Manifest Mormon Destiny

By November 11, 2007

As certain babblers in Zion shared everything but their testimonies from the pulpit in Church today[1] (we had stake conference last week so this today was fast and testimony meeting), I began flipping through the hymn book, reading some of those obscure old hymns we never sing. I lighted on Orson F. Whitney’s poetic little reverie “The Wintry Day, Descending to Its Close” and got a good dose of manifest destiny in the 4th verse:

The wilderness, that naught before would yield,

Is now become a fertile, fruitful field.

Where roamed at will the fearless Indian band,

The templed cities of the Saints now stand.

I leaned over to my wife, and showed it to her. She gasped, “That’s awful.” It reminded me of my reaction to a little vignette I once read in none other than our own namesake, the Juvenile Instructor, titled “The Indian Boy’s Twenty-Fourth” (1898):

“It was a morning in July. At the base of a range of mountains that formed the eastern boundary of a great valley stood an Indian boy. Westward he turned his gaze. The grey sage that lay both south and north here also met his view. Down through its midst a silver band showed the course of a winding river, that, pouring itself into the bitter waters of the great inland sea, sought vainly to make them sweet. In the hazy light of the summer day the gray valley grew more gray in the distance until it touched the dark waters of the bitter sea and the mountains of blue that shut it in.

“The boy turned from all this and looked attentively at the dark spot down in the valley where strange men unlike himself had come and made their camp. Two days before they had come and immediately with appliances strange as themselves had begun turning over the virgin soil, and by some unknown means directing the waters of a near-by stream to cover it.

“As still he gazed, slowly another stranger band emerged from the mountains. It came near his side and halted. In one of the wheeled vehicles lay a man, pale and weak, who as the carriage stopped raised up and looked upon the land and uttered strange words as he beheld it. The boy knew not the man, knew not his words, but in his eyes he saw a strange light and on his face an expression that made him look like some fair god.

“A tremor shook the frame of the Indian child, a thrill went to his very heart. He seemed to feel the import of those words. The land where he was born, where as the old man said his sires had hunted, since the great lake left the mountain side was now by strangers taken and lost to him for evermore.” [2] (Juvenile Instructor 33, no. 14, July 15, 1898, 520.)

This is an incredible passage, soaked in a characteristically Mormon and yet very American sense of manifest destiny. Several myths are embedded in the narrative: the timelessness of a static pre-European America (“where the old man said his sires had hunted, since the great lake [Bonneville] left the mountain side”)[3]; the assumed superiority of agrarian lifestyle; and of course, the sense of divinely sanctioned entitlement to the “virgin land.”

Historian Elliot West refers to such stories-variously labeled as “‘living myths’ or ‘stories lived forward,'” but which he calls “visions”-as ways different peoples explain, quite literally, “who in the world they are.”

“These overarching stories describe how a people fit into the world and what their purposes have become. They argue that certain beliefs and values are natural, self-evident expressions of a people being exactly where they are and nowhere else. Such stories become guides and encouragements for living out a newly dreamed existence. Almost invariably they justify possession. When people look back, the stories become proof to them that they have been summoned by fate or history or God into their rightful homes.”[4]

So if such tales have been so useful to Latter-day Saints and Americans for so many years-they were in full swing in 1898 and still in currency whenever Whitney wrote his hymn (pre-1931)-what has become of them now? Do Mormons (and Americans) still have a sense of manifest destiny, even if it has been toned down a little? (Whitney’s hymn is still in the book, long after W. W. Phelps’s “O, Stop and Tell Me Red Man” was been removed). Have we simply removed those that cringe upon our PC sensitivities? Or has the entire vision been altered and recast by the experiences and historical revisionism of the past century?


[1] My wife commented that this line is not too charitable; so I reminded her that after a certain individual’s preamble today she leaned over to me and whispered, “This is going to be long.” (She was right.) But to cede her point, I really don’t mean do denigrate any person’s experiences or testimony, so please consider this only playful banter by an insider (and thus one entitled to such quipping by the eso/exo factor).

[2] To those unfamiliar with Mormon history, July 24 is when the Latter-day Saint pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley. A few vanguard Saints arrived a few days before to plow up a small plot, plant crops, and may have begun irrigating. According to legend (and Wilford Woodruff’s journal), when Brigham Young entered the valley, sick and laying in a wagon, he raised up on one elbow and said, “This is the [right] place, move on.”

[3] Elliott West refers to this idea of European exploration and colonization as “the start of history itself” as a perceived “breaking of a slumbering spell” (The Contested Plains [University of Kansas, 1998], 33).

[4] Elliott West, The Contested Plains, xxiii.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Stan, this is the sort of post I’ve been waiting for from you … the “babblers in Zion” phrase in the first line made me chuckle.

    The only notion of manifest destiny I see in the Church today is in relation to the internationalization of the Church. There seems to exist a sense of pride (coming from what I take as a sincere belief in evidence of divine approval) in listing the 100+ temples, the Church being established on all inhabitable continents, and in the 100+ different languages the Book of Mormon has been translated. Mormons tie their identity to this perceived success of the Mormon gospel spreading to the four quarters of the Earth.

    And the results of becoming an international Church are perhaps expected. Whereas ignorance of American Indians might have been a hallmark of 19th century Mormons in the American West, ignorance of Latin American, Eatsern European, and African cultures confront the Church today.

    Comment by Christopher — November 12, 2007 @ 1:00 am

  2. Chris: I hadn’t thought of American difficulties with internationalizing as a form of manifest destiny, just as a sort of arrogance that I never knew we had until I went to Europe (in Taiwan I realized Canadians got it too). I think you make a good point though.

    Comment by stanthayne — November 12, 2007 @ 1:16 am

  3. I believe the story is that Brother Brigham was sick and lying in the wagon. It was the geese that were a-laying, but it was eggs they were laying.

    Comment by Mark B. — November 12, 2007 @ 9:51 am

  4. I agree with Chris that the closest equivalent that we have to Manifest Destiny today is the internationalization narrative. “This church will fill North and South America…This church will fill the earth!” I still have Truman Madsen’s voice ringing in my ears.

    There are differences however between the 19th century Manifest Destiny narrative and the 20th and 21st century internationalization narrative. One of the obvious ones is the state coercive power that accompanied the Mormons to Utah territory, a power that is definitely lacking in contemporary Mormon proselytizing.

    Comment by David Grua — November 12, 2007 @ 10:18 am

  5. I’m pretty sure that when we used to sing that song (Pre-1985 hymnbook) the words went:
    “Where roamed at will the savage Indian band…”
    or some such un-PC term. Can anyone verify this?

    Comment by BiV — November 12, 2007 @ 11:40 am

  6. BiV, you’re right. Checking a 1948 edition, it says:

    “Where roamed at will the savage Indian band.”

    Comment by Jared — November 12, 2007 @ 12:17 pm

  7. David, the state coercive power …is definitely lacking in contemporary Mormon proselytizing.

    While this is true, Mormon missionaries do seem to carry with them the gospel of Western democracy and capitalism, seeing the Mormon message as incompatible with socialism, communism, and other authoritarian state governments.

    Comment by Christopher — November 12, 2007 @ 2:27 pm

  8. Right, but they have no power to displace native peoples and build temple cities, like we did in the 19th century.

    Comment by David Grua — November 12, 2007 @ 2:46 pm

  9. Mark B: Thanks for the grammar lesson, lyer.

    BiV and Jared: Interesting…thanks for pointing that out and looking it up.

    David: True, very little physical displacement going on that I am aware of. Just wait, though…soon we’ll be clearing those Missourians out!

    Comment by stan — November 12, 2007 @ 7:18 pm

  10. Speaking of missionaries preaching the “gospel of Western democracy and capitalism”, in the Jeffery Holland/Quintin Cook UK missionary era of the early 1960’s, we had a missionary associate play a “Skousen tape” in a British sacrament meeting. An upset labor party investigator got up and stormed out. I don’t know the rest of the story other than that the investigator later did actually joined the church! Awe such fun. 🙂

    Comment by Noel — June 9, 2008 @ 9:18 am

  11. Agreed, “Savage Indian band” doesn’t belong in our hymn book. However, to this blog of historians, what other PC word might you choose? My Manti g-g-grandfather was killed by Chief Wakara’s band at Uinta Springs in October of 1853. All were scalped except my gggf. The party of four were headed to SLC, with my gggf going to meet his recently immigrated three sons from England. “Wintry Day” is a favorite of mine, and I still like the original words. They tell it as it really was. 🙂

    Comment by Noel — June 9, 2008 @ 9:33 am

  12. However, to this blog of historians, what other PC word might you choose?

    I would delete the verse. Just because American Indians have killed white people doesn’t justify broad, sweeping, and racist pronouncements that all Indian people were/are uncivilized, savage wanderers.

    They tell it as it really was.

    No, they tell it how they perceived it really was. But their perception was clearly tainted by their racist worldview that equated whiteness with virtue and dark skin with savagery.

    Comment by Christopher — June 9, 2008 @ 12:41 pm


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