(Note: This article was written long before the issue of same-sex marriage and California’s Proposition 8. The animosity and rancor against the church that has emerged may be the issue that this article discusses. Every Latter-day Saint should know where this may lead and what its effects might be on them, personally.)
Latter-day Saints are justifiably pleased with the exceptional growth of the church in the last five decades. Most members see it as confirmation of the fact that this is the true church, restored in fulfillment of scriptural promises that the gospel will be taken to the four corners of the earth.
Ever since President David O. McKay instigated the “Every Member A Missionary” program in the early 1960s when there were about 2 million members, the church has experienced remarkable growth. Today, almost 50 years later, there are more than 13 million members worldwide. At its present rate of growth, the church adds about 1 million members every three years.
While the goal of carrying the message of the restoration to the world is a laudable one, it may come with a mixed blessing. Insightful students of church history know that exceptional growth comes with a caveat — one that Latter-day Saints would do well to recognize.
Consider a lesson from the past.
There was another time, in the early days of the church, when the membership rolls swelled rapidly. While the Saints rejoiced in the successful proselytism, one of the consequences was not a happy one, as history testifies. In order to see how that experience might apply to us, it may be instructive to review the events and conditions that contributed to the ultimate persecution and expulsion of the Saints from Nauvoo.
From the outset, the Saints had been well received by Illinois residents. Politicians, especially, were eager to court the Mormon vote. Since they tended to vote as a block, the political party that could please the Mormon leadership believed they would have the Mormon vote.
The resulting competition among Illinois politicians resulted in some rather remarkable benefits for the Saints. For example, the Nauvoo city charter, granted by the Illinois legislature in Springfield, gave the city the power to muster a city militia — an unprecedented concession that was probably extra-constitutional, according to Elder Dallin Oakes. Nevertheless, it was granted with little political opposition since Mormons were seen as an asset to the state, one to be cultivated and developed.
So to begin with, everything was rosy for the Saints of Nauvoo. Assistance and acceptance from pleasant Illinois neighbors seemed to come from every hand, in stark contrast to the rejection they had earlier suffered at the hands of Missourians.
The new city soon experienced exceptional growth as the highly successful missionary work by the apostles in England sent converts by the boatload to the small Illinois settlement. The influx of converts overwhelmed the burgeoning frontier city. Joseph Smith and the brethren were hard put to find room for all of them.
Nauvoo eventually became more populous than Chicago. At about the same time, Mormons began to field their own candidates for office. Joseph Smith himself ran for the office of U.S. President.
The Illinois’ political establishment became alarmed at this turn of events. Neither party could any longer count on the Saints’ vote. They began to worry that the Mormons, rather than being a minority voting block, would become the new political power brokers in the state. This, they likely felt, was intolerable. Something had to be done.
As Nauvoo, the beautiful city by the Mississippi, grew, so did tensions between the Saints and their neighbors. History was repeating itself. Every time the Prophet and his people established roots — New York, Kirtland, Jackson County and now Nauvoo — they were ultimately despised, hated and ejected by their neighbors.
Of course, every Mormon knows the tragedy at the heart of this story. The friendly attitude of neighbors vanished and antagonism flourished. Governor Ford was unwilling to address the Mormons’ complaints. He was even intimately involved in the questionable arrest of the Prophet and the political and military maneuvering that ultimately resulted in his imprisonment and martyrdom.
The eventual outcome was the expulsion of the saints from Illinois. Once again, they lost their lands, their homes and most of their personal belongings. Thus dispossessed, they began the epic march west under the able and inspired direction of President Young.
Then and now
Similarities between those events and conditions and those we see today are remarkable, as evidenced by the following:
In 1992, a book entitled The American Religion by Harold Bloom, a literary and religion critic, examined Mormonism along with several other uniquely American religions. His analysis of modern Mormonism and its potential future have ominous echoes of the early Nauvoo era, forebodings of which every Latter-day Saint should take heed.
Bloom clearly admires Joseph Smith for the unique religion he founded, calling him “a religious genius.” Among many interesting observations, Bloom has some relevant things to say about the recent growth of the church.
He summarizes what the future might bring for the church.
The nation will not always be only two percent Mormon. The Saints outlive the rest of us, have more children than all but a few American groups, and convert on a grand scale, both here and abroad. I do not know what figures they project for their increase, in the next generation, but my own guess is that by the year 2020 (when I will not be here), they could well form at least ten percent of our population, and probably rather more than that. Their future is immense … Salt Lake City may yet become the religious capital of the United States. (The American Religion, p.113.)
Given its presently ever-increasing conversion rates in the Western United States, Bloom envisions a time when Mormonism will become the dominant religion of the region. “The more deeply I study the Mormons and meditate upon their peculiar appropriateness for the American spiritual climate, the more I become convinced that someday soon they will be the Established Church of the American West.”
While Mormons may not be willing to make such grandiose claims themselves, Bloom clearly feels that the church will continue to experience unprecedented growth in this new century.
Still, the news is not all good. Like our predecessors in Nauvoo, remarkable growth may cause renewed resentment toward the church and its members by our fellow Americans. Bloom presages the reaction that may emerge in America to the growing LDS population when he asks,
What would the Mormons wish to do if the United States ever has so large a Mormon population, and so wealthy a consolidation of Mormon economic power, that governing our democracy became impossible without Mormon cooperation? (Ibid., p. 90.)
This question has distinct similarities with the question Illinois politicians and power brokers of the 1840s must have asked about the mushrooming Mormon population. They most certainly felt that they were about to lose control of their own state to the Mormons. Power and wealth were at stake. Illinois’ movers and shakers were fearful of losing it to the Mormons. Surely they questioned what changes Mormons might seek to impose on the general populace if they gained political and economic control of the state. No wonder nearly all elements of frontier American society combined in an unholy conspiracy to drive Mormons from their midst. Growing Mormon political influence threatened to depose and dispossess the existing power structure.
One wonders, given the deaf ear the U.S. government turned on the Mormon issue at that time, if the concerns of Illinois were not also those of Washington as well. In all probability, Joseph Smith’s candidacy for the U.S. presidency was a wake up call to politicians and power brokers at the national level. Seeing the events in Illinois and given the grass-roots interest in the candidacy of the Mormon prophet, they could not help but fear a repeat of frontier events on a national scale. Such a blatant power grab could not be tolerated. Hence, officials at the national level turned a blind eye to events in Illinois, allowing the locals do their dirty work.
As with the Nauvoo saints, today’s church has more political influence in the nation than its membership would seem to indicate. Bloom recognizes that reality. “Mormon financial and political power is exerted in Washington to a degree far beyond what one would expect from one voter in fifty.”
While present speculation is still muted, at its present rate of growth the church will surely begin to experience increasing resistance from various quarters of American society: other denominations, political parties and candidates, and ultimately from the government itself as it is the only entity powerful enough to be used as a tool of retribution against the saints. Recall that it was the Illinois state government, using the power of law, which brought about the imprisonment and execution of Joseph Smith. Never mind that the charges, the behavior of officials and the entire process smacked of impropriety if not illegality. The Mormons and their prophet were a perceived threat that must be eliminated at all costs. Official channels were used to give the entire expulsion process the guise of legality.
There are those who might say that such a thing could not happen in a time when such obvious prejudice and bigotry are nearly nonexistent, that the law cannot be perverted as it was on the American frontier. But those who so believe ignore the lessons of history, and are thus doomed to repeat its mistakes.
Elsewhere Bloom cogently observes, “What seems like science fiction now will not seem so in 2020, if the Mormons are then one American out of eight.” It is a question that must also arise in the minds of politicians and power brokers in modern America as Mormons continue to comprise and ever increasing percentage of the U.S. population and economy. Today we are at the two to three percent level. What might happen when we reach the ten percent level — and beyond?
This is the heart of the issue at hand. When over one-tenth of the American population is LDS, the other nine-tenths will begin to regard them as a threat in any number of ways. If Bloom is right, the exceptional growth of the church could have a solemn down side. Church members could find themselves faced with a similar predicament to that of the early Saints in Nauvoo. The commonalities between the Nauvoo experience and the present are too significant to be ignored.
Speculation on Bloom’s part is evidence of a growing concern about the ‘worldly’ influence of Mormonism rather than any concern about doctrinal issues. Yet doctrinal issues certainly played a part in the Mormon’s expulsion from Nauvoo and would likely have a role in any future clash between Mormons and their neighbors. Indeed, the combination of doctrinal issues, political influence and economic power would consolidate disparate elements of American society to create an unholy alliance that would then present a united front against the Mormons.
Such a confrontation would take the shape and form it took in the Nauvoo period, pitting the church against other American institutions, the Mormons against their fellow Americans. According to the statements in his book, Bloom believes “the twenty-first century will mark a full-scale return to the wars of religion.” Of course, that is what happened in Nauvoo — a war of religion that cost the Mormons dearly.
One must ask, where is the threshold? At what percentage of the general population do Mormons become a perceived threat? At what level does the uneasy peace between Mormonism and its American neighbors reach critical mass, the flash point that ignites general antagonism against the Saints? That is hard to say, but worth keeping in mind as we face the future.
Already other, rival religious groups in America have labeled Mormonism a “cult,” thus downgrading our status in the eyes of their membership such that persecution of Mormons and their religion becomes acceptable — even a sacred duty. In their minds, Mormons are beneath contempt. So far, the contention is only verbal and intellectual, but it could easily escalate if political or economic pressures were added to the mix. This eventuality has menacing implications in view of the Nauvoo tragedy. Religious intolerance in that instance immediately preceded political and social intolerance.
So, while conversions to the church continue apace, we may wish to consider the lessons of our own recent history and prepare ourselves for what may lie ahead. After all, persecution of the Saints has been an integral feature of every dispensation of the gospel. The 100-year window of opportunity presented by our present, peaceful coexistence with the “world” may soon be closing.
© Anthony E. Larson, 2002