The art of Kevin Blythe Sampson

THE ART OF
KEVIN BLYTHE SAMPSON

11/18/11

Lincoln and the Mormons - NYTimes.com

Mormons! America just can’t get enough of them.

They are running for president — not one, but two of them.

They have a runaway hit on Broadway.

And 150 years ago, they were running in the opposite direction of the Civil War.

Indeed, Mormons had been running away from the United States for some time. Practically since the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded in 1830, its disciples had been on the lam, and for good reason, as they encountered brutality in one place after another.

They were attacked for their unusual religious, anthropological and sexual beliefs (which included claims that ancient Jews had emigrated from the Holy Land to North America, where they had turned into native Americans, as revealed by golden tablets of scripture buried in upstate New York). And they were attacked for the irritating certainty with which they upheld these beliefs.

And let’s not even go near the magic underpants.

Hence, a series of westward migrations, in a modern version of the Book of Exodus, that took them from upstate New York to Ohio to Missouri, and to Nauvoo, Ill., near where the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, was executed by a violent mob in 1844. Finally, the Mormon remnant escaped all known jurisdictions, and in 1847 arrived in the valley of the Great Salt Lake, where Brigham Young said, “This is the place.”

Brigham YoungLibrary of CongressBrigham Young

“The place” was not especially desirable at the time, but over the decades has grown spectacularly so. In 1847, it was still part of Mexico, though barely, and it came into U.S. possession with the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. With the discovery of gold in California, overland travel increased, and soon the lonely landscapes of the Utah Territory were enlivened by the sight of pony express riders and a steady stream of would-be millionaires.

From the moment of their arrival in Utah, the Mormons set up a
government of their own, with no connection whatsoever to the United States. This shadow state, called Deseret, was presided over by Brigham Young, and administered law and morality in the way of the biblical patriarchs. Like many of those patriarchs, they defined marriage with a convenient elasticity — in this case, through the right of a God-fearing Mormon to take as many wives as he chose — and that was another reason Mormons often fell afoul of government officials.

But the United States also sought to govern its new territory, rapidly growing in relevance, even if nine out of 10 of its inhabitants were Mormons and highly skeptical of distant federal officials. In 1858, a Utah Expedition, under General Albert Sidney Johnston, was dispatched to bring submission; instead, it caused hundreds of deaths, cost $15 million and accomplished none of its objectives. Modern Mormon histories still refer to this episode as “the occupation.” An uneasy standoff lingered throughout the election of 1860 and the outbreak of war.

These facts added up to an unusual predicament for Abraham Lincoln in the fall of 1861. Most Americans were thinking about the North and South; but the West was on his mind as well. With the rebellion raging, Lincoln needed as many allies as he could find, and both his government and Jefferson Davis’s coveted the west for its minerals and its access to the Pacific. Could he count on the Mormons?

There was plenty of room for doubt. Like the Confederates, the Mormons had a strong aversion to federal control, favored a peculiar institution (polygamy) that had been likened to slavery, and had been denounced by Lincoln’s party. The Republican platform had specifically ridiculed polygamy and slavery as “twin relics of barbarism.”

At the same time, most Mormons came from northern states, and were deeply religious. Even if their beliefs contradicted Christianity in certain ways — a fact that continues to animate attacks on Mormonism as a cult — they had no great love for slavery. To the extent that they even thought about politics back east, the arrival of a bearded president with the name of a biblical patriarch must have been welcome. Some Mormons thought that the rebellion signaled the beginning of a holy war that would remake the world and end in the second coming of Christ.

Fascinatingly, Joseph Smith had prophesied in 1832 that an immense civil war would someday transform America, and that it would start in South Carolina.

On Oct. 20, 1861, a vital piece of the Utah puzzle was solved, as the final lines of a telegraph were strung together, linking the
Atlantic seaboard to the Pacific, through an office in Salt Lake City. On that auspicious occasion, which spoke so loudly of union, Brigham Young remarked,“Utah has not seceded, but is firm for the Constitution and laws of our once happy country.” Those were words guaranteed to warm Lincoln’s heart. Two days later, more good news, as General J. Arlington Bennett wrote him to ask if he could recruit 1,000-10,000 Mormons to fight for the Union.

But the question was far from solved, and on Nov. 18, Lincoln attacked the Mormon question in a most Lincolnian way. Instead of ordering an invasion, Lincoln ordered information. Specifically, he asked the Library of Congress to send him a pile of books about Mormonism, so that the aggregator-in-chief could better understand them. These included “The Book of Mormon” in its original 1831 edition, and three other early studies of the Mormons, with extensive, lurid chapters covering their polygamy. For some reason, he also ordered a volume of Victor Hugo, in French, a language he could not read.

Fortified by his reading, Lincoln came to a great decision. And that decision was to do nothing. Sometimes that, too, can be a form of leadership — what Churchill called “a masterly inactivity.”

Typically, Lincoln reached his decision through a homely parable, told to a Mormon emissary:

When I was a boy on the farm in Illinois there was a great deal of timber on the farm which we had to clear away. Occasionally we would come to a log which had fallen down. It was too hard to split, too wet to burn, and too heavy to move, so we plowed around it. You go back and tell Brigham Young that if he will let me alone I will let him alone.

That parable is about as much as we will get in the way of a formal explanation, but it is enough. To his generous store of common sense, we might also add the freshness of Lincoln’s memories of the bloodshed at Nauvoo in 1844, when angry mobs had killed the Mormon leaders, with elected officials standing by and doing nothing. And the centrality of Utah to the grand vision of a transcontinental republic, embraced fully by America’s most western president to date.

Related
Disunion Highlights

Fort Sumter

Explore multimedia from the series and navigate through past posts, as well as photos and articles from the Times archive.

The U.S.-Mormon relationship never was perfect. Throughout the Civil War, it was tested on both sides. A Republican Congressman, Justin Morrill of Vermont, introduced legislation banning polygamy in Utah in 1862. Lincoln signed it, but in another sign of masterly inactivity, did not choose to enforce it. Tensions flared up between the U.S. army (stationed around Salt Lake City to protect the telegraph and stage lines) and the locals in 1863. Nor were the Mormons exactly model citizens. Throughout the war, when they referred to “the president,” they usually meant Brigham Young, and the not-quite-legal state of Deseret continued to hold meetings of its officers until 1870. Young disliked abolitionists and “black-hearted Republicans,” and it was not until 1978 that African-Americans were invited to join the priesthood in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints..

But ultimately, sanity prevailed, for the good of both the Mormons and the United States. In 1869, when the final spike of transcontinental railroad was driven into the ground, that happy act of union took place in Promontory, Utah. Lincoln had authorized that route, way back in 1862.

Whether a Mormon will ever succeed Lincoln remains to be seen. But the fact that it is possible at all, with Utah a reliably patriotic part of the United States, is one of the many ways in which, 150 years later, we still live in Abraham Lincoln’s America.

Sources: thelincolnlog.org; Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton, “The Mormon Experience”; Henry Mayhew, “The Mormons; or, Latter-Day Saints”; Ray C. Colton, “The Civil War in the Western Territories”; “Utah: A Guide to the State”; James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, “The Story of the Latter-Day Saints.”

An earlier version of this article incorrectly suggested that African-Americans were unable to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints until 1978; it was the priesthood they were unable to join. Also, Joseph Smith was executed near, rather than in, Nauvoo, Ill.


Ted Widmer

Ted Widmer is director and librarian of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. He was a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and the editor of the Library of America’s two-volume “American Speeches.”

1.
Newark, NJ
November 17th, 2011
10:23 pm
Perhaps Lincoln ordered the volume of Victor Hugo for Mary Todd Lincoln, who was fluent in French? I like to think of him adding it to the list as a small kindness for his wife...
2.
Citrus heights, CA
November 18th, 2011
12:24 am
I just can not imagine a president in the White House, who could not offer his foreign guests a glass of good American wine. And would dinner be followed by coffee?
3.
Tim B
Seattle
November 18th, 2011
3:39 am
I read the biography of Joseph Smith on Wikipedia, and after reading it and what the essential doctrines of Mormonism are, I am truly concerned as Mitt Romney's underlying life views undoubtedly are influenced by the Book of Mormon. It is very enlightening reading and I encourage others to read it, to gain a better understanding of some of the core beliefs of this faith.
4.
Max Maw
North Wildwood, NJ
November 18th, 2011
9:01 am
"...It was not until 1978 that African-Americans were invited to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," is a statement perhaps, written in haste, but definitely in error. African-Americans were members of the LDS Church for decades before 1978; the revelation to which Ted Widmer is no doubt referring dealt with the priesthood, and was welcome indeed.
5.
Jacksonville, FL
November 18th, 2011
9:03 am
That Joseph Smith made a prediction in 1832 that the U.S. would eventually erupt into a civil war started in South Carolina wasn't particularly remarkable considering that 1832 was the year of the Nullification Crisis in which the government of South Carolina passed an Ordnance of Nullification regarding federal tarriffs it found abominable and threatened seccession. President Andrew Jackson in turn threatened to invade South Carolina to enforce federal law and personally hang the seccessionists -- and he may have had to start with his own Vice-President, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, who privately advocated both nullification and seccession. In that instance, no other state was willing to join South Carolina's early rebellion and the state backed down (and Calhoun was not only booted from the ticket for Jackson's next term, but his Presidential ambitions were permanently negated). Still, it wasn't exactly eerie that Smith figured that the the Palmetto State's belligerent nature might one day spark a national conflict over increasing regional differences.
6.
John
Machipongo, VA
November 18th, 2011
9:04 am
It did not take a mystic or visionary prophet to predict in 1832 that a Civil war was coming and that it would start in South Carolina. The Nullification Crisis of 1832 occurred when South Carolina decided that it did not like certain tariffs levied by the U.S. Government and passed a law nullifying them. Andrew Jackson sent the military in reply, and the Carolinians backed down.
7.
Ciacia Gi
CA
November 18th, 2011
9:04 am
This is a great article. It was an intriguing read. You're right, too, Mormonism is under the microscope these days. I for one, though, know first-hand that it continues to produce in people's lives exactly what it professes to when followed--that is self-reliance, concern for neighbor before self, industry, pursuit of knowledge, and a healthy dose of happiness amidst a world of tumult. Those results allow members like me to take the often misunderstood doctrines on faith.
8.
Lawrence, Kansas
November 18th, 2011
9:05 am
Surely the fact that the hated Albert Sidney Johnston became a general for the Confederacy (dying at Shiloh) also failed to endear Mormons to the Southern cause.
9.
Delaware
November 18th, 2011
9:06 am
There are plenty of reasons I would not vote for Mitt Romney for POTUS, but being a Mormon is not one of them.
AKS
Illinois
November 18th, 2011
9:06 am
Those who are interested in exploring further the relationship between what Lincoln read and its effect on his speeches and political thought could do no better than to read _Reading with Lincoln_, one of the finalists for last year's Lincoln Prize, by Robert Bray.
Combat Vet
Phoenix
November 18th, 2011
9:30 am
Father Joseph O'Hagan remembers the men's vote for Excelsior Brigade chaplain as follows: “Over four hundred voted for a Catholic priest, one hundred and fifty-four, for any kind of a protestant minister; eleven, for a Mormon elder; and three hundred and thirty-five said they could find their way to hell without the assistance of clergy.”
American South
November 18th, 2011
9:32 am
Ted, in 1978 the LDS church decided to give black men the priesthood, meaning they could hold leadership positions previously bestowed only on white men. You make it sound like blacks weren't allowed to join before that date, and that's simply not true. There were African-Americans who joined the church before that time, and although before 1978 they were certainly in the minority, they have a very interesting history. With membership booming in Central and South America, especially Brazil, the LDS church couldn't afford not to extend the priesthood to black males. Of course, women in the church still cannot receive the priesthood, but that's a different topic entirely....
Linda Loomis
San Antonio
November 18th, 2011
9:32 am
Ted,

When will you be returning to the Texas Book Festival in Austiin?

I ,too, think the Victor Hugo volume, in French, was for Mary Todd Lincoln.

Abraham's Biblical name was handed down for some generations of Lincoln and is derived from Abraham Jones of Hull, Massachusetts, whose daughter, Sarah, married Mordecai Lincoln of Hingham and Scituate, this couple antecedents of Lincoln by a handful of generations.

Do you think Justin Morrill of Vermont was aware that both Brigham Young and Joseph Smith were born in Vermont?
HG
Bowie, MD
November 18th, 2011
9:32 am
Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that Joseph Smith was lynched rather than executed?
Mike Xidis
Mesa, AZ
November 18th, 2011
9:33 am
David Underwood,

If your biggest worry about the presidency is what he serves his guests to drink, I don't think you've prioritized your politics well...Economic Policy, Foreign Policy, Domestic Morality are my priorities. Coffee and wine are at the bottom of the list.
Larry Lawton
Wan Chai, Hong Kong
November 18th, 2011
9:34 am
Mr. Windmer, I enjoyed your article, but as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I have a few quibbles. The government of Utah Territory hardly had “no connection whatsoever to the United States.” Brigham Young was the duly appointed and acting governor of Utah Territory, a fact not mentioned in your reference to a "shadow government." Second, it is not my faith that has "a runaway hit on Broadway." The musical was created by individuals, and from what I've heard it steps way over the line -- in a way that would not be tolerated if its theme was Jews or African Americans. That's something like your gratuitous and insulting reference to “magic underpants.” What, pray tell, do my undergarments have to do with Lincoln? I cannot believe you would similarly insult a yarmulke or a ministerial collar! African-Americans have been members of our faith since its beginning in 1830, not 1978. (though I must admit that my faith was later than many, because it was 1978 before blacks were granted the blessings of the temple.) Still, one of the things that caused mobs to murder and pillage us in Missouri was our propensity to treat freed African-Americans and Native Americans as (gasp) human beings, and even baptize them. I could go on, but perhaps you ought to append a little warning when you next address my faith. I’d suggest this: No real “Mormons” were consulted in the preparation of this article.
Dan
Kansas
November 18th, 2011
9:34 am
In 1854 near Ft. Laramie, a cow belonging to a Mormon pilgrim that had either been left behind as lame or wandered off and got lost was killed and eaten by several hungry Brule Sioux.

When word of this somehow got back to the owner of the cow, whose wagon train was still camped nearby getting ready for the next leg of the journey, he angrily stormed into Ft. Laramie and demanded redress for his loss. Chief Conquering Bear, named supreme chief of the Teton Sioux by the government, tried to make amends, but the Mormon was asking too much money and the Indians couldn't pay. So a young Lt. named Grattan set out to exact justice.

Coming upon a peaceful camp of Brules, Oglalas, and a few Miniconjous, Grattan deployed his troops, including two cannon and demanded payment for the cow or the surrender of the young Brule who had killed her. Conquering Bear protested, and Lt. Grattan opened up with the cannon killing a number of Indians and mortally wounding Conquering Bear.

The furious Indians set upon the soldiers, killing all but one who lived long enough to make it back to Ft. Laramie and report. The next summer 1300 troops under Col. William Harney marched forth from Ft. Leavenworth and began a bloody campaign of retribution, attacking any and all Indians they came upon whether they had been involved in the eating of the Mormon's cow or not.

Thus began the Long Death of the Plains Indians, though reprieve was achieved briefly during the Civil War, only to be taken up at full stroke afterwards when many of my Union heroes went west and made me ashamed of them for their application of the total industrial war tactics they had mastered in the east against the noble horse cultures of the west.

There would certainly have arisen other pretexts for this slaughter eventually, but I find it ironic that the Mormons, who considered the Indians to be the lost tribe of Israel known as the Lamanites, helped precipitate their total annihilation over a single cow.
Albert Lewis
The Berkshires, Mass.
November 18th, 2011
9:34 am
>it was not until 1978 that African-Americans were invited to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

This statement might be a bit off the mark. As a born-and-raised Mormon (though no longer a member of the church), I was always taught that African-Americans could *join the church, but could hold no office in the priesthood that was at the time otherwise open to male members beginning at twelve years of age.
Decatur, AL
November 18th, 2011
9:35 am
If I recall correctly, Widmer's remark that "it was not until 1978 that African Americans were invited to join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints" is not strictly accurate. What happened in 1978 was the institution of racial equality in the Mormon priesthood (something most Mormon men attain, rather than a specfic ministerial role), which allowed blacks full participation in the church. But there were black Mormons beforehand. Mormonism has a troublesome history with race issues, but let's get the facts straight.
johnwerneken
usa
November 18th, 2011
9:35 am
God Bless Mr Lincoln. We are upon his type of times once more and sorely need his like. I doubt Mitt is it but his faith is not on my list of reasons not at all.
MC
NJ
November 18th, 2011
9:35 am
There's a misleading date and claim in this piece. African Americans could be baptized and attend Mormon church meetings from the faith's beginnings, and in fact one of the reasons Mormons were expelled from Missouri was because they encouraged free blacks to come join them there. What is true is that black men were denied the priesthood, and that black men and and women were not allowed to enter Mormon temples (which are where specific holy ceremonies are conducted, but not where regular Sunday church meetings are held). That was reversed in 1978. For those interested in Mormonism, you might to check out bookofmormonstories.blogspot.com - there's an interesting entry on Mormon underwear.
Phil Leigh
Tampa, Florida
November 18th, 2011
9:40 am
The Mormons I have known demonstrate remarkably industrious and conscientious attitudes which is much to be admired.

Nonetheless, I feel there should have been more discussion of the Mormon War including the Mountain Meadows massacre of 120 westward bound emigrants.

All that is mentioned about the war is a (predictably) disparaging remark about a future Confederate general. An historical account that fails to explain Mountain Meadows is like Civil War history that ignores brutality toward African-Americans soldiers -- there's not a Saint's chance at a political convention that Disunion will miss that.
James
CA
November 18th, 2011
9:40 am
I find it amazing that even though the Mormons were against slavery, the author states that Brigham Young disliked abolitionists. Their stand against slavery was one of the reasons that they were driven out of Missouri (a slave state) by force, with an official extermination order against them signed by the governor.
Mormon Socialist
Chicago, IL
November 18th, 2011
9:40 am
The stories about Lincoln's forbearance towards the Mormons are long remembered and shared even today among LDS folk.

What was a little misleading from the article is the suggestion throughout that Utah (or Deseret, as it was known back then) and Brigham Young were operating completely outside the authority of the US Government, when it was President Fillmore who appointed Brigham as governor over the territory!
RS
NY
November 18th, 2011
9:40 am
Fairly accurate historical review, though It could do the without quips about "Magic Underpants". Tell me, would you feel as at ease to make the similar comments about Jewish skullcaps, or Sikh headgear? I doubt it.

No US religion has been persecuted more by the US government than the LDS church. Missouri extermination order by Governor Boggs, failure of the both the State and Federal governments to intervene in the armed persecution by armed militias, members driven from Nauvoo, a military expedition by Johnson's army, and church property confiscated that was built and paid for by great sacrifice of its impoverished members. Of course, the subtle message seems to be, if the Mormons were not so odd in their beliefs, well, all those things would not happen to them. So yeah, blame the victim.

Its ironic how much our culture stresses to be tolerant of others beliefs, yet the same consideration is not extended to the Mormons. Because we are a peculiar people does not grant the right to consider de-franchising our civil liberties up to and including whether Mitt Romney has the right to run for the office President.

On last thing--Mormons do not have a "runaway hit on Broadway" The producers of South Park do.
An Important distinction to make that someone is getting fame and fortune off our peculiarity. The play does little to enhance our image, only stereotype it.

Inside Opinionator

November 17, 2011
Thinking Outside the Bus

When public transportation finds the people who need to use it, and gets them where they want to go, it can grow organically.

November 15, 2011
For Weight Loss, a Recipe of Teamwork and Trust

If you want to adopt and maintain better habits, it’s better not to go it alone.

More From Fixes »

Opinionator Highlights

Thinking Outside the Bus

When public transportation finds the people who need to use it, and gets them where they want to go, it can grow organically.

A President’s Religion

Should voters reject Mitt Romney, or any other presidential candidate, on the basis of their religious beliefs?

Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will?

Some scientists are convinced that advances in brain science have overturned the idea of free will. They’re wrong.

Lives During Wartime, Vol. 3

A collection of reader photographs and remembrances of veterans and their service.

At a Big Church, a Small Group Health Solution

A weight-loss program at Saddleback Church provides the small-group support its members need to maintain healthier lifestyles.

Lincoln and the Mormons - NYTimes.com