Under the banner of heav.., p.22

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, page 22

 

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith
 



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  The trial was held, regardless. On May 30, to nobody's astonishment, all nine defendants were found not guilty. Although the Mormons expected this verdict, they were nevertheless infuriated by it. An editorial in the Nauvoo paper declared, “The murderers can rest assured that their case, independent of earthly tribunals, will be tried by the Supreme Judge of the universe, who has said vengeance is mine and I will repay.”

  A month later, on the first anniversary of Joseph Smith's death, Brigham spoke bitterly of the trial verdict and proclaimed that “it belongs to God and his people to avenge the blood [of His] servants.” Toward this end, he instructed church authorities to issue a formal “Oath of Vengeance,” which was immediately made part of the temple endowment ceremony, one of the church's most sacred rituals.

  The oath required Mormons to pledge, “I will pray, and never cease to pray, and never cease to importune high heaven to avenge the blood of the Prophets on this nation, and I will teach this to my children, and my children's children unto the third and fourth generations.” This solemn vow to take vengeance was recited by every Latter-day Saint who participated in the standard temple ritual until it was removed from the endowment ceremony in 1927, after the oath was leaked to the non-Mormon press, sparking an outcry from politicians and the Gentile public that it was treasonous.

  In the months following Joseph's murder, most residents of Nauvoo didn't need any prodding to seek revenge against Gentiles. Ever since the assassination, non-Mormons had stepped up their violent campaign to drive the Saints from Hancock County. Emboldened by the acquittal of Joseph's killers, throughout the summer of 1845 anti-Mormon vigilantes led by Levi Williams (the primary defendant in the murder trial) roamed the county setting fire to Mormon homes and farms. By September 15, 1845, forty-four Mormon residences had been burned to the ground.

  On September 16, Porter Rockwell was on his way to help a Mormon family salvage possessions from the ruins of one such incinerated home when he chanced upon Lieutenant Frank Worrell of the Carthage Greys—the same man who had been in charge of guarding the jail on the evening Joseph was murdered. Worrell had commanded the militiamen who'd conspired to fire blank cartridges at the approaching mob and had then stepped aside so the vigilantes could assassinate the prophet without impediment. When Rockwell encountered Worrell on that September afternoon, the latter was on horseback, chasing a local sheriff who'd had the temerity to express sympathy for the Mormons. As Worrell galloped after the terrified sheriff, Rockwell fired a rifle ball into Worrell's gut. The victim “jumped four feet in the air,” said a witness to the shooting, “and rolled away from his horse dead.”

  The killing of Worrell significantly worsened relations between the Saints and their adversaries. A few days later, a band of Mormons captured a youthful Gentile man named McBracking, whom they suspected of burning Mormon homes. McBracking begged for his life, but the Saints weren't in a forgiving mood. They castrated him, cut his throat, sliced off one of his ears, and shot him two or three times. As Joseph had preached three years earlier, some sins were so heinous that the only way the guilty party could atone for them was to “spill his blood upon the ground, and let the smoke thereof ascend up to God.”

  By now passions were at flash point on both sides of the conflict. Posses of enraged Mormons and Gentiles ranged back and forth across the county in a rampage of arson and plunder, burning more than two hundred homes. Worried that Hancock County was again on the brink of full-blown civil war, Governor Thomas Ford dispatched four hundred troops to Nauvoo, along with a committee of respected dignitaries (including renowned statesman Stephen A. Douglas) who were implored to negotiate a lasting solution to the hostilities.

  It had become clear to Brigham that there was no future for the Saints anywhere near Hancock County. On September 24 he sent a letter to Governor Ford's blue-ribbon committee saying that in return for a cease-fire from the Gentiles, the Mormons would promise to vacate not only Illinois but the whole of the United States: they would depart the following spring, as soon as the prairie grass along their intended route west was high enough to provide forage for their beasts of burden. The Gentiles agreed to the deal on the first of October, giving the Saints a window of relative peace in which to build wagons and stockpile supplies in preparation for their mass evacuation.

  For the Saints' next homeland, Brigham Young wanted to find a place that was both a long way from civilization and would seem repugnant to Gentile settlers, so that his people might live free from persecution. After considering Oregon, California, and Canada's Vancouver Island, he and his counselors decided the Saints would make their final stand amid the sparsely inhabited deserts of the Great Basin, which at the time belonged to Mexico.

  The Saints didn't intend to abandon the City of Joseph until the weather warmed, but when news arrived that a warrant had been issued for Brigham's arrest on charges of harboring counterfeiters, an earlier departure suddenly seemed like a good idea.* On February 4, 1846, the first platoon of Mormon emigrants boarded flatboats at the Nauvoo dock, rowed west across the dark, near-freezing waters of the Mississippi River, and clambered uncertainly onto the Iowa shore, which was still in the iron grip of winter. The great exodus was launched.

  Disillusioned by Joseph's murder, as well as by disturbing rumors of clandestine debaucheries practiced by their leaders, hundreds of Mormons had split away from the church in the preceding months.* But the overwhelming majority loaded up whatever possessions would fit into their wagons, abandoned the rest to their enemies, and followed Brigham into the wilderness. By May of that year more than six thousand Saints were plodding westward through the axle-deep spring mud, drawn by the promise of Zion.

  The thirteen-hundred-mile emigration from Nauvoo was a grueling trial. On the journey west they were plagued with frostbite, diphtheria, scurvy, starvation, stillborn babies, tick fever, hostile Gentiles, and an epidemic of whooping cough that killed dozens of young children. More than six hundred Saints perished during that first grim winter. But Brigham proved to be a masterful manager of men, and he possessed a formidable will. On July 21, 1847, an advance party crested a ridge and caught the Saints' first glimpse of “the valley where the broad waters of the Great Salt Lake glistened in the sunbeams.” The next morning this group, with scout Porter Rockwell leading the way, descended the western slope of the Wasatch down what is now called Emigration Canyon. At its mouth they emerged into the Saints' new Zion, near the southern end of the vast body of water they had spied earlier that day—a lake with no outlet, and saltier than the Pacific Ocean.

  Although most of this bottomland was a relentlessly barren desert, along its eastern margin flowed streams of sweet, crystalline snowmelt that rushed down from the Wasatch Range through all seasons. These imposing granite mountains, moreover, served as a natural barrier that would help keep the godless at bay. All things considered, the Great Salt Lake Valley struck the scouting party as a fine site on which to erect a capital city for the Kingdom of God on earth. After conducting a two-hour tour of the immediate environs, they rode back up Emigration Canyon to share the joyous news with Brigham and their brethren.

  Brigham, weak and aching from tick fever, arrived in the valley with the main company of Saints on July 24, 1847, the date now venerated throughout Mormondom as Pioneer Day (and the holiday Ron Lafferty would choose, 137 years later, on which to fulfill his removal revelation). Before the sun had set that first evening, they had planted a crop of potatoes and diverted the waters of City Creek to irrigate them. A stone's throw from the creek they began laying the foundation for a temple, at the center of what would become Salt Lake City. The long, seventeen-year journey from Palmyra was over. The Mormons had finally found their home.

  Many had died en route. But those who survived the hardships and completed the exodus were more devoted to the church than ever. The wafflers and whiners, the doubters, the malcontents—those of weak faith—had been filtered out by the myriad trials of the preceding years, leaving behind the true
st of the true believers. The grueling emigration from Nauvoo, on top of the violence directed at them in Missouri and Illinois, had forged an exceptional bond among the first waves of Saints to arrive in Utah. Adversity had welded them into a close-knit tribe whose loyalty to their leader, Brigham Young, was unconditional. They would do whatever he asked of them.

  When the first wagon trains left Nauvoo in the bitter days of February 1846, only a handful of the emigrants knew anything about the doctrine of plural marriage, or that it was already being practiced by their leaders. Nine miles beyond the western banks of the Mississippi, safely beyond the reach of the murderous vigilantes who roamed the Illinois shore, the Saints paused to regroup at Sugar Creek, Iowa, before continuing their trek to the Rocky Mountains. And there, in that snowbound camp, the sacred secret of polygamy was first shared openly with the rank and file.

  To the world beyond the confines of their tribe, however, Brigham Young and his counselors vigorously denied that Mormons engaged in polygamy. And they would continue to deny it for years to come, even after the Mormons were established in the Great Salt Lake Valley. Historian D. Michael Quinn refers to the Saints' bald-faced dissembling as “theocratic ethics.” The Mormons called it “Lying for the Lord.”*

  Their decision to keep polygamy in the closet was made necessary by the rapidly expanding boundaries of the American empire. After two decades of the Saints' difficult and often vicious relations with the United States, Brigham had moved his people outside the national borders to escape the strife. But scarcely a year after they landed in Utah, the American republic followed the Saints west and took possession of their new Zion. The Mormon homeland was annexed to the United States following the conclusion of the war with Mexico, as part of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

  This development greatly complicated Brigham's plan to establish a theocratic kingdom unfettered by Gentile laws. And the Saints' grand dream of dominion over a vast chunk of the Great Basin was further imperiled when gold was discovered in California, prompting swarms of Gentile prospectors to stream through Salt Lake City, which became a crucial way station on the shortest route to the gold fields. The gold rush did have an upside; as the only game in town, Brigham was able to extort exorbitant prices from the Gentiles for provisions they needed to complete the long journey to California, giving the Saints desperately needed capital.

  Following the annexation of Utah Territory by the United States, Brigham—ever the pragmatist—proclaimed the Mormons' allegiance to the American republic, then promptly petitioned Washington for statehood, which he considered the best way for the Saints to secure some measure of sovereignty. After all that had happened in Nauvoo, however, officials in Washington were leery of giving Brigham autonomy. So the Mormons were granted territorial status for their homeland instead of statehood, which allowed Washington, in theory, to keep the Latter-day Saints on a much tighter leash. Utah Territory was formally established on September 9, 1850, with Brigham appointed governor.*

  On February 4, 1851, the new governor finally felt secure enough about the Saints' prospects to come clean about the number of wives he had. “I have many,” he boasted during an address to the territorial legislature, “and I am not ashamed to have it known.”* It was his first public admission that Mormons practiced polygamy. A year later, he decided it was time to announce the “peculiar doctrine” to an even wider audience. On August 29, 1852, at a churchwide assembly in Salt Lake City, he told of Joseph Smith's 1843 revelation concerning “celestial marriage,” predicting that one day it would be “fostered and believed in by the more intelligent portions of the world, as one of the best doctrines ever proclaimed to any people.”

  The cat was out of the bag. To Brigham's dismay, very quickly it proved to be a public-relations disaster for the Mormon Church. In France and England, recently converted Mormons were shocked and appalled by the revelation. The once-robust flow of fresh converts from Europe to Utah slowed to a trickle. A missionary reported that 1,776 British Saints abandoned the church during the six months following the 1852 announcement.

  Most of the Utah Mormons, on the other hand, were amenable to the idea of plural marriage once it was made known to them. Although polygamy was never practiced by more than a minority of Saints, it would have been hard to find many inhabitants of Deseret in the mid-1850s who didn't consider plural marriage a lofty ideal to which all righteous men and women should aspire. By 1855, polygamy was not only being practiced openly, it was being urged on the faithful with an unrelentingly hard sell that included dire warnings to the recalcitrant. “If any of you will deny the plurality of wives, and continue to do so,” Brigham threatened, “I promise that you will be damned.”

  This adamant promotion of polygamy grew out of a white-hot burst of religious fanaticism known as the Mormon Reformation, which peaked in the years 1856 and 1857. As Will Bagley observed in his provocative, meticulously researched history Blood of the Prophets, “Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the Reformation was the Mormon leadership's obsession with blood. . . . Joseph Smith taught that certain grievous sins put sinners ‘beyond the reach of the atoning blood of Christ.' Their ‘only hope [was] to have their own blood shed to atone.' . . . Of all the beliefs that laid the foundation of Utah's culture of violence, none would have more devastating consequences.”

  The Reformation was spearheaded by the God-besotted Jedidiah Grant, Brigham's immensely popular second counselor, whom the Saints affectionately called “Jeddy, Brigham's Sledge Hammer.” Grant explained to the Lord's chosen that they had the “right to kill a sinner to save him, when he commits those crimes that can only be atoned for by shedding his blood.” In September 1856 he sermonized that there were sinners even then in their midst who needed “to have their blood shed, for water will not do, their sins are of too deep a dye.”

  Grant preached as fervently about the Saints' duty to marry profusely as he did about blood atonement, and his aggressive campaign on behalf of plural marriage achieved the desired effect. Mormon men started taking on wives at a frantic rate. Apostle Wilford Woodruff observed in 1856, “All are trying to get wives, until there is hardly a girl fourteen years old in Utah, but what is married, or is just going to be.”

  The Saints readily accepted their prophet's avowal that plural marriage was a divinely ordained and crucially important doctrine. But Brigham had badly miscalculated how the rest of the republic would react to the Mormons' embrace of polygamy. After the sacred doctrine became known outside of Utah, a nearly hysterical barrage of condemnation rained down on the Saints from afar—a barrage that would continue unabated for half a century.

  Most Americans considered polygamy to be morally repugnant, even as they were secretly fascinated by it. These remarks from Congressman John Alexander McLernand of Illinois, speaking before the U.S. House of Representatives, are a fair characterization of the Gentile reaction to the Mormon doctrine: “As to polygamy, I charge it to be a crying evil; sapping not only the physical constitution of the people practicing it, dwarfing their physical proportions and emasculating their energies, but at the same time perverting the social virtues, and vitiating the morals of its victims. . . . It is a scarlet whore. It is a reproach to the Christian civilization, and deserves to be blotted out.”*

  Brigham rebutted such criticism, at least on some occasions, with the counterintuitive argument that plural marriage was actually an antidote to immorality, because men with a multitude of wives wouldn't be tempted to engage in adulterous liaisons or visit prostitutes. Other times he maintained that polygamy actually had nothing to do with sexual gratification whatsoever: “God never introduced the Patriarchal order of marriage with a view to please man in his carnal desires,” Brigham insisted. “He introduced it for the express purpose of raising up to His name a royal Priesthood, a peculiar people.” The Mormon leader insisted, as well, that the marital customs of the Saints were a religious freedom protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The rest of the country, he t
hundered, had no right to require the residents of Deseret to abandon one of their most sacred religious doctrines: “If we introduce the practice of polygamy it is not their prerogative to meddle with it.”

  The fact that polygamy was a felony everywhere else in the Union did not impress Brigham. In his view the laws of God took precedence over the laws of men—particularly the laws of Gentile men. To this end, in Deseret the Saints installed a legal system of their own singular design, which very cleverly ensured that whenever the two bodies of law clashed, God's laws would prevail.

  Because Utah remained a territory rather than a state, legal power was supposed to reside in the federal courts. The Utah Territorial Legislature, dominated by Mormons, got around this insufferable insult by radically expanding the powers of the local probate courts, which Brigham controlled, thereby usurping the jurisdiction of the federal government. Most probate judges were Mormon bishops, and the juries who assembled in their courtrooms were made up almost entirely of good Mormons who obediently based their verdicts on instructions received from church leaders.

  Federal officials dispatched to Utah to ride herd over the Saints were aghast by what they witnessed, and complained to their superiors in Washington that Brigham had transformed the territory into a theocratic dictatorship. But the majority of these Gentile officials (many of whom were corrupt to the core and had come to Utah intending to enrich themselves on graft) faced such unrelenting harassment that all but two of them eventually fled Utah altogether, fearing that if they stayed they would receive an unannounced visit from Porter Rockwell and turn up dead—which, in fact, happened to an undocumented number of federal agents.

 

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