The Brink of War

One hundred fifty years ago, the U.S. Army marched into Utah prepared to battle Brigham Young and his Mormon militia

A Mormon encampment in Provo, 1858 (Granger Collection, New York)
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On July 24, 1847, a wagon rolled out of a canyon and gave Brigham Young, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, his first glimpse of the Great Salt Lake Valley. That swath of wilderness would become the new Zion for the Mormons, a church roughly 35,000 strong at the time. "If the people of the United States will let us alone for ten years," Young would recall saying that day, "we will ask no odds of them." Ten years to the day later, when the church's membership had grown to about 55,000, Young delivered alarming news: President James Buchanan had ordered federal troops to march on the Utah Territory.

By then, Brigham Young had been governor of the territory for seven years, and he had run it as a theocracy, giving church doctrines precedence in civil affairs. The federal troops were escorting a non-Mormon Indian agent named Alfred E. Cumming to replace Young as governor and enforce federal law. In their long search for a place to settle, Mormons had endured disastrous confrontations with secular authorities. But this was the first time they faced the prospect of fighting the U.S. Army.

On June 26, 1858, one hundred fifty years ago this month, a U.S. Army expeditionary force marched through Salt Lake City—at the denouement of the so-called Utah War. But there was no war, at least not in the sense of armies pitched in battle; negotiators settled it before U.S. troops and Utah militiamen faced off. On June 19, the New York Herald summarized the non-engagement: "Killed, none; wounded, none; fooled, everybody."

In retrospect, such glibness seems out of place. The Utah War culminated a decade of rising hostility between Mormons and the federal government over issues ranging from governance and land ownership to plural marriage and Indian affairs, during which both Mormons and non-Mormons endured violence and privation. The tension was reflected in the fledgling Republican Party's 1856 presidential platform, which included a pledge to eradicate the "twin relics of barbarism—polygamy and slavery." To look back at this episode now is to see the nation at the brink of civil war in 1857 and 1858—only to pull back.

"The Utah War was catastrophic for those who suffered or died during it, and it was catalytic in advancing Utah along the slow but eventual path to statehood," says Richard E. Turley Jr., assistant church historian and recorder of the LDS Church.

Allan Kent Powell, managing editor of the Utah Historical Quarterly, notes that Abraham Lincoln warned, in 1858, that "a house divided against itself cannot stand," referring to the United States and slavery. "The same comment could have been applied to Utah," says Powell. "Just as the nation had to deal with the issue of slavery to ensure its continuation, so did the Territory of Utah have to come to an understanding and acceptance of its relationship with the rest of the nation."

The nation was unable to put off its reckoning over slavery. But the resolution of the Utah War bought the LDS Church time, during which it evolved as a faith—renouncing polygamy in 1890, for example, to smooth the way to Utah statehood—to become the largest home-grown religion in American history, now numbering nearly 13 million members, including such prominent Americans as Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada and hotelier J. W. Marriott Jr. At the same time, anti-Mormon bias persists. Last December, in an effort to make voters more comfortable with his Mormon faith, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, then a Republican presidential contender, declared like the Catholic John F. Kennedy before him: "I am an American running for president. I do not define my candidacy by my religion." In a Gallup Poll taken after Romney's speech, 17 percent of respondents said they would never vote for a Mormon. Roughly the same percentage answered similarly when Romney's father, Michigan Governor George Romney, ran for president in 1968.

Even now, issues rooted in the era of the Utah War linger. Last September, when the LDS Church formally expressed regret for the massacre of some 120 unarmed members of a wagon train passing through Utah on September 11, 1857, the Salt Lake Tribune published a letter comparing the events to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. A raid this past April by state authorities on a fundamentalist Mormon compound in Texas returned the subject of polygamy to the headlines (though the sect involved broke from the LDS Church more than 70 years ago).

"In the late 1850s, Mormons believed that the world would end within their lifetimes," says historian David Bigler, author of Forgotten Kingdom: The Mormon Theocracy in the American West, 1847-1896. In addition, he says, "they believed the forefathers who wrote the American Constitution had been inspired by God to establish a place where His kingdom would be restored to power. The Mormons believed their own kingdom would ultimately have dominion over all the United States." At the same time, the American nation was pursuing a "manifest destiny" to extend its domain westward all the way to the Pacific. The continent was not large enough to accommodate both beliefs.

The conflict had been building almost from the moment Joseph Smith, a religious seeker, founded his church in Palmyra, New York, in 1830. Where other Christian churches had strayed, Smith preached, the LDS Church would restore the faith as conceived by Jesus Christ, whose return was imminent. The next year, Smith moved with about 75 congregants to Ohio and sent an advance party to Missouri to establish what they believed would be a new Zion.


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