Mason Price and Gerrit Dirkmaat, Church History and Doctrine
With increasing access to archived American newspaper sources online, it is simpler than ever before to peer into the past through the lens of primary source news articles. Newspapers, though they have limitations in presenting historical information, can nonetheless be useful to uncover and better understand how events and people have impacted Americans as a whole. We used online newspaper resources to examine the American conversation and discourse about Mormons and Mormonism between 1844 and 1846, during the volatile period between the death of Joseph Smith and the Mormon exodus from Nauvoo.
Our main source of newspaper articles was the Chronicling America newspaper archive available through the Library of Congress website (https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/). We searched the term “Mormon” between the years 1844 and 1846 across all states, and articles were extracted from these searches. These articles were supplemented by searches in NewspaperARCHIVE, an online database available through BYU’s Harold B. Lee Library website (https://lib.byu.edu/). NewspaperARCHIVE queries were also narrowed by date, and by state when necessary. An estimated 150 articles were read in total, 103 of which were downloaded and saved for analysis as PDFs or JPGs. News sources came from 14 states (New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, Michigan, Missouri, Maine, Maryland, Illinois), the Wisconsin Territory, Hawaii, and Washington D.C.
The available newspaper record presents an interesting picture of national feeling toward Mormons and Mormonism during this period, and indicates that while virtually everyone outside of the Church considered Mormon religion as odd, foreign, or foolish, many opposed the violent treatment the Mormons received in Hancock County (where Nauvoo was located) and the subsequent Mormon expulsion from the United States. Though there was still spread in public opinion (for example, some laid blame for the conflicts solely on the anti-Mormons, while others felt that Mormon actions justified anti-Mormon retaliation), Americans across several states spoke out against Mormon mistreatment after Joseph Smith’s death and as 1845 drew on. This suggests that the Mormon expulsion, though somewhat influenced by national feeling, occurred mainly because of local and state issues, rather than a unified American voice calling for Mormon removal. These articles also provide evidence that some in America regarded the conflicts in Illinois as religious persecution, even across Mormonism’s often wide break from Protestant Christianity.
Our research provides a more comprehensive national view of American rhetoric about Mormons and Mormonism during this dynamic period, and, importantly, demonstrates that many Americans in the mid-nineteenth century opposed persecution of Mormons, at least verbally. This research fits into the larger history of US/Mormon relations, as well as the overarching history of human rights in America. This is an area of rich interest and important implications for today, and further historical research, including examining the impact of nineteenth-century political events and affiliation on American rhetoric about Mormons, remains to be done.
As America continues to welcome people of all faiths, backgrounds, and cultures within her borders, the history of the US/Mormon relationship, including the expulsion of thousands of Mormons from the country, becomes increasingly relevant. Though many in America appear to have verbally opposed Mormon mistreatment, without real state or federal support the Mormons were still allowed to be driven from their homes, temple, and country. Today, how Americans respond to those who are different, while always keeping secure the fundamental rights of conscience, life, and worship endowed to all humankind, continues to be a theme that must be addressed on national, state, and individual levels.