Mormonism and Manifest Destiny

By May 29, 2009

So I was thinking about Edje’s comment on Russell’s “Why I am a Tory” post:

If the British had stuck to the Proclamation of 1763 indefinitely (forbidding English subjects from settling west of the Appalachians) I think it would have made it rather difficult to implement any sort of centralized gathering scheme. The reaction would have been similar to what actually happened in the US, but with centralized law enforcement and nowhere to go, the Mormons would have been eradicated.

If I recall the diggers attempted a commune in 17th century England and were eradicated. Yet, if I recall, a major reason for the Proclamation of 1763 was to keep the colonists from encroaching on native lands. Since Russell had us on the topic of 1 Nephi 13, I’ll quote verse 14: “And it came to pass that I beheld many multitudes of the Gentiles upon the land of promise; and I beheld the wrath of God, that it as upon the seed of my brethren; and they were scattered before the Gentiles and were smitten.”

If the Mormons needed to have a frontier to flee to, were they a part of the manifest destiny movement, or were they fleeing from it?

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Been thinking about this all day.

    It seems that to a certain extent, the Mormon exodus was a unique manifest destiny movement unto itself. It was not such much about settling the West for America and God, just for God. However, it quickly became part of the larger manifest destiny idea.

    I think that it is interesting to think of the Mormons as fleeing from manifest destiny, but we would need to distinquish this from the treatment of Native Americans who were expressed forces west (and butchered) as a direct result of manifest destiny and the concept’s underlying ideologies. Mormon conflicts in many ways were of a more local and regional nature I think.

    Comment by Chris H. — May 30, 2009 @ 5:57 pm

  2. Have you seen the letter that western artist George Catlin sent to Brigham Young in 1870, proposing an armed alliance between Mormon and Indian because their treatment by the government was so similar — “in my opinion that method, and none other, will save your own Institutions and the poor Indians from the exterminating storm, the Electricity for which is gathering around, and preparing to burst upon you.”

    Larry Coates published the letter in BYU Studies a long time ago, but with only the most superficial nod to context or editing. I’m still waiting for someone to consider Catlin’s ideas in connection with manifest destiny.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — May 30, 2009 @ 6:31 pm

  3. I think one of Edje’s early posts is relevant here, not necessarily in terms of answering the historical issues, but in terms of how late 19th century Americans were interpreting the relationship between Mormons and the frontier.

    Comment by David G. — May 30, 2009 @ 7:09 pm

  4. #2,

    Larry Coates rocks! That is all I have to say about that.

    Comment by Chris H. — May 30, 2009 @ 7:25 pm

  5. Quick follow up:

    I think the way we view the pioneer experience now is more consistent with the manifest destiny mindset than the actual pioneer mindset since Deseret was originally meant to be an independent entity of sort. I still think of Utah and surrounding areas as the occupied Republic of Deseret.

    Comment by Chris H. — May 30, 2009 @ 7:32 pm

  6. Thanks for the nod, David. Also, if anyone missed it, Russell?s post is at

    I think that “fleeing” from MD is a useful way to look at the Mormon exodii. (No offense to Maryland and people who don’t like fake classical endings.) From the eastern perspective, as Ardis points out, over and over again we find non-Mormons talking about how they were going to spread into the West, pushing the Mormons and Indians aside—on the “manifest” authority that God wanted “White” people to rule a trans-continental America.

    From the Mormon perspective, it depended on which direction they were looking. If they were looking at Native American Peoples, they tended to think like expansively just like other Americans. I don’t know if they talked about “manifest destiny,” but they did talk about “promised lands” and “lands of inheritance” to much the same end.

    If they were looking East, they often tended to agree with the non-Mormons that the US and the Mormons were on opposite sides of a frontier between civilization and savagery and that God wanted civilization to expand and take over land held by the savages. They just didn’t agree on which side was which.

    As I discussed in the post David linked, a big part of Mormonism’s successful integration into the American body politic was the (almost wholesale) reconstruction of the historical narrative, transforming the Mormons from a manifest destiny speed-bump to drivers in one of lead cars.

    The Tanner lecture last week talked about how Mormons fit into American imperialism. One of the things he (I forget his name) argued was that, despite their separationist rhetoric, Mormons walked and talked and acted very much like other Americans in this regard. (I only heard a few minutes of the speech; I hope I’m not misrepresenting.)

    Comment by Edje Jeter — May 30, 2009 @ 8:03 pm

  7. Though not directly related, Stan’s old post is probably worth re-reading to, as it touches on these topics:

    Comment by Christopher — May 31, 2009 @ 3:26 am

  8. And thanks, Steve, for the slew of thought-provoking posts in your first few days here.

    Comment by Christopher — May 31, 2009 @ 3:27 am

  9. I would point more to Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous safety-valve theory of the American West, than to Manifest Destiny, insofar as the Mormon emigrants envisioned and practiced their emigrations.

    In relation to the concept of mutual Mormon and Native American grievances, I recently read Warren Foote’s narrative of crossing Iowa with the Saints in 1845. Mid-way, their companies camped while Warren and a couple other pioneers ventured south into Missouri with their wagons to buy provisions. There, they found that many Missourians were convinced that the Mormons were preparing to inter-marry with the Indians, multiply, and come down and wreak revenge on Missouri.

    Comment by Rick Grunder — June 1, 2009 @ 12:08 am

  10. Came across a statement while working through the writings of Parley Pratt that seems at least related to question of how Mormonism relates to Manifest Destiny.

    In 1838, Pratt published a string of responses to a series of hostile articles published about Mormonism in the newspaper Zion’s Watchman. Irked at what he saw as a multitude of willful misreadings, Parley responded to some of the most grievous ones.

    The editor of the paper, L. R. Sunderland, had written that it seemed particularly odious to him that “Mormonites” were compelled to gather to the obscurity of the frontier in Missouri, often at great sacrifice. In his editorials, he suggested that church leaders were brow-beating the Saints into compliance with this direction by threatening them with “the pain of [God’s] wrath,” and even offered some creative rewriting of the revelations.

    Parley’s response to this tell us something about the way the American West was viewed by the Saints, or at least by him:

    What wrath, Mr. S[underland]? I know of no requirement, in any of our books, which compels men to go there or any where else, under pain of any wrath, except the troubles of a temporal nature, which shall befal [sic] the nation. And, if God has provided the great West for a refuge, from such wrath, it is no more than he has done for his saints in former ages. Think of Noah, Lot, and many others, who received revelations, directing them to a temporal refuge, from the calamities that befel the wicked….Indeed, our revelations are backed by the political papers of the Eastern cities. They give the same advice now which the Lord gave seven years ago, namely, that those who are in distress flee to the West, and even advise that those who are unable to go should be assisted in going [1].

    Apparently to Parley the move westward is a coming together of divine command and good economic sense. He finds the mandate of the Lord in keeping with the prevailing trends of thought about expansion and westward movement in America for the sake of economic opportunity. In one sense, Mormon’s were fleeing the ‘wicked’ elements of the east; in another they were bringing the ideology of the east with them.

    [1] Pratt’s responses were later published as a pamphlet: Mormonism Unveiled: Zion’s Watchman Unmasked, And Its Editor, Mr. L.R. Sunderland, Exposed: Truth Vindicated: The Devil Mad, and Priestcraft in Danger!” (New York: 1838), 6.

    Comment by Ryan T — June 1, 2009 @ 12:42 am


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