Going on the Offensive

Mormon readers may be familiar with Sidney Rigdon’s famous “Salt Sermon” and his subsequent oration of July 4, 1838, given in Far West, Missouri. Perhaps some background is necessary. In 1831, a group of Mormons from New York, had arrived in Ohio (then the headquarters of the newly established Church of Christ), where they had been promised land on which to live. But the donor of the land, Leman Copley, reneged on his promise, and Joseph Smith told these church members they were to proceed to Missouri, which God had prepared as a refuge from their enemies and a land of their inheritance (see D&C 52:3-5, 42-43; 54:1-10). Further revelations from Joseph Smith indicated that the Mormon settlements in Jackson County, Missouri, would eventually become the New Jerusalem spoken of in the Bible, where the Savior would return to rule His kingdom (see D&C 57:1-5).

From the time the Mormons arrived in Missouri in June 1831, hostilities grew between them and their non-Mormon neighbors, who apparently became concerned at the influx of over 1200 LDS immigrants by the summer of 1833. As a BYU summary notes, “It did not help that some [LDS] members unwisely boasted that nonmembers would be driven from the county.” Mob violence soon erupted. “Under duress, Church leaders signed an agreement to vacate Jackson County…. When the old settlers saw that the Saints intended not to depart immediately but to hold their ground and defend themselves, they resumed acts of violence. After small battles erupted and led to several fatalities, the local militia succeeded in disarming the Mormons and driving them from Jackson County in early November.”

After an abortive military mission to regain the Saints’ lost land and property, church members relocated to communities farther north and east in Clay County, where they expected to stay temporarily until a more permanent settlement could be found. By 1836, large numbers of Mormons had gathered to Clay County, and once again the Mormons were told they were not welcome. The legislature created a new county, Caldwell, expressly for the settlement of the Mormons, and the Mormons began leaving Clay County in early 1837. By March of 1838, Joseph Smith had declared the settlement of Far West, in Caldwell County, the headquarters of the church, and the town’s population reached 5,000 that summer. Soon Mormons were streaming into other northern counties, and once again tensions grew with their suspicious neighbors. At the same time, financial setbacks among Mormons in Ohio and Missouri led to the emergence of dissenters within the church, who “stirred up trouble among the Saints through the first half of 1838.”

All this time, church members had not responded in kind to the violence aimed at them, but this time would be different. In mid-June, church leader Sidney Rigdon “publicly threatened [Mormon] dissenters in his June ‘Salt Sermon,’ intimating that they should leave Far West or harm would befall them. News of this threat reinforced anti-Mormon hostility throughout Missouri.” A few weeks later, on July 4, Rigdon signaled that the Mormons would bear no more oppression from their neighbors:

We take God and all the holy angels to witness this day, that we warn all men in the name of Jesus Christ, to come on us no more forever. For from this hour, we will bear it no more, our rights shall no more be trampled on with impunity. The man or the set of men, who attempts it, does it at the expense of their lives. And that mob that comes on us to disturb us; it shall be between us and them a war of extermination; for we will follow them till the last drop of their blood is spilled, or else they will have to exterminate us: for we will carry the seat of war to their own houses, and their own families, and one party or the other shall be utterly destroyed.—Remember it then all MEN.

We will never be the aggressors, we will infringe on the rights of no people; but shall stand for our own until death. We claim our own rights, and are willing that all others shall enjoy theirs.

No man shall be at liberty to come into our streets, to threaten us with mobs, for if he does, he shall atone for it before he leaves the place, neither shall he be at liberty, to vilify and slander any of us, for suffer it we will not in this place.

After some Mormons were forcibly prevented from voting on election day, August 6, in Gallatin, Missouri, over 100 armed Mormon men surrounded the home of a local judge and compelled him, the local sheriff, and several prominent citizens to sign a pledge that they would not “molest” the Mormons. Meanwhile, the citizens of Carroll County voted that same day to expel Mormon settlers from their county. Armed mobs soon began burning Mormon homes and farms, and by October 1, they had laid siege to the Mormon town of De Witt. Two days later, the Mormons surrendered the town and began the march to Caldwell County; several Mormon women and children died of exposure and illness as a result. LDS historian Alex Baugh describes what happened next:

Following the dislocation of the De Witt Saints, Missouri assailants continued to extend their threats against Latter-day Saints residing in Daviess County. But on this occasion. Church leaders decided to take decisive action to disperse their antagonists by removing the remaining handful of non-Mormons who continued to reside in Mormon-dominated Daviess County. They justified such aggressive actions because they clearly felt they had been pushed around long enough, and if they were forced to leave Carroll County, they should be entitled to occupy both Caldwell and Daviess counties exclusively. …

During the hours just before dawn on Thursday, 25 October 1838, a contingency of Mormon Caldwell County militia engaged in armed conflict on the Crooked River, situated in northern Ray County, with the Ray militia under the command of Samuel Bogart, a Methodist minister. This skirmish, later known as the Battle of Crooked River, resulted in a dozen wounded and the deaths of three members of the Caldwell company—including the Mormon commander Apostle David W. Patten—and one member of the Ray company. Although casualties were limited, a broader examination of the conflict indicates the battle fueled the civil strife between the Mormons and the Missourians during the fall of 1838, and consequently was a leading factor in bringing about the forced expulsion of the Latter-day Saints from the state. [Alex L. Baugh, “The Battle Between Mormon and Missouri Militia,” Arnold Garr and Clark Johnson, eds., BYU Regional Studies in Latter-day Saint Church History, Missouri (Provo, UT: Department of Church History and Doctrine, BYU University, 1994), 85-86]

The decision of the Mormon leaders to go on the offensive against the mob, while completely understandable, led to the Mormons being seen as the aggressors, not the victims of the violence. Reports of the battle at Crooked River reached the governor, who was already hostile to the Mormons, indicating that Bogard’s militia had been completely slaughtered by the Mormons. Boggs, accepting at face value that the Mormons were “in the attitude of an open and avowed defiance of the laws, and of having made war upon the people of this state,” issued the infamous Extermination Order instructing that “the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace–their outrages are beyond all description.” By the spring of 1839, virtually all members of the LDS church had been forcibly expelled from the state.

Why do I tell this story? It’s a great illustration of my belief that, when tensions are escalating and emotions are running high, it is always best to try and defuse the situation, rather than responding in kind to attacks. Before someone points out that I’m being hypocritical, I will just say that I recognize that I don’t always follow my own beliefs, though I try. Every time I have let my emotions get the best of me and responded angrily or harshly to criticism, I have made the situation worse, and it has often come back to bite me. Would things have been better in Missouri had the Mormons not gone on the offensive? It’s difficult to say, but it is hard to see how it could have been worse.

Recently, Mormonism has been the focus of attention in the media and in popular culture. Two members of the LDS church are running for president of the United States, and the hottest ticket on Broadway is “The Book of Mormon (The Musical).” Some avowed enemies of the church have taken the opportunity to condemn Mormons and spread falsehoods about their beliefs and practices. Notably, Robert Jeffress, a prominent Evangelical preacher urged voters to choose a “real Christian” instead of voting for members of the Mormon “cult.” And of course, every time Mormonism is mentioned in a news item, the comments sections quickly fill with angry rants from opponents of the LDS church. For me, part of being a Mormon was expecting to be called a “deluded cultist,” “Satanist,” and “moron.” I’ve been accused of practicing black magic; engaging in orgies and human sacrifice inside our temples; and, worst of all, forbidding people to eat peanut butter. (Seriously, I’ve heard every one of these.) Most of the time, these misunderstandings come from ignorance, though sometimes they are deliberate. My response has always been to calmly and patiently explain the LDS position and correct any misinformation. It doesn’t always work, but then it’s easy to determine when you are talking to someone who refuses to listen. It doesn’t really bother me.

Although I have lost the simple faith in Mormonism I once had, I still feel it’s important to discuss Mormonism as it is, not as people want it to be. If I’m discussing LDS doctrine, I think it’s only fair to state accurately what that doctrine is. (I should say, however, that some Mormons have accused me of misrepresenting the church and its doctrines. They tell me I didn’t understand the gospel, or I’m just making things up to make the church look bad. It’s ironic, but I digress.) I try very hard to represent the LDS church accurately and fairly, but obviously, my views will always be colored by my experience. My efforts to be fair and honest have attracted criticism from some people who seem disappointed that I don’t hate the LDS church and think it is demon-spawned. An Evangelical friend once invited me to participate in a message board associated with The Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry, as he believed I might be able to help people understand what Mormons really believed; I lasted a couple of days because I was seen as “too Mormon,” “not Christian enough,” and not hostile enough to Mormon heresies. Why? Because I tried to correct some misrepresentations of Mormon beliefs. So, rather than engage in a futile and increasingly hostile exchange, I chose to withdraw. There are a lot of groups and people like CARM and the unfortunate Pastor Jeffress who seem to come out of the woodwork when Mormons are mentioned at all.

Most Mormons I know respond as I would, by trying to correct misinformation and decrease hostility. But some Mormons have decided to go on the offensive. Some groups, such as the More Good Foundation, seem motivated by the belief that church members can positively share their beliefs with others through the Internet and other media. Of course, they do actively go after critics of the church. One of their sponsored web sites describes former Mormons as “definitely not the best source for information about the Mormon religion—they often distort its teachings” and insists that “books published officially by the Church are likely to be more accurate.” I used to get regular visits to my blog from the More Good Foundation, but not so much anymore. Perhaps they’ve decided I’m not worth worrying about.

More recently, the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR) formed the Mormon Defense League, which they said would track media reports for inaccuracies about Mormonism. As the Salt Lake Tribune explains:

If the MDL notices a misstatement or mischaracterization, the group will first contact the journalist, [FAIR president Scott] Gordon said. But if a pattern of misrepresentation emerges, the defense league will “go after the writer” by posting the piece or pieces on its website (mdl.org) and pointing out the errors. (“New website to jump to Mormonism’s defense,” August 4, 2011.)

The article states that the defense league is “modeled after the Anti-Defamation League, created in 1913 “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all,” according to its website (adl.org).” However, the name evokes the more militant Jewish Defense League, founded by radical New York rabbi Meir Kahane in 1968. The JDL’s website states one of its guiding principles:

JDL upholds the principle of Barzel — iron — the need to both move to help Jews everywhere and to change the Jewish image through sacrifice and all necessary means — even strength, force and violence. The Galut image of the Jew as a weakling, as one who is easily stepped upon and who does not fight back is an image that must be changed. Not only does that image cause immediate harm to Jews but it is a self-perpetuating thing. Because a Jew runs away or because a Jew allows himself to be stepped upon, he guarantees that another Jew in the future will be attacked because of the image that he has perpetuated. JDL wants to create a physically strong, fearless and courageous Jew who fights back. We are changing an image, an image born of 2,000 years in the Galut, an image that must be buried because it has buried us. We train ourselves for the defense of Jewish lives and Jewish rights. We learn how to fight physically, for it is better to know how and not have to, than have to and not know how. (Five Principles, JDL.org)

(I should probably mention that, because I grew up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, I’ve known several members of the JDL, hence my shock that the MDL had chosen that name.) Perhaps recognizing the unwanted connotations of the name, in November 2011 the league changed its name to the far more benign sounding “Mormon Voices.” Their stated mission:

MormonVoices has been created to respond to false information put forward in the media.

The intent is to assist journalists, authors, bloggers, producers, and others in the media in getting their stories right, and to correct misinformation and distortions about Mormons, Mormonism, and other faith communities.

Reading through their web site, I was impressed that their guidelines and suggestions were reasonable and helpful, encouraging civility, and keeping the emphasis on positive ways to correct misinformation and “offer constructive suggestions in a helpful manner.” These guidelines are in keeping with recent counsel from LDS leaders about sharing beliefs online. But given the public statements and actions of some Mormon Voices members and leaders, I’m left feeling that there is a much more aggressive attitude involved.

Some of the rhetoric reflects a sort of siege mentality. FAIR president Scott Gordon, for example, stated in the BYU Daily Universe, “Mostly the critics are looking for quotes that shock and awe when they are making these stories. Their goal is to make it as negative as possible.” Clearly, that is the goal of some critics, but in my experience, they are generally the exception. When we assume that those who criticize us or our beliefs are mostly trying to attack and show us in the worst possible light, we tend to become defensive; instead of opening a dialogue, we want to shut them down. Another Mormon Voices leader stated in the same article, “A Mormon saying this is what we really believe can really discredit anything else the author has to say about us.” I don’t know if he really meant it this way, but the implication is clear: if you can show one misconception or falsehood, you can destroy the credibility of whatever else is said.

Indeed, picking one minor point in order to discredit the rest of the message seems to be a pattern among some Mormon defenders. I came across an example of this tactic the other day. Time Magazine published a former Mormon’s photos of his family and life in “Happy Valley” (the local nickname for Utah County, Utah, where I live). I thought the photos, though unconventional and seemingly mundane, were moving and evocative. I loved the unself-conscious display of what to me are obvious realities of life here in Utah: cluttered bedroom floors, “kid art” on bedroom walls, and the ubiquitous blue tarps covering stored items in the yard. The first photo hit me hard: a family sitting on a couch in the waiting room at the Mt Timpanogos Temple while their loved ones are inside being “sealed” (married for time and eternity). Behind them on the wall is a painting of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Mormons believe he took upon Him the sins of the world. The juxtaposition of the Savior atoning for our sins so that we could be clean and enter into God’s presence against the family excluded from the sacred–well, it was heartbreaking to me.

I admit that I did not read the accompanying article, which was obviously written by a non-Mormon, until after I had seen and absorbed all of the pictures. But I was taken aback by the contempt and hostility from some LDS commenters. Here are a few examples from different commenters:

I suppose the mediocrity of Mr. Shumway’s photographs would be easier to forgive if it weren’t for the intellectual pretentiousness of the accompanying article. I mean, Wow. Like, umm, he read Friedrich Nietzsche (note the correct spelling) and Jean-Paul Sartre and Erich Fromm at sixteen? So did I. In California. And now I’m a believing Mormon academic.

And no, I have never encountered a Mormon family that thought or taught that it was sinful to watch television on Sunday — “Eeek! Turn the Tabernacle Choir off! Turn general conference off! Don’t you know it’s the Sabbath?” — let alone a family that held it a sin to visit others on Sunday.

This is lame. I lived in Utah County for several years and am an amateur photographer. Real life kept me from “briefly attending” an academy of art but I’ve taken and sold enough photographs to know these photos are not good. Mr. Shumway seems to be going out of his way to paint his family as nut job white trash. These photos and his descriptions are not consistent with my personal experience with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints or life in Utah County. Really? This is what TIME holds up as art? And Mr. Shumway’s credentials are…?

To me, this kind of aggressive attack isn’t helpful and may in fact backfire. I understand that at some point, you get pushed too far. I have. A couple of years ago, a couple of LDS posters were aggressively attacking me any time I wrote anything, anywhere on the Internet. They attacked my character and integrity and made subtle hints about violence toward me. I didn’t think much of it, but eventually when the attacks kept escalating, I responded more harshly and aggressively than I should have. They seized on my response as a sign of my mental instability, paranoia, and tenuous grasp on reality. When my wife began receiving threatening emails (she is still a believing Mormon), they said I was making things up. In short, adopting a more assertive and aggressive stance accomplished nothing for me, and in fact made things worse.

We don’t live in a time when Mormons are under physical attack from roving mobs, but we can learn from the mistakes our ancestors made. I am not suggesting that the aggressive stance of some Mormons is the moral equivalent of mob violence. However, we can stand up for ourselves and for truth without hostility and aggression. And I am convinced we will all be better for it.

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One Response to Going on the Offensive

  1. tysondevereux says:

    I am new here and still a little unsure, but I thought this piece was very interesting – mainly because of the timing. Mormon411 has posted about an Atheist billboard in Utah and the negative responses it has received. However, I am not in Utah and don’t know the details, my response is that 99% of the people who pass by the billboard don’t do anything, but it is the 1% who reply with threats that gets focused on. You’re piece is the exact response needed for mormons and those opposed. 99% of us dismiss confrontation while the 1% go on the attack. Not saying we never falter and get consumed by emotions every once in a while, but the minority gets portrayed as the majority far too often. Whether we are in the right or the wrong – we do need to learn from the past and conduct ourselves a little better in times of debate and confrontation.

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