Poached: The Summer of 1885

By: J. Stapley - July 07, 2005

Warning: Poaching Ahead. Justin over at The Mormon Wasp has insightfully recounted the July 1885 incident when Utah Mormons raised their flags at half mast on the 4th and the national media’s subsequent crucifixion campaign (here and here). This was a time that was considered to be a fulfillment of Joseph’s prophecy that the constitution would hang by thread and the Church hierarchy was defiant.

Presidents Taylor and Canon wrote in the Deseret News on July 25, 1885:

The authority of the government is being made use of, not to protect, but to harass, to prosecute, persecute and destroy the most honorable and upright of the land. Families are dissevered and broken up, the most sacred ties are rent asunder, homes are made desolate, and many of our leading men languish in prisons among thieves, murderers and criminals of the worst description. Our cities, towns and villages are infested with spotters, deputy marshals, informers and all those questionable characters who have found employment under tyrannical and despotic governments in other lands and in darker ages. To see the great principles of human liberty thus ruthlessly trampled under foot has caused us to feel sorrowful in our hearts; for this mighty nation cannot follow the example of other powers who have, through pride, maladministration of the laws and a disregard of human rights, fallen into decay and been overthrown, without meeting a similar fate.

It was doubtless with these feelings of sorrow for the degeneracy which could permit such outrages that some of our fellow-citizens thought proper on the 4th of July to place a few flags at half mast. Liberty was stricken down, pierced to her vitals by the hands of those who should be her protectors and guardians. The just, the upright, the virtuous and the honorable have been and are being incarcerated in prisons under the forms and color of law. And without dishonor to the flag, what more fitting mode could citizens adopt of exhibiting their grief at this condition of affairs? To place the flag at half-mast is the recognized symbol of grief throughout Christendom. As free men they thought, we suppose, they had the right to thus exhibit their sorrow for the existence of the evils from which they suffer, and not hypocritically indulge in laudations while upwards of 200,000 American citizens are practically denied the rights contended for in the Declaration of Independence. Must a free people be brought into such a state of servitude that they cannot express their feelings in a customary way? Must they be bound, fettered and chained, and then be gagged so as not to be heard? Must they cover their manacles with flowers, or wrap their fetters with cloths, lest the clanking sound unpleasantly in the ears of their tyrants, or free-men be aroused to revolt at the spectacle? Tyrants and their apologists may attempt to make such action appear disloyal; but we have not so learned the principles of freedom. A condition of affairs exists in this Territory which, when understood, every lover of human rights must condemn; and in behalf of ourselves, in behalf of our wives and children, in behalf of the Constitution of the United States, and in behalf of the principles of human rights and liberty in this land and throughout the world, we enter our solemn protest against such iniquitous acts as are being perpetrated here. While we do this we wish it to be distinctly understood that we have no controversy with the Republic as a nation, but with those who, sitting in high places and administering the laws, are guilty of outrageous acts of oppression towards their fellow-citizens.

Just two months earlier, the First Presidency sent a circular to solicit donations to the polygamous Mormon legal defense fund. In it they wrote that:

During the lifetime of the Prophet Joseph Smith he predicted that the time would come when it would devolve upon the Latter-day Saints to uplift, defend and maintain the Constitution of the United States. Recent events in our Territory have given great significance to this prediction, and have brought it forcibly to the minds of all who have heard concerning it. These events appear to be forcing us into the exact position so plainly described by the Prophet through the spirit of prophecy. Attempts are now being made to destroy our rights under the Constitution, and to effect this, that instrument which the Prophet Joseph Smith said was given by inspiration of God is being trampled upon by those who should be its administrators and guardians. This compels us to contend for constitutional principles. We must uphold them to the best of our ability. (Messages of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints vol. 3 pg. 13)


  1. J, I think you missed a real title opportunity here: you should have gone with “Back in the Summer of ’85.” This whole Summer of ’85 episode does a lot to explain how the “Constitution hanging by a thread” meme got so firmly implanted in the LDS psyche. And once an idea like that gets implanted, it never goes away — it isn’t an official doctrine so it travels, so to speak, under the radar. It’s not official so it never gets acknowledged and thus cannot be corrected by any official statement.

    Comment by Dave — 7/7/2005 @ 4:07 pm

  2. The time period seems to exemplify the church’s ambivalent attitude toward the government. On the one hand there is an attitude affirming that America is a choice land, that the Constitution was divinely inspired, that all citizens are entitled to liberties and freedoms under the law, etc. On the other hand, there is the millennial mindset looking forward to the dissolution of the government and the establishment of a theocracy.

    There was some speculation and uncertainty leading up to July 24, 1885, whether Mormons would half-mast the flag again and whether violence would break out. U.S. Grant’s death on July 23 erased the issue as the nation’s flag were lowered in his honor.

    Comment by Justin — 7/7/2005 @ 4:32 pm

  3. I should add that the Salt Lake Tribune didn’t think much of the message from Taylor and Cannon.

    Comment by Justin — 7/7/2005 @ 4:35 pm

  4. LOL. That is classic, Justin. I can’t imagine that they would have.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 7/7/2005 @ 4:40 pm

  5. It’s a bit hard to read, but here’s a link:

    Tribune response

    Comment by Justin — 7/7/2005 @ 6:33 pm

  6. No kidding it is hard to read. I know – saving band width – but come on…I think it reads “a very silly attempt at justification.” Though I could be mistaken on the “silly.”

    Comment by J. Stapley — 7/7/2005 @ 7:43 pm

  7. The issue here seems larger to me than nationalism and the church. The issue is the limits of patriotism. What does it mean to love one’s country, and how appropriate is that. I don’t think there has ever been a question about how the church feels about loyalty to country. Country however, is an abstract notion, especially in democracy. There are always those who equate loyalty to country with zeal for their own particular agenda for that country. I remember when I was still in gradeschool, I wrote on the board, “A patriot is someone who loves his country enough to change it.” I don’t know why I did that, seems kind of weird in retrospect. Anyway, I got called a communist, which at the time was probably “commie pinko scum” or something of the sort. The idea was, if you don’t like the way things are right now you are disloyal. It’s a shameful tactic that most everyone holding political power has always used to maintain that power, on any side of whatever political fence you find, as I see it.

    Comment by S. Hancock — 7/8/2005 @ 12:04 pm

  8. Hard to read, you weren’t kidding! It gave me a headache!

    Comment by Clark Goble — 7/8/2005 @ 3:16 pm

  9. It’s a little easier to read if you sort of squint a little and don’t try too hard to take in each letter, but think in terms of whole words.

    Comment by S. Hancock — 7/8/2005 @ 4:59 pm

  10. I’m sorry, but I stumbled upon this blog and my comment has nothing to do with your subject but…

    This doesn’t happen to be Stephen Hancock who went to Tempe High, does it?

    If so, please contact me and let me know what you’ve been up to since…oh, 1990?

    Shawnna (Pomeroy) Wishman

    Comment by Shawnna Wishman — 7/8/2005 @ 5:03 pm

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