From the Archives: Wilford Woodruff on Vengeance

By November 1, 2007

This post marks the first post in what aims to be a regular feature of The Juvenile Instructor, “From the Archives.” Each post will feature an interesting quote or entry from an early LDS journal, periodical, sermon, or letter. This first installment features Wilford Woodruff’s journal entry for May 15, 1842. At this time, Woodruff was in Nauvoo, Illinois working as editor of the Times & Seasons.

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Vengance is mine. I will repay saith The Lord.

May 15th 1842 Sunday True information has just reached us that the Noted Governor Boggs of Missouri who By his orders expeled ten thousand Latter Day Saints, Has just Been assassinated in his own house & fallen in his own Blood. Three Ball wer shot through his head two through his Brains & one through his mouth, tongue & throat. Thus this ungodly wretch has fallen in the midst of his iniquity & the vengance of God has overtaken him at last & he has met his Just deserts though by an unknown hand. This information is proclaimed through all the papers & By dispatched messengers & hand Bills through the land. Thus Boggs hath died as a fool dieth & gone to his place to receive the reward of his works.

* * *

*Boggs was shot but did not die but has sinc recove[red] from his wounds. [1]

What strikes me about this passage (aside from Woodruff writing such a detailed entry about a death that didn’t happen) is that the entry before it Woodruff is busy preaching and the entry after it simply notes “I spent in the printing office.” What does this reveal about the culture of early Mormonism? Was this seeming attitude of divine vengeance typical of Mormons? Was it at all typical of early 19th-century American culture? Is this attitude at all prevalent in Mormonism today? I imagine most Latter-day Saints today don’t see God’s vengeful hand in others’ deaths, but are we still inclined to see the fate of others as a sign of divine involvement and judgment?

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[1] The entry can be found in Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, Typescript, ed. Scott G. Kenney (Midvale: Utah, Signature Books, 1983), 2: 176; It is also included in Waiting for the World’s End: The Diaries of Wilford Woodfruff, ed. Susan Staker (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1993), 55-56.

*The last sentence was inserted after the initial entry.


Comments

  1. Chris: Great stuff. I’d say that this is typical of Latter-day Saint literature of the period. The Wasp published a letter to the editor calling the attempted murder of Boggs a “noble deed” (May 28, 1842). Wishing vengeance upon the Missourians was part of a complex process by which Latter-day Saints constructed their identities within biblical frameworks and narratives. Wishing vengeance and actually being bloodthirsty though are two different things. I don’t think the Mormons were bloodthirsty–but they did want God to bring vengeance upon their enemies.

    Comment by David Grua — November 1, 2007 @ 1:21 pm

  2. I think that it is hard for modern Mormons to empathize in such matters. While we maintain something of a persecution complex, living through the Missouri war and all the grand visions of Zion first hand would definately flavor one’s perspective. I think that it is not uncommon in Modern Mormonisms to spread at least some of the blame for the war to Saints. You hear things like, “The Mormons weren’t good neighbors,” or “They couldn’t live the law of consecration,” but I imagine for Saints of the period they felt genuinely victimized. With Boggs a something of a personification of the opposition to Zion, it is understandable to have such vehemence expressed. You see similar stuff during the Utah war and the polygamy persecutions.

    Comment by j. stapley — November 1, 2007 @ 1:54 pm

  3. j: I agree. Mormons from the period saw themselves completely as victims. From my survey of the persecution narratives from the 1840s and 1850s I don’t find many Mormons pointing to their own follies as causing their troubles (except during the finger pointing of the succession crisis). That type of narrative structure does begin to show up in the 1880s though, primarily with Roberts.

    Comment by David Grua — November 1, 2007 @ 2:00 pm

  4. I think this is just a human thing, the desire to see negative karma come back and pay it’s toll. Like when we see a person who is always a jerk and nod in almost satisfaction when his wife leaves him or when he gets fired. It relates to our own personal sense of justice, I’d say.

    Comment by Matt W. — November 1, 2007 @ 2:05 pm

  5. Matt: To a degree, yes. But this was also deeply ingrained into their worldview.

    Comment by David Grua — November 1, 2007 @ 2:07 pm

  6. Matt W.,
    Thanks for stopping by and sharing your take. I think David’s right that this can’t be explained as “just a human thing.” This mentality seems to really have been ingrained in early Mormonism’s worldview for precisely the reasons that J. points out – “living through the Missouri war and all the grand visions of Zion first hand would definately flavor one’s perspective.”

    Comment by Christopher — November 1, 2007 @ 3:12 pm

  7. J.,
    You’re right on about the resurfacing of this sort of discourse during the Utah War and polygamy persecutions. In fact, Woodruff himself brings up Boggs again in a couple of his journal entries during 1857 and 1858, in one entry quoting Brigham Young saying that Boggs and others should have been hung “Between the heavens & the Earth” for “expelling the Saints from the states” (journal entry for September 12, 1857).

    Comment by Christopher — November 1, 2007 @ 3:19 pm

  8. In some research I did over the summer, I found the very same theme being played out only four months after this. For almost a whole year after June ’44, almost every poem found on the last page of the Times and Seasons were devoted to the martyrdom. One of the four prominent themes was the belief that God would shortly bring judgment upon the murderers.

    Comment by Ben — November 1, 2007 @ 5:52 pm

  9. Missouri had the power to stir up strong feelings. I think that first the revelations helped create a context for these notions of righteous vengence. Section 103:24-26 (Given to organize Zion’s Camp) echoes Biblical rhetoric in saying, “And inasmuch as mine enemies come against you to drive you…even from your own lands…ye shall curse them; 25. And whomsoever ye curse, I will curse, and ye shall avenge me of mine enemies. 26. And my presence shall be with you even in avenging me of mine enemies, unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.”

    About 8 years later, after his “joy ride” with two Missouri extradition officers, Joseph cited D&C 98 and proclaimed:

    “Shall we allways bear, No. Will not the State of Missouri stay her hand in her unhallowed persecutions against the Saints; if not, I restrain you not any longer, I say in the name of Jesus Christ I this day turn the Key that opens the heavens to restrain you no longer from this time forth. I will lead you to battle & if you are not afraid to die & feel disposed to spill your Blood in your own defence you will not offend me, Be not the aggressor bear untill they strike on the one cheek offer the other & they will be sure to strike that, then defend yourselves & God shall bear you off.” (Words of Joseph Smith, 218).

    I think that a legacy of tension with neighbors and lack of satisfactory redress led the people to turn to the only place where justice could come, from God. The rhetoric doesn’t let up either during similar periods of tension as has been noted. And often at such times similar scriptures are cited. So, it seems to me that this type of vengeful rhetoric colors 19th century LDS thought and discourse.

    Comment by Jared — November 1, 2007 @ 9:16 pm

  10. I am really enjoying this blog so far. This post is very timely considering the discussion that Van Hale has raised about temple oaths to pray for vengeance for martyred prophets. I have been looking into strands of Mormon thought that may have been precursory. Van Hale deals with the mature 1889 understandings and what arose during the Smoot hearings. Missouri and the reaction to Joseph and Hyrum’s death are the early manifestations worth further study. Here is a sample of a few sources:

    The seventies are at liberty to go to Zion if they please or go wheresoever they will and preach the gospel and let the redemption of Zion be our object, and strive to affect it by sending up all the strength of the Lords house whereever we find them, and I want to enter into the following covenant, that if any more of our brethren are slain or driven from their lands in Missouri by the mob that we will give ourselves no rest until we are avenged of our enimies to the uttermost, this covenant was sealed unanimously by a hosanna and Amen. March 30, 1836 Kirtland Temple dedication —Jesse Hitchcock record in Joseph Smith journal, LDS Archives

    I will walk through the gate of heaven and Claim what I seal & those that follow me & my Council The Lord once told me that what I asked for I should have, 32 I have been afraid to aske to ask God to kill my enemies lest some of them should peradventure should repent I asked a short time, since for the Lord to deliver me out of the hands of the Govornor of Missouri & if it must needs be to accomplish it to take him away, & the next news that Came pouring down from their, was Governor Reynolds had shot himself, and I would now say beware O earth how you fight against the Saints of God & shed innocent Blood, for in the days of Elijah his enemies came upon him & fire was Called down from heaven & destroyed them, …. —-Ehat and Cook The Words of the Prophet Joseph Smith March 10, 1844 sermon

    Sunday A 5th attended meeting at the stand, preaching by Elder O. Hyde, upon the removal of the people, the course which had taken and the trials they had endured, and was the design and wisdom of God to try his people in all things whether they would endure & after speaking at some length he called Prest. Joseph Young, who gave an exhortation to the people, to refrain from all evil particularly theiving, love the Bretheren and ever abide in the spirit and power of the Priesthood, so as to overcome evil with good, pray for our enemies for Paul said, “the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but spiritual,” and there is craftiness in this, & keen shrewdness, that their hearts may be softened, toward us, have love to our fellow being for I believe it is the best bullet that a man can carry, spoke of the circumstances of the church, had thought much upon their removal, and did not see how it could be accomplished at present. Brighams counsel is that all the honest in heart be out of this city and county as soon as possible. I will guess how it will be done, and futurity will tell whether I guess right or not. I guess the (sic) bretheren will have to scatter and leave this place, this is [p.13] what I guess, we cant go into the wilderness without food to sustain ourselves for I do not believe the Lord is going to rain down manna from heaven, as long as we can feed ourselves with our own hands, If he does, there will be as great a cause for it, as when it was given to the children of Israel, after speaking at some length upon the course of life that should be persued by the saints, he presumed that the congregation might think he had preached quite a sectarian sermon, but he believed it was good and right and closed. Bro. Hyde, rather replied to him, said he was willing Bro Joseph should love his enemies and pray for them, but he could not, neither would he, love those (sic) who had shed the blood of innocence, and stained their hands with inocent blood, and further more if bro. Joseph should go to Carthage and Warsaw, and deal out the kind of bullets that he speaks of, he would find himself in hell very quick. Spoke upon sacrifice that God had required his people to sacrifice in the last days. He controlled the children of Israel, and required that their alters should smoke almost continually with (sic) sacrifice and burnt incense which caused a stream of blood, almost constantly to flow. To bear off this responsibility he gave his only begotten son that with him, these should be nailed to the cross, and this one sacrifice suffice for the sins of the world. But now who is it that requires us to sacrifice? It is the mob that controlls this matter, and [p.14] they requireing it of us, must bear the responsibility And think ye that they can get clear of it by giving their first born? They have got the burden of this sacrifice to bear. & & – – – Bro. Joseph replied to him that he felt towards his enemies those who had slain the Prophets, as brother Hyde did and his prayer was that the measure they had meeted to the Saints should be measured to them again, but in his remarks he had reference to those among whom we had travel as we went to the wilderness &. “Conference to meet at 6 next Mon.” In the P.M. was with my wife at home excepting a few minutes at Singing School in the Concert hall. Evening at home, my wife very sick through the night. Did not attend prayer at the Temple. Received an offer from bro. Vancott of a team to go west. —-Samuel Richard’s diary April 5, 1846 cited from the New Mormon Studies CD

    Comment by Keller — November 2, 2007 @ 9:14 pm


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