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.
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.