Throughout early Mormon history, however, this country was not always a haven for Smith and his followers.
“America is a land of promise (in the Book of Mormon) — until it’s not,” Barlow says. “The narrative tells of recurrent departures from peoples and lands grown degenerate in affluence, arrogance, injustice and lust for war.”
Many of those Latter-day Saints pushing American exceptionalism “forget the Book of Mormon is a tale of woe about America, full of warnings,” says American religion scholar Kathleen Flake, who teaches at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. “They’ve completely lost the sensibility of first-generation Mormons who believed that America was indicted for having killed the prophet (Smith).”
They also misread Smith’s statements about God’s hand in the founding of America, which were not narrowly focused on the United States, she says. For early Mormons, the prophet’s discussion of America was meant to include “the Western Hemisphere in salvation history, not limited to 30 guys writing a document in the last third of the 18th century.”
When the beleaguered band of believers were pushed out of their homes in the Midwest, they wanted to flee America.
“It is with the greatest joy that I forsake this republic,” LDS apostle Orson Pratt wrote in 1845. “If our Heavenly Father will deliver us out of the hands of the blood-thirsty Christians of these United States and not suffer any more of us to be martyred to gratify their holy piety, I for one shall be very thankful.”
On July 4, 1885, Mormon pioneers lowered the American flag at Salt Lake City’s Temple Square and church-owned businesses to half-staff to protest federal encroachment on their religious liberties.
After Utah statehood in 1896, though, Mormons became superpatriots to show the country their loyalty. By the 1960s, then-LDS apostle Ezra Taft Benson would declare: “With all my heart I love our great nation. ... This is part of my religious faith.”
(Peggy Fletcher Stack writes for The Salt Lake Tribune.)
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