The Mormon Candidate

By Laurie WinerAugust 26, 2012

The Mormon Candidate

“I’m not familiar precisely with exactly what I said, but I stand by what I said, whatever it was.”

—Mitt Romney, February 2012

MITT ROMNEY HAS DESCRIBED his faith as “the single most important influence in his life.” He did not go into details. No one in the political arena has found the right tone with which to draw him out, and it is doubtful voters will learn much more at the Republican convention this week.

Mike Huckabee tried to get the conversation going in 2007 but gummed up the works instead. In an interview with the New York Times Magazine, Huckabee was asked if he considered Mormonism a religion or a cult. ‘‘I think it’s a religion,” he said. “I really don’t know much about it.’’ Then, in what writer Zev Chafets describes as “an innocent voice,” Huckabee asked, “Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?”

It was a nice try, but Huckabee’s gambit came off as disingenuous; the former Arkansas Governor had to apologize to Romney and tell CNN that a discussion of Mormonism should not be part of the campaign. In covering the story, journalists explained some theological differences between Mormon and Christian doctrine — for instance that Christianity believes in a unified trinity, which means that God is made up of three distinct but co-eternal persons, while Mormons believe that God is literally the father of all beings, and that all beings once existed in a “premortal” state as “spirit beings.” No one cared and everyone moved on.

According to the most recent census, Mormons make up two percent of the population, and the rest of the country has probably failed to do much reading on the church’s theology or look beyond the clean-cut friendly face of contemporary Mormonism. But, like any other religion, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is more than a belief system; it is a culture, and that culture, he has been clear, formed Willard Mitt Romney.

Overlapping with his time at Bain Capital, Romney spent at least a dozen years as a bishop and “stake president,” a kind of spiritual advisor to thousands of New England Mormons. As Michael Kranish and Scott Helman reported in their book The Real Romney, Romney advised a woman named Carrel Hilton Sheldon to carry a baby to term even though her doctors said that doing so could endanger her life. She didn’t take Romney’s advice. Neither did Patricia Hayes, a pregnant single mom who Romney urged to give up her baby to the church, warning her that disobedience would mean ex-communication.

When Romney stepped down as bishop to run for the U.S. Senate against Edward Kennedy in 1994, Carrel Sheldon may have been surprised to learn then that he believed “abortion should be safe and legal in this country.

In 2002, running for Massachusetts Governor, he pledged to “preserve and protect a woman’s right to choose

By 2007, running for President, Romney wanted to overturn Roe v. Wade and said he would be “delighted” to sign a bill banning abortion.

As Massachusetts Governor, Romney worked to extend a ban on assault weapons, like the one used (and legally obtained) in the Aurora shooting. He now says he sees no need for new national restrictions on these guns. And, of course, he has repeatedly said he would, as President, repeal the health care reform plan that was based on Romney’s signature legislation as Governor.

Like candidate Romney, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints possesses a remarkable adaptability that keeps it alive and thriving. In a pinch, its talent for survival will trump its doctrine. At its founding, the church stipulated that marriage equaled monogamy, then there was polygamy, then a whole lot of polygamy, then the church was back to monogamy. For a very long time people of color were let nowhere near the church’s holy offices; suddenly, in 1978, they were welcome. The church has reversed itself on other doctrines as well, such as Adam being God (which he was under the leadership of Brigham Young), and the idea of “blood atonement” — in which a sinner’s crime is so unpardonable that his only recourse for salvation is to give up his life (i.e. be killed, another of Young’s ideas). To understand the church’s malleability and general ethos, let us take a brief tour of its roots, its founding.

The story of Joseph Smith in its particulars has no relation to that of Romney. What they share is an ability to shape-shift without anguish, a refusal or inability to see those shifts as hypocrisy, and what looks like a full belief in whatever they are saying, until it comes time to say something else. Also, they both ran for President.


Joseph Smith was born in 1805 in Sharon, Vermont to a poor family. He was the fourth child of nine. By the time Joseph was 10, the family had moved five times, from Vermont to New Hampshire and back, always struggling and just getting by. When an untimely frost wiped out their crops in 1815, they filled their wagon and trundled again to Palmyra, on the banks of the Erie Canal in upstate New York, a boomtown of 4,000, twice the size of the place they left. The Smiths cleared land for farming and built a log cabin. But the work was hard and the soil unreliable, and their debts piled up.

In Smith’s century, life and the bearing of life was precarious. The infant mortality rate hung at around 20 percent, and one in 200 births ended with the death of the mother. Women prayed and confessed when it was time for their confinement. Joseph and Emma Smith’s first three children died shortly after birth. At the same time there was a great feeling of optimism and movement in the country — territory to be conquered, fiefdoms to be made, and religious experience to be had. The first three decades of the century became known as “the Second Great Awakening.” In the states and the territories, Americans seemed to feel the need to re-interpret scripture for the new country ever expanding westward. Revivalist fever spread from Kentucky to New England to New York. Skillful preachers put on shows that induced ecstatic revelations, or at least alleviated the boredom and assuaged the terrors of country life. Tent shows were religion, but they were also theater and they were places to socialize.

In Smith’s boyhood, the northeast was a magnet for “the flotsam of the godly,” in the phrase of his biographer Fawn McKay Brodie. The place attracted preachers who were inventing a distinctly American spirituality that emphasized freedom of will over the fatalism of the Calvinists. “To a certain extent the movement was also anti-hierarchical,” says historian Leo Braudy. “But like every anti-authoritarian Christian movement from the Reformation onward, it quickly developed its own hierarchy.”

Near the Smith home in Palmyra, you had the Shakers, who had emigrated from England in 1774, as well as two opposing communes, one headed by free-love advocate Isaac Bullard, the other by Jemima Wilkinson, the “Universal Friend,” who preached sexual abstinence. Faith healers and evangelists constantly passed through, preaching in open-air tents. There was much speaking in tongues. Smith’s own parents both experienced visions, as did his uncle and grandfather. Everyone was talking to God.

In 1823, Smith later reported, he was first visited by the angel Moroni, who revealed to him the existence of ancient golden plates, buried two miles from the Smith home, on which the true story of the gospel was written. Years later Smith, having “purified” himself, took possession of the plates. He kept them covered and advised friends and family that looking at them would mean instant death. Peering into a stovepipe hat and using a seer stone, Smith dictated what would become the Book of Mormon to different scribes. The plates told the story of mankind in a language called “reformed Egyptian.” Among the surprises: in 600 B.C., after being warned by God to flee Jerusalem, a Hebrew prophet named Lehi and his family built a ship and sailed to America.

The hero of the tale is Lehi’s son Nephi. Like Smith, Nephi has five brothers, two of whom (Laman and Lemuel) are bloodthirsty and evil, which causes God to curse them with dark skin. They and their descendants (the Lamanites) will henceforth be “a filthy and a loathsome people.” In America, the descendants of Nephi and Laman struggle for power until finally, in 421 A.D., the Lamanites all but wipe out the “white and delightsome” Nephites. The sole survivor, Moroni, buries the records of his civilization in the hill Cumorah, to be found 1,400 years later by Joseph Smith.

In the early 1820s, Joseph and his father made their living as diviners; Joseph’s tool, even before he found the golden plates, was a seer stone — an opaque white rock a neighbor had found in a well that could reveal the whereabouts of buried treasures. For every neighbor who saw him as a con artist, there were five who found his company so magnetic that they didn’t care when he could not, finally, produce any treasure.

In 1830 Smith published The Book of Mormon: An Account Written by the Hand of Mormon upon Plates Taken from the Plates of Nephi. He gathered a group of believers and shared God’s word, continuing to receive revelations. As time went on, and his congregation grew, God spoke more and more specifically to the people in Smith’s flock, singling them out by name. For instance, when Oliver Cowdery, an early follower of Smith, wanted to receive his own revelations, God ordered him to stop trying: “Behold, I say unto thee, Oliver […] no one shall be appointed to receive commandments and revelation in this Church, excepting my servant Joseph Smith.”

In early 1831 Smith decided to move the bulk of his small, but growing, church from upstate New York to Kirtland, Ohio, the first stop for the saints on a trek fitfully westward to Utah that would take 16 years, though Smith would ride with them only halfway. Smith’s followers were understandably reluctant to leave their farms and homesteads in New York. He received a revelation, as he often did when people weren’t doing what he wanted, and in this one God promised the saints that in Ohio they would find “a land flowing with milk and honey upon which there shall be no curse when the Lord cometh.”

At the same time Smith ordered another group of saints to re-locate in Missouri, and they settled for a while in Independence, in Jackson County. The moves both isolated the saints and increased their religious ardor. In three weeks the Ohio Mormons baptized 127 new saints, and by the spring they numbered 1000.

They arrived in Kirtland, Ohio during a time when the government was selling public land cheap and the bank system was expanding. America has a long tradition of melding religion and money: “In God We Trust.” Mormonism is unique though; both its original prophet and its God think, at times, like investment bankers. Smith set up his own bank and proceeded to buy land and lend money, bolstered by revelations along the way. The Ohio saints bought much on credit — land and building materials from New York, and they built a temple. But they were out of cash by the time the bills came due. Owing more than $25,000, the prophet was thrown in jail and then released — several times. When he learned he would again be arrested, in January 1838, he fled Kirtland for a Mormon annex that had been established in upper Missouri. That community was called Far West.

Far West was the Mormon’s second attempt to find a home in Missouri. The first had failed rather spectacularly, when the Mormons were driven out of Jackson County in 1833. It had started out well enough; Smith was delighted with the country, with its rich soil and “beautiful rolling prairies […] the plums and grapes and persimmons and the flowers.” He consecrated the site for the new temple that he would build in the “splendid city of Zion.”

The saints boasted openly of their divine claim to the land. They had a way of describing themselves to their neighbors as the chosen people, a move that the un-chosen often find less than endearing. In Independence, the saints published some of the prophet’s recent revelations, such as:

If ye are faithful ye shall assemble yourselves together to rejoice upon the land in Missouri, which is the land of your inheritance, which is now the land of your enemies.

This did not sit well with the settlers already living in Jackson County. Surprised to learn that the newcomers considered them intruders — and enemies — they were further disturbed as new emigrants arrived every day, most of them poor. They distrusted the new “fanatics” who claimed direct access to the most high God. In the spring of 1832 came the first stoning of Mormon houses at night, soon followed by tar-and-featherings and house burnings. In turn, the Mormons formed a militia. When Lilburn Boggs, the already hostile Lieutenant Governor, heard that the Mormons were arming, he called it insurrection. “The Mormons must be treated as enemies and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public good,” he said. “Their outrages are beyond all description.” The state began expropriating Mormon property, and that was the end of the New Zion.

In the spring of 1839 the saints began to establish yet another new headquarters on the Mississippi river, in an Illinois town called Nauvoo. Industrious as always, they built sawmills, flourmills, a tool factory, a foundry, a university, and a grand temple in white limestone with a high steeple. It would be the last Mormon church that Smith would live to see.

Smith also wanted to build a large hotel called Nauvoo House, and he planned to find the capital to do so by selling stock in the project. In a revelation, God laid out the terms of the stock agreement with such specificity that even God seemed to acknowledge its absurdity. God began:

And they shall not receive less than fifty dollars for a share of stock in that house, and they shall be permitted to receive fifteen thousand dollars from any one man for stock in that house.

After seven more paragraphs of stipulation, God concluded with this:

And if they do appropriate any portion of that stock anywhere else […] they shall be accursed, and shall be moved out of their place, saith the Lord God; for I, the Lord, am God, and cannot be mocked in any of these things.


The Book of Mormon reflects Smith’s view of matrimony at the time of his own first marriage. “Hearken to the word of the Lord,” says one of Nephi’s good brothers, “For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall none.” Smith himself left no room for ambiguity on the subject when, in February 1831, he wrote a revelation that said: “Thou shall love thy wife with all thy heart, and shalt cleave unto her and none else.”

Smith first met Emma Hale when he boarded at her father’s Harmony, Pennsylvania inn. She was a striking young woman with a good figure, dark hair, and large hazel eyes. Her father, Isaac, distrusted Smith almost at sight for reasons any father would understand. A wealthy farmer named Josiah Stowel had just hired 20-year-old Joseph to find buried Spanish treasure he believed lay in the Susquehanna Valley. Smith never found it, but Stowel didn’t seem to care; he invited this tall, handsome youth to work on his farm and attend school. From there Smith began his secret courtship of Emma when her father was out hunting. Issac all but disowned Emma when the couple married in 1827; they went to live with Smith’s parents.

Joseph and Emma were only able to reconcile with her father a year later, when the couple went to Harmony to pick up some of her furniture. Peter Ingersoll, their wagon driver, described the reunion scene. Isaac accused Smith of stealing his daughter, saying “I had rather followed her to her grave.” He derided him for “pretend[ing] to see into a stone.” Both men wept, and Smith “acknowledged he could not see in a stone now, nor never could.” He swore he would give up treasure seeking.

In a way, Smith kept his promise. A month later he brought home the golden plates. Then, in Brodie’s words, “he was transformed from a lowly necromancer into a prophet, surrounded no longer merely by a clientele but by an enthusiastic following with common purposes and ideals.”

Thirteen years elapsed before God delivered a "new and an everlasting covenant." Joseph and Emma were now living in Kirtland, and Emma had taken in a fetching 17-year-old servant named Fanny Alger, who caught the eye of the prophet. At first Smith kept his new revelation semi-private, sharing it with only his inner circle. This one said that plural wives "are given unto him to multiply and replenish the earth,” and declared that anyone who rejects polygamy will suffer damnation and will not "be permitted to enter into my glory."

Smith was a charming, magnetic personality. He liked the ladies, who liked him back. But, as Brodie says:

He was no careless libertine who could be content with clandestine mistresses. There was too much of the Puritan in him, and he could not rest until he had redefined the nature of sin and erected a stupendous theological edifice to support his new theories on marriage.

His answer was to find precedence for plural marriage in the Old Testament, beginning with Abraham.

One of the first people with whom Smith shared his vision of a new patriarchal order (which promised every worthy man 10 virgins) was Parley Pratt, great-great grandfather to our own Willard Mitt Romney. In a way, polygamy would bring about the end of both men: Pratt was murdered in 1857 by Hector McLean, the original husband of Pratt’s 12th spiritual wife Eleanor McLean.

For a while the practice was kept secret from non-members and wives (including Emma), as well as from the bulk of the Mormon community, which in Kirtland numbered about 15,000. By the early 1840s, other Church leaders were also practicing polygamy, in an off-the-record, private-club kind of way. The new way was adopted by most of the Quorum of the Twelve, an apostle-like set of advisors to the prophet. But polygamy did not sit well with at least one of the 12, Oliver Cowdery.

Cowdery had been one of Smith’s closest allies; he was one of the three scribes who wrote the Book of Mormon while Smith dictated from the golden plates. Lately, though, Cowdery had felt pushed out by Sidney Rigdon as the prophet’s consigliere, and, the idea of plural marriage repulsed him. He wrote to his brother about Smith’s “dirty, nasty, filthy affair with Fanny Alger.” (Crowdery was ex-communicated in 1838 but returned to the fold after Smith’s death.)

In the meantime, Smith secretly married at least 20 women before he shared the revelation of a “new and everlasting covenantin1843. In that message, Lord God again gave specific instructions, down to the names of the people involved. “And let mine handmaid, Emma Smith, receive all those that have been given unto my servant Joseph, and who are virtuous and pure before me,” said God. And God added the threat that now more frequently came with Smith’s revelations: “But if she will not abide this commandment she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord; for I am the Lord thy God, and will destroy her if she abide not in my law.”

Smith asked his brother Hyrum to deliver this revelation to Emma, who was none too pleased. In time she saw she had no choice, and she proposed a face-saving move: she would agree only if she could choose her husband’s brides. And that was how Emma came to attend Smith’s wedding to two young sisters, though she did not know that he had secretly married them two months earlier. Smith bought her a new carriage. She then consented to his marrying two young orphans. But Emma never grew comfortable with the arrangement. In 1879, the year of her death, she was in full denial that it had ever happened:

No such thing as polygamy, or spiritual wifery, was taught, publicly or privately, before my husband's death, that I have now, or ever had any knowledge of [...] He had no other wife but me; nor did he to my knowledge ever have.

In the meantime, Smith increased his consumption, “marrying” women sometimes in the home of the woman or a friend. Usually Brigham Young (who would be Smith’s successor) performed the ceremonies. Smith married his children’s tutor and many of his friend’s wives. He married five pairs of sisters. He married a mother and daughter. Six of his wives began as wards in his home. He married at least four women over 50, including Young’s sister. In the spring and summer of 1843 he married 11 women, most of them between the ages of 16 and 23.

As will happen, Smith was becoming deranged by his own success. “Excitement has become almost the essence of my life,” he said in a 1843 sermon in Navoo. He began to organize a government to rule over what he hoped would be a sovereign Mormon state, appointing a council of 50 “princes” to form “the highest court on earth.” One of its first acts was to ordain and crown Smith as King of the Kingdom of God.

In 1844, Smith decided to run for President of the United States on an independent platform. He proposed a “Theodemocracy” — “There is not a nation or dynasty now occupying the earth that acknowledges Almighty God as their lawgiver,” he wrote, and, as a man in direct contact with God, he would streamline the process. He also wanted smaller government: “Reduce Congress at least two-thirds. [… ]Pay them two dollars and their board per diem (except Sunday).”

Smith didn’t live to see the election.

The lynchpin in Smith’s undoing was a trusted friend named William Law, a wealthy Canadian contractor who had been a counselor to the prophet for two years. Law was a savvy businessman who resented being coerced into investing in Smith’s real estate projects; he also was made uncomfortable by Smith’s prodigious marrying. When Smith tried to seduce Law’s wife Jane, it was the last straw. Law confronted Smith, angry words were exchanged, their friendship ended. Law joined a camp of other disgruntled Mormons who planned to publish a weekly newspaper called the Nauvoo Expositor. One of the goals of the paper was to expose nefarious goings-on in the church, including the truth about polygamy, Smith’s irregular finances, and the prophet’s out-of-control ego. Unlike some of other Smith’s enemies, who were frothing-at-the-mouth angry, Law was a reasoned and careful man, and his accusations had the ring of truth. The Expositor published its first and only issue on June 7, 1844.

The next day Smith called a meeting of the city council. Here’s what the prophet wrote in his diary about that meeting:

I was in the City Council from 10 a.m. to l:20 p.m., and from 2:20 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. investigating the merits of the Nauvoo Expositor, and also the conduct of the Laws, Higbees, Fosters, and others, who have formed a conspiracy for the purpose of destroying my life, and scattering the Saints or driving them from the State. […] The council passed an ordinance declaring the Nauvoo Expositor a nuisance. I immediately ordered the Marshal to destroy it without delay.

Smith’s militia marched to the Expositor building, where they wrecked the printing press and burnt copies of the paper.

Illinois Governor Thomas Ford feared that riots would ensue. He claimed that "the whole country is now up in arms, and a vast number of people are ready to take the matter into their own hands." The only way to stop the forthcoming violence, he said, was for Smith to submit to arrest. The trial was to take place in front of a non-Mormon jury in Carthage. After discussing the matter with friends for days, the prophet surrendered to the constable. He told several friends that he did not expect to return.

Smith and his brother Hyrum were imprisoned on the upper floor of Carthage Jail, a two-story stone building. A militia was called ostensibly to protect the prisoners, but the members had another purpose in mind. A young man named William Daniels watched the scene. He later reported that a militia member named Thomas C. Sharp riled up the crowd, telling them we must “beard the lions in their den.” Daniels followed the mob to the jail. They carried muskets and “had blacked themselves with wet powder, while they were in the woods, which gave them the horrible appearance of demons,” he wrote. They rushed the jail, first killing Hyrum. Smith used a pistol that had been smuggled into him and shot three of the mob before he took a bullet. He made his way to the window, where he was shot three more times, falling dramatically backwards to the ground.

After a short period of confusion, the once-more embattled saints turned to Brigham Young to lead them to the holy land of Utah. Young was a wily and pragmatic leader with none of Smith’s personal magnetism. He inherited Smith’s ability to take directives from God, as did Young’s successor John Taylor, and onwards through 13 other distinguished-looking white men. Today, as in 1843, church president Thomas Monson is considered a "Prophet, Seer, and Revelator," as well as God's human representative on earth. As far as doctrine goes, each church president has the ability to rescind, alter, or wholly obliterate.


When Brigham Young first heard about the revelation regarding polygamy, he was distraught. “When I saw a funeral,” he later said, “I felt to envy the corpse its situation, and to regret that I was not in the coffin, knowing the toil and labor that my body would have to undergo." He overcame his aversion, taking his first plural wife in 1842. The following year, 1843, he took two more wives; in 1844 he took 11; in 1845 he took five. Young was particularly busy in 1846; he took 20 wives that year. In 1872 he took his 55th wife.

All of this marrying did not go unnoticed by the federal government. After many fits and starts in the legislative process, Congress finally passed the Edmunds Act in 1882, restating that polygamy was a felony punishable by five years of imprisonment and a $500 fine. Further, convicted polygamists would be ineligible to hold political office. The Mormons had to choose between their beloved plural marriage and their even more beloved political ambitions. In 1890 they traded polygamy for statehood.

The transition was not easy. Church leaders, as well as many members, went into hiding — either to avoid arrest or to avoid having to testify in the trial of brethren. Church president John Taylor died while in hiding. Mitt Romney’s great-grandfather, Miles Park Romney, went to Chihuahua Mexico along with his four wives and children, one of whom was Gaskell Romeny, Mitt’s grandfather. Gaskell Romney married Anna Amelia Pratt in 1895 in Mexico, which is where Mitt’s father George was born in 1907. (Anna's grandfather was murdered polygamist Parley Pratt.)

And now the Mormons had one less idiosyncrasy to set them apart from their fellow Americans. Most religions grow out of patriarchal roots, but the history of polygamy adds a special frisson to the misogyny in the Church of Latter Day Saints, a church that has changed little since the nineteenth century, when the official view was that a woman's primary place is in the home, where she is “to rear children and abide by the righteous counsel of her husband.”


For the church’s stance toward people of color: wash, rinse, repeat. When it finally came time to officially turn its back on institutional racism, the church did not ask for forgiveness, it asked for a total erasure of its past practices.

Brigham Young stated that any man having one drop of the seed of [Cain] […] in him cannot hold the priesthood. If no other Prophet ever spake it before I will say it now in the name of Jesus Christ.” His advice for Mormons of color was: “Let them apostatize, and they will become gray-haired, wrinkled, and black, just like the Devil.”

The church’s problem with people of color continued into the next century. Writing in 1935 Joseph Fielding Smith, who later became the tenth president of the LDS Church, re-iterated Young’s tradition: “Millions of souls have come into this world cursed with a black skin and have been denied the privilege of Priesthood and the fullness of the blessing of the Gospel.”

But the twentieth century was making its mark, and Joseph Fielding Smith acknowledged that his church might change: “In the spirit of sympathy, mercy and faith, we will also hope that blessings may eventually be given to our negro brethren, for they are our brethren — children of God — notwithstanding their black covering emblematical of eternal darkness.”

The 1960s brought demonstrations and extensive articles denouncing the LDS teaching on blacks. Within the church, leaders were advocating for change, but the most conservative members had their say. In 1969 the church published this statement:

Our living prophet, President David O. McKay, has said, "The seeming discrimination by the Church toward the Negro is not something which originated with man; but goes back into the beginning with God. . .

Pressure increased during the 1970s. The IRS was threatening to cancel the church's tax-exempt status. At the same time the church was expanding into South America, where its anti-black position would cause havoc with its recruiting efforts.

Finally, in 1978, after much discussion and prayer among the members of the Quorum of Twelve (including Marion G. Romney, Mitt’s father's cousin), the church was ready to change. In June, Bruce R. McConkie, one of the Twelve, described the group revelation:

From the midst of eternity, the voice of God, conveyed by the power of the Spirit, spoke to his prophet. The message was that the time had now come to offer the fullness of the everlasting gospel, including celestial marriage, and the priesthood, and the blessings of the temple, to all men, without reference to race or color, solely on the basis of personal worthiness. And we all heard the same voice, received the same message, and became personal witnesses that the word received was the mind and will and voice of the Lord.

Lest anyone be confused, an irritated McConkie outlined the church’s position on belief, acceptance and obedience. His statement is an extraordinary example of the church’s ability to disassociate from its own history:

People write me letters and say, "You said such and such, and how is it now that we do such and such?" And all I can say to that is that it is time disbelieving people repented and got in line and believed in a living, modern prophet. Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world. [...] We have now had added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don’t matter any more. [...] It doesn’t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June of this year.

And that was that.


Perhaps all churches begin as cults, and certainly they all resist change, harbor forms of racism, and engage in strange ritual. The more recent the religion, the more traceable are its imperfect human footprints, the more ammunition for ridicule, the more the need for secrecy and for the brutal cut-off of apostates. In this regard, Scientology is the new Mormonism. (In a recent television skit the comedian Daniel Tosh played a Scientology recruiter whose office-wall poster reads: “Scientology: Making Mormons look sane since 1952.”)

Aside from the trinity of the Godhead, the main difference between Mormons and other sects of Christianity is that their founding is recent enough to have been extensively documented by verifiable witnesses and historians at every turn. Mormonism therefore requires a different kind of faith than does other Christian sects. It requires a very special obedience. It asks its members not to read, and not to believe, wide swatches of their own country’s history.

The story of the founding of the Mormon church in Ohio in 1830 and its unlikely trek from there to Missouri to Illinois to Salt Lake City is one of the great adventures of the nineteenth century. It is an enthralling journey rich with acts of bravery, frailty, strength, violence and mendacity, the most hideous being the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the slaying of 120 peaceful and wealthy emigrants known as the Fancher party by a group of Mormons under the command of John Lee, who himself was under the command of Brigham Young. [For more, read The Mountain Meadows Massacre by Juanita Brooks and Jan Shipps, Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer, Blood of the Prophets by Will Bagley, The Story of the Mormons from the date of their origin to the year 1901 by William Alexander Linn, as well as the novel Red Water by Judith Freeman.]

Young people born into the church are actively encouraged to read only the official, neutered version of Mormon history, which omits virtually all of the good stuff, all the messy moral complexity. Perhaps that is why the Mormons of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have cultivated a certain bland exterior, keeping the messy and complicated submerged. Apostasy is a very serious matter and often involves the cutting off of all family and friends. Worrying about the past can destroy your future.


From the 1850s well into the twentieth century, Mormons in novels and on stage and in silent film were natural villains. These early works focused most especially on the Danites, a shadowy Mormon militia formed after the death of the prophet, and, of course, polygamy, so titillating and yet so forbidden and unsavory. Mark Twain took a dim view of the Mormons. “The Mormon Bible,” he wrote, “is a pretentious affair and yet so slow, so sleepy, such an insipid mess of inspiration. It is chloroform in print.”

By the time of Hollywood’s most extravagant foray into Mormonism, international events intruded to push the weirdness of the Mormons out of the frame. In the late 1930s, Eleanor Harris, a young writer at 20th Century Fox brought Children of God, a novel about the church’s early days, to the attention of her boss. Darryl Zanuck passed, believing it would be difficult to frame polygamy in a neutral way. When Harris went ahead with a script outline, Zanuck changed his mind. He now saw the story of Mormon persecution as a parallel to the pogroms against Jews going on in Europe.

Zanuck’s metaphor was a stroke of luck for Mormon public relations. The resulting movie, Brigham Young, is as close to hagiography as the church is likely to get from Gentiles (non-Mormons, who, in the church’s definition, include Jews). The film begins in an idyllic Mormon home on the prairie. Inside children laugh, adults dance, and grandma makes bread. But on a nearby hillside, grim men wait on horseback with torches, their faces painted black. In a minute they will destroy this scene of domestic tranquility, setting the house on fire, tying the men to trees and whipping them. There’s a shot of The Book of Mormon in flames. Anyone watching newsreels or reading the papers in 1940 would have gotten the reference to Nazism.

We first see Vincent Price as Joseph Smith in a Lincolnesque pose — shirt sleeves rolled up, splitting logs. The film never takes on the polygamy of the prophet, and Price plays him as a soft-spoken, angelic man who merely beams at his enemies. He remains calm, with a sad but godly countenance, even as the mob is breaking into Carthage Jail to kill him. He does not, like the real Smith, have a weapon and fire back.

Brigham Young is played by Dean Jagger, who liked the role so well he later converted to Mormonism. Like Price, his mellow way of speaking is meant to convey godliness. He is all soft curls and peaceful coexistence. At his most angry, he will issue a stern, “Good day, Sir!” Young usually is seen accompanied by his wife Mary (played by Mary Astor) and at least one other deferential female in a bonnet.

The filmmakers handle the problem of polygamy in two ways. First, they argue that it makes life easier and more efficient for both men and women. Brigham issues his highest praise of Mary; he describes her as “never complaining, never jealous of the others.”

“No Brigham,” she protests.“The lord has given me so much being able to take care of a man like you.”

The second idea advanced about polygamy in the film is that is all in good, rascally fun. Toward the end, as the Mormons are approaching the promised land of Utah, Tyrone Power, who plays a male ingénue, rides alongside John Carradine as Porter Rockwell, the Mormon’s long-haired avenging angel. The two men are in a good mood, pleasantly imagining their futures. Says Porter, “Well, figure it out for yourself. Suppose each man has 20 wives. That’ll give you 40,000 children, with 5,000 men to start with. I’m aiming to do my share!” Ye-ha!

Director Henry Hathaway later assessed the film:

Oh, what a lousy job I did on that one. Couldn’t abide the subject matter. It was all so terribly confused. Why were some people opposed to the Mormons? Brigham only [seemed to] have one wife […] I begged Zanuck to go into the multiple wives thing, and he banged down on his desk with a mighty "No!" It was just endless shots of that wagon train. […] I was mighty bored and so was the audience.”

Church president Herber J. Grant felt differently, declaring that the day of the film’s release was “one of the greatest days of my life."

By the time Matt Stone and Trey Parker were accepting their 2011 Tony awards for the hit Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon, it was clear that American culture had accepted and normalized the Mormon church. Church president Thomas Monson, in fact, turned the show’s success into a recruitment opportunity. “The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening,” read the church’s official statement, “but The Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.” Both in their musical and in “All About Mormons,” a noteworthy 2003 episode of their TV show South Park, Stone and Parker make merciless fun, but they also acknowledge that the Mormons have formed a lasting community that does more good than harm, particularly for children and for those who have little hope in their lives.

One of the best moments in The Book of Mormon is a depiction of the repression, both of information and of emotion, that Mormons must call upon if they are to remain believers. In a song called “Turn It Off,” a group of young missionaries share and support each other’s life challenges, which include an abusive father, a dead sister, and inconvenient homosexual proclivities. Here’s a taste:

You say you got a problem,
Well that’s no problem,
It's super easy not to feel that way!

When you start to get confused because of thoughts in your head,
feel those feelings
Hold them in instead

Turn it off, like a light switch
Just go click!
It's a cool little Mormon trick!
We do it all the time …

The audience laughter in The Book of Mormon — and this explains its great popularity – is not mean spirited. We are not laughing at the stupidity of the young men but at the recognizable moment. Repression and denial are a ticking time bomb, and we laugh because we can see the disaster looming, while the person in question feels safe for the moment. We have all been there.

We don’t have to be Mormon to insist that something is true that isn’t true, or to deny ever thinking it was true. Todd Akin, the Missouri Representative running for the Senate, famously stated recently that pregnancy from rape is “really rare” because “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.” He then said he didn’t mean that, exactly. Sticking up for Akin, Steve King, elected by the people of Iowa to be their Representative in the United States Congress, said he had never heard of a child getting pregnant from statutory rape or incest. He then said that didn’t mean it didn’t happen. 

Perhaps these men have been spouting dogma for so long that they have lost touch with the most basic information on the reproductive systems of their own species. Understanding reality through the lens of faith, or even through the lens of political expediency, can be perilous.

Romney is not in this camp. He does not believe, like Representative John Shimkus, the chairman of a Congressional subcommittee on climate change, that “the earth will end only when God declares it to be over.” He understands that “the world is getting warmer,” at least partly because of human activity. He believes in evolution — that “God designed the universe and created the universe and evolution is most likely the process he used to create the human body.” He endorses the teaching of evolution in science class. Among Republicans, in 2012, he is the most reasonable of men.

Among the things that Romney steadfastly refuses to talk about are his finances and his religion. Like many in the class he protects, he bilks the government out of a percentage of what he owes through legal but possibly embarrassing means. And he will invoke god like any American politician, although when it comes to the god of The Book of Mormon he remains silent. He has served as a bishop in his church, a position that requires a wide-ranging knowledge of doctrine, practices, and organization — and not only knowledge but obedience and enforcement. He is eminently capable of discussing Mormonism. He chooses not to, and his reasons will almost certainly remain private through the election. As Mike Huckabee found out, it is impossible to force the discussion.

These two cordoned-off areas — one about his deepest and most profound beliefs, the other about the financial dealings that are touted as his primary claim on the office of the President — came together recently when Romney said in an interview that the reason he will not release more tax returns is because his tithing (or lack thereof?) should be private. He retains an easy air no matter how preposterous his statement, as in: my withholding of financial information is an exercise of religious freedom. Romney remains safe in his fundamental belief that, no matter what he says, he is essentially honest. And he can always, if he needs to, believe and say something else later. He has learned at the feet of masters.


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LARB Contributor

Laurie Winer is a Los Angeles Review of Books founding editor.


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