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The historical Danites were a vigilante group created in 1838 to compel dissenting Mormons to exit the area and, subsequently, to protect Missouri Mormons from their neighbors’ attacks. It has never been proven that the organization lasted longer than a year, but it became a central part of anti-Mormon rhetoric for decades afterward, its reputation growing ever more fearsome with time. When Brigham Young set up a group of minutemen in Utah, saying that they were to battle rustlers and hostile Indians and the like, the group was quickly nicknamed the Destroying Angels, conflated with the old Danites, and feared as a secret squad of hit men. In 1859 the frontiersman John Young Nelson could casually (and inaccurately) assume, upon meeting a Mormon painted like an Indian, that the latter was one of the church’s “fanatical renegade-destroying angels, whose mission was to kill every white man not belonging to the sect, and particularly those who were apostates.”
Those whose fears of the Danites were grounded in more than mere rumors could point to a memoir written by the outlaw Wild Bill Hickman after he was arrested for murder in 1871. Hickman, who had been excommunicated from the Latter-day Saints a few years earlier, claimed to have carried out several murders on Young’s orders. There’s no consensus on how much of what he wrote was accurate and how much was blame-shifting or braggadocio, but all of it was incorporated into anti-Mormon lore.
To see the hold that lore had on the American imagination, read Mark Twain’s 1872 account of an evening supposedly spent with a Mormon assassin, a tale calculated to puncture the minutemen’s image as a sinister elite. “ ‘Destroying Angels,’ as I understand it, are Latter-day Saints who are set apart by the Church to conduct permanent disappearances of obnoxious citizens,” Twain wrote in Roughing It. “I had heard a deal about these Mormon Destroying Angels and the dark and bloody deeds they had done, and when I entered this one’s house I had my shudder all ready. But alas for all our romances, he was nothing but a loud, profane, offensive old blackguard! He was murderous enough, possibly, to fill the bill of a Destroyer, but would you have any kind of an Angel devoid of dignity? Could you abide an Angel in an unclean shirt and no suspenders?”
By this time Mormon conspiracies were a staple of popular culture. Dozens of lurid novels depicted Danite assassinations, church-sanctioned white slavery, and other alleged LDS crimes. On the other side of the Atlantic, the first Sherlock Holmes story, Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet (1887), featured a Danite plot to force a woman into an unwanted marriage. The most famous American yarn about Mormon conspirators is probably Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage (1912), a book often credited with setting the mold of the formula western.
Grey’s story is set in the wild country of Utah in 1871. Jane Withersteen, one of the book’s protagonists, has been enmeshed in Mormon society since birth. In theory, she occupies a high place in the community: Her father founded the settlement, and she is one of the town’s wealthiest citizens. But she refuses to marry an elder who wants her, and the consequences of that decision demonstrate just how little autonomy she has. “Above her,” Grey writes, “hovered the shadow of grim, hidden, secret power.”
The conspiracy, we soon learn, doesn’t just lurk above her. Withersteen finds traces of the secret power at every level of the social hierarchy; it isn’t an authority bearing down on her so much as an all-enveloping system that is almost impossible to escape. Her friends inform on her, and her ranch is haunted by spies and assassins. Anyone is a potential betrayer. Withersteen’s servant women “spied and listened; they received and sent secret messengers; and they stole Jane’s books and records, and finally the papers that were deeds of her possessions. Through it all they were silent, rapt in a kind of trance.” Even apparently empty spaces are haunted. “There’s no single move of yours, except when you’re hid in your house, that ain’t seen by sharp eyes,” a gentile friend warns Withersteen. “The cottonwood grove’s full of creepin’, crawlin’ men. Like Indians in the grass. When you rode…the sage was full of sneakin’ men. At night they crawl under your windows into the court, an’ I reckon into the house.”
‘Jesus Isn’t on the Ballot This Year’
In some places a fear took hold that Mormon ideas—and Mormon weapons—might find their way to the local Indians. Meanwhile, in the face of constant harassment, the Mormons had started to identify with the Native Americans themselves. This had its limits, though, as one group of natives learned on September 11, 1857.
It was the middle of the conflict called the Utah War. The federal government thought the Latter-day Saints were plotting a rebellion. The Mormons thought the feds, who had dispatched more than 2,500 troops to the region, were plotting to eliminate them. In that tense atmosphere of mutual distrust, a group of Mormons—it is not known whether they were following Brigham Young’s wishes or acting on their own—combined forces with a group of Paiute Indians and slaughtered around 120 unarmed migrants passing through Mountain Meadows, Utah, including about 50 children. Afterward the Mormon hierarchy tried to scapegoat the natives, claiming the assault had been committed by the Paiute acting alone. Evidently, a church that identified with the persecuted red man wasn’t above appealing to anti-Indian prejudice.
It was an awful act, and it shows that some Mormons deserved a portion of the outrage and fear that they inspired. But most of the conspiring in Mormon country was open and basically benign: a concerted effort to construct a community from the ground up. Mormons built schools, temples, courts of arbitration, an elaborate private welfare system, and a network of cooperatives. These were the sort of voluntary organizations that Americans often celebrate, but they appeared to be entwined with civil government in predominantly Mormon areas out west, with the same figures dominating both church and state. Sometimes they were more influential than the formal government.
This situation stoked still more fears of subversion, and it led to some stunning restrictions on the Saints’ civil liberties. In 1884 the Idaho territory made it illegal for Latter-day Saints to vote, hold office, or serve on a jury. Legislators invoked the standard anti-Mormon conspiracy theories, but lurking behind those exotic charges were more ordinary resentments: opposition to plural marriage, jealousy of the Mormon co-ops’ economic clout, and, above all, Republicans’ eagerness to disenfranchise a group that in Idaho voted overwhelmingly for the Democrats.
The church’s road to respectability began in 1890, when it renounced polygamy. During the next couple of years its leaders dissolved the People’s Party, a specifically Mormon political group in Utah, and they pledged not to vote as a unit in Idaho, which helped persuade the authorities there to restore Mormon liberties. Conventional Christians continued to regard the church with suspicion, but in the culture wars of the late 20th century they often found themselves fighting alongside the Latter-day Saints. “These people had never been in the same room before,” the anti-feminist activist Phyllis Schlafly told Richard Viguerie and David Franke in their 2004 book America’s Right Turn. “I’d say, ‘Now, the person sitting next to you might not be “saved,” but we’re all going to work together to stop [the Equal Rights Amendment].’ Getting the Baptists and the Catholics to work together, and getting them all to work with the Mormons—this was something!” But work together they did, because a socially conservative Catholic or Protestant ultimately had more in common with a socially conservative Mormon than either did with the secular world or with the religious left.
Today, 128 years after Idaho barred Mormons from holding office, a Mormon bishop has a substantial chance of becoming the next president of the United States. And while his candidacy has dragged the anti-Mormons out of the woodwork, their angry rhetoric may be a sign of frustrated impotence, not power.
Just look at Robert Jeffress, who in April endorsed the Romney campaign. The pastor explained his decision by quoting a friend: “Jesus isn’t on the ballot this year, so we have to make choices.” That’s the same Robert Jeffress who embarrassed Rick Perry last year by describing Romney’s faith as a “cult.” Evidently he can overlook a little cultism when the alternative is another four years of Barack Obama.
Senior Editor Jesse Walker is writing a history of American political paranoia for HarperCollins.