Michael Musto really stepped in it yesterday when he pointed out on his blog that tomorrow evening there will be a peaceful protest outside the Manhattan Mormon Temple on Columbus Avenue at 65th Street (6:30 pm, bring a sign!).
Commenters went after Musto for suggesting that protesting the Mormon Church might be appropriate because Mormons contributed significant support to California’s Proposition 8, which passed last week and stripped gay couples of the right to marry in that state. Although it turns out that Mormons (many of whom don’t even live in the state of California) may have provided as much as 77 percent of the financial backing to the Yes on 8 campaign, some apparently didn’t appreciate the suggestion that the local Mormon Church might be a good place to raise objections to last week’s vote.
In the comments on Musto’s blog, a lot of wild accusations were tossed around, indicating that folks might be a little confused about this issue.
So, as a public service, we thought it might be useful to provide a brief primer about where the Mormons are coming from.
And keep in mind, we’re not making this stuff up.
One of our favorite authors in the whole world, the late Fawn Brodie*, did the world a service by helping us all understand a really fascinating time in our country’s history — the wild, wild 1820’s.
This was the Era of Good Feelings, when the United States experienced a rare period lacking in partisan political bickering — the Federalists were dying off, the Democratic-Republicans were dominant, and the country was enjoying several years of prosperity after defeating the British military in a second war. The young republic was secure, drinking heavily, and was generally very, very isolated.
In other words, Americans were extremely bored.
Which explains why the period seemed to generate some of the wildest fads — religious and otherwise — in our nation’s history. The absence of national emergencies — the Revolution was a fading memory, the growing crisis over slavery had yet to gain critical mass — meant that more, shall we say, frivolous matters had a way of absorbing the national imagination.
Specifically, Brodie points out that three national fads had an especially tight grip on the minds of people in western New York in the early 1820s.
1. Where did all these Indians come from? After generations of slaughter, Native Americans had been so decimated, white folks in the Northeast no longer saw them as a threat. In fact, it had been so long since the days of wanton violence, authors like Fenimore Cooper were now looking back on the tribes of upstate New York through a romantic lens.
But if the Indian had begun to change from the frightening serpent in America’s Eden to the Noble Savage, there was still a question nagging at the Christian mind — particularly among those who figured that all of history worth knowing was recorded in their favorite book. In other words: who were the Indians, how did they get here, and why aren’t they mentioned in the Bible?
In particular, people in parts of New York were fascinated by the Moundbuilders — a people that had built sophisticated earthworks and then had vanished. Folks — and preachers especially — endlessly debated which of the lost tribes of Israel might have ended up in North America and left behind the mysterious mounds in western parts of the state. This promoted a sort of amateur archaeological fervor that spread across the land.
2. What are these mysterious symbols, called ‘hieroglyphs,’ that we’re learning about in news reports from Egypt? Adding to the public’s budding archaeological interest, stories about the strange writing system of the ancient Egyptians were proving to be fascinating reading in the country’s newspapers. What tantalizing secrets of the Egyptians — and perhaps the time of Moses — might be revealed when the hieroglyphs could finally be deciphered! The key to solving that puzzle — the Rosetta Stone — had been discovered by French troops in 1799, but publication of an English key to the Egyptian code was still years away. But that didn’t stop people from speculating wildly about what earth-shattering truths might await the person who could read the ancient texts.
3. What fabulous treasures did Indians or Spanish explorers bury in my backyard? This third archaeological fad was not only amplified by the other two, it provided fertile ground for flim-flam artists. What better way to romanticize the (more exciting) past than to daydream about Indian gold or Spanish doubloons hidden away somewhere on your back forty? Quick to take advantage of that longing was an army of itinerant scammers: a man would arrive at a farm, claim to be a fortune-teller, and swear that he sensed the presence of buried treasure nearby. Some set the hook by showing the gullible a special “seer stone” that the fortune-teller claimed he could use to zero-in on buried gold. For a substantial fee, he’d dig up what was sure to be a whole cache of treasure that would make the farmer very rich. After being paid that fee, naturally, the fortune-teller would then make himself scarce. Farmers in western New York, in particular, seemed to be susceptible to the scam.
Isn’t this fun? What an imaginative, feverish place was the young Republic! So, with that table set, now let’s take a look at what Brodie tells us happened one day in Palmyra, New York in 1827.
A man named Joseph Smith — who already had a court record for scamming a farmer in the buried-gold scheme — came forward and claimed that an angel had come to him four years earlier with a revelation.
What did the angel ask Smith to do? Are you ready?
— The angel, Smith said, directed him where to dig up a buried treasure, a set of gold tablets. (See: Fad Number Three, above.)
— The tablets were etched in a strange code that looked remarkably like Egyptian hieroglyphs. (See: Fad Number Two.)
— The angel gave Smith a special pair of seer stones that enabled him to read the hieroglyphs as easily as if he were reading English (a really creative combo of Fad Two and Fad Three).
— And what did the tablets describe? Have you guessed? Yes! It was the answer to the ultimate riddle, Fad Numero Uno: The super-cool, heretofore unknown and like, bizarre actual origin of North America’s Indian tribes!
Can I get an L-D-S!
Whew. Of course, Smith’s explanation of the origin of Native Americans proved to be complete nonsense, and reports that a few of Smith’s early believers also laid eyes on the golden tablets turned out to be no more substantial than Smith’s own claims.
But Smith’s fairy tale was smartly played — it hit all the high points with a population desperate for romantic silliness to distract them from their dreary lives, and soon enough Smith was making all sorts of pronouncement that were taken to be the Revelations of a Living God. Like, for example, that he and maybe a few of his most trusted right-hand dudes should be able to marry as many young ladies as they wanted to.
To cut a long story short, smart folks like Mark Twain (years later) made endless fun of Smith’s nuttery, but less wise people somehow figured that Smith’s new religion threatened their own, and you know what that means – Jihad! Smith fled with his flock to Missouri [Oops, make that Illinois – my mistake, not Brodie’s], where he was killed, but his successor, Brigham Young, took the Mormons to Utah, which they to this day largely run while also somehow managing to support an NBA team named after a musical form created by black geniuses from a place called New Orleans.
It’s complicated. But anyway, try to understand that if your entire worldview was based on the completely unreliable ravings of an early 19th-century flim-flam artist with a harem fetish, you too might have a burning inferiority about your belief system, and you might manifest that inferiority by picking on the queers, who make an easy target and scare the bejesus out of your typical Mormon.
Anyway, I hope that helps.
And hey, see you at the picket.
*Fawn McKay Brodie, a UCLA professor of history, died of cancer in 1981, which really sucks, because it cut too short the career of a woman whose biographies are among the most provocative ever written. After her groundbreaking unmasking of Joseph Smith in 1945’s No Man Knows My History, Brodie was excommunicated by the Mormon Church. She then put out a luminous biography of the 19th-century explorer and Arabian Nights translator, Sir Richard Francis Burton (The Devil Drives), and then shocked the world by being the Thomas Jefferson biographer with the guts to write about what all of her predecessors had known but didn’t dare make public: evidence that Jefferson had fathered children with his slave, Sally Hemings (Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History). In her last book, which was interrupted by the death of her husband and was finished prematurely as she fought the cancer that ended her own life, Brodie took on Richard Nixon. The book was less well received than her others, but is still a fascinating read (Richard Nixon: The Shaping of his Character). If you haven’t read the Smith and Burton biographies, in particular, you’ve missed the highest examples of the form.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 11, 2008