“Free Toleration and Equal Privileges in this City”: Religious Freedom in Mormon Nauvoo

By July 31, 2013

Several years ago I reviewed David Sehat?s then-new book, The Myth of American Religious Freedom. Published in 2011, the book was intended as a corrective to what Sehat characterized as the conventional idea that Americans celebrate an unbroken and unblemished tradition of religious liberty.  Demonstrating that America?s record of toleration and freedom isn?t flawless, Sehat chronicled many episodes of religious discrimination during the nineteenth century Although, as many revisionist texts do, Sehat?s book may have overcorrected, he introduced an important new awareness of the historical reality of not only religious persecution, but subtler forms of establishment coercion that existed in the land of the free during the nineteenth century. Mormons were, quite naturally, a constituency of Sehat?s work, though most of his focus was elsewhere. I expressed in that post my opinion that Mormonism presents a natural point of entry for the study of religious freedom in America. Because of their controversial practice of polygamy and their broad assumption of political autonomy, Mormons were at the center of much national debate over the boundaries of religious freedom in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and this something that scholars like Kathleen Flake, Sarah Barringer Gordon, and now Leigh Eric Schmidt have worked on in various ways. [1] Relatively less has been said, though, about how early Mormons themselves conceived and understood religious liberty. How did this eminently democratic idea, resting on a premise of ideological pluralism, square with Mormon political theology?

The ideology of religious freedom shows up intermittently in the first decade of Mormon thought. Emerging only a generation removed from the giddy nationalism following victory in the War of 1812 and only one or two generations from the Revolution itself, Mormonism had a special consciousness of civil liberty. ?It is a love of liberty that inspires my soul,? said Joseph Smith, explaining that ?civil and religious liberty [were] diffused into my soul by my grandfathers?while they dandled me on their knees.? [2] In 1835, when the Church formalized a statement of its political beliefs, it accentuated freedom of religion and conscience, rejecting the right of governments to prescribe the forms or content of religious faith. Government, it said, ?should restrain crime, but never control conscience; should punish guilt, but never suppress the freedom of the soul.? [3] Social and political conflict with other groups brought urgency and emotion to the emphasis on liberty. Mormons experienced these conflicts as religious persecutions, and they lamented the breach of religious liberties that state and federal governments failed to guarantee for them. This lament became a significant theme of the redress literature. ?We are true Americans,? insisted Parley Pratt in his History of the Late Persecutions, ?we love our country and its institutions.? It was shameful for Mormons, he said, as fully enfranchised Americans, to have their liberties trampled. [4] In a momentary show of defiance on the July 4th celebration in Far West in 1838, Mormons reasserted their their patriotism, rights, and liberties with a stridency that precipitated further conflict.

All of these factors anticipated a more extensive, more complete uptake of religious freedom while the Saints were in Nauvoo. Appeals to religious liberty during persecution had arisen from self-interest, but now Joseph Smith went a step further, signaling his willingness embrace the idea in its entirety. In April 1843, for instance, he insisted that he was sacrifice for the religious freedoms of other religionists. ?Mormons can testify whether I am willing to lay down my life for a Mormon,? he preached to a congregation, and ?if it has been demonstrated that I am willing to die for a Mormon[,] I am bold to declare before heaven that I am just as ready to die for a presbyterian, a baptist, or any other denomination.? This was necessary because, as this statement was later rendered in the History of the Church, ?the same principle which would trample upon the rights of the Latter-day Saints would trample upon the rights of the Roman Catholics, or of any other denomination who may be unpopular and too weak to defend themselves.? [5] Genuine religious freedom, Smith realized, required reciprocity.  In 1841 Smith had acted on this recognition by introducing a city ordinance for religious toleration. The law stipulated that Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Latter Day Saints, Quakers, Episcopalians, Universalists, Unitarians, Mohammedans, and all other Religious Sects and denominations whatever, shall have free toleration, and equal privileges, in this City.? Violators ?guilty of ridiculing and abusing, or otherwise depreciating another, in consequence of his religion,? or those who interfered with religious worship, were subject to a hefty fine (as much as $500) or imprisonment (up to six months). [6]

Despite this, tensions and mixed motives still complicated Mormons embrace of religious freedom. The city ordinance was mostly symbolic?there was no great religious diversity in Nauvoo?and it clearly served Mormons? interests by protecting them from harassment and their meetings from disruption in their own city. Resentment still brewed among Church members over the treatment they had received over the past decade. Roman Catholics, Methodists, and Baptists would have peace in Nauvoo, Joseph Smith said, ?only they must be ground in Joe smiths mill.? Smith claimed that in New York, Ohio, and Missouri, he had been subject to the ?smut machines? of other denominations. Now those who came to Nauvoo ?must go through my smut machine & that is my tongue.? [7] In addition, despite the fact that religious liberty formed a ?cornerstone? of Mormon political theology, it pushed the Saints? political thought to the breaking point. [8] Mormon ?theodemocracy? was an unstable mixture of democratic and theocratic elements, in which the theocratic largely prevailed. Hence, when the Nauvoo Expositor began its run in 1844, the reaction emphasized was public order, not civil liberty. To fully recognize personal liberties, including religious freedom or freedom of conscience, inevitably meant to accept (at some level) a premise of pluralism, This was something Mormons were far from willing to do. As a result, their acceptance of religious freedom was a qualified one.

Nonetheless, in Nauvoo the principle of religious freedom grew into an article of faith; it found a place, in fact, among those fundamentals of Mormonism articulated by Joseph Smith to editor John Wentworth. [9] Events in Nauvoo helped to establish and reify a tradition of religious freedom within Mormon thought. This tradition would become more important, more elaborate, and more active during the political conflicts and turmoil over polygamy and political power in the later nineteenth century. It also forms part of the foundation of the LDS Church’s efforts to preserve and advocate for religious freedom today.


[1] Leigh Eric Schmidt?s recent Tanner Lecture, presented at MHA, explored the indirect relationships between Mormons and American freethinkers in the nineteenth century. Schmidt suggested that religious and civil liberties represent a point where Mormons and freethinkers held a shared interest.

[2] Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1980; rpt., Orem, Utah: Grandin Book, 1991), 229.

[3] Declaration of Belief, circa August 1835 [D&C 134], ID 5472; josephsmithpapers.org.

[4] Parley P. Pratt, Late Persecution of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints? (New York, 1840), xi-xiii. See also xix-xx.

[5] Ehat and Cook, WJS, 229.

[6] Manuscript History of the Church, C-1:1169, ID 7513, josephsmithpapers.org.

[7] Ehat and Cook, WJS, 167.

[8] Patrick Q. Mason, ?God and the People: Theodemocracy in Nineteenth Century Mormonism,? Journal of Church and State 53, no. 3 (Summer 2011): 367.

[9] Manuscript History of the Church, C-1:1285, ID 7513, josephsmithpapers.org.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Great work, Ryan. Thanks for posting!

    Comment by J Stuart — July 31, 2013 @ 12:42 pm

  2. Thanks, Ryan, for this. I’d love to see more work done tracing the evolution (from then till now) you touch on in your final paragraph. Good stuff.

    Comment by Christopher — August 1, 2013 @ 7:07 am

  3. This is great stuff Ryan. As you ably demonstrate, Mormons embodied the dynamic and often contradictory feelings toward disestablishment in the early republic, and thus prove as a potent case study. For later years, Mauro Propertzi (sp?) Had a great article on Mormon views of religious liberty in the C20.

    So, question: is it possible, when discussing both the topic in general and Mormonism in particular, to transcend the narrative of a group trumpeting liberty when they are a minority, only to see it prove as mere-lip service when they gain power themselves?

    Comment by Ben P — August 1, 2013 @ 7:28 am

  4. Great stuff. The first thing I thought of was Mark A-M’s dissy. I think that the very early impulse to create an exclusionary Zion-state challenges any pluralistic impulse.

    Also, “smut machine” is term that has quite the ring to it.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 1, 2013 @ 8:43 am

  5. Very interesting, Ryan.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — August 1, 2013 @ 9:58 am

  6. Ryan, this is admirably done. Nice synthesis, a nuanced look that belies some of our more triumphalist tendencies. You have ?dandled? this subject very well. Further, you have ?man-dandled? it.
    The conceptualization of religious freedom is a bit more straightforward when it deals with inter-religious persecution or coercion and neglect from the state. And this is the context within which the Latter-day Saints initially conceived their own relationship toward religious freedom. But in our day the prevailing context for religious freedom seems to be not persecution per se, but a competition between religious prerogatives and growing secular rights (especially those related to sexual orientation and gender), between pluralism and equality. How can that initial Mormon conceptualization of religious freedom inform our current debates?

    Comment by Nathan — August 1, 2013 @ 10:54 am

  7. Fascinating. About forty years after the Saints left Nauvoo, John Morgan, one of the presidents of the Seventy, spoke on this topic in the Tabernacle. The newspaper reported his comments as follows:

    About half a century ago the Lord revealed His will to a humble youth and it was predicted that his name should be good and evil spoken of throughout the earth. Many of the predictions of Joseph Smith have been literally fulfilled as well as the predictions of the ancient prophets. It was revealed that men’s blood would be shed and their lives sacrificed in the promulgation of the truth. These things tended to the accomplishment of the designs of God upon the earth and the bringing about of that liberty which men wish to enjoy. The time will come when men will have truth and liberty throughout the land. Through the sufferings and toils of the Latter-day Saints, shall these results, in the providences of the Almighty, be brought about. The speaker also referred to those who, under an oppressive system of government, are deprived of liberty and who feel the tyranny to which they are subjected. The time, however, will come when the law will protect men in their religious worship, whether they be weak or strong.

    Comment by Amy T — August 1, 2013 @ 11:02 am

  8. Thanks, all, for these engaging comments.

    Chris: This was a little exploratory venture. I’m considering writing something that traces Mormons’ conceptions of religious liberty throughout the C19.

    Ben: Thanks, I’ll have to look up Mauro’s article. Also, your question about liberty and the power status of a group is a perceptive one. I hope it’s possible to have both power and a respect for liberty, but it certainly takes principled self-restraint and sensitivity to others. I think we have a ways to go in that both nationally and within Mormonism.

    Nate: “Man-dandled”?! I don’t know exactly if or how early Mormon conceptions of religious freedom are relevant today. Certainly an emphasis on how vital religious freedom is remains relevant. But I tend to think that early Mormon understandings of RF were generally limited. Nauvoo’s move toward reciprocity is interesting, I think. But we’re still far from embracing reciprocity fully. If we were fully invested in religious freedom, we’d see statements of support about things that don’t affect us directly, but do affect religious freedom in principle–things like the Park51 “mosque” controversy or the Catholic conflict with the ACA. Until then, I’m afraid the Church’s institutional support for RF remains self-interested.

    Thanks, Amy T, for that quotation!

    Comment by Ryan T — August 2, 2013 @ 11:02 am


Recent Comments

Rachel Helps on Digitized Publications Available from: “BYU also scanned the Exponent II and it's available on archive.org.”

Kent S Larsen II on Digitized Publications Available from: “It’s not just the Scandinavian, German and Dutch publications that are available. Almost all the foreign language publications in the Church History Library are available…”

Matt Harris on Digitized Publications Available from: “C. Terry & J. Stapley: Thanks for these outstanding posts!”

Gary Bergera on Digitized Publications Available from: “This is great and deserves wide circulation. (And J. Stapley's amazing.)”

C Terry on Digitized Publications Available from: “Thanks for all those helpful additions, J Stapley!”

J. Stapley on Digitized Publications Available from: “...and one last one. All of the relevant University digital collections are worth checking out (though as you note BYU's is the most impressive…”