John Gunnison and the Mormons
Could John Gunnison Have Changed the Mormons?
An Analysis of Mormon History and the Path Not Taken, 1830-1857.
Transcript of lecture presented by R. Kent Fielding, Ph.D., at the December 9, 1993 meeting of the Humanists of Utah.
Quotations in the text are taken from Dr. Fielding’s recently published book, The Unsolicited Chronicler: An Account Of The Gunnison Massacre, Its Causes And Consequences; and from the reprinted 1860 edition of John W. Gunnison’s book, The Mormons, Or Latter-Day Saints, also published by Dr. Fielding.
I. INTRODUCTION AND OVERVIEW
I am here tonight speaking to Utah Humanists, under the auspices of the Utah Humanities Council Speaker’s Bureau. We have an interest in common which brings us together. You, as Humanists; the Humanities Council as sponsors of dialogue on significant humane interests; and I because I am also a humanist, vitally interested in the contemporary issues affecting our society.
My humanism is founded in the study of history, the mother of all humanities. History gave me my second birth; into an awareness of the scope and depth of human development and civilization: the source of all humanities.
My first birth was into the Mormon communities of Spanish Fork, my earliest home; of Springville, the home of my father who died before we became acquainted; and of Orem, where I lived until I was forty years of age.
And therein lies the specific focus of my vital interest in the contemporary issues affecting our society:An individual and social interest in the present condition of the Mormon church.How this condition was created in the course of history.How the Mormon future may be influenced toward the American mainstream.
II. JOHN GUNNISON’S INFLUENCE ON THE COURSE OF HISTORY
I did not come tonight to talk about myself and my view of the current dilemmas of Mormons, although that level of detachment is unavoidable, considering my own deep involvement and prior commitments nd the amazing display of arbitrary power exhibited by the Mormon church in recent times. Instead, I have come to talk about John W. Gunnison, who asked these very questions, and provided his own answers in a situation far more dangerous and compelling than the one now before us.
I have posed a rhetorical question intending to furnish the answer of which I approve; which I came prepared to articulate and demonstrate: Could John Gunnison have changed the Mormons?
My answer is an unequivocal YES!
There are pivotal events in history where small incidents decisively affect the future. You have all learned to recite the doggerel: for want of a nail the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost…
The Gunnison Massacre, on the Sevier River, Utah Territory, October 26, 1853, was such a pivotal event; in Utah history and perhaps in American history.
I have said that John Gunnison ALIVE, would have changed the Mormons and might have changed the course of the American nation.
And there is more: John Gunnison DEAD, did change the Mormons and his death may have left the course of the American nation unchanged; its leaders unable to avoid the terrible calamity which befell it: dis-union and civil war.
I have said that John W. Gunnison did change the course of Mormon history. My book, The Unsolicited Chronicler; An Account Of The Gunnison Massacre, Its Causes And Consequences, traces the path of events from the Gunnison Massacre to the Massacre at Mountain Meadow. This pattern of cause and effect is not difficult to trace. It is not my subject tonight; but briefly, the scenario is as follows, beginning with “the loss of a nail”:
- Brigham Young took no action to secure justice against the Indians presumed to have murdered Gunnison’s party.
- In consequence, the Steptoe Expedition, enroute to California on a different mission, was diverted to Utah and charged to bring the guilty Indians to justice.
- This effort, influenced by Brigham Young’s belief that criminal actions against Indians would be taken through the courts, produced the travesty of the Nephi trials and the further consequence of violent verbal recriminations against the Mormons.
- The “idle soldiery” in Utah and “the gallantry of the Epaulettes,” as Gunnison had predicted, were “a fate worse than death” for the Mormon elders. Among the soldiers, aided and abetted by the Mormons, there was drunkenness, gambling, prostitution, continual conflict and recrimination, and one nearly disastrous riot. When the soldiers left, more than 100 Mormon women left with them. Such animosity was produced in these confrontations that Brigham Young swore an army would never again be allowed in Utah. Mormon parents were blamed for the fate of their daughters and told that it was better they should be in their graves than lose their virtue.
- Another consequence was the appointment of Steptoe to replace Brigham Young as Utah’s governor. The Colonel was willing to do so, despite Gunnison’s warning that such an appointment would have no power, since the Mormons would obey none other than leaders of their own choosing. But Steptoe wanted assurance that he could resume his military rank upon completion of his term. This negotiation was never completed. Thus, church and state remained united with Brigham Young in charge of both and able to use the powers of both at his will.
- The accusations of Judge Drummond, including his charge that the Mormons were responsible for and may have participated in the Gunnison Massacre, were further consequences. These accusations arose from trials of record, conducted by the Judge; of persons accused of participating in the Massacre, and of others charged with killing the Indian Chief, whose death was avenged on the conveniently available Gunnison party.
- Forces were set in motion by these events which escalated conflict between the Mormons and the United States government. These forces caused the collapse of Brigham Young’s constructive efforts to colonize and develop freight and mail services on the route Gunnison had proposed for a railroad, precipitated Young’s removal as Governor, and resulted in the Utah Expedition.
- At first, Young was willing to accept both the army and his loss of public office, but he changed his mind. There is reason to believe Young took action against the American army to gain the benefits Gunnison described by using the tactics the Captain recommended to resist such a national strategy:
- “May no General Gage be sent to coerce them”, said Gunnison. Elaborately he described the untenable consequences of such an effort, the unprecedented cost of conquest, the necessity of a lengthy occupation, the predictable public reaction against the use of force to solve domestic problems, the probable increase of public influence to be gained by the Mormons who would be seen as defending the sacred American right of religious freedom, and the beneficial effect on Mormon growth and unity against external enemies.
- But there was at least one unforeseen consequence: the Massacre at Mountain Meadow. This event destroyed the positive image the Mormon leaders had hoped to gain. The fact of Mormon participation, when revealed, shook Mormon self-confidence and produced a sense of guilt not expiated in successive generations.
- In death, Gunnison became the Mormon nemesis, contrary to his own intention and against what he had hoped to achieve. Mormon unity was increased by its negative experiences and transformed into group loyalty; its history of persecutions endured, was seen as confirmation of its self-image and became another article of faith; its pioneering achievements and its pride of heritage bound subsequent generations to the church as though to an extended family. Internal dissent was muted by these factors and transformed into nominally compliant group behaviors; the authoritarian leadership structure, imposed by Brigham Young, was strengthened. Internal forces, once the basis for individual differences, were structured to assure conformity.
III. The larger issue: DID THE GUNNISON MASSACRE DIMINISH THE ALTERNATIVE COURSES OF ACTION AND LEAVE THE PATH TO DISUNION AND CIVIL WAR UNCHANGED?
This issue is more difficult to trace. The contingent questions are these:
- Could Gunnison’s survey report have produced action toward building the railroad which would connect St. Louis, Missouri, to the Pacific coast?
The favoring elements were in place:
- Gunnison believed he knew a route agreeable to both North and South. He had described this route in his book before he received his assignment to conduct his survey Expedition.
- The surveys authorized were under the direct supervision of Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War, who was able to influence Southern acceptance of his choice of routes.
- Franklin Pierce favored every possible measure to avoid disunion over the slavery issue.
- John W. Gunnison and Franklin Pierce were friends of long standing; both from New Hampshire, and both were believers in common sense solutions to difficult problems.
- Could such a project have prevented disunion?
Gunnison believed it could: he worked for it with all his energy; he tried to involve Brigham Young and his friend Albert Carrington in this great national enterprise, anticipating that their support could hasten the completion of his survey, the issuance of his report, and the favorable action of Congress.
Such favorable action might have affected the outcome of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, the presidential election of 1856, and all of the consequences attendant thereto.
IV. A DIALOGUE WITH PRESIDENT FRANKLIN PIERCE
History cannot describe the path not taken. This is the work of novelists. However, it has been attempted by historians, and it is irresistible for historians who are humanists discussing rhetorical questions of contemporary interest.
Let us begin our rhetorical scenario about how Gunnison ALIVE might have changed Mormonism.
On a certain day in May, 1853, Gunnison visited with President Franklin Pierce, in Washington, D.C. There is a historical basis for this scenario. In several letters written after Gunnison received his commission to survey for a central railroad route to the Pacific, the Captain said he had visited with his old friend, the new President, Franklin Pierce, of New Hampshire.
The details are sketchy. Gunnison recorded little more than his recommendation that Brigham Young be retained as Governor of Utah Territory.
Let us venture a more complete conversation.
Gunnison was the best informed non-Mormon source of information about the Saints in Washington and perhaps in the nation. He was also on intimate and confidential terms with the President.
Given at least an hour for conversation, they would have discussed the Mormon people, their leaders, and the general conditions among them: their industry, loyalty, and their capacity to conduct their affairs so as to become a sister state in the American Union.
- Of the Mormon achievements, Gunnison would say:
They were among the most industrious people he had ever met. He was “struck with wonder at the immense results produced in so short a time by a handful of individuals. They applied themselves cheerfully and industriously to projects of common benefit; particularly to laying off the lands for irrigation and building canals, while claiming for themselves the land, their improvements, and the products of their labor.”
He would quickly acknowledge that, “This is the result of the guidance of all those hands by one master mind; and we see a comfortable people residing where, it is not too much to say, the ordinary mode of subduing and settling our wild lands could never have been applied.”
- Of the people, Gunnison would say:
“We must not look upon all as ignorant and blindfolded, guided along the ditch of enthusiasm by self-deluded leaders. Indeed, almost every man is a priest, or eligible to the office, and ready armed for the controversial warfare; his creed is his idol…and while among the best proselytes we class many that are least versed in literary attainments, still, among them we find liberally educated men, and those who have been ministers in other denominations—…in fact there seems to be as fair a sample of intelligence, moral probity, and good citizenship, as can be found in any nominal Christian community.”
- On Brigham Young as a leader, Gunnison would say:
“The President of the Latter-Day Saints is the most autocratic ruler in the world. But his great authority has thus far been made subservient to the public interests, and his attention never diverted from alleviating individual distress—therefore it is no wonder that his sanctity is believed above reproach, and his least wish abjectly complied with by almost all over whom he presides with unlimited sway…”
- Comparing Brigham Young with Joseph Smith, Gunnison would say:
“He [Smith] lived long enough for his fame, and died when he could just be called a martyr. He had become too violent and impatient, to control, for a long time, the multitude—he could begin, but not conduct, successfully, a revolution. In this respect, he [Smith] contrasts remarkably with his successor in the Seership of the Saints. The latter could never be a martyr. His prudence and foresight have been shown under the most trying circumstances, and in cool calculation of the future he is pre-eminent, and plans with cautious policy to meet all the contingencies before him. Policy is a word little known in the vocabulary of the first prophet, and is the most frequent in that of the present one…”
- The question of Mormon loyalty to the nation would arise in this conversation. There had been an incident, in 1851, when non-Mormon Federal officers, appointed in the first staffing of Utah’s Territorial Government, had returned with their feelings so outraged by treasonable expressions toward the supreme government, that they felt obliged to return and place the subject before the Congress and the President.
Gunnison’s response would have defended the Mormon position:
“…The government is frequently proclaimed corrupt, and dangerous to liberty, in party declamation; the writers and speakers being ready to defend it, however, with their life-blood.”
- Gunnison would have defended the Mormon right to self government by persons of their own choosing:
“…the Mormons regard themselves as placed in the position of our colonial fathers, with this difference: that the latter felt the burden of taxation without representation; the Mormons, an injustice in enforcing law upon them by foreigners…
“So long, therefore, as they demean themselves as good industrious citizens of the United States, being geographically separated from other society…they feel a right to demand confidence enough to be allowed to have persons resident among themselves appointed to administer the laws of them and fill official stations…
“…The magnanimity of a people, far separated from all others, is thus appealed to, instead of wounding their pride—it is the field on which the freedom of conscience is to be tried–it is the cause of political liberty, successfully contended for by the revolutionary fathers, in the estimation of that portion of American citizens; and under the permanent law of Congress, they ask for self-government to test their fealty as a matter of right and justice.”
- Gunnison described Mormonism as a new Puritanism and saw positive social results in the course of time:
“…That people may well be compared to the Puritans of New England, in its early settlement–they are as exclusive, as energetic, as enduring; have sustained persecutions more fiery–have toiled for rocks and snowy lands–contended with the red men, and subdued a desert for a residence. MAY NO GENERAL GAGE BE DIRECTED TO DRAGOON THEM INTO REBELLION. On the one area the theo-democratic government has yielded peaceful fruits, and then been forgotten–on the other, like results, we hope, are to follow.”
- Gunnison would have pointed out that the denial of self government would be considered as persecution:
“…And what would be gained in the end? Nothing but the same as persecution has heretofore given, increase of Mormon power. Indeed we are not sure but the leaders would like a display of force, in order to raise the cry of persecution, and turn the attention of the people upon foreign objects…
“Therefore, we may be permitted to say, that this course of judicious action may secure a law-abiding people; and soon we may expect to see a thriving, peaceful state added to the extending Union under the name of Deseret–the Land of the Honey Bee.”
- President Pierce would have asked the inevitable question: Should Brigham Young be retained as the Territorial Governor?
Gunnison would have made such a recommendation, at least for the present, since there are few but Mormons to be governed, he is their choice, and the only one they will obey. Gunnison’s explanation is one of his classic expressions:
“…should one be assigned to them, not of their creed, or other than their chief, he would find himself without occupation. He probably would be received with all due courtesy as a distinguished personage, cordially received in social intercourse so long has his demeanor pleased the influential members and people;–but as Governor–to use their own expressive phrase— ‘he would be let severely alone.’ Were he to convoke an assembly, and order an election, no attention would be paid to it, and he would be subjected to the mortification of seeing a legislature, chosen at a different time, enacting statutes, or else the old ones continued, and those laws enforced and the cases arising from their conflict adjudicated, by the present tribunals of justice under their own judges…”
- President Pierce would have persisted in his point:
“It is important that we separate the powers of church and state not only to be circumspect under the Constitution but to assure that religious ends are not achieved with public funds and authority; and in this case, the support of polygamous households. This is already a political issue, as you heard declaimed in the past congressional session. In Young, these powers are combined, and as you indicate, they are used with great effect.”
- 11. I think it highly probable that President Pierce would have followed with another question:
“Granted that Young is their choice and that another would have no power, at least in the beginning, would YOU accept such an appointment?”
Gunnison could have only one response: “I would consider it an honor, sir; but also a misuse of my own talents.
“But you know them well; and you say you are their friend and assume that they regard you also as a friend.”
“This is true, but I am most anxious to aid in the pursuit of another and a greater project; which is to engage the energies of this nation in the great national project of building a railroad.”
- The superiority of the route he had explored with the Stansbury Expedition was a declaration he had made many times before with assurance and conviction. Gunnison would have spread his maps on the table and delivered his eloquent and persuasive argument:
“…This route would take the line of the Kanzas, up the Republican Fork and across to the South Platte, and thence along the Lodge Pole Creek to the south terminus of the Black Hills, where they would be turned; and then across the rich Laramie plains, leaving the Medicine-Bow Mountains on the south, and crossing the North Platte into the South Pass, over the Coal Basin, skirting the Bear River Mountains at the northern base, near Bridger’s Fort; and through the Bear and Weber Kanyons, which are represented by the mountain men as level and practicable, and confirmed by distant views as probably correct, issue upon the Kamas prairie to the Timpanogos, and course down its banks to the Valley of Lake Utah.
“…the best route from Utah lies through the passes to Sevier Lake, and south-west to the depression in the Sierra Nevada north of Los Angeles, where the Tulare valleys are entered, and from which a port is to be selected on the Pacific. The Mormon settlements nearer the rim of the basin, may incline the road more south, and would not much increase the distance…This wonderfully level track across the country strikes the mind with surprise. One scarcely is conscious of a hill on the road, while the immense mountains are ever before and around him.
“The difficulty this work will encounter lies in the accumulation of snow in the Weber and Timpanogos kanyons, during winter; exploration and observation are required to settle its presumed practicability; and the amount of this impediment. Such a road, within our limits, would be the crowning work of the century and indeed of all antecedent time, so gigantic is it in its conceptions; and it would be so wonderful in its results on trade and the destinies of the race, that all other human effort sink in insignificance before it. It would strike the centre of the great valley of the Mississippi, and the commerce and the travel that should come from Asia would there divide, to take its appropriate destination for the Gulf of Mexico or the St. Lawrence; or on the many lines of internal communication to the Atlantic seaboard.”
- In my scenario, the President would have suggested an accommodation of the two issues under discussion:
“You will doubtless spend the winter in Utah. Suppose you accept an appointment until another can replace you in the summer following. This would be of little inconvenience to you and would achieve the separation of powers now exercised by Brigham Young. An interim report, coming in February as now required, could be sent to Congress for study in the coming session. Your presence and testimony to follow could produce the effect we both seek on the affairs of the nation. What do you say?”
“I say, sir, you are the President and also my Commander-in-Chief.”
V. THE UNSOLICITED CHRONICLER
In my book, I have developed the thesis that Gunnison’s analysis of the Mormon religion, his profile of its first prophet, and his description of the Mormon experience with its neighbors, arrived at conclusions which were offensive to the Mormons. The issue of Mormon involvement in the Massacre, as was charged against them by several parties, and was believed by Gunnison’s widow, is fully explored in this account.
That issue is subject matter for a different discussion but germane to this in one important respect:
In biblical terms, Gunnison was attempting to “steady the Ark of the Covenant.” Its author would surely suffer the fate of the Hebrew, Uriah, who had been struck dead by the power of God for such an act. And if God did not act as expected, some Mormon zealot could readily persuade himself to be the agent of divine intent. To gain this perspective it is only necessary to read the speeches delivered when dedicating the cornerstones of the Salt Lake Temple.
Gunnison’s ability to influence the course of Mormonism was dependent upon the willingness of Mormon leaders to accept him as a friend and to act in accord with his counsel. If the Mormons conspired in his death, as was charged, or saw him as a threat to the success of their movement, he would have been “let severely alone”; and unless he had the President’s appointment in his pocket, his presence a second time among the Mormons may have achieved no more than a second book commenting on the condition of the Saints in the Valleys of the Mountains.
Nothing better can be said on that issue than to repeat Gunnison’s expressed belief that his book with its analysis and recommendations had been mis-perceived by the Mormons and that he could correct in person any errors or mis-understandings they may have entertained.
VI. HOW GUNNISON PROPOSED TO CHANGE THE MORMONS
Gunnison prescribed remedies for the excesses of Mormonism in a masterful burst of eloquent language, typical of the humanist that he was and of his faith in the powers of a democratic society:
“The causes which are at work to break up the clanship and oneness of the Mormon State, and reduce that people to the situation of others, with various beliefs and interests, are among themselves. The bursting power is internal, and loosening the outward bands will discover it. In short, the true policy is apparent, and may be given in their own peculiar phrase, ‘let them severely alone’ which they apply to Gentile rulers sent to control their movements.”
- The first “disturbing element” of that “bursting power” identified by Gunnison was the force of feminism.
Gunnison observed that women were identified in Mormon custom and doctrine as inferior in dignity and station as in the Mormon address of “Brethren and sisters,” rather than in the gentile fashion of “ladies and gentlemen”, and with all the other ramifications of a traditional, patriarchal society.
“…The glory of woman is constantly held to be a ‘mother in Israel,’ or literally, a child-tender,” Gunnison added, “reducing to that necessary minimum the societal role of the female.”
- Most important, and degrading in the extreme when compared to the divinely sanctioned marriage of pairs approved by Gunnison, was the institution of polygamy. “…The delicate sentiment of companionable qualities and mental attachments finds no place in the philosophy of plurality of wives…a great cause of disruption and jealousy is introduced into families…”
For Gunnison, the dual marriage was a sacred bond; those who “touched this subject lightly” were traitors to their country. Rather than endure the polygamous relationship, Mormon women had left Zion and accepted marriage to half-breeds and Potawatamies in Nebraska cabins.
Gunnison believed that women of Mormondom would not accept less than equality as their status; nor less than their full capabilities as the measure of their social worth.
- Gunnison also saw weakness in the appeal of Mormonism to the emerging youth of the movement. “The youth there are no fanatics,” said Gunnison, “and seem to care little for the detail of doctrines.
“…Separated now from those who can persecute them, it is hard to keep up the enthusiasm of the mass by reference to the persecutions heretofore endured. But to the young, the children of the mountains, these are ‘oft told tales, jejune and tiresome…'”
On the other hand, Gunnison noticed a negative effect from the Mormon claim that they were raising “a holy generation” and requiring polygamous wives for this purpose. This claim had already produced Mormon children both lawless and profane, as observed by Gunnison. These were the first fruits of Mormonism which could be readily judged by others.
- Another weakness was the hierarchical structure with Brigham Young at the peak holding all power and, in fact, the most absolute of all contemporary monarchs.
“So long as the people choose to obey one man in all things,” said Gunnison, “they are not slaves…” Such a choice seemed unreasonable and not likely to persist in a democratic society.
- “Nor is the harmony and union of the Presidency so strong that it cannot be broken,” Gunnison added. Mormon leadership had divided before and would likely do so again. “…it would require but little tyranny, and novelty of doctrine, preached by the Seer, to cause the cry of apostacy and ambition…”
- The system of tithes, was another source of potential discontent. “…By this engine, immense sums are accumulated, and put at the disposal of the Presidency, and its corrupting influences of irresponsible expenditure will sooner or later be developed…”
- The Mormon Bible, revised by the Inspiration of Joseph Smith, when published, would dry up the source of converts among Christians of other denominations. Such a book would be of no more interest than “…the Alcoran of Mohamet; or the Zendivesta…”
- Similarly, the prophecies made by “the Seer” in anticipation of the Millennium, must soon fail, turning away many who would now be certain they had identified a false prophet.
- Equally, the claims of access to divine power, extravagantly proclaimed, would prove to be false. Orson Pratt had proposed to refute the laws of Sir Isaac Newton with his doctrinal claim that all matter contained intelligence; that it was intelligence in matter, rather than gravitation, that held the planets in orbit. Trustee Phelps would not succeed in scheduling the Immortals for lectures at the University of Deseret. On these issues, common sense would prevail as elsewhere in society.
- 10. Gunnison’s conclusion was confident and forthright:
“All these seeds of distrust, ambition, and discontent, are sown in a fruitful soil; and, if they are left quietly to germinate by the powers at a distance, cannot fail to destroy that unity which renders the Mormon community so formidable to any that might seek to control it…”
Gunnison saw education and open discussion as the surest remedies for these Mormon anomalies:
“…Education is spreading right thoughts and will continue to do so, if let alone, among the masses of Yankees and Chartists, [who are among the Mormons]. They will learn how and when to throw off the usurpations of a pretended Theocracy.”
- In the concluding section of his book, Gunnison wrote his summation:
“Let us not then be the advocates of Mormonism, and opposers of our own form of Christianity, by counselling persecution and foreign control. This system is not what it was in the first decade. Once it was aggressive, now it is on the defensive–then it was violent, now it is politic. The thousand mile wall of space uninhabited hems it in and renders it harmless. The industry of the supporters makes it useful to the country. They are more than an army against the Indians of the West. The weary traveller to the land of Ophir shares in their hospitality.
“Mormonism could not exist as a concrete system among other sects. It must rule or it must die. A fair field to test its virtues and its faults is before us. Its votaries are now to ascertain its claims to truth by prophecy. If, in a few short years, they see the great city of New York, its people, its temples, and its wealth, go down into the opening earth, and the sea sing a requiem over the grave–if they see the Protestant world become only known in the records of the past–if a guard of angels in glittering armor descend and guide them back in military array across the desert plains–then may they know that the testimony of Joseph was the ‘spirit of prophecy.’
“…When the ‘knowledge of the Lord covers the earth as the waters cover the sea,’ then will this new church, the handy-work of man, fade away and be forgotten. For its virtuous industry we praise, for its brotherly unity we admire—and for its induction into the one Catholic Church we offer our sincere prayers.”
Gunnison did not live to counsel with Brigham Young. His death in the far off deserts of Utah proved to be a double tragedy. Beyond the betrayal and the brutality of his death lies the fact that the forces of change he had hoped to invoke were diminished. Mormon authoritarianism and unity were strengthened as public animosity toward the Mormons increased following the Gunnison Massacre and its sequels.
Ultimately, Mormonism was forced from its sectarian character and into the mainstream of American life by the revocation of its charter and the escheatment of its property, rather than by the free competition of ideas.
The agencies of cultural change were neither revelation and authority, as anticipated by Brigham Young, nor individual freedom of choice and reason, as Captain Gunnison had anticipated. Instead, they were the forces of war, of enforced cultural conformity, of transformed economic productivity, and of a seemingly endless increase of knowledge transforming all received perspectives.
There are those among the contemporary faithful who seek change accommodating the issues and human requirements of modern life much as did those Mormons Gunnison described many years ago. These new “Yankees and Chartists” are using the same methods and arguments for change that Gunnison cited: expanded roles for women, engagement of youth in present day concerns rather than group commitment and self-lauding prejudice, education for self-discovery, and the development of talents and skills.
These new reformers are armed with methods no more forceful than those available in Gunnison’s day. They take the personal risks inherent in challenges to authoritarian dogmas and dogmatists, as they reject control by intimidation. Such advocates of reform are still accused of “steadying the Ark,” and may be struck from their social foundations and demeaned by an arbitrary power seeking to protect the sacred oracles.
But today’s reformers may be aided rather than hindered by external pressures created by the surrounding society. These are much more pervasive than were the forces of rejection and persecution. These external forces may produce innovation, rather than tighter group cohesion.
The world outside enters all interior worlds in small increments, building toward new meanings and behaviors. New words are the subtle agents of change; new perceptions consign old images to the burgeoning realm of fantasy. Such agencies have already had significant effect in muting strident rhetoric and diminishing the force and direction of biblical authority. But these forces of change are almost imperceptible in a single lifetime, and many who wish better accommodation may find it more readily outside the fold, as was the case among the earlier Mormons.
The solution to the issue of change which holds least complication to most Mormons is described in another of Gunnison’s observations about the Mormon church in his day. This is the principle of continuous revelation. In his description, revelation appeared as an agency of discovery and change, rather than as a confirmation of immutable truth and conformity:
“Additional revelations are made from day to day according to the exigencies of the people and church; and this is assigned as the reason why they are so far in advance of the Christian world in spiritual, heavenly knowledge, and causes them to sneer upon all who adhere alone to the old revelations, and to pity them for their blindness and ignorance…
“But what we predicate of their teachings and of their doctrines to-day may not be the truth of either to-morrow. For by the doctrine of development, and having revelations according with the exigencies of the church, they may be bidden to change their policy, and suspend those commands found to be inapplicable to their condition, and the faith of the saints.
“Such suspension and withdrawal of privileges have already become precedents—and it should not strike us with surprise to hear that matrimony is confined again to a single pair, on the plea that it has fulfilled the intention of its founder, and the Word is prevailing fast enough to build up the faith on the earth, ready for the Lord’s coming.”
Gunnison was a humanist and also a pragmatist. Who is to say that some future Mormon leader may not broadly define revelation, as did the first Mormon prophet, and endorse the democratic dictum that the voice of the people is an acceptable equivalent to the voice of God?
Robert Kent Fielding is a native of Utah, presently living in Connecticut. He is a former professor of history at Brigham Young University and at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. Since his 1959 Dissertation, “Growth of the Mormon Church in Kirtland, Ohio”, he has written extensively on Mormon history and has been published in a number of professional Journals. In 1964, he published a widely used text book, titled The United States: An Interpretive History. Now retired, he divides his time between Connecticut and Orem, Utah, and writes and lectures on the Gunnison Massacre and Mormon History.