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When Joseph Smith Met Martin Van Buren: Mormonism and the Politics of Religious Liberty in Nineteenth-Century America

  • Spencer W. McBride
Extract

In the nineteenth century, the Mormons were a minority religious group living on the fringes of the United States in both a geographic and social sense. Yet, in the twenty-first century, historians are increasingly realizing that the history of this marginal religious “other” sheds a great deal of light on the American past broadly conceived. This essay briefly describes an important moment in early Mormon history that illuminates our developing understanding of religious liberty in the early American republic, and the political obstacles Americans outside mainstream protestant Christianity faced in their efforts to obtain equal treatment under the law as American citizens.

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32 Revelation 21:2; Revelation, June 6, 1831 [Doctrines and Covenants 52] in The Joseph Smith Papers, ed. Dean C. Jesse, Ronald K. Esplin, et al., Documents Series (Salt Lake City, Utah: Church Historian's, 2008) 1: 327-332. Hereafter JSP.

33 Letter from John Whitmer, July 29, 1833, JSP, Documents Series, 3: 191–194.

34 “Free People of Color,” The Evening and the Morning Star, July 1833, 109; The Evening and the Morning Star, Extra, July 16, 1833; Letter from John Whitmer, July 29, 1833, JSP, Documents Series, 3: 191–194; Walker, Ronald W., “Seeking the ‘Remnant’: The Native American During the Joseph Smith Period,” Journal of Mormon History 19 (Spring 1993): 133; W. Paul Reeve, Religion of A Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness (New York: Oxford University, 2015), 64–69.

35 For a contemporary summary of these events, see “A History, of the Persecution of the Church of Jesus Christ, of Latter Day Saints in Missouri, in JSP, Histories Series, 2 vols., 2:203–286.”

36 For detailed accounts of the “Mormon War” of 1838 in Missouri, see Bushman, Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling, 356–390; Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought, 312–319; Stephen C. LeSueur, The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri (Columbia: University of Missouri, 1987); Alexander L. Baugh, A Call to Arms: The 1838 Mormon Defense of Northern Missouri (Provo, Utah: BYU Brigham Young University, 2000).

37 Sidney Rigdon, An Appeal to the American People (Cincinnati, Ohio: Glezen and Shepard, 1840), 20.

38 Mormons, like other nineteenth-century Americans, were careful with the language they used in discussing sexual assault and often substituted for the word “rape” euphemisms such as “insulted,” “violated the purity,” “violated the chastity,” “ravished,” or “brutally abused,” and allowed the context in which the phrase was used to clue the reader in to its true meaning. In published trial transcripts, for instance, the details of a sexual assault were often omitted to avoid offending readers with immodest language (Sharon Block, Rape and Sexual Power in Early America [Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2006], 111–112). Newel Knight recorded that in November 1833, vigilantes in Jackson County “rode through the country in small bands, pillaging houses, insulting women, whipping men and threatening two-fold vengeance” (“Newel Knight's Journal,” in Classic Experiences and Adventures: Labors in the Vineyard, Eventful Narratives, Scraps of Biography, Helpful Visions [Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1969], 84). In a letter to the Pennsylvania legislature, Sidney Rigdon was more direct and used the term “rape” when listing the crimes of vigilantes in Missouri (Times and Seasons 5, February 1, 1844, 420-421).

39 Lilburn W. Boggs to John Clark, October 27, 1838, The Missouri Mormon War Collection, Missouri State Archives, Jefferson City, Missouri.

40 See “A History, of the Persecution of the Church of Jesus Christ, of Latter Day Saints in Missouri,” JSP, Histories Series, 2: 203–286. Several Mormon leaders claimed at that the violence was timed to drive the Mormons off land to which they held pre-emption rights just before it was to be made available for sale by the federal government. See Memorial to the United States Senate and House of Representatives, 26th Congress, Committee on the Judiciary (SEN 26A-G8.1), National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. Walker, Jeffrey N., “Mormon Land Rights in Caldwell and Daviess Counties and the Mormon Conflict of 1838: New Findings and New Understandings,” BYU Studies 47, no. 1 (2008): 555.

41 After the Mormons' were expelled from Jackson County, Missouri, Smith presented a revelation to the church that urged them to appeal to the courts, the governor, and the president for redress, in that order. See Revelation, December 16–17, 1833, JSP, Documents Series, 3: 396–397.

42 Smith and other Mormon leaders who travelled with him to Washington expressed a hope that Van Buren would speak in favor of the Mormons' petitioning efforts in their respective correspondences. See Joseph Smith to Seymour Brunson, December 7, 1839, and Robert D. Foster to Joseph Smith, December 24, 1839, both in Letterbook 2, Joseph Smith Collection, Church History Library, Salt Lake City Utah. Hereafter CHL.

43 There are several accounts of the meeting between Smith, Higbee, and Van Buren written over the ensuing decades. For examples, see “Correspondence” Journal of Commerce, March 27, 1840; John Reynolds, My Own Times, 575; Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1845, 274–275, CHL; Letter from Robert D. Foster to Joseph Smith III, February 14, 1874, Saints Herald (April 14, 1888), 226; Joseph Smith, Journal,  April 5, 1843, JSP,  Journals Series, 3: 333; General Joseph Smith's Appeal to the Green Mountain Boys (Nauvoo, Ill.: Taylor and Woodruff, 1843), 3.

44 Joseph Smith and Elias Higbee to Hyrum Smith and High Council, December 5, 1840, Joseph Smith Collection, CHL.

45 Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “contact”.

46 Joseph Smith and Elias Higbee to Hyrum Smith and High Council, December 5, 1840, Letterbook 2, Joseph Smith Collection, CHL.

47 Harry L. Watson, Liberty and Power, 226.

48 For examples of Smith's concern that anti-Mormon prejudice would negatively impact his petitioning efforts, see James Adams to Joseph Smith, 4 January 1840, and John B. Weber to Joseph Smith, January 6, 1840, both in Letterbook 2, Joseph Smith Collection, CHL.

49 Records of the House of Representatives, 26th-27th Congress, Library of Congress Collection, 1841-1843, HR27A-G10.1, N.A. boxes 40–41 of L.C. boxes 139, 140, 141, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; Mormon Redress Petitions, CHL.

50 Memorial to the United States Senate and House of Representatives, 26th Congress, Committee on the Judiciary, SEN 26A-G8.1, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

51 Ibid.

52 Elias Smith and Joseph Smith to Elias Higbee, March 7, 1840, Letterbook 2, 109–111, Joseph Smith Collection, CHL.

53 For example, see Sotirios A. Barber, The Fallacies of States' Rights (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 2013).

54 Senate Journal, 26th Cong., 1st sess., January 28, 1840, 139; Senate Journal, 26th Cong., 1st sess., February 12, 1840, 173; Congressional Globe, 26th Congress, 1st sess., 149.

55 The Senate of the United States of America, Report, Washington, D.C., March 4, 1840, in Public Documents Printed by Order of the Senate of the United States, During the First Session of the Twenty-sixth Congress, Began and Held at the City of Washington, December 2, 1839, vol. 5 (1840).

56 Times and Seasons, April 1840, 91–95.

57 “Broad Seal War,” in John J. Lalor, ed., Cyclopedia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States (New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co., 1899), 160; Joseph Smith and Elias Higbee to Hyrum Smith and High Council, December 5, 1840, Joseph Smith Collection, CHL.

58 Elias Higbee to Joseph Smith, March 24, 1840, Joseph Smith Collection, CHL.

59 “A Glance at the Mormons,” The Sun, July 28, 1840.

60 “Correspondence,” Journal of Commerce, March 27, 1840.

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Church History
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