The Mormon Problem

That is what they called it. The Mormon Problem. We no longer hear the reproach, though faint echoes still reflect from the rigid walls of religion and secularism. We can no longer see ourselves as we once were, but we paid a price before accommodating and it is that price that ransoms, in me, empathy and fear.

Because they are our people, the words don’t seem so shocking, but imagine if it were not our people:

Poor rotten curses! And the President of the United States, inasmuch as he has turned against us and will take a course to persist in pleasing the ungodly curses that are howling around him for the destruction of this people, he shall be cursed, in the name of Israel’s God, and he shall not rule over this nation, because they are my brethren; but they have cast me out and cast you out; and I curse him and all his coadjutors in his cursed deeds, in the name of Jesus Christ and by the authority of the Holy Priesthood; and all Israel shall say amen.

Send 2,500 troops here, our brethren, to make a desolation of this people! God Almighty helping me, I will fight until there is not a drop of blood in my veins. Good God! I have wives enough to whip out the United States; for they will whip themselves. Amen. (1)

This was during the Mormon Reformation in 1857 and the memories of their sacrifice were still fresh. However, contention persisted through the decades and in response to the territorial prosecution of co-habitators, many in Salt Lake City flew their flags at half mast on July 4th 1885. The national media ravaged the saints in response (see here, here and here).

The following year the Century, a popular magazine in the 19th and early 20th century, featured two articles (Marriage, Divorce and the Mormon Problem and Marriage and Divorce again) that explicate the national sentiment without particularly inflamitory language. The lead article opens:

Many Americans believed in 1865 that the last of the problems had been worked out by the United States, and that the country had now no more to do than to enjoy its well-earned leisure, with none to molest or make afraid. The futility of the expectation has only become more evident with the years. (2)

The one problem that remains? Mormons. Summarily, the Mormons likely moved to Mexico to build up a population large enough to sustain a viable State. After being admitted to the Union they would use their majority sway to make polygamy legal within the state. As it is not a Federal issue, the Nation as a whole could do nothing to effect the spread of this calculated barbarism. Solution: a constitutional marriage amendment.

There are some, it is said, that do not accept as conservative an individual whose sensibilities justify rights to others which that individual believes are immoral. I don’t particularly care whether I may be considered conservative or liberal. There is, however, a strong libertarian pillar that emerges in me upon such historical reflection. We did pay a price. I am now more sensitive to similar costs with today’s problems and to the people that exact them.


  1. Heber C. Kimbal, JD vol. 5 pg. 95
  2. Millenarian allusion (Micah 4:4) is especially poignant considering the perennial frustration of the Mormon realization of the same. Compare to Messenger and Advocate vol. 2 no. 4 pg. 245. “One of the most important points in the faith of the church of the Latter Day Saints, is, through the fulness of the everlasting gospel, the gathering of Israel; the happy time when Jacob shall go up to the house of the Lord, to worship him in spirit and in truth; to live in holiness, when the Lord will restore his judges as at the first, and his councellors as at the beginning; when every man may sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there will be none to molest or make afraid;� See also Times and Seasons vol. 6 no. 23 pg. 1122 & 1130

19 comments for “The Mormon Problem

  1. Ronan
    January 25, 2006 at 3:02 pm

    Wow. Great writing, J.

  2. john fowles
    January 25, 2006 at 4:03 pm

    Even more telling, the rhetoric did not just say “The Mormon Problem.” Rather, the periodicals of the day and members of Congress, in discussing “The Mormon Problem,” were looking for what they explicitly called “The Final Solution to the Mormon Problem.” It is a shame upon the United States of America that it sought a “Final Solution” to the religious choices of a group of people. Such is history.

  3. January 25, 2006 at 4:34 pm

    J. Stapley, I don’t have anything to add, but I appreciate both the skill with which you write and the sentiment of the last paragraph.

  4. Wilfried
    January 25, 2006 at 7:01 pm

    Fascinating take, frere Stapley. But from my European perspective, less familiar with the sensitivities of the American political spectrum, I could use some more explicitation for fear of misunderstanding. How would you define your “strong libertarian pillar” in relation to the past? The price we paid, do you (also) mean by that the giving up of part of Mormonism’s identity? And could you identify the “similar costs with today’s problems and [] the people that exact them”. I am hesitant to read between the lines!

    I also wonder how you would apply your post to the position of the Church in the present international world, and in particular in countries where the church’s presence is considered “a problem”. Members abroad are supposed to be supportive of their government, but when that government considers the Mormons as a dangerous cult, what are members supposed to do?

  5. J. Stapley
    January 25, 2006 at 7:48 pm

    I have to admit that you ask very difficult questions, frere. It would be easier for you to read between the lines, I am afraid. For me, history breeds empathy. When you have been pushed around, you are more cognisant of others being pushed around and you are also distrustful of those who do the pushing. American libertarianism is something that I flirt with but am ambivalent. I don’t know how to reconcile everything.

    As for modern “problems” there are those who find such things across all belief systems. We see talk of the Arab Problem, the Fundamentalist Problem, or the SSM Problem. There are likely little “problems” that we have in our own personal world-views. The “problems” and those that exact the price the problematic pay use the same tools for their endeavors.

    As much as I might disagree with certain rhetoric employed by our people in the 19th century and as much as I might not approve of certain 19th century church policies, these are still my people, it is my story and it moves and inspires me. After being beat we should not pick up the same baton to repeat the abuse on others.

    I am also sensitive to your comment about international saints and I don’t have answers. I know why Heber said the things he said and won’t judge him. Despite being over a century after accommodation, we still have inconsistencies that are hard to reconcile. Build up Zion in inhospitable environs? Don’t gather with the Saints?

  6. January 25, 2006 at 8:31 pm

    Is this post emerging out of some context that includes previous posts? If so, then I am reading it without the benefit of that context. And I’m trying to figure out what the main point is (forgive me if that sounds blunt). I realize that on the surface you’re talking about the American (political) reaction to Mormon polygamy in the 19th century — but the main point seems to be that we should learn from this to not persecute others in some similar way. Are you referring to the persecution of gays and the push for bans against gay marriage? If so, why be so elusive and cryptic about it?

    Again, perhaps this post emerges from a context that supplies this (or some other) meaning, a context of which I am not aware and thus cannot benefit from.

    Anyway, I do agree with you that the persecuted ought to take special care to avoid becoming the persecutor. And if, by referring to a “libertarian pillar that emerges…upon such historical reflection,” you are saying that something in you rejects the intrusion of government into the marital relationship, then I can agree with that, too. I’m no libertarian, but I do believe that marriage is a religious rite, and secular law ought to have nothing to do with it, particularly where no harm is being done among consenting adults.

    I have wondered aloud in other forums, and I’ll wonder again here: Why is it that so many conservative Christians are hellbent on banning gay marriage — an act which does no harm among consenting adults — but we don’t ever hear much support for a legal ban against adultery — an act which does great harm to some, if not all, of the adults involved, as well as indirectly to any children who are a part of the scenario?

    Anyway, thanks for the thought-provoking post….

  7. January 25, 2006 at 8:33 pm

    Having been a student activist during the 60s and joining the church in the 70s I related more to the 19th century saints at first. I’ve learned to adapt, but my greater fire is with the founding fathers. You bring to light a problem which is yet to be fully reconciled. I hope to live to see the day that MLK spoke of in “I have a Dream.” Thank you for hearing the echoes.

  8. APJ
    January 26, 2006 at 12:05 am

    I am in complete agreement with Jason Steed, and, I believe, with the point of this post…

    J. Stapley, how do you reconcile your (apparent) opinion with church leadership,

    Honestly curious,

  9. J. Stapley
    January 26, 2006 at 1:08 am

    Jason, this is not a continuation of any public discourse. As I mentioned, it is a bit abstract because I don’t know how to resolve very much at all.

    APJ, I reconcile all my opinions with the church leadership the same way regardless of the time they live. I simply sustain the leaders and try to live according to my covenants.

  10. Todd
    January 26, 2006 at 1:15 am

    In response to Jason Steed – my concerns about gay marriage are the impact on the children in the marriage (regardless of the the source of said children)–in that sense, it is not just among consenting adults. The other concerns–and perhaps the concerns many conservatives have–are the broader impacts that ensue based on the legal definition of marriage. To me that’s a huge level of “legal acceptance/institutionalization” of a practice to which I believe should have no legal support–it’s a pandora’s box.
    As far as adultery not being “illegal”–well, yes, it’s not punishable by jail time – but it’s also not an act such as marraige that is accompanied by a formal legal contract. It is, however, the violation of a contract, and thus it is a valid legal reason for a divorce. For me that’s illegal enough.
    Having said all of that, I am indeed nervous about the notion of a constitutional amendment defining marriage. I would much rather see the issue handled at the state level. I just think an amendment is an out-of-context solution that may create its own problems.
    While I don’t support legal recognition of same-sex marraige, I am very concerned about anyone being deprived of their rights as citizens and their human rights in pretty much every other context.

  11. January 26, 2006 at 12:10 pm


    Did your post have any implied reference to gay marriage? I guess people can insert their problem of the day into your post.

    Is it accurate to say that in general mormons were a problem in the 19th century because they were considered to liberal. And that if there is a perceived mormon problem today in America it seems to be that mormons are to conservative?

  12. January 26, 2006 at 1:18 pm

    it is a bit abstract because I don’t know how to resolve very much at all

    What are you trying to resolve, exactly? I think that is what is unclear. I made an assumption that you were implicitly touching on the issue of gay marriage, based on your focus on the Mormon marital issue that was seen as a “problem” in the 19th c. and your suggestion that the persecuted shouldn’t become the persecutor, and the reference to extending certain rights to others even when we find the behavior to be immoral.

    Eric, I wasn’t “inserting my problem of the day” into the post. I asked openly what the post was really about, and whether it was intended to have something to do with the issue of gay marriage. I think I’ve shown clearly why I may have come to that conclusion — and if my assumptions or inferences were off base, so be it.

    Todd, a concern about the children attached to a gay marriage is not the same as a concern about gay marriage. Whether or not homosexuals should be allowed to formalize their relationship is a different question from whether or not they should be allowed to bring children into that relationship.

    Regarding the first question, it is difficult to say what harm is being done. Conservatives suggest gay marriage harms the institution of marriage in some way. I’m not sure I buy this. My temple marriage is, so far as I can tell, completely untouched by the formal recognition of hetero- and/or homosexual relationships down the street, or across town, or in another part of the nation.

    Perhaps the problem is in trying to construct marriage as an “institution.” What characteristics does marriage have that qualify it as such? Certainly marriage is a contract (a covenant); it is, as I said previously, a religious rite and/or ordinance. But how is it an institution?

    If we see it as a contract/covenant, then I’m not sure how allowing others to form a similar contract/covenant will harm my own contract/covenant. If we see it as a religious rite/ordinance, then again how is it harmed by allowing others to generate and participate in their own rites/ordinances? Let them.

    If you don’t want to call it “marriage,” fine. Call it a civil union, a relationship contract, an official household…whatever. I fail to see how their desire and decision to formalize their relationship (and, by the way, to have access to equal rights and protections) does any harm whatsoever to my covenants or to my relationship with my partner. As I said before, I’m no libertarian, but I do think gov’t should have nothing to do with religious rites/ordinances, thus should have nothing to do with marriage. But gov’t is involved in marriage, because we’ve entangled marriage with a host of legal rights and privileges that are attached to it.

    As I see it, there are two solutions (assuming we want to adhere to our belief in equal rights and protections under the Constitution). One: disentangle marriage from those rights and privileges — strip them away and get gov’t out of the marital relationship altogether. Reduce marriage to nothing more than a religious rite/ordinance that has no political/legal status (like baptism). Or, two: give equal access to those rights and privileges attached to marriage to everybody, by enabling everyone to formalize their relationship in a way that is equal to marriage, even if we don’t want to call it marriage.

    I don’t see any other alternative, unless we’re willing to give up our commitment to equal rights and protections.

  13. January 26, 2006 at 2:36 pm

    b bell,
    Yes. I am aware of this statement. Here’s the last sentence: “The Church accordingly favors measures that define marriage as the union of a man and a woman and that do not confer legal status on any other sexual relationship.”

    This is why I’ve long been in favor of option #1 (from above): namely, to strip marriage of its political/legal privileges. Give marriage back to religion. Make it like baptism, which has no legal/political status. This is the more radical solution — but I think it is the best solution, one that would dispel the “gay marriage problem” while also asserting and protecting the sanctity of the marital covenant. Divorce, too, could be removed from the legal sphere. The dissolution of a marital “contract” would become church business; the resolution of relationship disputes the business of mediators and counselors and church leaders, rather than the business of lawyers and judges.

    So long as marriage is ensnared by law and politics, we are left to favoring a particular definition of marriage and denying rights and privileges to fellow citizens. That may be in tune with the Church statement — but I think it is a much less desirable scenario, and one advocated by the Church leadership only because it would be uncharacteristic of the Church leadership to propose the more radical solution.

  14. Mark B.
    January 26, 2006 at 9:23 pm

    Off on a bit of a tangent–but, John Fowles, it is patently unfair to judge the 19th century men and women who spoke of a Final Solution of the Mormon Question in the light of those who in the 20th century sought Die Endloesung der Judenfrage.

    Reminds me of a snippy little paper I wrote for a class on the Civil War taught by Michael Quinn (his first year at BYU) in which I reviewed William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner. I entitled it “The Confessions of William Styron.” Styron made the same mistake that you seem to (at least by implication). He wrote 20th century experience and thought into a 19th century historical fiction. Fiction, indeed.

  15. Seth Rogers
    January 28, 2006 at 2:21 pm

    It’s simple schoolyard playground dynamics here.

    Once a child who is a member of the downtrodden caste is admitted into the “in-crowd,” he often immediately joins with his new friends and starts picking on the other “unpopular kids” (of whom he used to be a part, and some of whom used to be his friends).

    You see this impulse in early twentieth century Mormonism’s attacks on the Catholic religion (it should be noted that Catholic scholars did the same thing to us for similar reasons). You also see it in late twentieth century Mormonism’s currying favor with the Republicans. In each case, our people sought to convince those who represented the “in-crowd” that we were “just one of the boys.”

    And now, forgive me. For I am about to introduce a couple silly analogies.

    I shall invoke “The Sound of Music.”

    You know that scene where the Von Trapp family is hiding from Austrian facists in the nunnery? Then they are discovered by a young facist who used to be a friend of the family and dated their daughter. Our hero tries to talk the youth out of revealing the family to the authorities.

    Seeing the pain of indecision on the young boy’s face, he states “You will never be one of them.” At this, the boy stiffens in fury and runs away yelling for his commander.

    Apologies for invoking both The Sound of Music and the tired old Nazi references. But Mormonism today really is like the young man in the movie. We would dearly like to be one of the “mainstream American” groups. We desperately want to be accepted and “of the world.”

    But we will never be “one of them.”

  16. Seth Rogers
    January 28, 2006 at 2:25 pm

    By the way. I want to be absolutely clear that I am not trying to paint late twentieth century conservatism as Austrian facists. I don’t think they are really that similar.

    Both merely represented the “in-crowd” in their respective societies.

  17. john fowles
    January 28, 2006 at 4:19 pm

    Mark B., I think that it would be unfairly generous to politicians of the late 19th century to hold that they did not have something similar in mind when they spoke of their “Final Solution.” The Endlösung (“Final Solution”) was not much different. In the former case, either dissolution of the Church in violation of their constitutional rights or death would solve the problem. In the latter case, either expulsion or extermination would solve the problem.

    A Final Solution is a Final Solution Mark. I am not going to give 19c American politicians and society a free pass in their seach for a Final Solution to the Mormon question. I am also not going to ignore the similarity of this rhetoric to that used by fascists fifty years later in their search for the Final Solution to the Jewish Problem in Europe. You may, of course, see things however you wish.

  18. Mark B.
    January 28, 2006 at 9:56 pm

    Thanks, John, for allowing me the freedom to see history as I do, rather than through the lenses that you use. There is one thing about your comments that I envy, however: the ability to type vowels with umlauts. If I could do that, I would have achieved the final solution to my orthographical challenges.

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