Religious Liberty, Mormons, and Muslims

By December 16, 2015

The Founding Era of the United States witnessed dramatic changes in regards to the relationship between the government and religious bodies. Previously, state churches had either suppressed dissent or heavily regulated it through taxes and other penalties. Based on the ideas of John Locke, however, Thomas Jefferson and other founders promoted the idea of having no state church and providing expansive religious liberties to all citizens. Some Americans opposed these proposals on the grounds that religious liberty should be limited to Protestants or, more broadly, to Christians. These opponents raised the specter of the Catholic Pope running for President, or, pushing this argument to its extreme limits, that “Mohammadans” (Muslims) might come to the United States and, claiming the rights of religious liberty, somehow undermine the nation. As Denise A. Spellberg has shown in her excellent book, Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders, there were likely tens of thousands of Muslims in America by this time, but they were African slaves with no public presence. Those invoking Muslims in the debates usually only knew about Islam from inherited cultural prejudices and popular media that cast Muhammad and his followers in an unfavorable light. Against these arguments, Jefferson and others contended that for religious liberty to be an effective principle, its protections needed to extend to all people and all religions, including Islam.

Latter-day Saints in the 1830s also referenced Muslims when discussing religious liberty. In the (in)famous discourse delivered on July 4, 1838, Sidney Rigdon outlined American ideals of religious freedom and argued that the fate of the nation depended on the maintenance of these rights:

All attempts, on the part of religious aspirants, to unite church and state, ought to be repeled with indignation, and every religious society supported in its rights, and in the exercise of its conscientious devotions. The Mohameden, the Pagan, and the Idolitor,[1] not excepted, and be partakers equally, in the benefits of the government. For if the Union is preserved, it will be by endearing the people to it; and this can only be done by securing to all their most sacred rights. The least deviation, from the strictest rule of right, on the part of any portion of the people, or their public servants, will create dissatisfaction, that dissatisfaction will end in strife, strife in war, and war, in the dissolution of the Union. (Discourse, 4 July 1838)

Joseph Smith also incorporated this type of rhetoric into his own thinking on religious liberty. When he was imprisoned in the Clay County jail in Liberty, Missouri, during winter 1838-1839, JS wrote a letter to Illinois land speculator Isaac Galland describing the Saints’ recent sufferings within the context of American ideals of religious liberty. JS argued that religious liberty extended even to Muslims and other non-Christian groups, and should therefore also apply to Mormons:

And finally was it [the Saints’ persecutions] for any thing? no sir, not for any thing, only, that Mormonism is truth; and every man who embraced it felt himself at liberty to embrace every truth: consequently the shackles of superstition, bigotry, ignorance, and priestcraft, falls at once from his neck; and his eyes are opened to see the truth, and truth greatly prevails over priestcraft; hence the priests are alarmed, and they raise a hu-in-cry, down with these men! heresy! heresy! fanaticism! false prophet! false teachers! away with these men! crucify them! crucify them! And now sir, this is the sole cause of the persecution against the Mormon people, and now if they had been Mahomedans, Hottentots, or Pagans [2]; or in fine sir, if their religion was as false as hell, what right would men have to drive them from their homes, and their country, or to exterminate them, so long as their religion did not interfere with the civil rights of men, according to the laws of our country? None at all. (Letter to Isaac Galland, 22 March 1839)

Latter-day Saint invocations of Islam in arguments regarding religious liberty therefore paralleled broader usage in American political culture. These references were hypothetical, as few (if any) Mormons nor white Americans in general could claim to know actual Muslims who would need their religious freedoms protected. Nevertheless, Latter-day Saints invoked the idea that Muslims fell within the conceptual limits of religious liberty in order to make the case that Latter-day Saints also fell within those limits. These statements therefore provide some context for the 1841 Nauvoo city ordinance that explicitly guaranteed religious liberty to “Mohammedans” within the city.[3] In this case, the Mormons went beyond simply invoking Islam in hypothetical arguments by explicitly naming the religion in a legal ordinance, which may have been unique in the antebellum United States (more research is needed on this point).[4]


[1] “Mahomedans” was a name given by Europeans to Muslims, while the terms “pagan” and “idoliters” were used to describe the religions of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, Africa, and India.

[2] “Hottentots” was the name given by Dutch settlers to the Khoikhoi, a pastoralist indigenous people of southern Africa.

[3] An ordinance in relation to religious societies, 1 Mar. 1841, published in Times and Seasons, 1 Mar. 1841, 336-37.

[4] Nota bene: Research for this post was conducted for the JSP’s Documents series, vol. 6 (forthcoming, 2017), which covers February 1838-August 1839.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Politics Race


  1. Good stuff, David. I hadn’t even considered whether or not the 1841 Nauvoo city ordinance was the only of its kind in antebellum America, or even if it was at all unique. Assuming there are others–and I’m guessing there’s at least a couple–it’d be interesting to compare the language, intent, and context.

    Comment by Christopher — December 16, 2015 @ 9:21 am

  2. Very interesting, especially your last parenthetical. It is way outside my wheelhouse, but the idea of a persecuted (or at least outsider) religion becoming a champion of religious liberty seems pretty straightforward. But now I’m curious how Catholics and the later groups (even like Alexander Dowie) interacted with the idea.

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 16, 2015 @ 1:53 pm

  3. Total irrelevant tangent, but there is still a tongue twister/linguistic joke of sorts in Dutch, the “hottentottententententoonstelling” (translated it means the tent exhibit of the Hottentotts, but its use has nothing to do with the meaning but with the way these syllables perform so the meaning doesn’t really matter). It is rather terrible.

    Interesting post, David. I’d read about the Mormon-Muslim comparison, but I hadn’t considered it from an internal perspective as much as external one.

    Comment by Saskia — December 16, 2015 @ 6:03 pm


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