John Demos on Joseph Smith. Was he “lynched”?

By October 9, 2008

Occasionally we like to provide our readers who may not have the time or inclination to read widely in the scholarly literature of American history or other disciplines with a sampling of what scholars are saying about Mormonism. Today John Demos is in the spotlight. Demos, for many years the Samuel Knight Professor of History at Yale, has recently published a historical survey of witch-hunting that covers two millennia. Demos is a major figure in the world of early American scholarship. He has published a variety books, many of which are regularly required reading on PhD comprehensive exam bibliographies (e.g., Entertaining Satan, A Little Commonwealth, and The Unredeemed Captive were all on my exam list). In his new book, he has a brief section on Mormonism in which he follows the standard historiographical convention of lumping the movement in with Masonry and Catholicism as the major targets of intolerance and violence in antebellum America. Here is what he has to say about the Mormonism from 1820-1847:

Mormonism–a new and wholly indigenous religious movement, founded by Joseph Smith in the 1820s and growing rapidly thereafter–evoked a similar kind of alarm [as Masonry and Catholicism]. Public pressure, up to and including mob violence, soon forced the Mormons to leave their original home ground in upstate New York and New England for the wilderness territory of Utah. en route, Smith was seized and murdered by a lynching party and his followers subjected to repeated harassment.*

I found this passage striking. To quote one of my least favorite persons on this or any other planet, “what say you?”

* John Demos, The Enemy Within: 2,000 Years of Witch-Hunting in the Western World (New York: Viking, 2008), 255-256.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Technically, ‘lynching’ is a fair term. The requisite factors are a mob and violence, not necessarily hanging.

    I actually suspect Demos might have chosen the term to make the sort of historiographical moves you observe.

    Comment by matt b — October 9, 2008 @ 10:30 am

  2. Lynching like Matt b said sounds right. Personally I suspect given the chance the mob may have continued to pour out violence on Smith given the opportunity, it was very common in these cases that just being dead was not enough when blood lust got going.

    In some cases they would even go to the extreme of burning the body. So based on that I would say it is a fairly accurate assessment of what happened to the Smiths.

    Comment by Jon W. — October 9, 2008 @ 10:40 am

  3. I wasn’t aware of Demos’s new book. Thanks for the heads up, Taysom. It looks like the new book is an expansion of part of his concluding argument in Entertaining Satan. On the last couple of pages of that book, Demos suggested that

    as witches disappeared from view, other figures were obliged to take their place. Blacks, Indians, immigrants of various kinds; Jews, Catholics, Mormons, atheists; Masons, anarchists, Communists: around these new targets: “witchhunting” has been repeatedly revived all through American history. The long and continuing life of the metaphor itself bespeaks an underlying connection. Consideration of a “need” and motive, must, then, be construed in two ways—the one highly specific and circumstantial, the other broad, generic, even trans-historical (pp. 399-400).

    I think that helps us to understand what Demos is doing here with early Mormonism, and confirms Matt’s suggestion that he used the term to illustrate the “underlying connection” of his thesis.

    Comment by Christopher — October 9, 2008 @ 10:44 am

  4. You all are correct about the use of lynching. It’s technically appropriate although not the term I would have chosen. Like martyrdom, it naturally invites a kind of contestation that obscures more than it reveals. I think “murder” would have worked just fine without the reference to lynching. I was actually more struck by his paragraph in which he jumps from New England/New York to Utah with Smith being killed “en route.”

    Comment by SC Taysom — October 9, 2008 @ 11:02 am

  5. I haven’t read Demos, but my impression is that “lynching” and “lynch mobs” are standard interpretations for much of the Missouri violence and the Smiths’ deaths. (It might just be my n00bity or perhaps my regional focus—that is, I might have unconsciously collated anti-Mormon violence with descriptions of Southern lynchings (hemp and non-hemp varieties)).

    At any rate, I find the usage unproblematic: Hyrum and Joseph Smith’s murders fit the definition of “lynching” and seem to fit in with a host of other such and so-named acts.

    Comment by Edje — October 9, 2008 @ 11:05 am

  6. Sorry. Didn’t refresh.

    Comment by Edje — October 9, 2008 @ 11:07 am

  7. Taysom (4): “Like martyrdom, [lynching] naturally invites a kind of contestation that obscures more than it reveals. I think ?murder? would have worked just fine without the reference to lynching.”

    I’m not so sure. I read “lynch” as connoting an expression of community will and an expectation of no (local) legal difficulties. So, a “lynch mob” is not just a mob, but a particular kind of mob (more organized, more self-righteous, more focused) and not just murder, but a particular kind of murder (a lynching that ended in death rather than just violent public shaming).

    As for “en route…” It’s a rather teleological turn to read Utah into the decision to leave New York. We’ll have to rename the rest-stop in Illinois “Nauvoo, the Beautiful Detour.”

    Comment by Edje — October 9, 2008 @ 11:22 am

  8. I agree with Edje about the narrative structure. Although some mainstream historians (like Moore and Shipps) have picked up on the fact that narratives of an inevitable westward movement by the Mormons are, well, Utah-centric and Turnerian, I’d say that most mainstreamers (and still too many Utah Mormon historians) are stuck in the old paradigm or are unable to see the continued sigificance of Mormon history (in all its varieties) post-1847.

    Comment by David G. — October 9, 2008 @ 2:26 pm

  9. It seems that Demos simply is not as familiar with the story of the Saints. Like many scholars dealing with the Mormons in a comparative or broad framework, there are many implicit and explicit errors. However, maybe, as suggested by no.8, Demos is delving into a more nuanced approach to the Mormon narrative.
    As for lynching, Joseph was lynched. Defined by the experts at Tuskegee, Alabama, 1940: “[T]here must be leagl evidence that a person has been killed, and that he[/she] met his[/her] death illegally at the hands of a group acting under the pretext of service to justice, race, or tradition.” It is nearly a perfect fit, according to this standard definition.
    In the post prelude SC Taysom you say that Demos follows the “standard historiographical convention of lumping the movement in with Masonry and Catholicism as the major targets of intolerance and violence in antebellum America;” do you not agree with this approach, or am I reading too much into your comment?

    Comment by V — October 9, 2008 @ 2:54 pm

  10. V: I’m not suggesting that “Demos is delving into a more nuanced approach to the Mormon narrative.” Rather, I’m suggesting the opposite.

    As to your second question, I’ll let Steve answer for himself, but that construct has its origins in a 1950s article by David B. Davis. Due to Davis’ stature in historical circles, his piece is still quoted and used in general surveys, although it is badly outdated. Spencer Fluhman’s work on anti-Mormon discourse will hopefully replace it historiographically.

    I should also add that Moore’s Religious Outsiders (1986), especially the introduction, does a much better job explaining antebellum anti-Mormonism than does Davis.

    Comment by David G. — October 9, 2008 @ 3:41 pm

  11. I should clarify that there is no doubt that JS was lynched. What is at issue, for me, is the utility of a term that is so freighted with potentially confusing connotations–particularly those stemming from the post Civil War South. But that is an aesthetic question, not a factual one.

    David is correct that the schema of Mormon-Mason-Catholic was popularized by Davis. There are lots of potential comparison partners that may fruitfully be employed, all of which are dictated by the logic of the particular project. Shakers and the Oneida community, for example, if one is dealing with sexual and family arrangements. I have no particular problem with Demos’s schema here, and in some cases it is the natural comparison. The Masonry comparison may be a bit tougher to sell, but I don’t think it is possible to situate violent anti-Mormonism in antebellum America without gesturing, at the very least, toward the history of Catholicism in this country. Of course, Moore is a much more theoretically oriented book, whereas Davis’s work was an article. I don’t see it as an either/or proposition though.

    Comment by SC Taysom — October 9, 2008 @ 5:19 pm

  12. So the Jews wandered in the desert for 40 years before getting to the promised land. Mormons wandered in the midwest for 17 years before getting to the desert. mmmmm.

    Comment by BruceC — October 9, 2008 @ 5:20 pm

  13. BruceC,
    That sounds like one of those old set-ups for Coffee Talk with Linda Richman from the old SNL skit with Mike Myers. All you need to add is “discuss” instead of “hmmmm.”

    (In response to your comment way up there about what led Demos to the project) Demos was contacted by Viking press and asked to produce a large-scale survey of witch-hunting in the West. It’s a short book, so he just kind of skims over lots of stuff. It is worth the price, however, just for his summary of scholarship on the Salem Witch Trials–very handy for any of you grad students out there.

    Comment by SC Taysom — October 9, 2008 @ 5:25 pm

  14. Thanks for the info, Taysom. Unfortunately, my historiographical paper on the Salem witch trials is due tomorrow (seriously).

    Comment by Christopher — October 9, 2008 @ 5:31 pm

  15. No.10, how can dismiss David Brion Davis’s article “Some Themes of Counter-Subversion: An Analysis of Anti-Masonic, Anti-Catholic, and Anti-Mormon Literature” as “badly outdated”? This article stands as a great introduction and an enduring piece of historical comparative analysis.

    No.11, thanks for the clarification. I agree with your stance towards religious violence in antebellum America and the massive amount of cross-over, depending on the “particular project.”

    Comment by V — October 9, 2008 @ 5:33 pm

  16. Ouch! If you are in Mary Richards’ class, then I have been there and I dimly remember writing that essay. About 10 years ago. Now I’m depressed.

    Comment by SC Taysom — October 9, 2008 @ 5:33 pm

  17. Thats the class. Thanks for your sympathy.

    Comment by Christopher — October 9, 2008 @ 5:39 pm

  18. I agree Davis is somewhat dated and Moore is quite good. Do we have language for vigilante violence/murder that does not implicate white:black relationships in the South?

    Comment by smb — October 9, 2008 @ 5:53 pm

  19. “en route”
    lol! Quite a few years and events encapsulated in one pithy term.

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — October 9, 2008 @ 6:00 pm

  20. No.18, southern historians tend to use the term “lynch” as opposed to “vigilante,” even when it is not racially motivated. See Michael Pfeifer, “Rough Justice.”

    Comment by V — October 9, 2008 @ 6:08 pm

  21. BiV deftly describes the “en route” usage as “pithy.” Taysom’s least favorite person in the universe would approve.

    Interesting post and comments, thanks.

    Comment by Jacob J — October 9, 2008 @ 7:50 pm

  22. A bit off-topic, but if you’re a fan of Demos, you might want to check out our interview of him for the Making History Podcast

    Comment by Jana — October 9, 2008 @ 9:36 pm

  23. Jana, thanks for the think. I actually listened to the podcast last week. It was great.

    Thanks for your efforts with the Making History Podcast project. You’re doing wonderful stuff.

    Comment by Christopher — October 9, 2008 @ 10:09 pm

  24. V, the DBD piece is hardly a cutting-edge piece of scholarship at this point in time. As I noted, recent work on the topic has vastly expanded our understanding, hence my designating it as “outdated.” Don’t get me wrong, I agree with Steve that it is still a valid framework, but there’s superior material on the subject.

    Sam (18): Chicano scholars in recent years have sought to expand the image of “lynching” to include Latino victims, who in many cases outnumbered Black victims in the West. But I don’t think they’ve made much of dent in the traditional image associated with the language.

    Comment by David G. — October 10, 2008 @ 10:05 am


Recent Comments

wvs on JWHA CFP 2020 (St.: “Looking forward to this. Thanks J.”

Daniel Stone on JWHA CFP 2020 (St.: “Thanks much for posting this, Joey!”

Mel Johnson on JWHA CFP 2020 (St.: “This JWHA will be outstanding, maybe the best ever. I encourage all Restoration historians and cultural studies people to attend along with their friends. The setting at…”

Gary Bergera on George F. Richards' journals: “I remember reading through the microfilms of the Richards's journals in the mid- to late-1970s. Nothing was redacted. They were amazing.”

Jeff T on George F. Richards' journals: “Thanks, Stapley!”

Hannah Jung on George F. Richards' journals: “That is exciting! I had no idea this was in the works! Any idea when the plan is to release the next twenty years of…”