[As a heads-up, this post does not attempt to make any claims or arguments. It’s just a few half-baked thoughts concerning early Mormon notions of the Kingdom of God and how it related to Americanism, specifically during the 1840s. I hope it generates some discussion–or, at least–encourages some thought on what I think may be an under-utilized approach to early Mormon history.]
It’s almost considered a common trope nowadays to describe Mormonism as “the quintessential American religion”–or something in those regards. Harold Bloom may be most famous for recently making such a claim, but the sentiment has been around a long time. An American-born prophet, an American-located Garden of Eden, a canonized revelation extolling the American Constitution, an American-centered headquarters–you get the idea. The question of how Mormons in the nineteenth century understood their relationship with the United States has received a lot of attention in recent decades, with good reason. It is a fascinating story of how Mormons both rejected America—by becoming fed up with persecution and mobocracy and moving West—while still holding the pure “ideal” of America and merely equating their contemporary nation as experiencing an apostasy akin to modern-day Christianity. Mormon scriptures both placed America the location at the center of future divine events while also prophesying the downfall of America the government as a necessary apocalyptic sign paving the way for the millennium. The paradoxical positioning of both rejecting and embracing the American image was at the center of the Mormon sense of self during the late-Nauvoo and early-Utah periods.
Fair enough. But I wonder about another possible element that should be taken into account. This idea was thrust on me while reading through Sam Haynes’s recent Unfinished Revolution: The Early American Republic in a British World (Virginia UP, 2010). Haynes demonstrates how America reached an apex of patriotism in the wake of the War of 1812–the very period that many of Mormonism’s first generation was raised–which resulted in a vehement Anglophobe vibe that permeated American culture. Whether in religion, politics, literature, theater, or even material culture, Americans formulated their own national character as, above all else, anti-British. England served as the necessary “Other” in order for Americans to finally understand their “self.” Association with Britain was not only taboo, but un-patriotic.
This concept should help reconsider three key and related moments in early Mormonism. The first is Joseph Smith’s decision in 1836 (1837?) to send missionaries to Great Britain. This came at a moment of great internal and external strife in Kirtland, as the collapse of the Kirtland Anti-Banking Society introduced discord, dissent, and eventually migration. In the middle of what was really a national economic crisis, Smith determines to send some of his closest followers outside national borders–but why England? A shared language is an obvious answer—though an increased presence in Canada might have been a more feasible option, both due to distance and a better working relationship with America—as is the fact that several of Mormonism’s newest converts had family in England. Plus, as Haynes outlines in his book, Americans were still obsessed with British approval even as they denounced its culture. At the same moment that many American religions that had ties across the Atlantic Ocean were more keen in emphasizing their parochial presence and downplaying their international attachments–I’m thinking specifically of the Quakers, though to a lesser extent the Methodists–Smith desired to increase ties with the forbidden mother country.
Second, I wonder how the Quorum of the 12’s mission to the British Isles a few years later changed the apostle’s view of Britishness and perhaps shaped Utah Mormon perceptions of Great Britain for the rest of the century. Most of the apostles—John Taylor being the most pronounced exception—were raised in patriotic American families during a time of vast Anglophobia, and they must have held perceptions that were challenged with their experience with British culture. While there has been quite a bit of work on the Twelve’s mission to England, I have not yet seen much in-depth work on how this mission challenged, altered, or reaffirmed their idea of Americanness. Did it make them consider a more cosmopolitan ideal for the Kingdom of God? Did experience with a monarchical republic help shape how Brigham Young, Orson Hyde, Parley Pratt, etc., understand God’s divine government? The answers to these questions could be of immense importance due to the fact that the participants of this mission were to a large extent responsible for shaping the Mormon church for the rest of the century.
Third, I wonder how the fruits of these labors affected the Mormon sense of self, and this is especially the biggest question I have today: just as America was reaching its apex of exceptionalism and Anglophobia (the early 1840s), leagues of British converts are streaming into Mormon Nauvoo. This has the potential to effect two key issues: first, how did this challenge how American inhabitants of the Mormon city understand the United State’s centerness in the Gospel? And second, how did this go over with the growing number of anti-Mormon neighbors surrounding Nauvoo? Could a growing sense of Britishness have played a role in Mormon opposition? Scholarship has noted how Mormons took on a “foreign” feel in anti-Mormon propaganda during the Utah period–but could the growing amount of Britishness during a period of anti-Britishness have made Mormons appear un-American even before the trek west?
Finally, and this is both explicit and implicitly implied in the previous paragraphs, but how did this Britishness effect the developing Mormon theology of the “Kingdom of God”? Comparing the kingdom rhetoric of John Taylor, born in England, and Parley Pratt, born in New York, easily demonstrates that national background colors how one speaks of a divine kingdom. Did it give a more cosmopolitan feel than our general “Americanized” framework for early American thought?
As you can tell by the plethora of question marks here, I honestly don’t know. Just a few half-baked ideas. Discuss.