“The Accent of Conviction and Sincere Belief”: Travel Writers & Mormon Discourse on Persecution

By March 3, 2008

In 1831, just a year after the organization of Joseph Smith’s Church of Christ, an anonymous author wrote an article in the Painesville Telegraph regarding the new religion.  He argued that whether Mormonism was the true restoration of the ancient Apostolic Church or not, the Mormons had no “proof” of their “honesty.”  Explaining himself, he said,

They can give none but their own assertion; they have no sacrifice to make-no loss of fortune or reputation to sustain-they are in a land of liberty. . . . [The early Christians] had to forsake their relatives, leave their possessions, and forfeit their [reputation].  Scourging and torture, imprisonment and death, were often staring them in the face . . . Thirteen apostles, all, save one, sealed their testimony with their blood.  So, whether their religion was true or false, they proved their honesty.[1]

As Spencer Fluhman has noted, “Mormonism, replete with its own losses and martyrs … [eventually] proved its honesty.”[2] While mob violence directed at the Saints in the 1830s and 40s and federal prosecution of polygamists in the 1880s detail that early Mormons did indeed endure many of the qualifications outlined by the anonymous author as necessary to “prove their honesty,” perhaps the most powerful device in confirming to the Saints that their religion was honest, sincere, and in the end, true, was still “their own assertion.”  The way Mormons remember their persecution and how they have used their identity as a persecuted people has been the topic of numerous posts by JI’s own David G. (see here, here, and here for examples).  David’s research suggests that this discourse on persecution (which others have noted “was the single most salient conference topic of [this] generation”[3]) was a key theme in shaping a Latter-day Saint sense of identity as a separate and chosen people.

My own research on travel writers’ impressions of the Mormons in 19th-century Utah led me to wonder how Mormon discourse on the theme of persecution was seen by these gentile visitors, whose “first impressions of Mormons were frequently formed at Sunday Worship.”[4] The results of my research were intriguing.  While nearly all travelers who stayed in Utah long enough to either hear a Mormon sermon or two mentioned this Mormon emphasis on their persecuted past (and present), the reactions to this discourse were varied.[5]

Some travelers, like Howard Stansbury and John Gunnison, noted that Mormon leaders invoked memory of past persecution in Missouri and Illinois in order ro demonstrate the failure of the U.S. government to enforce Constitutional rights and to serve as evidence that the Latter-day Saints were true Americans, faithfully loyal to constitutional ideals despite their denial of these principles.[6]  Others, including Fitz Hugh Ludlow, Sir Richard Francis Burton, and Horace Greeley, suggested that the Latter-day Saints saw in their persecutions evidence of divine chosenness and a connection with the early Christian church and its martyrs.  When Greeley asked Brigham Young for an explanation of regarding “the aversion and hatred with which your people are generally regarded by those among whom they have lived,” Brigham simply replied, “No other explanation than is afforded by the crucifixion of Christ and the kindred treatment of God’s ministers, prophets and saints, in all ages.”[7]  When Sir Richard Burton asked John Taylor a similar question, Taylor asnwered that while “no one claimed immaculateness for the Mormons,” persecution had been the heritage of the faithful Saints from their earliest days, and noted that similar circumstances followed “the Christians in the days of Nero.”[8]

The responses of these various travel writers confirms the notion that Latter-day Saint memory of persecution served a variety of purposes.  However, Mormon discourse on their persecuted past did have one unifying effect on the collective impression of travel writers and gentile observers: it demonstrated that Mormons were distinct and set apart from the rest of the world.  And if Jules Remy’s commentary on this form of Mormon discourse is evident of others’ impressions, then perhaps Mormons had come a long way since 1831 and, to some degree, proved their honesty and sincerity:

I cannot help thinking there is in this language something more than rhetoric.  I seem to hear in it the accent of conviction and sincere belief; and though we may pity those who listen to it, and who think they hear in it the voice of truth, it would require more courage to blame them than I possess.[9]

[1] M.S.C., “Mormonism,” Painesville Telegraph 2 (second series), no. 35 (February 15, 1831): 1-2.[2] J. Spencer Fluhman, “Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Antebellum America,” (PhD Dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2006): 294-295.

[3] Gordon Shepherd and Gary Shepherd, A Kingdom Transformed: Themes in the Development of Mormonism (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1984), 82.

[4] Karen M. Morin and Jeanne Kay Guelke, “Strategies of Representation, Relationship, and Resistance: British Women Travelers and Mormons Plural Wives, ca. 1870-1890,” in Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 88, No. 3 (Sep. 1998), 444.

[5] I surveyed 20 travel narratives written by travelers to Utah in the 19th century who stopped to observe the Mormons.  Narratives were intentionally selected to include a wide range of travelers–both men and women, both European and American, and both friendly and antagonistic in their general impressions of the Saints.  At least two travelogues from each decade of the second half of the nineteenth-century are represented.  Out of the twenty narratives surveyed, fifteen yielded at least a comment on Mormons explaining their persecuted past to the travelers.

[6] See Howard Stansbury, Exploration and Survey of the Valley of the Great Salt Lake of Utah (Washington: Robert Armstrong, 1853), and J.W. Gunnison, The Mormons, or, Latter-day Saints, in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake (Philadelphia, 1853).

[7] “Horace Greeley Interviews Brigham Young,” in Among the Mormons: Historic Accounts by Contemporary Observers, ed. William Mulder and A. Russell Mortensen (Lincoln: University of Nebraksa Press, 1973), 324-25.

[8] Sir Richard Francis Burton, The City of the Saints: Among the Mormons and Across the Rocky Mountains to California (Santa Barbara, California: the Narrative Press, 2003), 198.

[9] Jules Remy, A Journey to Great Salt Lake City (London, 1861), 2:80-81.

I presented a fuller treatment of this subject at the 55th Annual Utah State History Conference on September 7, 2007.


  1. Very interesting. The last quote hints at something that I think deserves more attention. Does establishing honesty and sincerity through suffering lead to a suspicion of pathology? As in, “they are honestly crazy and sincerely nuts.” There is an analogue to this in the history or portrayals of Joseph Smith of course. The price insiders pay for escaping the label of charlatan may ultimately be accepting the deluded label.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 3, 2008 @ 4:27 pm

  2. I think you’re right on, Taysom. The advent of postmodernism, I think, offers a third option to the charlatan/deluded paradigm, in that it demands that Mormonism be taken as seriously (or as lightly) as any other belief system. However, although this might provide Mormonism a seat at the table of academia, it probably won’t go far in influencing personal opinions of others, which persist in defining JS and Mormonism as either a charlatan or delusional. As Richard Bushman warned:

    By giving in to tolerance, there is a danger that Mormonism will be treated like voodoo or shamanism?something to examine in excruciating detail and with labored respect, while privately the ethnographers believe these religious manifestations are the product of frenzied minds and a primitive, pre-scientific outlook. Wouldn?t we prefer to be taken seriously enough to be directly opposed rather than condescended to? (Richard Lyman Bushman, ?A Joseph Smith for the Twenty-First Century,? BYU Studies 40, no. 3 (2001), 161.)

    Comment by Christopher — March 3, 2008 @ 6:15 pm

  3. There is a huge literature in Religious Studies about this subject of how to approach archival traces of religious experience. To simplify egregiously, on one side you have those who argue that such experiences of the “numinous” (citing Otto) must be allowed to speak for themselves, through the accounts of the participants. At the extreme you have statements like the one by a famous religious studies scholar that if a scholar makes a statement about a faith with which a member of that faith disagrees than the scholar is not writing about that particular religion, but is acting in a “reductionist”
    fashion. On the other side you have those you argue that this is a kind of hidden-hand apologetics used to deflect serious and probing questions about religions dear to the hearts of scholars, and that religious experiences ought to be analyzed through any lens (psychological, anthopological, sociological, etc) that scholars have at hand. I began graduate school in agreement with the first school of thought, but I am now firmly within the second. Many scholars, when writing about their own faith traditions or traditions that they see as sufficiently “normal” use the first style, but they fail what I call the “Jim Jones Test.” If one really is going to adopt the approach of letting acounts of religious experience speak for themselves, then one must be consistent, or have some rational explanation for the inconsistency. Can one extend the courtesy, for example, to Jim Jones? How about David Koresh? If not, then this might not be a purely methodological issue. There is middle ground, of course, but I think these issues are important and scholars of religion from all faiths and no faiths need to wrestle with them.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 3, 2008 @ 7:03 pm

  4. Steve, perhaps I’ll change my view on this when I’m done with grad school, but I still much prefer the approach to studying martyrdom put forward by both Gregory and Castelli, who argue that applying psychological analyses to our subjects ultimately reduces and even obscures their worldviews. In Castelli’s case, she argues that labeling the subject “deluded” or “crazy” obscures how the subject is constructing the self.

    Comment by David G. — March 3, 2008 @ 7:33 pm

  5. I think they are addressing a slightly different issue. In each case those authors, in order to capture meaning, engage in probing analysis. I wouldn’t label them as deluded either, but I would reserve the right to make, for example, sociological arguments about the effects of martyrdom that the martyrs themselves and those constructing the narratives of those events would find unacceptable. And my oversimplification of the theoretical issues may have distorted my meaning in my earlier comment. To be more concrete, I am much more sympathetic to the views of Russell McCutcheon, Wayne Proudfoot, and Donald Wiebe when it comes to these issues.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 3, 2008 @ 8:30 pm

  6. Fair enough. I’m much more comfortable with sociological and anthropological analyses (even when they run against what the subject would say) than psychological analyses that diagnose some type of mental disease.

    Comment by David G. — March 3, 2008 @ 8:34 pm

  7. I think that your uneasiness with psychological approaches is widely shared. Once one agrees with the notion that outside approaches (ie those not necesasarily authorized by the subject) are appropriate, the relative merit of the range of those approaches must be weighed, debated, proved, and so forth. But some scholars object to the very idea of such approaches, which is a different issue.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 3, 2008 @ 8:39 pm

  8. Chris: I think that you highlight one important discursive response used by gentiles to understand why the Mormons were willing to be persecuted. I wonder how common this trope was, that of assuming that willingness to suffer was evidence of sincerity. I think that outsiders were generally fascinated by the willingness of the Saints to suffer. I’ve come across other discursive responses that sought to explain this phenomenon:

    1. The Mormons were persecuted because they were thieves that wanted to maintain a facad of piety.

    2. The Mormons were persecuted because they were good republicans that worked harder than the slaveholding Missourians.

    3. The Mormons were persecuted because they knew that persecution would allow them to garner sympathy and thereby gain new converts.

    4. The Mormons actually had intended to take over the state of Missouri and establish the Kingdom of Christ, but the resulting backlash resulted in persecution.

    Seeing Mormon willingness to suffer as evidence of sincerity is one discursive device that I haven’t seen much, but I wonder if maybe it’s more common that I think.

    Comment by David G. — March 5, 2008 @ 11:37 am

  9. Interesting, David. Is there one or two of those responses that is more common than others?

    Comment by Christopher — March 5, 2008 @ 12:42 pm

  10. Hmm…I’d be hard pressed at this point to show that one was more common than the others. I’d have to do more research into frequency of these claims.

    Comment by David G. — March 5, 2008 @ 12:45 pm


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