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.? 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].? The mostly likely source of these teachings, according to Walker, Joseph Smith himself. These ideas dominated much of the nineteenth century, Mormonism’s first “Day of the Lamanite.”
Although 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 use 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.
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.
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.?
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.
 Ronald W. Walker, “Seeking the Remnant: The Native American in the Joseph Smith Period,” Journal of Mormon History 19, no. 1 (1993): 5.
 Latter Day Saints? Messager and Advocate 2 (August 1836):354.
 Walker, “Seeking the Remnant,” 15.
 Walker, “Seeking the Remnant,” 26-27.
 See Lawrence G. Coastes, ?George Catlin, Brigham Young and the Plains Indians, BYU Studies, 17:1:
 Walker, “Seeking the Remnant,” 32-33.