Mormons and the American Dream

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A research paper summarizing some of the founding historical points of Mormonism and its birth in America. Writteni n 2007.

Submitted: November 10, 2009

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Submitted: November 10, 2009

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Mormons and the American Dream

America of the 1800s: The Louisiana territory is procured from France and the West has become the new area of expansion. “The new frontier” has cast its spell upon the inhabitants of the eastern United States. Stretching prairies offer land as far as the eye can see. Herds of buffalo offer new forms of revenue for Americans, through their interactions with Indian traders, new possibilities have been opened up to the fur trader, and slowly more and more people begin the advancement out west. There are blue skies that stretch all the way to the horizon, there is gold in the ground just waiting for the man that wants to join the rush and dig it up, and there is opportunity for new colonization. The age of exploration is continuing at this time, and everyone wants to find their own niche in this new frontier.

In this time of transition and development, a group of individuals who are part of a religion called “Mormonism” have their own version of this American Dream. Their founder, Joseph Smith has shown them a great ideal about their place in this new developing land.

The Mormons became a part of the expansion out West, specifically because of their interpretation of the American Dream, and what they wanted to make the American Dream be for themselves. They faced opposition from both religious and political ends. This paper seeks to go into detail about the specific troubles they faced in their journey to integrate their beliefs and practices into American society, as well as the opposition they faced when they expressed the wish to form American politics and life to their particular beliefs.


The Un-American Americans”

Many different aspects played into the problems the Mormons found their people facing in America. Marriage practices did not match up with religious ideals held by many of America’s inhabitants, and these practices further did not match up with the governmental statute concerning marriage. The founder of Mormonism had the desire to run for president of the United States in order to form a “counter kingdom” for the Mormons1.

In the end, negative social opinion of Mormons as well as their desire to go against government statutes nearly erupted in the United States’ closest version of a “holy war” it has ever encountered. Before I proceed, let’s take a brief look at what “Mormonism” is.


Mormonism

The Mormon church was founded on April 6, 1830 by Joseph Smith2 and thirty of his followers. Joseph Smith is the composer of the Book of Mormon, a text that was allegedly translated from golden plates that carried the message of God. Joseph Smith, while not denying a relationship to Christianity3, strove hard to be certain that Mormonism was separated from Christianity, meant not to be a sect, but a religion of its own creation, that reformed many Christian beliefs4.

Mormons also identified highly with American nationalism, though their ascription to it was based on their own ideas of what that nationalism entailed. They believed themselves to be a chosen people, and that religion should become a part of nationalism. A chosen people of God should rule the country with religious nationalistic ideals – this was the dream and the beginning goal of the Mormon people under the guidance of their leaders, founder Joseph Smith, and Brigham Young5.


Mormon Problems

Polygamy

One of the most prominent problems the Mormons found themselves facing when trying to integrate their beliefs with American society and government statutes was their practice of polygamy. Polygamy is the practice of “marriage in which a spouse of either sex may have more than one mate at the same time6”. In Mormon practice, the men took more than one wife at a time, and by their own governing beliefs in their colonies, they were given more land and resources accordingly dependent on how many wives and children they had in their family7.

This practice was also considered due to the religious beliefs concerning God’s procreation themselves. In Mormon belief, it is important not only to observe the physical procreation process, but the spiritual one as well. In their belief, each person is a child of these earthly parents, but they are also the children of their heavenly parents. Their beliefs hold that since God populated our immense world, and all the souls it requires to do so, he has several wives to help him accomplish the large task at hand, a thing they then reflect in their practice of polygamy in their physical forms on Earth8.

However, by law in the United States, marriage could only exist between two people. Multiple spouses were not condoned nor supported by the law. This secular setback alone caused potential problems for Mormons attempting to practice in American states or U.S. territories, but there was also a religious clash.

The pre-dominant religion of America was Christianity, and by biblical implications marriage should exist only between one man and one woman. Multiple wives were not condoned by Christian standards, and there are several references in the Bible where the number is “two” concerning marriage9. The social static this caused was immense between these two religions. Good Puritan Americans couldn’t see the practice of polygamy as anything but heathen and blasphemous. This put Mormons on the fringe of society, as they earned much distrust in others by this practice alone. Media publications did nothing to help the growing opinion concerning the Mormons in this area10.


Other Religious Clashes

There were other clashes between Mormon beliefs and Christian/Puritan beliefs other than polygamy, though it was a forerunner. The creation belief in Christianity was challenged by the Mormon belief that matter was not created and that it must remain eternal as a result. While Christians believed in preparing the self for a heavenly kingdom, due to the Mormon’s beliefs concerning “eternal matter” they focused on preparing the world as the new kingdom of God, a physical representation and not something to be attained in another realm after death.11 These belief differences made the Puritan community uncomfortable. They so closely paralleled Christian belief that it seemed an outright challenge to the beliefs, and Mormon belief seemed to also challenge outright the nationalism and political ideals. Their cry and wish for reform of these things did more to damage their social standing in the eyes of the Puritan influenced society.


A Mormon President?

Joseph Smith officially said that he was running for president of the United States in 1844.12 This set the growing opposition to the Mormons and their community growing at an alarming rate, until it reached its climax which ended in the religion’s founder being imprisoned in Carthage, Illinois, where he was killed very soon after.13

What was Smith’s reason for wanting to run for presidency? We are brought back once again to the Mormon belief of forming a kingdom of God on earth, reflecting their spiritual on the plane of matter. Mormonism also didn’t follow the government’s policy of accepted religion. It meant basically that religions were to “mind their own business”, something Mormons were not prepared to do. They were extremely evangelistic, something that lasts to this day. They sought in every way to bring more people to Mormonism, as well as form the country as a whole into the religion’s vision of the kingdom of God on Earth.14

Smith’s desire to run for presidency fell into this desire to help form the United States of America into the Mormon ideal. However, it caused the climax of the opposition to him and his community of followers due to the challenge it had put forth concerning the government, as well as its people. His announcement showed that he was not adapting to the society and the set laws of the country, but intended to continue pushing forth to try and have his ideals realized in the government. It was a cause that ultimately led to his death, shot to death by a mob inside of the jailhouse in Carthage, Illinois in 1844.15


The Mormon Journey

The Mormons were forced into an expansion out into the new frontier due to the continued problems with the laws of the United States and the unrest of the people in the surrounding communities residing in the states they settled. They continued to be expelled from these states, and eventually journeyed out further west beyond the Rocky Mountains, where they founded a settlement in what is now Salt Lake City, Utah. But, their problems didn’t end with that final settlement, instead continuing until President James Buchanan in 1857 – feeling that the Mormons’ current leader Brigham Young was leading the Mormons in open rebellion against the United States government – sent approximately 5,000 soldiers to Utah. Their “mission” was to replace the Mormon leader. It led to three more decades of conflict between Mormons and non-Mormons.16


Final Thoughts

The Mormons found that the American Dream wasn’t all that they had hoped to form it to be, but ultimately they found their place within it, adapting to it and leaving their imprint on the area out West they settled, an imprint that remains to this day. They contributed to history, and added to the flavor of this country. They are a prime example that the American Dream came with its price to all who chose to settle the West, whether willingly or by necessity. They also are a prime example of how the new frontier in itself forced new settlers to learn, adapt, and adjust to change.

1 Hansen, Klaus J., Mormonism and the American Experience, p. xiii

2 Hafen, Ann W., Hafen, LeRoy R., Handcarts to Zion: the story of a Unique Western Migration, p. 17

3 Hansen, Klaus J. Quest for Empire, p. 25

4 Brodie, Fawn M. No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith the Mormon Prophet, p. viii

5 Hansen, Klaus J. Quest for Empire, p. 24

6 Merriam-Webster Dictionary

7 Emmit, Essin. Trans-Mississippi West, lecture, 2007.

8 Hansen, Klaus J., Mormonism and the American Experience, p. 81

9 “Do two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?” Amos 3:3

10 Emmit, Essin. Trans-Mississippi West, lecture, 2007.

11 Hansen, Klaus J., Mormonism and the American Experience, p. 72

12 Joseph Smith http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/people/s_z/smith.htm

13 Gunnison, Lieut. John W., The Mormons p.168

14 Hansen, Klaus J., Mormonism and the American Experience

15 Gunnison, Lieut. John W., The Mormons p.168

16 McKiernan, The Restoration Movement: Essays in Mormon History


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