Fair-minded Gentiles

by William G. Hartley

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    For 150 years the Church has churned through often hostile waters. Our pages of history detail mobbings and murders, drivings from lands and homes, ridicule by newspapers and novelists, anti-Mormon laws and government officials at local and national levels, and rough treatment of our missionaries. Our heritage of persecution, however, should not block from our vision the times when fair-minded nonmembers, friendly or just neutral, rose to our defense or at least tried to view our case honestly. On the occasion of the Church’s sesquicentennial, let us honor some of these outsiders by recalling their contributions to our cause.

    Orlando Saunders: Palmyra

    Few residents knew or even noticed the Smiths. But when anti-Mormon writers in the 1830s wanted to smear the peculiar new faith, they came up with affidavits from Palmyrans that called Joseph Smith and his family ne’er-do-wells. But the neighbors who knew the Smiths best held better opinions. One such, Orlando Saunders, went on record to vouch for the persecuted family’s character:

    “I knew all the Smith family well … the old man was a cooper; they all worked for me many a day; they were very good people; Young Joe (as we called him then), he worked for me, and he was a very good worker; they all were. … They were the best family in the neighborhood in case of sickness; one was at my house nearly all the time when my father died; I always thought them honest; they were owing me some money when they left here. …

    “One of them came back in about a year and paid me.”1

    John Russell: Missouri

    During seven years here the Saints had to relocate twice before fleeing to Illinois. Here mobs tarred and feathered Bishop Edward Partridge, killed Apostle David Patten, massacred 19 at Haun’s Mill, jailed the Prophet Joseph and others, and stole or destroyed thousands of dollars worth of property and lands. But while the mobbers ranted, other citizens sympathized with the Saints. Like John Russell, a classics teacher and writer not far away in neighboring Illinois.

    Mr. Russell took pen in hand, perhaps a decade after the Mormons fled Missouri, and wrote the first novel ever published about the Saints. The book, The Mormoness: or, The Trials of Mary Maverick, a Narrative of Real Events,2 tells the story of an Illinois man and wife who listen sympathetically to a Mormon elder. Later they hear about Missouri mobs and lynch laws abusing the Mormons. An elderly Mormon preacher is sent to the couple again and they convert. They join the Saints in Caldwell County where mobs, vowing extermination, kill the husband on his own doorstep. One mobber kills their son before the terrified eyes of the pleading mother. She becomes a fugitive and returns to her Illinois hometown. There she cares for the sick. One time she nurses a critically wounded stranger, whom she recognizes as the man who had murdered her child. She returns him to health, and he falls in love with her and proposes marriage. She refuses. He then realizes the enormity of what he had done to her and other Mormons at Haun’s Mill. Soon she dies, forgiving those who wronged her. But the murderer spends the rest of his life bewildered and finally goes mad. The novel’s main point, echoed in Mary’s dying words, is the Christian command to love your enemies, even if they are Mormons.

    Josiah Quincy: Nauvoo, 1844

    Weeks before Joseph’s murder, two distinguished Bostonians visited beautiful Nauvoo. One, Josiah Quincy, of the famous Massachusetts family that produced John Quincy Adams, carefully interviewed the Prophet and observed Nauvoo society. He took copious notes. Many years later, at a time when ministers, humanitarians, and Congressmen were wrapping together tough anti-Mormon legislation, Mr. Quincy published his Nauvoo notes in the last chapter of his 1883 book, Figures of the Past.3

    Rather than ridicule and lambast, Mr. Quincy tried to be accurate and fair. “I have endeavored to give the details of my visit to the Mormon prophet with absolute accuracy,” he explained. His chapter begins with a prophecy of sorts which must have surprised his readers:

    “It is by no means improbable that some future text-book, for the use of generations yet unborn, will contain a question something like this: What historical American of the nineteenth century has exerted the most powerful influence upon the destinies of his countrymen? And it is by no means impossible that the answer to that interrogatory may be thus written: Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet. And the reply, absurd as it doubtless seems to most men now living, may be an obvious commonplace to their descendants.”

    Mr. Quincy warned that if the reader doesn’t know “just what to make of Joseph Smith, I cannot help him out of the difficulty. I myself stand helpless before the puzzle.” After detailing his Nauvoo visits, the Bostonian concluded his book, which became quite popular in its day, with this tribute to the Prophet Joseph:

    “Born in the lowest ranks of poverty, without book learning and with the homeliest of all human names, he had made himself at the age of thirty-nine a power upon earth. Of the multitudinous family of Smith … none had so won human hearts and shaped human lives as this Joseph. His influence, whether for good or for evil, is potent today, and the end is not yet.”

    Mrs. James K. Polk: Washington, D.C., 1846

    Thousands of Mormon men, women, and children camped homeless in Indian country, refugees from Nauvoo. Poverty and hunger were permanent guests at their tents, wagons, and crude cabins. Back east, the plight of these sufferers touched the hearts of society people. When the Irish potato famine caused mass starvation, wealthy socialites quickly raised funds and food to provide relief. So when Mormon elders, sent east to seek aid from Gentiles, explained the Mormons’ troubles, wealthy hearts softened again.

    “Shall it be said,” asked the Daily Union, a Washington, D.C., newspaper, “that the same people [who aided the Irish] have driven from their peaceful homes fifteen hundred [thousand] of our own people to perish of hunger and cold in the wilderness? We trust not.” Then followed advertisements for “The Ladies Tea Party for the Benefit of the Mormons.” On October 28, 1846, according to one newspaper report, the special tea-party opened very successfully in Washington, with many prominent people present:

    “Suffice it for the present, that the ladies of all denominations, all over the city, headed by the mayor and the clergy, went heart and hand into the work. The venerable Mrs. ex-President Madison, Mrs. [President James K.] Polk, Mrs. General Macomb, and many others of the most influential and highly respected and most beautiful of the metropolis were united in the benevolent enterprise.”

    Guests paid 50¢ per ticket, which enabled them to hear the Marine Band and a popular vocal group, both of which volunteered their services. Several persons in the city opened their homes as collecting points for clothing and moneys donated to help the Mormon refugees.4

    Mormon Battalion: San Diego, 1847

    When the Mormon Battalion took up garrison duty in southern California, local citizens and other American soldiers looked down their noses at them. “It is yet among the Californians a great term of reproach to be called a Mormon,” noted one. Battalion boys, in off hours, earned extra income by putting their skills to work. Soon, the former Mexican village had two brickyards, a brick kiln, a brick courthouse, brick chimneys and wells, handcrafted woodwork and leatherwork, and carpentry, bakery, and blacksmith services. What the Battalion did for San Diego so impressed the residents that when the men were released, local folks requested from the army another battalion of Mormons. “The Mormonitos,” admitted an army captain, were “in high favor.”5

    Captain Howard Stansbury: Great Salt Lake City, 1849

    Captain Howard Stansbury, the work of his army topographical engineers stopped by the 1848–49 winter, spent months in the newly created city on Great Salt Lake’s shores. When his surveys of the lake were done, he returned east and in 1852 published his official report titled An Expedition to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake. The Captain, along with critical comments, had positive things to say about the Church. Immediately popular, the book required several reprints by 1856.

    His surveys of the Utah wilderness convinced him that the Saints deserved praise for establishing within three years a large and flourishing community in that remote spot, a feat he called “one of the most remarkable incidents of the present age.” Brigham Young? “A man of clear, common sense, fully alive to the responsibilities of the station he occupies, sincerely devoted to the good name and interests of the people.” Mormon courts? “Justice was equitably administered alike to ‘saint’ and ‘gentile.’ Their courts were constantly appealed to by companies of passing emigrants.” The court decisions “were remarkable for fairness and impartiality.” Honesty? “The Mormons were ever fair and upright” during his stay. “I cannot refer to a single instance of fraud or extortion to which any of [my] party was subjected.” Knowing of charges about Mormon dishonesty circulating widely in the east, Captain Stansbury suggested such reports were based on “interested misrepresentation or erroneous information.” His conclusion about the Mormons, read by thousands, was: “In short, these people presented the appearance of a quiet, orderly, industrious, and well organized society.”6

    Colonel Thomas L. Kane: Philadelphia, 1850

    Members of the Pennsylvania Historical Society hushed as Thomas L. Kane rose to address them. Colonel Kane,7 son of a prominent judge, and member of a highly respected Pennsylvania family, read to them a formal paper about his experiences in the West among the Mormon refugees from Nauvoo. Eloquently he described the exodus from Nauvoo, the poverty and hard circumstances of the refugees, their ready response to the government’s call for a Mormon Battalion, and then told of their beginning efforts in Utah.

    The address was so well received that Colonel Kane, at the prodding of a Mormon elder, published it as a “very handsomely gotten up” book of 84 pages titled The Mormons. The Kanes paid for the printing of two editions of 1,000 copies each, then mailed a volume to every United States senator, most of the congressmen, the President, government department heads, and other influential people.

    Why his concern for the Saints? Colonel Kane became interested in Mormons four years earlier when he dropped in at a Mormon conference in Philadelphia. Afterwards he talked for hours with Elder Jesse C. Little about Mormonism. He then wrote letters to aid Elder Little in Washington, D.C., circles, and later rode west with the elder to visit the Mormon refugee camps. Near one, he happened to overhear a Saint in earnest private prayer. While listening, the Colonel shed tears. “I am satisfied your people are solemnly and terribly in earnest,” he told Elder Little.

    In the camps Colonel Kane became deathly ill. Carefully nursed by Saints, he recovered, but not before witnessing much of the everyday life of Mormons. On his return east he stopped to see the near-ghost City of Nauvoo. At Albany, illness nearly killed him. Fearing death he instructed his father, a judge, to never suffer any evil to come upon the Saints from the federal government, if he had the power to do so. The Colonel survived, and then drew on his first-hand knowledge for his address to the historical society.

    Colonel Kane’s published address, some critics said, seemed too sympathetic about the Mormons. With critics in mind he inserted a preface in The Mormons’ second edition to reinforce his conclusions:

    “I have been annoyed by comments this hastily written discourse has elicited. Well meaning friends have even invited me to tone down its remarks in favor of the Mormons, for the purpose of securing them a readier acceptance. I can only make them more express. The Truth must take care of itself. I not only meant to deny that the Mormons in any wise fall below our standard of morals, but I would be distinctly understood to ascribe to those of their number with whom I associated in the West, a general correctness of deportment, and purity of character above the average of ordinary communities.”

    During his lifetime Colonel Kane became the Church’s “Sentinel in the East.” He advised Church leaders on political matters in Washington, D.C. Once, on his own initiative, he traveled to Utah via Panama to serve as a mediator between the Mormons and the federal army sent against them by President James Buchanan. In 1873 he visited Utah again, this time with his wife. While they accompanied President Young on a long trip south through dozens of Mormon villages, Mrs. Kane wrote down her honest reactions in letters home and in her journal. In 1874 her father published a book based on her Utah writings, Twelve Mormon Homes, “with the design of commanding sympathy for Mormons, who are at this time threatened with hostile legislation by Congress.”8

    Charles Dickens: Liverpool, 1863

    Thousands of English readers regularly digested the All the Year Round magazine issued by famous novelist and journalist Charles Dickens. In 1863 Dickens provided them his first-hand “coverage” of the departure from Liverpool’s docks of the giant emigrant ship Amazon.9 Knowing a Mormon company was boarding the ship, he boarded with them “to bear testimony against them if they deserved it, as I fully believed they would.”

    He confessed to his readers that what he found amazed him. “Nobody is in ill temper, nobody is the worse for drink, nobody swears an oath or uses a coarse word.” Compared to other emigrants he had observed before, “these people are so strikingly different” that he devoted a lengthy essay to them. “They had not been a couple of hours on board when they established their own watches at all the hatchways. Before nine o’clock the ship was orderly and as quiet as a man-of-war.” He concluded: “I think it would be difficult to find eight hundred people together anywhere else, and find so much beauty, and so much strength and capacity for work among them.” As a footnote Dickens told how a Select Committee of the House of Commons in 1854 concluded that no ships under the English Passenger Acts could be depended upon for comfort and security in the same degree as those under the Mormon emigrant agents.

    General Alexander Doniphan: The Tabernacle, 1874

    Word reached the First Presidency that a Missouri militia leader from the days of Mormon persecutions there was coming to Utah. Immediately President Young’s counselor, Elder George A. Smith, paid tribute to the visiting general at a Sunday meeting in the Tabernacle.10 Then the First Presidency took General Alexander Doniphan on a special train trip to Provo for a tour and a sumptuous meal. Why this red carpet treatment? Elder Smith gave the answer in his Tabernacle sermon:

    “During a long career [by the Church] of persecution, characters occasionally present themselves like stars of the first magnitude in defence of right, who are willing notwithstanding the unpopularity that may attach to it, to stand up and protest against mob violence, murder, abuse, or the destruction of property and constitutional rights, even if the parties who are being abused … have the unpopular name of ‘Mormons.’”

    In Missouri General Doniphan proved himself to be such a “star of the first magnitude.”11 He served as the Church’s attorney during much of the Missouri period. When elected to the state legislature, he helped carve out two new northern counties as refuge places for the Saints. Then, as a militia leader, he refused to obey General Samuel D. Lucas’ infamous order to murder Joseph Smith, and warned General Lucas:

    “It is cold blooded murder. I will not obey your order. My brigade shall march for Liberty tomorrow morning, at 8 o’clock; and if you execute these men, I will hold you responsible before an earthly tribunal, so help me God.”12

    Mrs. Moses Wilson

    President Smith, in the same Tabernacle talk, also honored a little-known non-LDS woman who likewise helped the Church. Evidently when General Lucas, out of fear of General Doniphan, sent Joseph Smith to jail rather than execute him, he delivered Joseph into the charge of a General Moses Wilson. General Wilson, on the way to Liberty Jail, housed Joseph at his own home, in chains, where Mrs. Wilson developed deep sympathy for the unfairly treated Mormon leader. When the Wilsons moved to Texas, the general one day planned to raise a mob to punish Mormon elders preaching in the area. When Mrs. Wilson heard this, although an aged lady, she mounted her horse and rode 30 miles to warn the elders. Years later one of her sons told President George A. Smith that his mother “deeply deprecated the difficulties with the Mormons, and did all she could to prevent them.”13

    Edward Dicey

    During the last half of the 19th century, magazine articles favorable to the Church were like tiny islands in a vast ocean of anti-Mormon ink. One such article appeared in the March 1867 Macmillan’s Magazine. In it journalist Edward Dicey wrote: “Utah is not at present, whatever it may become hereafter, a mere sink of licentious self-indulgence. As a body, the Mormons are hardworking, sober, temperate men; actuated by a deep faith and an earnest devotion to the interests of their creed. There must be something in that faith which appeals to men’s convictions as well as their passions.”14

    Hubert Howe Bancroft

    The same decade that saw two Mormon elders killed by a mob at Cane Creek, Tennessee, also witnessed the publication of the first fair-minded history of our people by a reputable non-Mormon scholar. Hubert Howe Bancroft, for whom the famous Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley is named, wanted to write histories of many western states, including Utah. Therefore, he and his assistants spent years collecting mountains of information about the West, including detailed accounts of Utah history from our Church historians. In 1889, Bancroft’s History of Utah appeared. It has been judged “probably the best and least biased history of Utah written during the nineteenth century,” and in some ways served as an apologia and defense of the Saints.15

    After Utah finally received statehood in 1896, anti-Mormon moods faded, except for occasional brief eruptions. During the beginnings of our century the nation generally ignored Mormons, or at best viewed us as curiosities. Then, as more and more Saints moved out from Utah and gained prominence in politics, business, and education, Mormonism was not just tolerated but came to be admired.

    Thomas Nixon Carver

    Representative of this better opinion are the views of Harvard rural sociologist Thomas Nixon Carver. While visiting general conference on April 6, 1922, to his surprise he was called to the stand to address the vast assembly. He responded by telling the Saints that he had studied many Mormon towns “and in the small communities, as well as the large, I have seen in operation the science and the art of community-building, which is nation-building in miniature, and every where it has my unbounded admiration.”

    On another occasion he concluded: “I have never found more sound and wholesome personal habits than among the Mormons. I have never mingled with people who showed fewer signs of dissipation. I have never studied groups of people who seemed better nourished and more healthful. I have never known people who took more pains to educate their children. This gives a clue to the success of the Mormons as colonizers and nation builders.”16

    More examples of praise or defense could be cited. But this review of a few cases of fair-mindedness and friendliness toward the Church serves as good evidence that the Lord takes care of his people and can raise up defenders of the Church when such are needed. President Brigham Young, with Thomas L. Kane and General Doniphan and others in mind, offered this interesting explanation of the matter:

    “All outsiders are not necessarily gentiles; but, those who belong to the rebellious blood are gentile. There are tens of thousands of the blood of Israel who will not embrace the gospel, neither will they seek to destroy this people, but [will] speak a good word for them, and do good to them whenever they have opportunity.”17

    Illustrated by Preston Heiselt

    Show References


    1. 1.

      William H. Kelley, “The Hill Cumorah, and the Book of Mormon; the Smith Family … from Late Interviews,” Saints Herald, June 1, 1881, p. 165.

    2. 2.

      (Alton, Illinois: Courier Steam Press Print, 1853)

    3. 3.

      Josiah Quincy, Figures of the Past: From the Leaves of Old Journals (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1883), pp. 376–400.

    4. 4.

      Daily Union (Washington D.C.), 27 October 1847; New York newspaper account reprinted in The Millennial Star, 9 (1847), 365.

    5. 5.

      John Yurtinus, “A Ram in the Thicket: The Mormon Battalion in the Mexican War,” 2 (BYU: Ph.D. Thesis, 1975), pp. 557–61.

    6. 6.

      Howard Stansbury, An Expedition to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake (Philadelphia; Lippincott, Grambo, and Co., 1852), pp. 120–150.

    7. 7.

      Albert J. Zobell, Jr., Sentinel in the East (Salt Lake City: Nicholas G. Morgan, Sr., 1965); Kane’s talk, The Mormons, is included in the appendix of Zobell’s book.

    8. 8.

      Elizabeth Wood Kane, Twelve Mormon Homes (Philadelphia: William Wood, 1874).

    9. 9.

      Quoted in B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church, 5:91–93.

    10. 10.

      George A. Smith sermon, 24 May 1874, Journal of Discourses, 17:90–92.

    11. 11.

      Gregory P. Maynard, “Alexander William Doniphan, The Forgotten Man from Missouri” (BYU, Masters Thesis, 1973), pp. 27–45.

    12. 12.

      Joseph Smith, Jr., History of the Church, 3:190–191.

    13. 13.

      George A. Smith sermon, p. 92.

    14. 14.

      Edward Dicey, “Religion in America,” Macmillan’s Magazine, 15 (March 1867), 447.

    15. 15.

      Hubert Howe Bancroft, History of Utah (San Francisco: The History Company, 1889); Thomas G. Alexander and James B. Allen, “The Mormons in the Mountain West: A Selected Bibliography,” Arizona and The West, 9 (Winter 1967), 368.

    16. 16.

      Thomas Nixon Carver address, Journal History, 6 April 1922; also, his quotation printed in The Improvement Era, 34 (June 1931), 504.

    17. 17.

      Minutes of Bishops Meetings with Presiding Bishopric, Manuscript, Church Historical Department Archives, 26 July 1877.