Guest Post: James Egan, ?Sermonizing with Heathens?

By November 15, 2013

JI would like to welcome James Egan. He is a third-year law student at Brigham Young University who studied literature and political philosophy at the University of Utah.  He reads JI  regularly and loves jazz music. 

I must confess at the outset of this post that I am most definitely an amateur when it comes to Mormon history. (If I had the guts, I?d confess that I am in fact a law student.) So with the all-too-convenient excuse for ignorance that my amateur status afforded me (I trust I haven?t lost it yet), I thoroughly enjoyed participating in the annual Maxwell Institute Seminar, which gave time to dive into the deep well of early Mormon primary documents. I spent a good portion of my time in the Utah sermons of the latter half of the 19th century, and my paper for the seminar?s symposium[1] grew out of a fascinating remark in one of Brigham Young?s earlier sermons. During one of his many calls for gathering truth from every corner of the world, Young pointed the saints to ?pagans of all countries? and made the remarkable claim that ?in their religious rights [sic] and ceremonies may be found a great many truths which we will also gather home to Zion.?[2] I ended up writing about the elements of Mormon intellectual history that made it possible for Brigham Young to entertain the possibility that pagan or heathen[3] ritual would be a part of Mormon gathering, but along the way, I spent a little time considering how other invocations of heathen nations functioned rhetorically in Young?s sermons.[4]

In light of the reasons for Mormon settlement in Utah, it isn?t any wonder that Mormon sermonizing often took a polemical posture toward American Christianity. Church leaders often extended this polemic to the Christian West more broadly. Note, for example, the way Native Americans and the people of China and India function in this critique of colonialism from Brigham Young:

These tribes of Indians differ from one another in their sentiments and feelings; they war with each other, and try to destroy each other; and why do they do it? Why, ?you are not as righteous as I am, and I want to bring you over to my holy faith.? You see these bands of Indians doing these things, and you spurn the idea. Suppose you extend the principle, and carry it among the greatest nations of the earth; and you would see Queen Victoria, one of the most powerful sovereigns, sitting at the head of one of the most powerful nations upon the earth, sending her forces among these ?celestial? ones, battering down the walls of China, bombarding their cities, throwing confusion into their States, and destroying thousands of their people?extending their sway of empire over India. And why all this? ?To subdue you heathens, and bring you over to our more enlightened customs and religion.?[5]

Mormons had experienced savagery in white America, and they had theological reasons to be skeptical of the Christian West?s claim to superior enlightenment, so they saw plenty of reasons to criticize their fellow Christians for condescension towards and imperial conquest of nations that did not acknowledge the ?true God.? Christians in the West described the traditions of these heathens as ?barbarous? and ?unenlightened? without acknowledging the violence and errors of their own traditions. In pointing out this hypocrisy and thereby debasing the self-assured Christian West, Young indirectly exalts his debased Mormon people.

Sometimes the triumphal tone of Mormon jabs at their fellow Christians got a little out of hand, and it?s no surprise that Young gives us my favorite instance of this humorous audacity:

[H]ow long would it take us to circumscribe the religion of the ?Mother Church,? the ?Holy Catholic Church?? Cannot we learn the principles of that church in a very few years? We can study her theology until we get all the knowledge and wisdom to be had upon every point of doctrine contained in her from first to last. Go then to the Church of England, and from that to the latest and last reformer that lives upon the earth?and how long would it take to circumscribe every particle of their religion from first to last? Not long.[6]

If we only chuckle at this passage, though, we miss the instructive look it provides us at the sense of expansiveness that attracted Mormons to the faith.[7] And talk of this expansiveness (over and against the confining creeds of Christendom) often involved talk of heathens.

One rhetorical use of heathens in the early Utah sermons was the indirect attack on the creedal conception of the Trinitarian God. Speaking of heathens, Young claimed, ?They believe nothing in religion as we suppose, yet their ideas of God and heaven are far above those entertained by professed Christians. They believe in a God who has body, parts and passions, possessed of principle and power; who can see, handle, walk, talk and communicate.?[8] Invocation of heathen nations was also central?even indispensible?to the exhibition of Mormonism?s expansive view of salvation. ?Millions . . . have passed away,? Young declared, ?both in the Christian and in the heathen worlds, just as honest, virtuous and upright as any now living. The Christian world say they are lost; but the Lord will save them.?[9]

When it came to talking about heathens, Mormons had interesting rhetorical incentives. On the one hand, they had reason to debase heathen people. Describing heathens as ?the lowest and most degraded of Adam?s lost race,?[10] for example, emphasized the boundlessness of the Mormon God?s mercy and the crowdedness of the kingdoms of glory it populated.[11] On the other, they had reason to exalt the intelligence and religious insight of heathens in order to better combat the theological errors of their fellow Christians and, at times (as in Young?s remarks about heathen ritual), to spur fellow Mormons to contemplate the errors of their own situation, expand their vision, and search for truth.

Speaking about how Mormons thought of Native Americans as ?savages? and ?heathens,? Young asserted:

Let yourselves be divested of prejudice; let it be entirely forgotten and out of the question, together with all your education, and former notions of things, your religious tenets, &c., and let your minds be in open vision before the Almighty, seeing things as they are, you will find that that very people know just as much about the Lord as anybody else; like the rest of mankind, they step into a train of ideas and ordinances, peculiar to the prejudices of their education.

. . . Let me step over into England, and carry with me my Yankee notions and manners, and I should be a burlesque to them. Let an Englishman pass over into Scotland, and speak and act according to English customs, it would differ so far from them, that they would laugh at him. Let a Scotchman or an Englishman go to Ireland, and it would be just the same. This difference of feeling, sentiment, and custom, exists in those countries that are so near each other. If you go to France, you find that they walk over the customs and manners of England, as unworthy of their notice. Should you thus go, from one people to another, throughout all nations, you would find that they differ in their religions and national customs, according to the teachings of their mother, and the priest. In this manner the consciences of mankind are formed?by the education they receive. You know this to be true, by your own experience.[12]

This quote is fascinating to me not only because it avoids describing heathens as uniquely imprisoned in a primitive culture, but also because Young appeals to human experience rather than the Book of Mormon as his authority. Of course, the Book of Mormon has a lot to say about the power of tradition and the religious problems that attend it, but Young did not feel the need to appeal to scripture to establish the point. Common experience, he thought, convincingly demonstrated that all people see the world through a worldview they inherit from the ?traditions of their fathers.? He appealed to common experience to prove the need for divine communication. His Mormon audience was to forget their ?prejudice? and even their ?religious tenets.? America?s heathens knew ?just as much about the Lord as anybody else.? Since they were embedded in tradition like any other people, the argument seems to go, Mormons needed their vision to be enlightened by God. Transcending tradition came by way of fresh revelation (?let your minds be in open vision before the Almighty?), and it was fresh revelation that set the Mormon tradition apart from others.[13] Parley Pratt described Mormons as a people ?placed as it were on an eminence? because they are ?favored with the light of heaven by which they can contemplate the history of the world in its true light? and understand ?all the kingdoms of the world,?[14] and similar effusiveness about what he saw as Mormonism?s privileged vantage point on the world was not foreign to Brigham Young?s sermons.[15] Indeed, read alongside his audacious claims for the special calling Mormons had to discern and gather up all the truth of Christendom and the broader world, the basic theological tension of Young?s argument about heathen tradition is made manifest: can Mormonism be both similar to and especially set apart from other traditions? Can it be both an expansive and an exclusive tradition? The question was relevant for Mormons then, but it is even more relevant now, as the Church grows increasingly across the globe in both Christian and non-Christian nations.

[1] James Egan, ?A Flood of Light and an Abyss of Darkness: Mormons, Heathens, and Bringing Truth Home to Zion,? Maxwell Institute Summer Seminar Working Papers 2013.

[2] Brigham Young, October 9, 1859, Journal of Discourses, 7:283?84.

[3] The 1864 edition of Webster?s Dictionary equates pagans and heathens.

[4] My historically minded friends remind me that the style and diction of the sermons in the Journal of Discourses were occasionally heightened during transcription.

[5] Brigham Young, August 8, 1852, Journal of Discourses, 3:88.

[6] Brigham Young, July 11, 1852, Journal of Discourses, 1:39.

[7] Young himself provides a colorful example of this excitement at the expansive feel of Mormonism. ?When I undertook to sound the doctrine of ?Mormonism,?? he said in 1853, ?I supposed I could handle it as I could the Methodist, Presbyterian, and other creeds of Christendom.? But when he tried to take hold of Mormonism, he explained, ?I found it impossible to take hold of either end of it; I found it was from eternity, passed through time, and into eternity again.? Brigham Young, April 17, 1853, Journal of Discourses, 2:123.

[8] Brigham Young, Sept. 25, 1870, Journal of Discourses, 13:247. These remarks from Daniel H. Wells put the Mormon attack on the creedal conception of God in its starkest terms: ?The world have no just conceptions of the Deity; even the Christian world are without the knowledge of God as much as the heathen nations. This may be deemed a sweeping declaration, but it is susceptible of proof, if we take the Scriptures for our guide and as the foundation of our argument; that is, if the Christian world believe as they profess to do. I do not care to illustrate at this present time, or to bring evidence to bear to sustain my position, to a people who understand these arguments and principles, and who have learned better things, as is the case with this congregation.? Daniel H. Wells, May 5, 1870, Journal of Discourses, 13:350.

[9] Brigham Young, April 24, 1870, Journal of Discourses, 13:328-29. Almost twenty years earlier, Young declared, ?You may go among the Pagans, or among all the nations there are, and they have their religion, their sacraments, and ceremonies, which are as sacred to them as ours are to us: they are just as precious and dear to them, though we call them heathen. They are idolatrous worshippers; yet their religion is as sacred to them as ours is to us. If they live according to the best light they have in their religion, God is God over all and the Father of us all; we are all the workmanship of his hands; and if they are ignorant, filled with superstition, and have the traditions of the fathers interwoven like a mantle around and over them, that they cannot see any light, so will they be judged; and if they have lived according to what they did possess, so they will receive hereafter. And will it be glory, you may inquire? Yes. Glory, glory, glory.? Brigham Young, August 15, 1852, Journal of Discourses, 6:292-93.

[10] Brigham Young, April 24, 1870, Journal of Discourses, 13:329.

[11] Incidentally, the worst condescension I found in a reference to heathen nations was in a letter between elders in India: ?The natives are a God-forsaken race. I have not seen one in India worthy of the blessings of the Gospel. Without any exception they are a nation of thieves and liars. It is a waste of time to have anything to do with them, for I do not believe that one full blooded native will ever see the Valley. Such is my faith, and I think I am guided by the Spirit of the Lord.? Correspondence between Elders of the East India Mission published in the Millenial Star (No. 35 September 1, 1855). I am happy to report that this is not the spirit that guided the missionary work I participated in while serving in India.

[12] Brigham Young, August 8, 1852, Journal of Discourses, 3:87.

[13] Brigham Young, June 13th, 1852, Journal of Discourses, 1:88-91. See also Terryl Givens, By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion, 2002.

[14] Parley P. Pratt, ?The Saints of the Last Days,? Millenial Star, Vol. 1, No. 3 (July 1840), 53-55.

[15] Brigham Young, January 12, 1862, Journal of Discourses, 9:149.


Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. James, the Brigham Young quote about religious custom and Americans becoming farces in England if they refused to adapt is really interesting. Do you find any instances where Mormon missionaries were more willing to adapt to local custom than other missionaries?

    Comment by Amanda — November 15, 2013 @ 1:49 pm

  2. James, this is really interesting. Thanks. Do you have a sense of whether these rhetorical strategies were used when actually proselytizing non-Christian “heathens”? And if so, how those prospective converts reacted?

    Comment by Christopher — November 15, 2013 @ 2:15 pm

  3. James, that sounds like a fascinating paper you wrote. I’m going to have to put it on my to-read list.

    Comment by Saskia — November 15, 2013 @ 4:42 pm

  4. Great fun, James. And sermons!

    Comment by WVS — November 16, 2013 @ 12:22 pm

  5. Great stuff, James. Have you looked into how other antebellum theologies categorized the “heathen,” and how they compare to Mormonism’s?

    Comment by Ben P — November 16, 2013 @ 12:46 pm

  6. Amanda, that’s an interesting reading. I hadn’t seen that passage as encouraging adaptation to other cultures, but perhaps he had that in mind. At the very least, he seems most interested in tearing down a self-righteous confidence in the superiority of one’s own particular national or religious tradition. Unlikely though it seems, when I first read the passage, Marilynne Robinson’s remarks about how the New Testament presents “too great a narrative to be reduced to serving any parochial interest or to be overwritten by any lesser human tale” (see her essay “Wonderous Love” in When I was a Child I Read Books”). I don’t know what his audience heard in that particular sermon (or read in it, seeing as elders in distant countries kept in touch with the main body of the saints through mailed copies of Utah sermons), but some may well have seen his remarks as you did. I don’t recall any instances of deliberate cultural adaptation in the little reading I’ve done about early missionary work in heathen nations. But since I haven’t done much reading, I can’t say that such examples don’t exist. Do you (or anyone else) know of any?

    Christopher, as I said, I haven’t read very much about the on-the-ground missionary efforts to heathen nations during the 19th century. What I have read makes me doubt that they were. I wonder how potential converts would have responded to such strategies. Missionaries often praised heathen people for meekness and humility, but in what I’ve read, I haven’t seen a single instance of praise for an idea proposed by a non-Christian. Such instances may exist, of course. But although early Mormon missionaries to India, for example (because they are the only ones I know a little about), shine in comparison with their evangelizing British counterparts (whose fanaticism played a leading role in provoking the bloody Sepoy Rebellion of 1857), they still don’t seem very interested in learning from Indians. They were, admittedly, sent to preach, but they were also sent out to gather truth home to Zion. Like most of the rest of the West, they seem to have been more interested in learning from the ancient and material culture of other nations. Learning from the living human beings that inherited or made the stuff was a different matter, of course, and I haven’t seen much interest in what I’ve read.

    Saskia, I hope you find something worthwhile in it! I’m sure there’s much better stuff on that list, so take your time. 😉

    Thanks, WVS. Would that sermons were always this fun!

    Ben, I haven’t. I mean, I know that heathens figured prominently in the rhetoric of the universalism that found its way into the hearts of Joseph Smith’s father and grandfather. The most effective way to provocatively stake out the universalist position, it seems, was to proclaim that God would save any morally upright heathen. And then I’m familiar with the way heathen peoples were demeaned by some of the more strident preachers. Your question does put me in mind, though, of a relevant rhetorical reference to heathen nations in a Supreme Court opinion. It’s from the Reynolds case, so, interestingly, the reference is deployed to demean Mormons. “Polygamy,” the Court writes, “has always been odious among the northern and western nations of Europe, and, until the establishment of the Mormon Church, was almost exclusively a feature of the life of Asiatic and of African people.”

    I’m sorry to say that I can’t speak much more than that.

    Comment by James — November 17, 2013 @ 2:51 am

  7. Very interesting. Thanks.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — November 17, 2013 @ 10:47 pm


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