The Mormon Justification for the Second Boer War

By June 16, 2008

According to the about section, The Juvenile Instructor seeks to ?situate the study of Mormonism within wider frameworks, including American religious history, western history, gender history, and, on occasion, the history of the Republic of South Africa.? A Google site search for ?South Africa? reveals that RSA posts in JI?s archives are slimmer than a protea?s petal or a springbok?s ankle. Thus, for my first post, I?ll make a small contribution to JI?s South African historiography.

By ?small? I mean that I ran into some newspaper articles using Mormons to justify British actions against the Boers and was intrigued so I googled /Mormon Boer/ and this is what I found. (Note that /Mormon Boer/ is not to be confused with /Mormon bore/, which will return a list of hits on [insert Bloggernacle personality of your dis-preference here].)

The Second Boer War pitted the British Empire against the Dutch-descended Boers in southern Africa from October 1899 to May 1902. One of the underlying factors in the conflict was that Uitlanders or foreigners had been moving onto Boer-claimed lands in great numbers for many years, a process generically known as minoration. In March 1896 the editor(s) of the New York Times compared Boers and Mormons [1]:

It is impossible not to pity the Boers, but it is also impossible not to see that the isolation they desire and insist upon is not really practicable. A ?peculiar people,? be they Boers or Mormons, cannot maintain their detachment in the face of modern civilization. Ten or twenty years ago they would have again passed the word to ?inspan and trek? once more to escape the nineteenth century. But they have gone as far north and as far inland as white men can live by pastoral pursuits, and it seems they are not far enough away.

They expanded the comparison in more detail as conflict intensified three years later [2]:

If [the Boers] could find ?a lodge in some vast wilderness? they might maintain themselves until civilization caught up with them. This latter the Mormons did. They went until they could go no further, and there they staid and flourished until, in the course of expansion, the United States of America needed the land they occupied?needed the land ?in its business.? And so now they must be transformed or abolished. … And what is true of the Mormons is true of the Boers.

One F.J. Jenner responded, agreeing that ??Der Zeitgeist? is against the continued existence of small communities,? but objecting that the comparison was invalid because the Mormons? ?ethical judgment? was ?contrary to that of general Christendom.? For Jenner, the Mormons? moral character made them a legitimate target for forced assimilation but contended that the state had ?no right to put a stop watch on the Boers and tell them to change from a nomadic state into a mining community or be wiped out like the redskins have been? [3]. A week later the editors continued, noting that the ?military expedition? against the Mormons in the 1850s ?was a miserable fiasco,? but ?when the country grew up to them, twenty years later, and the Gentiles plainly outnumbered them, not the Mormons, but Mormonism, had to go. That is what will happen in the Transvaal? [4].

Now, it?s all fine and dandy that trans-pond pontificators found analogies, but the money citation is former Prime Minister Lord Rosebery using the Mormon example to shore up home-front support for the war [5]:

The Transvaal question, to my mind, is not a very complicated one. It is a story that you have heard before. It is the effort of a nation or a community to put back the hands of the clock. You have had exactly the same incident in the case of the Mormon community. I am not comparing the tenets of the Boers with the tenets of the Mormons. The Boers are in common in that they are a peaceful and industrious population that desire to move into a more solitary part of the world in order that they may enjoy their own existence in their own way, without coming in contact with the outer world. ¶ You take it quite wrongly if you think I allude in this way to the Mormons through any want of respect for the Boers, but their motives were the same. They wanted to get away from contact with other civilisation; and the Mormons made a prodigious trek, quite as great as that made by the Boers, and passed through hardships almost unparalleled, and reached that territory where they hoped to enjoy themselves in peace; but the Mormons were soon driven out by the march of civilisation. And in the same way I contend that it was wholly impossible in this condition of the world’s affairs that the Boers should seclude themselves also. The course of events, the finger of Providence, if you will, makes it altogether impossible.

The Atlantic Monthly reacted enthusiastically: ?How perfect the parallel! From the very first the Latter Day Saints have been farmers; from the first their foes have been miners. And the problem is precisely the problem of the present day Transvaal: a state laden with inconceivable mineral treasure is crippled, halted, and dwarfed by the tyranny of an unprogressive race. The Mormon, like Oom Paul, is a ?thorn in the hand of Destiny.?? The NYT and University Chronicle also published concordant responses [6]. Two decades after the fact, one James Cook intoned that ?if it was right morally and politically for the United States to subjugate and annex the territory of the Filipinos and Mormons, it was right for Great Britain to subjugate the Transvaal and Orange republics? [7].

Commentators juxtaposed Boers and Mormons in other ways. The J.F.M. cited above claimed in 1900 that in certain circumstances the celebration of British success against Boers was as inappropriate as forcing people to hear a Mormon Elder preach. The NYT editors responded that Mormon preaching was far worse. A few months after the war, a piece on Mexico mentioned Boer and Mormon immigrants in sequence. In the twenties, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, of A Study in Scarlet fame, visited Salt Lake and noted similarities between Mormons and Boers: ?rugged, hard-faced men, the brave and earnest women who look as if they had known much suffering and hardship.? Google points to more recent works?in American, South African, and Mormon presses?that have compared the two groups [8].

So, what does it all mean for our understanding of Mormon and South African histories? Obviously missing from this brief jaunt through the internets are Mormon, Boer, and anti-war British perspectives, not to mention private/public, gender, class, or racial analyses. That said, I don?t think it comes as a surprise to any here that for most of the 19th Century, for most White, Protestant Americans, Mormons went under the Manifest Destiny bus and not in its front seat?as they did in the 20th-century version of the story [9]. Also familiar are how Mormon whiteness and military support for overseas American imperialism helped American Mormons find a greater degree of acceptance in the early 20th Century. However, (for me, anyway) it is new to think of 19th-century anti-Mormonism as just another instance of imperialism just like was happening over much of the world. I have not tended to think of Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Philippines, and Mormons all together as the same sort of imperial problem to be reduced and resolved as did the NYT in January 1900 [10]. More painfully, the similarities between Mormons and Boers did not end in 1902; both groups achieved a degree of assimilation by forging pan-White coalitions.

(In my next post I will describe one possible interpretation of the fact that Americans thought Mormons and Boers were similar and how that might fit into the history of the American West.)

[1] unsigned, ?Delagoa Bay,? NYT, 1896 Mar 28, p. 4.
[2] unsigned, ?The Boers and the British,? NYT, 1899 Sep 08, p. 6.
[3] F. J. Jenner, ?Rights of the Lower Races,? letter to the editor, NYT, 1899 Sep 14, p. 6.
[4] unsigned, ?Marching on the Transvaal,? NYT, 1899 Sep 20, p. 6. Another author made a similar comparison the following month: ?Doubtless it was the right of those who secluded themselves in the plateaus of the Transvaal to seek isolation and set up their patriarchal Commonwealth, but they could not hope always to escape advancing civilization any more than the Mormons when they retired into our central wilderness.? Amos K. Fiske, ?The English Side of the Transvaal Question,? NYT, 1899 Oct 17, p. 6.]
[5] Thomas F. G. Coates, Lord Rosebery, His Life and Speeches, 2 vols. (London: Hutchinson and Co., 1900), vol. 2, p. 993-4.
 [6] Rollin Lynde Hartt, ?The Mormons,? The Atlantic Monthly, 1900 Feb. ?Oom Paul? is Paul Kruger, a Boer leader. The NYT respond, agreed with the analogy in general but quibbled that ?People in this country are far from as sure as Lord Rosebery seems to be that the Mormons were ?soon driven out,? and a good many of us more than suspect that not even yet has the driving been as successful as might be desired.? unsigned, ?Topics of the Times,? NYT, 1899 Nov 09, p. 6. Louis Dyer in the University Chronicle also agreed in general but complained that despite ?undeniable points of analogy,? there were ?so many points of dissimilarity, that it might be felt there is serious unfairness to the Boers? the in comparison. Quoth he: ?The power of far-sighted military preparations, a certain chivalrous high-mindedness in actual war, a fine quality of patriotic self-devotion, and an admirable courage and skill in actual combat are all present in the Boers, and command a sort of admiration which would be ill-bestowed on any deeds of the Mormon saints. ¶ Having thus by our comparison sinned against the Boers, let us restore the balance, and pay them the compliment of a comparison with better men than they. Their cause has several obvious points of analogy with the ?lost cause? of the Southern Confederacy in North America. …? Louis Dyer, ?Machiavelli and Modern Instances–An Account of Machiavelli?s Maxims in Connection with Events of the South African War,? University Chronicle 3, no. 6 (Dec 1900): 361-372 (367).
[7] James Gwin Cook, Anglophobia: An Analysis of Anti-British Prejudice in the United States (Boston: The Four Seas Company, 1919), p. 135.
[8] J.F.M., ?The Lucania Incident,? NYT 1900 Mar 12, p. 6. unsigned, ?Topics of the Times,? NYT 1900 Mar 13, p. 8. unsigned, ?Mexico and Immigration,? NYT 1902 Dec 21, p. 6. The Salt Lake Tribune, 1923 May 13, as quoted in Michael W. Homer and Massimo Introvigne, “?The Great Polygamy Hotel?: Sherlock Holmes, Farandoul, and the Popularization of Mormon Stereotypes in Nineteenth Century Fiction,? Center for Studies on New Religions, [2008 Jun 15]. For more recent works, I?m not going to list the references I saw or make any claim stronger than ?points to?; the Mormon press is Dialogue (Clark, Andrew. ?The Fading Curse of Cain: Mormonism in South Africa.? Dialogue 27 (4) Winter 1994: 41-56 [p.51-2]).
[9] [See, for example, D.W. Meinig, ?The Mormon Nation and the American Empire,? Journal of Mormon History 22, no. 1 (Spring 1996): 33?51.]
[10] For example, unsigned, ?Light on the Philippines,? NYT, 1900 Jan 09, p. 8.


  1. A great start — this is totally new and refreshing. Thanks Edje.

    Comment by Steve Evans — June 16, 2008 @ 5:03 pm

  2. Great work and insight, Edje. You’ve set a pretty high bar with your first post here. Keep it up.

    Comment by kevinf — June 16, 2008 @ 5:12 pm

  3. Yeah, this is great stuff, Edje. You’re right that there’s a shift here from seeing the Mormon trek as an obstacle to Manifesto Destiny in the late 19th century to being the ultimate Turnerians in the early 20th century. There’s a lot to chew on here.

    Comment by David G. — June 16, 2008 @ 5:33 pm

  4. A star is born. This is wonderful stuff, Edje.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 16, 2008 @ 7:25 pm

  5. That you actually situated Mormonism within a South African context alone makes your guest blogging stint a success. But your in-depth analysis and insightful interpretation is to be admired even more. Thanks, Edje.

    I’m intrigued by the notion of “the Mormon problem” as a part of American imperialism, and think the topic deserves further investigation.

    Comment by Christopher — June 16, 2008 @ 8:20 pm

  6. Edje,

    I really enjoyed this provocative analysis. I had never thought of the Boers and Mormons in such a similar imperial context. As someone who examines the international context of American imperialism, I find it fascinating that a journalist from the NYT would utilize the Mormon example to help Americans try to understand the Boer War. This reminds me a little of Paul Kramer’s essay in the JAH that tracked the inter-imperial transmission of imperial ideas between England and the United States, though your treatment shows that Americans also drew on their own domestic experiences to help understand British Imperialism. I think that the comparison probably works better on rhetorical level than it might on a more practical realm. The violence inflicted upon the Boers was much more profound than the Mormons faced. I also think that the racial picture in South Africa made the British situation in South Africa much more precarious than the U.S. situation with the Mormons. I look forward to more of your analysis!

    Comment by Joel — June 16, 2008 @ 10:10 pm

  7. Steve, Kevin, David, Ardis, Chris, and Joel: Thanks for the kind words.

    David: A component of the Turnerian turn is the topic of my next post.

    Joel: I agree that the analogy only goes so far.

    Comment by Edje — June 16, 2008 @ 11:58 pm

  8. Fascinating. I’d never have thought of making that connection. One could argue though that this is true of any group that tries to leave society alone. Society is rarely accepting of this. The Amish, Hutterites and so forth survived mainly by not having a massive area they occupied and by staying (for the most part) out of the way of the rich and powerful.

    Comment by Clark — June 17, 2008 @ 12:09 am

  9. Give it a rest, Brown. It’s too much effort for you, obviously.

    [Admin. Note: Ardis’ comment is in response to a pontificating and pompous comment by MLBrown, who has now been banned from the site. Carry on.]

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 17, 2008 @ 9:16 am

  10. […] I described in my previous post, the Second Boer War occasioned several references to Mormonism using clear conquest language. […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Mormons and the Closing of the American Frontier — June 18, 2008 @ 5:27 am


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