Thursday 28 November 2013

Old books about Mormons - more anti-Mormon than I could possibly have imagined...


I spent an interesting few hours looking through some old books about Mormons which were in the collection at The Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne - a prestigious provincial club and library dating founded in 1793.

What I found surprised me in several ways. There were plenty of books on "The Mormons" dating from about 100 years ago - which was the first surprise; the second surprise was how very, very strongly anti-Mormon they were; the third surprise was the utterly outrageous things they said.

The oldest account was of Lord Redesdale's visit of 1873 (published in his Memoirs of 1915):

Brigham Young was all-powerful, bearing a more undisputed mastery than king or tsar or kaiser. He was a law unto himself, and had his Vehmgericht, or rather was also a secret court unto himself. True, there was no Folterkammer, no eiserne Jungfrau, but those old methods were out of date ; the revolver and the bowie-knife were swifter and as sure ; Jordan was the oubliette. There has been some attempt to deny the existence of the Danites or Destroying Angels who were Brigham Young's executioners. That is futile, for the men, as I can testify, were as well known in Salt Lake City as the Prophet, and the Old Man of the Mountain himself was not more faithfully or more bloodily served by his hashishin than was the Lion of the Lord by his band of bravos. There were whole-sale murders like the Mountain Meadow Massacre, but there were also other crimes, secret murders actuated by private spite, jealousy or lust, the stories of which are well known to those behind the scenes in Zion. It was not healthy for a man to incur the wrath of the Prophet or of the leading Saints. It was not conducive to long life to love a maid or wed a wife upon whom the eyes of one of the holy ones might have fallen.


The Mystery of Mormonism by Stuart Martin (1920) presents itself as a balanced view - in between the official church history and the more sensational anti-Mormon books.

Its introduction ends like this:

Since Mormonism was born in that small wood its story has been mostly tragic, with here and there a gleam of heroism lighting up the dull, terrible sadness of pitiful, wasted effort and misguided action. The scars of its sufferings are plainly marked upon Mormonism ; and, if the creed is to live, its final adjustment to the demands of the civilisation of the twentieth century has yet to be made. The author has tried to indicate what that adjustment demands of Mormonism, and how the finer men and women of the Church shrink from the coming crisis. When the adjustment takes place — as it inevitably will, though most likely by slow degrees — the Mormonism of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young will be strangled in Utah, and the last vestige of its abominations will disappear.

The final word is as follows:

As for the religious part of Mormonism, its doom is clear. It is the author's belief that before long it will be attacked, and it will crumble before the attack. Its wave of fervour is nearly spent, and in the day when it is finally attacked by its opponents this organisation, which has been a thorn in the flesh of the great American Republic since it was founded in 1830, will vanish as a creed. In that day Mormonism — the Mormonism which has quarrelled with every neighbour it has had, the Mormonism the history of which is one black page in the story of the United States — will cease to exist. Rent by internal schisms, attacked by forces as relentless as Knowledge and as powerful as Time, it will ultimately totter to a gaping grave ; to a tomb dug by itself. When that day comes, the last vestige of the abominations of Mormonism, as its founders intended it to be, will disappear from the earth, and the name of Joseph Smith will be but the memory of a man who, in his delusion, founded a gigantic fraud.


That may sound pretty extreme - however Brigham Young and the Mormon Empire by Frank J Cannon and George L Knapp (1913) goes even further. This has Brigham Young engaged in wholesale castration and assassination related to his "modern gospel of human sacrifice".

That's correct: human sacrifice.

After that there isn't really any further to go.


Still, the other books had their moments.

I Woodbridge Riley's The founder of Mormonism: a psychological study of Joseph Smith Jr (1902) has the following heading for its final section: "Was He Demented or Merely Degenerate" (he seems to suggest both at once).

R Kauffman and RW Kauffman take a different angle in The Latter Day Saints: a study of the Mormons in the light of economic conditions (1912) - they see the Mormon phenomena from a socialistic perspective in terms of just another instance of capitalistic exploitation, on a gigantic scale. But for the Kauffman's that is all any religion ever is.


If the books written about the Mormons were indescribably hostile and foolish - books written by visitors to Salt Lake City tended to be very positive.

Charles B Spahr wrote an interesting account of America's Working People (1899,1900) in which he visited New England, Chicago, The South and various other places to report on conditions. He was very impressed, on the whole, by what he saw in Salt Lake City:

The general level of morality is unquestionably high. Inquiry at police headquarters confirmed the Mormon claim that the Mormon population hardly figured at all among those arrested for crime or disorder, or among those who ministered for gain to criminal and vicious tastes.

But the statistics were the least trustworthy signs of the high morality. The real evidence of it was in the care for the poor, the temperance, the thrift, and the public spirit, that were apparent.

There was, however, one point upon which the impression revived was distinctly unfavourable, and this was the supremely important matter of sexual morality. (...) But what I heard from frank and conscientious Mormons in deprecation of these charges, even more than what I heard from Gentiles in their support, convinced me that the sin of polygamy in the fathers was bearing its fitting fruit in an epidemic of sexual immorality among the children. (...)

Nevertheless the impressions I received in the streets and from the testimony of scandal-hating people, without regard to creed, convinced me that sexual morality in Utah was much lower than in any other American community I had visited, and but little higher than in Continental Europe.


That point point about sexual morality being a weak point (the one-and-only weak point) of Mormons a century ago, makes for an interesting contrast with modern times. And it is perhaps an encouragement to modern Mormons.


A Church of England Priest the Rev. HW Haweis published Travel Talk in 1896 in which he reported on a vist to Salt Lake City of 1893:

...what I saw and what everyone may see spoke for itself. I saw a happy and contented people, a clean and sanitary city (...) neat houses and prosperous farms, well-behaved children, venerable elders, agreeable and cultivated ladies... 


The fascinating thing is that we now know that the travellers' eye witness accounts were correct, and the surprising numbers of people who wrote specialist (referenced, supposedly scholarly) books about 'The Mormons' - several of which were distributed some 5000 miles way to Newcastle upon Tyne England - were wrong; very wrong, absurdly and wickedly wrong.

This strikes me as an early example of political correctness based on and in the mass media. 


One more matter. When I became interested in Mormonism a few years ago I got the impression that the Mountain Meadows Massacre was something which had been hidden and suppressed until recently; and it was an atrocity that modern Mormons were supposedly having to come to terms with.

Not so. It features in all these early anti-Mormon books and the Rev Haweis goes so far as to remark on the "everlastingly quoted Mountain Massacre".

So, not such new news, after all...


All in all - my morning in the library confirms CS Lewis's advice on the value of Reading Old Books.



Greg said...

Choice passage from Froude's Oceania (368-371):

"The idea of the buried gold plates on which Joe Smith the First declared that he found the first book, was borrowed 
from Lucian, whose false Prophet of Galatia pretended to have dug up plates near Byzantium on which were written 
the revelations of Apollo. How Joe Smith knew anything about Lucian is another mystery, but the whole thing is an extraordinary paradox. Not spiritualism, not table-rapping or planchette-writing, exceed Mormonism in apparent absurdity. Yet hundreds of thousands of men and women believe in it as a new communication sent from heaven, and — as is far more strange — in worldly wisdom, in practical understanding, in industry, patience, and all the minor virtues which command success in life, neither America nor our own colonies can produce superiors to them. The plain of the Salt Lake, when Brigham Young halted his caravans there after the pilgrimage through the desert, was bare as the shores of the Dead Sea. From the Snow Mountains and from the Sweet Lake of Utah they brought fertilising streams of fresh water and poured it over the soil. They fenced and drained, they ploughed and sowed, they built and  planted ; and now literally the wilderness is made to blossom like the rose. Our train ran on among orchards of peach and almond, pink with the early blossoms. The fields, far as one could see, were cleanly and completely cultivated, and green with the promise of abundant harvests. Cattle, sheep, and horses were grazing in hundreds. The houses were neat and well constructed, each with a well-kept garden round it. Place and people 
formed a perfect model of a thriving industrial settlement, and all this had grown in a single generation from what, to human intelligence, is the wildest absurdity, initiated by deliberate fraud. One can only conclude that man is him- 
self a very absurd creature."

Bruce Charlton said...

@Greg - If you didn't see it, this was my post on the theme outlined by Froude.

Bruce Charlton said...

One consequence of this lurid anti-Mormon literature was felt by the young Dylan Thomas (1914-53) who wrote of his childhood: "most sinister of all, ... the far-off race of the Mormons, a people who every night rode on nightmares through my bedroom."

dearieme said...

Don't try reading physics in old books - by golly they made heavy weather of it. I don't know whether there was golden age of physics writing, but if there was I'd bet it would be well into the twentieth century.

One qualification: I have never got round to reading Maxwell's account of the kinetic theory in the Encyclopaedia Britannica: it has a high reputation.

JP said...

One of the very first books I ever read about Mormons was in the Sherlock Holmes compendium I read as a boy. The story A Study in Scarlet (published 1888) depicts the Mormons as an evil, relentless global conspiracy of kidnappers, murderers, and white slavers. Kinda like the way a certain other religious group has often been portrayed - especially the despoiling of innocent Christian maidens part.

At the time (age 12 maybe) my reaction was, "wow, who the heck are these monsters?" To this day I can't think of the Mormons without recalling this story. Very effective propaganda, indeed!

Bruce Charlton said...

@JP - It's that kind of propaganda when the *less* evidence there is for it, the more secret and sinister and wiespread and powerful that conspiracy must be.

And when there is *zero* evidence, the conspiracy must be infinitely pervasive and powerful.

I think it was Cannon and Knapp who commented that the assassinations and human sacrifices did not show up in the murder statistics, which were in fact low - presumably because the 'normal' murders were so rare as to be almost non-existent.

For the Kauffmanns, the massive economic exploitation of rank and file Mormons by their leaders (which they desribed) had to be squared with the almost complete lack of poverty and high level of general prosperity...

- But (as typical socialists) they regarded the problem of production as trivial, and the economic conditions of that place and time as intrinsically so favourable that goods and services pretty much grew on trees; and therefore presumably the Mormon leaders managed to extort (supposedly) vast wealth for themselves by relious power, while leaving plenty for everybody else - and this would hardly be noticed by those whom they exploited.

The fact that the Mormons had, almost uniquely for that era, solved the problem of poverty gained them essentially no credit from their critics. Very few people *really* care about eradicating poverty. Indeed they care so little, that they do not even notice when it has been done.

For the anti-Mormons, the decency and good order which were up-front observable in Salt Lake City (even in polygamous households) simply meant that the real evil was extremely cleverly hidden, and that the population had been duped and hyponotized and terrorized.

Several authors regarded the Mormon War of 1857 as a sadly missed-opportunity - when the Federal government really *should* have exterminated the Mormons when they had the chance; but failed to finish the job (or even start it) due to incompetence and cowardice.

The general tone of these books was based on the assumption that Mormonism was a kind of cancer afflicting the USA ("a thorn in the flesh of the great American Republic" "one black page in the story of the United States" "the abominations of Mormonism"), and the problem was simply how best to extirpate it.

Bruce Charlton said...

Following-up JP's lead I looked again at A Study in Scarlet (which I think I read in my teens, but do not recall) and found the following:


The victims of persecution had now turned persecutors on their own account, and persecutors of the most terrible description. Not the Inquisition of Seville, nor the German Vehmgericht, nor the secret societies of Italy, were ever able to put a more formidable machinery in motion than that which cast a cloud over the state of Utah.

Its invisibility, and the mystery which was attached to it, made this organization doubly terrible. It appeared to be omniscient and omnipotent, and yet was neither seen nor heard. The man who held out against the Church vanished away, and none knew whither he had gone or what had befallen him. His wife and his children awaited him at home, but no father ever returned to tell them how he had fared at the hands of his secret judges. A rash word or a hasty act was followed by annihilation, and yet none knew what the nature might be of this terrible power which was suspended over them. No wonder that men went about in fear and trembling, and that even in the heart of the wilderness they dared not whisper the doubts which oppressed them.

At first this vague and terrible power was exercised only upon the recalcitrants who, having embraced the Mormon faith, wished afterwards to pervert or to abandon it. Soon, however, it took a wider range. The supply of adult women was running short, and polygamy without a female population on which to draw was a barren doctrine indeed. Strange rumours began to be bandied about — rumours of murdered immigrants and rifled camps in regions where Indians had never been seen. Fresh women appeared in the harems of the Elders — women who pined and wept, and bore upon their faces the traces of an unextinguishable horror. Belated wanderers upon the mountains spoke of gangs of armed men, masked, stealthy, and noiseless, who flitted by them in the darkness. These tales and rumours took substance and shape, and were corroborated and recorroborated, until they resolved themselves into a definite name. To this day, in the lonely ranches of the West, the name of the Danite Band, or the Avenging Angels, is a sinister and an ill-omened one.

Fuller knowledge of the organization which produced such terrible results served to increase rather than to lessen the horror which it inspired in the minds of men. None knew who belonged to this ruthless society. The names of the participators in the deeds of blood and violence done under the name of religion were kept profoundly secret. The very friend to whom you communicated your misgivings as to the Prophet and his mission might be one of those who would come forth at night with fire and sword to exact a terrible reparation. Hence every man feared his neighbour, and none spoke of the things which were nearest his heart.


All very reminiscent of Macavity the Mystery Cat.

Adam G. said...

I love exhuming this old nonsense. I hope I'm never too mature to refrain from dancing on the grave of old errors.