Wielding bowie knife memes and pics of the Family Proclamation, members of the Deseret Nation call “apostate” members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to repentance. Although the social media hashtag #DezNat is a relatively recent phenomenon, the loosely-knit group and its activities reflect a broader tradition of vigilantism in the history of the Church.
Background of #DezNat
The #DezNat hashtag first appeared on Twitter in August 2018. It was coined by John Paul Bellum (@JPBellum) referring to “Deseret Nation.” Inspired by the idea of the theocratic State of Deseret planned by early Latter-day Saint leaders, Bellum desired to carve out a spot on social media “that would be welcoming to all who were willing to build the kingdom and defend the church and its leaders online.”
The hashtag serves several purposes. It can be used to share uplifting gospel messages and “dank” memes with likeminded individuals. It can also serve as a sort of batsignal, calling upon a cloud-based militia to help beseiged colleagues or organize against perceived rising threats to the church and its members. These enemies can be ideological (pornography, secularism, feminism, LGBTQ+ movements, black lives matter movement, etc.) or actual individuals.
Often #DezNat categorizes individuals as “progmos” (progressive Latter-day Saints), “exmos” (former Latter-day Saints), and “antimos” (antiMormons). Members of the Church who faithful but not as enlightened as DezNat are called “mormies.”
Two symbols that the group uses hearken back to the historical Deseret. One is the blue and white 1877 version of the Deseret flag, a variation of one currently flying at Ensign Peak in Salt Lake City.[fn1] The other is a circular patch depicting the angel Moroni, the previous symbol of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, surrounded by the common Utah pioneer phrases “Holiness to the Lord” and “Industry” written in the unique Deseret alphabet.
Another symbol used by the group is the Bowie knife. In “The Official #DezNat User Guide” at the blog Teancum’s Javelin, Bellum explained why the group chose to embrace the symbol.
One particularly famous speech Brigham Young gave involved him reportedly unsheathing a large Bowie knife and placing it on the pulpit, theatrically threatening all apostates who were harassing the church and its members to leave the territory or be driven out. This story is often used by church opponents to show how Brigham Young was “a terrible man bent on violently enforcing his dictatorial power in his oppressive theocratic regime.” Some users of the hashtag, including me, used this story in memes and jokes in order to show how absurd the church’s detractors were and how unafraid we were to embrace our history, even the ugly parts.J. P. Bellum, “The Official #DezNat User Guide,” Teancum’s Javelin
Images of weaponry are common in DezNat memes. Often weapons are photoshopped on to pictures of Brigham Young (and sometimes other church leaders).
The movement fights any negative speaking of church prophets, past or present. You’ll often see the phrase “Brigham Young Did Nothing Wrong” (#BYDNW), a riff off the more common trolling memes “Hitler Did Nothing Wrong” and “Thanos Did Nothing Wrong.”
It is not uncommon to see threatening memes with the #DezNat hashtag implying or outright stating that apostates (including “progmos” and “exmos”) should be killed. DezNat heroes include the Book of Mormon figures Teancum (with his signature javelin) and Captain Moroni, noted for their militant zeal.
Besides Brigham Young, another DezNat favorite from Church History is the infamous gunslinger Porter Rockwell. Rockwell was a close friend of Joseph Smith who bore the nickname “Destroying Angel of Mormondom.” He famously said that he “never killed anyone who didn’t need killing.”
Users of the hashtag are unapologetic about the abrasive tactics. Bellum explains, “#DezNat may not be to everyone’s taste. Those who use the hashtag can be combative, rude, crass, aggressive, even mean. However, one thing you will never have to worry about with #DezNat is that when the prophet speaks, we listen, and when he directs, we obey.”
Church History Parallels
Some have compared DezNat to the Danites, an infamous vigilante band of Latter-day Saints that operated for a few months in 1838. A Church History topic essay states that their “objective was to defend the community against dissident and excommunicated Latter-day Saints as well as other Missourians.” The essay further explains that members of that group were “absorbed into militias largely composed of Latter-day Saints” during the Mormon-Missouri War.
These militias clashed with their Missouri opponents, leading to a few fatalities on both sides. In addition, Mormon vigilantes, including many Danites, raided two towns believed to be centers of anti-Mormon activity, burning homes and stealing goods.“Danites,” Church History Topics
“Whittling and Whistling” in Nauvoo
I tend to see DezNat tactics as more like the short-lived “whittling and whistling” movement of Nauvoo. One of the volume editors with the Joseph Smith Papers, Jeffrey D. Mahas, wrote an article for the Journal of Mormon History in 2017 describing the group and its context within the widespread vigilantism of the time.[fn2] After the repeal of the Nauvoo charter in early 1845, the city was left without a police force. Latter-day Saints were “concerned that anti-Mormons would take advantage of the lack of civil government in Nauvoo to arrest Church leaders as they had the Smiths.”[fn3]
In March, Brigham Young organized a force according to an ecclesiastical structure. In each ward, “quorums of bishops and deacons” were organized. A “bishop” would supervise twelve deacons. These bishops were then presided over by the “archbishop,” who was the traditional ecclesiastical head of the ward.[fn4] The bishops and deacons were to “avoid overt physical violence,” instead expelling dissenters and suspicious outsiders via intimidation. “According to the participants and victims of these whistling schools, Mormon intimidation tactics consisted of having deacons follow undesirables while whistling and whittling with bowie knives.”[fn5]
Initially, the whistling and whittling companies were composed of adult men “holding the priesthood offices of Seventy and high priest.” By mid-April, however, the companies began to be dominated by youth, some “as young as twelve.”[fn6] Brigham Young expressed displeasure at this development, and privately instructed the high priests that “boys were not to attend to the duties of deacons. That duty must be done by men of experience.”[fn7]
The shortlived “whistling and whittling” experiment quickly became a liability. Not only did the unruly young mobs running through the streets reflect badly on “the children of Zion”[fn8] (and their parents), wide reporting of the vigilante activity “led to increased popularity for the anti-Mormon cause outside the city.”[fn9]
Brigham Young later brought the issue to the church members generally.
On May 4, Brigham Young took his complaints public and condemned the whistlers before a large outdoor worship service. While he insisted that the Saints continue preparations for a possible antiMormon assault on Nauvoo, he counseled them to “be peacable, [and to] att[en]d to their own bus[iness].” Speaking to the ecclesiastical structure of the vigilante companies, he said, “I expect the Bishops & the Deacons… I want you to let every body alone if they keep out of your path.” He condemned the “gang of boys running thro’ the Streets,” and said that he would “put a stop to such work.”Jeffrey David Mahas, “‘I Intend to Get Up a Whistling School’: The Nauvoo Whistling and Whittling Movement, American Vigilante Tradition, and Mormon Theocratic Thought,” Journal of Mormon History, Vol. 23, No. 4 (October 2017) 65-66.
Shortly thereafter, Brigham Young ordered the old police force unofficially back on duty in Nauvoo.
Vigilante Activities in Utah
The #DezNat movement itself cites Brigham Young’s inflammatory rhetoric during the Utah period as inspiration. The use of Bowie knives to remedy apostate threats is a throwback to a sermon by Brigham Young given in Salt Lake City on 27 March 1853.
I say, rather than that apostates should flourish here, I will unsheath my bowie knife, and conquer or die. [Great commotion in the congregation, and a simultaneous burst of feeling, assenting to the declaration.] Now, you nasty apostates, clear out, or judgment will be put to the line, and righteousness to the plummet. [Voices, generally, “go it, go it.”] If you say it is right, raise your hands. [All hands up.] Let us call upon the Lord to assist us in this, and every good work.Brigham Young, 27 March 1853, Journal of Discourses, Vol. 1, p. 83
Probably the most famous example of vigilante violence in Utah was the Mountain Meadows Massacre. In September 1857, Latter-day Saints in Southern Utah planned and carried out an attack on a wagon train on its way to San Bernardino, California. Over a hundred men, women, and children were brutally killed. Church historians in recent decades have closely examined the historical records and concluded that while high-ranking Church leaders like Brigham Young and George A. Smith did not order or approve of such acts, the fiery rhetoric likely contributed to a volatile situation.[fn10]
The Church eventually began to push back against its widespread public image as a violent religion. In 1889, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles released an official statement.
We denounce as entirely untrue the allegation which has been made, that our Church favors or believes in the killing of persons who leave the Church or apostatize from its doctrines. We would view a punishment of this character for such an act with the utmost horror, it is abhorrent to us and is in direct opposition to the fundamental principles of our creed.“Peace and Violence Among 19th Century Latter-day Saints,” Gospel Topics Essay, footnote 45.
In recent years, Church leaders have again denounced inflammatory rhetoric. “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints condemns violent words and actions and affirms its commitment to furthering peace throughout the world.”
I guess DezNat folks never got the memo.
ETA: Lead image is a screenshot from the Weekly Hoss YouTube video episode 14: BLM ANTIFA Attempted MURDER in Provo? Was Brigham Right? What is DezNat?
[fn1] The flag at Ensign peak has blue stars on a white field. The flag used by DezNat has white stars on a blue field. It is the same flag used by the micronation Commonwealth of Deseret founded in 2012.
[fn2] Jeffrey David Mahas, “‘I Intend to Get Up a Whistling School’: The Nauvoo Whistling and Whittling Movement, American Vigilante Tradition, and Mormon Theocratic Thought,” Journal of Mormon History, Vol. 23, No. 4 (October 2017) 37-67.
[fn3] Mahas, “Nauvoo Whistling and Whittling,” 48.
[fn4] Mahas, “Nauvoo Whistling and Whittling,” 53-55.
[fn5] Mahas, “Nauvoo Whistling and Whittling,” 56.
[fn6] Mahas, “Nauvoo Whistling and Whittling,” 61.
[fn7] Mahas, “Nauvoo Whistling and Whittling,” 62.
[fn8] Mahas, “Nauvoo Whistling and Whittling,” 63.
[fn9] Mahas, “Nauvoo Whistling and Whittling,” 60.
[fn10] “Peace and Violence Among 19th Century Latter-day Saints,” Gospel Topics Essay. Words in red were added 8/8/20 to clarify that I was speaking of general church leaders rather than local church leaders like Isaac Haight. I appreciate commenter Wondering pointing out the inaccuracy.