By: Jacob Garrett
In 1832, when Joseph Smith was only seventeen years old, he claimed he was visited by an angel named Moroni, who led him to discover golden tablets that detailed how a lost tribe of Israel sailed to what eventually became the United States. It was this story that formed the basis for Smith’s religious opus, the Book of Mormon, and quickly drew crowds of followers to hear “a ‘powerful and provocative synthesis of biblical experience and the American dream’” (Hine and Faragher 192). As the church grew, however, Smith’s neighbors in upstate New York quickly soured on his new teachings, and harassment from rural New Yorkers forced the Mormons to flee to Ohio, searching for a place to create their own religious utopia, a place where they could become self-reliant and self-sufficient and live in accordance with the laws of their new faith. The Mormons fought long and hard for this utopian vision; however, they were not able to cope with hostility from the United States and the ensuing violence on both sides (including the destruction of Mormon towns and massacre of American settlers), as well as strong currents of isolationism, and a reliance on total hegemony. All of these are issues that have plagued utopias both real and fictional for centuries, and the Mormon utopia was no exception.
Joseph Smith and his followers were initially well-received. In addition to their settlement in Ohio, they established other towns in an effort to build a “Kingdom of God” (Hine and Faragher 192). The Mormons kept interactions with their neighbors to a minimum, living only with other Mormons and “pooling their labor and resources…distributing goods according to the needs of the people,” and creating “doctrines that placed the survival of the group above that of the individual” (Hine and Faragher 192). This system drew upon popular ideas of utopias at the time, creating a self-sufficient community in which everyone depended upon each other and goods and services were allocated evenly and fairly, rather than to whomever could afford them. Stopping short of a communist idea of utopia, though, the Mormon society still held Joseph Smith as its supreme ruler, answering to him in all matters, an idea that hearkens back to the strong leaders of Plato’s Republic. While this seemed like a perfect system to the Mormons, to those that lived around them, this “combination of economic collectivism and political authoritarianism” (Hine and Faragher 192) caused a great deal of anxiety, and the locals forced the Mormons to leave for Illinois. Smith also made polygamy an official church doctrine in 1843; conflict over this policy within the church came to a head when he ordered the destruction of presses belonging to a newspaper that preached against polygamy, for which he was sued and arrested, leading to his murder in prison in June 1844.
In the power struggle that followed, Smith’s loyal protégé Brigham Young took control, and growing conflict with the locals caused them to move once again, eventually settling on the shores of the Great Salt Lake in 1847. In the vast emptiness of the future Utah Territory, the Mormons established what amounted to an unrecognized state, with all of its residents subject to the Mormon conception of a communal religious utopia. The Mormons built mines, farmed sugar beets, and “became the owner[s] of mercantile outlets, sugar and woolen factories, and a bank and a life insurance company, as well as a major stockholder of railroads….Communitarian theology was happily wedded with economic development” (Hine and Faragher 368). This new community took the Mormons’ previous methods of administration and living and put them into practice on a grand scale, yielding surprising success. There were even plans to create a Mormon nation founded upon these principles called the State of Deseret, which would span across almost the entirety of the American West.
Even in this thriving environment, after Brigham Young became governor of the territory, the Mormons began attacking and murdering more and more American pioneers and officials that came their way. President James Buchanan eventually sent troops to deal with the Mormon state. While open warfare never erupted between the two sides, it was not enough to stop what would eventually be known as the Meadow Creek Massacre, an assault against a group of 200 American settlers from September 1 to September 11, 1857, which ended with the murder of almost everyone older than age eight (with all those younger being taken hostage and eventually recovered) (Cummins 88). After the Meadow Creek Massacre, the situation only declined for the Mormons, worsening still after Brigham Young’s death twenty years later. “In 1887 Congress turned up the heat…by passing legislation disincorporating the Mormon church, confiscating its real estate, and abolishing women’s suffrage in Utah” (Hine and Faragher 370), and three years later polygamy was struck from official doctrine. The final blow to the power of the church came with the federal government’s decision to admit Utah as a state in 1896, rendering the Mormon theocracy null and void. The Mormons’ dreams of utopia had seemed so close when they set out from New York all those years ago, but, in the end, intolerance from Americans, attacks perpetrated by both Americans and Mormons, and the forceful isolationism practiced by the Mormon communities left those dreams unfinished.
Cummins, Joseph. The World’s Bloodiest History. New York, Crestline, 2013.
Hine, Robert V. and John Mack Faragher. The American West: A New Interpretive History. New Haven, Yale University Press, 2000.