“The people of these countries are not as intelligent as are the people of this nation”

By March 6, 2008

In the April 1925 General Conference of the Church, Presiding Bishop Charles Nibley defended the notion that the Constitution of the United States of America was an inspired document, and proposed that the principles of the Constitution are inseperably connected with the Restoration of the Gospel.  He framed the main point of his speech by quoting from the dedicatory prayer of the Kirtland Temple (D&C 109:54):

Have mercy, O Lord, upon all the nations of the earth; have mercy upon the rulers of our land; may those principles which were so honorably and nobly defended, namely, the Constitution of our land, by our fathers, be established forever.

He then proceeded to recite the history of slavery in the United States, and suggested that the emancipation of slaves in the United States triggered a worldwide trend, reaching even the distant land of Russia.

In the justice and mercy of Almighty God, [slavery] . . . had to be overthrown, and the Lord raised up Abraham Lincoln and others to see that the law laid down by Him—that one man should not be in bondage to another—was set right and true freedom established in this land.  From that day on, millions more of slaves have been freed in Russia and other lands.  In these latter-days, throned have tottered and fallen, and in place of these has come a representative form of government, a government of the people, a government which gives people their moral agency, spoken of in the revelations I have read, and which the Lord says is pertinent to all people.

The entire talk is a fascinating blend of patriotism and millennial thought, seeing the spread of U.S. Constitutional principles throughout the world as a precursor to the establishment of the Mormon gospel in those lands and ultimately, the second coming of Jesus Christ.  That topic alone is deserving of discussion (and by all means, feel free to take it in that direction).  However, one paragraph in Nibley’s address stood out to me in particular.  When discussing the possibilities of other countries establishing constitutional democracies like America, he explained that although another country might implement a constitution similar to that of the United States, “the results would not be at all the same.”  The reason?

[T]he people of these countries are not as intelligent as are the people of this nation.  But even in such countries, our Constitution could not help but produce a better government, for in that Constitution are the underlying principles which will, in time, teach these people to govern themselves intelligently.  In order that the various peoples of the earth may at sometime reach the point at which they can intelligently govern themselves, the Lord in his mercy has in the past overthrown nations comprised of millions of people who have been subjected to unrighteous domination.

__________________________

Charles Nibley, “Address at General Conference, Salt Lake City, April 1925,” in Just and Holy Principles: Latter-day Saint Readings on American and the Constitution, ed. Ralph C. Hancock (Pearson Custom Publishing, 1998), 71-74.


Comments

  1. Fascinating, Chris. I think that the last quote reflects well how caught up the Saints were in the nationalistic expansion of the U.S. during the early decades of the twentieth century, and the accompanying disdain for the peoples that we were planning to save.

    Comment by David G. — March 6, 2008 @ 2:17 pm

  2. I think that the last quote reflects well how caught up the Saints were in the nationalistic expansion of the U.S. during the early decades of the twentieth century

    Do you think that mentality was an intentional tactic to continually prove their loyalty to a United States still suspicious of the Mormons? Or do you think they were sincerely caught up in this brand of nationalism?

    Comment by Christopher — March 6, 2008 @ 2:19 pm

  3. Well, when it comes to Mormon patriotism, that becomes a tricky question. Mormons of course always had a strong sense of loyalty to the Constitution and it’s inspired origins. What changed from 1880 to 1920 according to Ethan Yorganson was how Mormons imagined the Constitution’s relationship with the American nation. In Yorganson’s construction, prior to 1880 Mormons imagined Zion as only encompassing Mormon settlements, but by 1920 Latter-day Saints had come to imagine Zion as the entire American nation (and therefore the Constitution related directly with the nation’s geographic boundaries). So if he’s right, then I’d say that Nibley is being sincere here. But I’m not completely sold by Yorganson’s almost-too-neat reconstruction of the transformation.

    Comment by David G. — March 6, 2008 @ 2:30 pm

  4. Yorgason’s division is a little too tidy, as you point out, but I’m inclined to agree with his general argument. The facts are hard to interperet; it seems that Mormons became patriots as an act of sheer will at the turn of the century, but the depth of their sincerity was well-hardened at least by 1941. I sort of suspect that lots of “rank and file” Mormons even in the nineteenth century felt more attachment to the U.S. than is represented in the official discourse. I can’t help but read Nibley as being sincere.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 6, 2008 @ 2:38 pm

  5. I’m wondering about the “nationalistic expansion” concept here. The period between the world wars was a paradox of isolationist tendencies and imperial aspirations. During the presidencies of Teddy Roosevelt and Taft, we had seen the completion of the Panama Canal, an undertaking of major international scope, and of unrestrained imperialism. That was immediately followed, though, by the First World War, which the US was begrudgingly pulled into after 3 years.

    We had acquired territory in Cuba, the Philippines, and in effect the Panama Canal Zone, had invaded Nicaragua at least once, but still had a collective sense after the War that the world was best left alone, and we’d deal with our own problems, thank you.

    So I guess I would say that the Church was still smarting over the polygamy issues and the Smoot hearings, perhaps giving credence to the loyalty theory.

    Comment by kevinf — March 6, 2008 @ 2:53 pm

  6. Kevin: I agree that the timing is a bit weird, but the rhetoric sure looks to me like it’s expansionist, not isolationist. I think it’s important to remember that while the majority of Americans favored isolationism in the interwar period, not all did.

    This could also very well just be cultural expansionism, and not militaristic.

    Comment by David G. — March 6, 2008 @ 3:08 pm

  7. David and Taysom, thanks for bringing Yorgason into the discussion. I agree with both of your assesments that his structure for the transformation is a little too clean, but that there is something to his thesis. For the record, I read Nibley’s words as sincere.

    kevinf, thank you for providing the helpful context. I should add that Nibley closed his talk by quoting from Calvin Coolidge’s inaugural address (delivered just one month prior to Nibley’s remarks):

    America seeks no earthly empire built on blood and force. No ambition, no temptation, lured her to the thought of foreign dominion. The legions which she sends forth are armed, not with the sword, but with the cross. The higher state to which she seeks allegiance of all mankind is not of human, but of divine, origin. She cherished no purpose save to merit the favor of Almighty God.

    Comment by Christopher — March 6, 2008 @ 3:13 pm

  8. A deep and abiding belief in the command to “go ye into all the world” makes a hardcore isolationist philosophy a bit hard to imagine.

    Also, the fundamental claims of the Book of Mormon relative to the chosen / promised land almost can be classified as Manifest Destiny on steroids. (That is not a comment about correctness or validity – only perception and classification.) Hence, patriotism and expansionism are close to a given – and sincere as can be.

    Comment by Ray — March 6, 2008 @ 3:20 pm

  9. I seem to remember a Benjamin Johnson recollection (I know, he was a bit over enthusiastic in such endeavors) of Joseph Smith’s teachings in the Council of Fifty that the Constitution would be the model for governments during the Millennium. Not sure how much such thoughts were in circulation at the time.

    Could the disparaging of the other countries be viewed along the Israel/Gentile split? Early leaders were insistent that they took the Israelite blood from the Gentile nations leaving them with whatever was left.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 6, 2008 @ 3:51 pm

  10. Early Mormons certainly believed that the Constitution was the model, but they also believed that it was transportable and could be separated from the American nation. Pratt’s The Angel of the Prairie (1844) speculated that the American nation would fall but the spirit of freedom would be transported to the new (Mormon) Empire of Freedom in the West.

    I’m not sure if I see a Israel/Gentile split. I see it more in terms of the American people being seen as more enlightened and inspired than declining Europeans and backward Third Worlders.

    Comment by David G. — March 6, 2008 @ 4:08 pm

  11. Isolationism was always more important as a rhetorical and political position than as a reality in American policy. During the 1920s the United States was intricately involved in trying to democratize Haiti, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico.

    Comment by Joel — March 6, 2008 @ 5:00 pm

  12. Joel,

    Possibly true, and certainly true later during FDR’s administration, but the examples you give are special cases. We came into possession of the Philippines and Puerto Rico as a result of the Spanish American war in 1898, occupying the former Spanish territories. We ended up fighting a guerilla war with Filipino nationalists, and then gave the Philippines their independence after WWII. Puerto Rico, well, is still our possession, and resists further assimilation into the US, such as voting against statehood. We still haven’t democratized them enough to give them up, apparently. I’m not familiar enough with Haiti to recall, though, the efforts there.

    That’s the paradox I referred to, with many favoring expansionism and empire, and others, mostly the democrats during that time, favoring isolationism. There was even a move by some to retreat back into isolationist policies after WWII.

    Not so sure that we still aren’t divided as a country about our relationship with the rest of the world, despite the huge economic interdependence involved.

    Comment by kevinf — March 6, 2008 @ 5:23 pm

  13. Also, the Monroe Doctrine, and the policy, promoted by TR, that the Caribbean was an American Sea, put policy in that area in a different category than, say, Europe or Asia.

    Comment by kevinf — March 6, 2008 @ 5:25 pm

  14. I know this isn’t the main thrust of your post, but look again at the second quote, regarding the Lord’s law prohibiting slavery. If the Constitution was inspired to set up a righteous government, how did slavery end up in there in the first place?

    Comment by AHLDuke — March 6, 2008 @ 5:34 pm

  15. AHL, Compromise. Southern states weren’t going to sign a constitution that prohibited slavery. The language definitely is in contrast to the Declaration of Independence.

    As to the context of slavery in Nibley’s quote, I find it interesting that the millions of freed “slaves” (read feudal serfs) were in the process of becoming what another church leader some 30 (ETB) years later equated as slaves of communism. At this time, the Russian revolution and onset of communist rule was still viewed with some ambivalence in the United States. It was not until the late 40’s and 50’s that it became almost universally accepted in the US as a bad thing.

    More intelligent Americans may have been viewed with some disdain in Europe of the time, but is a reflection of generally superior self image of Americans of the time.

    Comment by kevinf — March 6, 2008 @ 5:53 pm

  16. Just to clarify my #10, I was saying that early Americans saw themselves as more enlightened than declining Europeans and Third Worlders, not that Europeans saw Americans that way (which obviously wasn’t true).

    Comment by David G. — March 6, 2008 @ 5:58 pm

  17. So do the think the Lord sold out the slaves just to get the Constitution signed?

    Comment by AHLDuke — March 6, 2008 @ 6:05 pm

  18. Isn’t it obvious AHL? That part wasn’t translated correctly.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 6, 2008 @ 6:14 pm

  19. AHL,

    If you are an absolutist, and the constitution was an essentially correct and unalterable revelation from God, then you get onto that slippery slope. If you feel that the Constitution was inspired, then the hands of men got involved, and work was done by committee, resulting in a document that the Southern states would sign, but that many of the others had difficulties with. That resulted in the Bill of Rights, another compromise, which interestingly enough gets us most of the basic rights we take for granted as being in the original constitution. Most notable are first amendment rights of free speech, and the establishment clause regarding freedom of religion, which we certainly would expect are part of the inspiration process.

    Comment by kevinf — March 6, 2008 @ 6:23 pm

  20. I guess it comes down to what we mean by “inspired.” Some might take it to mean that God dictated the words of the Constitution the way some of us think that the Prophet receives revelation. I don’t buy it. I think he could probably care less about a bicameral legislature or the minimum age of a representative or Senator. On the other hand, if you mean that God inspired some men to write a Constitution that would establish a (mostly) democratic government, but left it to them to work out the details, that’s a version of history I find plausible and could get behind.

    Comment by AHLDuke — March 6, 2008 @ 6:30 pm

  21. AHL,

    Exactly. That’s why I find it interesting that many LDS are strict constructionists in their view of the Constitution.

    Comment by kevinf — March 6, 2008 @ 6:44 pm

  22. I think [God] could probably care less about a bicameral legislature or the minimum age of a representative or Senator.

    Blasphemy!

    Comment by Christopher — March 6, 2008 @ 7:37 pm

  23. J (#9): Interesting proposition about the Israel/Gentile split. I tend to agree with David’s #10 regarding the notion, though. I’m interested in any further elaboration on the notion you suggest.

    Comment by Christopher — March 6, 2008 @ 7:39 pm

  24. Christopher, I don’t have the time right now to look up refs, but I was thinking along the lines of this (not sure if it is accurate or not):

    There was a tremendous amount of 19th century rhetoric about how the missionaries were extracting the Israelite blood out of Europe to gather them in Zion. Those that were left, gentiles all, were the recipient of scorn (especially folks like the French). Of course, the US were gentiles as well; but when US became Zion, then it also inherited the characteristics of Israel.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 6, 2008 @ 8:16 pm

  25. Yorgason dramatically overstates the case, at least for earliest Mormonism. Even during the 1840s the narrative was about how they partook of the true Republic and were shedding their blood just as the Patriots of 76.

    Comment by smb — March 6, 2008 @ 10:06 pm

  26. (coming late to the conversation…) Nibley may have thrown a religious element in by claiming what “the Lord in his mercy” did, but this last paragraph basically repeats a common 19th century American perception. Prejudice against non-western-European immigrants was given a “scientific” justification by the claim that eastern Europeans or Asians would never make good Americans because their “races” had never understood democracy. In the anti-Mormon context, Mormons were “degenerating” toward “Mohamedanism” through polygamy, and were unfit to participate in the American political system because “Oriental” civilizations had never produced a democratic nation.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — March 6, 2008 @ 11:14 pm

  27. kevinf,

    For more information about the incredibly brutal occupation of Haiti from 1915-1934 and its impact on American life see Mary Renda’s Taking Haiti. She demonstrates how the occupation of Haiti has been forgotten because it ended badly–with American troops being withdrawn after massive violent suppression of Haitian rebels made the occupation unpopular. We did leave the country with an American style Constitution intact, but we also left it with only one stable institution–the military. Interestingly, the troops were in Haiti from the Presidency of Wilson to the administration of FDR–a time generally looked to as anti-imperial.

    The more I read the words of Nibley, the more they sound like Wilson’s rhetoric at Versailles. We do know that much of the church leadership heartily supported Wilson’s efforts with the League of Nations–especially Heber J. Grant who spoke out in favor of the the League and in support of Wilson. Grant spoke out to counteract the opposition of Senator and Apostle Reed Smoot who was one of the League’s most ardent detractors. A great new book by Harvard historian Erez Manela, the Wilsonian Moment, outlines the scope and power of Wilsonian rhetoric in a post-World War I world. He argues that the early 1920s represented a moment where Americans first began to understand their increasingly powerful place in the world and articulated a vision of Democratic influence. He also shows how racial prejudice played a role in America’s smugness. Several other books that I read recently on the interwar period demonstrate America’s increasingly moral presence in the world–even though politically and militarily it espoused isolationism. By the way, I highly recommend Manela’s book which also demonstrates how these ideas played out in other third-world countries, but that is the outside the scope of this post.

    Also, although we think of the doctrine of a Divinely inspired Constitution as uniquely Mormon, politicians from the very beginning of the nation have invoked the idea that God’s hand has been watching over this country. Lincoln’s rhetoric is filled with such references as are many President’s Inaugural Addresses. Calvin Coolidge comes to mind as an especially Christ-minded president in this time period.

    Comment by Joel — March 7, 2008 @ 9:25 am

  28. Joel,

    Thanks, the Manela book sounds interesting.

    I just finished reading David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas about the building of the Panama Canal. During the construction of the US canal, there was certainly a sense of national and technological superiority that the US was succeeding where France had failed, a result of our superior system of government and our society over the corrupt European nations of the period. Nibley’s comments certainly echo that sense from before WWI.

    Comment by kevinf — March 7, 2008 @ 11:44 am

  29. Obviously didn’t get the tags done correctly, as that is not a quote, unless I am quoting myself. Everything after the title is my language, not McCullough’s, certainly. [Admin: Fixed]

    The canal experience also exposed huge issues of racism and almost a rigid caste system amongst canal workers, who were mostly black men from Barbados and other West Indies islands. Administrators, technically skilled workers, managers, etc, were all white males, and there was a smug condescension towards the foreign workers in housing, pay, food, health care, and advancement. They certainly were not viewed as the equals of Americans.

    Comment by kevinf — March 7, 2008 @ 11:48 am

  30. FYI, Kevinf, don’t get me wrong, we love what you bring to our blog, but citing David McCullough is not going to impress many of us around here.

    Comment by David G. — March 7, 2008 @ 12:28 pm

  31. LOL, I was just glad to have read something non-fiction recently! I’ll be honest, most of my recent non-fiction reading has been Cisco certification books for work! I enjoy playing in your sandbox, and promise not to poop in the corner.

    Comment by kevinf — March 7, 2008 @ 1:04 pm

  32. Kevin: My comment was in jest, except for the part about enjoying your contributions. Keep them coming.

    Comment by David G. — March 7, 2008 @ 1:17 pm

  33. I’m not going away. You need somebody to comment here with an exhaustive knowledge of classic British blues artists of the 60’s and their influence on American rock & roll.

    Comment by kevinf — March 7, 2008 @ 3:02 pm

  34. #30 = “Kevin, play all you want, but don’t poop in our sandbox.”

    That’s funny, even if it wasn’t meant that way. Thanks for the laugh.

    Comment by Ray — March 7, 2008 @ 3:02 pm

  35. Ray, # 34,

    That’s what I read too. These young guys think they know everything, but do they know about the Elvis impersonator suit that Jeremy Spencer left behind when he quit Fleetwood Mac? I think not!

    Comment by kevinf — March 7, 2008 @ 3:13 pm

  36. Ooops, I think I just pooped in the sandbox!

    Comment by kevinf — March 7, 2008 @ 3:14 pm


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