The Development of Mormon Patriotism and the Crafting of a New Mormon Narrative During the Progressive Era

By June 25, 2010

While doing some research in the John Mills Whitaker Collection at the University of Utah the other day, I discovered the following two letters, both of which seem to indicate some interesting things about Progressive Era Mormonism and its efforts to redefine itself as a profoundly American Religion.  Whitaker was the third seminary teacher in the Church and commanded a great deal of influence within the seminary system during its first two decades.  At the time that he received these letters, he was the principal of the Granite Seminary.

Adam S. Bennion to John M. Whitaker, 6 September 1921, John Mills Whitaker, Papers 1849-1963, MS 2, box 18, folder 4:

?Dear Brother:

?The Governor of our State has set aside September 17th as ?Constitution Day.?  It is most fitting and commendable that we should be mindful of the great document that has guarded American Liberty and love and justice all these years.

?The Latter-Day Saints have always stood loyally by the flag and have been proud of the Constitution.  The following item from an account of the first parade in the Pioneer celebration July 24, 1849, reflects the spirit of our forefathers:

??Richard Ballantyne, one of the twenty-four men, came to the stand, and in a neat speech, presented the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States to President Young, which was received with three shouts, ?May it live forever?, led by the President.

??The Declaration of Independence was then read by Mr. Erastus Snow, the band following in a lively air.?

?In these days of bolshevism and lawlessness it is good to consider the great and inspired truths that underlie secure government.  Let us see to it that every student in Church Schools and Seminaries has a clear conception of both his opportunities and his obligations under our Constitution.

?Sincerely your Brother,

?/s/ Adam S. Bennion


George H. Brimhall to John M. Whitaker, 15 January 1923, John Mills Whitaker, Papers 1849-1963, MS 2, box 18, folder 11:

?Dear Brother:

?Please send me a copy of your last term or quarter?s examination questions.

?Kindly inform me on the following points:  Do you have singing and prayer at the opening of your classes?  Our national anthem bears evidence of the fact that our Republic and our religion are inseparable.  The composition contains the sentiments inquiry, exultation, determination and patriotism, and it is full of faith, hope, reverence and ends climaxically with prophecy based on a trust in God.

?It is hoped that during the month of January February every Seminary student will become able to write from memory the Star-Spangled Banner, and thus make of our Seminary classes a force that will never fail in the community singing of this song of songs.

?It is encouraging to know that all of the lines of progress are being kept up in our work:  History, geography, doctrine, by supervised study, clear explanation, free discussions and drill, and that training is kept up by attention to spiritual exercises and outside church activities?.

?Sincerely yours,

?/s/ George H. Brimhall?

These letters provide an interesting glimpse into the Americanization of Mormonism during the early twentieth century; however, at the same time they also demonstrate the continued sentiment of transition era Mormons that they needed to continue to prove the fact that they were?and, in their own minds, had always been?genuine Americans through overt displays of Americanness.

In terms of content, these letters reveal a Mormonism that had blended nicely with the rest of American culture.  Fears of bolshevism and reminders about the importance of America were certainly not uncommon during this period.  Indeed, a major premise of the public school system was the democratization and Americanization of youth, particularly those that were foreign born.  Hence, the fact that the seminary was used to instill a hatred of bolshevism and a reverence for the Constitution and the National Anthem is not surprising.  Like the public schools it was connected with, the seminary program became a tool of Americanization with a goal to increase the patriotism of its participants.

In these letters, however, we see not only a Mormonism that had bought into the idea of Americanness, but we likewise see glimpses of a Mormonism that was still struggling to prove itself to the country, as well as to defend its own past.  Within these letters it is clear that Mormons were still trying to convince the country that they were patriotic Americans.  Brimhall?s letter suggests a fear that if Mormons did not know the national anthem by heart, their Americanness might be called into question.  Bennion?s emphasis on the importance of students knowing the Constitution likewise suggests such a fear.

Bennion?s efforts to promote Americanness, however, went further than a mere emphasis upon knowing the Constitution.  For Bennion, proof of Mormonism?s devotion to America had to be proven not only in the present, but also in the past.  Hence, one of the ways that Mormons began to prove themselves to be genuinely American was through the adoption of a narrative that emphasized Mormon patriotism over Mormon distinctiveness and separation.  Bennion?s statement that ?The Latter-Day Saints have always stood loyally by the flag and have been proud of the Constitution,? suggests a selective interpretation of Mormon history that excluded touchy subjects like the Council of Fifty, Polygamy, the Utah War, and the almost joyful way that Latter-day Saint leaders spoke about the destructive events of the American Civil War.  In essence, what we see in Bennion?s letter, in particular, is the crafting of a new narrative of the Mormon past.

In many ways, Bennion?s approach to Mormon history proved to be highly successful.  While Mormons have continued to reverence nineteenth century leaders like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, they have rarely brought up divisive issues in their reverence.  Indeed, while orthodox nineteenth century Mormons frequently reverenced Young precisely because of his willingness to oppose the U.S. Government, twentieth century Mormons have preferred to emphasize events such as the one described in Bennion?s letter which seemed to reveal only deep seated patriotism.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Great stuff, Brett. Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher — June 25, 2010 @ 5:03 pm

  2. Thanks, Brett. These are interesting letters, for the reasons you point out. I suspect that the reference to “lawlessness” refers to anarchy, Emma Goldman’s “beautiful ideal” of a society without the oppressive violence of the nation state. Ignacio Garcia once remarked to me that it’s interesting that Jews (at least stereotypically) responded to persecution by turning radical. Mormons responded to persecution by embracing the status quo.

    Comment by David G. — June 25, 2010 @ 7:10 pm

  3. I think that is a gross misrepresentation of Jewish responses to persecution

    Comment by SC Taysom — June 25, 2010 @ 7:15 pm

  4. Which is why he acknowledged it was a stereotype.

    Comment by David G. — June 25, 2010 @ 7:18 pm

  5. I guess I read it wrong. I thought he was advancing that as some sort of intellectually sound comparison. In any case, these letters are really very interesting.

    Comment by SC Taysom — June 25, 2010 @ 7:24 pm

  6. Garcia’s not a scholar of religion, so I’m not sure that jumping all over him is really all that necessary, but I think he raises an interesting question that is relevant here. His point was simply to comment on how many Mormons (at least among the leadership) responded to late-19th century persecution by embracing nationalism and conservatism, with the Jews as a convenient, yet admittedly inaccurate, foil. His point of reference is the stereotype that many U.S. Jews are radicals (which, as Peter Novick speculates, may be as much a product of their immigration status from Eastern Europe as their response to persecution).

    Comment by David G. — June 25, 2010 @ 8:05 pm

  7. Didn’t mean to jump on anyone.

    Comment by SC Taysom — June 25, 2010 @ 8:12 pm

  8. I was (over)reacting to the reductionist view of Judaism I suppose. The idea of comparing JEws to Mormons on this point is not a bad one, although I might take it in a slightly different direction. I think the reality of the Jewish situation–its amazing diversity of responses to modernity (and persecution)ranging from Hasidism to reconstructionism–stands in stark contrast to what is really a much more monolithic response on the part of Mormons.

    Comment by SC Taysom — June 25, 2010 @ 8:18 pm

  9. Agreed. The diversity just isn’t there in (Utah) Mormonism, although I think the Fundamentalists that were coalescing around the time of these letters do provide an interesting contrast to the mainstream church’s nationalism.

    Comment by David G. — June 25, 2010 @ 8:21 pm

  10. Nice point about the Mormon response to radicalism. John Silleto has a book coming out soon on the Socialist party in Utah. He came and gave a lecture to the Utah history class I was TA for and he said that many of the lower class Mormons were highly supportive of the IWW and the socialists, but the anti-socialist sentiment came down from the top and eventually won out.

    Comment by Brett D. — June 25, 2010 @ 8:21 pm

  11. Sorry, that was directed to your comment David.

    Comment by Brett D. — June 25, 2010 @ 8:22 pm

  12. Thanks, Brett, for the update on Silleto’s book. I’ve seen references to his articles on the subject; good to know he’s bringing his research together into a book. Do you know what press he’s publishing with? Also, did he mention in his lecture if the Mormon socialists were immigrants or not?

    Comment by David G. — June 25, 2010 @ 8:34 pm

  13. He didn’t say what press and I can’t remember whether he referenced whether or not they were immigrants, though it seems fairly likely that many were immigrants.

    Comment by Brett D. — June 25, 2010 @ 10:34 pm

  14. It is possible to overdo the divisive, confrontational elements. Bennion might have selected any of a fair number of other well- known incidents of LDS history before, during, and after the tenure of Brigham Young in support of his claim that the LDS had always been supporters of the Flag and Constitution.

    However, the memory of what the Federal Government can do and has done in the past have certainly helped created a certain lingering mistrust of it along with the patriotism, an attitude that still influences political opinion among most Mormons.

    Comment by Confutus — June 25, 2010 @ 11:43 pm

  15. Fascinating. Thanks for sharing, Brett.

    Comment by Ben — June 26, 2010 @ 6:35 am

  16. “a reverence for . . . the National Anthem is not surprising.”

    A small quibble. The Star Spangled Banner was not the National Anthem at the time these letters were exchanged. The song had been adopted for official use by the U.S. Navy in 1889 and by the office of the President in 1916, but was not congressionally designated until 1931.

    Comment by Coffinberry — June 26, 2010 @ 8:40 am

  17. As a non-Mormon, I find these comments interesting but not relevant to one question. Bennion’s letter was extremely selective in representing Mormons’ delight in patriotism in the mid-19th century. What is the feeling now about being more open and forthcoming about the history of Mormonism vs. the federal government, especially BY’s virulent expression of hatred of it during the Utah War? Is any of that taught in Mormon instructional venues today?

    Comment by Polly A. — June 26, 2010 @ 12:14 pm

  18. Perhaps Ignacio Garcia’s comment was based on his observations of the Russian Revolution, where Jews, suppressed for centuries by being forced to live within a pre-determined ‘pale of settlement’ and made frequent scapegoats by local & regional Tsarist authorities, suffered numerous pogroms, became a significant ethnic element in the Bolshevik party. One of the most significant of these was Leon Trotsky, who organized the ‘Red’ Army and Felix Derzhinsky who founded the ‘Cheka’, the first Soviet secret police. Derzhinsky stated flatly that the Cheka was not interested in justice but retribution. Within twenty months of it’s creation he oversaw the systematic murder of more people than Tsarism had executed in the entire 19th century. These two had the biggest impact on the revolution since without them it certainly would have failed. But there were many others, Zinoviev, Sverdlov, Kamenev, Uritsky, and we can’t forget the two men who started it all, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Thus from the perspective of Russian history, Garcia’s observation was accurate. Regretably, anti-semitism still lives on in Russia because of the deep involvement of Russian Jews in the Bolshevik revolution. There are few families in Russia today who didn’t lose at least one relative to Bolshevik terrorism.

    Comment by Velikye Kniaz — June 26, 2010 @ 12:24 pm

  19. Hi Polly (good to know you read our blog!), you’re right that the “new Mormon narrative” that Brett lays out is highly selective. As for how contemporary Utah Mormons deal with the 1840s-1850s, the short answer is that the instructional manuals usually skip over the post-exodus period. The Utah War is largely omitted. Although not a staple in manuals, some Ensign articles repeat the old story about the Mormon Battalion being evidence of continuing persecution and evidence of Mormon dedication to the nation. But other than that, the anti-federal government rhetoric (along with other controversial issues from the 1850s like polygamy, blood atonement, Mountain Meadows, etc.) is largely forgotten in devotional settings, at least in my experience.

    Comment by David G. — June 26, 2010 @ 1:10 pm

  20. There seemed to be a fair amount of ambiguity in the church in the early Utah period. My g-g-g-grandfather’s journal includes descriptions of Pioneer Day parades that included American flags carried by girls all dressed in white, with appropriate honor paid to it, and then, later, to toasts being drunk to the United States to the effect “may God grant her comfort in her dying days”. I suspect that not just the leadership but also the rank and file members–at least the American-born saints–shared that ambiguity, for rather obvious reasons.

    One unrelated minor nit: is there a typo in your transcription of the Bennion letter? Shouldn’t that reference to the Constitution say that it has guarded liberty and “love of justice”? Even the constitutional “scholars” who ran for the Republican nomination for the senate in Utah don’t claim that love is preserved by the constitution.

    Comment by Mark B. — June 26, 2010 @ 5:31 pm

  21. What is the feeling now about being more open and forthcoming about the history of Mormonism vs. the federal government, especially BY?s virulent expression of hatred of it during the Utah War?

    If and when Mormons become aware of such expressions — a big if, since, as David notes, in typical church settings the whole territorial period is a blur — I don’t think it causes much heartburn. How different, really, were Brigham Young’s statements from much of today’s rhetoric coming from the Tea Party? They (both Brigham and the Tea Partiers) lurve America and Americans, and the Constitution is sacred, but, dang it, most of those guys in Congress and the White House, to say nothing of the bureaucrats and activist judges and elites like newspaper editors and college professors, are destroying this country and need to be thrown out before it’s too late. God bless America. If you are disposed to like both Brigham and radical conservative politics, then Brigham’s statements can easily be read as words to cheer about.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 26, 2010 @ 6:31 pm

  22. Whatever Brigham Young’s statements during the Utah War period, they do not seem to have been typical of his own sentiments or those of most other Saints before or after that period.

    During that period, with an army marching toward Utah with apparently hostile intent, I would be inclined to forgive Brigham Young some bellicose rhetoric regarding the Federal Government. “Virulent hatred” would seem to overstate the case, considering Utah’s 1862 attempt to gain statehood.

    Comment by Confutus — June 26, 2010 @ 7:38 pm

  23. Confutus, you’re right that the Saints’ relationship with the American nation state during the 1850s was complex. The Mormons praised the constitution, celebrated July 4th and 24th, and, as you note, applied for statehood. But they also railed against federal officials and predicted the imminent destruction of the nation during the Civil War, so I don’t think that Polly’s statement is off either. The Saints exhibited what could be called anti-American Americanism. But in the letters that Brett quotes, by the interwar period the Saints had largely forgotten the anti-American part of the early Americanism.

    Comment by David G. — June 26, 2010 @ 9:42 pm

  24. Not enough information to make a call on early Church anti-Americanism.It is part of the Church’s doctrine that the constitution was an inspired document and that we should befriend the constitutional government and obey its constitutional laws.
    Ever since I can remember, the Church leaders have reiterated those principles and urged the members to participate in all phases of the government. I suspect that such urgings have been part of the Church’s efforts from the very first.
    But as one poster has noted, it might be rather natural to be less than friendly to a government that had mounted an invasion of some of its own citizens.


    Comment by Glenn Thigpen — June 27, 2010 @ 6:17 am

  25. I think it started with the exodus, not in the 1850s. And I would definitely call it anti-Americanism. A while back I systematically trolled through the JD looking for references to Satan and the US was the great referent. I don’t believe things like the fourth of July celebrations or veneration of the constitution are indicative of split feelings. To BY, the US was apostate government just as Christianity was apostate religion. It doesn’t mean that you forsake the Bible. The application for statehood is easily understood when you consider the disparity in rights between citizens of territories and citizens of states. The Mormons didn’t have a choice for independence any longer; so they needed to maximize their available rights.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 27, 2010 @ 10:06 am

  26. @#25 From what I’ve seen, J, Mormon anti-Americanism started well before the exodus – as early as the Missouri persecutions and was in full force by/after Joseph Smith’s assassination. I think you’re right that there was a sense of the US as apostate (e.g. see Pratt’s Angel of the Prairies), but also residual loyalties. Seems there was range of sentiments, most not formalized.

    Comment by Ryan T — June 30, 2010 @ 8:28 pm

  27. Ryan, I would say that although there certainly were seeds of anti-Americanism in the 1830s and 1840s, it was usually expressed in a contingent fashion as a rhetorical means to convince other Americans that unless redress was granted, the U.S. would fall. But after the martyrdom and the decision to move West, the contingency drops out and the rhetoric becomes much harsher.

    Comment by David G. — June 30, 2010 @ 8:42 pm


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