Mormons: Fact and Fiction

I have been on something of a Mormon binge since I picked up The Night Journal late last year, and I’ve been trading off fiction and non-fiction since then.  Crook’s story included a character who had been one of the surviving children of the ill-fated Baker-Fancher wagon train, which was mostly wiped out by paranoid Mormons and their Paiute Indian allies in the infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre.  (Only children under 5 were spared.)

Looking for more information on this horrible bit of American history, I moved on to Sally Denton’s non-fiction American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September 1857. Denton, who has family roots in the Mormon church, concludes that the order for the massacre came from Brigham Young himself.   She also provides historical background on the Mormon experience in America, a story of persecution and struggle to survive. (Her book came out within two weeks of one by Will Bagley on the same topic.  Bagley’s book is on the reading list along with an earlier one by Juanita Brooks.)

From there, I stumbled on The 19th Wife, a murder mystery by David Ebershoff, part of which takes place in a contemporary fundamentalist Mormon community where polygamy is expected and the prophet controls every thought, word and deed. The book moves from present to past with excerpts from Ann Eliza Young’s expose of life as Brigham Young’s 19th wife as well as newspaper articles from the period and Young’s prison diary.

Finally, I just finished Jon Krakauer’s investigative look at those same polygamists who believe that the church abandoned its conscience when it gave up polygamy in the late 19th century in order to be able to have Utah added as a state.  Under the Banner of Heaven is a difficult read as we watch devout Mormons become fanatics who believe that God speaks to them, telling them to murder a young mother and her infant. It is also the story of the woman who are oppressed by these communities, and I found myself frustrated by their desire to preserve marriages even when it meant violence.

As I read it, however, the argument over whether the Catholic Church had to provide contraceptive coverage was playing out in the media.  One of the arguments that these polygamists make is that they are being asked to give up their right to conscience.  After all, their religion originally said polygamy was not only accepted but spiritual and was only given up for political reasons.  Here’s just one example of this argument:

The Mormon leader insisted…that the marital customs of the Saints were a religious freedom protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The rest of the country, he thundered, had no right to require the residents of Deseret to abandon one of their most sacred religious doctrines: “If we introduce the practice of polygamy it is not their prerogative to meddle with it.” (p. 205)

This desire to practice their religion without interference has made them strange bedfellows with both the ACLU and gay rights’ activists, according to Krakauer:

Ever since the conviction of the Kingstons [a fundamentalist group]–even before Tom Green was first charged with bigamy–Mormon fundamentalists have received support from the American Civil Liberties Union and gay-rights activitsts in advancing their claims of religious persecution. It has been an especially curious, and uncomfortable, coalition: FDLS doctrine proclaims that sodomy and homosexuality are egregious crimes against God and nature, punishable by death,yet gays and polygamists have joined forces to keep the government out of the bedroom. This partnership is made even more incongruous by the fact that on the other side of the issue, radical feminists have allied themselves with the resolutely antifeminist LDS Church to lobby for aggressive prosecution of polygamists. (pp. 23-24)

This odd collection of allies shows why American culture and politics is so complicated.  My path through Mormon history has been a bit crooked and will continue as I find it fascinating.


Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.