?We Are Now Rocking in the Cradle of Liberty?: The Memory of Persecution and Images of the West as a Refuge

By March 27, 2008

“The history of our persecutions is unparalleled in the history of past ages.”[1] So argued George A. Smith, leader and historian of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on July 24, 1852 in Utah territory, five years after the Latter-day Saints left their homes in the Midwest and settled in the Great Basin. Smith, like most other Americans, of course ignored the history of oppression of Native Americans and slaves of African descent. For Smith, the only history of persecution that mattered in this context was that of biblical prophets, the early Christians, and all true followers of Christ. What made the nineteenth-century persecutions of the Latter-day Saints “unparalleled” in Smith’s argument was that they had occurred in a free government, with laws designed to protect religious freedom. Reflecting on the fact that none of the Mormons’ tormentors had been convicted of a crime, Smith rhetorically asked his audience: “Ought we not, then, to rejoice, that there is a spot upon the footstool of God, where law is respected; where the Constitution for which our fathers bled is revered; where the people who dwell here can enjoy liberty, and worship God in three or in twenty different ways, and no man be permitted to plague his head about it?”[2] This place where law was respected, according to Smith, was Utah territory.

Smith constructed the Rocky Mountain West against an image of the East as a place of lawlessness. This image of the West was one of several that circulated in the nineteenth century. The academic study of ways that Americans have imagined the West as a region can perhaps be traced to Henry Nash Smith’s 1950 Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. In this path-breaking work, Smith argued that “one of the most persistent generalizations concerning American life and character is the notion that our society has been shaped by the pull of a vacant continent drawing population westward through the passes of the Alleghenies, across the Mississippi Valley, over the high plains and mountains to the Pacific Coast.”[3] Other scholars have followed Smith’s lead in examining alternative images of the West that were constructed by women and other minorities in the region.[4] Scholar of religion Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp has argued that aside from gender and ethnicity, religion was another means by which space in the West was mapped.[5]

As George A. Smith’s speech illustrates, religious violence shaped the Latter-day Saints as a people, and defined how they saw themselves, other Americans, and the states and nation where the violence against them occurred. Scholars of religion Oren Stier and Shawn Landres argue that “[a]trocities render places religiously charged, indigestible in their toxicity…Places of memory are transformed into spaces, some far removed from the sites themselves, where the wounds of the past nevertheless still resonate.”[6] Stier and Landres define the relationship between religious violence, place, and memory “as a cultural product emerging from the negotiation and contestation of meaning within religious frameworks at specific sites marked by violent histories.”[7] Memories of a violent past shaped not only Mormon images of Missouri and Illinois, where the most violent persecutions occurred, but also Latter-day Saint images of the American West as a place of refuge.

Mormons began yearning for a place of refuge as early as the late 1830s, when they were expelled from Missouri. Although Nauvoo, Illinois served for a time as this refuge, the murder of Joseph Smith and continuing opposition convinced Mormon leaders that the perceived isolation of the American West would be the best option for future security. In an 1845 letter, Parley Pratt explained the yearning many Mormons felt for this refuge.

I do exceedingly long for the time to come either we can get out from under such a bondage and out of a country and government where we cannot enjoy the smallest degree of protection from the laws and where we must at the same time be oppressed by them. Is there no deliverance? Must we never be free? Must we never enjoy peace, quite and our political rights in common with other men? Let us hasten the temple and get our blessings therein, and then either seek the Lord for power to break our yoak, and restore the supremacy of the laws; or else entreat him to lead us out of Egypt into some Canaan, some land of rest where we can enjoy his laws and have time and peace enough to “swallow down our spittle.”[8]

A year following this letter the Mormons commenced their migration to the Great Basin. As Anne Hyde has argued, individuals that came to the West fit their descriptions of the landscape within preconceived notions.[9] Likewise, Mormons viewed their new settlements in the Rocky Mountains through preconceived frameworks and constructed the West as a religious refuge.[10]

Latter-day Saints compared their migration and settlement in the West to that of the Pilgrims. George A. Smith argued in an 1854 speech that “like the pilgrim fathers who first landed upon Plymouth Rock, we are here pilgrims, and exiles from liberty; and instead of being driven into the wilderness to perish, as our enemies had designed, we find ourselves in the middle of the floor, or on the top of the heap. Right in the country that scientific men and other travellers had declared worthless, we are becoming rich in the comforts and blessings of life, we are now rocking in the cradle of liberty, in which we are daily growing.”[11] According to Brigham Young, Mormons had come to the isolated desert far from any other white settlements, and built a civilization, largely because in this isolation the Latter-day Saints were permitted to enjoy their religion unmolested and “free from the meddlesome interference of any person.”[12]

Latter-day Saints went so far as to say that the blessings of heaven as well as the spirit of the Constitution had left America behind and gone to the West with the Mormons. Orson Hyde concluded in 1855 that although the Latter-day Saints had brought little with them to the West, they had carried “the good-will and blessing of our God, even the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob”, which would not return to the United States until the murderers of Joseph Smith were punished.[13] Parley P. Pratt explained in his utopian pamphlet “Angel of the Prairies” that after the United States had fallen into decline because of corruption, the Mormons had “retired to the plains of the West, carrying with them the pure spirit of freedom. There, in the midst of a more extensive, a richer and a better country, they had established a government more permanent, strong and lasting, and vastly more extensive and glorious, combining strength and solidity, with the most perfect liberty and freedom.”[14] Mormons therefore concluded that the Constitution was in a sense transferable from the United States to whatever part of the earth where a people carried its spirit, in this case, the American West. In this sense, the memory of past attrocities shaped and influenced how Latter-day Saints constructed their Rocky Mountain home.


[1]  George A. Smith, discourse, July 24, 1852, JD, 1:43.

[2] Ibid., 44. 

[3] Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land: The American West as Myth and Symbol (New York: Vintage Books, 1950), 3. 

[4] See the essays in A New Significance: Re-Envisioning the History of the American West, ed. Clyde A. Milner II (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996) for chapters on Mexican American, Asian American, Native American, gendered, and African American images of the West. 

[5] Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp, “Eastward Ho! American Religion from the Perspective of the Pacific Rim,” in Retelling U.S. Religious History, ed. Thomas A. Tweed (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 127-48. 

[6] Oren Baruch Stier and J. Shawn Landres, Religion, Violence, Memory, and Place (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2006), 9-10.

[7] Ibid., 6.

[8] Parley P. Pratt to Elias Smith, February 15, 1845, Pratt Collection, BYU.

[9] Anne F. Hyde, An American Vision: Far West Landscapes and National Culture, 1820-1920 (New York: New York University Press, 1990).

[10] See Parley P. Pratt, discourse, March 27, 1853, JD 1:85.

[11] George A. Smith, “Reminiscences of the Jackson County Mob, the Evacuation of Nauvoo, and the Settlement of Great Salt Lake City,” July 24, 1854, JD 2: 24.

[12] Brigham Young, “The Constitution and Government of the United States-Rights and Policy of the Latter-Day Saints,” February 18, 1855, JD 2:177.

[13] Orson Hyde, “The Judgments of God on the United States-The Saints and the World,” March 18, 1855, JD 2: 203-204.

[14] Pratt, “Angel of the Prairies,” 19-20.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Memory


  1. Interesting stuff, David. I’m looking forward to your fuller treatment of this subject in print.

    One question: Did the Mormons see the “West” as a whole as a place of refuge, or did they specify the Mountain West/Great Basin region? I’m thinking here of BY’s refusal to continue on to California and the notion that the Great Basin was “The Place” because of its geographic isolation and less-than-stellar prospects (perceived or otherwise) for settlement by others.

    Comment by Christopher — March 27, 2008 @ 9:21 pm

  2. Chris: Good questions. Understanding what was the “West” to nineteenth-century figures is of course a bit tricky, since the West was Missouri and Illinois while everything beyond that was the “Far West.” Although I haven’t done a thorough study yet of all the ways the Mormons construct the region, for the most part they just refer to the mountains or “this place.” You’re right that I could be more consistent in my use of terms, but a central problem of the New Western History’s emphasis on place has been the inability to really define where that place is.

    Comment by David G. — March 27, 2008 @ 11:14 pm

  3. I think the story gets even more interesting during the Civil War which John Taylor declared was God’s punishment for the assassination of the Prophet Joseph. It seem that there was also a sense of interpreting D & C section 87 to mean that the world was coming to an end. It brings to mind the ever-present gaze back toward Zion during the early years in the valley.

    Comment by Joel — March 27, 2008 @ 11:21 pm

  4. I agree Joel that the early 60s gets interesting, especially when word reaches Utah about depredations in Missouri. B.H. Roberts continued to interpret the Civil War in that fashion in the intro to HC vol. 3, but I’m not sure how far into the 20th century it survives in Mormon narratives.

    Comment by David G. — March 27, 2008 @ 11:27 pm

  5. I would assume that it disappeared in the general Americanization that occurred among the Saints before and leading up to World War I, but that’s only a guess.

    Comment by Joel — March 27, 2008 @ 11:34 pm

  6. Thanks, David. One more question: Do any other groups (religious or otherwise) construct the West as a place of refuge? Or is this a uniquely Mormon notion?

    Comment by Christopher — March 28, 2008 @ 10:17 am

  7. I don’t think it was a uniquely Mormon notion, although Latter-day Saint theology and memory certainly constructed the image in a unique way. The idea of a western refuge was one that circulated among both Mormons and non-Mormons during the 1830s (some Missourians suggested that the Latter-day Saints go to Wisconsin where they’d be by themeselves), and of course many non-Mormon politicians suggested to Joseph Smith and Brigham Young that going to Oregon might solve the Mormon problem.

    The West as a region was also at the time seen as a place to stick all Native Americans. In a pre-Gold Rush world, the idea seemed logical that the isolation of the American West would create harmony. I’ve also read of at least one other religious group (I don’t recall the group’s name) that went west for a refuge from persecution, so the Mormons were not the only white group that saw the West in that light.

    Comment by David G. — March 28, 2008 @ 11:23 am

  8. I think Native Americans at times saw the West as a place of refuge. If I remember right, the spiritual center for the Lakota Sioux was in the Black Hills of South Dakota somewhere. I also am thinking of Keith Basso’s Wisdom Sits in Places which explores the Apaches’ unique spiritual relationship with the landscape even today. So at the same time that the government sought to recreate the false image of the white republic by banishing American Indians to the West, these Native American began the process of reformulating the spiritual meaning of the West for themselves.

    Comment by Joel — March 28, 2008 @ 11:55 am

  9. Joel, the two tribes you mention, the Lakota Sioux and the Apache, were already in the West, occupying the Black Hills and southwestern deserts respectively. For the eastern tribes moved to the west, not so much. And efforts to remove the Lakota and Apache as settlers and gold miners moved west created much of the Indian wars and tensions of the 19th century.

    Those who were already there, always revered those places they were removed from, and longed for return. We see the same thing for those places once and still considered sacred to our Mormon traditions. The Nauvoo temple has cemented Nauvoo as a pilgrimage site for LDS members, and the “New Jerusalem” of Missouri, while it may not draw as many visitors as Nauvoo, still looms large in our eschatology.

    Interesting to see that some saw the Mormons in Utah as the “true heirs” of the constitution, something that persists even today.

    Comment by kevinf — March 28, 2008 @ 12:13 pm

  10. Without looking at my notes, I think the BY Office Journal has several entries that treat the Civil War as God’s punishment.

    I am aware of the goofiness surrounding the white horse prophecy, but isn’t the documented idea that the Saints would save the Constitution in peril a reflection of the idea that they had the Constitution with them?

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 28, 2008 @ 9:16 pm

  11. J.: Thanks for the tip about the Office Journal. At this point I only intend to take my research up through the Utah War, but yours and Joel’s comments are tempting me to extend through the Civil War.

    I think you’re right that the two ideas are connected. I intend to look more closely into the ideological use of “the Elders saving the Constitution” thing during the 1850s, but at this point I’ve only looked at one late copy (1904)of the white horse prophecy (first recorded in 1854,iirc).

    Comment by David G. — March 28, 2008 @ 9:47 pm

  12. Yeah, we need a good historiographic study of the WHP. Aside from it though, there are a couple of other sources for the quote. The first is a recollection by James Burgess (Words of Joseph Smith 279). There is also a primary and contemporary account of a different discourse recorded by Martha Coray which is on page 416 (see also footnote 9). This latter account is also published with a lengthy discussion in the “Historians Corner” of BYU Studies 19, no. 3 (1979).

    There are a number of Civil War entries in the BY Office Journal, but see especially February 2, 1861 (203-204 in Collier) and April 11, 1861 (234-5).

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 28, 2008 @ 10:13 pm

  13. […] the Mormons resettled in the Great Basin, they discursively constructed their territory as a place of refuge in contrast to the tyranny of the East. Perhaps due to their insistence on claiming whiteness, […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » “the only thing that distinguishes Utah from Georgia is that it does not have jim-crow cars” — September 5, 2008 @ 3:29 pm


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