A Peculiar People

A Peculiar People: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America

Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 256
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    A Peculiar People
    Book Description:

    Though the U.S. Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion, it does not specify what counts as a religion. From its founding in the 1830s, Mormonism, a homegrown American faith, drew thousands of converts but far more critics. In"A Peculiar People", J. Spencer Fluhman offers a comprehensive history of anti-Mormon thought and the associated passionate debates about religious authenticity in nineteenth-century America. He argues that understanding anti-Mormonism provides critical insight into the American psyche because Mormonism became a potent symbol around which ideas about religion and the state took shape.Fluhman documents how Mormonism was defamed, with attacks often aimed at polygamy, and shows how the new faith supplied a social enemy for a public agitated by the popular press and wracked with social and economic instability. Taking the story to the turn of the century, Fluhman demonstrates how Mormonism's own transformations, the result of both choice and outside force, sapped the strength of the worst anti-Mormon vitriol, triggering the acceptance of Utah into the Union in 1896 and also paving the way for the dramatic, yet still grudging, acceptance of Mormonism as an American religion.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0159-5
    Subjects: Religion, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[x])
  3. PROLOGUE. On Familiarity and Contempt
    (pp. 1-8)

    Preaching to a Mormon audience in 1855, Joseph Young marked Mormon identity with biblical language: “I am aware that we are a peculiar people.”¹ Speaking in a similar venue decades later, church president Wilford Woodruff softened the reference. “The Latter-day Saints are somewhat peculiar from other religious denominations,” he told a congregation in 1892.² Interviewed on cbs’s 60Minutesin 1996, church president Gordon B. Hinckley further shrank the distance between Mormons and other Americans. “We’re not a weird people,” he told host Mike Wallace.³ In another meeting with the press, Hinckley emphasized Mormon Christianness while preserving some distinction. “We...

  4. INTRODUCTION. Religious Liberty as an American Problem
    (pp. 9-20)

    In the newly disestablished United States, not all religious claims were created equal. The young nation had a host of them to survey as new theologies, new rituals, and new charismatic leaders glutted the public sphere. In this cacophony, anti-Mormonism supplied a focused social enemy for a public divided by sectarianism and wracked by economic and political instability. Long before Mormon polygamy or Deseret theocracy boggled Americans, early national anti-Mormonism constituted an implicit concern that disestablishment had left too much room for religious expression. The landscape was littered with counterfeiters, frauds, and confidence men, and the people just might choose...

  5. CHAPTER 1 “Impostor”: The Mormon Prophet
    (pp. 21-48)

    For New Yorker David Reese, antebellum physician and self-appointed social critic, too much in American culture amounted to a mere counterfeit. His 1838 tirade against a host of “humbugs” warned that the “unsophisticated” and “weak sisters” were dangerously prone to deception. Deceivers deserved most of the blame, but Reese thought it unflattering that so many Americans had already been led astray. Though his humbugs ranged from animal magnetism to phrenology, he reserved special venom for religious frauds. With prophets, societies, and sects proliferating, Reese found the nation’s religious scene unsettled by charlatans. The fleeting success of Matthias (Robert Matthews), the...

  6. CHAPTER 2 “Delusion”: Early Mormon Religiosity
    (pp. 49-78)

    Pascal Smith’s religious views caused him considerable trouble. In a legal complaint, his wife declared that Smith had rendered “implicit obedience” to a “Mormon Prophet” armed with “mesmeric clairvoyance.” Harriet Smith explained that her husband had been “laboring under a religious delusion” and had been duped into donating a large part of his property to the prophet. She feared additional revelations might reduce them to poverty. A judge ordered the local sheriff to bring Smith in and impanelled a jury of five freeholders to hear the case.¹ Once in court, Smith declared that his marriage was unhappy and he thought...

  7. CHAPTER 3 “Fanaticism”: The Church as (Un)Holy City
    (pp. 79-102)

    In 1839, when Mormons abandoned their third community in scarcely five years, some questioned the wisdom of what they had called “gathering.” In January Albert Perry Rockwood wrote a concerned letter to his father. “Last night we heard that the Prophets advise for the Brethren to scatter,” he reported. “It is thought by some we shall not gather again in large bodies … still we do not know.”¹ Mormons had come to recognize that living in communities apart constituted both a blessing and a burden. The fact that the Latter-day Saints envisioned their church as a holy city rendered their...

  8. CHAPTER 4 “Barbarism”: Rhetorics of Alienation
    (pp. 103-126)

    Writing for the majority in the landmark caseReynolds v. United States,Chief Justice Morrison Waite casually laid bare a central dilemma of American law when he observed that the “word ‘religion’ is not defined in the Constitution.” Waite insisted that in lieu of any constitutional definition, the Court was left with “the history of the times in the midst of which the provision was adopted” as a guide to “ascertain its meaning.”¹ He ended up at Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter to Connecticut Baptists and, in the process—to paraphrase legal historian Sarah Barringer Gordon—made history by interpreting it.²...

  9. CHAPTER 5 “Heresy”: Americanizing the American Religion
    (pp. 127-148)

    Anti-Mormon hostility unquestionably gained momentum as commentators discovered or inflated the “Oriental” or “Asiatic” character of Mormon life. Mormonism, hardly an imported or foreign tradition, demonstrates how central the perception of cultural deviation has been in the maintenance of homegrown religious variety.¹ The persistent (and still lingering) problem of categorizing Mormonism reveals as much about American negotiations of religion’s conceptual boundaries as it does about Mormon belief or practice.

    The increasingly “scientific” study of religion cut in another direction. Caught between older understandings of religion (that were essentially theological) and newer ones (that countenanced the possibility of non-Christian “religion”), late-century...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 149-182)
    (pp. 183-218)
    (pp. 219-222)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 223-229)