Mormons – Murders – Multiple Wives

In 1984, two fundamentalist Mormons – commanded by God – slit the throats of their sister-in-law and baby niece. Brenda and Erica Lafferty were victims in a long chain of Mormon-related violence stretching back from the 19th century. Today, mainstream Mormonism is a peaceful religion with almost 15 million followers – equal to the world population of Jews. I once knew a Mormon and toured their facilities in Salt Lake City, Utah – quite a sight if you ever get a chance to visit. Mormon history is very peculiar, and I wanted to learn more about it through Jon Krakauer’s book – Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. Krakauer highlights how fundamentalism can lead to violence and subjugation in his compelling tale of present-day murder and the Mormon church’s growth from obscure to mainstream. 

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Let’s start from the beginning. Joseph Smith – the founder of Mormonism – was visited by an angel named Moroni while praying one evening in 1823. This angel revealed the location of golden plates that contained lost religious writings. After several failed attempts, Joseph was able to acquire the golden plates at the Hill Cumorah in Manchester, New York. The plates contained sacred records in an unknown language called reformed Egyptian. Joseph was the only one able to translate these tablets using special glasses. These plates would lead to the publishing of the Book of Mormon in 1830 and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in 1838. Several followers joined Smith’s church which claimed that a lost tribe of Isreal came to America and that Jesus visited them after his crucifixion. Early followers joined Joseph’s church because he proclaimed that God could be reached through personal revelations and that there were no barriers in communicating with God. This was at a time when American religion was experiencing a Second Great Awakening. Unfortunately, membership was not boosted by the sight of the golden tablets because they had to be given back to the Angel Moroni.

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Joesph moved his church from New York to Ohio where Smith was charged with financial fraud – forcing him to take his flock west to Missouri. While in Missouri, the Mormons fought with their “gentile” neighbors and after a bloody fighting, they were forced to relocate to the state of Illinois. The Mormons, being a tight-knit group who disliked outsiders, did not get along with their Illinois statesman – violence and murder were common. Things began to fall apart for Joseph when he received a revelation from God that he should take multiple wives. The church split from Joseph’s philandering, and the prophet was arrested for suppressing the local press. While in custody, Joseph Smith was killed by an angry “gentile” mob who saw him as a religious fanatic. The Mormon church was in chaos after their founder’s death but one of their leaders – Brigham Young – led them westward to safety. By 1847 more than 2000 Mormons had left American soil and entered the Mexican territory of what is now Utah. 

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Joseph’s polygamy revelation was not taken well by most of the Mormon leaders. Joseph’s wife actually declared that God had revealed to her that she should have multiple husbands – this did not sit well with the prophet. After the prophet’s death, the church split into polygamous and non-polygamous sects – the polygamous group headed to Utah and the non-polygamous group faded into obscurity. Brigham Young supported polygamy and believed it was the best way for men to live virtuous lives since they wouldn’t be tempted by extramarital sex. The United States government banned plural marriage and fought the Mormons on this front until the late 19th century when they passed laws to seize all Mormon church holdings. The Mormon church finally bowed to the law and changed their policy of polygamy in 1904. Since the prophet proclaimed polygamy to be a God-given right, many Mormons broke from the main church to establish their own “fundamentalist” branches.

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Today about 40,000 Mormons are fundamentalists and still practice polygamy. A famous example is Warren Jeffs, who was purported to have 70 wives, many of which were 14 years old at the time of marriage. These fundamentalists are responsible for most Mormon-related violence and kidnappings – the most famous being Elizabeth Smart in 2002. Of course, there is a lot to say about this subject, but the point I want everyone to take from this post is that fundamentalism – in any religion or secular viewpoint – is never a good thing. To be a fundamentalist is to believe that there is nothing more to learn from the world – many times an outlook that leads to dehumanization. Remember that we must be open to both truth and empathy – when those two things are absent the result is the murder of a mother and her child.

What are your views on Mormonism, Fundamentalism, and/or Polygamy? I love to read your comments.

The Birth of Chicago-Wilderness and Whiskey

Imagine the now great city of Chicago as just a patch of forest, sand, and swamps that was host to several indian villages. I read about the birth of Chicago in the book Rising Up From Indian Country: The Battle of Fort Dearborn and The Birth Of Chicago by Ann Durkin Keating. The word “Chicago” is believed to be derived from the Miami-Illinois word “Shikaakwa” which means smelly onion or striped skunk. In 1768, there were 30,000 indians living in the western great lakes area-still a very wild and unsettled terrain only known to a few fur trading Europeans. The French were the most pronounced Europeans during this time and they often married indian women to form better trading bonds with the various tribes. These interracial parings produced cute “métis” babies which would be the first people to settle in Chicago-having an established trade outpost by 1788. With the passing of the Northwest Ordinance in 1787 and thus the establishment of the Northwest Territory (today’s Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, and Wisconsin), the door slowly creaked open for settlement of the far western reaches of the young empire. These first settlers were entering a world that was unforgiving in terms of nature and natives. European’s desires for land were met with indian’s desire for trading goods-ammunition, steel, and especially whiskey. Treaties began to arise that ceded native land to Americans in exchange for annual annuities payments and offerings of peace. The Fort Wayne Treaty of 1803 led to the construction of Fort Dearborn near the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. This fort legitimized Chicago as a far western trade post but there was still only a few hundred people living in the settlement.

Fast forward to August 15th, 1812. The War of 1812 is underway and for the past two decades anger has been growing among indian tribes because of the relentless pursuit of land by the US. Britain harnessed this anger and used indians to assist in the capture of Mackinaw Island and Detroit early in the war. Fort Dearborn was now under pressure of attack and American military personal were ordered to evacuate. As the party of 148 left the fort they were soon ambushed by 500 Potawatomi indians-killing 86 men, women, and children. This was known as the “Fort Dearborn Massacre” but the word “Massacre” was erroneously used to rally US citizens against indians in general. Interestingly, some of the indian warriors took the hearts of the slain and ate them to gain strength and courage. Fort Dearborn was burned and the whole settlement of Chicago was abandoned by the Americans. The War of 1812 would end in 1815 and this would mark a new era in Americas quest for territory. Between 1816-1833, Potawatomies ceded nearly 18 million acres of land. This cession of land was accomplished through month long negotiations between whites and Indians. Unfortunately, indians did not have centralized leadership and many of the land agreements were signed by those with no authority. In return for their land, indians were given annuities and the promise that they could keep some land to continue living in the area (this would turn out to be a lie). The indians really had no choice but to negotiate with the Americans because the trade of alcohol would cease until an agreement came about; the spread of alcoholism among natives was a serious issue.

With the land secured, a new Fort Dearborn was constructed in 1816. This fort would soon thrive especially with the completion of the Erie Canal in 1826-speeding travel from the east from 6 weeks to 2 weeks. By 1833 the last treaty of land cession was signed by the Potawatomies and Chicago began its rise to the major city we know today. This story is fascinating when you put in the context of a lifetime. Imagine someone who was born in 1812 when Fort Dearborn burned down to 1893 when the population of Chicago surpassed 1 million people and it hosted the World’s Fair! The courage of the early settlers is admirable but the exploitation of indians is quite sad. The negotiations for land were not fair because indians would speak for tribes that were not represented and the concept of land ownership to indians was far different then European ideology. In the end, the story of Chicago is the story of American conquest, ambition, and the relentless desire for resources.

How could the early American’s gained land in a manner more befitting to the indians? What cities history are you interested in learning about?