For many Americans Mormons are scary, or weird, or at least not the sort of folk you’d want marrying your first lady. Last year a Gallup poll found that 22 percent of the country would not support a Mormon candidate for president. MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell claimed in early April that Mormonism “was created by a guy in upstate New York in 1830 when he got caught having sex with the maid and explained to his wife that God told him to do it.” Jacob Weisberg, generally a reliable barometer of center-left conventional wisdom, wrote during the run-up to the last presidential campaign that he “wouldn’t vote for someone who truly believed in the founding whoppers of Mormonism.”
Anti-Mormonism haunted this cycle’s Republican primaries. Newt Gingrich had to fire his Iowa political director for describing rival candidate Mitt Romney’s religion as “the cult of Mormon.” Texas Gov. Rick Perry had to do some public squirming when a prominent Baptist backer, the Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress, announced that Romney is “not a Christian” and that Mormonism “has always been considered a cult by the mainstream of Christianity.” My inbox overflows with press releases from the ex-Mormon activist Tricia Erickson, who warns that electing “this horrendous Romney Manchurian Candidate” would mean the Elders Near Zion “will most assuredly be pulling the strings behind the scenes.” Bill Keller, the self-proclaimed “world’s leading Internet Evangelist,” manages to outdo Erickson with mass emails carrying headlines like “Why Would Christians Vote for Romney and Listen to [Glenn] Beck, Both Cult Members?”
All of which obscures something important: By historical standards, Mormonism enjoys an amazing level of acceptance in America today. The Republican Party, an organization whose first presidential platform denounced Mormon polygamy as a “relic of barbarism” comparable to slavery, is about to nominate a Mormon bishop as its presidential candidate. Mitt Romney’s chances of prevailing in November have very little to do with his religious beliefs and almost everything to do with how the unemployment numbers look come fall.
That shift reflects some substantial changes in Mormonism itself, which has given up the polygamist and separatist ways that alienated so many Americans in the church’s early decades. But it also reflects the fact that non-Mormon Americans—gentiles, as the Latter-day Saints sometimes call us—have gotten used to having Mormons around. You can still hear strange conspiracy theories about the church today, but we are a long way from the 19th century, when the popular perception of Joseph Smith’s faith featured a wild mélange of mind control, assassinations, secret sexual lodges, and plots to subvert the republic.
‘To Yield Themselves Entirely’
Our story starts in the early 19th century, a spiritually rambunctious period now known the Second Great Awakening. Big camp meetings drew thousands of Americans to multiday festivals of prayer, with worshippers falling into trances and speaking in tongues. Traditional religious leaders were often alarmed at the delirious varieties of worship on display. Some of them denounced the revival preachers as puppet masters engaged in a sort of mass hypnosis. On the outskirts of the excitement, unusual creeds attracted new followers: Shakers, Adventists, Oneida Perfectionists.
It was in this atmosphere that Joseph Smith reported a series of religious visions in the 1820s and founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1830. The new faith, contra Lawrence O’Donnell, had nothing to do with the family maid. (Polygamy would not become a Mormon doctrine until several years later.) Smith, a part-time treasure hunter, claimed to have found a holy book engraved on golden plates. The plates contained a host of revelations, he reported, including the old idea that the American Indians were descended from the Israelites and the new idea that Christ had visited their ancient American civilization.
As Smith attracted followers, he moved his church’s base from upstate New York to Ohio and then to the Missouri frontier, where its adherents faced heavy harassment from their neighbors. The church tried to establish a town of its own in Illinois, and it was in that state that an angry mob killed Smith while the prophet was confined to a jail. Control of the movement shifted to a Vermont-born tradesman named Brigham Young, who led the Mormons west to establish a kingdom in the desert.
The opponents of Mormonism, like the opponents of other new religions, took old anti-Catholic themes and updated them for a younger faith: Smith and then Young were imagined as the all-powerful popes of a cult, their followers as docile sheep. Those followers’ allegiance, furthermore, was allegedly achieved through a sort of mind control, not unlike the mass hypnosis purportedly on display at revivals.
The latter idea lies at the core of the best-selling Female Life Among the Mormons (1855), which presents itself as the memoir of a woman hypnotized into marrying a church elder. (A more accurate description was offered by the historian David Brion Davis, who called the book a “ridiculous fantasy.”) At one point in the narrative the author asks another ex-Mormon how Joseph Smith managed to master Franz Mesmer’s mind-control method—Mesmerism—before “its general circulation throughout the country.” Her informant replies that “Smith obtained his information, and learned all the strokes, and passes, and manipulations, from a German peddler, who, notwithstanding his reduced circumstances, was a man of distinguished intellect and extensive erudition. Smith paid him handsomely, and the German promised to keep the secret.” What’s more, “You, madam, were subjected to its influence. So have ten thousand others been, who never dreamed of it. Those most expert in it, are generally sent out to preach among unbelievers.”
The church started promoting polygamy privately in 1843, and it acknowledged the practice to the outside world in 1852. This heightened the sexual dimension of stories like Female Life Among the Mormons: In the popular imagination, Mormon men were out to add gentile women to their harems, by hypnotic seduction if possible and by force if necessary. Plural marriage was perceived as a threat to the traditional family, and the anxieties it inspired unleashed a flood of fantasies about other sorts of sexual nonconformity that the Latter-day Saints might be up to.
The excommunicated Mormon John C. Bennett spread stories of a “secret lodge of women” who serviced church officials, going into great detail about the orders found within the lodge and the duties and depravations identified with each. The Consecrates of the Cloister, for example, were a degree “composed of females, whether married or unmarried, who, by an express grant and gift of God, through his Prophet the Holy Joe, are set apart and consecrated to the use and benefit of particular individuals, as secret, spiritual wives,” Bennett wrote in 1842. “They are the Saints of the Black Veil, and are accounted the special favorites of Heaven.”
A lot of projection was at work here. In Davis’ words, readers “took pleasure in imagining the variety of sexual experiences supposedly available to their enemies. By picturing themselves exposed to similar temptations, they assumed they could know how priests and Mormons actually sinned.” Bennett, he adds, had been “expelled from the Church as a result of his flagrant sexual immorality.”
‘Grim, Hidden, Secret Power’
When Mormons clustered in a single location, the fear that they might steal Christian bodies and souls through kidnapping and conversion was joined by another anxiety: the fear that they would steal American institutions by voting en masse, installing a government that would replace the republic with a theocracy. And since you couldn’t expect such a subversive menace to limit its efforts to the ballot box, another story began to take hold as well: that the church commanded an army of assassins, dubbed the Danites, to inflict its will by force.