On this Memorial Day weekend, I'm re-posting a piece I wrote three years ago which I feel appropriate to the occasion. Memorial Day is a time to remember not only America's needless dead, but also the kind of pride and arrogance that has led both our nation and our church to suffer repeated tragedies.
Vengeance And The Latter-Day Saint
Originally posted Memorial Day 2014
One of the strangest occurrences that took place after the sudden death of Joseph Smith in June, 1844 was that almost immediately his followers rejected the things he taught them about not holding a grudge.
The first reaction of the Saints to the news that Joseph and Hyrum had been murdered was disbelief. Joseph and Hyrum dead? It was inconceivable! But as the truth of the deed was confirmed, disbelief gave way to overwhelming grief. The grieving period was short-lived, however, turning quickly to anger and demands for retribution against the killers.
Which is understandable; who wouldn't want justice? But when only five members of the mob were brought up on charges, and all of them acquitted (no surprise) by a jury of non-Mormons, the Saints began calling upon God to exact His own swift vengeance. William Clayton's prayer for retribution was typical of many, which he recorded the day after the murders took place:
"And now O God wilt thou not come out of thy hiding place and avenge the blood of thy servants.—that blood which thou hast so long watched over with a fatherly care—that blood so noble—so generous—so dignified, so heavenly you O Lord will thou not avenge it speedily and bring down vengeance upon the murderers of thy servants that they may be rid from off the earth and that the earth may be cleansed from these scenes, even so O Lord thy will be done. We look to thee for justice. Hear thy people O God of Jacob even so Amen."Again, an understandable response, if not exactly Christlike. There is a difference between seeking justice and seeking revenge, but this is the early church so let's cut these folks some slack. I probably would have reacted just like Clayton, hoping God would smite those smirking killers who snuffed out the lives of Joseph and Hyrum. A perfectly understandable reaction.
Except right after the jury voted not guilty and the killers got away scot-free, Clayton demanded God enlarge the scope of his wrath to include the entire population of the state of Illinois just to get even with that jury:
“Thus the whole State of Illinois have made themselves guilty of shedding the blood of the prophets by acquitting those who committed the horrid deed, and it is now left to God and his saints to take vengeance in his own way, and in his own time.”Seems a little harsh. And a bit lacking in reason and logic. I'm sure there were lots of people living in Illinois who had never heard of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, let alone wished them any harm. Why hold them all accountable for the verdict of one twelve-man jury in one corner of the state?
Curse Of The Gentile Nation
I've recently become friends with William Shepard after discovering his writings on Mormon history, so I'm currently reading a piece of his published in a back issue of The Journal of Mormon history entitled "The Concept Of A 'Rejected Gospel' in Mormon History." Shepard provides several examples of the Saints' intense desire for bloody retribution, and I was struck by how many of these early Saints were so blinded by grief and anger and a gnawing demand for "satisfaction" that they didn't care if every man, woman, and child in America was wiped out in the process. In fact, that's what they were hoping for. They soon laid the blame for the prophet's murders on the entire nation, and hoped to see America utterly destroyed for reasons that made little sense. As Shepard reports,
"For most of the nineteenth century, Brigham Young and the Twelve saw in the murders of Joseph and Hyrum Smith the final proof that the Gentile nation of the United States had reached the fullness of iniquity, had rejected the gospel, and would soon be cut off from salvation..." -Journal of Mormon History Volume 34, No.8 (2008) (Subsequent quotes are from that article.)_____________________________
. William Shepard is co-author (with Michael Marquardt) of Lost Apostles, the latest must-have book on Mormon History that you likely won't find at Deseret Book. Find out why by reading this free excerpt.
William Hyde, who was on a mission in Vermont when he heard of the murders, predicted in his journal “For that blood the nation will be obliged to atone.”
And this from Wilford Woodruff's Journal:
“I asked my heavenly father in the name of Jesus Christ and by virtue of the Holy Priesthood and the Keys of the kingdom of God that he would speedily avenge the blood of Joseph the Prophet Seer and Revelator, and Hiram the Patriarch, which had been shed by the hands of the American gentile nation, upon all the heads of the Nation and State that have aided, abetted or perpetrated the horrid deed, of shedding the blood of those righteous men even the Lords anointed.”This call for the destruction of America looks to put a crimp in the church's missionary efforts, but they didn't care. The Mormons figured the rest of America had had their chance, and by gum they were dusting their feet and done.
Most Mormons weren't patient enough to wait for God to get around to exacting punishment, but vowed instead to take matters into their own hands. After viewing the bodies of Joseph and Hyrum, Allen Stout took a personal vow of revenge:
"I there and then resolved in my mind that I would never let an opportunity slip unimproved of avenging their blood upon the head of the enemies of the church of Jesus Christ. I felt as though I could not live. I knew not how to contain myself, and when I see one of the men who persuaded them to give up to be tried, I feel like cutting their throats. And I hope to live to avenge their blood; but if I do not I will teach my children to never cease to try to avenge their blood and then their children and children's children to the fourth generation as long as there is one descendant of the murderers upon the earth."Pretty heavy, right? The surprising thing is, Stout's keening oath was pretty typical of the time.
Mosiah Hancock tells how, at ten years old, his father Levi had him place his right hand on the cold bosoms of Joseph and Hyrum in turn, and raising his left hand to the square the kid then swore a similar oath to that of Stout's, "which vow I took with a determination to fulfill to the very letter."
If merely getting even with the killer's descendants was enough for some, others like apostle Orson Hyde were barely able to contain their enthusiasm for bringing on the destruction of their home country:
“Carthage Jail presents a scene of blood, and that blood has not been avenged; and when the time can come, and when it can be ordered in wisdom in the heavenly council, the scourge shall come. And when you see these things come to pass, then rejoice and be exceeding glad.”Hyde's fellow apostle, Orson Pratt, who referred to the enemy Americans as as "bloodthirsty Christians," was downright giddy in anticipation of the coming apocalypse:
“It is with the greatest of joy that I forsake this Republic, and all the saints have abundant reasons to rejoice that they are counted worthy to be cast out as exiles from this wicked nation; for we have received nothing but one continual scene of the most horrid and unrelenting persecutions at their hands for the last sixteen years.”If it seems a bit impatient for the Saints to give up on America after only sixteen years of proselyting, it's worth noting that apostle Parley Pratt had predicted the second coming would occur by 1845. So America's time was clearly up anyway.
Wilford Woodruff viewed the Saint's abandoning the United States as necessary so that “the judgments of God might be poured out on that guilty nation that is already drunk with the blood of the Saints."
The editor of the church newspaper wrote:
“And they [the Mormons] will go forth shaking off the dust of their feet upon her [United States], and leaving their curse upon the doomed and fated people and rulers of the United States.”And let's not forget the Oath of Vengeance inserted into the temple endowment by Brigham Young:
"You and each of you do covenant and promise that you will pray and never cease to pray to Almighty God to avenge the blood of the prophets upon this nation, and that you will teach the same to your children and to your children's children unto the third and fourth generation."I've never been quite certain what it means to "defile the temple," but the introduction of something as distasteful as this into a sacred holy ritual would top my list. It would be hard to come up with anything more in opposition to the gospel of peace than to implore God to murder your enemies for you, and do so in the very place Jesus Christ purportedly calls home.
Happily, Almighty God chose not to act on those vindictive supplications, but we shouldn't take that to mean those who offered those imprecations weren't ready to do their part if the opportunity arose. Apostle Abraham Cannon tells how, when Hyrum's son Joseph F. Smith returned to Carthage at age 21, he encountered a man who said he had arrived five minutes too late to see the Smiths killed. Young Joseph F. came this close to knifing the poor guy before learning the man had disapproved of the killings. (Kenney, "Before the Beard: Trials of the Young Joseph F. Smith," Sunstone, November 2001.)
. The Oath of Vengeance was removed from the endowment ritual in 1927, thank goodness. Yet there are some Fundamentalists who take its removal as another evidence that the everlasting ordinances of the temple have been changed. Just proves you can't please everybody.
Anyway, you get the idea. A handful of men committed a horrendous crime, and the victim's friends couldn't wait to make an entire nation of innocents suffer for it. I couldn't help thinking there was something familiar about all this. Then I noticed the calendar showing Memorial day approaching, which brought back memories of vindictive conversations that took place in my ward priesthood quorum in the weeks following the attacks of September 11th, 2001.
Discussions of what should be done to the perpetrators often crowded out the scheduled lesson, with some in the class expressing hope that the U.S military would immediately retaliate. The military did retaliate, of course, and there was no shortage of young latter-day Saints rushing to join the fight.
But fight who? Even if you buy into the conventional narrative (which I don't) that the perpetrators of 9/11 consisted of 19 Arab hijackers armed with boxcutters, the perpetrators of that crime were now all dead by suicide. Justice served, wouldn't you think?
Nope. Those deaths weren't enough to satisfy the bloodlust of most Americans, least of all many of my Mormon brethren. I heard proposals from my fellow Saints wishing our government would just nuke the entire middle east and get it over with. Our nation had been breached by unknown assassins, and they refused to be consoled.
Millions did pay, of course, including many of the young soldiers who so enthusiastically participated in our national revenge-fest. A dozen Memorial Days have come and gone since the first cries of vengeance were heard, and today, thankfully, the voices are more subdued. Americans have died in these wars of vengeance. Mormons have died.
And to what end?
The tired bromide that "they fought to protect our freedoms" doesn't quite wash anymore. Look around: while our idealistic young warriors were occupied fighting phantoms overseas, our freedoms have been seriously eroded here at home. And in the cruelest twist of all, the very politicians most vigorously engaged in eroding those freedoms have officially declared returning veterans to be America's newest enemy.
And why not? There is nothing more dangerous to tyrants than a soldier who has awakened to the reality that he has been duped. A former soldier who is fully awake is a threat to the establishment, no matter which party is currently in power.
Is it any wonder the very government agency charged with caring for our returning wounded is dragging its feet and letting soldiers die while awaiting treatment? On The Daily Show of May 19th, Jon Stewart expressed bewilderment:
"Somehow we as a country were able to ship 300,000 troops halfway across the world in just a few months to fight a war that cost us two trillion dollars -an amount that didn't count towards our deficit because we paid for it somehow under the table. Yet for some reason it takes longer than that to get someone hurt in that war needed medical care or reimbursement, all while we profess undying love for their service."And John Whitehead recently noted:
"The plight of veterans today is deplorable, with large numbers of them impoverished, unemployed, traumatized mentally and physically, struggling with depression, thoughts of suicide, marital stress, homeless (a third of all homeless Americans are veterans), subjected to sub-par treatment at clinics and hospitals, and left to molder while their paperwork piles up within Veterans Administration offices."We erect monuments to those who die while serving in the military, but those lucky enough to have made it back are learning a harsh lesson: Their own government really doesn't want them here. You bought the lie. You served your purpose. Now please just go away.
With every Memorial Day that's passed since 9/11, a growing number of Americans -Mormons included- are waking up to the reality that they have been played. Their emotions were manipulated in order to get them to support two wars that have resulted in...what, exactly? Certainly not more freedom or safety. Americans are less free and less safe than ever before, and the dangers we face today don't happen to have originated with some hapless "enemy" living in Iraq or Afghanistan.
As for the brave Mormon soldier, why did his Church leaders not issue a voice of warning against the secret combinations who were conspiring to undermine the country in his absence? Silly question. Because they were in collusion, that's why.
You think that accusation is a bit harsh? Then I invite you to watch a video that was produced by the corporate Church and distributed on DVD to LDS servicemen and their families to coincide with the start of the war with Iraq. With the passage of time, the reassurances contained in this film ring more and more hollow.
"What Is My Standing Before God?"
That was a question posed to Elder Robert Oaks of the Presidency of the Seventy by a young combat soldier struggling to reconcile his religious teachings with the obligation the government had put on him to engage in random shootings. This video, which used to be available on the official LDS website but has since been removed, can still be seen here on Youtube. It was intended to assuage the concerns of this young man and others like him. Entitled "Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled," it's a blatant propaganda piece that contradicts every legitimate LDS doctrine regarding war ever revealed.
And that's the problem. The film completely avoids addressing doctrinal questions such as where and when it is permissible in the eyes of God for his people to go into battle. The only place I heard the word of God quoted at all was in the title. "Let not your hearts be troubled" was a comforting reassurance Jesus gave to his apostles at the last supper before he left them on his way to being crucified. It had nothing to do with palliating the concerns of worried young men headed into battle.
The purpose of this DVD is clearly intended to reassure the Mormon soldier that he need not worry about the consequences of his actions. Let not your heart be troubled, the narrators tell him. Don't worry about it if you end up inadvertently killing innocents. You'll be doing God's work.
From start to finish, this presentation is a disgrace to our religion.
The video is introduced by Boyd K. Packer, who assures the young LDS soldier that he will receive blessings for serving his country in this difficult time, and suggests that his efforts as a hired killer may even result in missionary opportunities. See son, you're not a mere soldier, you're an instrument of God in helping His kingdom roll forth! Sure, you may one day be forced to kill innocent Iraqi families, but look on the bright side: you're preparing for the day when our missionaries will come in and give the discussions to their surviving relatives.
Call me a cynic, but I don't think it works the way Packer expects it to. You can't convert people to the gospel of peace after violently decimating their homeland.
The DVD includes an excerpt from President Hinckley's conference talk given in April 2003, a talk that has given Hinckley a degree of posthumous fame as the most equivocating prophet ever in the history of the Church. It was full of useless platitudes, and devoid of any useful doctrine. That talk couldn't have been more insidiously brilliant if it had been written by Lucifer himself. Don't believe me? Go read it for yourself.
The video shows us a short clip of apostle Robert D. Hales speaking before a roomful of young recruits and assuring them "You are the defenders of the constitution."
Oh really? Defenders of the constitution? I wish you'd walk me through exactly how that works, Bob, seeing as the government that recruited these kids violated article one, section eight of the constitution by failing to obtain authorization from the people through their congress to wage this very war in the first place.
We used to have actual theologians as members of the Twelve, not just former executives who happened to distinguish themselves in the corporate world. I wonder what Robert Hales would think if he ever got around to reading D&C 98:7 where the Lord declares that, pertaining to the laws of man, whatsoever is more or less than the constitution comes of evil? Non-members can believe what they want, but we Mormons can't have it both ways. According to the revealed word of God, either a war is constitutional, or it's evil. You can't send Mormon kids to fight an unconstitutional war and tell them they're defending the constitution.
Where's The Theology?
My guess is that anyone watching this video on their way to the front is hoping to understand how God feels about the adventure they are about to embark on. Anyone raised properly in the church is bound to have some reservations about being required to kill strangers. Presumably this DVD the Church has provided will answer their troubling questions.
They presume in vain.
Incredibly, the word of God is never used to bolster the feel-good message of this film. The viewer is introduced to Lance Wickman and Robert Oaks, two general authorities who were once career military men, and they offer their wartime stories about how life in uniform can be both difficult and rewarding. Instead of delivering a message the LDS soldier can use, apparently it was thought the departing soldier could better identify with GAs who once had military careers. Too bad neither of these guys seems to know anything about LDS doctrine as it pertains to the issue at hand.
The message of the movie can be distilled in one sentence: War is dirty, nasty work, but it's unavoidable and necessary, so thank goodness we have righteous young priesthood holders like you to handle that dirty, nasty work that is for some reason unavoidable. Oh, and by the way, thank you for your service.
Although the word of God is never quoted in this video, the twisting of scripture is apparent in several places. At one point Elder Wickman looks into the camera and says,
"Many have asked why so much of the Book of Mormon dwells upon battles and warfare. The answer, I believe, is that Mormon and Moroni understood exquisitely that we would also be forced to contend with war and bloodshed as we strive to live according to the teachings and examples of the master in these last days."Holy cow. Face palm, anyone?
I'm usually considered the dumbest guy in the room, but even I can see that Oaks got the message of the Book of Mormon wars completely inside out. What Mormon and Moroni understood exquisitely was that the record they wrote would one day be in our hands and they wanted to make super-duper certain that we did not make the same stupid mistakes their people did. Mormon compiled the record and included all those chapters about war so that we gentiles could understand two essential teachings:
1. God's people have a right and a duty to defend their homes, their families, and their lands from invasion. We are justified in repelling those who invade our homes and lands, even to the taking of life, if necessary.
2. God's people are never, ever, EVER justified in taking the battle into the enemy's lands. When we do that, the enemy is justified in repelling us for invading their homes, lands, and families, even to the taking of our lives.There you go, Wickman and Oaks. I just saved you both a lot of reading.
In Boyd Packer's segment of the video, behind him on the wall we see the famous Arnold Friberg paintings of Book of Mormon war heroes Helaman and Captain Moroni. Packer even quotes a scripture from Alma showing that war is sometimes justified to defend our lands and families. But what he fails to remind the viewer is that these men are heroes because they repelled invasions, not because they led invasions. They did not fight because they chose to, but because they had no choice. Their lands were being overun, so they stood in defense of home and country. And this is the key element: they stood their ground and defended from inside the borders of their own country, not in someone else's.
We honor Captain Moroni as a great patriot not only because he stood up to the foreign enemy, but also because he challenged the corrupt manipulators behind the politicians at home. Tyrants quake at the thought of an army of awakened Moronis returning home.
If Lance Wickman wants to understand why Mormon and Moroni included all that stuff about war, he should have consulted Mormon himself, who tells us explicitly why he stopped participating in the wars with his Nephite Brethren:
"It came to pass that I utterly refused to go up against mine enemies; and I did even as the Lord commanded me; and I did stand as an idle witness to manifest unto the world the things which I saw and heard, according to the manifestations of the spirit which had testified of things to come." (Mormon 3:16)Did you catch that, Wickman? Mormon didn't include those war chapters because he understood we would be forced to contend with war and bloodshed. He did it to warn us to beware of our own hubris that could easily lead us into unnecessary and destructive wars. He included those warnings in hopes we would be able to tell the difference between being forced to go to war and choosing to go to war. His entire personal saga is a warning to us to carefully differentiate between repelling an invader and being an invader.
Here's what got Mormon to throw down his sword in disgust and quit his own army: A large force of Lamanite warriors had crossed over into Nephite territory and, mirabile dictu, the Nephites won the battle! They managed to drive the superior force of Lamanites all the way back across their borders and back where they had come from.
This unexpected victory drove the Nephite soldiers out of their heads with exhilaration. They had actually beaten back the mighty Lamanites! They started cracking open beers and chanting whatever the Nephite equivalent is to "U.S.A! U.S.A! U.S.A!! (It's all there in Mormon chapter 3, I swear.)
Next thing you know, the Nephite soldiers, full of piss and vinegar after that decisive victory, got it in their heads that they should put their armor back on and cross the border deep into the Lamanite's homeland so they could finish this thing with the Lamanites once and for all. Kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out.
That's why Mormon quit, because he knew God does not protect the soldier who is the aggressor, and he refused to have any part in such goings on. That, Lance Wickman, is the lesson we are meant to take from the war chapters of the Book of Mormon. Here is how the Lord himself revealed that doctrine in the latter days:
"This is the law that I gave unto mine ancients, that they should not go out unto battle against any nation, kindred, tongue, or people, save I, the Lord, commanded them." (D&C 98:33)The Lord goes on to instruct us that this law still holds for us today except that today we have to be extra careful not to take offense. That's the Lord's doctrine on war in a nutshell, and it sure seems plain enough to me.
So what I would ask Boyd Packer, Robert Hales, Robert Oaks, Lance Wickman, Gordon Hinckley, and every other person involved in the making of that little feel-good pro-war disgrace of a video monstrosity is this: Why didn't you include God's word as a counterweight to your own useless, hollow opinions? Why did you leave out the only counsel that would have really mattered to the doomed young man in my former ward who gave his life for nothing, instead of blathering into the camera about how "the military is a noble profession" and "You are mighty men of valor"?
Maybe if you had been honest in your counsel and presented God's will in all this, there might be one less pair of grieving parents in the graveyard this Memorial day; one less young Mormon widow; one or two less fatherless children. You men had the opportunity to tell the truth to those in your charge, and you failed. You made false promises about military service bringing blessings when you know it brings nothing but death, sorrow, and destruction.
How many additional LDS families will forgo the joyous picnic reunion this Memorial day and instead hang their heads with grief over yet another unnecessary loss of a young son or daughter?
I am sometimes accused of being less than deferential to LDS Church authorities."It's wrong to criticize leaders of the Church," Apostle Dallin Oaks smugly asserts in this video, "even if the criticism is true."
Oh Yeah, Dallin? Well, I'll tell you what: You just go ahead and show me where the Lord himself has ever made that statement, and I'll give you a dollar. Otherwise it's not doctrinal, so wipe that smirk off your face, stop making up your own rules, and try preaching the gospel of Christ for a change.
Young, idealistic young Mormon men and women are DEAD because they were taught not to question or criticize Church leaders. Other young latter-day Saints are maimed, divorced, depressed, homeless, and suicidal, much of their troubles traceable to the belief that whenever a general authority opens his mouth, even if it's two-bit lower rung GAs like Robert Oaks and Lance Wickman, their very utterances represent the word of God, the mind of God, and the will of God.
These palpably false teachings are causing real harm to actual, living, breathing members of our congregations. And they need to stop being promulgated right now.
What we could use from you in the next conference session, Elder Oaks, is a talk reminding the members that the leaders are as human and fallible as the rest of us, and that most importantly, a prophet is only a prophet when he is speaking the words God has put into his mouth, and that ANY OTHER TIME, he is presenting his own thoughts and opinions.
Joseph Smith would not have allowed the members in his day to slather adoration on him, yet you guys lap it up. Joseph had the integrity to rebuke the Saints when he found they were depending upon him and not Christ. He told them that following the prophet was causing them to be darkened in their minds. Do your duty and teach the Saints that whenever a Church leader teaches contrary to the established word of God, that leader should be shunned and ignored, not slavishly followed like some dark-suited demigod.
Okay, I'm not sure where I was going with this blog entry, but it has clearly gotten away from me. I'm going to stop now and go cool down.
When properly observed, Memorial Day is a time for solemn introspection rather than playful celebration. I wish you all a happy Memorial day just the same.
Love and Light,
"Why Do We Keep Celebrating Our Disobedience?"