Mormon Thugs, Part 2 of 2

By March 24, 2015

In my last post I looked at comparisons between Mormons and Thugs in the late nineteenth century. Today I look at Mormon reactions and the broader imperial context.

As might be expected, pro-Mormon authors did not take kindly to comparisons between Mormons and Thugs. In 1886 Joseph F Smith thought that ?to compare plural marriage? to various practices, including Thuggism, was ?the most absurd and contemptible nonsense? suitable only for ?[a]nti-?Mormon? bigots and fanatics.? [1] Others were similarly scandalized though, overall, I found few pro-Mormon texts that addressed Thug rhetoric by name. [2]

In 1881 a Presbyterian preacher, JM Coyner, asserted that Mormonism was ?made up of? diabolism, Islam, Judaism, Jesuitism, and Thuggism, among others. [3] On two occasions (1884, 1915) pro-Mormon writers used Coyner?s words to paint contra-Mormon critics as disingenuous and un-Christian. [4] Thus, ?you?re so bad you?re like Thugs? was met with ?you?re so bad you compare people to Thugs.?

All the other instances I have identified of pro-Mormons writing about Thugs dealt in some way with the 1878 Reynolds case. [5] Apostle George Q Cannon was the most thorough. He summarized the Reynolds argument to say that ?as Thuggism and widow burning could not be permitted in the name of religion, neither could plural marriage be permitted? and went on to argue, among other points, that acts of thuggee were mala in se while polygamous marriages were mala prohibita and, thus, comparisons between the two were unjust and un-useful. [6]

Note that—if limited to words on the page—all pro-Mormon texts cited above attacked a straw man in that Reynolds did not say, in so many words, that Mormons were like Thugs. So? why did pro-Mormon writers uniformly react to Reynolds­-like arguments as if they were smears rather than arguments of political philosophy? As demonstrated in earlier posts, many commentators asserted that Mormons and Thugs were violent in similar ways. With that background, the Reynolds argument collapsed easily for popular consumption to ?Mormons and Thugs are the same.? [7] For the legal case, what polygamy and thuggee had in common was their religious motivation; everywhere else, what Mormons and Thugs had in common was violence. As pro-Mormons framed it, the inability or unwillingness of judges and congressmen to distinguish marry-ers from murderers challenged the presumption of good faith. Thus, pro-Mormon writers resisted any conjoining of Mormons and Thugs and were not disingenuous in ignoring the details of Reynolds. [8]


To wrap up I want to emphasize two points. First: Mormons were perceived as violent. Anti-Mormon campaigners in the latter nineteenth century sincerely abhorred Mormon sexual deviance, theological innovation, and political experimentation, but the virulence of their assault came from the conviction that Mormons were irrationally and implacably violent. It?s not that Mormon sexuality, theology, and politics didn?t matter but that they were important mainly as causes of Mormon degradation rather than the end result. Anti-Mormons did not advocate military action against Mormons because of distaste for how Mormons had sex but in fear of mass murder.

Second: the invocation of Asian models to characterize Mormon violence was not accidental. That is, the metaphors and similes were not ?merely? figures of speech but came out of global contestations of empire in the latter nineteenth century. The question of how African-Americans, Native Americans, Mormons, Latinos, Thugs, Zulus, Boers, and so on, would fit into the management schemes of the newly hegemonic powers in their respective regions were open and hot. Actors throughout the world cited experiences from different continents to try to make sense and impose (or resist) government on their own. Thus, while some commentators cited Thugs as simply the most extreme thing they could think to say about Mormons, others were analyzing in good faith the two groups and the limits of their rights and obligations.

British colonial authorities suppressed Thug killings in the nineteenth century and, beginning in 1871 passed the Criminal Tribes Act(s), which imposed various restrictions and presumptions of guilt on members of ethnic and social groups, including Thugs. In this light, a relatively non-violent version of the ?Mormon Question? was whether Mormons would assimilate or would be governed by something like the Criminal Tribes Act (or, closer to home, Jim Crow). Mormons eventually assimilated fairly completely, but the difficulty of seating non-polygamist Reed Smoot as a Senator hints that polygamy itself or the ?mere sex? of polygamy were only part of the issue and that the outcome for Mormons could have been quite different.


[1] Joseph F Smith, 1886 Mar 10, attributed to Deseret News, ?The Mormon Question,? The Latter-day Saints? Millennial Star 48.17 (1886 Apr 26): 258 (257-261).

[2] For context and description of the Mormon defense of polygamy, with a brief mention of Thuggism, see Davis Bitton, ?Polygamy Defended: One Side of a Nineteenth-Century Polemic,? in The Ritualization of Mormon History, and Other Essays (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 34-53. See also: No author listed, attributed to Deseret News, ?Constitutional Rights Invaded,? The Latter-day Saints? Millennial Star 44.44 (1882 Oct 30 Mon): 692 (691-693). [I was unable to find the corresponding article in the Deseret News.] ?A Gentile? [Dyer Daniel Lum], Utah and Its People: Facts and Statistics Bearing on the ?Mormon Problem? (New York: RO Ferrier, 1882), 41.

[3] John McCutchen Coyner, as quoted in Mrs. Dr. Horace Eaton [Anna R. Webster Eaton], speech given at Union Home Missionary Meeting, Buffalo, NY, 1881 May 27, as printed in Origin of Mormonism, pamphlet (New York : W. E. C. of Home Missions, 1881), 4; reprinted in Hand-Book on Mormonism, pamphlet (Salt Lake City: Hand Book Publishing Co, 1882), 4.

[4] John Nicholson, The Tennessee Massacre and Its Causes, or, The Utah Conspiracy: A Lecture by John Nicholson, Delivered in the Salt Lake Theatre, on Monday, September 22, 1884, pamphlet prepared from stenography by John Irvine (Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1884), 15. Brigham H Roberts, ?History of the Mormon Church: Chapter CXVII,? Americana 10.3 (1915 Mar): 239-240 (204-264) [The Americana were a serialization of what became, in revised form, the Comprehensive History of the Church.]

[5] Most of cited sources responded to Reynolds indirectly via the re-hashing of Reynolds arguments in connection with the 1882 Edmunds Bill. Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145 (1878),

[6] George Quayle Cannon, A Review of the Decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, in the Case of Geo. Reynolds vs. the United States (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Printing and Publishing Establishment, 1879), 34-35. The longer discussion runs p 33-38.

[7] An example of an author pointing out the possibility of confusion: ?Can it be now a matter of surprise that the Mormons should suspect the Supreme Court of the United States of being a victim to these conventional notions of right and wrong, when in its decision in the Reynolds? case, it asks, ?suppose one logically believed that human sacrifice was a necessary part of religious worship, or a wife religiously believed it was her duty to burn herself on the funeral pile of her husband, would it be seriously contended that the civil government could not interfere to prevent a sacrifice?? Now where is the resemblance between the Thuggism and Sutteeism here spoken of, and plural marriage? There are few readers of the decision of the Court but will suppose the comparison was meant to hold good in all its points, for the Court does seem to hold to such logic.? TW Curtis, The Mormon Problem, the Nation?s Dilemma: New Data, New Method, Involving Leading Questions of the Day (New Haven: Hoggson & Robinson, 1885), 22.

[8] We cannot account for the pro-Mormon response entirely by pointing out that any mention of Thugs had a negative connotation. In a longer analysis I?d probably look at other factors, like the advantages to both pro-Mormons and contra-Mormons of outrage, simplification, and torching straw-men, as well as differences between rhetoric for home and public consumption, etc.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. I always enjoy Tuesdays with Edje. Thanks for your thoughts and thorough research!

    Comment by J Stuart — March 24, 2015 @ 8:39 am

  2. I’m pretty sure #tuesdayswithEdje needs to become a thing.

    Comment by Ben P — March 24, 2015 @ 9:45 am

  3. Thanks, J and Ben.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — March 24, 2015 @ 3:25 pm

  4. “Thus, ?you?re so bad you?re like Thugs? was met with ?you?re so bad you compare people to Thugs.?”

    Ha. Sounds like the comments at [name that newspaper]. I guess there’s nothing new under the sun.

    Thanks, Edje. Who would have guessed so much could be written about Mormons and thugs.

    The 19th-century conclusions about Mormon violence are mind-boggling, but it’s good to know the extent of some of those views. It helps explain stories like that of Louis Mönch, a German-American who was traveling to California and trying to avoid Salt Lake City at all costs. Through a series of unfortunate events he found himself in the city, penniless, experiencing the astounding hospitality of the greatly-feared Mormons. The rest of the story? He joined the Church, served several missions, and was the author of the beloved hymn “Hark All Ye Nations.”

    Comment by Amy T — March 24, 2015 @ 6:47 pm

  5. Thanks, Amy, for the great comment. I did not know that info about Luis M.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — March 24, 2015 @ 7:59 pm


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