Romney, Mormonism, and the American Compromise


Mitt Romney is threatening to disturb the American compromise with Mormonism.

Nineteenth-century observers were largely indifferent to the new religion Joseph Smith founded in 1830. Most dismissed his claims about angels and gold plates as just another example of American gullibility. "Had we not seen in our own days similar impostures practiced with success," yawned one Illinois contemporary, "[Mormonism] would have excited our special wonder; as it is, nothing excites surprise." But in Missouri and Illinois local tensions erupted in violence, and national concern intensified when Brigham Young—relatively safe in the refuge of Utah—announced a system of plural marriage in 1852. For the next forty years, from the popular press and pulpits alike, cries for the eradication of this "relic of barbarism" streamed forth from the pulpits, press, and party platforms. Then came concessions—but limited concessions—from both sides. Mormons abandoned polygamy and political isolationism. And America granted partial accommodation. The deal was signed in 1893—but it was a devil's bargain. Here is what happened.

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Copyright © 2012, Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion. This article first appeared in Sightings, February 16, 2012 (2012).

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