From the Archives: The Mormon Problem in the Mind of Freethinkers, circa 1886

By October 29, 2013

At the annual meeting of the Mormon History Association in June, historian Leigh Eric Schmidt delivered a fascinating Tanner Lecture on “Mormons, Freethinkers, and the Limits of Toleration” (a helpful summary of his remarks can be found here). Among other things, I was struck by Schmidt’s discussion of the occasional moments of  agreement between Mormons and Freethinkers in the late 19th century. It was, most often, their mutual distrust and dislike of mainline Christians that afforded them these brief instances of mutual respect and accord.

I recently browsed through several issues of The Truth Seeker, a prominent 19th century newspaper devoted to “freethought and reform,” in search of something entirely unrelated to Mormonism.[1] But as I did, I came across a couple of articles on Mormonism. In the May 15, 1886 edition of the paper, Samuel B. Putnam, the secretary of the American Secular Union, reported on his recent visit to Utah. Among other things, Putnam noted with pleasure that “there are many Liberals at Ogden,” including some former Mormons. “Mr. James B. Stoddard was born in Mormonism,” he reported. “He, however, has a keen and fearless mind, and has broken away from the trammels. He will do much for Freethought by his influence and ability.”

Two weeks later, on May 29, The Truth Seeker published an article on “The Mormon Problem” by Mr. Stoddard. Thinking that it would present an interesting complement to Schmidt’s discussion of Freethinkers’ opinions of Mormons and Mormonism, I present it here in full. As always, original spelling, grammar, and capitalization has been retained.[2]

The Mormon Problem.

The Mormon problem is a question that has demanded a solution from the time of the first revelation of the prophet Joseph Smith up to the present moment. It has been attacked by the clergy, by the press, by the civil and military forces, by mobs, and by statesmen, but it has successfully resisted all the assaults that hav been made upon it. It has been driven and persecuted from the state of New York across the continent to the valleys of the Rocky Mountains. Its prophets were slain and its people forced to leave their homes in the midst of winter. Women and little children were driven, at the point of the bayonet, out into the desolate wilderness, where their footsteps could be traced by the tracks of blood in the driving snow. The history of Christianity is plainly visible in every attempted solution to this problem. Christians could not successfully combat them with scriptural argument, so they adopted the final argument of force and persecution, such as they hav always done. Every effort has been made to solve the question, but they hav all completely failed, and Mormonism is gaining strength and power from every new assault. It is truly said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Some think that sectarian churches will produce the desired result, but they are mistaken, because the Mormons hav all the Bible they hav and two new ones of recent revelations. So that instead of Christian churches teaching the Mormons the right dogmas, the Mormons can teach Christians three to one. The Mormons follow the law of God as laid down in the Bible, and the Christians don’t. They practice polygamy; they hav the Aaronic and Melchezdic priesthoods; they hav apostles and prophets and revelations; they perform miracles, and their system is an exact copy of the Bible, and they follow its teaching literally, while the Christians follow but very little of it. Therefore, sectarian churches will fail here. The printing-press is supposed to be the instrument that will bring the Mormons into line, but they use it with as much force to preserve their doctrins and build up their kingdom as it is used to oppose them. Mob law and murder hav been tried but they always resulted in the advancement of Mormonism. Laws hav been enacted and Mormons hav been convicted and imprisoned, but this only solidifies the organization of the church and makes the members more enthusiastic and determined than ever; and all this confirms the Mormon in his belief, and he will quote numerous passages of scripture to sustain his position, among which are:

Blessed are ye, when all men revile you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely; rejoice and be exceeding glad, for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

If ye were of the world, the world would love you, but as ye are not of the world, the world hates you.

The writer was born and raised a Mormon. I was taught by my mother that Mormonism is the only correct government on the earth; that it is the kingdom of God, and all other kingdoms and nations of the earth will be destroyed. She told me that Brigham Young was the greatest and most powerful man on the earth, that he was the agent of God, and that God communicated with him daily. She believed in and practiced polygamy when it tortured the heart and life out of her. She believed in witches, and told me of an old woman, a neighbor of ours, who bewitched our sheep so that they all died. I merely relate this to show the mental condition of the best people of this territory. But, after having such a superstitious, theological training, I outgrew it all when the light of science and education shone on the dark clouds of superstition that had benighted my mind. And so I say that education—scientific education—will solve the “Mormon problem;” and it is the only thing that will or can do it.

Mormonism is a theocracy that is opposed to republicanism. It reverses the doctrins that all men are equal and endowed by certain inalienable rights; that all laws should come from the consent of the governed; that the people are the source of all politcal power, and asserts in lieu thereof as set forth in .he publications of the church, written by Orson Pratt in 1848-9:

The Kingdom of God is an order of government established by divine authority.  It is the only legal government that can exist in any part of the universe. All other governments are illegal and unauthorized. God having made all beings and worlds has the supreme right to govern them by his own laws and by officers of his own appointment. Any people at-attempting to govern themselvs by laws of their own making and by officers of their own appointment are in direct rebellion against the kingdom of God. All emperors, kings, princes, presidents, lords, nobles, and rulers, hav acted without authority. Their authority is all assumed ; it originated in man. Their laws are not from the great law-giver, but the production of their own false governments. Their very foundations were laid in rebellion, and the whole superstructure, from first to last, is a mass of discordant elements in direct opposition to the kingdom of God, which is the only true government which should be recognized in earth or in heaven. The kingdom of God is a theocracy, and as it is the only form of government which will redeem and save mankind, it is necessary that every soul should be rightly instructed in regard to its nature and general characteristics.

Parley P. Pratt, one of the apostles, says:

To take a republican form of government, and set it up as a standard, would be to set the Jews and ten tribes, when they get home, to creating their own government, religion, and officers. Who ever heard of a nation’s rising up and making its own ministry of angels, its own prophets, apostles, and priesthood, to speak the word of God and to inquire of him?

Such is the Mormon idea of government. Such men and such a people should hav nothing to do with civil government in the United States.

If every civil right were taken away from this people they would then hav all that they ask or acknowledge. They deny the authority of a republican form of government, and assert that the only legal government is a theocracy. According to their own statement they ” are in direct rebellion against the kingdom of God” when they “attempt to govern themselvs by laws of their own making and by officers of their own appointment,” and therefore they are working against themselves, and they should hav their rights protected by Congress preventing them from rebelling against the kingdom of God. “All rulers hav acted without authority” in man-made governments. ” Their authority is assumed,” and I agree with them. They are acting without authority, and their authority is assumed in Utah. They are acting contrary to their own principles and against ours. What a happy agreement, and what an easy solution of the “Mormon problem” they hav furnished us from their own standpoint! In their own words, “their very foundation was laid in rebellion, and the whole superstructure, from first to last, is a mass of discordant elements in direct opposition” to the government of the United States, “which is the only true form of government that should be recognized on earth or in heaven.”

If Congress would pass a law harmonizing with the foregoing, and would require every citizen t o choose which government he will swear allegiance to, everybody in this country will hav his rights, and everyone will receive all that he desires at the hand of Congress.

With such a mutual arrangement as this, and plenty of scientific free schools, with good secular teachers, our fair territory would soon be free from the thraldom of superstition, the rule of priestcraft, and the bitterness of feeling that exists between the subjects of the kingdom of God and the freemen of the republic.


Ogden, Utah.[3]



[1] It will surprise perhaps no one that I was looking for something related to Methodism. In her summary of Dr. Schmidt’s recent lecture at Florida State University on “Public Atheism: An American History,” Emily Clark noted that he had mentioned a “cartoon [that] contrasted [Thomas] Paine as the defender of liberty and a tyrannical John Wesley.” I’m currently in the middle of writing a dissertation chapter that looks at the Methodist experience during and immediately after the American Revolution, and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go searching for that cartoon. It did not disappoint, to say the least.

[2] The Truth Seeker routinely ommitted “e” from words, including “hav,” “themselvs,” and “doctrins.”

[3] James B. Stoddard, “The Mormon Problem,” The Truth Seeker, May 29, 1886, 339. It is a happy coincidence that Stoddard included the bit about his mother having “believed in witches, and told me of an old woman, a neighbor of ours, who bewitched our sheep so that they all died,” with Halloween later this week. Is there any good literature on Mormon attitudes toward witches and witchcraft?

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Christian History From the Archives


  1. That was pure D awesome. Omitting “e” and sometimes “y” was a common feature of handwriting. Interesting that it makes in into print. And witches!

    Comment by WVS — October 29, 2013 @ 10:47 am

  2. Fascinating, Chris. It’s interesting to see how Stoddard, as a former Mormon-turned-Free Thinker, describes the ideological battles between Mormons and mainstream Protestants.

    Comment by David G. — October 29, 2013 @ 3:07 pm

  3. Thanks, guys. As LES pointed out in his MHA address, Mormons and Freethinkers found some common ground in their shared denunciation of Christian hypocrisy. That comes through here, as you note, David. I plan on posting another article authored by Stoddard at some point in the future, which further drives home some of these points.

    Comment by Christopher — October 30, 2013 @ 8:31 am

  4. Thanks, Chris. A nice supplement to LES’s intriguing lecture.

    Comment by Ryan T. — October 30, 2013 @ 10:20 am


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