized, so that people who had heretofore been floundering in doubt felt they could lean on authority, and shake off the personal responsibility that had weighed them down. The Mormon communities grew fast, and soon began to send out proselyting missionaries. England was especially a fruitful field for these missionaries. The great manufacturing towns were then at their worst, containing people desperately ignorant, superstitious, and so deeply poverty-stricken that the mere idea of owning land of their own seemed to them the height of affluence. Three years after the arrival of the missionaries the general conference reported 4019 converts in England alone. These were good material in the hands of strong, fanatical, or unscrupulous leaders. They were religious enthusiasts, of course, who believed they were coming to a real city of Zion. Most of them were in debt to the Church for the price of their passage, and their expenses. They were dutiful in their acceptance of miracles, signs, and revelations. The more intelligent among them realized that, having come so far and invested in the enterprise their all, it was essential that they accept wholly the discipline and authority of the Church.

Before their final migration to Utah, the Mormons made three ill-fated attempts to found the city of Zion, first in Ohio, then in western Missouri, and finally, upon their expulsion from Missouri, at Nauvoo in Illinois. In every case they both inspired and encountered opposition and sometimes persecution. As the Mormons increased in power, they became more self-sufficient and arrogant. They at first presumed to dictate politically, and then actually began to consider themselves a separate political entity. One of their earliest pieces of legislation, under the act incorporating the city of Nauvoo, was an ordinance to protect the inhabitants of the Mormon communities from all outside legal processes. No writ for the arrest of any Mormon inhabitants of any Mormon city could be executed until it had received the mayor’s approval. By way of a mild and adequate penalty, anyone violating this ordinance was to be imprisoned for life with no power of pardon in the governor without the mayor’s consent.

Of course this was a welcome opportunity for the lawless and desperate characters of the surrounding country. They became Mormon to a man. Under the shield of Mormon protection they could steal and raid to their heart’s content. Land speculators also came into the Church, and bought land in the expectation that New Zion property would largely rise. Banking grew somewhat frantic. Complaints became so bitter that even the higher church authorities were forced to take cognizance of the practices. In 1840 Smith himself said: “We are no longer at war, and you must stop stealing. When the right time comes, we will go in force and take the whole State of Missouri. It belongs to us as our inheritance, but I want no more petty stealing. A man that will steal petty articles from his enemies will, when occasion offers, steal from his brethren too. Now I command you that have stolen must steal no more.”

At Nauvoo, on the eastern bank of the Mississippi, they built a really pretentious and beautiful city, and all but completed a temple that was, from every account, creditable. However, their arrogant relations with their neighbors and the extreme isolation in which they held themselves soon earned them the dislike and distrust of those about them. The practice of polygamy had begun, although even to the rank and file of the Mormons themselves the revelation commanding it was as yet unknown. Still, rumors had leaked forth. The community, already severely shocked in its economic sense, was only too ready to be shocked in its moral sense, as is the usual course of human nature. The rather wild vagaries of the converts, too, aroused distrust and disgust in the sober minds of the western pioneers. At religious meetings converts would often arise to talk in gibberish–utterly nonsensical gibberish. This was called a “speaking with tongues,” and could be translated by the speaker or a bystander in any way he saw fit, without responsibility for the saying. This was an easy way of calling a man names without standing behind it, so to speak. The congregation saw visions, read messages on stones picked up in the field–messages which disappeared as soon as interpreted. They had fits in meetings, they chased balls of fire through the fields, they saw wonderful lights in the air, in short they went through all the hysterical vagaries formerly seen also in the Methodist revivals under John Wesley.

Turbulence outside was accompanied by turbulence within. Schisms occurred. Branches were broken off from the Church. The great temporal power and wealth to which, owing to the obedience and docility of the rank and file, the leaders had fallen practically sole heirs, had gone to their heads. The Mormon Church gave every indication of breaking up into disorganized smaller units, when fortunately for it the prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were killed by a mob. This martyrdom consolidated the church body once more; and before disintegrating influences could again exert themselves, the reins of power were seized by the strong hand of a remarkable man, Brigham Young, who thrust aside the logical successor, Joseph Smith’s son.

Young was an uneducated man, but with a deep insight into human nature. A shrewd practical ability and a rugged intelligence, combined with absolute cold-blooded unscrupulousness in attaining his ends, were qualities amply sufficient to put Young in the front rank of the class of people who composed the Mormon Church. He early established a hierarchy of sufficient powers so that always he was able to keep the strong men of the Church loyal to the idea he represented. He paid them well, both in actual property and in power that was dearer to them than property. Furthermore, whether or not he originated polygamy, he not only saw at once its uses in increasing the population of the new state and in taking care of the extra women such fanatical religions always attract, but also, more astutely, he realized that the doctrine of polygamy would set his people apart from all other people, and probably call down upon them the direct opposition of the Federal Government. A feeling of persecution, opposition, and possible punishment were all potent to segregate the Mormon Church from the rest of humanity and to assure its coherence. Further, he understood thoroughly the results that can be obtained by cooeperation of even mediocre people under able leadership. He placed his people apart by thoroughly impressing upon their minds the idea of their superiority to the rest of the world. They were the chosen people, hitherto scattered, but now at last gathered together. His followers had just the degree of intelligence necessary to accept leadership gracefully and to rejoice in a supposed superiority because of a sense of previous inferiority.

This ductile material Brigham welded to his own forms. He was able to assume consistently an appearance of uncouth ignorance in order to retain his hold over his uncultivated flock. He delivered vituperative, even obscene sermons, which may still be read in his collected works. But he was able also on occasions, as when addressing agents of the Federal Government or other outsiders whom he wished to impress, to write direct and dignified English. He was resourceful in obtaining control over the other strong men of his Church; but by his very success he was blinded to due proportions. There can be little doubt that at one time he thought he could defy the United States by force of arms. He even maintained an organization called the Danites, sometimes called the Destroying Angels, who carried out his decrees.[5]

[5: The Mormon Church has always denied the existence of any such organization; but the weight of evidence is against the Church. In one of his discourses, Young seems inadvertently to have admitted the existence of the Danites. The organization dates from the sojourn of the Mormons in Missouri. See Linn, The Story of the Mormons, pp. 189-192.]

Brigham could welcome graciously and leave a good impression upon important visitors. He was not a good business man, however, and almost every enterprise he directly undertook proved to be a complete or partial failure. He did the most extraordinarily stupid things, as, for instance, when he planned the so-called Cottonwood Canal, the mouth of which was ten feet higher than its source! Nevertheless he had sense to utilize the business ability of other men, and was a good accumulator of properties. His estate at his death was valued at between two and three million dollars. This was a pretty good saving for a pioneer who had come into the wilderness without a cent of his own, who had always spent lavishly, and who had supported a family of over twenty wives and fifty children–all this without a salary as an officer. Tithes were brought to him personally, and he rendered no accounting. He gave the strong men of his hierarchy power and opportunity, played them against each other to keep his own lead, and made holy any of their misdeeds which were not directed against himself.

The early months of 1846 witnessed a third Mormon exodus. Driven out of Illinois, these Latter-day Saints crossed the Mississippi in organized bands, with Council Bluffs as their first objective. Through the winter and spring some fifteen thousand Mormons with three thousand wagons found their way from camp to camp, through snow, ice, and mud, over the weary stretch of four hundred miles to the banks of the Missouri. The epic of this westward migration is almost biblical. Hardship brought out the heroic in many characters. Like true American pioneers, they adapted themselves to circumstances with fortitude and skill. Linn says: “When a halt occurred, a shoemaker might be seen looking for a stone to serve as a lap-stone in his repair work, or a gunsmith mending a rifle, or a weaver at a wheel or loom. The women learned that the jolting wagons would churn their milk, and when a halt occurred it took them but a short time to heat an oven hollowed out of the hillside, in which to bake the bread already raised.” Colonel Kane says that he saw a piece of cloth, the wool for which was sheared, dyed, spun, and woven, during the march.

After a winter of sickness and deprivation in camps along “Misery Bottom,” as they called the river flats, during which malaria carried off hundreds, Brigham Young set out with a pioneer band of a hundred and fifty to find a new Zion. Toward the end of July, this expedition by design or chance entered Salt Lake Valley. At sight of the lake glistening in the sun, “Each of us,” wrote one of the party, “without saying a word to the other, instinctively, as if by inspiration, raised our hats from our heads, and then, swinging our hats, shouted, ‘Hosannah to God and the Lamb!'”

Meantime the first emigration from winter quarters was under way, and in the following spring Young conducted a train of eight hundred wagons across the plains to the great valley where a city of adobe and log houses was already building. The new city was laid off into numbered lots. The Presidency had charge of the distribution of these lots. You may be sure they did not reserve the worst for their use, nor did they place about themselves undesirable neighbors. Immediately after the assignments had been made, various people began at once to speculate in buying and selling according to the location. The spiritual power immediately anathematized this. No one was permitted to trade over property. Any sales were made on a basis of the first cost plus the value of the improvement. A community admirable in almost every way was improvised as though by magic. Among themselves the Mormons were sober, industrious, God-fearing, peaceful. Their difficulties with the nation were yet to come.

Throughout the year, 1848, the weather was propitious for ploughing and sowing. Before the crops could be gathered, however, provisions ran so low that the large community was in actual danger of starvation. Men were reduced to eating skins of slaughtered animals, the raw hides from the roofs of houses, and even a wild root dug by the miserable Ute Indians. To cap the climax, when finally the crops ripened, they were attacked by an army of crickets that threatened to destroy them utterly. Prayers of desperation were miraculously answered by a flight of white sea-gulls that destroyed the invader and saved the crop. Since then this miracle has been many times repeated.

It was in August, 1849, that the first gold rush began. Some of Brannan’s company from California had already arrived with samples of gold-dust. Brigham Young was too shrewd not to discourage all mining desires on the part of his people, and he managed to hold them. The Mormons never did indulge in gold-mining. But the samples served to inflame the ardor of the immigrants from the east. Their one desire at once became to lighten their loads so that they could get to the diggings in the shortest possible time. Then the Mormons began to reap their harvest. Animals worth only twenty-five or thirty dollars would bring two hundred dollars in exchange for goods brought in by the travelers. For a light wagon the immigrants did not hesitate to offer three or four heavy ones, and sometimes a yoke of oxen to boot. Such very desirable things to a new community as sheeting, or spades and shovels, since the miners were overstocked, could be had for almost nothing. Indeed, everything, except coffee and sugar, was about half the wholesale rate in the East. The profit to the Mormons from this migration was even greater in 1850. The gold-seeker sometimes paid as high as a dollar a pound for flour; and, conversely, as many of the wayfarers started out with heavy loads of mining machinery and miscellaneous goods, as is the habit of the tenderfoot camper even unto this day, they had to sell at the buyers’ prices. Some of the enterprising miners had even brought large amounts of goods for sale at a hoped-for profit in California. At Salt Lake City, however, the information was industriously circulated that shiploads of similar, merchandise were on their way round the Horn, and consequently the would-be traders often sacrificed their own stock. [1]Linn, The Story of the Mormons, 406.

This friendly condition could not, of course, long obtain. Brigham Young’s policy of segregation was absolutely opposed to permanent friendly relations. The immigrants on the other hand were violently prejudiced against the Mormon faith. The valley of the Salt Lake seemed to be just the psychological point for the breaking up into fragments of the larger companies that had crossed the plains. The division of property on these separations sometimes involved a considerable amount of difficulty. The disputants often applied to the Mormon courts for decision. Somebody was sure to become dissatisfied and to accuse the courts of undue influence. Rebellion against the decision brought upon them the full force of civil power. For contempt of court they were most severely fined. The fields of the Mormons were imperfectly fenced; the cattle of the immigrants were very numerous. Trespass cases brought heavy remuneration, the value being so much greater for damages than in the States that it often looked to the stranger like an injustice. A protest would be taken before a bishop who charged costs for his decision. An unreasonable prejudice against the Mormons often arose from these causes. On the other hand there is no doubt that the immigrants often had right on their side. Not only were the Mormons human beings, with the usual qualities of love of gain and desire to take advantage of their situation; but, further, they belonged to a sect that fostered the belief that they were superior to the rest of mankind, and that it was actually meritorious to “spoil the Philistines.”

Many gold-diggers who started out with a complete outfit finished their journey almost on foot. Some five hundred of these people got together later in California and compared notes. Finally they drew up a series of affidavits to be sent back home. A petition was presented to Congress charging that many immigrants had been murdered by the Mormons; that, when members of the Mormon community became dissatisfied and tried to leave, they were subdued and killed; that a two per cent tax on the property was levied on those immigrants compelled to stay through the winter; that justice was impossible to obtain in the Mormon courts; that immigrants’ mail was opened and destroyed; and that all Mormons were at best treasonable in sentiment. Later the breach between the Mormons and the Americans became more marked, until it culminated in the atrocious Mountain Meadows massacre, which was probably only one of several similar but lesser occurrences. These things, however, are outside of our scope, as they occurred later in history. For the moment, it is only necessary to note that it was extremely fortunate for the gold immigrants, not only that the half-way station had been established by the Mormons, but also that the necessities of the latter forced them to adopt a friendly policy. By the time open enmity had come, the first of the rush had passed and other routes had been well established.


1Linn, The Story of the Mormons, 406.

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