Responses: Patrick Mason on David Pulsipher on Mormon Civil Disobedience

By August 14, 2013

This post continues the JI’s occasional “Responses” series and contributes to the August theme of 20th Century Mormonism. Semi-regular guest and friend of the JI Patrick Mason, Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont, contributes this installment.

Review of David Pulsipher, “Prepared to Abide the Penalty’: Latter-day Saints and Civil Disobedience,” JMH 39:3 (Summer 2013): 131-162.

Pop quiz: Which group maintained the longest civil disobedience movement in American history, and the first such movement not to descend into violence? Since you’re reading a Mormon history blog, the question is a bit like asking who’s buried in Grant’s tomb. Yet even with the prodigious output of scholars working on Mormon related topics in recent years, there are relatively few offerings that not only give us new details but also really help us see Mormonism through a new perspective. David Pulsipher’s recent JMH article is one of those.

I should reveal my biases up front: David is a good friend, and the two of us are (slowly) working together on a book-length treatment of a Mormon theological ethic of peace. So I’m naturally inclined to say nice things about him and his work. This post will be no exception. The basic historical trajectory of Pulsipher’s article, covering the twenty-eight years from the first federal anti-polygamy legislation until the Manifesto, doesn’t cover any particularly new ground for students of Mormon history. It’s what Pulsipher does in covering that ground that is innovative. In a subfield that is always striving for relevance to broader themes and narratives, Pulsipher shows persuasively that Mormon polygamists (mostly the male priesthood leadership) anticipated many of the strategies that would be employed in the twentieth century by nonviolent civil disobedience movements led by Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. The Mormon case demonstrates how nonviolent social movements can “emerge from unexpected quarters” (134). More significantly, I think, the article shows how Mormon history profits from engagement with political theory–plenty of John Rawls here, in easily digestible form–and that Mormonism can contribute to and substantially nuance established political theory.

Pulsipher begins with definitions. The Latter-day Saints’ nineteenth-century civil disobedience, like that of later theorists and practitioners, had three key characteristics: “(1) a fundamental distinction between just and unjust laws, (2) a conscientious, public, and nonviolent breach of an unjust law, seeking to change that law either through moral suasion or by frustrating its enforcement, and (3) fidelity to the rule of law generally, demonstrated by a willingness to obey just laws and to submit to the legal penalties for disobeying unjust laws” (138).

A typically telling illustration of the Mormons’ approach is offered by John Taylor, who relates being brought into court to give evidence in a polygamy trial: “I was asked if I believed in keeping the laws of the United States. I answered Yes, I believe in keeping them all but one. What one is that? It is that one in relation to plurality of wives. Why don’t you believe in keeping that? Because I believe it is at variance with the genius and spirit of our institutions–it is a violation of the Constitution of the United States, and it is contrary to the law of God.” Taylor then said that he was “prepared to abide the penalty” of taking such a stance. (144)

Pulsipher also traces the Latter-day Saints’ twentieth-century retreat from the civil disobedience and in some ways their own history. He offers several compelling reasons for why the heritage of civil disobedience didn’t take hold in twentieth-century LDS culture: its failure to achieve its explicit purpose (to preserve plural marriage); the wide unpopularity of that proximate purpose, increasingly among the Saints themselves; Mormons’ shift to emphasize loyalty to the nation and their excellence in Victorian moral virtues; the continued use of the rhetoric and strategies of civil disobedience by Fundamentalist LDS groups; and the church leadership’s conservative reaction to the “disrespect for law and order” characteristic of the late 1960s.

But not all is lost: Pulsipher intriguingly provides an extended quote from a 2009 speech at BYU-Idaho in which Elder Dallin H. Oaks glowingly approved of a “national anti-government movement” led by a Mongolian woman (161). The lesson here is that Mormons are just like other Americans–we like civil disobedience, especially in retrospect, when it achieves goals we deem worthy, and castigate it as unpatriotic and dangerous when applied toward goals we don’t share.

I take minor exception to one small point made in the article. Pulsipher demonstrates persuasively how the Latter-day Saints relied upon biblical, not American, precedents in justifying their civil disobedience–Daniel, not Thoreau, was their archetype. Their remarkable persistence in the face of increasingly overwhelming pressure was rooted in large part in their millennial faith that Christ would rescue them from their oppressors. It is true, no doubt, that nineteenth-century Mormons had a more robust premillennialist outlook than did Martin Luther King, as Pulsipher points out. But black civil rights workers at the grassroots level–those without doctorates from liberal northeastern seminaries–carried their movement out in prophetic, ecstatic biblical tones.”[1] Twentieth century southern black millennialism no doubt looked different than nineteenth-century Mormon millennialism. But both the Mormons’ resistance to federal anti-polygamy law and grassroots southern blacks’ resistance to Jim Crow arguably drew more deeply from the Hebrew prophets than from the American liberal tradition.

For those of us who know David, this article displays the quality of his mind and his character. It is expertly researched, with strong documentation. It is perceptive and measured in tone. It is fair-minded, fully acknowledging the twentieth-century critique of civil disobedience but gently suggesting that those critiques were shaped by a particular historical moment. And the article reminds us, in the grand tradition of the vaunted southern historian C. Vann Woodward, that the past is strewn with “forgotten alternatives” for our (re-)discovery and (re-)consideration.[2]


[1] David Chappell, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 102.

[2] See C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002 [1955]), chap. 2.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Categories of Periodization: Accommodation Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Memory Responses


  1. My summer 2013 copy of the JMH is languishing on my desk at my home office. Now I have got to get with it, and I will start with this article.

    Comment by kevinf — August 14, 2013 @ 12:08 pm

  2. I’ve never thought of applying the term “civil disobedience” to the late 19th-century Mormon polygamists. This is fascinating.

    Comment by Hunter — August 14, 2013 @ 5:43 pm

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful response, Patrick. Like kevinf, this has provided the needed push for me to pick up the latest JMH and read that article closely.

    Comment by Christopher — August 14, 2013 @ 8:13 pm

  4. I was hoping, when I saw the title, that it would be about Mormon women resisting polygamy.

    Din none of them object?

    Comment by Geoff - A — August 14, 2013 @ 10:05 pm

  5. Nice! This is a great example of a review/summary article that makes me want to read the original (which is not always the case). It sounds like David has shown that even supposedly well-known and well-studied narratives can yield new insights–something the rest of us can aspire to.

    Comment by LisaT — August 14, 2013 @ 10:20 pm

  6. I am so pleased to read this complimentary review of David’s fine work. I have known and worked with David for 9 years, and can attest to his qualities as an excellent scholar, colleague, teacher, and friend. I look forward to more quality work from him in Mormon historical studies. For a look at another of David’s contributions here at JI, please see

    Comment by Andrea R-M — August 15, 2013 @ 9:58 pm

  7. Thanks for the review.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — August 16, 2013 @ 2:58 pm

  8. […] Patrick Mason on David Pulsipher on Mormon Civil Disobedience (Patrick Mason, Juvenile Instructor) […]

    Pingback by Volume 2.33 (August 12-18) « The Nightstand @ Weightier Matters of the Law — September 8, 2013 @ 10:31 pm


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