A Narrative of Intolerance: Ann Hutchinson, Roger Williams, Brigham Young

By December 8, 2007

Although Mitt Romney avoided a detailed discussion of Mormonism in his “Faith in America” speech, he did include a brief reference to Brigham Young and the trek west. Romney situated Mormon history within a narrative of religious intolerance in American history:

Today?s generations of Americans have always known religious liberty. Perhaps we forget the long and arduous path our nation?s forbearers took to achieve it. They came here from England to seek freedom of religion. But upon finding it for themselves, they at first denied it to others. Because of their diverse beliefs, Ann Hutchinson was exiled from Massachusetts Bay, a banished Roger Williams founded Rhode Island, and two centuries later, Brigham Young set out for the West. Americans were unable to accommodate their commitment to their own faith with an appreciation for the convictions of others to different faiths. In this, they were very much like those of the European nations they had left.

It was in Philadelphia that our founding fathers defined a revolutionary vision of liberty, grounded on self evident truths about the equality of all, and the inalienable rights with which each is endowed by his Creator.

Richard John Neuhaus noted at First Things that Romney’s “story line doesn’t quite hold up, of course, since Brigham Young was almost a century after the constitutional founding. The implication is that, in the exclusion of the Mormons, we have an instance of America backsliding.” There is a bit of a chronology problem here. In Romney’s construction, Americans “at first denied” religious freedom to others. It’s easy enough to discuss Hutchinson and Williams, because they occurred before the Constitution. But by including Young and the Mormons in the equation, Romney suggests that the Constitution has not always been enough “to accomodate [Protestant] commitments to their own faith with an appreciation for the convictions of other to different faiths.” 

Historian of American religion Paul Harvey has suggested that “one of the most – maybe the most – fundamental paradox and tension of American religious history is the fault line between religious freedom and democracy on the one hand, and religiously-sanctioned intolerance and repression on the other.” Harvey mentions that Native American and African American writers have explored this tension, but he overlooks Mormon contributions to the question. Joseph Smith, for example, wrote not long after the Mormon expulsion from Missouri that it was a travesty that these persecutions had occurred in America, a land

whose institutions are the theme of philosophers and poets, and held up to the admiration of the whole civilized world. In the midst of all these scenes, with which we were surrounded, a persecution, the most unwarrantable, was commenced; and a tragedy, the most dreadful, was enacted, by a large portion of the inhabitants, of one of those free and independent States, which comprise this vast republic; and a deadly blow was struck at the institutions, for which our Fathers had fought many a hard battle, and for which, many a Patriot had shed his blood; and suddenly, was heard, amidst the voice of joy and gratitude for our national liberty, the voice of mourning, lamentation and woe. Yes, in this land, a mob, regardless of those laws, for which so much blood had been spilled, dead to every feeling of virtue and patriotism, which animated the bosom of freemen; fell upon a people whose religious faith was different from their own; and not only destroyed their homes, drove them away, and carried off their property, but murdered many a free born son of America. A tragedy, which has no parrallel in modern, and hardly in ancient times; even the face of the Red man would be ready to turn pale at the recital of it.[1]

Smith no doubt exaggerates his case here, but I think that the core of his argument is sound. In theory America is a land without boundaries for tolerance, but in practice there have been borders erected and transgression of those borders too often has resulted in violence.

Romney of course does not invoke these darker moments from our nation’s past “for the past’s own sake.” Rather, he invokes the past to tell us about the present. Yes, we’ve seen much greater toleration in recent decades, but Romney suggests that “we [not] forget the long and arduous path our nation?s forbearers took to achieve it.”  


[1] Joseph Smith, “Extract from the Private Journal of Joseph Smith, Jr.,” Times and Seasons, November 1839, 9.

Article filed under Current Events


  1. Interesting post, David. William R. Hutchinson’s book, Religious Pluralism in America: The Contentious History of a Founding Ideal is essential reading for any interested in the subject. Hutchinson identifies three stages of religious pluralism–pluralism as toleration (which could be little more than the absence of persecution), pluralism as inclusion, and pluralism as participation.

    He argues that 19th-century Mormonism illustrates “a clear example of the way behavior operated to provoke intolerance or induce tolerance” (53). He concludes that Mormons were granted “the freedom to go elsewhere” and incidentally cites Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams as the other two significant examples that fit this category.

    Comment by Christopher — December 9, 2007 @ 12:55 am

  2. “In theory America is a land without boundaries for tolerance, but in practice there have been borders erected and transgression of those borders too often has resulted in violence.”

    Good point.

    I think Romney going down the persecuted Mormon path would have sounded too much like a plea for pity that would have gotten him nowhere. That said, I would have loved for him to give a captive national audience a lesson in Mormon history about religious intolerance.

    To turn the issue around however, I sometimes get a bit uncomfortable at some of the flag waving from the pulpit in sacrament meeting, especially around Veteran?s Day and Independence Day. It tends to praise America as a land where Mormons can worship as they wish, and assumes that it has always been such. I?m not suggesting that Mormons cling to their persecuted past with zeal?I think we do too good of a job at that and need to move beyond it?but I do wish for a more complicated narrative about the difficult path that got us to this point. Many times Forth of July talks end up telling the American story as if it were also the Mormon story, when in reality those two stories spent the entire nineteenth century and part of the twentieth at odds with each other.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — December 9, 2007 @ 1:20 am

  3. In re-reading the first couple chapters of Hutchinson’s book, I found this statement that seemed appropriate to Romney’s speech and echoed the last sentence of your post, David:

    [W]hereas diversity happened to American religion in the first half of the nineteenth century, pluralism of the kind people now discuss did not arrive until the second half of the twentieth. I believe that Americans and their public policy are only now coming to terms, however grudgingly or opportunistically, with a radical diversification that came crashing in upon the young nation almost at the moment of its birth (Hutchinson, Religious Pluralism, 4).

    Comment by Christopher — December 9, 2007 @ 1:45 am

  4. Chris: Thank you for bringing Hutchison into the discussion. I agree that his work is essential reading. I wonder if Romney read it?

    Paul: I agree that Romney was smart not to overly victimize the Mormons in the speech, although I am glad that he made this brief mention.

    I also agree with your call for a more nuanced understanding of our persecuted past at the popular level. Whenever I hear the kind of talks that you refer to, I hear BY’s voice saying, “Zachary Taylor is in hell!”

    Comment by David Grua — December 9, 2007 @ 3:25 am

  5. David,
    So is your memory study of the Missouri persecutions going to look at how and when the narrative shifted away from Smith?s version?

    With only anecdotal evidence from lived Mormonism, it seems to me that we have two narratives that we currently tell about our past, one is the American master narrative borrowed from the broader society with a Mormon twist. It is the triumphal and inevitable unfolding of the American founding and Constitution so that the gospel could be restored narrative and it ends with us all worshiping happily ever after. The Mormons are the law abiding, apple pie eating, uber Americans in this story. There is generally no thought of Mormons as 19th century law breakers from the passage of the Morrill Act in 1862 onward (or at least from the Reynolds decision forward). Nor is there a sense of the tremendous tension that existed between the Mormons and the federal government for much of the century.

    The other story is of us as a persecuted people driven from Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois to the trackless wilderness. Somehow, when we tell this story, however, it is merely ?mobs? or a renegade governor Boggs, or President Van Buren who are the bad guys, not American democracy or a Constitution that promised religious liberty but failed to deliver. Perhaps the way we tell the second story allows us to tell the first without an acknowledgement of the inconsistency between the two?

    We don?t, in other words, tend to tell our story anymore, at the popular level at least, the same way that you quote Joseph Smith telling it here. Why do you think that is? Perhaps, too, my perceptions are off base and something else is going on?

    Comment by Paul Reeve — December 9, 2007 @ 5:39 pm

  6. In my review of the history of the Mormon church in America, I think it is pretty clear that much of the “religious intolerance” expeirenced had to do with societal intolerance toward plural marriage. From William Law’s publication of the one and only edition of the Nauvoo Expositor to US Supreme Court Justice Bradley’s decision in “The Late Corporation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints v. United States”, 136 U.S. 1 (1890), it is clear that “religious liberty” in this country does not include plural marriage.

    Apparently, three weeks after the Supreme Court declared the US government would take away all of the Church’s property if it did not stop the practice and sanctioning of polygamy, church president Wilford Woodruff had a revelation from God that it was time to stop it, though some members of the Church, including Mitt Romney’s ancestors, moved to Mexico to continue the practice.

    Coupled with the polygamy/religious liberty issue, was the “separation of church and state” issue. Joseph Smith was both revelator/founder of the “restoration” as well as mayor of a city, general of a militia, and presidential candidate. Brigham Young, similarly, was head of the Church and governor of the Utah territory at the same time. Joseph’s Smith’s theology and resulting political philosophy (known as theodemocracy) viewed the US Consititution as a divinely inspired text and he saw the United States (specifically Independence Missouri) as the annointed place where the New Jerusalem will be established when Jesus returns to this earth.

    The history of the Mormon church in America is clearly a complicated one and it is not surprising, given this history, that 36% of evangilical Christians have a problem with a Mormon becoming president. It is also not surprising then that Mitt Romney is not going to go into much detail about his faith with the American public.

    Comment by Fred — December 9, 2007 @ 7:05 pm

  7. Paul: I too have seen these two narratives told at the popular level, without much acknowledgement of the contradictions between the two. I have also noticed a third narrative that in a way combines the two. This third narrative casts nineteenth-century Mormons as innocent victims of persecution, forced to leave an intolerant nation and come to the desert. The Mormon Battalion is crucial to this narrative, because it shows that the Latter-day Saints remained true to the country in the face of betrayal. The narrative then omits the battles over polygamy and concludes that around the turn of the century the American nation became more tolerant. In this version, the Mormons are always good Americans that never change or assimilate, rather it is the nation that changed. I’m not sure how widespread this narrative is, but I’ve heard it in sacrament talks in past wards.

    All in all, I agree that we’ve largely dropped the wholescale condemnation of the nation in the persecution narratives we tell. I’m not exactly sure when this happened, but my guess is that it occured in the first half of the twentieth century. People usually only invoke the past when it’s useful, and in the decades following the Manifesto as the Mormons sought to present themselves as fully committed Americans, condemning the nation didn’t fit well into the narratives Latter-day Saints told about themselves to others.

    Comment by David Grua — December 9, 2007 @ 8:34 pm


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