One of the most famous prophecies of Joseph Smith is the Civil War prophecy, in which Joseph predicted the Civil War would start in South Carolina. When that happened two decades later, how did that affect LDS apocalyptic thought? Dr. Christopher Blythe will let us know the answer.
Christopher: When the Saints first get to Nauvoo, Joseph’s in Liberty Jail, and the Apostles write to the saints and say, “We know we’re going to be persecuted, guys. This is part of the plan, and eventually, your murderers will be brought to justice.” So, there’s this expectation that the saints have to be martyred, that there should be widespread persecution, and it’s part of bringing to pass the Second Coming. Joseph’s death, one of the key things here that changes all that, allegedly, one story is that Joseph as right before he goes to Liberty Jail, sends out a message for the saints to read that specific chapter about these martyrs, as he’s on his way there, that he wants them to be very aware of this idea of a last martyr. Now, after his death–this is something that Sam Brown points out, Joseph is recognized in this role as last martyr. Now, all these events can happen.
Brigham Young will give a discourse to say, “You don’t understand what’s happened here with Joseph’s death. But because Joseph has died, there’ll be much less blood demanded of us.” This sort of message to say, “We once expected vast martyrdom, but Joseph’s actually been sort of a Savior to us physically, because the nation is sort of, can be sated by taking his life, they’re not going to come after us in the same way. That doesn’t mean we don’t want to leave town. But it’s not demanded in the same way to fulfill these events.” So, when I discovered that I thought, “This is incredible. What a sort of interesting idea of how martyrology plays here.”
GT: When we look at the LDS Church’s view that martyrdom is to be expected, trials are to be expected, but it’s also interesting in that same time period, you have the Community of Christ, well, I guess I should call it The RLDS Church, because they weren’t the Community of Christ back then. The RLDS Church is saying, “Well, look. The reason why they’re suffering so bad is because God’s putting his punishments on them.” William Bickerton is basically [saying] the same thing. It’s funny, inside the church, we look at it as, “Oh, we’re martyrs.” Outside the church they’re looking at it, “No, God’s punishing you.”
Christopher: Oh, isn’t that fascinating? Yeah. The one thing I do mention with that is Strang’s curse. Strang writes this curse on the Saints in Nauvoo, predicting, that they’re going to get these same diseases and things that the Saints believe are being put on Joseph’s persecutors and others, the idea of a curse. So, Strang, in 1845, is the first one to kind of turn that on his fellow Latter-day Saints of how this is going to happen, “You guys are, are in trouble.” So, absolutely.
GT: It’s interesting to see how people interpret the same event.
Christopher: I think, one thing I didn’t read about here is, for several these small groups, Brigham Young becomes the Antichrist figure. He’s the one that’s taken over the temple and done these evil things to lead astray the church. So, forget the United States government, they’re not even part of it. They’re looking at the tyrant of Brigham.
We also talk about how Joseph’s death affected LDS apocalypticism.
Wars bring death, and with it, apocalyptic thought. In our next conversation with Dr. Christopher Blythe, we’ll talk about how World Wars 1 and 2 affected LDS apocalypticism. We’ll also talk about how Mormons thought the apocalypse was going to happen in 1890!
GT: Well, one of the interesting things that really kind of struck me in your book was this idea that around 1890–there was the prophecy that Joseph Smith would see God when he was 85 years old, which would have been about 1890. So, then there was this kind of resurgence of apocalyptic thought. Can you tell us more about that?
Christopher: Yes, absolutely. I think, leading up into the 1880s, there are several moments. In 1880, Wilford Woodruff himself is going to say in 1890, there’ll be no more United States. People are really moving, but as they get closer to that date, people begin to become less certain. So, some scholars have pointed to the conference of October 1890, as the spot where leaders seem to be on either side of the issue. I don’t think that’s actually the case.
I didn’t know Latter-day Saints were pacifist at the time of World War 1.
Christopher: World War I was a very important moment of Latter-day Saint apocalyptic and that’s rethinking how we fit into the story. Ultimately, we were pacifists. The idea of Utah…. A great verse, I’m not going to remember where it is, says, “If you don’t want to take up a sword in the last days flee to Zion.” Zion is the place where there won’t be war. Latter-day Saints don’t fight wars. God defends their battles, and maybe they have to protect themselves defensively, but they’re not going out to wage war. They are the place where people can be protected.
It started with the Spanish-American War, Church leaders are saying, “Hey, you have your duty to fight for the nation, just like you had a duty to fight when soldiers came to Utah in 1857, for your faith.” George Q. Cannon has taken that idea. In the Spanish-American War, we have Franklin Richards opposing that idea, saying, “No, we are pacifists, don’t buy into that.” But by the time we get to World War I, that’s changed, for the most part, and leaders are encouraging Latter-day Saints to participate as good Americans. Now how does that make sense with prophecies about Zion, particularly, if this is the Last Days’ war. I think it’s fascinating.
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We will also talk about World War 2, and how that affected apocalyptic thinking. What are your thoughts on Civil War prophecy or apocalyptic thinking? What parts of LDS apocalyptic thinking are different than other parts of Christianity?