- Historic Sites
From Poverty and Persecution to Prosperity and Power
June 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 4
How do we account for this extraordinary change in the Mormons’ numbers, fortunes, and attitudes? Can an analysis of their history supply explanations that will satisfy Mormons and non-Mormons alike? The significance of the Saints makes an attempt well worth the effort, for in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the Mormons were the most important single colonizing agency in settling the huge Western region between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada-Cascades, and today they seem on their way to becoming leaders in the nation as a whole.
The story begins with the unity that came to the Mormons as the result of sharing an unusual faith, a faith that automatically set its believers apart from the general population. Most Protestant splinter groups merely reinterpreted the accepted King James Bible and rearranged some existing pattern of church government, but Mormonism went far beyond that, for it asserted that there had been modern revelations from God to an actual, known nine-teenth-century human being, Joseph Smith of western New York State.
Smith was the son of debt-ridden, ill-educated parents who had drifted out of New England to make a new (and ultimately unsuccessful) beginning at Palmyra, New York, a town situated between the head of the Finger Lakes and Lake Ontario. This was part of the “burned-over” district, so called because during Joseph Smith’s youth wave after wave of emotional religious revivals—the fires of God—swept through the region.
Like his neighbors, Smith matured in an atmosphere of poverty and slight education, but he was notable for a high native intelligence. At some point in the iSzo’s, according to Smith’s own account, an angel in “a loose robe of most exquisite whiteness” appeared in Smith’s bedroom and informed him of the existence of a sacred book, the Book of Mormon, that was “written upon gold plates” and buried on a hill “convenient to the village of Manchester, Ontario County, New York.” After a four-year delay during which he had to purify himself, Smith believed himself divinely commissioned to translate the text of the golden tablets from an ancient language into 275,000 words of more or-less King James Version English. The huge manuscript was then set into print in 1830 on a local newspaper press and published as The Book of Mormon: An Account Written by the Hand of Mormon, Upon Plates Taken from the Plates of Nephi , by Joseph Smith, Junior, “Authorand Proprietor.”
Faith in the authenticity of that book was essential to membership in what officially became known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. To accept Mormonism one had to believe literally that an angel revealed to Smith this hitherto unknown sacred book, comparable to the Bible, and, further, that thereafter God repeatedly communicated with Joseph Smith, whose revelations of God’s will were both numerous and explicit, ranging from general rules for the government of the church to highly specific instructions to named individuals. Those who were capable of literal belief in so revolutionary a set of religious assumptions inevitably set themselves apart from the skeptical or derisive majority of Americans, and thus became what the Mormons themselves called a “peculiar people.” Becoming a “peculiar people” in turn led to persecution and to the martyrdom of their prophet, Joseph Smith. Paradoxically, the assaults upon them had a unifying effect: nothing so unites a group as the sense of standing together against a hostile world.
But their ability to hold together was facilitated also by something that was as unique as the modern revelation upon which the Mormon faith was founded. Joseph Smith had created the only true theocracy that America has ever seen. One dictionary defines theocracy as a “system of government by priests claiming a divine commission.” In the Mormon Church, from Smith’s time to the present day, there have never been professional priests. Instead, every adult white male of good character is a priest and by hard work can rise to successively higher rank and responsibility in the church’s very definite hierarchy.
The individual male earns his living in a regular secular job and must manage to do his own work while meeting the church’s very heavy demands upon his time. The only exceptions are at the pinnacle of the Mormon hierarchy, where the sheer weight of responsibilities makes it necessary for the individual to give up his secular calling in order to devote full time to the church’s demands. Save at the very top, where a “living allowance” is provided, no one gets paid for doing the church’s work; on the contrary, all Mormons are expected to support this elaborate organization by paying a genuine tithe—a real 10 per cent of their income.
Women and blacks may not become priests. The women are expected to work hard as a kind of ladies’ auxiliary, but they must achieve glorification and satisfaction in the church through their husbands’ service to the church and through the bearing of children. Annie Clark Tanner, who was born in rural Utah in 1864 and raised as the daughter of Wife Number Two in a devout polygamous family, summed up the underlying philosophy in two sentences: “The Priesthood is a spiritual power which purports to give man superior wisdom. Because of this superiority in power and authority, a wife was subservient to her husband.” If such an attitude sounds absurd today, in the nineteenth century it was not very remote from views widely accepted among the general American population.