In 1844 when Joseph Smith was running for president of the United States, he proposed a system of gradual emancipation for all slaves. How did that message go over in the South? Hint: not well. In our next conversation, Dr. Derek Sainsbury will tell us some of the stories of these missionaries, and some of the surprising receptiveness to the message in some cases.
GT: I think the interesting thing for me, especially I served my mission in South Carolina, so I’m very familiar with Southern Baptists and Pentecostals and all sorts of things. But, in 1844, slavery was legal and Joseph Smith is talking about freeing the slaves. I don’t think that went very well in the South.
Derek: It didn’t. The one blind spot that I have is, as a historian with this is none of the ones that went in the deep South kept a journal.
GT: Oh really?
Derek: Here’s that same George Miller, a couple days later is walking and a guy stops him in the street and he says, “You best get out of here, because my slaves have been told if they see you, to lynch you, to put you up on the tree and lynch you.” So he’s like, “hmm, I’m moving on to the next town.”
It wasn’t always violent however opposition.
Derek: Right, but this is when it started was in the 40s, 1840, 1844. They’d have these huge barbecues and whiskey and get people to show up and listen. Well, he goes to the other end of the square and stands up on a tree trunk and starts…
GT: The stump. That what they actually called a stump speech.
Derek: That’s right. He starts preaching Joseph Smith, he’s not preaching the gospel. He’s doing electioneer stuff about General Joseph Smith’s run for the presidency. By the time he’s done, the entire crowd is shifted, and is listening to him. When it’s over, they’re saying, “You don’t want any of this guy’s barbecue,” and they take him to the tavern, give him a big meal. He writes about how many of them liked the ideas, even though some of them disliked, well, a lot of them disliked Joseph. This was a common thread not just in the Upper South, but everywhere.
GT: What state was this in?
Derek: This was Kentucky, but even as far up as in Massachusetts, in Boston, there were a lot of people that liked the ideas in the pamphlet, but not so much, Joseph. They would have these conferences where they would come up with these resolutions, for lack of a better word, and they were both Mormon and non-Mormon together, that agreed with these principles. So there was more acceptance than we really knew. Not overwhelming, but there were some out there that also didn’t like the two-party system, didn’t like the Democrats and the Whigs, were looking for another way forward.
Are you surprised to hear about some successes?
Following Joseph Smith’s death, Brigham Young tried to implement theo-democracy in the Territory of Deseret, which is now known as Utah. Dr. Derek Sainsbury talks about how successful Brigham Young was in implementing Joseph’s view of government.
Derek: When the Civil War breaks out, they see that as a natural–Section 87, the revelation about the Civil War, a civil war starting. They see that as fulfillment of that [revelation] obviously, but also of the rejection of political salvation that Joseph Smith offered them in 1844. While we don’t join the Confederacy, we don’t really join the Union, we kind of sit on the sidelines, hoping for some (not all) that it all falls apart. In fact, Brigham Young continues this Council of Fifty, this Governing Council, political Council, he continues that they kind of lead the theo-democracy in the Deseret era.
Then after theo-democracy is established, they [Council of Fifty] kind of go away. They stopped meeting because they have the structure set up. It’s inherent now in the actual system they have. But during the Civil War, he brings it back. He brings the council back and they create their own legislature, which is the exact same people. After every single legislature session during the Civil War, they do a second one with the legislature of Deseret, and they do the exact same thing. It’s like a shadow government, if you will. In the public speeches that Brigham Young and other leaders of the church give, they start to talk again. They start to bring back and talk more about this idea of the Kingdom of God, which meant a lot different than it means now. It meant the political Kingdom of God is coming back and they saw in the fulfillment of the Civil War that this might happen, and we need to be ready to govern ourselves when the country collapses, and then spread that government. You hear during the Civil War, in a lot of the discourses that are given by the leaders of the church, that idea. They even start to talk about, “Hey, this government is here. It’s been here. It’s just waiting for the right time.” Then, of course, the Civil War doesn’t lead to the collapse of United States, and we have to go back to trying to get along with the United States.
Derek: When reconstruction is done, then the Republicans turn to us, the other twin relic of barbarism, polygamy. That’s when the real difficult relationship with the federal government begins through the 1870s and the 1880s, leading up to the Manifesto and the creation of the State of Utah and all that other stuff, which really is all trying to destroy the theo-democracy. Plural marriage is great for them to attack. Polygamy is great for them to attack because it’s sensational, it’s great. But what the really trying to do, because it’s seen as un-American, is break up the relationship between church and state.
GT: Yeah, because when the bishop is also the judge, the federal government has to pull in “Gentile” judges. Because they’re trying to break this theo-democracy.
Derek : Yeah, and it takes them a long time. Because one, they planted theo-democracy really well, and they’d given all kinds of powers when they created them to the probate judges and to others where they could basically put them in their own courts, if people were accused. So, it took a lot of different amendments and legislation from the US Congress to finally kind of break down all of the theo-democracy.
What are your thoughts about the theo-democracy set up by Brigham Young, and how hard it was for the feds to eradicate?