Mormons and India in Representation: Savagery, Civilization, Empire

By August 19, 2009

In 1898 the Improvement Era introduced a three-page description of suttee with the following explanation:

In years past the Latter-day Saints were frequently referred to the suppression of the SUTTEE in India by act of the British Parliament, as a precedent and justification of certain congressional enactments…. [W]e thought perhaps a description…would be of interest to our readers. [1]

They weren’t kidding about the “frequently.” Acknowledging the potential for selection bias, “suttee” shows up over and over again in the documents I’ve examined. From the 1850s to the 1920s, Anglo-phone Mormons, non-Mormons, Britons, Americans, British Indians, Afrikaans, and British South Africans used one another for their polemics. [2] As the Improvement Era noted, references to India, Indians, and Hinduism were particularly common in the Mormon case.

Table of Contents

  • The Indian War of 1857: The “Sepoy Mutiny” and the Mountain Meadows Massacre both occurred in 1857. Observers described Mormons as traitorous Sepoys in their inherent  nature.
  • Suttee, Polygamy, and Religious Freedom: Mormons argued that the US Constitution protected the practice of polygamy as religious expression. Others (many others) countered that the British suppression of suttee in India demonstrated that when a religious practice offended certain societal norms, religion offered no shield. Further, the portrayals shift from “essence” to “colonial status.” Mormons returned that imperial history made it a poor role model.
  • Imperialism, Collective Guilt, and Mountain Meadows: In deflecting calls to punish the whole church for MMM, John Taylor argued that imperial history overran with examples of morally repugnant acts so, if the British, French, and American nations were not punished for their sins, Mormonism should not be punished for its.
  • Other Comparisons: Mutiny, Providence, Devotion, and Retribution: Assorted other comparisons appeared in print including potential for rebellion, Divine intervention, religious intensity, and Divine punishment.
  • Mormons Cross the Frontier Line In the early twentieth century, the documents I’ve noticed shift Mormons from the role of Sepoys and other Indians to the role of British colonizers.

No pictures and no humorous anecdotes this time—the pictures because they were pretty intense and the humor because I didn’t find any. Some contemporary photographs (PG-13) are here.

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The comparisons seem to have started with the Indian War of 1857. [Edit, HT Ardis: Three weeks before the start of the Indian War, the NYDT ran an editorial using a suttee/polygamy comparison (“What Shall We Do with the Mormons?” NYDT 1857 Apr 21, p4).] For a variety of reasons, British Indian Sepoys revolted against the colonial overlords in 1857, massacring hundreds. [3] European portrayals of the Sepoy were, in a sense (and, characteristically for this sort of thing), self-contradictory. On one hand, Westerners described a sub-human creature of unbridled and unbridleable ferocity; on the other, they emphasized deceit and betrayal—exclusively human sins (see Figure 1; unidentified source).

Brutal and gruesome though the revolt had been, the British reaction “improved” upon disorganized “savagery” with the discipline and focus of “civilization.” The most famous of the retributions that bloody summer involved tying Sepoys to the front of loaded cannons and then discharging the cannons (see Figure 2).

That the Sepoy Rebellion, Mountain Meadows Massacre, and Utah War matched up so closely in time made associations convenient and natural. Observers compared Mormons to Sepoys almost immediately after the Sepoy Rebellion and the Mountain Meadows Massacre. A Washington DC newspaper editorialized on 1857 Nov 20 that

We can no longer disguise from ourselves the unwelcome fact that we too have our India and our “Sepoy” insurgents, since, whether we regard the remote and inaccessible position of the Salt Lake Territory or the sanguinary and brutal instincts of these modern Sodomites, we are left to find points rather of comparison than of contrast between our threatened relations to Utah and those which already exist between Great Britain and her East Indian provinces.

The article concluded noting that

If at the time it may have seemed to require a stretch of credulity to confide in revelations which disclosed in that community an organized system of vice and terrorism, the recent conduct of these Utah ‘Sepoys’ and the official manifestoes of their Nena Sahib would seem ample to confirm the accuracy of the information on which these predictions were founded. [4]

In this usage, describing Mormons as Sepoys positioned the Mormon essence as immoral, violent, treacherous, and a danger to the empire. Most Mormons, of course, rejected the comparison.

An 1858 analysis of the Rebellion concluded that there was “some reason for the charge that misgovernment created that character and thus produced the revolt.” However, the strategic error was “not in their being oppressed, but just the opposite, in their being “spoiled by kindness,” and too blindly trusted.” At any rate, an oblique reference to Mormons helped explain the Sepoys: “The oppression endured by other classes of the people had as much to do with the revolt of the Sepoys, as the sufferings of the unemployed in our cities with the Mormon rebellion.” [5]

Later analyses shifted away from essence and toward colonial status. For example, an 1883 travel narrative opined that “force of course will avail, in the end,” against polygamy, “just as it did in India when the [British] Government determined to stamp out female infanticide among the Rajpoots.” [6] It wasn’t that Mormons were morally similar to the Rajpoots but that their model for reproduction did not synch with the empire’s.

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The most prominent India / Utah comparison in the nineteenth century used the British suppression of suttee and other religious practices as a precedent for the American suppression of polygamy in Utah. [7] For example, in 1890, the US Supreme Court majority opinion explained:

One pretense for this obstinate course is that …the practice of polygamy…is a religious belief…. No doubt the Thugs of India imagined that their belief in the right of assassination was a religious belief…. The practice of suttee by the Hindu widows may have sprung from a supposed religious conviction. The offering of human sacrifices by our own ancestors in Britain was no doubt sanctioned by an equally conscientious impulse. But no one, on that account, would hesitate to brand these practices, now, as crimes against society…. [8]

Twenty years earlier, when US Vice-President Colfax made the argument to John Taylor, Taylor responded by draping himself in an American flag, setting off Fourth-of-July fireworks, and railing on the British: [9]

I do not look upon the British nation as a fit example for us; it was not so thought in the time of the Revolution. I hope we would not follow them in charging their cannon with Sepoys, and shooting them off, in this same India. I am glad, also, to find that our Administration views and acts upon the question of neutrality more honorably than our trans-atlantic cousins.

Immediately, however, Taylor switched tracks to empire and race, for which Britain provided an acceptable role-model:

…The British suppressed the suttee, but tolerated eighty-three millions of polygamists in India. …[I]t is absurd to compare the suttee to polygamy; one is murder and the destruction of life, the other is national economy and the increase and perpetuation of life. Suttee ranks truly with infanticide, both of which are destructive of human life. Polygamy is salvation compared with either, and tends even more than monogamy to increase and perpetuate the human race.

Very likely, Taylor and Colfax shared the assumption that if Whites did not multiply, the prolific “inferior” races would overwhelm the Anglo-Saxon germ that was preparing the world for the Millennium (whether or secular or religious, the racial basis didn’t change).

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Taylor also used British empire / colony experiences polemically, citing collective British guilt for the response to the Sepoy rebellion to deflect criticisms based on the Mountain Meadows Massacre. [10]

Do you [Mormons] deny it [the massacre]? No. Do you excuse it? No. There is no excuse for such a relentless, diabolical, sanguinary deed. That outrageous infamy is looked upon with as much abhorrence by our people as by any other parties in this nation or in the world.

Taylor goes on to argue, however, that “it does not seem fair to accuse nations, States and communities, for deeds perpetrated by some of their citizens, unless they uphold it.” For examples, he notes that “the British nation, to-day, abhor and revolt at the idea of their commander in India tying Sepoys to the mouths of their cannon and firing them off”; that the French “shudder at the refined cruelty and barbarity” of their military’s actions in Algiers; that “all honorable Americans repudiate with disdain the horrible butchery” at Haun’s Mill; and so on through other cases, including the murders of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. Then, after the standard obnoxious-Arkansan and mostly-Indian defenses, Taylor acknowledges that some Mormons might have participated.

…That any white man could be found to embark in it is a disgrace to humanity. I do not know it; but am afraid that some did; but being done, what then? who is responsible? Why say some, “The Mormon community.” Not quite so fast; by the same reason England, France, Missouri, Illinois and the United States must be held amenable for the acts above stated.

The argument could be read two ways: (1) the British, French, and Americans have no moral authority to criticize Mormons because everyone is guilty or, (2) there is no such thing as collective guilt. [11] In terms of the representational analysis we’re doing here, however, by using the Sepoy suppression to counter Mountain-Meadows attacks, Taylor partially legitimates the original comparison between Mormons and Sepoys. But, since in Taylor’s rhetoric the Sepoys are the victims, the analogy aligns the Mormons with other White, imperial powers that might have to kill a few natives every now and then to keep the empire working. Thus, Taylor simultaneously deflects the idea of collective guilt and positions Baker, Fancher, and company as Sepoys.

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India, Hinduism, Sepoys, and suttee found other uses for constructing Mormon identity and dealing with the “Mormon Question.” One George Curtis, concerned about the possibility that the US army would occupy Utah in the late 1880s, urged conciliation so as to avoid another Sepoy rebellion. [12] If Curtis had been a Mormon leader, it would have sound like a threat:

With unaccountable stupidity and carelessness the British government suffered the religious prejudices of the native troops of India to be violated and shocked by an unnecessary requirement of discipline. The Sepoy rebellion was the consequence. Who gave that provocation? I allude to this incident because it teaches a great lesson…. [13]

In some cases, the Hindu / Mormon comparison merely reflected the intensity of devotion—or mocked those who campaigned against Mormonism and its “worse-than-Indian-suttee-devotees.” [14] Elsewhere, Hinduism provided a backdrop for skewering Mormon doctrines:

According to the Brahmin, Vishnu, from a little fish, became a big fish, and from a big fish, a giant, and from a giant, a boar, and with his tusks raised the earth from the bottom of the waters. This was a feat sufficiently marvelous; but the Mormon has proved himself a match for the East Indian; the latter never dreamed of making human beings the raw material for manufacturing gods. [15]

In addition to illuminating imperial and legal issues, India and Sepoys also played roles in constructions of sacred time. A British cleric in 1859 interpreted the Sepoy rebellion and the rise of Mormonism, among other developments, as eschatological signs (and not the pleasant type). [16] Mormon author Orson F Whitney’s History of Utah (1904) reported that one Captain McCune, of the British Army, felt blessed by the timing of his resignation and emigration to Utah because if he had “delayed his departure a few weeks longer, he would have found it difficult if not impossible to leave. He and his family might have shared the fate of other Europeans massacred by the Sepoys during that perilous period.” [17]

That same year (1904), a Millennial Star piece promoted faith with a rumor about an Elder in India ejected from an area by a British officer commanding a squad of bayonet-wielding Sepoys. [18] Though “lapse of time and the failure to appreciate the far-reaching significance of events at the time they occur have perhaps obliterated the name of that Elder,” his alleged parting words remained: “You have turned me out at the point of the bayonet; these same bayonets will yet be turned on you.” Then, according to the 1904 author, “the Sepoy mutiny in 1857 was the dire sequel.”

Unlike most of its ilk, this morality tale has some contemporary documentation, or at least verification that someone was thinking such thoughts at the time. The 1857 Oct 24 Millennial Star reported that the British “armies in India have been smitten with a sore judgment because they cast out the Lord’s servants” and that the missionaries had left so that “the Lord might execute speedy judgment and show to all nations that His servants cannot be rejected with impunity.” [19]

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By 1915, the rhetorical relationship between Asian Indians and Mormons had changed significantly, at least for some commentators. For example:

[N]one can comprehend just what it means to be a girl-wife, two thousand miles away from her parents, to be treated as an alien, in a land under the flag of the free. This was the case in the strictly Mormon settlements in Utah thirty years ago. …The bravery of these women can be compared only to the English women of the Sepoy Rebellion days of 1857 in India, or to those of our American sisters who accompanied their valorous husbands to their isolated posts on the Indian frontiers…. Retreat and surrender never grew in the hearts of such women. [20]

Mormons and non-Mormons had been on opposite sides of the analogy, but now shared the white cowboy hat. Where previous incarnations focused on depraved Mormon men, now courageous Mormon women received the emphasis. In terms of race, character, and imperial affiliation, the Mormons had joined the power class. Not explored in the analogy is the corresponding placement of the US government in the place of the supposed savages of Asia and America.

Before closing… I think there might be a change in the type of Orientalization applied to Mormons over the nineteenth century—but I don’t yet have the data to make the case. There are two component ideas. First, Central Asians seem to be depicted as more savage and less developed than Middle or Far Easterners. Second, in the mid-1800s Sepoys and East Indians tended to represent Mormon character while by the turn of the century, the Turk or the Sultan seem to have dominated such representations, with the Chinese taking a part also. In terms of public image, it was a big step up for Mormonism.

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[1] No author listed, “A Suttee,” Improvement Era 1:6 (1898 Apr): 431-434.

[2] I am aware of a few instances of Boers using Mormons as part of an argument but haven’t found convenient online sources in English or Afrikaans; I am not familiar with non-British Indian literature at all.

[3] “Sepoy” was a generic term for “native” soldiers in a colonial army. They need not serve in their homeland, though they often did. In nineteenth-century and present-day use, “Sepoy” refers almost exclusively to Sepoys serving the British in East India. The triggering incident involved gun grease containing animal fat, contact with which would render the soldier ritually unclean. In the neighborhood of three thousand British Whites were killed; consensus estimates claim hundreds of thousands of Indians (of various ethnicities and loyalties) killed and some scholars estimate as high as ten million over the following decade of British reaction.

[4] No author listed, “The ‘Sepoys’ at Our Own Doors,” Daily National Intelligencer, Washington DC, 1857 Nov 20, p3. I don’t know when news of the massacre reached Washington; The New York Times reported it on Nov 17. “Arrival of the St. Louis. $1,176,086 in Specie. Horrible Massacre of Arkansas and Missouri Emigrants,” from the Los Angeles Star Extra 1857 Oct 10, NYT 1857 Nov 17.

“Sodomite” here should be understood in a generic sense as “an immoral person” or a “person who engages in ‘unnatural’ sex,” where “natural sex” meant “monogamous, procreative sex” for the 1857 Washington audience. Later wits labeled Brigham Young the “Salt Lake Sodomite.” Alleen Pace Nilsen and Don Lee Fred Nilsen, Encyclopedia of 20th-Century American Humor (Phoenix: Oryx Press, 2000), 310. Nena or Nana Sahib was a prominent leader in the Sepoy Rebellion.

[5] John Cameron Lowrie, The Revolt of the Sepoys (New York: Edward O Jenkins, 1858; reprinted from The Princeton Review, 1858 Jan), 14-15, editorial footnote. For the author, however, the US had “evils in our own land that are legal, such as” slavery and the at-will breaking up of slave families. Such “legalized evils…would be hard to surpass by any thing in the government of India.”

[6] Phil Robinson, Sinners and Saints: A Tour Across the States, and Round Them; with Three Months among the Mormons (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1883), 115.

[7] “Suttee” is the ritual burning of a widow at her husband’s funeral. In theory, the immolation is voluntary. The English outlawed it 1829 Dec 04. Of course, it was several years until the practice could plausibly be claimed as abolished. Charles James Napier, in charge of enforcing the new law allegedly said: “You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. We will follow ours.” Marion Grein and Edda Weigand, Dialogue and Culture (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2007), 11.

[8] Late Corporation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints v United States, 136 US 49-50 (1890). Conversely, British courts used Mormon precedents to argue polygamy cases in its Indian and South African colonies. American temperance advocates used both religions: “Let even belief take the overt form of polygamy, as among the Mormons, or as suttee among the Hindoos, and the law brushes aside the claim to liberty of action, and interposes its stern denial. The religionist is not allowed to make his conscience the justification of social evil, and neither can the drinker of intoxicating liquor….” Dawson Burns, The Bases of the Temperance Reform: An Exposition and Appeal, with Replies to Numerous Objections (New York: National Temperance Society and Publishing House, 1873), 161.

[9] John Taylor, “Reply of John Taylor to the Honorable Vice-President Schuyler Colfax, on The Mormon Question” in The Mormon Question, Being a Speech of Vice-President Schuyler Colfax… (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Office, 1870). Reprinted in Edward W Tullidge, The History of Salt Lake City (Salt Lake City: Star Printing, 1886), 424. Something I learned writing this post: fireworks have been part of July 4th celebrations from the beginning. James R. Heintze, “The First Fireworks on the Fourth of July,” Fourth of July Celebrations Database <>, accessed 2009 Aug 12.

[10] John Taylor, “Utah and the ‘Mormons,’ Sixth Letter,” from Deseret News, in Millennial Star 36 no 19 (1874 May 12): 289-293 [290-1].

[11] It should be noted that present-day research indicates that many Mormons did, in fact, “uphold” the massacre in misrepresenting events and shielding participants.

[12] George Ticknor Curtis, Letter to the Secretary of the Interior on the Affairs of Utah, Polygamy, “Cohabitation,” &c. (Washington DC: Gibson Brothers, 1886), 27.

[13] Curtis went on to argue that allowing Mormons due process would defuse the situation.

[14] Robert C Webb, The Real Mormonism: A Candid Analysis of an Interesting but Much Misunderstood Subject in History, Life, and Thought (New York: Sturgis and Walton, 1916), 260.

[15] Benjamin G. Ferris, Utah and the Mormons: The History, Government, Doctrines, Customs, and Prospects of the Latter-day Saints (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1856), 223.

[16] No author listed, Review of The Great Tribulation: or, The Things Coming on the Earth by John Cumming (London: Richard Bentley. 1859), The London Review 13 no 26 (1860 Jan): 407-444 [411].

[17] Orson F Whitney, “Alfred William McCune,” History of Utah, 4 volumes (Salt Lake City: George Q Cannon and Sons, 1904), vol 4, p505.

[18] Henry J Lilley, “Mission Work in India,” Millennial Star 66 no 33 (1904 Aug 18): 514-5.

[19] No author listed [Orson Pratt], “A Prophetic Warning to the Inhabitants of Great Britain,” Millennial Star 19:43 (1857 Oct 24): 680-1. Lilley surmises that the 1857 quote “probably… alludes to this incident” of the rejected, prophesying Elder. The Millennial Star also printed the report in 1886, identifying its author as Orson Pratt upon his departure from the European Mission. “A Prophecy,” Millennial Star 48:9 (1886 Mar 01): 138 [138-8].

[20] James David Gillilan, Trail Tales (New York: Abingdon Press, 1915), 140-1.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Fascinating stuff. I ran across these Suttee comparisons last year when researching a paper on polygamy and I have to say they were used quite extensively.

    Now it seems like so much polemics but then it seemed to be used to stifle arguments.

    Comment by JonW — August 19, 2009 @ 3:02 am

  2. I have to agree with JonW. Fascinating material.

    I like that (alleged) quote in footnote seven. It reminds me of the famous pun attributed to Napier: “Peccavi.” (“I have Sindh.”)

    And, I was out of town when you put your cow post up, but will take the opportunity now to say “Bravo!”

    Comment by Researcher — August 19, 2009 @ 11:51 am

  3. Thanks, JonW and Researcher.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — August 19, 2009 @ 3:52 pm

  4. John Taylor was British. Did he ever take out U.S. Citizenship? Not somethng I’ve thought about before, but his remarks as quoted indicate maybe he did.

    Really interesting post, thanks!

    Comment by Anne (U.K) — August 19, 2009 @ 5:36 pm

  5. Nice catch, Anne! I didn’t consider Taylor’s nationality at all.

    According to lightplanet, Taylor was born in 1808, moved to Canada in 1832 (age 24), and moved to the US in 1837 (age 29). He applied for US citizenship in 1849. I presume the desire to hold government territorial office motivated citizenship timing.

    And there’s always someone saying that immigrants won’t become “real” Americans.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — August 19, 2009 @ 6:12 pm

  6. Fantastic, Edje.

    Comment by Ben — August 19, 2009 @ 8:27 pm

  7. Thanks Edje! I had never considered whether he took out ciitzenship before, either. We know him as the only British President of the Church, but that’s presumably incorrect then 🙂

    Comment by Anne (U.K) — August 20, 2009 @ 6:31 am


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