A while ago I was reading some sermons from the 1880s in the Journal of Discourses. The 1880s, of course, is the decade when the anti-polygamy crusades were at their most intense. Thousands of Mormons were incarcerated, the Brethren were in hiding from the law much of the time, and every time you turned around there was a new law confiscating Mormon property or disenfranchising Mormon voters. Hence, I was surprised to come across a sermon in which George Q. Cannon spoke unironically of his admiration for George Edmunds. Edmunds was a Republican Senator from Vermont, and the chief proponent of harsher anti-Mormon legislation in Congress. Cannon noted that he disagreed with Edmunds and thought him mistaken. Nevertheless, he said in effect that he thought Edmunds an admirable man of principle. Cannon’s remarks reveal a deep double-mindedness in nineteenth-century Mormonism, a double-mindedness whose preservation surely counts as one of the triumphs of the modern Church.
To get at what I mean, think for a moment about media coverage of the FLDS. To many a non-Mormon observer the FLDS look as though they are simply a bit of nineteenth-century Mormonism that has survived into the twenty-first century. To understand what nineteenth-century Mormondom was like, they suggest, one need look no farther than the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Texas and the world of Warren Jeffs. If one takes this view, then modern Latter-day Saints are cast in an awkward light. On one hand, one can argue that the FLDS represent a kind of undiluted essence of Mormonism, and the apparently well-adjusted Latter-day Saints that one meets in the modern world are — if you scratch just below the surface — just like the FLDS. Call this the Krakauer Thesis. Alternatively, one can deny that modern Latter-day Saints are just like the FLDS by asserting that contemporary Mormonism is at some deep level inauthentic and deceptive. Only by denying its essence has Mormonism become respectable and the denial of that essence is itself a deeply suspect act. Call this the Ostling Thesis. Nor is this tendency to see in the FLDS some disturbing essence of Mormonism confined to the Gentile journalists. One sees a certain kind of Mormon sympathy if not for Jeffs, at least for those modern polygamists who see themselves as following God’s will. Alternatively, one sees Mormons troubled by the FLDS precisely because there is a certain familiarity that leads them to adopt the journalistic narrative, namely that the FLDS represent some sort of authentic core of Mormonism, a core they find disturbing.
There are a number of problems with thinking about the FLDS as a kind of essential distillation of nineteenth-century Mormonism. First, it is important to realize that the modern polygamists have an independent history of more than a century (i.e.1890/1904-2009), a history that is much longer than that they claim to share with modern Latter-day Saints (i.e. 1830-1890/1904). Chronologically they are more of their own thing than they are of our thing. Another way of putting this, is that they have been apostate from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints long enough that their history has more autonomy and idiosyncrasy than the FLDS-as-essential-Mormonism allows. No where is this seen more clearly, I think, than when it comes to the issue of double-mindedness.
President Cannon’s praise of Edmunds from the Tabernacle pulpit reveals a man who both wished to maintain the distinctiveness of his faith and his Zion and at the same time wished to reach out to embrace — and be embraced by — the broader world. Cannon did not present Edmunds as utterly Other. There was a part of the Senator from Vermont that Cannon found attractive and wished to appropriate. This double-mindedness showed up in other ways as well. For example, while it is true that a Gentile traveller making his way through a remote Mormon settlement in the last half of the nineteenth-century might find himself followed and harassed by suspicious villagers, it is also true that Mormons of that day were often eager to impress and welcome outside visitors. Brigham Young, for example, was remarkably available to virtually any journalist or even tourist who made his way through Salt Lake City, and George Q. Cannon, as Utah’s territorial delegate, was always eager to gather testimonials from Gentile visitors to Utah who has been pleasantly surprised to find that the Mormons were not the monsters that they expected.
The place were this double-mindedness was ultimately resolved theologically, of course, was in missionary work. The nineteenth-century Mormons scattered their elders as widely as they possibly could to search for converts, and then they sought to gather those converts into the new Zion. Despite all of the fortress rhetoric of nineteenth-century Mormon sermons and the xenophobia that often poisoned Mormon-Gentile relations, the Mormon Zion was not in its essence an attempt to withdraw completely from the world. It was always also a point of engagement, a hope that there were those beyond the Great Basin who could be friends, who would listen, and who might come in to enrich the kingdom. In this sense, Zion was as much about openness as it was about fortresses.
One way of understanding the painful transition from polygamy to monogamy in the years from 1890 to 1904 is to simply see it as a capitulation to overwhelming force, a repudiation of an authentic kind of Mormonism for an inauthentic kind. Certainly there is an enormous amount of truth the story of force and surrender. On the other hand, the persistence of polygamy after 1890 and 1904 suggest capitulation to monogamy was not absolutely necessary. One could hold on to polygamy, as the odyssey of twentieth-century polygamists itself shows. What was impossible was to maintain the double-mindedness of nineteenth century Mormonism. To maintain polygamy one had to give up on any open vision of Zion. One sees the result in the apostate Zion that the FLDS offer. It is striking to me that one of the absolutely central elements of nineteenth-century Mormonism — an element more fundamental even than polygamy — is ultimately missing from the world of the modern polygamists. There is no missionary work to the world. Their source of converts lies entirely within either other polygamist sects or else amongst a tiny, tiny fringe of the Church. There are no young FLDS men in white shirts thrashing the nations for the pure in heart. They maintained polygamy, but only at the cost of giving up on the tension at the heart of Mormonism.
It is with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that the essence of Mormonism — nineteenth-century and otherwise — lies. It is not just that we have keys, priesthoods, and prophets that the apostates lack. It is that they ultimately misunderstand the nineteenth-century experience of the Saints, seeing only the remote fortress against the world and never the Zion that sought to increase her borders and reach out the hand of fellowship to all those of good will whatever their creed. That last is NOT a bit of slick, modern PR.. It is a trope of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. It is part of the essence of the Restoration.