restricted access Displaced from Zion: Mormons and Indians in the 19th Century
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Displaced from Zion:
Mormons and Indians in the 19th Century

Typical and exceptional at the same time, Utah's frontier past offers an illuminating perspective on U.S. history. The story of Utah's formation—settlers colonizing Indian land, organizing a territory, dispossessing natives, and achieving statehood—could not be more American. This typicality requires explanation. How is it that Mormons (members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) managed to replicate a colonial pattern of Indian displacement when their ideas about Indians, not to mention their ideas about place, were so different from those of other American Protestants? Early Mormons saw Indians as spiritual kin with whom they would build a new Zion. But prophecies, dreams, and intentions did not become realities. Before they submitted to American conventions of marriage and the family, Latter-day Saints had freely absorbed the racist ideology of the nation.

The Mormon-Indian connection goes back to Joseph Smith's teenage imagination. "In the course of our [family's] evening conversations," his mother recalled, "Joseph would give us some of the most amusing recitals which could be imagined. He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent—their dress, their manner of traveling, the animals which they rode, the cities that were built by them, the structures of their buildings, with every particular of their mode of warfare, their religious worship as particularly as though he had spent his life with them." In 1830, as a serious adult, Smith produced the Book of Mormon. This 584-page scripture purports to be a record of North America's ancient inhabitants.

Among other things, the Book of Mormon narrates the emigration of an Israelite family out of Jerusalem around 600 B.C.E. With God's assistance, these Hebrews traveled by boat to America. Here in the (other) Promised Land, they fragmented into antagonistic groups—the Nephites and the Lamanites. The Lamanites lived as nomads and were cursed with dark skin, whereas the Nephites built great cities. Something like the two kingdoms of ancient Judaism, the groups repeatedly switched roles as the wicked and the righteous. Only for a brief period did harmony reign across the land. The righteousness came from Christ. The Redeemer himself appeared in the [End Page 40] New World during his absence from the tomb. The resurrected Savior repeated the Sermon on the Mount, performed the sacrament, and appointed twelve disciples. Ultimately, however, the Lamanites reverted to wickedness and idolatry. They eliminated all the fair-skinned Nephites and with them all the vestiges Christianity.

Moroni, the last of the Nephite scribes, buried the scriptural record in the Hill Cumorah before his death around 421 C.E. Much later, in angelic form, Moroni appeared to Joseph Smith and showed him the location of the hill, which was not far from Smith's home in Palmyra, New York. After finding and translating the Book of Mormon, the new prophet published it.

On the original title page, Smith announced one of the main purposes of the Book of Mormon: "to shew unto the remnant of the House of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever." Even in their degenerate state, the descendents of the Lamanites remained part of the covenant. In the Last Days, the "seed of Israel" would be redeemed. Many 19th-century Christians tried to convert the Indians, but only the Mormons had such lofty expectations. Once redeemed, the "remnant of Jacob" would take the lead in building the New Jerusalem, the site of the Second Coming. Repentant "Gentiles"—Mormon converts—would work with the Lamanites as assistants. The remaining Gentiles—the unconverted—would be annihilated in the apocalypse. Earthquakes and floods would wipe out the wicked. In addition, Mormons anticipated an army of Lamanites—the "strong arm of Jehovah," the "battle-ax of the Lord"—crushing their enemies like a lion among sheep. In the midst of this creative destruction, the Lamanites would reclaim their former glory, including fair skin.

In short, the religion of Joseph Smith reserved a paradoxical place for Indians. Knowing nothing...