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“A Curious and Interesting Enterprise”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - January 27, 2009

The New York Picayune, in weekly publication from 1847 through 1859, began life as a comic newspaper chiefly dedicated to selling its founder’s patent medicines. While it always retained its focus on humor – political cartoons, spoofs of great literature, social satire – I think it must also have dealt with straight news on occasion. At least, my sarcast-o-meter can detect no double entendres in the following piece published in early 1851.

Pure speculation on my part, but I wonder if its editor’s sympathetic opinion of the Mormons was built on the evident character and sincerity of Latter-day Saint John M. Bernhisel, in town that winter tasked with the selection of a library for the Territory of Utah.

As visionary as its writer was, he didn’t foresee the half of it …

Mormon Library

Congress, at its last session, appropriated five thousand dollars for the commencement of a library, for the use of the citizens of the Territory of Utah, and John M. Bernhisel, Esq.,. of the Utah delegation in Congress, has been appointed to procure the books. This amiable and excellent gentleman is now in this city, making purchases at auction and elsewhere, wherever he can expend the appropriation to the best advantage. He also receives donations of books or other publications from authors, publishers, and others, for the same destination.

This is a curious and interesting enterprise. The despised Mormons, driven out of Illinois, have founded an empire in the heart of the continent, so extensive, so respectable, that Congress has given them a territorial government, has appointed the head of the Church governor of the territory, and made this provision for a public library. The Union Colony is probably, at this moment, the finest, the best ordered, and the most prosperous in the world. Ten years hence, Utah will be a rich and powerful State, with a policy and religious establishment as peculiar as any which ever originated in past times. The Mormons have had their season of persecution and martyrdom – they have held just to their faith. Driven out of one city, and from one temple, they have founded others far greater. Their very expulsion from Illinois, by a violent and misguided populace, has given to them a vast country of illimitable wealth, and to this confederacy a present territory and a future State, which bids fair, at no distant time to take rank with the proudest.

With such a character, such resources, the prestige of such providences, and an active missionary establishment, it would not be strange if in a century, the Mormon faith should have spread over half our continent. Stranger things than that have happened. No religious belief is ridiculous, and we should be careful how we despise – much more, how we persecute the chosen faith of any people.

(Reprinted in the Millennial Star, 1 May 1851.)



13 Comments »

  1. What strikes me most is that in the face of the belief that “[t]en years hence, Utah will be a rich and powerful State,” the writer then goes on to exhort the reader to religious tolerance (even if only out of political pragmatism). Instead of righteous indignation about Mormon encroachment into the American union and its destiny, the writer preaches quiet acceptance. Fascinating.

    Comment by Hunter — January 27, 2009 @ 9:14 am

  2. Yeah, he seems to have taken it for granted that that was the natural course of things, didn’t he?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 27, 2009 @ 9:32 am

  3. “detect no double entendres”

    I may not in language, but in intent. It seems to me the author is lightly making fun of the United States for kicking the Mormons out. By kicking them out the Mormons are now in a position to become stronger and more independent than ever. In fact, they now can found a state rather than just live in a state.

    “it would not be strange if in a century, the Mormon faith should have spread over half our continent. Stranger things than that have happened. No religious belief is ridiculous, and we should be careful how we despise – much more, how we persecute the chosen faith of any people.”

    Within my own believed context, I don’t think this is about tolerance. It is about the irony of making something we dislike stronger because of thoughtless intolerant acts. The writer seems to be saying Mormons could have been simple neighbors, but now are a powerful force.

    Comment by Jettboy — January 27, 2009 @ 9:35 am

  4. OK, my latent Mormon paranoia is kicking in. Let’s see if I can keep it in check.

    Fear of his observations coming true were probably among the motivators for John M. Bernhisel receiving the donated books; as well as proposing to send bibles, federal officials and later an army to what would be come Utah. There was no way certain people in the east were going to let his predictions come true.

    Comment by BruceCrow — January 27, 2009 @ 9:54 am

  5. Bruce, your awareness of what did in fact happen later is probably coloring your reading a bit, don’t you think? And Jettboy, you’re waaaay overthinking things, no?

    Why is it not possible for the occasional person to find something admirable, or say something pleasant about us, or want to help out a new settlement that had just been endorsed by Congress, without its being taken as veiled mockery or a hidden warning to the public?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 27, 2009 @ 10:01 am

  6. I tend to disagree with Jettboy. There is a certain amount of respect called for here. Notice that the writer doesn’t call Mormon belief “ridiculous”; rather, he says no “religious belief” is ridiculous. And he even does so far as to say that Mormons’ belief is their “chosen faith” and worthy of respectful distance.

    Not to go overboard, no, I don’t think the writer is trying to win converts on the part of the Church. Rather, he’s recognizing the pragmatic good of politically letting go of peoples’ beliefs. To me, it’s sort of the cynical foil to George Washington’s belief that religion is good for society; here, he’s arguing that the suppression of religion is actually bad for society. So, yes, it’s a poke in the eye of the United States.

    Comment by Hunter — January 27, 2009 @ 10:04 am

  7. I didn’t say he was making a statement against the Mormons. His views seem to represent genuine respect for the Mormons. I said he was likely making fun of the United States for showing generosity to a religion that was so recently kicked out.

    Comment by Jettboy — January 27, 2009 @ 10:43 am

  8. No religious belief is ridiculous, and we should be careful how we despise – much more, how we persecute the chosen faith of any people.

    This is pretty enlightened stuff. Someone needs to say it again, today.

    Comment by Martin Willey — January 27, 2009 @ 11:26 am

  9. This was, of course, published before the 1852 public pronouncement of the practice of plural marriage. One wonders if the writer would have been so sanguine about Mormonism two years later.

    Comment by Mark B. — January 27, 2009 @ 11:58 am

  10. Good point, Mark B. It was also published a few months before the “runaway judges” fled back to Washington, giving scurrilous reports to every newspaper editor they found en route. In a way, this was the honeymoon period of Mormon history — we’re gone and no longer clashing with anyone within the nation’s settled borders, and we haven’t yet become a headache beyond the borders.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 27, 2009 @ 12:08 pm

  11. I’m sure I am colored by what happed later. And I’m pretty sure I would have a hard time un-coloring myself. It is the advantage of “judging history from the standards of today.” Wait a minute. I think I’ve heard that before. Somewhere….

    This editorial is proof that at least one person saw the potential of the Mormon colony. The author may indeed have simply admired them for that. But by virtue of what later happened I would guess that others were not so thrilled about the idea.

    Comment by BruceCrow — January 27, 2009 @ 12:45 pm

  12. Okay, you’ve adequately defended yourself! :)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 27, 2009 @ 12:47 pm

  13. I think Jettboy is onto something in #7, though…

    Comment by queuno — January 31, 2009 @ 7:35 am

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