Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: John Taylor on Religious Freedom

Whenever a Mormon in the U.S. complains about religious freedom today those of the 19th century must smile like parents do when children complain about difficult tasks. Worries about minor infringements and technical lines are nothing compared to what they passed through. The violence of Ohio, Missouri and Illinois eventually evolved into church-government conflict over polygamy, which boiled down to large numbers of Mormon men spending months and years in prison. And John Taylor may be an example of a Mormon who passed through both the early violence and the later police action.

While he didn’t know it, Taylor was just at the beginning of the most difficult period of polygamy prosecution, which would soon drive him into hiding and, after his death, lead the Church to abandon the practice. Taylor, himself a poet at times, here describes the Mormon view that religious freedom is the issue, using Mormon poetry to support the claim that Mormons sought, and provided to others, religious freedom in their western colony. Here is what he said:

The Corruptions of So-Called Christendom

by President John Taylor

We wish no disrespect to the government, for after all I do not suppose we could get any better treatment from any other Christian nation than we do from our own, but this is not saying much for them. It is a poor thing when so great and magnanimous a nation cannot afford to allow 200,000 people to worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences.

But have we resisted anything else? No. Have I? No. Have you? I presume not. I expect these kind of things–the opposition and corruption of men and the world, under the instigation of the devil, who is the enemy of the Saints. What then? Do I expect to give up my religion to the devil? I think not. What shall we do then? Shall we abuse the people of the United States? No. Shall we abuse the President of the United States? No. Yet I am sorry that he is not a little more magnanimous; I am sorry he does not possess a little more of these feelings that actuated the founders of this government; I am not sorry for the Saints, for it is quite necessary that we should have to pass through a variety of things in order that, like ancient Saints, we may be made perfect through suffering. “For it became him, for whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings.” “He was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” Shall we forsake the institutions of this country because of the acts of those men? No, we will cleave to them and sustain them. Shall we deprive other men of their political rights? No, we will not. Shall we deprive any man of his social rights? No, we will not. Shall we deprive any men of their religious rights? No, we will not. They may do as they please in Washington and other places; but we will do right towards all men. Our motto is, Freedom, Liberty and Rights of Conscience to all people; as Brother Parley P. Pratt has it in one of his poems:

“Indian, Muslim, Greek or Jew,
Freedom’s banner waves for you.”

This is the kind of feeling we entertain in regard to this subject. We all have faults, and perhaps this government is one of the best governments we could have in the world; and we will sustain it. And then, we will contend for our rights legally, properly, orderly and constitutionally. And then, we will watch those miserable hounds that come sneaking into our midst, and tell them to leave; we do not want a lot of dogs among us. Honorable and decent men, men that will do right we will maintain all the time. But this nation is laying the axe at the root of the tree and they then will crumble to pieces by and by. If they can stand it we can. If they can afford to treat us in this way, they will soon treat others in the same way. And they will tear away one plank of liberty after another, until the whole, fabric will totter and fall; and many other nations will be cast down and empires destroyed; and this nation will have to suffer as others will. And it will be as Joseph Smith once said, “When all others forsake the Constitution, the Elders of this Church will rally around the standard and save its tattered shreds.” We will come to its rescue and proclaim liberty to all men.

The Temples in Course of Erection, etc.
Discourse delivered in the Tabernacle at Provo,
November 30th, 1879.
Reported by Geo. F. Gibbs.

Beyond the political and philosophical issues that might be explored based on Taylor’s comments, the citation of a part of Parley P. Pratt’s poem, The Mountain Standard, is both unusual and interesting. The poem was written for the 24th of July celebration in 1849, just two years after the Saints arrived in the Salt Lake Valley. While Parley P. Pratt was there, Thomas Bullock read the poem as part of the celebration program. According to accounts of that celebration, here is the poem:

The Mountain Standard

by P. P. Pratt

Lo the Gentile chain is broken;
Freedom’s banner waves on high,
List ye nations! by this token,
Know that your Redeemer’s nigh.

See amid these rocky mountains,
Zion’s standard wide unfurled,
Far above Missouri’s fountain,
Lo! it waves for all the world.

Freedom, peace, and full salvation,
Are the blessings guaranteed;
Liberty to every nation,
Every tongue and every creed.

Come, ye christian, sect, and pagan,
Pope, and protestant, and priest,
Worshippers of God or Dagon,
Come ye to fair freedom’s feast.

Come, ye sons of doubt and wonder,
Indian, Moslem, Greek, or Jew,
All your shackles burst asunder,
Freedom’s banner waves for you.

Cease to butcher one another
Join the covenant of peace,
Be to all a friend, a brother,
This will bring the world release.

Lo! our King! the great Messiah,
Prince of Peace, shall come to reign;
Sound again ye heavenly choir,
Peace on earth, good will to men.

Frontier Guardian
19 September 1849
[Account of 24 of July celebration]

Like many of Pratt’s poems, this one was set to music (the tune “Austrian Hymn” by Joseph Haydn) and appeared in LDS hymnals for many years. Most unusually, it also appeared in national publications, including a description of life in Utah in Littell’s Living Age (no. 285, 3 November 1849, p. 217) and an anti-Mormon book, Beadle’s Life in Utah; or, the mysteries and crimes of Mormonism (1870, p. 501-502), among other places. It has also been titled Zion’s Standard and The Missionary Hymn.

Perhaps as a hymn it isn’t that unusual for the Prophet to mention it in a discourse. But today a mention of any kind of Mormon poetry or literature in a General Conference or other talk by a general authority is unusual. Next week we will get to see what is mentioned this year. As always, I’ll be looking for what to include in my semi-annual roundup of works cited in Conference. Perhaps we will be fortunate and someone will refer to a work of Mormon literature other than a hymn.

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