Mormonism in Context Lesson 3: Nauvoo and the Martyrdom

It’s been a while since I had time to work through the Mormonism in Context course by historian Brian Whitney. But now that things have settled down a little bit, I’ve gone back to reading The Mormon People and reading the lessons from Brian. Lesson 3, which deals with the Nauvoo period and the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, has a lot to get through.

From polygamy to the endowment to the Mormon place in politics, this period is full of situations that shaped LDS culture for decades to come — and still influence us today.

There is no way for me to get into everything this lesson, and its accompanying chapter in The Mormon People, has to offer. However, there were a few things that stood out to me:

Early Socialist Tendencies versus Today’s Libertarian Bent

(Before I get into this, fun fact: Stephen Douglas — yes, that Stephen Douglas — befriended Joseph Smith and was instrumental in getting the Nauvoo charter passed by Illinois.)

One thing I’ve always found a little disconcerting about today’s Latter-day Saints, particularly those in the Mormon Culture Region, is the strong bent toward economic libertarianism. The LDS Church has strong socialist roots and Mormons were considered among the utopian experiments scattered through the American frontier of the 19th century.

Alexis de Tocqueville observed that, “As one digs deeper into the national character of Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?” But the Mormons were a little different. Always we’ve cared about commerce and economy, but at the same time, Joseph Smith and later Brigham Young (to an even greater extent) modeled communities and interactions on socialist principles.

The Law of Consecration is the very opposite of libertarianism, and all that many Mormons living in Utah and Southeast Idaho believe about the sanctity of property. I’ve always found it fascinating that the same people who are steadfast against any form of socialism proclaim that, of course they will be happy to live these principles when Jesus comes again and is in charge of the system.

I find this cognitive dissonance interesting because Joseph Smith taught that the things we do in this life prepare us for the next and that the progress we make now will remain with us. He also made it clear that we are the same people at our core and our current habits will persist. Because eternal progression is a basic tenet of LDS belief, we can always improve, of course. But Mormonism doesn’t teach that Jesus showing up magically changes who we have become. Rather, it teaches that the things you practice in this life become fixtures that either put you that much further ahead in your progression during the next phase of existence, or become problems that you need to work to overcome before you can be truly exalted.

That means that it will probably be very hard indeed to suddenly begin living the Law of Consecration — no matter who’s in charge — when you’ve spent a lifetime insisting that everything you have is yours (gained through your own efforts or as blessings for your righteousness) and no one should be able to tell you what to do with your money, land or goods.

One thing has managed to remain through the years: A strong distrust of the federal government. Mormons in Nauvoo distrusted American politics because it didn’t allow them to set up the theocracy they wanted. Due to the government’s unwillingness and inability to do anything following the expulsion from Missouri, it’s not surprising that Mormons grew in skepticism. During the early Utah period, the arrival of an army didn’t help matters, either.

Many of today’s libertarian-minded Mormons distrust American politics because they are certain that we’re moving toward socialism (although, really, we’re looking at something closer to oligarchy).

From The Mormon People:

The Mormons were never comfortable with American politics; rather, they tended to see the political process through the narrow lens of their self-interest and in basic conflict with their dreams for a community of universal brotherhood. Their numbers made them valuable to politicians, but their utopian religion made them difficult partners to keep.

It’s been an interesting transformation here in the “bubble,” although many of my international LDS friends come from countries with long histories of democratic socialism and believe that the tenets of the gospel are in line with communal values and efforts. As the church truly becomes worldwide, it will be interesting to continue to watch the give and take between a religion that has many Utah-centric cultural issues that don’t make sense once you move into a larger context.

Were Women Ordained?

One of the more interesting tidbits you learn as you peruse LDS history is the interesting history of the Relief Society. When Joseph Smith organized the body out of a society of Nauvoo women who were already interested in charitable works, he instructed them to elect their own officers (they weren’t called) and promised to “ordain them.”

There isn’t much said about this use of terminology, but the idea of ordination carried with it something beyond the usual “setting apart” for callings that we see for women ostensibly leading the Relief Society today (in reality, of course, there is always a man with “authority” who has true final say in today’s organization).

If you follow the history of the Relief Society, you find it suspended when the women get too outspoken about things (like when Emma began publicly denouncing polygamy), and that it was organized along the idea of then-traditional gender roles. The things that women were responsible then were not outside the realm of what we consider “appropriate” pursuits for women. However, the Relief Society used to have more autonomy, including its own fundraising and budget, which was disposed of at the direction of the women in charge.

I find the early Relief Society fascinating because it still fit within the patriarchy, but also had more autonomy than we see it has now as an organization, and the women involved seem to have been imbued with actual authority and a measure of power that we don’t normally associate with the way women practice in today’s church organization.

Eternal Progression

One of the ideas in LDS theology that appeals to me most is the idea of eternal progression. While in Nauvoo, Joseph Smith expounded a great deal on teachings that involve the idea that we continue to learn and grow and eventually become like God. The idea that we are punished or rewarded based on a relatively short period of time here on earth, and then spend an eternity doing nothing but hanging out in bliss or being punished forever, is repugnant to me.

Eternal progression is the most attractive part of Mormon teachings to me. The idea of progression is the only thing that makes sense to me when I think of the possibility of a Supreme Being. I flirt with agnosticism and atheism, and I don’t see any point to a God that lays down arbitrary rules and metes out judgment in a way that doesn’t have his children progressing. Really, the idea of being useless (whether that’s expressed as useless during a lazy paradise for the “righteous” or useless never-ending torment for the “wicked”) for the greater part of existence makes absolutely no sense to me.

The idea that we can keep learning, keep becoming the people we want to be, and become like Heavenly Parents is appealing to me. To me, it is what really makes Mormonism somewhat bearable.

During the Nauvoo period there was plenty else to consider that I don’t necessarily agree with, or even think essential to any sort of salvation, exaltation or eternal progression, especially, as The Mormon People points out,

The evening rituals of polygamy and endowment belonged to a select circle, a secret church within the church, and went on only behind closed doors.

Not only that, but there were some outright lies about what was going on in some cases. The development of polygamy and its practice, as well as the emergence of the endowment, are subjects of interest to me, but this lesson and the chapter in the book didn’t really get me thinking new thoughts about these subjects.

Maybe the Nauvoo Expositor Shouldn’t Have Been Destroyed

Finally, while I think mob murder of Joseph Smith was unjustified in any sort of civil society, I certainly don’t agree with some of the moves made at the end to preserve power and reputation, particularly the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor.

While the Expositor accused Joseph Smith of blasphemy and of being a fallen prophet, it didn’t really reveal anything that wasn’t factual. It revealed the practice of polygamy (with the accompanying accusation of adultery), which wasn’t meant for public consumption at the time because church leaders were still denying their involvement. As Brian Whitney points out,

While Smith held legal right as Mayor to declare the paper a public nuisance and order it to cease and desist, the physical destruction of the press was an overreach of power legally defined as a “riotous act.” A warrant was issued for Smith’s arrest, but Nauvoo Judge Daniel H. Wells, who was also a member of the City Council, quickly acquitted him of the charge. Wells’ ruling sent Hancock County residents into an uproar, believing the Nauvoo court to be corrupt.

When you consider that the Council of Fifty was meant to usher in a theodemocracy and that Joseph Smith combined religious, military and political power in one of the largest cities in Illinois, it’s not a stretch to think that non-LDS people would be a bit nervous about his aspirations. While I certainly don’t condone violence as a response, I don’t think that Joseph Smith was completely blameless, although he didn’t deserve to die violently, and he certainly isn’t to blame for the actions of a mob taking extreme measures.

One of the more interesting points of the Expositor story, though, is the fact that it was published by believers who regarded the Book of Mormon as scripture and who believed in Joseph Smith formerly. Here is what The Mormon People says about dissent at this period:

When dissenters appeared, they sought less to abandon Mormonism than to restore it to the pristine faith that had existed before whatever corruption pained them had set in, be it the failure of the Kirtland Safety Society, the violence in Missouri, or, in Nauvoo, polygamy.

This is an interesting observation because we see increasingly vocal dissent in today’s church. Like early dissenters, some wish to take Mormonism “back to its roots” in some fashion. Others, like me, are in a state of dissent because we want to see more progress made. If eternal progression is a fundamental truth, then we want to see the church grow and progress as well. We expect to see changes, and we’d like them to come at a faster pace. (Crazy, I know.)

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