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Just Deseret

I can’t say that some of my best friends are Mormons, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the Latter-Day Saints. Their faith was founded about 50 miles to our east during the antebellum roil which gave to our region the appellation of the “Burned-Over District,” as religious and reform enthusiasms (abolition, women’s rights, spiritualism) set this land afire. I find the Book of Mormon, well, implausible, but as an indiscriminate patriot of the Burned-Over District anything or anyone hailing from these parts is okay by me, from the free-love Oneida Community to Ann Lee and her celibate Shakers. (And what a rotten perpetuation strategy that was: a no-sex sect.)

My Mormon-friendliness—and no, I never experimented with LDS—is pretty much limited to rooting for BYU football, though in 1984, when I had quit the employ of Sen. Pat Moynihan and wanted nothing more to do with politics, I rode the Hound to Salt Lake City, where I flopped for a couple of months at the New Grand Hotel, writing derivative Beat poetry and thinking on things. (I got a charge years later when I read in Wallace Stegner’s novel The Big Rock Candy Mountain that his fictive alter ego’s no-good father hung around the New Grand.)

Almost a score of years ago I published a travel book about rural New York (Country Towns of New York) in which I wrote up Palmyra, the Mormon mecca, in whose environs Joseph Smith claimed to have received a visit in 1823 from an angel named Moroni, who directed him to the west side of a glacial drumlin that the Mormons would call Cumorah. There Smith found a stone box containing a set of gold plates upon which was written, in an ancient language, the Book of Mormon.

For one week every July, tens of thousands of Mormons and gentiles alike gather at sunset at the foot of the Hill Cumorah to watch a multimedia pageant of LDS history. As a waggish merchant said of the Mormons who descend upon Palmyra each summer, “They bring the Ten Commandments and a ten-dollar bill and never break either one.”


The proselytizing at Hill Cumorah is low-key. Typically, the pageant’s actors fan out through the crowd a couple of hours before show time. A cute Mormon girl or earnest Mormon boy, dressed as a Lamanite or Nephite and soon to take the stage, will ask you where you’re from, tell you that he or she has had an “awesome” time at Palmyra, and say something like, “I want you to know that all these stories you’re going to see tonight are true, and reading the Book of Mormon has brought me more joy than I ever imagined.”

And that’s it for the evangelizing. I don’t believe these stories are true, but for the life of me I can’t understand why I’m supposed to despise these people.

Politically, alas, it’s a freefall descent from Joseph Smith to such wretched Mormon solons as the epicene Orrin Hatch or the bloodless—which is perhaps why his foreign policy is so bloodthirsty?—Mitt Romney.

Joseph Smith ran for president in 1844, at least until a mob killed him in Illinois. He was thus the first U.S. presidential candidate to be assassinated. (Those in the best position to win this toughest of all bar bets, however, are usually absent from the bar.)

Smith’s supporters held a nominating convention in the Mormon settlement of Nauvoo, Illinois, on May 17, 1844. They declared themselves for “liberty and equal rights, Jeffersonian democracy, free trade, and sailor’s rights.” Hell, that beats anything that will come out of this year’s late-summer covens in Tampa and Charlotte.

[1]Smith issued a campaign document whose proposals ranged from the good (“Break off the shackles from the poor black man”) to the bad (cut the size of Congress in half) to the ugly (grant the president “full power to send an army to suppress mobs,” a presentimental plea for self-preservation).

Far and away the most interesting plank in Smith’s platform was this: “Petition your state legislatures to pardon every convict in their several penitentiaries: blessing them as they go, and saying to them in the name of the Lord, go thy way and sin no more.”

Whaddaya say, Mitt?

Joseph Smith even broke into Whitmanesque rhapsody: “Restore freedom! Break down slavery! Banish imprisonment for debt, and be in love, fellowship, and peace with all the world.”

“Love, fellowship, and peace with all the world”? For such heresies Smith would be reviled, if not maced and tasered, at Mitt’s coronation. When it comes to Mormon politicos, give me that old-time religion.

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "Just Deseret"

#1 Comment By Raskolnik On August 8, 2012 @ 8:19 am

This is a terrible article. How can you mention Joseph Smith’s run for the presidency without mentioning the fact that his platform was THEOCRACY–or as believing-Mormon historian Richard Bushman called it, “theodemocracy”?

Not to mention the fact that Joseph Smith was only in jail because he was awaiting trial for treason, as he had declared martial law under his own private army in the town of Nauvoo, Illinois. He was thrown in jail after the Governor of Illinois had to call the Illinois Militia to get Smith to stand down. And this, of course, was only after he had already been CONVICTED OF TREASON in Missouri, for attacking the State Militia of Missouri with that same private army.

Get your facts straight.

#2 Comment By Sean On August 8, 2012 @ 2:49 pm

Joseph Smith was never convicted of anything, he was charged with destroying a News paper press in Navou. Those charges were dismissed, then trumped up charges of treason were made to keep him in Carthage long enough to kill him……I thought it was a good article, most people aren’t fair with Mormons, as you were. I don’t like Mitt Romney either he’s been on every side of every political issue there is…….You should read the Book of Mormon and pray about it, God bless…..

#3 Comment By Raskolnik On August 9, 2012 @ 2:36 am

1) The charge of treason was not “trumped up,” nor was it “dismissed.” Smith openly declared martial law through his private army (the “ [2]“) and destroyed the press of the <a href=" [3] Expositor, because the Expositor was going public with ex-Mormons telling the truth about the FACT that Joseph Smith was a polygamist who coerced young girls and the wives of other men to “marry” him, and furthermore had set up his own theocracy in Nauvoo (and was attempting to set up his own theocracy as President of the United States). Again, the charge of treason was NOT dismissed; Joseph Smith died while awaiting trial, at which he would certainly have been found guilty because inciting a rebellion against the state by declaring martial law under the authority of your own private army IS TREASON.

2) During the [4], at the [5], a column of Joseph Smith’s other private army, the [6] (precursors to the “Nauvoo Legion”), attacked the State Militia of Missouri. On 1 November, 1838, Joseph Smith was court-martialed and found guilty of treason. He and the Mormons were then expelled from Missouri.

3) [7] [8].

#4 Comment By samuel bass On August 9, 2012 @ 3:27 pm

Yeah, “died while awaiting trial.”. A nice euphemism for “murdered.”. One need not condone Smith to condemn murder.

#5 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On August 9, 2012 @ 5:10 pm

Lynching almost always makes a sympathetic martyr figure out of someone who may (or may not) deserve the severest penalty of the law. Second only to the face that innocent people are often murdered, the martyrdom of the guilty is one of the strongest reasons to suppress lynching. We’ll never know how Smith’s trial would have turned out, or whether an impartial jury could have been assembled.

There were rational reasons to be concerned about the Mormons, many of which the LDS church has assiduously laid aside after belatedly recognizing the authority of the United States government.

Can we trust a Mormon to be President? I would have voted for George Romney. Mitt isn’t one tenth the man his father was.

#6 Comment By DLE On August 9, 2012 @ 8:46 pm

Having lived in Utah, I respect the Mormon’s for their family values and focus on taking care of their own. That said, they don’t care much for outsiders and have never gotten over feeling persecuted.
While I don’t think Mitt is fit for command, I really find it facinating the religious right have made peace with Mitt as someone they can rally around. Given LDS temples are not open to gentiles, Mitt will always find a place he can get away.

#7 Comment By Carl On August 9, 2012 @ 11:12 pm


You have the facts right, but your missing the tone of the article. It’s a joke. We aren’t supposed to seriously support the candidacy of Joseph Smith for Presidency; we’re just supposed to chuckle about how far things have changed.

#8 Comment By Raskolnik On August 10, 2012 @ 1:32 am

@samuel bass,

And what are your favorite euphemisms for “treason” and “private army”?


I would have voted for George Romney, and I supported Jon Huntsman in the primaries. I don’t have a problem with Mormons. I do, however, have big problems with LDS.

#9 Comment By Kay Barry On August 10, 2012 @ 2:54 pm

Latter Day Saints? Sure. Whatev. Church of Jesus Christ? Not so much. The two can’t be reconciled. Read the Book of Mormon alongside an open Bible. Jesus, if He WAS in the grave, would turn over in it. The Gospel of Grace just wasn’t quite enough for Joseph Smith. Pity. It’s totally sufficient for the rest of the world.

#10 Comment By Chris On August 9, 2013 @ 1:44 pm

“but for the life of me I can’t understand why I’m supposed to despise these people.”

despise people? no, but Mormonism is a cult, built on Freemasonic lines, for me, enought said.