Mormons believe in being good citizens, and Doctrine and Covenants Gospel Doctrine lesson #44 discusses a little how that is supposed to work. We are supposed to participate, obey the law and to serve others in our communities. But are there limits on this responsibility? How much should we give to our communities? Are there limits on the sacrifice we should make? Things we should not do?
In the following poem, Eliza R. Snow lauds those who serve the Nauvoo community, in response to a very real need at the time: defense against mob violence. And some of the Nauvoo community ended up sacrificing their lives for the city.
This is one of the large corpus of poems by Mormonism’s best known poet, Eliza R. Snow, who was a plural wife to both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young and was the second General President of the Relief Society. Selections of her poetry are found in a two-volume work she compiled, Poems, Religious, Historical, and Political, which was published in 1856 and 1877. Ten of her poems are currently in the LDS hymnal, and several others once were in editions of the LDS hymnal, but have since been dropped. She is the first LDS poet to have her complete work collected (Eliza R Snow: The Complete Poetry).
The Nauvoo Legion
By Eliza R. Snow
- The firm heart of the Sage and the Patriot is warm’d
- By the grand “Nauvoo Legion:” The “Legion” is form’d
- To oppose vile oppression, and nobly to stand
- In defence of the honor, and laws of the land.
- Base, illegal proscribers may tremble–tis right
- That the lawless aggressor should shrink with affright,
- From a band that’s united fell mobbers to chase,
- And protect our lov’d country from utter disgrace.
- Fair Columbia! rejoice! look away to the West,
- To thy own Illinois, where the saints have found rest:
- See a phœnix come forth from the graves of the just,
- Whom Missouri’s oppressors laid low in the dust:
- See a phœnix–a “Legion”–a warm hearted band,
- Who, unmov’d, to thy basis of freedom will stand.
- When the day of vexation rolls fearfully on–
- When thy children turn traitors–when safety is gone–
- When peace in thy borders, no longer is found–
- When the fierce battles rage, and the war-trumpets sound;
- Here, here are thy warriors–a true hearted band,
- To their country’s best int’rest forever will stand;
- For then to thy standard, the “Legion” will be
- A strong bulwark of Freedom–of pure Liberty.
- Here’s the silver-hair’d vet’ran, who suffer’d to gain
- That Freedom he now volunteers to maintain:
- The brave, gallant young soldier–the patriot is here
- With his sword and his buckle, his helmet and spear;
- And the horseman whose steed proudly steps to the sound
- Of the soul-stirring music that’s moving around;
- And here, too, is the orphan, whose spirit grows brave
- At the mention of “Boggs,” and his own father’s grave;
- Yes, and bold hearted Chieftains as ever drew breath,
- Who are fearless of danger–regardless of death;
- Who’ve decreed in the name of the Ruler on high
- That the Laws shall be honor’d–that treason shall die.
- Should they need re-enforcements, those rights to secure,
- Which our forefathers purchas’d; and Freedom ensure.
- There is still in reserve a strong Cohort above;
- “Lo! the chariots of Israel and horsemen thereof.”
Times and Seasons, 1 July 1841
Like Snow in the poem above (written just a few months after the Legion was formed), we rightly honor those who are asked or required1 to put their lives at risk for our defense. And as a result of that honor, it is easy to see being willing to perform military service in times of danger as a necessary element of being a good citizen. And I think the potential danger leads most of us to appreciate military service even when there is no danger at the moment. But when we look beyond that service, to other types of participation in government and community, it is often hard to find that respect. And when it comes to things like politics, honor is more often than not replaced with repugnance and even hate.
I’m not sure that these attitudes toward government service are best for those who would be good citizens. Building a community and running a government requires the participation of all citizens, and it doesn’t seem to me that harshly criticizing the participation of others helps, especially if it leads to less participation.
The situation in early Nauvoo may even provide a starting point for discussing how to be a good citizen. The Mormons there were building a city from scratch, developing new laws under a liberal new charter that allowed them great freedom. They had enemies that they needed to deal with (which is why the Legion was created), and had to figure out what each citizen would do to participate in the new city. They were both acting in response to the difficulties in Missouri and acting proactively, creating what they would need in Illinois. To a degree the city worked very well. But it was also torn apart just three years later in civil strife.
I wonder what kind of good citizens Nauvoo needed.