19th Century British Multiculturalism and the Success of Mormonism

By: J. Stapley - April 13, 2005

The Nauvoo Neighbor recently posted on the digitalization of the 19th century editions of The Salt Lake Tribune. In the second volume of the Tribune there is a reprint of a New York Times article on English perceptions of Mormonism. Interestingly, the content seems slightly anachronistic pushing a flavor of multiculturalism that is not foreign to the contemporary Occident (which multiculturalism can be seen in this recent post).

January 6, 1872 Salt Lake Daily Tribune, Vol 2 pg. 1
English View of Mormonism
“Monadnock,” the London correspond of the New York Times, writes to that journal upon the subject of Mormonism and the light in which it is regarded in England, as follows:

There is a certain amount of curiosity here in the higher classes and stronger interest in the lower class, from which, the Mormons have been barely drawn; but English notions on the marriage question are rather loose. In the first place, more than half of the population of the British Empire live under laws which sanction polygamy, and people do not see why you should not be so tolerant in Utah as they are in India. Then it really looks a little like persecution and the practice of packing juries, as was formerly the custom in Ireland, where no Roman Catholic was allowed to sit on one, is not now approved. A man must be tried by a jury of his peers, and how can a man with only one wife be considered the peer of a man with a dozen? There is no equality about it. Bigamy, and so on, is so common an offense in England that it is little considered and lightly punished. If the other wife, or wives, consent to the arrangement, there can be no conviction, or only a nominal punishment. Here the offended wife must prosecute. If she refuses, there is no case for a jury. So long as the ladies are agreed, a man could have as many wives here as in Turkey – and, by the way, what does the Turkish Embassador think of these persecutions? Some of the ladies of my acquaintance are very charitable to the Mormons. Some, I must say, are rather venomous, but as prosecutions strengthen whatever people really believe in, false or true, it seems a pity to give Mormonism such a [undecipherable], or have the old tragedy of the Albigenses repeated in the mountains of Utah. It was an experiment and might have failed and died out of itself. It is quite possible that persecution, even to fire and blood, may give it longer life. The Mormons of every stripe I have seen are fanatics and fanatics generally fight. If I am not greatly mistaken, you are far from having seen the last of it. When the New York Ring, and political corruption generally is done for, it will be time enough to deal with Brigham Young and his parody on the Patriarchs in the Rocky Mountains.

[The subsequent section of the Newspaper was miss-scanned, cut out, or intentionally obfuscated]

During the Nauvoo period, there were more Saints in England than in the U.S. Polygamy was not public knowledge until the Utah period, however during this period many European (British and Scandinavian) individuals accepted the Gospel and emigrated. The general religious tolerance of the British (though not without condescension – e.g., comparison to the Albigensians) was likely a determining factor.

6 Comments

  1. Nice pull J,

    It seems this writer takes an imminently reasonable position on this. Polygamy (plural marriage) among adults in itself is not an evil thing. We don’t practice it now but I personally am no more embarrassed that early Mormons practiced it than I am that ancient prophets practiced it.

    Comment by Geoff Johnston — 4/13/2005 @ 2:45 pm

  2. Well, I have to respond, don’t I?

    There’s an old chestnut in the Church, the fallacy of which needs pointing out, namely that the US offered the only place (because of its religious freedoms) where the Gospel could have been restored. Your post proves that religious tolerance in the 19th century was not unique to America (not that “tolerance” was on the menu very often in America vis a vis the Mormons). What America gave the Restoration was a place to gather. In little old England it would have been difficult to establish Zion. America had a vast, untapped desert. Well, not entirely untapped, as there were Indians, but that’s another (sad) story.

    Comment by Ronan — 4/13/2005 @ 4:05 pm

  3. Ronan,
    I think you are right that we tend to see england as more intolerant than it was. We tned to look at the pilgrims as proto-Mormons. We see them running from persecution and that gets blurred with the taxation difficulties that led to the revolutionary war (I’m not sure Schoolhouse Rock didn’t exacerbate this). We forget that there were lots of others coming to the colonies (traders, investors). The result is that the revolutionary war starts to look like a war for religious tolerance, perhaps even for the right to the gospel, though the restoration was still a ways off.
    I think there are other reasons why this was a good place, though, such as the religious revivals that encouraged Joseph to seek the truth in ways that wouldn’t have taken place elsewhere. In England at the time, it seems to me, the struggles would have all taken place in terms of their relationship to the church of England and would have been attached to the Catholic debate or the low church/high church divide. At least it seems to me in reading the literature of the time that a lot of other religious feeling got attached to these debates whether or not the groups involved were attached to either the Church of England or the Catholics of whatever persuasion.

    Comment by S. Hancock — 4/13/2005 @ 6:13 pm

  4. England was also a hotbed of religious reform outside of the C of E. What about the Quakers? Methodists? And of course, the United Brethren! By and the large the English state saw the Mormons as an oddity (cf Dickens) not a menace to society (cf Lilburn Boggs). I stand by what I said: America offered space.

    Comment by ronan — 4/13/2005 @ 6:17 pm

  5. I respectfully disagree.

    No doubt, we owe a great debt to the early european saints–most of whom were british. I’ll love them forever for their sacrifice. But Ronan, I hope you’re not implying that if they merely had had the space they would’ve had a good go at establishing the Kingdom in Europe. IMO, religion was too rapped up in the political/cultural identity of most (if not all) European countries. I think the possibility of coexistence would have been impossible. On the other hand, though the church was, for all intents and purposes, snuffed out in the U.S., it was later accepted as a viable entity (after a few compromises) and as such has flourished under the general safeguards of the U.S. constitution. I think this has to do largely with the idea that americans may tend to identify with one another because of political rather than cultural ideals. Therefore the various religios ideals are not as at odds with one another in the U.S. as they seem to be in other parts of the world as they are bridled (ideally) under a larger political umbrella.

    Comment by Jack — 4/13/2005 @ 11:46 pm

  6. I hope you’re not implying that if they merely had had the space they would’ve had a good go at establishing the Kingdom in Europe.
    No, I said England, not Europe 🙂

    though the church was, for all intents and purposes, snuffed out in the U.S
    Hmmm. Isn’t this a problem for the “America The Only Religiously Free Place on Earth” model?

    Look, I’m not just saying all of this out of some misguided patriotism on my part. I’m just suggesting we think before we put up all these simplistic models and suggest they are Gospel.

    Comment by Ronan — 4/14/2005 @ 6:56 am

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