“[W]e, the members of the society of the Daughter of Zion…”: The Danite Constitution

By November 20, 2008

All this talk about the imminent publication of the first volume in the Joseph Smith Papers’ Journal Series has brought back a lot of memories about my time spent on the Project, especially 2004-2005 when I worked specifically on this volume. The Scriptory Book, Joseph’s 1838 journal, contains some of our only contemporary references to the Danites from a pro-Mormon source. Another important contemporary document that sheds invaluable light on the organization is the Danite Constitution. We unfortunately haven’t found the original text, so determining authorship by examining the handwriting is not an option. Scholars have speculated that either Sampson Avard or Sidney Rigdon wrote it, but it’s really too difficult to know at this point. I may at some point write a post giving a more detailed discussion about what we know about the Constitution, but for the time being here’s a transcript of it. What strikes me the most about it is the rich republican language as well as the obvious reference to the Declaration of Independence.

Whereas, in all bodies laws are necessary for the permanency, safety and well-being of society, we, the members of the society of the Daughter of Zion, do agree to regulate ourselves under such laws as, in righteousness shall be deemed necessary for the preservation of our holy religion, and of our most sacred rights, and the rights of our wives and children. But, to be explicit on the subject, it is especially our object to support and defend the rights conferred on us by our venerable sires, who purchased them with the pledges of their lives and fortunes, and their sacred honors. And now, to prove ourselves worthy of the liberty conferred on us by them, in the providence of God, we do agree to be governed by such laws as shall perpetuate these high privileges, of which we know ourselves to be the rightful possessors, and of which privileges wicked and designing men have tried to deprive us, by all manner of evil, and that purely in consequence of the tenacity we have manifested in the discharge of our duty towards our God, who had given us [those] rights and privileges, and a right in common with others, to dwell on this land. But we, not having the privileges of others allowed unto us, have determined like unto our fathers, to resist tyranny, whether it be in kings or in the people. It is all alike unto us. Our rights we must have, and our rights we shall have, in the name of Israel’s God.

“ART. 1st. All power belongs originally and legitimately to the people, and they have a right to dispose of it as they shall deem fit. But as it is inconvenient and impossible to convince the peo-[p. 102 ] ple in all cases, the legislative powers have been given by them from time to time, into the hands of a representation composed of delegates from the people themselves. This is and has been the law in both civil and religious bodies, and is the true principle.

“ART. 2d. The executive power shall be vested in the president of the whole church and his counsellors.

“ART. 3d. The legislative powers shall reside in the president and his counsellors, together with the generals and colonels of the society. By them all laws shall be made regulating the society.

“ART. 4th. All offices shall be during the life and good behaviour, or to be regulated by the law of God.

“ART. 5th. The society reserves the power of electing all its officers with the exception of the aides and clerks which the officers may need in the various stations. The nomination to go from the presidency to his second, and from the second to the third in rank, and so down through all the various grades, branch or department retains the power of electing its own particular officers.

“ART.6th. Punishment shall be administered to the guilty in accordance to the offense, and no member shall be punished without law, or by any others than those appointed by law for that purpose. The Legislature shall have power to make laws regulating punishments as in their judgment shall be wisdom and righteousness.

“ART. 7th. There shall be a secretary whose business it shall be to keep all the legislative records of the society, and also to keep a register of the names of the members of the society, also the rank of the officers. He shall also communicate the laws to the generals, as directed by laws made for the regulation of such business by the Legislature.

“ART. 8th. All officers shall be subject to the commands of the Captain General given through the Secretary of War. And so all officers shall be subject to their superiors in rank, according to laws made for that purpose.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins From the Archives


Comments

  1. What a (Lockean?) document.

    I was really struck by their appeal to authority: “it is especially our object to support and defend the rights conferred on us by our venerable sires, who purchased them with the pledges of their lives and fortunes, and their sacred honors.” Hey, don’t knock us, we’re just making sure the American Revolution wasn’t in vain!

    Personally, call me naive but I had no idea that the Danites were this organized; this constitution reveals not only republican ideals, but complex legislative ambitions.

    Comment by Ben — November 20, 2008 @ 7:30 pm

  2. I agree, Ben. It’s a fascinating document. We only have scattered clues as to how the organization really worked, but these clues are enough to add credibility to this document. It certainly isn’t something that Avard could have whipped together on the fly after the fall of Far West in order to incriminate JS.

    Comment by David G. — November 20, 2008 @ 7:39 pm

  3. Very interesting. Makes me wonder if the publication of this document was part of the reason towards a “living” constitution for the RS and C50.

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 20, 2008 @ 7:50 pm

  4. Very militaristic language. “Colonels” and “Captain General”!

    So the President of the Church and his counselors were to be autonomous but the rest of Church positions would be legislated and selected by the body of the saints?

    Comment by Tod Robbins — November 20, 2008 @ 8:01 pm

  5. Makes me wonder if the publication of this document was part of the reason towards a “living” constitution for the RS and C50.

    That’s a very perspicacious comment, J. I hadn’t thought of that connection before, but it certainly makes sense. And Quinn was able to show that many former Danites were part of the C50, so maybe there is a connection. (and, as a side note, the printed version of this document [1841] is wrong in calling the organization the “Daughters of Zion,” rather than the “Daughter of Zion,” which has led to a lot of later jokes about the Danites also including women. In that interpretation, maybe there were also RS members that were Danites ;P)

    So the President of the Church and his counselors were to be autonomous but the rest of Church positions would be legislated and selected by the body of the saints?

    Well, it’s a bit tricky. I don’t read “society of the Daughter of Zion” as being the same body as the church, although you’re right that the First Presidency presided over both organizations, and church members (only men, probably) were part of both. The Danites were modeled after independent militia units. Article 5 suggests a certain order for the society to select the other officers.

    The nomination to go from the presidency to his second, and from the second to the third in rank, and so down through all the various grades, branch or department retains the power of electing its own particular officers.

    Comment by David G. — November 20, 2008 @ 8:19 pm

  6. Fascinating.

    Comment by Clark — November 20, 2008 @ 8:38 pm

  7. Fascinating stuff, David. I wasn’t aware of this document, and second what Ben said about what this reveals about Danite organization, etc.

    Comment by Christopher — November 20, 2008 @ 9:31 pm

  8. Now why have we been wasting so much Bloggernacle breath arguing current politics when we could have been discussing a fascinating document like this one?

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — November 20, 2008 @ 9:37 pm

  9. Good question, Ardis. I think the haze of the election is lifting…

    Comment by David G. — November 21, 2008 @ 10:56 am

  10. What does the phrase “Daughter of Zion” in the preamble refer to?

    Comment by kevinf — November 21, 2008 @ 3:43 pm

  11. come on kevin, it’s only the manliest form or religious zeal….

    (just a humorous way of saying I have no idea either, so hopefully David will explain)

    Comment by Ben — November 21, 2008 @ 3:53 pm

  12. I am struck by the similarities the opening paragraph and some secessionist literature that came a few years later. Like the Danites, the Southern secessionists claimed the “authentic” American/republican heritage and brotherhood with the founding Fathers and Martyrs against corrupted and corrupting tyrants and usurpers.

    Comment by Edje — November 21, 2008 @ 4:10 pm

  13. What does the phrase “Daughter of Zion” in the preamble refer to?

    Kevin, good question. Nineteenth-century commentators were convinced that the phrase was biblical. John Corrill, who ultimately left the Church largely because of his opposition to the Danites and Church’s growing militancy, believed that the name “Daughter of Zion” came from Micah 4:13. From his Brief History,

    They sometimes went by the name of the Big Fan; this, I supposed, was figurative of their intentions to cleanse the chaff from the wheat. They also assumed the name of “The Daughter of Zion,” and afterwards were called “Danites.” Why they assumed these last names I never knew, but always supposed that they took it from the scriptures, which speaks of them, the first prophetically, and the last historically. (See Mich. iv. 13, read the whole chapter; also Judges, xvii. & xviii. chapters.)

    Here’s Micah 4:13

    13 Arise and thresh, O daughter of Zion: for I will make thine horn iron, and I will make thy hoofs brass: and thou shalt beat in pieces many people: and I will consecrate their gain unto the Lord, and their substance unto the Lord of the whole earth.

    This has added credence given that the phrase “I will consecrate their gain unto the Lord” was reported at the time to have been used as a justification by the Danites to “appropriate” the property of the Gentiles during the 1838 violence.

    As I mentioned in #5, when the Constitution was published in 1841, the printer accidently added an “s” to the name, so it came out as “Daughters of Zion.” Since most scholars just rely on the printed version rather than the manuscript, this has resulted in misidentifying Isaiah 3:16 as the source of the name:

    16 Moreover the Lord saith, Because the daughters of Zion are haughty, and walk with stretched forth necks and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go, and making a tinkling with their feet:

    Now, can you imagine Sampson Avard and the rest of the Danites finding inspiration in this verse? It does provide a humorous image.

    Comment by David G. — November 21, 2008 @ 5:10 pm

  14. I am struck by the similarities the opening paragraph and some secessionist literature that came a few years later. Like the Danites, the Southern secessionists claimed the “authentic” American/republican heritage and brotherhood with the founding Fathers and Martyrs against corrupted and corrupting tyrants and usurpers.

    Good call, Edje. This “imagined” connection between the Danites (and the later secessionists) and the revolutionary generation is all over the place in Mormon literature from the ’30s and ’40s describing the persecutions (I’ve got a bit on that in my thesis). It’s fascinating in terms of identity construction.

    Comment by David G. — November 21, 2008 @ 5:20 pm

  15. I suspect the living constitutions reflect a transition from republicanism to something scholars would probably try to call hermeticism. The risk of embarrassment and incrimination was real and risky–JSJ’s frequent comments about the need for secrecy and the ability of Masonry to support that secrecy support this. I’ve read this Constitution before and enjoyed the glimpse of a particular worldview. Does Ken Winn deal with this?

    I’ve started considering that Danites _might_ represent an experiment with Masonic fraternal forms. I haven’t decided entirely–it certainly failed miserably.

    Comment by smb — November 21, 2008 @ 6:21 pm

  16. I think that is a tough line to draw, Sam, between republicanism and hermeticism (or whatever one might want to call it). I think we first need to answer the question of what purpose these constitutions served. That isn’t particularly clear to me at this point; but they were obviously important.

    Perhaps in the context of the C50, the rules of the Kingdom served a similar purpose as the constitution did for the Danites (and 107 did for Church ecclesiastics?) The living constitutions did allow for more power to be centralized; in that way perhaps there is a trend from republicanism to monarchy.

    I haven’t given this much thought, so these are just random musings.

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 21, 2008 @ 6:48 pm

  17. David, do you think it was texts like this JS was trying to distance himself from when he wrote this in 39?

    And again I would further sejest the impropriety of the organization of bands or companies by covenant or oaths by penalties or secrecies but let the time past of our experiance and suferings by the wickedness of Doctor Avard suffise and let our covenant be that of the everlasting covenant as is contained in the Holy writ. and the things that God hath revealed unto us. Pure friendship always becomes weakened the verry moment you undertake to make it stronger by penal oaths and secrecy. Your humble servant or servants intend from hence forth to disapprobate every thing that is not in accordance with the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ and is not of a bold and frank and an upright nature…

    We had a post and discussion on this text here.

    Comment by Ben — November 21, 2008 @ 6:54 pm

  18. Sam, Winn mentions it but doesn’t analyze it, IIRC.

    I’ve started considering that Danites _might_
    represent an experiment with Masonic fraternal forms. I haven’t decided entirely–it certainly failed miserably.

    Alas, I can’t find it now, but I remember Nick L. leaving a comment somewhere saying that he argues in his book that the Danites had Masonic influences.

    Comment by David G. — November 21, 2008 @ 6:59 pm

  19. Ha!, thanks for that link, Ben. It was on that thread, comment 4.

    During the early history of Mormonism, Joseph made several abortive attempts to create this “Masonic restoration,” among which was the Danite movement. Existing records (some of which, as noted above, are critical) describe initiation ceremonies which are clearly based on Masonic ritual. In addition, individual Danites who dropped from church activity later became involved with a non-Mormon vigilante group, also calling itself “Danites” with full recognition of the earlier Mormon usage. This group is even more readily recognized as Masonic in structure, even to the point of holding its meetings in local Masonic halls.

    And yes, I think JS was referring in general to the Constitution, although the JS quote doesn’t refer to “texts” really, but rather organizations, societies, and oaths.

    Comment by David G. — November 21, 2008 @ 7:01 pm

  20. David: neither of us is that smart–JCB in Hx Saints makes the claim very explicit. I think that a certain level of mimicry is quite likely. the question is always how much by whom and to what actual end, I think. I’m eager for Nick to get the book done. I had to write a whole section on Masonry for my temple chapter essentially because the lacuna remains. I’d be glad to be able to fill it with a footnote.

    re: 19, my vague memory is that JSJ and others claimed that Avard had manufactured the Constitution–Gentry certainly makes a lot of the point that no one had seen or heard of it until Avard produced it. has that been hashed out historiographically?

    Comment by smb — November 21, 2008 @ 11:36 pm

  21. I have a vague memory of that JS quote, but I’m not sure if we can take it quite a face value (I think it’s in a petition for habeas corpus from Liberty, so he’s putting as much distance between himself and Avard as possible). I think Corrill made the point explicitly that he hadn’t seen the document before (but he attended two Danite meetings and had had enough). I at one point compiled a lot of notes on who said what about the constitution, but alas, those notes are on a computer that I can’t access right now.

    As for secondary sources, I think Gentry is the most adamant that Avard made it up. Everyone else just mentions that Avard included the Constitution in his testimony in Nov. 1838, gives a sentence or two describing it, and then goes on. No one’s really hashed out a good study of it.

    Comment by David G. — November 22, 2008 @ 3:59 pm

  22. thanks, d. one of the Russian converts whose oral history I collected in the 1990s remembered that she learned about Mormonism from Studies in Scarlet, which of course features the (late, mythic) Danites. I’ll confess I just haven’t got that curious beyond my memory of our pleasant laugh about Conan Doyle as a missionary for the church.

    Comment by smb — November 22, 2008 @ 8:02 pm

  23. Pardon my ignorance. This is fascinating. Who is the “Dan” in Danites? How do we get from society of Daughters of Zion (which was amazing to me) to Danites?

    Comment by jeans — November 23, 2008 @ 8:07 am

  24. they’re competing names for the same group. they were also, as i recall, the brothers of Gideon. this last is a reference to Jared Carter’s brother Gideon; the other two are Bible references.

    Comment by smb — November 23, 2008 @ 4:14 pm

  25. Jeans, no need to apologize. Like Sam said, the group had several different names, although “the Danites” is the name that has stuck in legend and history. Most scholars believe that the name Danite refers to the tribe of Dan, which is portrayed as being the most warlike of the tribes. But there is another theory that it comes from the book of Daniel, as according to Avard, Joseph Smith commissioned the Danites to bring forth the Kingdom, as spoken of by Daniel. I’m more partial to the first explanation, given the connotations of the society of the Daughter of Zion (see my comment 13).

    Comment by David G. — November 24, 2008 @ 9:11 am

  26. To be fair to those who take “Daughters” for “Daughter”, read on beyond Isaiah 4 to Isaiah 5:

    2 In that day shall the branch of the Lord be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the earth shall be excellent and comely for them that are escaped of Israel.
    3 And it shall come to pass, that he that is left in Zion, and he that remaineth in Jerusalem, shall be called holy, even every one that is written among the living in Jerusalem:
    4 When the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and shall have purged the blood of Jerusalem from the midst thereof by the spirit of judgment, and by the spirit of burning.

    This doesn’t fit the Danites like Micah, but at least it does speak of a cleansing and a purging of Israel. No more tinkling feet.

    Comment by Mark B. — November 25, 2008 @ 4:37 pm

  27. […] The Danite Constitution […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » From The Archives: Posts You Might Have Missed, November-December 2008 — July 6, 2009 @ 12:55 am


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