Mormon History in a Nutshell

08/21/2004 - by Bob McCue who once served as an LDS Bishop.

Lots of people try to control others in order to make easy money or just for the sake of being the big wheel – being in control. Most of them get nowhere. Occasionally, however, one of them gets something off the ground, usually because he is smart, charismatic, and is using one of the tried and true methods for gaining influence over people. The best, and most successful method of all time in that regard, is to find out what the people want the most, and promise to give it to them.

Joseph Smith (JS), after a number of failed attempts to make easy money by helping people find buried treasure (easy money for them), tried to find another way to turn buried treasure into money. One of the many problems with his earlier treasure seeking adventures was that the objective had been to find the buried treasure, and since there wasn’t any to be found, each attempt was doomed to failure from the beginning. So no matter how entertaining JS was during the course of the search (and I am willing to believe that he was highly entertaining – thrills, spills, near misses, offended ghost/guardians pushing the treasure deeper into the earth, etc.), in the end his clients were eventually disappointed. And then there was that trial he had to go through on charges of "glass looking" (kind of like our laws against stock fraud). Scared the hell out of him. The judge, thank goodness, was practical enough to not insist on going through with the whole thing if JS agreed to leave town. So he did. This so frightened him that he even promised his father-in-law that he would go straight from then on.

Different people have different ideas of what the word "straight" means. So, JS dramatically cut down on the glass looking, and either came up with or helped to come up with an ingenious plan to use his great skills as an entertainer, and the idea of buried treasure, to make money in any event. He (perhaps with a lot of help from some of his buddies, like Sidney Rigdon and Oliver Cowdery) would write a ”true” story about magic, religion, and buried treasure that he could sell! And, he would make it an essential feature of that story that the buried treasure never be found! That would solve the problem that had bit him in the ass numerous times before.

There were a number of ways to "sell" such a story in those day. One was to sell the manuscript iself. He tried that and it did not work. Another was to sell copies of the book. That was really hard, and slow, work. And finally, he could use the story's novel twists to become competitive on the lucrative preachers' barnstroming circuit. At that time, a good preacher was the closest thing they had to a rock star. But it is unlikely that Joseph had that particular option in mind, since at least during his early days he was not much of a public speaker. He would need a lot of polishing before he would become the orator he eventually was.

Well, JS's plan did not (as is often the case with plans) work out as he had hoped. All but a few of the people who believed his story didn’t have enough money to buy its copyright, or even to pay much for a copy of the book it was in. Go figure. Before he knew it, however, JS found himself in charge of his own church. At first he was not comfortable in that roll, and said that all God ever wanted him to do was write the story. So, he found other people to lead the church. But, he gradually grew into the roll of religious leader and got rid of his side kicks. In the course of this, he eventually ended up with as many paying jobs as he wanted for himself (like Mayor of a large city, Treasurer of same, commander in chief of a large military force, etc.), and was in a position to put lots of his family and friends into nice paying positions as well. Things worked out OK from that point of view.

Lots of people start churches. Most of them go nowhere. However, JS had a bit of good luck and he turned out to have much more ability than your average treasure-seeker turned prophet. As time passed, his story became more refined. Much more refined. And more Christian. No more “toads turning into angels” to deliver important messages. He gave the people instead stories about how God the Father, Jesus Christ, John the Baptist, Peter, James and John, as well as most of the key figures from the Old Testament, visited him on a regular basis. And entirely new players came on stage, such as Moroni, who was supposed to be one God’s prophets from the Americas. They also visited him. Some wondered if Moroni had relatives in Italy, such as the well known Renaissance artists Giovanni Battista Moroni and Francesco Moroni. Many of the other names he used were novel as well, and yet seemed familiar.

JS was always interested in religion, and while writing his story he answered a lot of questions that had troubled him and other people like him, about religion. Why do little children need to be baptized? (They don’t, since they are without sin) How can a loving God permit evil to exist? (Good and evil are necessary opposites – one defines the other) Why do poor people suffer so much during this life (Because the next life, for them in particular, it going to be great!) Etc.

And after becoming a religious leader, JS spent a lot of time thinking about other spiritually oriented questions, like whether can families be together after death, what happened before we came to this earth, etc. His genius for continuing to weave ever more complex, and in most cases satisfying to his audience, stories attracted a steady stream of new converts to his church. Lots, however, left once they got to know him and saw how he conducted himself. But as P.T. Barnum is reported to have said (although it appears he did not), “There is another sucker born every minute”, and so the new converts continued to roll in.

But JS’s problems became larger. Part of this was his doing. As almost always happens in human groups, the alpha male - the big kahuna - has lots of sexual opportunity. JS couldn’t resist. And when he got caught, he made an even bigger mistake. Instead of doing the “mea culpa”, which would have surely gotten him off, he allowed his story telling gene to take over, and told those who had to know (the ones who caught him) that God had told him to have sex with those women, and that this was a sacred secret. No must be told about it. In fact, it was so secret that lying was justified to protect it.

Well, this seemed like a great deal to his buddies, and once they knew JS had been told that by God, they wanted to find out if God would tell them the same thing. As God’s prophet, it was JS's job had to find that out for them.

I bet JS could feel the noose tightening around his neck as more and more of his buddies pressured him for God’s approval to start having secret sex with more than one women. After all, they were as righteous as JS. Surely God would not give him such a favor without allowing it to them? And the practical fact of the matter was that JS needed their cooperation. So, God allowed many of them in on the game. And eventually, the rumors about this game became so widespread – largely as a result of some killjoy women who refused to cooperate and went public – that almost everyone in the community and surrounding area heard about it. Since this was a sacred secret, this regrettably resulted in a lot of sacred lying - "Lying for the Lord" - as it became known. JS said that God told them all to lie in this way because the “people were not ready” to hear about the new sexual mores the had been revealed to JS and closest associates, and the women they propositioned.

This was one of JS's worst bad habits – not telling the truth, and using God as his excuse whenever he could not wiggle out any other way. This put his followers who were not in the game in a tough position. The rumors and some women said one thing, and JS and closest associates denied it. This went on for over ten years.

JS made some other mistakes, maybe even because he had come to believe part of his own story. After all, some respected philosophers at about the same time were telling people that anyone who has the ability to take and exercise power is authorized by God to do so. That is, power is self justifying. JS seems to have believed that, whether he was familiar with those philosophers or not.

Anyway, he created an illegal bank and tricked a bunch of his followers into investing in it. It went bankrupt and a whole bunch of people left him over that. He and his best buddy at that time, Sidney Rigdon, had to flee the jurisdiction to avoid law suits and jail. It took him a while to recover from that. But he did. He was, first and foremost, creative and resilient. He moved the whole community to Nauvoo, Illinois, and started over there.

And then when things were getting really hot over the sex stuff in Nauvoo, he tried to pour water on that fire by destroying a printing press that was going to spread the news. And unfortunately, at the same time, news got out that he had recently had himself secretly ordained as King of the Earth, and had promised a whole bunch of people (many of the non-Mormons) that they would be the Princes of the Earth if they kept his secrets and helped become king. The combination of the sex stuff, the printing press and the “King of the Earth” business made some people so angry, and afraid, that they killed him.

It would be a mistake to paint JS as a simple, black, villian. He was a complex character. Books continue to be written about his life. He loved deeply. He sacrificed himself in many ways, and often seemed altruistic. He was of unquestionable genius, and became a skilled orator and writer. He had a significan poetic talent. However, he was not what he appeared to be, and tried so hard to present himself as through most of his adult life. That statement is safe because of the different ways he presented himself to different people. In short, he frequently lied about important matters, and hence could not, and cannot, be trusted.

There was a power vacuum after JS was killed. A lot of people who were accustomed to being led by a strong leader, and who wanted to be led, were without a leader. Nature abhors a vacuum. And many people love to exercise power. So not surprisingly, there were many who claimed to be JS successor. Some of JS's followers accepted members of his family as their leaders, since they seemed to have the best claim to JS's authority based on what he said and did. Others followed Rigdon or Strang, two of JS’s key lieutenants. And the largest group followed Brigham Young, who put on the best show after JS died. Entertainment value again shows its power.

BY changed a lot of things, and made some crazy rules. His primary genius was to move his people somewhere where they had no other options. He understood the power of monopolies. And contemporary academics agree with his strategy. In fact, they say that is very unlikely that a new religion can be created without a period of time in a monopoly environment to develop to critical organizational mass. And once in isolation, with lots of land to give away, BY could attract new recruits with all kinds of fancy promises. The unwashed and poor of Europe flocked to him. And once in Utah (or Arizona, or Idaho, etc.) what were their options in those days? So Zion flourished. And while BY was an awful story teller, he was in some ways an brilliant from organizational point of view. And he understood how to exercise power.

When thinking about BY and what he achieved, we should not forget the role of necessity - our greatest teacher. Plunk a group of people down in the middle of the desert, and if there is way to survive, they will find it. The Mormons found it, built irrigation canals, helped each other out a lot, and developed a close to air tight community in the adversity of the Great Plains desert, or Deseret, as they called it. These were, mostly, salt of the earth, fine people who had deep faith in God, their prophets/leaders, and their ability to overcome whatever obstacles might be thown in their way. The kind of community they developed was precisely what was required in order to survive there. What a coincidence.

We should also note that few remember the many communities that were similar to the Mormons that failed in their attempt to do similar things. We remember those who survive, and succceed, and often tend to see their success as inevitable, mandated by God, etc. instead of the result of the laws of cause and effect.

In any event, the sex thing was still causing trouble. Eventually, the US put so much pressure on the Mormons that God changed his mind and said that Mormon men were only allowed to have one wife. If they wanted to have sex with more than one woman, they would have to do like everyone else – by sneaking around. For a while the Mormon polygamists did that – sneaked around, having sex with their polygamous wives while telling the US government and everyone else that they weren’t doing that. But, since JS had established the precedent a long time for doing this, it seemed OK. The ends justify that means, as long as God has told you to do something.

Finally, the Mormon leaders said, “We really mean it this time” about stopping polygamy. But by then so many people had heard the leaders say “No matter what, no matter who says what, God will never take polygamy from the Earth – His word is His word and it cannot be changed”, and had seen the Mormon leaders say one thing and do another for so long, that those habits had taken on a life of their own. And so, Mormon polygamy continues to this day.

But the death (or at least crippling) of polygamy was kind of a good thing, in an odd way. After the prophets had fought for polygamy tooth and nail for so long, and finally had to give in, they realized that with the "sexually wierd" monkey off their backs, they could go mainstream, and seriously international. And the Church grew as never before. God’s ways are sure mysterious.

The world changes whether we like it or not, and eventually the monopoly BY had established in Utah broke down. People started moving in. They brought newspapers, books etc. And the communications media did not stop there. Telegraph, radio, television, satellites, and finally the Internet pumped increasing amounts of information into Mormon communities in Utah and elsewhere. This caused people to question Mormon leaders and their authority with greater frequency. And those damn intellectuals and scientists! They were the worst, and some of them even taught (for a while at least) at BYU.

The leaders fought this in every way they could. They told their followers not to look at anything that questioned the Mormon way. Such things were like germs or even cancer, they said. The Mormon leaders produced versions of Mormon history, and in particular its foundational events, that bear little resemblance to the way real historians see things. They sent out armies of innocent young people who had been taught to push emotional buttons by having their own pushed, and who only knew one version of the Mormon story (the misleading one) and believed it so completely that they frequently broke into tears while testifying that they "know" it is true. The leaders increasingly tried to control the information that was discussed in Mormon meetings by "correlating" the lesson manuals, encouraging teachers not to look outside the scriptures and the official lesson manuals, etc. And many of their followers were obedient to them. These people became increasingly inward looking – islands of Mormonism in a broader culture, whether in Utah or elsewhere.

But more and more Mormons either left Mormonism entirely, or became relatively apathetic, marginal participants. And their children tended to be even more apathetic, or to leave. And Mormon women stopped having so many babies, despite the encouragement to “keep up the good work” by Mormon leaders.

Mormon leaders responded to all of this by redefining Mormonism. It was no longer the church of wierdos, practicing polygamy. It was the church of the nuclear family - that is the traditional family (man, woman and kids - lots of kids). Family values. That was a lot more durable a foundation than polygamy and the Book of Mormon (as JS's story was called), which looked increasingly shaky as archeological, DNA and other evidence mounted against it. In fact, family values were hardwired right into us by biological evolution, as long as some sex of the sneaking around variety is part of the deal, even though frowned on. And Mormons seemed as capable as other groups of dealing with that messy issue.

As has been the case from the beginning of Mormonism, the ends continued to justify the means. Mormon leaders were concerned about things like spousal abuse and financial fraud that was rampant within their membership when compared to other similar populations, and warned Mormons regularly to watch their behavior in this regard. But that did not seem to help. The pressures brought to bear on the Mormon community by the differences between it and the culture by which it was surrounded, and which was encroaching on it, were too great.

That being said, Mormons report high levels of satisfaction with their lives, are community minded, are oriented toward family values, serving others, etc. In short, they display many qualities that have been prized by most communities of human beings throughout time. They tend, however, to dramatically overestimate how "good" they are in these terms relative to other groups of humans, or society at large. And we should note that any individual's subjective assessment of her own well being should be taken with a grain of salt. Recent research indicates that the happiest people on earth live in Negal and Nigeria. Most Old Order Amish, Hutterites and Taliban are happy with their situation in life, largely due to a lack of information about alternatives. That is a large part of the reason for which the Internet is such a troublemaker - it makes people aware of alterntives. Even the members of Jim Jones cult at Jonestown reported high levels of happiness and satisfaction with their leader (they worshiped him - their last words sounded eerily like many testimonies about Gordon Hinckley I have heard) just before they joined him in suicide. So, it is usually much more helpful to look at more "objective" indicia to assess a community's health. How do the people spend their time? How much information do they have access to? How uniform is their behaviour? Do their actions match their words?

While Mormons say they are happy, Utahns (70% Mormon) either leads the close to leads the US in personal bankruptcies, antidepressant use, rape, commercial fraud, multi-level marketing participation, spouse abuse and spouse murder. These are clear signs of a group of human beings who are under more stress than those to whom they are being compared.

So, the pressures within the Mormon community are considerable. And in addition to those just indicated, on a regular basis Mormon families break up or go through terrible stresses that cause jobs to be lost and relationships to be ruptured as some family members (usually one spouse) stumbles across the “real” story of Mormonism, and react differently to that than do other family members (usually the other spouse). And gay Mormons continue to commit suicide at an alarming rate, likely at least in part as a result of being caused to believe that they must change their basic nature in order to be acceptable as human beings, to God, and to those who they are most attached to - parents, family members, community leaders, etc.

This kind of damage, from the perspective of Mormon leaders, is acceptable. It is the lesser of evils. It is the price that must be paid to preserve the Mormon institution, which with its long and illustrious history and tremendous value as a social institution and in the lives of its members, must be preserved at almost any cost. Did not the pioneers make heroic sacrifices? And what about those women who JS successful propositioned? Sacrifice to God's will is the Mormon way. And the leaders are certain that they are tuned into His will.

And in any event, what would the leaders do if their life’s work and self esteem, and status, was pulled out from under them? So, while the sacrifices made by the members are regrettable, they are necessary.

And that brings us pretty well up to date. My apologies to real historians, like Mike Quinn and Todd Compton, for whom I have the utmost regard.

All the best,


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