One of the questions I’ve had for a long time is what caused the Missouri (and Nauvoo, and Kirtland) persecutions. As a believer, I think it’s pretty clear that many of the neighbors of the early Mormons were clearly possessed by Satan, stirred up to the most incredible, out-of-proportion vitriol. But that characterization isn’t a historical argument. If we say that is the proximate cause, which I think is plausible religiously, it still doesn’t answer the question historically. So why did the Mormons provoke such persecutions? It’s indisputable that Mormonism was (is?) far and away the most persecuted religious sect in American history, and America has been full of oddball religions. Was it simply that Mormonism was too successful? Or did the Mormons invite this persecution somehow?

Clearly, the Saints made some mistakes in PR and in how they responded, and that includes Joseph. This does not excuse the depredations that were visited upon the Saints, but in a history, we are not as concerned with blaming and name calling as in giving explanations. And the fact is, the federal government didn’t feel like it could intervene; states’ rights were paramount in that age. (It makes you wonder why any LDS person would be in favor of states rights, given the horrors that were visited upon us in the name of that principle.) States’ rights were paramount until a civil war had to settle the issue of whether the feds could enforce the Constitution in the States. Perhaps Joseph’s prophecy, that God would visit death and destruction upon the nation for forsaking the Mormons, was literally true, in that sense? The politicians acceding too much autonomy to the States led directly to the conflict of the civil war. Bushman talks about how the majority ruled and dominated the minority Mormons, so was the frontier too democratic, and we could have used more judges willing to “legislate from the bench”? Had anyone (judges or otherwise) stood up and shown the courage to stand up for the Mormons, could they have done so with slavery and the secessionist currents, and thus prevented the horror that was the Civil War, which wounds us still today?

I’d always been curious about what drove the persecution. The LDS sources just called them names and were outraged. Are we just going to say that the Missourians were mean and stop there?

The anti-Mormon sources are hardly better, saying it was because the Saints were stealing everything in Missouri that wasn’t nailed down, and then killing off their dissidents through the Danite band. The former charges had a grain of truth to them but they were dealt with much more harshly than thieves anyway, so this is not illuminating. The latter charges were clearly overblown or fabricated nonsense. I had long speculated, without any confirmation, that the slavery question played a role. I was pleased to see that Bushman validated this idea of mine. It doesn’t explain all of it, but it was clearly a factor, he says. “Worst of all,” Bushman quotes an anti-Mormon Missourian as saying,

They are non-slave holders, and opposed to slavery; which, in this peculiar period, when abolition has reared its deformed and haggard visage in our land, is well calculated to excite deep and abiding prejudices. (RSR, p. 327)

Perhaps it does all come down to property; the Mormons were overrunning the land in the counties and their ballot boxes. Were there just too many of them too bunched up together? Was it xenophobia and religious bigotry? How were the Mormons so capable of inspiring the darker angels in so many of their neighbors? Even Bushman’s explanations don’t leave me satisfied. In the end, all the explanations, even taken together, still leave me only partially satisfied. Your thoughts?