Readers of the Book of Mormon are likely familiar with the story of Captain Moroni and the Title of Liberty (also referred to as the Standard of Liberty).
After a period of relative peace, the Nephites were again beset by dissensions, led by one Amalickiah, who “was desirous to be king” (Alma 46:4):
10 Yea, we see that Amalickiah, because he was a man of cunning device and a man of many flattering words, that he led away the hearts of many people to do wickedly; yea, and to seek to destroy the church of God, and to destroy the foundation of liberty which God had granted unto them, or which blessing God had sent upon the face of the land for the righteous’ sake.
11 And now it came to pass that when Moroni, who was the chief commander of the armies of the Nephites, had heard of these dissensions, he was angry with Amalickiah.
12 And it came to pass that he rent his coat; and he took a piece thereof, and wrote upon it—In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children—and he fastened it upon the end of a pole.
13 And he fastened on his head-plate, and his breastplate, and his shields, and girded on his armor about his loins; and he took the pole, which had on the end thereof his rent coat, (and he called it the title of liberty) and he bowed himself to the earth, and he prayed mightily unto his God for the blessings of liberty to rest upon his brethren, so long as there should a band of Christians remain to possess the land—
After praying for God’s blessings on his efforts, Moroni used the Title of Liberty to gather forces to combat the dissenters:
19 And when Moroni had said these words, he went forth among the people, waving the rent part of his garment in the air, that all might see the writing which he had written upon the rent part, and crying with a loud voice, saying:
20 Behold, whosoever will maintain this title upon the land, let them come forth in the strength of the Lord, and enter into a covenant that they will maintain their rights, and their religion, that the Lord God may bless them.
21 And it came to pass that when Moroni had proclaimed these words, behold, the people came running together with their armor girded about their loins, rending their garments in token, or as a covenant, that they would not forsake the Lord their God; or, in other words, if they should transgress the commandments of God, or fall into transgression, and be ashamed to take upon them the name of Christ, the Lord should rend them even as they had rent their garments.
28 And now it came to pass that when Moroni had said these words he went forth, and also sent forth in all the parts of the land where there were dissensions, and gathered together all the people who were desirous to maintain their liberty, to stand against Amalickiah and those who had dissented, who were called Amalickiahites.
36 And it came to pass also, that he caused the title of liberty to be hoisted upon every tower which was in all the land, which was possessed by the Nephites; and thus Moroni planted the standard of liberty among the Nephites.
For the Nephites, then, the Title of Liberty was a powerful symbol of their desire to be free and was an effective flag around which the righteous could rally. This imagery has resonated with Mormon audiences, such that it remains a symbol of freedom. For example, a conservative blogger uses it here.
But where did this symbol originate? Tom Donofrio mentions a “liberty pole” in passing in his “Book of Mormon Tories” article about the influence of the American Revolution on the writing of the Book of Mormon:
Consider the life and times of George Washington and his counterpart, General Moroni. Both Washington and Moroni receive their commissions as young men in their twenties. Both are considered robust in stature and faithful Christians, relying on prayer and God, riding horses, brandishing swords, and wearing cloaks. When Moroni creates his “title of liberty” he places it on “a pole” and causes it to be flown throughout the land. One of Washington’s roving headquarters was the Liberty Pole Tavern. Liberty poles were popular among the colonists and an irritant to British troops.
But what was a liberty pole in the American Revolution, and what was it used for?
The liberty pole has its origins in ancient Rome, when freed slaves wore a Phrygian cap (usually red) as a symbol of their freedom.
Gradually, the cap became a more generalized emblem of freedom from tyranny. When Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, the conspirators raised a Phrygian cap on the end of a pole to show citizens that they were now free from Caesar’s tyranny.
Before and during the American Revolution, supporters of the Sons of Liberty in many American towns and cities erected “liberty poles,” which were large poles, each having a Phrygian cap on the top. These poles were used to express defiance of the British and also to call citizens together for news, planning, or armed resistance. As Donofrio mentions, these poles were “popular among the colonists and an irritant to British troops,” such that the British regularly cut down and destroyed the poles, which the colonists quickly replaced. Some cities and towns used trees as liberty poles, as described by George Henry Preble in his History of the American Flag (1872):
The old liberty tree in Boston was the largest of a grove of beautiful elms that stood in Hanover square at the corner of Orange . . . and Essex streets . . . It received the name of liberty tree, from the association called the Sons of Liberty holding their meetings under it during the summer of 1765. The ground under it was called Liberty Hall. A pole fastened to its trunk rose far above its branching top, and when a red flag was thrown to the breeze the signal was understood by the people. Here the Sons of Liberty held many notable meetings, and placards and banners were often suspended from the limbs or affixed to the tree (135).
By the end of the war, the hats were either accompanied or replaced by banners with patriotic slogans, with “Liberty” being the most common (hence the term “liberty pole”). The illustration below shows a liberty pole being raised in New York City in 1770.
Like Moroni, the American revolutionaries incorporated religious language into their slogans, believing as they did that God was on their side. An American soldier wrote in his diary in 1775, “Our standard was presented in the midst of the regiments with this inscription upon it, ‘Appeal to Heaven.’” He is referring to this flag:
The liberty pole has made its way into American culture and patriotism. Notably, several American coins until 1947 featured Liberty holding a liberty pole. To this day, the US Army’s War Office Seal depicts a Phrygian cap atop a sword.
Some cities and towns still have liberty poles or re-enact the raising of their poles each year as a reminder that liberty does not come without a cost.
Is this the origin or model for Captain Moroni’s Title of Liberty? The similarities are there, but it’s impossible to show that one symbol spawned the other. And, obviously, Moroni used torn clothing instead of a hat. But for me, this episode makes more sense now that I know its context.