Killing in the name of …, or Early Mormon Violence and Material Culture

By October 7, 2008

A couple of years ago while visiting Nauvoo with my family, we stopped by Jonathan Browning’s home and gun shop. Housed there is a large collection of Browning’s guns, many of which include a brass plate on the handle with the inscription, “Holiness to the Lord — Our Preservation.”

For the last three years, I have searched for a picture on the internet of one of these guns, and while browsing recently, came across the following image (via wikipedia).

I’m curious as to what this interesting piece of material culture from Mormonism’s past reveals about Mormonism of the era. Because my understanding of Mormon material culture is cursory at best, and my knowledge of early Mormon narratives concerning violence and divine vengeance is even more limited, I thought I’d toss this out there for those who know more about these subjects (I’m looking your way, David and Stan (though certainly anyone and everyone else is invited to chime in)). What do you make of Browning’s gun?

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. The Saints’ quite literally anticipated a Holy City in which “Holiness to the Lord” would be upon all the bells of the horses (Zech) and just about every other everyday object imaginable. They seemed to view it as a prerequisite for the second coming–it would be characteristic of the New Jerusalem and was a prerequisite condition to usher in Christ’s return. I’d interepret this as part of that millennial impulse.

    What I’d like to know: How many a them Danites wielded a rifle like this?

    Comment by stan — October 7, 2008 @ 9:13 am

  2. also would like to see you play up the de la Rocha connection a little more, Chris. Just what machine were Mormons raging against?

    Comment by stan — October 7, 2008 @ 9:15 am

  3. Protestantism, obviously, Stan.

    Comment by David G. — October 7, 2008 @ 9:22 am

  4. Not Missourians, David?

    Comment by Stan — October 7, 2008 @ 9:29 am

  5. Those aren’t mutually exclusive categories, Stan.

    Comment by David G. — October 7, 2008 @ 9:57 am

  6. Thanks for the clarification, David.

    I’m quite interested in the “Our Preservation” part of the inscription. Who or what is doing the preserving? The Saints’ holiness? The Lord? The gun? A combination of the above?

    And David, are the mobs dangerous because they are Protestant mobs or because they are mobs? I agree that Protestantism is a major factor, but does that sum it up? Other motivations that factor into the mobbing impulse? Ballot box, perhaps? (which again is not exclusive from Protestant concerns but is not identical either.)

    Comment by Stan — October 7, 2008 @ 10:24 am

  7. Stan, I imagine you’re right that this is part oc the millennial impulse. In your research on Mormon symbolism and material culture, have you come across any other (more atypical) examples like this? Or was “Holiness to the Lord” generally reserved for buildings (ZCMI, temples, tabernacles, etc)? Is it ever actually inscribed on the bells of horses?

    Also, I’m glad you picked up on the RATM reference.

    David, in Latter-day Saint persecution narratives, are they ever talking about the Lord as their preserver prior/during the various violent conflicts between Mormons and Gentiles?

    Comment by Christopher — October 7, 2008 @ 10:27 am

  8. Usage of the phrase really exploded during the Deseret/Utah period. It seems to have been more limited in Nauvoo, though it did appear on Nauvoo Legion drums. In Great Salt Lake City it appeared on coins, utinsels, certificates, pens–all kinds of things. Haven’t seen any actual horse bells; don’t know if anyone had bells on their horses. Perhaps on a saddle horn, but I’ve yet to discover it.

    Comment by Stan — October 7, 2008 @ 11:00 am

  9. I’ve heard that Brigham Young drove in the golden spike with a mallet “engraved a Beehive surmounted By the inscription Holiness to the Lord” (Woodruff 6:519). Also, I have seen some Deseret currency with the inscription.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 7, 2008 @ 11:05 am

  10. J., it wasn’t the golden spike (at promontory point) , but rather the iron spike used to celebrate the completion of the Utah Central Rail Road. Woodruff’s journal entry says:

    This is a great day in Utah. Some Twelve or Fifteen Thousand … assembled around the Rail Road Depo to Celibrate the Building of the Utah Central Rail Road & to see the last rail laid & the last spike driven By President Brigham Young. … The last spike was driven By president Young. A large steel Mallet was used on the occasion made By Mr James Lawson. … There was Engraved a Bee-hive surmounted By the inscription Holiness to the Lord. Underneath the Bee-hive were the letters U.C.R.R.

    The spike is on display at the Museum of Church History and Art.

    Comment by Christopher — October 7, 2008 @ 11:15 am

  11. (psst — it wasn’t the golden spike, associated with the transcontinental railroad; it was an iron spike marking the completion of the Mormon-built Central Utah Railroad)

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — October 7, 2008 @ 11:20 am

  12. Okay, ignore my whisper; I should have refreshed the screen before commenting.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — October 7, 2008 @ 11:20 am

  13. I always just found it interesting that the big revolution in firearms was facilitated within the Church.

    Did the advances Browning made help the Church in its defense? I don’t know the answer to that. I think that by the Utah period it was largely moot. Numbers alone meant that had the Utah War turned into a real full on shooting war that the Saints would have lost.

    Comment by Clark — October 7, 2008 @ 12:16 pm

  14. Heh. I appreciate the correction.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 7, 2008 @ 12:19 pm

  15. BTW – yeah, I know it was the son who made the big advances like the machine gun or model 1911 .45 automatic. But the father was pretty important as well in the Nauvoo era. He developed a pretty important harmonica gun.

    Comment by Clark — October 7, 2008 @ 12:31 pm

  16. I sent a link to this discussion to Bill MacKinnon, hoping he’d have time to chime in. He writes in At Sword’s Point that “One of the intriguing mysteries of the Utah War has been the apparent absence of a role by Mormon gunsmith Jonathan Browning, whose innovative weapons designs and craftmanship in his earlier gun shops in nauvoo, illinois, and Kanesville, Iowa, were well known prior to his emigration to Ogden in 1852. With the intensive Mormon quest for military self-sufficiency, one would have expected to ahve seen browning in the role assumed by pistol manufacturers Sabin and Naylor [two men discussed in the text].” He has found one remarkable proposal made by Browning in 1857. Whether Browning’s contribution could have made a difference is moot since he doesn’t seem to have made any contribution at all to Mormon defense in Utah. Curious.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — October 7, 2008 @ 12:33 pm

  17. Chris: The specific word “preservation” isn’t ringing any bells, but the concept is certainly present in persecution narratives.

    Stan: I suppose it really depends on the context within which Mormons articulated the narrative. At times the LDS saw the mobs as mere tools in the hands of Protestants that were opposed to the True Church, the latest example of God’s enemies opposing His servants. But in other contexts, Mormons saw the mobs as tools in the hands of lazy, slaveholding Southerners that were jealous of Mormon republican virtue. In both cases, the mobs were not the central “machine,” but rather pawns in the hands of bigger “enemy.”

    Comment by David G. — October 7, 2008 @ 1:17 pm

  18. Does anyone know the exact location where Brigham Young drove the spike?

    Comment by PJD — October 7, 2008 @ 2:40 pm

  19. Its quoted at the “Rail Road Depo” above. I assume this was in Salt Lake City?

    Comment by PJD — October 7, 2008 @ 2:46 pm

  20. Thanks Ardis. That is interesting. I did read once that prior to his son starting his innovation that they were basically just acting as gunsmiths fixing existing firearms. The quote on the wiki is that the son was too young to do more and the dad too old to do more. So maybe that explains their actions in the Utah war?

    Comment by Clark — October 7, 2008 @ 2:50 pm

  21. 18: PJD, yes, it was in Salt Lake City. There’s a very detailed newspaper account, “Monday’s Celebration,” in the Deseret News of 12 January 1870, available at the online digital newspaper collection at the UofU — but it doesn’t state precisely where it took place. Since 15,000 people attended, I guess they assumed everybody knew! I know someone I can ask tomorrow, though, who will know.

    20: John M. would certainly have been too young, but there were men older than Jonathan (who was 52) who made more strenuous contributions, so I’m not sure that’s the reason, unless there were health conditions that we don’t know about. ASP includes the details of some intriguing plans for missiles suggested by Browning, so he was able to think and plan, and could presumably have directed the labors of others. Why BY didn’t call on Browning even if Browning didn’t volunteer is a puzzle!

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — October 7, 2008 @ 3:13 pm

  22. This is, in my opinion, one of the more paradoxical issues in Mormon history. For a people absolutely dedicated to spreading the gospel, becoming truly unified in all things, the concept of exacting divine defense or vengeance through the people presents many questions that are not easily dismissed. Stephen C. LeSueur is correct, the Mormons were not cowards, nor were they only victims of violence. Alexander Baugh also is right in asserting that the Danites of Missouri formed much like a militia and felt justified in defending themselves in the face of mobs. Mormons experienced much grief, persecution, and did not sit idly by.
    There was palpable assurance in the promises of the Lord; however, much like the spreading of the gospel or becoming unified through consecration, God expected his people to perform the necessary acts to make these promises a reality. Speaking on violence is always a touchy issue, especially in Mormon history. Knowing where to draw the line is difficult for some. Similarly, in order to get at the issues it is necessary to confront the realities without disregarding the context.
    So, my question is this: how does the study of Mormon violence expand our understanding of religion/Mormons; or does it? Secondly, is it possible to know/write the history of a secret society (i.e. the Danites)?

    Comment by V — October 7, 2008 @ 4:06 pm

  23. V, (Re # 22) I think Mormons are just too much a product of their times to attribute so much of the “concept of exacting divine defense or vengence” as a product of being Mormon. A large segment of Mormons today live in suburban homes and drive SUVs. That doesn’t make either a “Mormon” value. Many settlers organized themselves into militias, bought guns, used them, and even claimed divine providence supported them in their efforts. There is nothing uniquely Mormon about this.

    Comment by BruceC — October 7, 2008 @ 8:06 pm

  24. Bruce- I think V is on to something.
    I would think that most LDS people see the early saints standing more in the “King Lamoni” camp vs. the “Ammon” camp.
    We are familiar with stories of the trials and persecution but the reality of the times meant survival of a people through state-of-the-art period protection (which often meant firearms).
    For every King Lamoni, there?s also a Captain Moroni. Both men righteous in their own purpose.

    Comment by PJD — October 7, 2008 @ 10:28 pm

  25. Given that Holiness to the Lord was a well-known Masonic phrase and that Masons are notorious for engraving the compass on materials, was this a similar phenomenon for the Mormons?
    Guns back then were a part of life–you used them to hunt animals, you used them for the militia. It’s easy to see them considering these guns in the way Nephi saw his new bow, a preservation against hunger.
    One reading would be: Holiness to Lord as a mark of Mormonism, Our Preservation as a reference to the gun.

    Incidentally, how much game hunting was going on in the 1850s by Mormon Utahans?

    Comment by smb — October 8, 2008 @ 7:34 am


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