University of St. Louis, Jan. 19, 1858.
REV. AND DEAR FATHER:
I propose to give you in this letter a short sketch of the fanatic sect of Mormons, against who the government of the United States has just sent troops, in order to subject them to the laws, or force them to leave the country. The facts which I will relate on the origin and history of this singular people, are chiefly drawn from a recent work by John Hyde, who had been an elder or minister of the Mormon sect.
The founder of the Mormons was one Joseph Smith, born of an obscure family, December 23, 1805, at Sharon, Windsor county, Vermont. The whole life of this man, from youth up, was marked by fanaticism, fraud, and vice. More than fifty persons of good reputation and in every way worthy of respect, who knew him at Palmyra, New York, where he had settled with his family, have testified under oath that Joseph Smith was regarded as a man of no moral character and given, to vicious habits. In 1820 Smith embraced Methodism. In April of that year he pretended to have had a revelation from Heaven, while praying in the wood. He said that God the Father, and Jesus Christ his Son, had appeared to him, and had declared to him that his sins were forgiven, that God had chosen him to restore his kingdom on earth, and propagate anew the truth of the Gospel, which all Christendom had lost. In 1823, Smith, forgetting his revelations and his pretended divine mission, plunged as deep as ever in blasphemy, fraud, drunkenness, and other vices. Then, he said, an angel appeared to him and revealed the existence of a book, written on gold plates, and containing the history of the ancient inhabitants of America. This is the origin of the "Book of Mormon," or Golden Bible, the Koran of these Mahometans. The next day Smith visited the spot designated by the angel as the spot where the book was. This was on the slope of a hill between Palmyra and Manchester. There he pretended to find in fact golden plates in a stone box; but this time his efforts to raise them were vain. There was, he says, a great contest between the devil and the angels as to it; but although the devil was beaten, the angel did not give the book to Smith, who received it only four years after, on the 22d of September, 1827.
The Book of Mormon is, like the Koran, a tissue of contradictory plagiarisms and absurd inventions. The whole is interlarded with passages from the Bible. It has been proved that the portion given as historical is merely a plagiary of a romance of Solomon Spalding, whose manuscript had been stolen by Smith. Spalding had written, under the title of The Discovered Manuscript, a romance on the origin of the American Indians. He died before publishing it. After his death, his widow removed to New York, and Smith is known to have worked near her house. Some time after the publication of the Book of Mormon, she discovered the loss of her husband's manuscript. Many of Spalding's relatives and friends detected the Discovered Manuscript, slightly altered, in Smith's book. Spalding had been in the habit of reading long passages from his novel; the singularity of the facts, names, and style, which was biblical, had so struck them that they did not forget it. Now, the Book of Mormon had the same characteristics, the same strange names, the same incredible facts, the same style. John Spalding, the author's brother, thus expresses himself on the point: "My brother's book was entitled the Discovered Manuscript. It was an historical novel on the first inhabitants of America. Its object was to show that the American Indians were descended from the Jews, or the lost tribes. There was a detailed description of their voyage, by land and sea, from their departure from Jerusalem to their arrival in America, under the orders of Nephi and Lehi. I have recently read the Book of Mormon. To my great astonishment, I have found almost the same historical matters, the same names, &c., such as they were in my brother's writings." Many other persons, who knew Solomon Spalding well, and who for the most part knew nothing of Joseph Smith, gave similar testimony under oath.
The Book of Mormon probably derives its name from one of the chapters of this novel. A descendant of Lehi obtained the plates of gold, brass, &c., on which the prophets had engraved the history of the voyages and wars of their race, and this descendant was called Mormon. He abridged this history, and gave it to his son, Moroni. The latter, having added a sketch of the history of Jared, inclosed all in a box, which he buried on a hill, A.D. 400. Smith, declaring himself chosen to give this wonderful book to the world, pretended to have received the gift of understanding and translating it. He did not write this translation himself, but dictated it. During the dictation, he was concealed behind a curtain, made of a bed-quilt, for the plates were so sacred that he did not even permit his secretary to gaze on them. To give a still higher idea of his golden bible, he explained the title after his own fashion. According to him, the word Mormon comes from the Egyptian mon, signifying good, and the English word more; so that Mormon means Better! Now, the Bible, says Smith, in its widest signification, means good, since our Lord says in the Gospel, "I am the good shepherd." The ignorant and fanatical believe all these fables.
The Book of Mormon, although most known, is not the chief book of the sect. The Book of Teachings and Covenants, containing some of the revelations which Smith pretended to have received from heaven, is regarded by his disciples as a book of the law which God has given this generation. Smith also published other revelations, which are contained in a little book called The Pearl of Great Price. Much of the doctrine of Smith is a mere repetition of the works of various Protestant sects. He has imitated Mahomet in his infamous immorality, by permitting polygamy. To all this, his successor has added abominable doctrines on the nature and attributes of God.
Smith organized his new religion in 1830. He could then number only six disciples. The next year, having obtained new adherents, he sent elders, two by two, to preach the new doctrine. When the number of his disciples had sufficiently increased, he founded a colony in Missouri, but their conduct induced the people of that State--first those around Independence, where the Mormons had first settled, and then those of Liberty--to expel them from the State. In 1834 the Mormon sect adopted the pompous title of "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or simply Saints.
Smith and his adepts having acquired, in 1839, a large tract of land in Illinois, in a beautiful section on the banks of the Mississippi, built a flourishing city, which they called Nauvoo, erected a magnificent temple, now in ruins, and lived there till 1844, when they rendered themselves odious to the people of that State. They were attacked by an ungovernable mob, and the false prophet and his brother, Hiram, were massacred in prison, at Carthage.
In 1845 these persecutions continued, and the Mormons, driven at last from Nauvoo, resolved, in council, to seek a solitary and permanent abode in some fertile valley at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. They carried out this project in 1847, penetrated into the desert some twelve hundred miles, and founded a new city on the banks of the Great Salt Lake, at the foot of a lofty chain of mountains forming a portion of the eastern limits of the Great Basin. Brigham Young, Smith's successor as prophet and chief, was their leader in this long and painful march.
The valley of the Great Basin is about five hundred miles long from north to south, and three hundred and fifty from east to west. It is formed by the Sierra Madre bounding it on the east, and by the Goose Creek and Humbolt mountains on the west. Utah Territory, this occupied by the Mormons, contains in all 187,923 square miles. The lake, which is now only seventy miles long and thirty-five wide, probably filled, at a remote epoch, the whole valley.
On all sides, on the slopes of the mountains, at a uniform height, are traces which water alone could have made. In 1841, I traversed much of this valley, in my rambles in the Rocky Mountains. The country was then wooded and agreeable, watered by springs and streams, winding through the valley. Since the Mormon emigration, the forests have disappeared on the slopes of the hills and mountains, and, as the snows are more exposed to the rays of the sun and melt quicker, the springs dry up, and the streams give scarcely water enough in the spring to irrigate the cultivated fields and supply the domestic animals.
Salt Lake City contains, at present, 15,000 inhabitants. They are mostly English, Scotch, and Swedes. Hardly one fourth of the Mormons are Americans by birth. They are scattered up and down, in the villages and towns of all the plains and valleys of Utah, so called from an Indian tribe of that region. The Territory is bounded on the north by Oregon, on the West by California, on the east by the Territories of Kansas and Nebraska, and on the south by New Mexico. The total number of inhabitants of the Territory is less than 50,000, although the Mormon leaders, for ends of their own, represent it as much higher. The number of Mormons, in different countries, is estimated at 300,000. They send their emissaries to all parts of the globe. These take good care not to present Mormonism in its true colors, to those who are not as yet prepared to accept it such as it is. Many of the Mormons at Salt Lake, it is said, adopted the new sect only in hopes of finding there an earthly paradise, with unlimited abundance for every want. Once in Utah, it is no easy matter to escape the snares and despotic power of the leader.
Brigham Young, president of the Mormon church, and now rebellious governor of Utah Territory, enjoys absolute authority over his people. This man is, like Joseph Smith, a native of Vermont, born at Whittingham June 1, 1801. Having embraced Mormonism in 1832, he soon became Smith's intimate friend. Since he became chief of the Mormons, he has displayed boundless ambition, and talents far superior to Smith's. He labors to establish Mormonism all over the American continent. As to the Territory which he governs, he wishes to make it an independent State in the confederation. He has often declared that he will permit no one else to be governor of Utah. He defies the authority of the President, and of all the Union. The judges and other officers appointed by the general government for the civil administration of Utah, have been expelled from the territory, after seeing it useless to attempt to exercise their functions. Young has set up tribunals of his own, and in the United States courts which he tolerated before his rebellion, the juries gave verdicts according to his direction. The government, at last, resolved to resort even to force to make him respect its authority. Accordingly, last fall (1857), a detachment of 2500 men was sent to the Territory to maintain the new governor and his suite.
On this, Young prepared to resist. The troops have already entered Utah, but the severity of the winter arrests them about one hundred and fifty miles from the Mormon capital. The Mormons are not idle. They have surprised a train of seventy-six wagons, pillaged and burned them, carrying off all the animals, horses, mules, and oxen. This loss is estimated at a million of dollars. The troops, ill lodged and ill fed, will suffer terribly if the winter is severe, as it is usually in the elevated parts which they occupy. As soon as the spring opens, large reinforcements will be sent. There is a great diversity of opinion here on the matter. Many think that the war will be long and bloody, and that the Mormons will resist to the death. A great manifestation on the part of the government will, doubtless, be necessary; and I think that as the new forces approach the rebel territory, the Mormons will retire after setting fire to their towns, and march to occupy some new district--Sonora, perhaps, or some other thinly-settled tract in the vast Mexican territory. This fanatical sect will find repose only outside of all other civil jurisdiction. It will master and subject all, unless it is mastered and expelled in season.
One more word on the Mormons and I have done. A new organization has been given to the Mormon troops. In 1840, Smith organized the Nauvoo Legion, and compelled all his disciples from the age of sixteen to fifty to enter it. This little troop has continually increased, and preserves its old name. No effort is spared to render the soldiers perfect in military discipline and exercises. They have at their head officers who served under General Scott in the Mexican war. Young's whole army might, in case of necessity, be brought up to 8000 men. This number would not be formidable, were they not all animated with a spirit of fanaticism which will make them fight, if it comes to that, with an obstinacy like that of the first Mahometans. Besides the community of religion and interest, there exists among them another bond. A great number of them are bound to the President and Prophet Young by horrible oaths. There exists among this people a society called the Mormon Endowment, into which members are admitted amid ceremonies most capable of inspiring superstitious terror. The initiated take an oath of blind obedience, as understood by the secret societies of Europe. The penalty of death awaits him who violates his oath. If the Mormons wish war, as they so loudly proclaim, they will have a chance this year, but they cannot long resist the troops of the United States.
I have the honor to be, Rev. Father,
Your servant in Christ,
P. J. De Smet, S. J.
P. J. Kenedy, History of the Western Missions and Missionaries in the United States, Western Missions and Missionaries: A Series of Letters, by Rev. P.J. De Smet, of the society of Jesus, Author of "Indian Sketches," "Oregon Missions," Etc., New York: Excelsior Catholic Publishing House, 5 Barclay St., Copyright 1881.