“As if we had been some savage tribe”: Parley P. Pratt on Mormon Identity

By January 14, 2008

Writing, it was once said, is an instrument of power. Abolitionists used novels to combat slavery, as did anti-polygamy crusaders. Writers have tremendous power to shape images, whether of perceived dangers, or of past wrongs that need to be made right. As Yale theologian Miroslav Volf argues, “to remember a wrongdoing is to struggle against it.”[1] For the Latter-day Saints after the expulsion of 1838 writing was one of the few ways that they could fight back against the Missouri vigilantes and government officials that had expelled the Saints from the state.[2] Parley P. Pratt was keenly aware of the power of writing to shape how the American public understood what had happened in Missouri. While in prison, Pratt wrote an 84 page pamphlet describing the Missouri persecutions entitled History of the Late Persecution Inflicted By the State of Missouri Upon the Mormons, In which Ten Thousand American Citizens were Robbed, Plundered, and Driven from the State, and Many Others Murdered, Martyred, &c. for Their Religion, and All This By Military Force, By Order of the Executive.

Pratt believed that his captors were desperate to stop him from writing. In the preface to his history, he wrote:

The fact is, a goose-quill in our fingers was more terror to the guilty authorities of Missouri, than the sling-stone of the stripling son of Jesse…who, even in that age of wonders, would have believed that a quill, plucked from the wing of a silly goose, and sharpened at one end, when aimed a Republican State, would have made its rulers and people tremble like a Belteshazer, when weighed in the balance and found wanting. Yet so it was in Missouri…They dreaded our pen more than the swords of a legion of Sampsons; they were well aware that this little scribbling goose quill would, if unchecked, work more mightily against their awful proceedings, than the sling stone in the hand of David, or the jaw bone in the hand of the mighty Nazarine against the Philistines.[3]

Pratt believed that through his writings “[t]he world shall know the unparalleled proceedings of this state.”[4] Ultimately, the Mormons lost (they had to leave the state and never regained their possessions), but through Pratt’s and others’ writings the Latter-day Saints succeeded in a remarkable way in shaping how later generations have understood what occurred in the Missouri during the 1830s. A friend of mine recently told me that after reading Pratt’s Autobiography, he hated the Missourians for what they did and wanted desperately that justice should be served.

The ways that we understand the past is filtered through the language used by historical actors to describe what they witnessed. Pratt comprehended the great power of labels and words to construct images of people, as he had experienced this in Missouri himself.

This murderous gang when assembled and painted like Indian warriors, and when openly committing murder, robbery, and house burning, were denominated citizens, white people, etc., and in most of the papers of the State, while our society who stood firm in the cause of liberty and law, were denominated “Mormons,” in contradistinction to the appellation of “citizens,” “whites,” &c, as if we had been some savage tribe, or some colored race of foreigners.[5]

Here Pratt described two competing representations of social relations. In the first, Missouri newspapers constructed the anti-Mormon vigilantes as “white people” and “citizens,” while designating Mormons as “some savage tribe” and “some colored race of foreigners,” thereby robbing the Mormons of not only their whiteness but also their Americanness.[6] In the second set of social relations, Pratt subverts these representations by highlighting their underlying irony. In Pratt’s view, the vigilantes, dressed as non-white and non-citizen Indians, are guilty of committing murder, robbery, and house burning, while the Saints “stood firm in the cause of liberty and law.” One implication is that for Pratt the Mormons are white American citizens, while the vigilantes forfeited their claim to being Americans. Another is that the inhabitants of Missouri condoned the illegal actions of the vigilantes, suggesting that law and order was at an end in the state.

In the remainder of the narrative, Pratt constructed the Mormons as “citizens” while designating the Missourians as “Robbers,” a possible use of the Book of Mormon image of the Gadianton Robbers, and therefore denied the Missourians their identity as citizens and Americans.  This is a typical passage:

Several messages were also sent to the Governor, but he was utterly deaf to every thing which called for the protection of our society, or any of the citizens belonging to it. But on the contrary, he hearkened to the insinuations of the robbers.[7]

Through the medium of writing, Pratt claimed the power that was denied him in Missouri to define himself and his enemies. His message to America was that the Mormons were Americans, denied their rights by the barbaric Missouri robbers, a message that would be challenged in 1841 when the Missouri legislature published legal documents describing “the recent difficulties between the people called Mormons, and a portion of the people of this State.”[8]


[1] Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2006), 11.

[2] During the early 1840s Latter-day Saints produced a tremendous amount of literature describing the Missouri persecutions. Much of this was spurred by Joseph Smith’s directive from Liberty Jail: “And again we would sejest for your concideration the propriety of all the saints gethering up a knoledge of all the facts and sufferings and abuses put upon them by the people of this state and also of all the property and amount of damages which they have sustained both of character <&> personal injuries as well as real property and also the names of all persons that have had a hand in their oppressions as far as they can get hold of them and find them out” (JS to Edward Partridge, 20 March 1839). This directive resulted in hundreds of personal petitions from expelled Latter-day Saints, several full length narratives, and dozens of editorials in the Times and Seasons. Although this is the context within which Pratt’s prison writings should be understood, I believe that Pratt’s desire to write was initiated on his own.

[3] History of the Late Persecution Inflicted By the State of Missouri Upon the Mormons, In which Ten Thousand American Citizens were Robbed, Plundered, and Driven from the State, and Many Others Murdered, Martyred, &c. for Their Religion, and All This By Military Force, By Order of the Executive (Detroit: Dawson and Bates, 1839), iii-iv, 66. The History was reprinted (with, to my knowledge, no alterations, except for a new doctrinal and historical introduction) a year later as Late persecution of the Church of Jesus Christ, of Latter Day Saints : ten thousand American citizens robbed, plundered, and banished; others imprisoned, and others martyred for their religion : with a sketch of their rise, progress and doctrine (New York: J. W. Harrison, 1840). Slightly revised, Pratt also used the History as his text for the persecutions in his Autobiography.

[4] Parley P. Pratt to Mary Ann Pratt, June 8, 1839, Parley P. Pratt Collection, Harold B. Lee Library, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Brigham Young University.

[5] History, 28; Auto, 191.

[6] The relationship between whiteness and minorities has received considerable attention in recent decades. David R. Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class is generally seen as a seminal work in whiteness studies. Whiteness has been applied to studies of Irish, Italians, Mexicans, among other minorities. Paul Reeve is currently pursuing a book progect applying whiteness studies to Mormon history.

[7] History, 30.

[8] Document Containing the Correspondence, Orders, &C. in Relation to the Disturbances with the Mormons; and the Evidence Given Before the Hon. Austin A. King, Judge of the Fifth Judicial Circuit of the State of Missouri, At the Court-House in Richmond, In a Criminal Court of Inquiry, Begun November 12, 1838, On the Trial of Joseph Smith, Jr., and Others, for High Treason and Other Crimes Against the State (Fayette, Missouri: Boon’s Lick Democrat, 1841), 2.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Fascinating post, David. Do you know how widely Pratt’s writings like History of the Late Persecution were circulated? You assert that he was writing to inform the American republic, but I wonder if his writings were even read outside of Mormon circles? In other words, it seems that Pratt succeeded in shaping the understanding of later generations of Mormons, but does the lack of redress afforded the Saints in Missouri (and later Illinois) serve as evidence of an ultimate failure of his intended purpose?

    Comment by Christopher — January 15, 2008 @ 12:01 pm

  2. Excellent questions, Chris. I have yet to find numbers for the press run on either History or Late Persecution. I suspect that because it went into a second edition so quickly, it had a decent circulation among both Mormons and non-Mormons. Pratt’s history was also included in the collection of petitions filed with Congress. In addition, Pratt included some of his poems in letters to family members and encouraged them to get them printed in newspapers across the country, but I have not been been able to verify if that occurred.

    Regardless of the scope of his readership, I suspect that the Mormon redress efforts failed primarily because of the power of state’s rights, not because of lack of effort on the part of the Mormons to publish their version of the story.

    I’ve found some evidence describing how non-Mormons responded to the plight of the expelled Latter-day Saints. Generally, response breaks down by sections of the country, with northerners being sympathetic to the Mormons and southerners being sympathetic to the Missourians. Some northerners despised the Mormons as fanatics but decried the violence perpetrated against them by the slave-holding Missourians, and thus used the persecutions as further evidence of the barbarism of the South.

    Comment by David Grua — January 15, 2008 @ 12:21 pm

  3. ?Here Pratt described two competing representations of social relations. In the first, Missouri newspapers constructed the anti-Mormon vigilantes as ?white people? and ?citizens,? while designating Mormons as ?some savage tribe? and ?some colored race of foreigners,? thereby robbing the Mormons of not only their whiteness but also their Americanness.?

    David, I think you are right on target here. In fact, if you look at the petitions surrounding the Mormon expulsion from Jackson County, they articulate a ?citizen?/ ?Mormon? dichotomy. It is hard to know if this was intentional, subconscious, convenient (such as is the Mormon, ?non-Mormon? divide that Mormons tend to employ), or otherwise, but I think that Pratt is correct to point it out. He pushes it farther than the documents and explores the meaning that it has in the Mormon mind. In a citizen/Mormon dichotomy, then ?Mormon? stands in for non-citizen, ?savage tribe,? ?colored race of foreigners,? etc. The Jackson County documents and even later petitions also describe the Mormon problem as a foreigner problem, that is that Mormon converts from Canada are moving in (darn Canuks). I read it is an effort to cast the Mormons as ?other,? not just religiously, but racially (the documents certainly contain religious complaints, so it?s important not to diminish that aspect of the story). I?m fascinated that Pratt has captured an important element of the ?otherness? and articulated it in 21st century whiteness language. On the surface his views seem way ahead of his time and very self aware; but I think the exact opposite is true. He is well aware of the white/black racial discourse that dominated his time and he wanted to be counted as white.

    You also pick up on Pratt?s description of the Missourian?s as robbers. In his autobiography, page 204 he calls them ?Gadianton Robbers,? a phrase that becomes a cultural discourse among Mormons and comes to carry significant culture specific meaning for Latter-day Saints. My article in JMH (fall 2001) plays around with that idea. Is ?Gadianton Robbers? something that Pratt adds to the autobiography version or is it there in Late Persecutions?

    Finally, I think you are correct again in suggesting that Pratt is asserting a Mormon identity that is an American identity. This theme pops up in a variety of settings (when Congressman James Ashley visits Utah in 1865, George Q. Cannon?s speech touts the Mormons? American credentials; William Hooper does so again in 1869 on the floor of the US House in defense of Utah?s geographic integrity). It is almost as if the Mormons are begging to be included in the 19th century definition of what it meant to be an American and instead they are consistently drawn outside of that definition. Mitt Romney has asserted the same thing, ?I am an American.? Not a startling declaration for a presidential candidate to make, unless you plug into the kind of context that you have, David, and then it fits well within Mormonism?s long standing search for legitimacy and acceptance as white Americans.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — January 15, 2008 @ 1:50 pm

  4. Paul: Thanks for the substantial feedback. I’m fascinated by Pratt’s perceptive analysis of the problem, and his own effort to reverse the construction, with the Mormons as citizens and the vigilantes as “other.”

    Pratt does not use the adjective Gadianton in the earlier work to describe the robbers, only in the Autobiography (1874, p. 260). He at times capitalizes Robbers in History, but he’s not consistent. Although I haven’t been looking for them specifically, I’ve found several such hints in Pratt’s works that Book of Mormon prose and imagery are influencing Pratt’s writing style.

    Given the results of the recent poll, it seems that some contemporary Mormons aren’t all that worried about not being an American (noun).

    Comment by David Grua — January 15, 2008 @ 3:06 pm

  5. David,

    Interesting as always. Not too hard to see the current extension of these ideas of shaping the perceptions via the media. The current presidential campaign has numerous examples of both aiming to inform, or to misinform. Looking at the website of the writer of the screenplay for “September Dawn”, it’s hard not to think that she aimed to reshape the perceptions of the LDS church.

    Too many other examples to list here, but Krakauer’s “Under the Banner of Heaven” is pertinent to LDS culture, while “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels & Demons” have certainly shaped some readers perception of the Catholic Church, and Opus Dei in particular.

    I also note Elder Ballard’s recognition and exhortation to the bloggernacle is also shaped as a means of telling our story.

    Comment by kevinf — January 15, 2008 @ 4:48 pm

  6. Kevinf: I think you’re right about the applicability of these ideas to the present. Writing continues to be an instrument of power, a means by which the past is filtered into the present.

    Comment by David Grua — January 15, 2008 @ 7:04 pm

  7. “Given the results of the recent poll, it seems that some contemporary Mormons aren?t all that worried about not being an American (noun).”

    You are likely correct, but contemporary Mormons don’t have as much at stake as their 19th century ancestors did (or as Mitt Romney does). Think about what it meant to be white in the 19th century (voting rights, access to power, civil rights, acceptability,) and Pratt’s words take on added meaning.

    Do other Mormons remember Missouri in this same way or is this unique to Pratt?

    Comment by Paul Reeve — January 15, 2008 @ 11:31 pm

  8. The reference to the poll was a bit tongue in cheek, as I suspect that most if not all of those that voted “American Mormon” would be offended if their Americanness was challenged or denied.

    Do other Mormons remember Missouri in this same way or is this unique to Pratt?

    Pratt is definitely unique in his keen insights into the racializations that occured in Missouri. It was pretty common for Mormons to cast the narrative in terms of rights and violations, but I’ve yet to see rights connected to race like Pratt does.

    Other Mormons did construct the Missourians as “other,” usually through the “savage” lens, “barbaric” lens, “mob” lens, or “demons in the shape of men” lens. So in that sense, Pratt is not unique in otherizing the enemy.

    Comment by David Grua — January 16, 2008 @ 12:10 am

  9. I suspect that most if not all of those that voted ?American Mormon? would be offended if their Americanness was challenged or denied.

    My Americanness has actually been challenged recently, by one who insists that Mormonism as a system is entirely incompatible with democracy, that we did, are, and ever will seek to overthrow the nation and install a theocracy.

    I wasn’t offended, at least not by the challenge to Americanness — in a twisted, incomplete Jesus-and-Satan-are-brothers distorted kind of way, he’s right. Irritated, yes, at the claim by someone who has no right to make that judgment, but who would deny me the right to vote if he could.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — January 17, 2008 @ 7:02 pm

  10. Nice work David. I have been interested in this subject since encountering what I call “persecution narratives” in my dissertation research. I found that early Mormons, like many other “outsider” groups, had actually constructed a framework for the positive recasting of persecution some time before those difficulties began to show up in any significant degree. A great deal of that, of course, was borrowed from early Christianity. I think that a significant, if somewhat overlooked, feature of early Mormonism was the ability to do important cultural work with these “persecution narratives.” As you suggest here, they were much, much more than simple recitations of wrongs suffered.

    Comment by SC Taysom — January 18, 2008 @ 4:13 pm

  11. SC: Our interests keep overlapping. I too refer to these as persecution narratives. This post will form part of an article I’m writing on Pratt’s construction of memory, to be published in a compilation of essays on Pratt being edited by Matt Grow. The Pratt paper will in turn form part of my MA thesis, which looks at Mormon memory of persecution during the nineteenth century.

    When I get that done, maybe then I can get back to my Bushman Seminar polygamy memory paper.

    Comment by David Grua — January 18, 2008 @ 5:02 pm

  12. Paul: I found an interesting reference where Pratt calls Boggs “Gadianton” that I thought you might be interested in.

    We have just received a few numbers of the Times and Seasons, [Sept. and Oct. Nos.,] from which we learn that Gadiantan [Lilburn] has sent a demand for some of us to come back to Mo. in order to have a trial. Say to him and his band, that I for one, will be there quite as soon as he will wish to see me, and that when I come it will be to have a trial, and a just one too! therefore in his patience let him possess his soul; in the mean time I will be gathering up witnesses, for I only left the dungeon to be gathering up witnesses whom he had dispersed, and thus prepare for trial. Tell Missouri to fear not, for we will never forsake her. (P.P. Pratt to Sidney Rigdon, January 8, 1841, Times and Seasons, April 1, 1841, 365)

    Comment by David Grua — January 18, 2008 @ 6:00 pm

  13. David,
    You know what they say about great minds. The essay look’s interesting I will make sure to check it out when it’s published. By the way, who is publishing Matt’s compilation?

    Comment by SC Taysom — January 19, 2008 @ 1:21 pm

  14. He doesn’t have a publisher set yet, but he’s pitching it to AH Clark.

    Comment by David Grua — January 19, 2008 @ 1:27 pm

  15. Clark seems like a natural place. The U of U Press might also be interested.

    Comment by SC Taysom — January 19, 2008 @ 2:14 pm

  16. That’s a good suggestion. I imagine that USU might as well.

    Comment by David Grua — January 19, 2008 @ 2:27 pm

  17. […] the nineteenth century anti-Mormons often denied that Latter-day Saints were white. Mormon authors fiercely contested this argument, using republican discourses to portray themselves not only as literal but also […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » “the only thing that distinguishes Utah from Georgia is that it does not have jim-crow cars” — September 5, 2008 @ 2:26 pm

  18. Absolutely flooring. As a former member of the LDS church (living in Utah), there is a language of adjectives passed around very much in line with what Pratt used, even to this day. But it isn’t language of the persecuted, rather of conformity to a larger whole, belonging to a majority. Utah and it’s Mormons are almost uniformly died in the wool conservatives, and intensely patriotic. These document show just how easily this language can be used for both sides of the argument, and how seamless a change the Mormons when through from a defiant, persecuted minority to a conformist, protectorate of the majority. Thank you so much for this post, it has deeply resonated with me.

    Comment by Mendel Potok — August 25, 2010 @ 12:58 pm

  19. #18 is the weirdest spam I’ve ever seen.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 25, 2010 @ 1:18 pm

  20. Indeed, Ardis. Advertising a flooring business. What the heck? “Trash”

    Comment by David G. — August 25, 2010 @ 1:53 pm

  21. But he managed to do it with a real, although English-garbled, comment in direct response to this post. Awesome in a way, but weird!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 25, 2010 @ 2:17 pm

  22. Yeah, it must have taken some time to write that comment. Maybe I should get it out of the trash, since I’m sure people will be wondering what it says.

    Comment by David G. — August 25, 2010 @ 3:28 pm

  23. WIN #18

    Comment by SC Taysom — August 25, 2010 @ 3:44 pm

  24. Sorry to have made such a fuss about it, David — it made me laugh, though.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 25, 2010 @ 3:46 pm


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