Polygamy, Persecution and Proselytizing

From Salt Lake to Knoxville: Mormons in East Tennessee


by Leah E. Willis

It's Monday, July 23, 2007, and citizens are lining the streets of an American city. Instead of heading home after work or school, hundreds of families gather downtown to set up chairs and pitch tents in anticipation of an event not happening until the next day. No need to take vacation time: Most people have the day off, as all government departments will be closed tomorrow, including post offices, courthouses and the public university.

There are no tickets being sold for this affair. It has nothing to do with a hyped-up sports competition, or a popular music group, or a cinematic summer blockbuster, or Harry Potter.

The day will be observed throughout the state with fairs and fireworks, parades and rodeos, music and art shows. Entire community organizations and churches will participate together. It will be a wholesome occasion; likely, no one will end up in jail from boozing in public or overly rowdy revelry.

But there may be protestors. For some, it's an issue of heated controversy.

This is Pioneer Day. And in Utah, it's more celebrated than the Fourth of July.

Also known as the Days of   '47, July 24 is a legal holiday in the Beehive State, commemorating the settling of Mormon pioneers in Salt Lake City in 1847. But in the hills of Appalachia, it's business as usual, and the majority of greater Knoxville's 18 Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) congregations will likely be spending today as they would any other weekday. â“They'll have celebrated last Saturday, or will this Saturday,â” explains Kent Vaughn, public affairs chairman and member of a high council, which presides over nine congregations.

Typical festivities might involve a cookout or a reenactmentâ"the kind of gathering where children decorate toy wagons to look like those of a 19th century pioneer. In 1997, in recognition of the 150th anniversary of the settlement, local LDS followers dressed in pioneer-style clothing and lead a â“wagon trainâ” from the World's Fair Park through downtown Knoxville. â“We believe that everyone is a pioneer in this day and age, in their own way,â” Vaughn offers. â“Whether LDS or not, we are laying the path for the children and grandchildren coming after us, leading the way for those who follow us, hoping to make it a better future.â”

But it's not the holiday that's drawing national attention to Latter-day Saints. Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, is a viableâ"albeit unlikelyâ"Republican candidate for president. And he's generating more than a debate of religion in politics. â“He's probably a major factor in creating curiosity about the church,â” says Judd Rambo, a coordinator for the church's education system and director of the Institute of Religion in Knoxville. â“So many non-LDS [individuals] are asking questions now because of Romney bringing Mormonism to the public eye. And that's a good thing.â”

It was as a boy of 14, in 1820, that Joseph Smith, founder and first prophet of LDS, received what is referred to as his First Vision. According to his personal account, Smith was visited by God and his son Jesus Christ, while praying on what church to join. Smith was instructed not to join any of them, as they were all wrong, corrupt and self-serving. Critics posit that only an unusual charisma explains Smith's ability to rouse intelligent individuals to believe what follows.

A few years later, Smith was visited again, this time by an angel called Moroni, who reappeared to Joseph four times, once a year for four years, and instructed him on the location and contents of thin, gold plates that were buried in a hill near Smith's home in New York, and that would restore the â“fulness [sic] of the everlasting Gospel.â” Smith translated the plates into English, and named the tome the Book of Mormon, after the prophet credited with compiling the sacred record of the ancient peoples of the Americas.

Perhaps the most egregious misconception about the church, according to local church leaders, has to do with the Book of Mormon, which LDS church members see as supplemental to the Bible, but which many outside the church perceive as the sole doctrine of LDS. â“People think that we worship a guy named Mormon,â” explains Rambo. â“I'm not sure where the misunderstanding comes from. Most likely, it's the nickname of the church: Mormon. The actual full name is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The central tenet of our church is in the ministry, atonement and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Everything else that we believe in is an appendage to that central event of Jesus' life. We are Christians; everything we do centers on Jesus Christ.â”

And yet, someâ"including local, non-LDS Christiansâ"would vehemently dispute this assertion. Antioch Baptist Church, located a few miles north of downtown on Broadway, lists on its website, www.learnthebible.org , Mormons, Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses and other religious and spiritual rubrics under a link to â“Cults and False Doctrines.â” In response to an anonymous online question about the possible salvation of cult members, creation-science evangelist and Antioch church member Chris Wilhoit writes: â“The worst cults in my view are Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses. These two groups deny that Jesus was the living God incarnate, but rather teach that He was a lesser created god.â”

Dr. Roland Roberts, professor in UT's department of agricultural economics, and LDS Student Association advisor, responds: â“I don't even know what that means. We believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God resurrected. For the life of me, I have a difficult time figuring out where other Christian churches get the idea we're not Christian. I have always been a member of the church, and from the time I was a little boy, I was taught that Jesus Christ is the savior, the redeemer of humankind.â”

Not all opposition or resistance constitutes opprobrium. Dr. Roberts goes on to relate a story of a friend he regularly rode the bus with for a time: â“He said he'd learned something in Sunday school that disturbed him: that Mormons aren't Christian. I thought two things: â‘Why should that be disturbing? Even if we weren't Christian, why would that matter? There are lots of people who aren'tâ"Buddhists, Muslimsâ"who are good people. Secondly, we are Christian!'â”

LDS church member and historian Freda Borden agrees: â“Everyone [Christian] has a foundation of the gospelâ. All we do is take that, and add to it concepts like â‘families are forever.' We allow everyone to believe what they wish to believe. We try not to be judgmental, nor act like we are better than anyone else, because we're not.â” Her husband Mitch Borden echoes the sentiment: â“We are all children of the heavenly Father; we are all literally brothers and sistersâ. And we treat each other accordingly, with love and respect and compassion for individual needs.â” (The Bordens, both of whom converted to LDS in adulthood after marrying, compiled and edited two documents, Footsteps of Faith and Footprints , which chronicle personal and historical accounts of Mormons in the Knoxville area since the arrival of the first Saints in the 1830's, a time when Knoxville was languishing economically, and nearly forgotten, but for its legacy as the former state capital. Copies of the documents can be found in the East Tennessee History Center's McClung Collection. In them are stories of East Tennessee Mormons since the Civil War, including anecdotes such as an 1881 East Tennessee Universityâ"the forerunner to UTâ"debate entitled â“Resolved, That Mormonism in the United States Should Be Abolished.â”)

Perhaps the labeling of LDS as a cult derives from nearly 40 years as a polygamy-practicing institution. (Joseph Smith did not indoctrinate his followers with the practice; he merely introduced it, and the second LDS president and prophet, Brigham Young, is credited with spreading it within the church as a formal practice.) It is believed in the Mormon faith that husbands and wives are bound together for all eternity, in life and in death, to each other and to their families. The notion of plural marriage was conceptualized by Joseph Smith as a means to care for multiple families in life, and thus, seal them together in eternity. However, the practice has always been met with opposition, including from Smith's own first wife, Emma. Then-President Abraham Lincoln effectively banned polygamy in U.S. territories in 1862. And after much pressure in the form of federal law, the practice was officially abandoned by the church in 1890. Any ambiguity on the matter is thought to have been definitely resolved in a 1904 statement by the president of the church at the time (also named Joseph Smith), which prohibited plural marriage in no uncertain terms, and declared excommunication as the fate of any non-compliant church member or leader.

Certain Mormon fundamentalist sects still practice polygamy, though they are not affiliated with, nor recognized by, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Still, it was the practice of polygamy that sparked murders known as the Tennessee Mormon Massacre in south-centrally located Lewis County in 1884. A mob attacked a group of Mormon men and women (who, incidentally, opposed polygamy). Five deaths resulted, and no one was ever tried for the crime. LDS believers were driven out of the area by open threats.

It's a true, but unimaginable, story for many of the 5,000 Knoxville-area Mormons today. â“You hear horror stories about the South,â” says Brother Rambo, who moved to the area from Utah just one year ago, â“but we've actually found it to be a very friendly place. Religion is just as important to our neighbors as it is to us. This is an openly spiritual region of the country.â” It's a sentiment that's reflected by many other LDS members.  

That's not to say that there aren't still myths circulating about LDS. Contrary to belief, or at least unbeknownst to many non-Mormons, LDS services are not unlike those many East Tennesseans are familiar with. Maybe 100 or more people are dressed in typical â“church attireâ”: sort of business casual, nothing too fancy. There's the singing of hymns, testimonials from church members, a seated version of communion, a sermon. It lasts just over an hour.

In other words, LDS services are extremely similar to what most likely happens at other Christian churches in the Knoxville area on any given Sunday. Different perhaps, is the high level of congregation involvement in conducting the service, the emphasis on missionary work, and the absence of Antioch's brand of hellfire-and-damnation. (That's not to say that all Baptist churches align with Antioch.) â“I am not good, nor do I pretend to be good because I am afraid of hell,â” local Mission President Ron Godfrey says. â“That is not what motivates me.â”

Many basic Mormon ideals are such that many Americans could identify with them. Essentially, they hold that a person should value himself and his family, serve in his church and community, seek education, and respect the government. Also, the church maintains comparatively high demands of members for tithing (and other required offerings), but as a result, boasts â“the most ideal system of welfare in the world,â” according Godfrey. â“We teach people how to be self-reliant, to take care of themselves. But if someone needs help, the church will be there, regardless of religious affiliation. It's humanitarian aid.â” And it's possible because of the church's standing as one of the world's wealthiest on a per-capita basis.

In addition, however, the church promulgates decidedly-conservative, arguably-fundamentalist dogma. LDS opposes homosexual acts, masturbation, and the consumption of coffee and tea (though not caffeine, in general). They espouse modest dress and proselytizing, and eschew pornography, drugs, tobacco, alcohol, andâ"some would sayâ"racial minority participation in church leadership. (The church banned African-Americans from the Mormon priesthood until as late as 1978.) Indeed, excommunications conferred by the First Presidency, the highest authority in the church, are not always fully explained or understood.

It's not a religion for the selective or the half-hearted participant (which seems a pervasive and fair characterization of so much of America's contemporary spiritual fabric). Rather, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints calls for willingness to witness, perseverance against persecution, unyielding commitment to family, and unquestioning obedience to the church. â“We believe in letting your light shine before men, and letting them make their own decisions as to what that light is,â” says Borden. Then Godfrey adds: â“We believe in character, not charisma.â”


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