Why I am a Tory

By May 26, 2009

Admin: Guest post by Russell.

Perhaps it is the heretical imp in me, but I have often shifted in my seat uncomfortably as I sit in classes at BYU and in the church house while folks accept as axiomatic all the talk about the American revolution as merely the harbinger of the Restoration. The argument goes like this: the gospel could not be established in a land of tyranny, it is argued. Whatever the errors or skeletons of our founding fathers (if they be admitted at all), they served as Cyrus figures for the Saints. They were “wise men” who helped to shake the shackles of tyranny from the colonists (“shake” here should be read as war and destruction of human life–just so we’re on the same page). I have two problems with this: 1) I hate war. Elder McConkie is correct: war is one of the greatest tools of Satan and 2) while no nation is free from the blood of innocents, for being the land of freedom, America has not been kind to LDS ideals to say nothing of the LDS people. To soothe my theo-ideological angst, I sometimes engage in a rather subversive counterfactual: could the Lord have carried out the restoration in a British America?

The question flies in the face of many an hour of American heritage instruction at BYU and BYU-I.  Given that the horrors of slavery were enshrined in the Constitution and the horrors of war to which the American colonists allowed themselves to sink (the colonists cut off ears and fingers in just as barbaric of a fashion as any soldier in My Lai), I find little veracity in the glowing images of the Constitution.  How might I–if only as a thought experiment–separate providence from the Founding? I understand that the counterfactual explodes all bounds of propriety within traditional historical scholarship.  Yet I think it important that we not let American exceptionalism infect true doctrine as the Church continues to expand into countries with very different political traditions than those of America.

The primary scriptural difficulties are found in 1 Nephi 13 and D&C 101 where Nephi sees the Revolution as the “power of God.”  Those who opposed it experienced the “wrath of God.” The Constitution, in the Lord’s words, was based on “just and holy principles” and was crafted by “wise men whom I have raised up.”  Seems airtight, right?  I might suggest, however, that prophecy is not always a comprehensive view of what could have happened but what will happen.  I understand this is a theological can of worms; but I think it is safe to say that there are numerous prophecies delivered that forecast less-than-ideal events.  Simply because Nephi saw the Revolution as being the power of God does not indicate divine approval of the colonists’ actions but rather approval of the principles for which they were fighting.  If the colonists had been more inclined to diplomacy (as the British were through much of the era), then Nephi might have seen a very different vision.  It was the colonists who drove the British moderates like Edmund Burke to the margins of Parliament. The Revolution’s outcome of an autonomous America–which was the Lord’s goal by all accounts–was not inseparably attached to the highly destructive cost of a Revolutionary War.  It was an unnecessary war for a conflict that might have easily been won through less-destructive means.

As far as the “just and holy principles” of freedom from state-sponsered religion espoused by the Revolution, we can tentatively conclude that the British colonies were equally welcoming to the growth of a new religious movement as any state in the United States would be during Joseph Smith’s time.  The best way to measure this is to examine the status of religious and political freedom in the British empire in the time leading up to the Restoration.

Religious Freedom The metropole of London at the time of the earliest days of the Church was hardly an oppressive state in the area of religion. The evangelical awakening of the 1820s played a significant role in William Wilberforce’s push to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire. The Church had a large branch in Manchester with 240 members. While radical sects were occasionally persecuted in mainland Britain (Ann Lee spent time in jail–in fact, her jail time would later become an important part of the Shaker narrative). While it is true that London was seeking to establish an American bishop, the establishment of a state religion (as in modern Germany where even Latter-day Saints must pay the “church tax” to the Lutheran church?) has at no time prevented the Church from growing in foreign countries.  Catholicism is so prominent in Latin America that it is a de facto state religion with the priests practically serving as heelers in their communities. This has obviously not prevented church growth.

Within the colonies, there was a similar atmosphere of religious freedom. At the time of the revolution, the New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania colonies were all part of a “toleration belt.” In Quaker-founded Pennsylvania, the Quakers were themselves a minority.  In Richard Bushman’s award-winning book, From Puritan to Yankee, he even notes of an instance where the Crown instructed Connecticut to rescind its anti-Quaker laws (Bushman, 166).  While this strong hand didn’t always work (the religious civil wars in Maryland and all that), this was certainly no worse than what America would offer them 30 years later. The Church could have used this central authority in later years as it struggled with Martin Van Buren and various Governors to ensure its freedom to practice its religion.

Political Freedom
The immigrants came to America in an effort to strengthen and expand the British empire, not to disintegrate it. They saw themselves as blights on London’s society and came to America to free Britain of them, not they from Britain. There is a radical strain among our people that, I fear, envisions Zion as a 19th-century Utah redux: always on the watch, ready with their guns, living in their bunkers. Granted, I know very few who view it in such extreme terms. But those who do offer the Church no favors as it seeks to become a global faith.

Often, proponents of this perspective appeal to the rugged individualism of the founding fathers, to the Minutemen, and to Captain Moroni in defending their vigilance. It only follows that the Revolution should be seen as a magnificent, Cosmos-Historical Event (hat tip to Hegel) that gave the Church their ability to be politically free as well as religiously free. However, the political freedom they extol so much was not more available to the American population. Indeed, at the time of the revolution (as it is almost trite to say for you colonial historians), the American colonists were wealthier, more landed than any other colonial people. Further, until the 1820s, a large percentage of white Americans were not eligible to vote.  If any of these same defenders of the Revolution lived in an apartment complex, they themselves would not be allowed to vote.  In fact, with its abolition of the slave trade in 1808 and the total abolition of slavery in 1832, we find a Great Britain more welcoming to the American ideals of mankind’s equality than anything we find in antebellum America.

The Benefits of the Revolution for the LDS Church

What, then, made the American Revolution even helpful to the LDS cause? (the historiography on this one is so massive that I shudder to even dare address it).  Gordon Wood–in his singular work on the ideological origins of the Republic–argues that republicanism rested at the core of the revolution. To these founders, republicanism was rooted in the embrace of the common good, of personal restraint and an eschewal of opulence. Referred to by the founders as “virtue,” these qualities could exist in any government–including the British empire as it then stood. Indeed, the colonists argued, they were the true guardians of the British legacy of freedom (Wood, chpt. 2).

Even the idea of a Constitution was not terribly radical–except in one aspect: it was written (Wood, chpt. 7). The British constitution, while derived from the idea of separate limited branches of governent (the House of Lords, the House of Commons, and the Crown), existed as an organic, moldable entity in which branches could interfere with each other. It was used in a context similar to the description of one’s general demeanor, the way he carries him/herself. Therefore, the just and holy principles of the Constitution, I would argue, were the Lord’s way of ensuring that the new government allowed for the Saints to flourish in the land of promise. Had there been no revolution, he could have easily prompted reformers in the British government to follow similar just and holy principles–incidentally, just such a reformation began to take place in the post-Revolution era.  Reformers such as William Cobbett maintained that British financiers had become rich contracting out the Hessian mercenaries and that the Crown had expanded the central government so radically that traditional liberties were being quelched. The Revolution revolutionzed both Great Britain and America. Notice that the scriptures appeal to ideas of justice, not a Whiggish idea of American exceptionalism.

My purpose here is not to jump on the tired bandwagon that likes to throw dirt on dead men. I like the Constitution, and I like personal property. I like not paying a Church tax–I might even be a “fan of America” on Facebook. But even assuming these things were necessary, they were already in place or on their way at the eve of the Revolution. As the Church grows to include states with high degrees of socialism, we shouldn’t expect members there to accept American exceptionalism to the degree where they accept the Revolution as providential.  While we can still gush over the founders for their accomplishments., let’s keep our inner Whigs in check and remember that the war as, at best, a necessary tragedy, and at worst, a conflict that brings out the most depraved side of humankind.


Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Many of the earliest recruits came from the UK, certainly my family joined the church in England and then came the States to join up with Joseph in Missouri. It is hard to argue that the revolution had as much as the settlement of this land had on the formation of the Church. I don’t have numbers but in helping my son study for high school history the revolution was certainly not a bloody war when you look at our civil war, WW1, or WW2.

    Comment by Jerry — May 26, 2009 @ 1:25 pm

  2. Even if we view the Revolution as a tragedy, it’s hard to condemn it in its context when compared to what would happen in France a decade or two later.

    Comment by jondh — May 26, 2009 @ 1:30 pm

  3. Russell,

    David tells me I need to do a post soon and you might have inspired me. As one who holds to the notions of the the Revolution as a Hegelian cosmic event let me point out a few problems.

    In fact, with its abolition of the slave trade in 1808 and the total abolition of slavery in 1832, we find a Great Britain more welcoming to the American ideals of mankind?s equality than anything we find in antebellum America.

    This was a good thing for the British to do, but you have to keep in mind that the British were able to legislate the end of slavery while the anti-slavery Americans could not. At the threat of such a notion the south revolted creating a much more destructive and bloody war than the Revolution.

    Also you’re forgetting about class. The British did not grant suffrage to all males (white or otherwise) until the 1860s or 70s if I recall. Granting suffrage to the lower classes was a very big deal.

    Also, my memory is the Great Britain at the time had many more religious restrictions on preaching and meeting. While we grew very rapidly there, I wonder what legal restrictions Joseph Smith would have run into in attempting to set up gathering centers in building temples. No doubt the Mormons were driven out of their gathering centers but I think it’s important the Joseph Smith was never brought up on charges of violating religious rules.

    So I do see the Revolution making important advances in religious freedom and egalitarianism that were important for both the Restoration and the making of a better world. We’re all aware of the lack of perfection in all these things, but I don’t see that as invalidating these advances.

    No doubt needing to fight over something is tragic. In that sense, Nephi killing Laban was tragic, but still what the Spirit told him to do.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 26, 2009 @ 2:41 pm

  4. Russell, very interesting to look at this through a different perspective. I’ve always had a mixed reaction to a lot of the uber-reverence given to the revolution and the founding fathers by many in the church. Certainly they have been worthy of our respect, but I’ve always been cautious about linking political systems with the church (well, more so in the last few years than a decade ago, perhaps).

    When you look at the fact that the church essentially was hounded from state to state until they left the United States (at least until the Mexican War and it’s aftermath annexed Utah and the West), one wonders if the presence of the frontier both as a place and as an idea was more responsible for allowing the church to establish, grow, and eventually find acceptance. That would have been more difficult in an already well explored and settled Great Britain of the 19th century. Had things been different, and Joseph Smith born in Manchester, England, we may very well have ended up with the church ultimately establishing itself in the Canadian prairies, or even Vancouver Island, as apparently considered once by Brigham Young.

    Comment by kevinf — May 26, 2009 @ 3:06 pm

  5. “The question flies in the face of many an hour of American heritage instruction at BYU and BYU-I. Given that the horrors of slavery were enshrined in the Constitution and the horrors of war to which the American colonists allowed themselves to sink (the colonists cut off ears and fingers in just as barbaric of a fashion as any soldier in My Lai), I find little veracity in the glowing images of the Constitution.”

    You have not sat in on my American Heritage class.

    I often teach the revolution as very much inspired by the British conception of freedom. Samuel Adams felt that the crown was not fully respecting him as an Englishman.

    The US is in many ways an extension of the English/Britist enlightenment experiment and its virtues and vices.

    Comment by Chris H. — May 26, 2009 @ 3:44 pm

  6. Chris:

    Thank you for your insight. I am grateful that BYU instructors are not teaching the rah-rah GOP Americanism that we hear on Sean Hannity so often.


    Very good and interesting points. I’ve categorized your response into a few arguments:

    1) The British were in a better position to abolish slavery

    I would question 1) the ease with which the British could abolish slavery and 2) the degree to which anti-slavery sentiment actually existed in the North.

    Slavery was generally stigmatized in 18th-century Britain, it is true. But we can’t forget that the British were in just as tight a spot in the late-18th century empire. Pitts’ liberal government had just lost the colonies, and it was being accused of corruption to the core. The West Indies was as profitable as ever (contrary to what Eric Williams argues). Pitt faced some real domestic pressure to hold onto the West Indies given his recent loss of North America. It was not in the government’s immediate interest–esp. to the Liverpool electorate–to abolish slavery.

    Also, I’m not suggesting that Great Britain was a bastion of liberty nor am I suggesting that AMerica failed in making advances. I’m just suggesting those advances were irrelevant to the spread of the gospel. Britain’s Reform Act of 1832 would have allowed most of the men involved with the Church to vote–all that was required was the ownership of 40 shillings worth of land. The plenitude of land would have made it more than feasible for the leadership of the church to enjoy sufficient political rights. In fact, it might have made the Church less of a threat politically. Fewer men, fewer votes. The full ramifications of this would be interesting indeed.

    On the Laban issue, I am not opposed to violence categorically. But I do find the systematic (and largely mindless) destruction of thousands of lives to be on a little bit of a different scale than a peaceful Nephi who had tried his darndest to just do as Dad said, only to find himself running from guards who were out for his hide.

    Comment by Russell — May 26, 2009 @ 3:49 pm

  7. “I am grateful that BYU instructors are not teaching the rah-rah GOP Americanism that we hear on Sean Hannity so often.”

    LOL, not in American Heritage at least.

    Comment by Chris H. — May 26, 2009 @ 4:00 pm

  8. I don’t mean to say that Wilberforce et al. were not righteous and altruistic but still, the Civil War, right?

    Regardless of members of the church being allowed to vote or not, my point was that American voting rights were more extensive for the period (do I have that right?)

    On the point you made earlier about Quakers, yes the crown would go after laws that were on the books, but in the Quakers early and very radical years, many many died in English prisons. Many more than in the colonies. I don’t know that the crown would have intervened in Missouri. I don’t see it as the same thing as taking laws off the books. Keep in mind the Quakers achieved a degree of respectability in society that I don’t think the Mormons had.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 26, 2009 @ 4:06 pm

  9. This argument also fails to take into account the loss of America on Great Britain. Not sure how they would have fared had they kept control. But they really did have much more freedoms allowed the farther from London you went. It is also interesting to consider the effect of GB on our civil war and the aid since in our development. Without them we would be very different country.

    Bringing up Sean Hannity the Anti-American. He stopped allowing any kind of free speech on his program as the wheels came off the Bush administration.

    Comment by Jerry — May 26, 2009 @ 4:15 pm

  10. What an interesting discussion!

    Yes, I would agree with you, Steve. All white men could vote in America whereas only landed white men could vote in Britain (though the requirement was very small). My point was that I don’t know that a property requirement would have a very big impact on the Church’s growth. JOseph was reliant on wealthy members anyway to provide the land for his building projects and meeting houses (the Whitmers, Martin Harris, et. al.).

    I’m not suggesting that Joseph would have fared better in the London metropole. Like the Quakers and probably like Ann Lee, he would have faced tremendous pressure if in London. Obviously, he had to be in the colonies; otherwise, how would he have found the plates?

    Comment by Russell — May 26, 2009 @ 8:14 pm

  11. Of course the Church could have been restored in 1830 Britain. A better question is would 1830 America be a superior location. On the other hand, 15th century Rome would probably not have been so promising.

    In addition, when did a founding father ever discount the enormous value and influence of America’s British heritage? It was not as if they were trying to raze civilization to the ground and raise it anew as in France a couple decades later. Anyone who thinks that Americanism is anti-British no doubt quit listening in history class in elementary school.

    Finally, anyone who thinks that Sean Hannity (or virtually any other American conservative) is anti-British enlightenment really hasn’t paid very much attention.

    Comment by Mark D. — May 26, 2009 @ 11:57 pm

  12. I should say that I think the Hannity thing is a complete threadjack – I just interject because the suggestion that “rah rah Americanism” is intrinisically anti-British heritage and culture, is preposterous. If anything American conservatism tends (as of late) to be more British than Britain is.

    Comment by Mark D. — May 27, 2009 @ 12:10 am

  13. Channeling the inner pacifist I see. To each his own I suppose, but I still admire our Founding Fathers, even the inconsistent Jefferson. My reading has led me to believe that, except for a fiery few, they did not easily or happily decide to go to war. I think they did the right thing nonetheless. I revere their memory and pray that I may be true to the guidance of God in my life.

    On another note I think that the relatively peaceful settlement of the Revolutionary War between the US and the British Empire led to useful, peaceful competition between the two countries during Victorian times that probably wouldn’t have been there if the US was a unit of the empire. It is my understanding that Canada and the other dominions received their self-governing status in an attempt to keep them from completely breaking away. You could say that US independence allowed the British to concentrate on taking over India, but I’m not sure that that was a tragedy.

    Comment by Tom D — May 27, 2009 @ 1:06 am

  14. just as an aside here, when the History of the Church is discussed, and we briefly touch upon how the Revolution eventually enabled the Church to be established and to grow in the former colony, it is usually accompanied with the gentle ‘dig’ that the US was founded on an illegal act of treason 🙂

    Comment by Anne (UK) — May 27, 2009 @ 4:26 am

  15. Another aside: German Mormons don’t pay church tax. To my knowledge, only Catholics and Lutherans do, and the proceeds are used to fund both Catholic and Lutheran institutions (and a lot of these are things with important social functions for all members of society, like kindergartens).

    Comment by Jonathan Green — May 27, 2009 @ 8:24 am

  16. (as in modern Germany where even Latter-day Saints must pay the ?church tax? to the Lutheran church?)

    This is incorrect. A church may avail itself of the power of the state to compel members to pay church tax (the LDS church in Germany does not), but there is certainly no requirement for members of one religion to subsidize another through involuntary church taxes (with certain exceptions for part member families).

    Comment by Peter LLC — May 27, 2009 @ 9:50 am

  17. Jonathan and Peter:
    While it is true that church members can technically opt out of the church tax, as I understand it (after research of my own and conversations with those who have worked with members there), one must go through a process involving where a member officially leaves the religious community and pay a withdrawal fee. This is most applicable to converts, since they have to formally declare their separation from the Lutheran church. And if you’re a minority religion (like LDS), then you have to declare “No Religion” (“So do you still believe in God, Hans?”). The ramifications of this are probably more social than economic. As I understand it, there is a certain stigma associated with opting out of the church tax. For LDS in part-member marriages, it becomes even more difficult. The state gov’t informs the church that one has removed himself from the Church. Plus, the church tax is tax-deductible, so there is real pressure to just go with the flow.

    The Church still would have needed to have been restored in upstate NY since by any semi-orthodox account, he would have needed to find the plates there.

    Since the Hannity bit is a diversion, I would just note that I made the jab b/c I find Hannity’s political commentaries devoid of any real intellectual muster. Sure, he supports free trade, etc., but the libertarian in me cringes to think that Hannity would ever be seen as representative of that perspective. I agree that if you were to go to a George Will or David Brooks, you would find more meaningful ‘liberal’ (pro-free trade) thought of the Adam Smith and John Locke brands.

    Comment by Russell — May 27, 2009 @ 9:55 am

  18. While it is true that church members can technically opt out of the church tax

    For LDS members, there is no church tax, just tithing, i.e., a voluntary contribution. For members of churches that collect church tax, there is nothing voluntary about it, it is part of your tax return administered by the local tax office.

    Comment by Peter LLC — May 27, 2009 @ 10:05 am

  19. Anyway, it’s a minor point and I join with you in declaring: “I like not paying a Church tax.”

    Comment by Peter LLC — May 27, 2009 @ 10:28 am

  20. I certainly don’t have anything conclusive to offer, but this post has had me thinking hard since it went up yesterday. I’ve been trying to imagine how church history might have been different at specific points, had we remained under British rule.

    Maybe we wouldn’t have had to migrate to Utah if, as Russell suggests, a strong central authority had intervened in our behalf, but assuming we did migrate, would the progress of the church be different? We did, after all, survive the colonial rule of federally appointed territorial officers, but always with the expectation of eventual self-rule — would that have been a realistic expectation as members of the British emphire?

    Would we even have been allowed to migrate to Utah? or would we have been ruled by/cooperative corporate employees of some Great Basin Co., the equivalent of the Hudson’s Bay Co. or East India Co.? How might that have affected our development?

    Maybe the best way of guaging that passed when Brigham Young fixed on the Great Basin, rather than Vancouver’s Island, as a settling place.

    Since the church developed how it did under the political conditions that did exist in our real world, and since it’s easier to accept conditions as they are as being basically good, it’s emotionally risky to commit to the idea that a different chain of events would have turned out as well. It’s been a fun few hours, though, speculating along Russell’s lines.

    (And for the record, a good share of my ancestors were Loyalists, actively supporting the Crown with treasure and military service, for which they forfeited their estates and were exiled to Canada. My Lapps and Rankins did their best to bring about Russell’s speculative history!)

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — May 27, 2009 @ 10:36 am

  21. Aargh. I don’t know when to stop typing. Sorry for the over-long comment.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — May 27, 2009 @ 10:36 am

  22. Frankly, I find the kind of Anglo-triumphalism of this post disturbing. Indeed, when I hear such Anglo-triumphalism in sacrament meeting I like to engage in a bit of subversive counter-factual imagining. Suppose that the Roman legions had decided not to abandon Britain and it had remained subservient to the Roman Empire (which I also imagine as not having been over run by the Vandals, Goths, and Visigoths). Then suppose that Joseph Smith had received his revelations under the beneficent dominion of the Pax Romana (I’m also imagining that the Roman Empire survived into the 19th century and eventually colonized upstate New York.) What then?!? What would have happened?!?

    I like to think that under a tolerant polytheism (I am imagining that Christianity was not adopted by Empire; I’m also imagining that Gibbon’s sunny view of polytheism was correct), Joseph’s radical doctrines regarding the plurality of gods would not have been regarded as so suspect. Likewise, in a world of divinized emperors, I don’t think that the theology of the King Follet discourse would have raised nearly as many eyebrows as it did at the time.

    Finally, while the human rights record of the Roman Legions wasn’t great, I like to think that a powerful imperial governor would have been able to clamp down on local mobs, and hopefully line the Via Appia with their crucified remains.

    Needless to say, I think that in an international church the more cosmopolitan model of a counter-factual Roman origin for will be more appealing.

    (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself…)

    Comment by Nate Oman — May 27, 2009 @ 11:06 am

  23. LOL

    Nice, Nate. To really rock our world…what if Edward the Confessor had just given birth to a son? Then William the Conqueror would have had no claim to the throne–no Battle of Hastings, no Norman invasion, no French upending of Old English.

    Think of the world apologists could enjoy where Jacob does not say: “Brethren, adieu” but “Brethren, God þ? mid s?e.”

    Blessed utopia.

    Comment by Russell — May 27, 2009 @ 12:52 pm

  24. As it is, the existence in the Book of Mormon of words with Old English roots like “house” is definitely evidence that Joseph Smith was a fraud, an ignorant glass-looker who built his myth on the mistaken assumption that Edward the Confessor DID have a son.

    Comment by Nate Oman — May 27, 2009 @ 12:57 pm

  25. “It was an unnecessary war for a conflict that might have easily been won through less-destructive means.”

    Whatever might have happened, I can’t imagine any scenario that involves the word “easily.”

    I think kevinf (4) has good insight about the frontier. If the British had stuck to the Proclamation of 1763 indefinitely (forbidding English subjects from settling west of the Appalachians) I think it would have made it rather difficult to implement any sort of centralized gathering scheme. The reaction would have been similar to what actually happened in the US, but with centralized law enforcement and nowhere to go, the Mormons would have been eradicated.

    Comment by Edje — May 27, 2009 @ 2:31 pm


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