The Mormon Cancer, 2 of 2: Republican Virtue and the Civil War

By August 18, 2013

Last week I wrote about “the Mormon cancer” in connection with the Mountain Meadows Massacre. This week I want to look at how the metaphor fared from the 1870s to the 1920s. The take-home message is mostly the same: Mormons, with good reason, interpreted the metaphor as a call for violence against them.

Let’s begin with a phrase from the Douglas speech discussed last week (1857, Cannon version): “this pestiferous, disgusting cancer which is gnawing into the very vitals of the body politic.” [1] The “body politic” metaphor—imagining the people of a nation/state as parts of a body with a range of “bodily” parts and functions and dysfunctions—dates at least to Renaissance Europe and the phrase itself (in English) dates to at least the 1400s. Mormon and/or polygamous cancers afflicted “the breast of the nation,” “the very heart of the body-politic,” and the “broad Western shoulders of the Republic,” along with their less anatomically-specific kin. [2]

So… what’s a nice political-theory phrase like “body politic” doing mixed up with anti-Mormons? Political theory, of course. A reviewer of Fitz-Hugh Ludlow’s Heart of the Continent (1871) made the connection more explicit (1876):

In introducing the proposed remedy for this terrible social cancer, which is eating into the very heart of the body-politic, Ludlow shows how utterly antagonistic is the spirit of Mormonism to that of republicanism, how utterly incompatible are the two systems. [3]

For our purposes, the important part of “republicanism” is that the success of a republic depended on the “vigilance and moral stamina of the people” (B Bailyn) and, thus, anything that interfered therewith was essentially treasonous. [4] Mormon hierarchical leadership allegedly controlled citizens such that they could not be vigilant and polygamy destroyed their moral character. Thus, in the metaphor, defeating the “Mormon cancer” was a civic and patriotic duty, not just a moral or religious one.

Unfortunately for reformers attacking this “cancer on the body politic” (1886), however, “every time the knife is applied the sore is apparently widened in area.” [5] The equation of “cancer” and “sore,” highlights a point J Stapley made last week: in the nineteenth century, cancers identified as such were often apparent to the naked eye. They spread visibly, bled visibly, and then killed. Because of this, I think the cancer metaphors show a degree of exasperation: this isn’t a blurry spot on an asymptomatic-screening mammogram that will be treated with invisible radiation; it is something painful and obvious, even to casual observers. [6] When nineteenth-century polemicists wrote about the “Mormon cancer,” at least part of their feeling was probably “Why are we still talking about this instead of acting?”

Furthermore, and in further contrast to twenty-first century observers, if I understand correctly, surgery was the only meaningful option for treatment and amputation often an accepted necessity.

The very foundation of Mormonism is barbaric, its teachings are poisonous weeds, and if allowed to grow will ruin the whole nation. No man would hesitate a moment to have a poisonous limb cut off to save his life, and here is a cancer that destroys the peaceful and happy American home, that eats into the very flesh of the family and its purity, and such an Upas tree we should cover with the mantle of charity, no, never. It cannot, it will not be done. [7]

Mormon readers, along with many non-Mormons in the Mormon Culture Region, understood that when polemicists wrote about cancer, the knife was implied. The metaphor is, I think, remarkably efficient, conveying disgust, danger, urgency, and duty; suggesting the violent solution; and accounting for the inevitable collateral damage, all with only three words: “the Mormon cancer.”

Sometimes the violence was more than implied. The rhetorical link between slavery and Mormon polygamy began in the 1850s and continued for decades with each being compared to the other and both being described as cancers. [8] In the post-bellum US, however, comparisons to slavery carried the added weight and edge of the Civil War. For example, an 1883 commentator argued that if Utah were “admitted as a State under Mormon control, such admission will so fasten the political and moral cancer upon the body politic that it can only be removed as was its twin sister—Slavery.” [9] An 1885 novel made the connection even more explicit when a character noted that slavery had been “a cancer so deep rooted in our body politic that no rosewater methods would ever uproot it,” that “it was abolished by the war power,” and that it was “hard to foresee any other” way of dealing with Mormonism. [10] In short, Mormonism would only be “abolished” as slavery had been: by civil war.

This post is already too long; I’ve put some more examples of Mormon cancers in the footnote. [11] Joseph Cook (Josephus Flavius Cook) was a popular and influential preacher whose sermons were well attended and then widely distributed in print. He referred to Mormonism as a cancer at least ten times from 1879 to 1893. [12]

Mormons, predictably, did not like being called a cancer. [13] There is more to be said about how the cancer metaphor figured into Mormon memories and narratives of persecution, but I’ll leave it for later. Besides the Douglas-reaction instances cited last week, I found one instance of a Mormon using a cancer metaphor, but applied to “miscegenation” in the American South. [14] There is also something to be said about the relationships between cancers, crabs, and octopuses, but, again, not now.

[1] No author listed [George Quayle Cannon, editor], “Senator Douglas.—‘Mormon Problem’,” 1857 Jul 24, as reprinted in Writings from the “Western Standard” Published in San Francisco, California (Liverpool: George Q Cannon, 1864), 487 (487-491).

[2] “…this cancer in the breast of the nation shall be cured.” Allen G Campbell, “Has Utah a Republican Form of Government?The Century Magazine 23.5 (1882 Mar): 716 (712-716). “the very heart of the body-politic”: No author listed, AT Bledsoe, editor, S Bledsoe Herrick, associate editor, review of The Heart of the Continent by Fitz-Hugh Ludlow (New York: Hurd & Houghton, 1871), Article 8, The Southern Review 20.40 (1876 Oct): 455 (438-458). “The question is, will you Christians of the land exterminate the twin relic of barbarism, the cancer of polygamy and disloyal priesthood dictation, that has fastened itself on the broad Western shoulders of the Republic?” Joseph Cook, speech, 1891 Feb 02, Boston, “Misleading Mormon Manifestos,” part of Boston Monday Lectures, as reported in Our Day 7.39 (1891 Mar): 212, 214 (206-217).

[3] No author listed, AT Bledsoe, editor, S Bledsoe Herrick, associate editor, review of The Heart of the Continent by Fitz-Hugh Ludlow (New York: Hurd & Houghton, 1871), Article 8, The Southern Review 20.40 (1876 Oct): 455 (438-458).

[4] “Republicanism” was a big deal in political discourse in the Revolutionary and “Early Republic” periods (loosely defined) and though the idea waned somewhat in the later nineteenth century, it was not for nothing that upstarts in the 1850s called their new political alliance the “Republican Party.” The vigilance and stamina quote is from Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, enlarged edition (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2012 [1967, 1992]), 65. Note that Bailyn was writing about events and understandings a century earlier than the cited 1876 review. However, the basic conception of republicanism still held in the 1870s.  Republicanism is an oft-discussed topic. For examples, see, in addition to Bailyn, Gordon S Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Random House, 2011 [1993]) and Jan Lewis, “The Republican Wife: Virtue and Seduction in the Early Republic,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, 44.4 (1987 Oct): 689-721

[5] “The more the question of Mormonism and polygamy is investigated by the grave makers and unmakers of laws at Washington the more perplexing they find it. All the propositions made and laws passed thus far have failed to perform their mission. The Church of the Latter Day Saints has become a cancer on the body politic, and [p 182] every time the knife is applied the sore is apparently widened in area.” No author listed, credited to Florida Times-Union, 1886 Jun 12, as quoted in No author listed, “The Amended Edmunds Bill,” Public Opinion 1.10 (Washington DC, 1886 Jun 19 Sat): 181-182.

[6] The “apparent-ness” of cancer also showed up in Canada/US relations. “The loyal enthusiasm with which our new Governor-General and the daughter of our beloved Queen have been received in Canada, has strangely provoked the atrabilious wrath of the eloquent editor of the New York Christian Advocate. … [¶] Canadians prefer to manage their own affairs in their own way; and they certainly have no reason to be so in love with American institutions as to desire political union. With Fenianism, Tweed Rings, the Louisiana Scandal, Ben Butlerism, and the Mormon cancer, the model Republic does not offer any special attractions to detach us from our filial relations to the most stable throne and most revered sovereign on earth. We appreciate too well our free institutions. We are too democratic, as Lord Dufferin assured his Chicago hosts, to submit to the perils of stuffed ballot boxes, caucus conventions, and a practically irresponsible Cabinet and President.” No author listed, “International [Dis]Courtesy” [square brackets in original], Canadian Methodist Magazine 9.2 (1879 Feb): 185 (185-186).

[7] Proceedings of the MW Grand Lodge of Ancient, Free and Accepted Masons of Utah, Fifteenth Annual Communication, Held January 19th and 20th, 1886 (Salt Lake City: Tribune Printing and Publishing Co, 1886), 152.

[8] Examples of slavery described as a cancer  are easily-multiplied; consider three: “I have said that I considered negro slavery as a political misfortune. The phrase was too mild. It is a cancer—a slow, consuming cancer—a withering pestilence—an unmitigated curse.” Thomas F Marshall, as quoted in Charles Elliott, Sinfulness of American Slavery: Proved from Its Evil Sources…, in 2 volumes, Volume 2 (Cincinnati: L Swormstedt & JH Power (for the Methodist Episcopal Church), 1850), 230. “Whether the Republic shall live or die, before the system is purified, is with God. It cannot live with the cancer of slavery preying on its vitals. But live or die, we will have the consciousness of doing our duty.” HB Stanton, as quoted in Proceedings of the New England Anti-slavery Convention: Held in Boston, May 24, 25, 26, 1836 (Boston: Isaac Knapp, 1836), 17. “Sir, I believe that no cancer on the physical body was ever more certain, steady, and fatal in its progress, than this cancer on the political body of Virginia. It is eating into her very vitals. And shall we admit that the evil is past remedy? Shall we act the part of a puny patient, suffering under the ravages of a fatal disease, who would say the remedy is too painful?” Henry Berry, speech delivered in the House of Delegates of Virginia, 1832 Jan 20, as quoted in La Roy Sunderland, The Testimony of God against Slavery: With Notes, 3rd edition (New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1839), 119. For those of you following along at home, the author is that La Roy Sunderland, familiar as author of early anti-Mormon print efforts such as Mormonism: Exposed and Refuted (New York: Piercy & Reed, 1838), famously rejoindered by Parley P Pratt in Mormonism Unveiled : Zion’s Watchman Unmasked, and Its Editor, Mr. L. R. Sunderland, Exposed: Truth Vindicated: The Devil Mad, and Priestcraft in Danger!, pamphlet, 47 pages, (Painesville, OH: Wm D Pratt, 1838). See also JR Jacob, “La Roy Sunderland: The Alienation of an Abolitionist,” Journal of American Studies 6.1 (1972 Apr): 1-17.

[9] JM Coyner, “Disloyalty of Mormons, and Education in Utah,” in Christian Educators in Council: Sixty Addresses by American Educators; with Historical Notes upon the National Education Assembly, held at Ocean Grove, N. J., August 9-12, 1883…, edited by JC Hartzell (New York: Phillips & Hunt, 1883), 137 (136-138). See also: “How to check its spread has become one of the gravest of questions. Whether the infectious ulcer shall be partially healed and mollified with the mild poultice of Christian schools and churches, or more heroically treated with the sharp lance of law, or whether, like the twin relic of barbarism, the huge cancer shall be cut out bodily and by force, remains to be seen.” Samuel Dunham, as quoted in No author listed, “Many Views of Mormonism,” The Assembly Herald 9.4 (1903 Oct): 464 (462-467).

[10] Ferdinand: “‘True! true! Monstrous, incomprehensible infatuation! Tell me,’ he went on with sudden fierce fervor of eye and voice; ‘you have been on this accursed soil now for nearly two years, is this thing, called Mormonism, any more explicable to you now than it was before you came?’ ¶ Anthony: “‘On the contrary, the wonder grows! The more one sees of its thorough vileness, its bestial corruption and wide-spreading influence for evil, the more one marvels at the complacence of the United States Government. Charles Sumner in speaking of your slaves long ago said that it was a cancer so deep rooted in our body politic that no rosewater methods would ever uproot it. It was abolished by the war power, as John Quincy Adams predicted it would be.’ ¶ F: ‘And you think that will be the only solution of the present problem?’ ¶ A: ‘It is hard to foresee any other. This institution is as alien to our system of government as the cannibalism or the fetichism of Western Africa. And, although it has been a factor in our politics for many years past, nothing but discussion comes of it.’ ¶ F: ‘There must be some cause for this damnable apathy.’ Jeannette H. Walworth, The Bar-sinister: A Mormon Study (Rahway, NJ: Mershon Co, 1885), 248.

The Mormon cancer appears two other times in the novel. Anthony also used the metaphor in addressing his brother, John: “I knew, that, as far back as ’56, slavery and polygamy were coupled theoretically as twin relics of barbarism. I offered my life freely to help abolish the one and I would gladly, ay, only God knows how gladly, I would offer up this poor remnant of a body to help crush out the other. I knew that it was a cancer gnawing at the life of the nation. I knew, in the abstract, that it had wrought misery for thousands of men and women; but what I did not know, John, was that it was possessed of a diabolical subtlety, and a devilish sophism that could pervert a man’s whole moral and mental organism, and make him see things as right, which in his normal condition, he would pronounce as black as hell itself! Your own case—you were a man of reason—you were a man with a nice sense of honor—you were a kind husband once and an affectionate brother!” (190-191). Ferdinand also used it in unspoken internal thoughts: “Curse the weakness of a government that could tamely abide such a cancer as Mormonism on its body politic!” (151).

[11] “We may always look for such fruits to grow from the tree of life, but they are no more part of that tree, than the gloomy and loathsome parasite that covers the magnificent Cyprus on the banks of the Mississippi, is a part of that beautiful tree. It is the fungus Haematodes of Christianity. It mars it, as the ulcerated cancer does the human face, or as the disgusting Elephantiasis does the symmetry of the human limb. No man can be a Mormon, who is not a religious fanatic, or an adroit and consummate villain; but frequently the Mormon combines both characters in one.” No author listed, CP Krauth, WM Reynolds, and ML Stoever, editors, “Mormonism,” Article 5, The Evangelical Review 10.37 (1858 Jul): 96 (80-100).

“…I really supposed my friend was simply searing over the cancer of which he now speaks, and that he did not consider it very much of a sore after all, and acting on that impression, I attempted to exhibit to the Senate something of the character of this cancer, without intending to say that my friend had the slightest tendency to polygamy.” F Rives, J Rives, and George A Bailey, The Congressional Globe: Containing the Debates and Proceedings of the Third Session Forty-Second Congress (Washington DC: Office of the Congressional Globe, 1873), 1873 Feb 26, p 1809.

“But as the numbers of converts increased, so the Revelation of [p 52] Celestial Marriage was introduced; and its debasing effects converted the members of the new sect into lawbreakers, and made them a cancer and sore in the heart of the civilized communities amongst which they dwelt, and thus awakened that feeling of animosity and open hostility against which they have had to contend.” Alfred Falk, Trans-Pacific Sketches: A Tour Through the United States and Canada (Melbourne, Australia: George Robertson, 1877), 52.

“On a recent Sabbath, while our New York and Brooklyn churches were open for worship, a steamer arrived at Castle Garden with 800 captives of Mormonism. … So the cancer grows, and the Congress of the United States and the morality of the nation seem to consent to it.” No author listed [T De Witt Talmage, editor], “Mormonism Triumphant,” Frank Leslie’s Sunday Magazine 14.2 (1883 Aug): 219. “Utah is rich enough to pay for all the costly and expensive surgery of taking out this dripping cancer of Mormonism.” T. De Witt Talmage, sermon preached in the Tabernacle, Brooklyn, 1880 Sep 26, as reproduced in William Jarman, USA: Uncle Sam’s Abscess, or Hell Upon Earth for U.S. Uncle Sam (Exeter: H Leduc, 1884), 171.

[12] “the Mormon ulcer fattening itself on the intermural basin between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierras…”; “…this cancer has five roots…” [an extended metaphor running to almost 2,000 words describing the five roots]. Joseph Cook, “Mormonism,” prelude to “Natural and Starvation Wages,” in Joseph Cook, Monday Lectures in Tremont Hall, Boston U.S.  (London: RD Dickinson, 1879), 101-103 (99-103). “Vast wealth will be accumulated, and will become more thoroughly concentrated in the hands of a polygamous aristocracy, as the Mormon cancer spreads. In ten or twenty years there will be money enough under control of the aristocracy of the harem to buy a large number of politicians.” Joseph Cook, speech, Boston, 1884 Feb 11, “What Shall Be Done with Mormonism?,” as printed in Joseph Cook, Do We Need a New Theology? With a Criticism of the New Congregational Creed, Boston Monday Lectures, Preludes, &c., for 1884 (London: Richard D Dickinson, 1885), 23 (21-28). Reprinted in Joseph Cook, speech, Boston, 1884 Feb 11, as “Joseph Cook on the Plan Recommended by President Arthur,” as part of Report 1351, Part 2, “Reorganization of the Legislative Power of Utah Territory,” sub-heading: “Views of the Minority,” accompanying H. R. 6765, submitted by Joseph D Taylor, p 24 (23-27), in Reports of Committees of the House of Representatives for the First Session of the Forty-Eighth Congress, 1883-’84, Volume 5. “Is it right or wise to allow women, and children, and men, and politicians, and natural law, and national law, and new territory, to be eaten up bodily by the Mormon cancer? All interests, sacred and secular, answer No; and let the people from Plymouth Rock to the Golden Gate, say Amen! [Prolonged applause.]” Joseph Cook, speech given at Tremont Temple, Boston, 1884 Mar 24 Mon, as reported in No author listed, “Boston Monday Lectureship,” The Independent (1884 Apr 03): 5 (5-8). “What shall we do with this moral and political cancer that is throwing its tentacles out into vast regions?” Joseph Cook, “Joseph Cook at Salt Lake City,” address at the American Mass Meeting in Salt Lake City, 1884 May 17, as reported in The Independent, New York, 1884 Jul 24 Thu, p 7 (7-8). “I undertake to say that, if Congress during the next ten years continues, toward this priestly despotism, the same shilly-shally policy it has pursued for the past twenty years, this political cancer can be cut out only by the sword. For one, I wish to see this disfigurement removed from the fair sunset shoulder of America in some less severe way than that. But I say to the Mormon leaders that, if they continue to oppose all moral measures for the abolition of polygamy as they have done, and maintain their hostility to a magnanimous Government, they will find that it is only a question of time when the rifles will compel their reasonable obedience.” Joseph Cook, speech given at the American Mass Meeting in Salt Lake City, 1884 May 17, as reported in No author listed, “Joseph Cook at Salt Lake City,” The Independent (1884 Jul 24): 8 (7-8).  “And if Mormon leaders may have thought of escaping to Mexico and taking up their quarters beyond the range of the laws of the United States, yet, once over the line, they might have acted with impunity as leaders of Mormons north of the line. The root of the cancer might have been in Mexican soil, but the long arms of it would have reached toward the north, far beyond the line between the Republic and its neighbor.” Joseph Cook, speech, “Mormon Disloyalty and Polygamy,” as reported in Vital Orthodoxy, Boston Monday Lectures, Preludes, &c., for 1886 (London: Richard R Dickinson, 1886), 124 (115-125). “How far need the Utah cancer spread to awaken general indignation and alarm? … [almost a page later] … This immense cancer is throwing its roots deep into national politics.” [It’s even in the index]: “Mormon Cancer, The” [Index, p 220]. Joseph Cook, “Utah at the Doors of Congress,” part of lecture given 1888 Feb 13, Boston, as reported in Our Day: A Record and Review of Current Reform 1.3, edited by Joseph Cook (1888 Mar): 231 (231-240). Reprinted as “Utah at the Doors of Congress,” in Joseph Cook, God in the Bible: With Preludes and Other Addresses on Leading Reforms and a Symposium on Inspiration, Boston Monday Lectures—1888 (London: Richard D Dickinson, 1889), 23 (23-30). “I then began to learn what the Mormon cancer is, throwing out its roots into Idaho, New Mexico, Colorado, and even into Congress. … If the Mormon cancer is allowed to throw out its roots into the politics of great territories that may ultimately be cut up into a number of States, it may at last dominate the entire region of the basin States, and by dominating that region, dominate you when parties are closely balanced in Washington. You may, yourselves, feel the touch of this cancer in endeavoring to exercise to the full your time-honored Massachusetts rights and privileges.” Joseph Cook, “Recent Reverses of Mormonism,” Boston Monday Lectures, 1890 Season, Lecture 4, as reported in Our Day: A Record and Review of Current Reform 6.34, edited by Joseph Cook (1890 Oct): 297 (287-298). “I have traveled lately around Utah as well as through it; and I found that the bordering States, on the mountainous skirts of this Territory, were of precisely the opinion of the experts at the centre of the cancer. … The question is, will you Christians of the land exterminate the twin relic of barbarism, the cancer of polygamy and disloyal priesthood dictation, that has fastened itself on the broad Western shoulders of the Republic?” Joseph Cook, speech, 1891 Feb 02, Boston, “Misleading Mormon Manifestos,” part of Boston Monday Lectures, as reported in Our Day 7.39 (1891 Mar): 212, 214 (206-217). “It is possible that if immigration were so sifted in America as to exclude polygamists, the Mormon cancer might wither and disappear from inanition. From the topic of Mormonism, therefore, I naturally turn to that of restricted immigration.” Joseph Cook, “Mormonism, Immigration, Sunday Newspapers,” Boston Monday Lectures, 1892 Season, Prelude 6, Our Day 11.61 (1893 Jan): 42 (38-50). “The Mormon cancer, otherwise called the Latter Day Swindle, is winding its tentacles around Congress. It has a money bag in each tentacle. The tithing fund gives enormous financial weight to the Mormon lobby at Washington.” (364) … “In the third place, it must be remembered that, once under the control of the Mormon priesthood, the new State would become the rendezvous of Mormons from all parts of the world. They would flock to Utah. The monster would draw in his tentacles with the food he has seized, which would be absorbed and so cause a new and very vigorous growth.” (369) Joseph Cook, speech, “Utah at the Doors of Congress,” in “Boston Monday Lectures,” 1893 Feb 13, as reported in Our Day 11:65 (1893 May), p 369 (364-372).

[13] For example: “Meetings of this character were held in nearly all the large cities in the Union. They were much alike in spirit. Hatred for the Mormon people characterized them all. Bishop Fallows, at the meeting in Chicago, declared that if the measures then pending in Congress were not sufficient to heal ‘the political cancer,’ there were three hundred thousand swords ready to cut it out. [¶] I leave it to the reader to judge how much sweet Christian charity there was in a meeting where such a remark was applauded.” Brigham Henry Roberts, The Life of John Taylor, Third President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: George Q Cannon & Sons, 1892), 355.

[14] “At every station the sight of hordes of mongrels of all shades from the sickly white to the seven-eights black, flocking around with no covering but dirt and rags, is appalling, and makes one feel to exclaim: ‘Surely, virtue has fled and religion is but a festering corpse.’ [¶] Nothing short of a judgment equal to the Deluge can now arrest the contaminating progress of this cancer of the soul. The warning now comes a thousand times intensified to the honest-in-heart: “Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues.” N. L. N., letter to editor, 1885 Oct 17, Greeland, WV, “Society in the South,” Deseret News, Salt Lake City, 1885 Nov 18, p 14.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. I was waiting for this. Thanks Edje, much to think about. You might be earning a cite or two…

    Comment by JJohnson — August 18, 2013 @ 4:58 pm

  2. Glad to hear it, JJohnson.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — August 18, 2013 @ 6:51 pm

  3. Great stuff again, Edje.

    Comment by WVS — August 20, 2013 @ 10:19 pm

  4. Nice finds and analysis, as always. Thanks, Edje.

    Comment by Christopher — August 21, 2013 @ 6:05 am

  5. Thanks, WVS and Christopher.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — August 21, 2013 @ 9:35 pm

  6. […] the difference?) or even the Canaanites to a cancer that needed to be cut out en toto (sound familiar?).  So I sat, cockily waiting to hear the same morally indefensible stuff I had heard for years. […]

    Pingback by Our Taliban - Rational Faiths — September 11, 2013 @ 10:51 am


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