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Errors in Whitebread’s Account of Mormon History and Marijuana

By: Ardis E. Parshall - October 20, 2009

This post was intended for Keepa’s regular readers – practicing Mormons – for whom there was no need to list the egregious social and historical errors of Charles Whitebread’s 1995 speech to the California Judges Association. Non-Mormon readers might find this tutorial helpful:

1. “Help from some people in Salt Lake City, associated with the Mormon Church ….”

Salt Lake City is the world headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons, or LDS). About half its residents are LDS; far fewer are practicing LDS. That “people in Salt Lake City” may have assisted the author is no assurance of credibility.

2. “… and the Mormon National Tabernacle in Washington.”

There is no such site. There is no building anywhere in the world called “Mormon National Tabernacle.” There is no “national” tabernacle anywhere. The tabernacle most familiar to non-Mormons because of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is located in Salt Lake City. That tabernacle houses no offices beyond those of the Choir, sponsors no scholars, has no research or administrative facilities, is the headquarters of no expert or spokesman or official or adviser, except for the Choir.

The Mormons have chapels for local congregations in Washington; there is even a temple there. But no one at any Mormon building in or anywhere near Washington speaks for the church as a whole or could possibly have assisted Whitebread in the capacity implied by his statement here.

3. “In 1910, the Mormon Church in synod in Salt Lake City decreed polygamy to be a religious mistake and it was banned as a matter of the Mormon religion.”

Polygamy, or plural marriage, was ended in 1890 (although as with any social practice, it took a few years to completely wean people away from plural marriage). The Manifesto – the statement ending polygamy – was sustained in October 1890 by the membership of the church meeting in general conference – not “synod.”

Polygamy has never been “decreed a religious mistake.” Even as it was ended, Mormons taught and believed in plural marriage as a divine mandate from God, a good and wise and holy practice. Because the laws of the United States inflicted draconian punishments on church members and the church organization, the church was in danger of destruction had plural marriage continued. Mormons today honor their polygamous ancestors and declare that there was no “mistake” about it.

Nothing particular of any nature occurred in connection with polygamy in 1910.

4. “A crackdown on people who wanted to live in what they called ‘the traditional way.’”

“The traditional way” is not a phrase I or my readers have ever heard in connection with any past Mormon practice.

Two apostles (the second tier of church leadership) were dropped from their positions in 1906 because they continued to teach and approve of plural marriage, contrary to the 1890 Manifesto. In the 1920s and ‘30s, renegade Mormons who preached or contracted plural marriage began to be excommunicated for their breach of church discipline. I know of nothing else that could be considered a “crackdown” in the generation around 1910.

5. “Just after 1910, a fairly large number of Mormons left the state of Utah … and moved into northwest Mexico.”

No such migration occurred. Mormons had founded colonies in Mexico beginning in the 1870s, just as they had founded dozens upon dozens upon dozens of other communities throughout the West during the 19th century. The Mexican colonies did serve as a refuge from U.S. prosecution of polygamy from the date of their founding, but there is no historical event in the 20th century that corresponds to Whitebread’s statement here. In fact, the Mexican Revolution “just after 1910″ forced Mormon migrants out of Mexico, not into it.

6. “They wrote a lot about what they wanted to accomplish in Mexico. They wanted to set up communities where they were basically going to convert the Indians, the Mexicans, and what they referred to as “the heathen” in the neighborhood to Mormonism.”

The LDS church is known for its evangelism, sending tens of thousands of missionaries annually throughout the world. That is an ongoing practice since the 1830s. 19th century missions to Mexico and to various Indian tribes are a definite fact of Mormon history. Nothing special in regard to missionary work in Mexico occurred during the period Whitebread speaks of.

The term “heathen” is not used by Mormons – it is alien to us. Anyone who is not a Mormon is simply not a Mormon, regardless of their “heathen” or “civilized” status according to other religious traditions. The attribution of phrases such as “heathen” (or “the traditional way”) reflects Whitebread’s utter unfamiliarity with Mormonism.

7. “By 1914, they had very little luck with the heathen, but our research shows now beyond question that the heathen had a little luck with them.”

Again, nothing significant with regard to Mexican missions or Mormons living in Mexico occurred anywhere around 1914 – unless you count the Mexican Revolution when Anglo Mormons were forced to return north of the border, along with most other Anglos in Mexico. Most of those refugees stayed very near the border; many of them returned to their Mexican towns when it was safe to do so.

8. “There are still substantial Mormon communities in northwest Mexico.”

Yes. And so –?

9. “Most of the Mormons were not happy there, the religion had not done well there, they didn’t feel comfortable there.”

False in all its parts. The Mormons in the northern Mexican colonies were as attached to their homes – their birth places in most cases – as anyone else in the world, and remained (or returned after the Revolution) because it was home. The Juarez Academy, as a representation of the success of those Mormon colonies, has been a shining jewel in the Mormon educational system, providing church leaders throughout the 20th century. It remains highly respected to this day.

10. “They wanted to go back to Utah where there [sic] friends were and after 1914 did.”

If there was migration from the Mexican colonies to Utah at any time, it was the movement of a few individuals. There is nothing magical about the year 1914 to spark such migration, and no noticeable migration occurred during that period.

11. “The Indians had given them marijuana.”

Whitebread provides no support for this statement – simply asserts it. The bulk of the “Mormon Marijuana Myth” post outlines my evidence for an absence of awareness of marijuana among Mormons of this generation.

12. “Now once you get somebody back in Utah with the marijuana it all becomes very easy, doesn’t it?”

Perhaps for someone with a pro-pot perspective, who assumes that marijuana is as attractive to all people as it is to them. There is no evidence for the presence, use, or even awareness of marijuana among Mormons at this time. None. The main post mentions the sources I checked for such mention; if someone has other suggestions for sources, I’ll gladly check those and report back as well.

13. “You know that the Mormon Church has always been opposed to the use of euphoriants of any kind.”

Research for this post provided me with my first encounter of the word “euphoriant.” It is simply not a concept that (now or ever) has played any role in Mormon thought.

Mormons do have a code of health (the Word of Wisdom) that expressly proscribes alcohol, tobacco, tea and coffee. By extension, any substance that harms the body, or that tends to unnatural stimulation or depression, or creates a craving or dependence, or alters the mind so as to make an individual irresponsible (unless supervised by a legitimate physician for legitimate medical needs), is considered to be under the ban of the Word of Wisdom, whether or not expressly named there. This ban would cover the recreational use of marijuana, but it has never been taught as singling out marijuana from the host of other illicit drugs.

14. “In August of 1915 the Church, meeting again in synod in Salt Lake City …”

General conferences – not synods – of the Church meet in April and October of each year, including 1915. No general or even significant meeting occurred in August of 1915. The full record of discourses and instructions given at general conferences is published and available for review. Neither of the conferences in 1915 – or in any year throughout that generation and for many years afterwards — includes any mention of marijuana.

15. “Decreed the use of marijuana contrary to the Mormon religion.”

Didn’t happen, in 1915 or in any other year. See Point 13 above.

16. “This is how things were in Utah in those days – in October of 1915, the state legislature met and enacted every religious prohibition as a criminal law.”

Didn’t happen. If Mormon tenets were automatically enshrined in Utah law as Whitebread implies, polygamy would still be a legal practice and likely practiced by mainstream Mormons; it is not. Alcohol and tobacco would be outlawed in Utah; they are not, and never have been, with the exception of the period of alcohol Prohibition as required by the U.S. Constitution. As demonstrated in the post, marijuana was not on the Mormon radar at this time, and whatever the legislature did in regard to marijuana had nothing to do with religious concerns.

One irrefutable evidence against Whitebread’s claim here is that the Mormons of this generation were on record as calling for laws to make tobacco sale and use illegal. Had the state legislature been inclined to “enact religious prohibitions as criminal laws,” tobacco would have been banned in Utah. It was not.

Whitebread may have been a law professor, although I have a hard time understanding how a man with such a weak grasp of facts could prepare and present the kind of logical argument required by law. He certainly was no historian, and the weakness of his understanding of Mormon history is staggering. I have seldom seen greater ignorance of demonstrable fact in any forum.

Should you have further questions about Mormon history in connection with Whitebread’s fantastical account, or in connection with the history of marijuana laws, please leave a comment. I’ll get back to you.



2 Comments »

  1. Regarding item number three in your review of “Whitebread’s Account . . .”: General agreement is expressed with virtually all of your assessment, but with a few minor caveats.

    While it is true that as you say that “plural marriage [was] a divine mandate from God, [and] a good wise and holy practice,” it was also more than a “social practice.” Doctrinally speaking, plural marriage was encapsulated in the same revelation (D&C 132) that set forth the eternal Gospel laws where all “covenants, contracts, bonds, obligations,” etc. (verse 7), and in particular, the marriage covenant, may be sealed and in force after the obliging parties are dead. That plural marriage would be so intimately associated with this sealing power (“And again, as pertaining to the law of the priesthood” — verse 61) binding such covenants after death and for eternity, unavoidably makes plural marriage the marriage order of the heavens. Indeed, the metaphor taught to me at the tender age of 16 at the Orem High School seminary in 1969 by Brother Dale C. Mouritsen was that “If Heavenly Father’s wives were all lined up side to side, mortal eyes couldn’t see the other end.” If that is true, then “celestial” plural marriage is the pre-existant environment we all grew up in, as spirit children. Most of my four seminary teachers also taught us that plural marriage was to return in the end times, as it was necessary to be practiced in the Millennium. This is also something that Bruce R. McConkie taught in Mormon Doctrine, which concept caused little alarm among the people I knew growing up in Utah in the 1960s. That was just the “way it was.”

    As for “Mormons today honor[ing] their polygamous ancestors and declar[ing] that there was no ‘mistake’ about it,” I submit that depends on who you talk to. I agree that formally, the LDS Church has made no outward declaration that plural marriage was a “mistake,” and that there are many Mormons today who do honor their polygamous ancestors as you say, but I can also say from personal experience that many LDS members I’ve spoken with are greatly reluctant to consider plural marriage in the positive manner than you have described it: “a divine mandate from God, [and] a good and wise and holy practice;” in fact, several have personally expressed to me their belief that it was indeed a “mistake,” or at best an difficult-to-tolerate accommodation due to an alleged superfluity of women – a notion refuted by John Widstoe in his book Evidences and Reconciliations (pp. 390-391).

    As for 1890 being the year that “ended polygamy,” we have in our family records a “separation of property” agreement between my maternal great-great grandfather and my great-great grandmother, where he chose to live intimately only with his other wife starting at that time. What was the date of this legal instrument? 1889. So did my ancestor give up polygamy because of the Manifesto? Not if it hadn’t been issued yet. Most likely it was due to the danger of being turned in by the “skunks” as they called them then, who would betray their neighbors to the federal marshals. I was quite surprised when I saw the date, as our family oral traditions had it that he had responded to the clarion call from Salt Lake to abandon the practice, which ostensibly would have been 1890.

    As for it taking “a few years to wean people away from plural marriage,” the only minor caveat I submit there is to question just who these people were who had a difficult time being “weaned.” I was shocked to learn back about 1985 in our ward in Tempe, Arizona (I was stationed in Arizona then while in the Air Force), where our Sunday School gospel doctrine teacher (from Kanab), in Gospel Doctrine class, instructed his class (and this was the first time that I had heard this) that it did take a while for some to be “weaned” from taking new plural wives after 1890, and for other authorities to be “weaned” from performing such ceremonies. Most shocking of all to me, and it took a while to come to terms with it, was how he informed us that Wilford Woodruff himself married another wife several years after 1890. I assure you that all present that Sunday were members in good standing, and nobody went screaming to the Bishop. I suppose that President Wilford Woodruff could technically be included the term “people,” but being the President of the Church would seem to give him a bit more stature than that.

    My great-grandfather Helaman Pratt married his third wife in 1898, and he was one of the leading Priesthood holders in the Mexican colonies, under Anthony Ivins. We have no family record of my grandfather (Rey L. Pratt) having married plurally, but Rey Pratt’s name appears immediately after Helaman Pratt’s name in a list of over 200 LDS men claimed in a 1910 Salt Lake Tribune “exposé” to have married a plural wife after the manifesto. But there is precedent for such things, without even such a man’s children being aware of it. My grandfather Rey Pratt was also a leader in the Mexican colonies, a missionary nearly his whole life, and who became one of the Seven Presidents of Seventy back in Salt Lake City, a few years before he died in 1931. When I taught at the MTC many moons ago, I enjoyed visiting one of the brand new missionary dorms just named after my grandfather, “Rey L. Pratt Building.” There was another dorm named after Helaman’s father, my ancestor Parley. But then I suppose Helaman Pratt and Rey Pratt are more easily described as “people” than the Church President.

    Overall, a good reply. I hope you will pardon the rambling of a semi-old coot.

    Comment by John Pratt — August 31, 2010 @ 2:18 pm

  2. The target audience for this supplemental post, John, was those who are so unfamiliar with Mormon history that they couldn’t recognize on their own what were the problems with Whitebread’s scathingly funny account of early 20th century Mormon history — probably few to none of them would understand the nuances in your reflections. Doesn’t hurt to air your opinions, though, does it?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 31, 2010 @ 2:39 pm

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