"A Peculiar People": Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America

UNC Press Books
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Though the U.S. Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion, it does not specify what counts as a religion. From its founding in the 1830s, Mormonism, a homegrown American faith, drew thousands of converts but far more critics. In "A Peculiar People", J. Spencer Fluhman offers a comprehensive history of anti-Mormon thought and the associated passionate debates about religious authenticity in nineteenth-century America. He argues that understanding anti-Mormonism provides critical insight into the American psyche because Mormonism became a potent symbol around which ideas about religion and the state took shape.
Fluhman documents how Mormonism was defamed, with attacks often aimed at polygamy, and shows how the new faith supplied a social enemy for a public agitated by the popular press and wracked with social and economic instability. Taking the story to the turn of the century, Fluhman demonstrates how Mormonism's own transformations, the result of both choice and outside force, sapped the strength of the worst anti-Mormon vitriol, triggering the acceptance of Utah into the Union in 1896 and also paving the way for the dramatic, yet still grudging, acceptance of Mormonism as an American religion.

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About the author

J. Spencer Fluhman is assistant professor of history at Brigham Young University.

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UNC Press Books
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Published on
Sep 17, 2012
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History / United States / 19th Century
Religion / Christianity / Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon)
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This book is annotated with a rare extensive biographical sketch of the author, Andrew Lang, written by Sir Edmund Gosse, CB, a contemporary poet and writer. A review of Mr. Lang's work would come late, were it not that the book has been the subject of discussion for many years.The author considers the modern science of the History of Religion to teach, that Man derived the conception of Spirit from reflection on phenomena of sleep, dreams, death, shadow, and experiences of trance and hallucination. Ghosts, thus obtained, became the first objects of belief and worship, and were gradually magnified into gods, of which, in the end, one became supreme; on the other hand, from belief in the survival of the soul grew the notion of immortality. This system he proposes to study from fresh points of view. In the first place, he treats what he calls the X phenomena among savages, clairvoyance, crystalomancy, second-sight, demoniacal possession, and so on, giving examples to show the prevalence of similar experiences; he considers that their apparently supernatural character may have much to do with the theory of a separable soul, and apparently inclines toward a belief in the verity at least of the occurrences. The statements concerning the savage phenomena are not especially full, the account not undertaking to exhibit a complete view of the department. The second part of the treatise undertakes to supply a substitute for the nihilistic doctrine; this is, that the idea of God as, to use the writer's words, " a primal eternal being, author of all things, the father and friendof man, the invisible, omniscient guardian of morality, belongs to the lowest savages, who reverence this supreme deity without idol-worship or sacrifice, as immutable, impeccable, all-seeing, benevolent, and lovable.
"It incarnates every unclean beast of lust, guile, falsehood, murder, despotism and spiritual wickedness." So wrote a prominent Southern Baptist official in 1899 of Mormonism. Rather than the "quintessential American religion," as it has been dubbed by contemporary scholars, in the late nineteenth century Mormonism was America's most vilified homegrown faith. A vast national campaign featuring politicians, church leaders, social reformers, the press, women's organizations, businessmen, and ordinary citizens sought to end the distinctive Latter-day Saint practice of plural marriage, and to extinguish the entire religion if need be. Placing the movement against polygamy in the context of American and southern history, Mason demonstrates that anti-Mormonism was one of the earliest vehicles for reconciliation between North and South after the Civil War and Reconstruction. Southerners joined with northern reformers and Republicans to endorse the use of newly expanded federal power to vanquish the perceived threat to Christian marriage and the American republic. Anti-Mormonism was a significant intellectual, legal, religious, and cultural phenomenon, but in the South it was also violent. While southerners were concerned about distinctive Mormon beliefs and political practices, they were most alarmed at the "invasion" of Mormon missionaries in their communities and the prospect of their wives and daughters falling prey to polygamy. Moving to defend their homes and their honor against this threat, southerners turned to legislation, to religion, and, most dramatically, to vigilante violence. The Mormon Menace provides new insights into some of the most important discussions of the late nineteenth century and of our own age, including debates over the nature and limits of religious freedom; the contest between the will of the people and the rule of law; and the role of citizens, churches, and the state in regulating and defining marriage.
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