Painting the Mythical and the Heroic: Joseph Smith Preaches to the American Indians

By November 19, 2013


By Laura Allred Hurtado, with David G. Note: This represents preliminary and ongoing research for the Armitage painting. 

In 1890, British born painter and founder of the Utah Art Association William Armitage created the massive historic painting, Joseph Smith Preaching to the Indians. The artwork, which once hung with prominence in the Salt Lake Temple, now fills the wall leading up to the 2nd floor of the Church History Museum. The scale itself means that it demands the attention of the entire room, standing almost as a sentinel within the space. The painting depicts, as the title suggests, a well-dressed Smith preaching to a crowd of nearly forty American Indians which surround the frame. Smith?s outstretched right arm gestures heavenward while his left hand holds the Book of Mormon, a book that according to historian Ronald W. Walker was ?not just a record of the ?Lamanite? or Native American people, but a highly unusual manifesto of their destiny.?[1] Smith stands triumphantly and confidently among this crowd of mostly male Indians whose expressions vary from guarded, taken aback, distrusting, perhaps even provoked but in all instances, they are engaged, looking toward Joseph and his distinct message regarding the destiny of North America?s Indigenous peoples.

Especially engaging to Smith?s audience would have been early theological accounts that suggest a literal reading of specific sections of the Book of Mormon, leading to a belief that American Indians would play an active role in the apocalyptic destruction of the gentiles?and, by extension, the United States?thus purifying the land for a sovereign New Jerusalem. Further, it was taught that ?the Indians are a part of God?s chosen people, and are destined, by heaven, to inherit this land in common with [the Mormons].?[2] The mostly likely source of these teachings, according to Walker, Joseph Smith himself.[3] These ideas dominated much of the nineteenth century, Mormonism’s first “Day of the Lamanite.”

Joseph_Preaching_to_the_Indians_by_C.C.A._ChristensenAlthough the painting summarizes these early teachings, it is in no way an original composition of Armitage. Rather, it is a popular revision of one of the panels from CCA Christensen?s now famous Mormon Panorama series painted between 1870 and 1880. Similar to Armitage, Joseph is positioned elegantly and ennobled in a gesture of confidence. However, in Christensen?s composition, there are distinct differences. First, while in Armitage?s painting there is only one other white man (presumably Armitage himself) , in Christensen?s panorama Joseph is backed by five figures including a woman, child, and a domesticated dog, suggesting the civility of the message, sent to colonize and domesticate the so-called ?noble savage.? Furthering this suggestion, Christensen portrays the Indians as distinctly red faced and generalized, uniform and stereotyped. Rather than reflecting the cultural nuances of various tribes, Christensen paints the “Red Man” as perceived specifically by an outsider. What persists, however, is the sense of listening, of engagement, of Joseph?s words having a distinct value to this community.


Predating both of these paintings is a small lithograph by non-Mormon artist John McGahey?also called Joseph Smith Preaching to the Indians?created about 1870. Such consistent useMcGahey of the same title in all three works suggests a connection between the three pieces and a clear quotation of the predecessor. Since the early 1840s, McGahey had partnered with George Catlin to transfer the famed artist?s paintings into engravings or lithographs. It remains unclear why McGahey created this lithograph, although he intended it as a conflation of several 1840s meetings in Nauvoo between the Mormon Prophet and delegations from the Sauk and Fox and the Pottawatamie nations. Although the purpose(s) of these visits are not entirely clear, historical sources suggest that these Natives had heard that the Mormons could be potent allies against American incursions onto their lands.[4]

Just as McGahey was creating this lithograph in 1870, his partner Catlin exchanged letters with Brigham Young regarding the fate of Native peoples in the United States. Catlin believed that the ?deceptions? of American civilization had undermined Indigenous cultures. Additionally, the artist was alarmed that the US Army?s ?recent horrible & disgraceful massacres? that were, according to his letter, hastening the ?extermination? of Native peoples. He had long admired the Mormons? peaceful approach to Indian relations, which had cultivated trust and confidence. The artist boldly suggested that the Saints form a ?sudden alliance? with the tribes in order to save them from a deplorable fate. In his response, Young avoided the suggestion of forming an alliance, although he agreed that the Army?s approach to ?civilizing? the Indians was unfortunate and misguided.

The course of the people of Utah have persued towards the Indians can be recommended not only on the score of humanity, but of economy. We have found it cheaper to feed than to fight them, at the same time we do not believe in descending to their degraded level to do them good, but to raise them up to our standard, and little by little teach them to be industrious, orderly, honest and peacable. Thus we shall gain their love, and by keeping our word with them hold their respect. By this means we hope, with the help of the Lord to accomplish much good for the original owners of the soil of this continent.[5]

What influence the Catlin-Young exchange had on McGahey?s lithograph or his awareness of the Indians’ 1840s visits to Nauvoo can only be conjectured. It is, however, clear that those in McGahey?s sphere of influence held very sympathetic views of the Saints? beliefs regarding Indians.

Stylistically, McGahey?s lithograph, which includes tepees and a halo of trees serving as a canopy over Smith, clearly influenced Christensen?s and Armitage?s subsequent paintings that act as the visual historic record of Joseph preaching to Indians. Yet, McGahey?s portrayal of the listening Indians is much more detailed, diverse, and individualized than his imitators and such detailed work clearly attests to his more intimate connection with the various tribes throughout the United States. Further, distinct from both Christensen and Armitage, Joseph stands without the company of this fellow Saints, boldly alone with his book and with his message.

None of these artists?McGahey, Christensen, or Armitage?witnessed Smith preaching to the Indians in Nauvoo. However, exact historic accuracy in painting, or lithograph for that matter, is rarely the goal of history paintings. Rather, the function from the very beginning is to create a grand narrative and to endow importance of the central figures and the central moment represented. Further, even in its most exact rendering of an account, a painting can never be (by its very nature, by its very definition) an objective frame, snapshot, or surveillance of what really happened. Even so-called documentary photographs, which are falsely perceived as truth, fail at accomplishing this. Truth is clearly and strategically composed in all artworks, and especially in historic paintings.

The goals then of the collective works are not to record a singular moment as it stood in exact reality but rather to elevate the position and teaching of Joseph Smith as it relates to Indigenous peoples. In fact, the paintings, as a collective group, accomplish this and serve to heroicize Smith as the ultimate champion of a marginalized people. Indeed, Smith did preach a pro-American Indian doctrine, regardless of how exactly this preaching took place, and his doctrine was distinct and revolutionary for the time. Such teaching, according to Walker, ?the Native American was not the European?s noble savage of the wilderness. Nor was he the evil barrier to white man?s progress, that so many American settlers thought. He was, instead, a tool of divine pleasure.?[6]

Armitage created his painting just as these ideas were fading from Mormonism?s public discourse, yet it persisted, along with McGahey’s and Christensen’s, as memorial products of an earlier age’s racial doctrines. Another ?Day of the Lamanite? emerged in the second half of the twentieth century, reaffirming much of the church?s earlier teachings, although in less radical form. Retired from the Salt Lake Temple, the Armitage painting was subsequently transferred to Mormonism?s premier site of memory, the Church History Museum, where it is now displayed prominently just as the church enters what may be a third, if more ambiguous, ?Day of the Lamanite,? as represented by Seventy Larry Echohawk.


[1] Ronald W. Walker, “Seeking the Remnant: The Native American in the Joseph Smith Period,” Journal of Mormon History 19, no. 1 (1993): 5.

[2] Latter Day Saints? Messager and Advocate 2 (August 1836):354.

[3] Walker, “Seeking the Remnant,” 15.

[4] Walker, “Seeking the Remnant,” 26-27.

[5] See Lawrence G. Coastes, ?George Catlin, Brigham Young and the Plains Indians, BYU Studies, 17:1:

[6] Walker, “Seeking the Remnant,” 32-33.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Cultural History Memory Race Theology


  1. I was curious if you had any idea of why the painting was “retired” from the Salt Lake Temple and moved to the Church History Museum. I am interested in the ways that space is created and influenced by arts, memorials, and certain objects especially in regards to LDS-Native American spaces. There are murals depicting Native Americans in other LDS temples to this day, and I have often wondered what does this mean and how they came to be here. There was a fascinating session at the MHA last summer concerning a mural in the Brigham City Temple and how indigenous peoples were a major part in having this mural done and placed there depicting their people. These paintings and images curve out a particular space, and I hope to understand these spaces and their meanings for Latter-day Saints and Native Americans.

    Comment by Farina — November 19, 2013 @ 5:23 pm

  2. Farina, I’m not sure when the Armitage painting was removed from the SL Temple, but it is a fascinating question. Adding an intriguing twist, the painting apparently was displayed in the Jackson County Visitors Center before being moved back to SL in 1978, where it presumably was put in storage until the Church History Museum opened a few years later.

    Comment by David G. — November 19, 2013 @ 5:34 pm

  3. I’m not sure when or why it was removed. I do know that it hung in a visitors center for a while.
    See partial curatorial notes: A Mrs. Sturgill requested information regarding this painting in 1990. Marjorie Conder replied with the following information: We suspect that the other man in the black suit standing with Joseph Smith may be Armitage himself. This painting is very large and once hung in the main hall of the first floor of the Salt Lake Temple. / Originally hung in Salt Lake Temple for many years; when placed in Salt Lake Temple left side was cut to accommodate pilasters which were to border either side; removed from temple and placed in Independence, Missouri visitor center; removed from there in February 1978 by Paul Anderson, Don Enders and professional conservator Piero Minnouri.

    Comment by Laura H. — November 19, 2013 @ 5:49 pm

  4. I looked at the museum’s current label for the painting and it indicates that the painting hung in the SL Temple for more than five decades. The label was probably written by a curator back in the 90s, and the curator took his/her notes when they left, so I’m trying to verify that information.

    Comment by David G. — November 19, 2013 @ 5:49 pm

  5. This is what I know from Emily Utt: The painting hung in the Salt Lake Temple until 1962 when the entire temple went through a big remodel. The removal was absolutely about modernizing and updating the space to 1960s standards and less about Joseph Smith and American Indian relationships/doctrines. Emily showed me pictures of where it hung in the Grand Hall and what the Grand Hall looked after the remodel. Because of the inclusion of wainscot along the wall, it would seem like the size of the painting would have determined its exit rather than its subject matter. More research with Paul Anderson or Don Enders would need to be done to determine why it left the visitor’s center. However, I suspect from this point that it had to do with conservation issues.

    Comment by Laura H. — November 19, 2013 @ 6:51 pm

  6. Laura this is such a fascinating piece of history! Do we see any evidence for Armitage’s painting having been commissioned for the Salt Lake Temple? What is it’s provenance in relation to the Salt Lake Temple?

    Also, do we know much about Armitage and his studio or process as a painter in Utah?

    Comment by Tod Robbins — November 20, 2013 @ 8:18 am

  7. I have never seen another piece of art with Native Americans portrayed in any church building, much less a temple. This is fascinating! Thank you for sharing!

    Comment by J Stuart — November 20, 2013 @ 8:41 am

  8. Tod, as I understand it the painting was commissioned for the temple, along with a companion painting, The Glorious Appearing of Jesus to the Nephites.

    Comment by David G. — November 20, 2013 @ 12:29 pm

  9. A very interesting post, Laura. I have always been intrigued by Armitage and wish that we had more of his work to enjoy. It is my personal opinion that he was one of the most skillful of all the early LDS artists. Unfortunately, his untimely death ended what might have been a very productive life as an artist.

    Btw, if you weren’t already aware of it, John Hajicek recently purchased a small version (presumably an preliminary study) of Christensen’s painting of the same subject.

    Comment by Noel C — November 20, 2013 @ 1:08 pm

  10. Noel, I heard you speak at AML conference on correlated images. Would love to touch base sometime.

    Additionally, David, I think we will need to reach out to John Hajicek to add his study to our comparisons.

    Lastly Farina, I heard back from Emily Utt who spoke with Don Enders. It looks like they were updating the exhibits in the Independence, MO when it was removed and the painting no longer fit within the scope or direction of the redesign. The painting then went to a conservator in New York for some time and then it came back to Utah. It was in storage until it hung in the museum at the time of the building?s opening. The fact that it has for the most part been continuously displayed suggests that it has maintained value for the Mormon people, (or more accurately, the Mormon tastemakers).

    Comment by Laura H. — November 20, 2013 @ 4:20 pm

  11. Laura, thanks for an important and insightful post.

    Comment by Christopher — November 20, 2013 @ 9:58 pm

  12. […] Laura Allred Hurtado, “Painting the Mythical and the Heroic: Joseph Smith Preaches to American Indians“ […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Mormons and Natives Month at the JI — January 2, 2014 @ 10:21 am


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