Terror and Faith: Part II

 Another causal problem which created the severe conditions of 1845 was the development of the Irish poor law of 1834.  The law was based on the English Poor law which set up work houses for the poor working in isolation from their families and ignored the recommendations of the commissioners who were actually on the ground looking at the problems from a first hand experience.  This helped create malnutrition and malaise amongst the populous and made the area susceptible for disease.[1]

With the flow of emigrants, as noted above, growing and the shipping between the New and Old Worlds continuing to expand one of the side effects was the importation of diseases from around the world.  In Ireland this became an issue when a fungus from Peru was shipped over in 1845, how a South American fungus got to Ireland and made such a huge impact was never really clear, however, it was a deadly immigrant destroying the great majority of the Irish potato crops from 1845-51. 

This hit against the major food source for the Irish poor was deadly as they were not able to reestablish their lost nutrition from other sources like other richer people could.  This led to a rolling famine led to chaos as people sought food in any manner possible.  As noted in The Cork Examiner from one incident in September, 1846, “We have heard rumours of intended risings in various parts of the country, but trust that the activity of the local authorities and the advice of the clergy, and other influential friends of the people, will be sufficient to keep them quiet until relief and employment can be afforded.”[2]

This famine as it reached its peak created a tremendous push for the Irish Catholics as they started to look for ways to escape the disaster.  Certainly there would be some tales of the United States which would also act as a lure to people who were in a desperate position.   By 1850 even London papers were seeing the effects of this disaster on the population and how they were fleeing the country for the United States.  In The Illustrated London News the point was made, “It is calculated that at least four out of every five persons who leave the shores of the old country to try their fortunes in the new, are Irish. Since the fatal years of the potato famine and the cholera, the annual numbers of emigrants have gone on increasing, until they have become so great as to suggest the idea, and almost justify the belief, of a gradual depopulation of Ireland.”[3]

While the older Irish settlers had generally moved out into the countryside the majority of the new settlements were generally in few places.  The older settlers had come as middle class trade’s people and professionals who offered a great deal to their new country.  The new Irish immigrants were not, on the whole, as lucky.  They came with nothing in their possession other than a will to make their lives better.  So they predominately settled in the dominant east coast cities of Boston and New York.

The main reason the Irish poor were able to migrate fell upon the clergy who were able to help their practitioners to find refuge on ships leaving for Canada and the United States.  This may have been an explanation among many others why the Irish Catholics were so easily able to fend off conversions to Protestant Christianity which would have been increasing as they faced discrimination.[4]

Discrimination came early in the Catholic immigrants’ arrival.  The flow of the new Irish isolated the previously described Scotch-Irish who were appalled at the appearance of this poorer class.  The Irish Catholics were forced generally into general labour.  This meant they could not progress socially as quickly as the Irish Protestants which lumped them in with indentured servants and Black slaves.  This along with their appearance created hostility amongst all Americans when the great depression of 1837 started.  The glut of these unskilled labourers was not endearing them to the non-immigrant citizenry as they sunk the wages of all labour.[5]

One of the major effects of the 1837 depression revolved around the collapse of several financial organizations which began speculating on borrowed money. For the Mormons this failure would have major repercussions for their religion.  This financial disaster effected many people but for the Mormons it was especially awful.  The reason why this was such a watershed was that the Church under its United Order had created a bank in Kirtland.  The United Order was a communistic society was now in full practice in Kirtland including the founding of a Chartered bank to help with the financing of the Saints.  When the bank failed it took several members savings and livelihoods, creating doubt in the minds of many of the older members of the church.[6]  They questioned how the “prophet” would be unable to foresee the problems of the period.

However, during this period of chaos and anger the first missionaries were sent to the United Kingdom to start the work of baptizing converts from England.  Heber Kimball left a relatively young family poor and destitute, his convictions led him to leave them in the care of the church along with two others began a journey to Britain.  As he saw it, “I felt that the cause of truth, the Gospel of Christ, outweighed every other consideration.”[7] The missionaries arrived in Preston England in 1837 determined to spread their gospel.

    As Kimball arrived in Preston many of the Mormons had fled Kirtland to a new home in a place known as Far West in Missouri to escape the persecution of their fellows.[8]  In one particular incident the house of Joseph Smith was broken into by a mob of men.  They then took Smith dragging him outside and beat him knocking out one tooth in the process as they tried to force tar down his throat.

It had become obvious that the Church would not survive in Ohio and by 1838 the majority of the church now settled in Far West, Missouri.  In Far West the problems of the past resurfaced as the Mormons and their neighbours began once again to have problems over economic and political control.  This time however the Mormons were not going to be pushed out without using force.

In Far West the Mormons once again grew and prospered.  They were given control of Caldwell County in northern Missouri.  Under Smith’s leadership the Saints, as they now called themselves, tried to reestablish themselves.  But political conflict once again became an issue and the Saints were not backing down.  They armed themselves against the mobs which sought to force them out of their homes and as the anger began to boil over Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs stepped into the fray.  He at first tried to be conciliatory in gaining a settlement for both sides but it soon became apparent the older settlers and the Saints were not going to settle down. 

September 1838 saw the Saints in a spiral of problems.  On the one hand they were accused of carrying out an uprising while on the other they were finding their settlements in neighbouring Daviess and Carroll Counties being sacked.  Smith appealed for help from the local militia but there was little the commanders could do to stop the burgeoning problem.  The crisis spread to what would be called the Mormon War as the older settlers took up arms against the Mormons and on October 25th the two sides collided at the Battle of Crooked River.  The battle was in large part nothing more than a skirmish but the results were to unleash an all out war on the area.[9]

As both sides struggled a name was brought forward which would still be used by those who are against the Church to this day.  Dr. Sampson Avard, a former member of the church, swore out an affidavit that a group known as the Danite band was created by members of the Church to mete out punishment against those who opposed the Saints.  Avard called it a secret society which the church leaders knew of and approved.[10]

With these accusations and more from other significant former Church leadership Governor Boggs proclaimed the Mormons a public nuisance and called out an extermination order to rid the state of the Mormons by any means necessary.  This proclamation allowed the state government to intervene directly.  They invaded Far West, disarmed the Mormons and finished the discussion by arresting most of the leaders of the Church.

Smith, his brother Hyrum and most of the other leaders put in a old jail called Liberty in Missouri and awaited trial.  In the midst of this stage of confusion stepped a former New York carpenter named Brigham Young.  Young had been called as a member of the churches second highest governing body, the Council of the Twelve Apostles. He was set in a position of leadership in part because many other senior members had left during the chaos in Kirtland.

Young gathered up the remains of the Mormon populace in Far West and in a model for a more serious trek under ten years later Young moved the saints across the Mississippi to the area of Commerce Illinois.  Shortly after their arrival the church once more began to build a place for themselves in place that Smith, who had escaped along with all the others from capture labeled Nauvoo.

As the Saint struggled to survive in Missouri Kimball was making great strides in England.  The English in the early 1800s were living in some of the worst parts of the industrial age, many of the laws which would limit child labour and work schedules were not in place.  This meant that among the urban population of England they could do little other than to scrape out a meager wage with little mobility in the class structure of society.  In Europe of the period this led to massive revolts, in the 1830s and 40s much of Europe was in upheaval over the treatment of the poor.  It was not uncommon for revolutions to appear out of a simple gathering over the price of bread.

In England, the pressure mounting was at times eased due to the immigration to various colonies and the United States.  In the case of Kimball he arrived in Dicken’s England with little understanding of the situation but with a belief which he had to share.  For people who felt oppressed by the upper classes of society the idea of utopian Christian message would have a serious effect on these people.  Kimball almost immediately found a following as people flocked to hear his message of a new bible and a new “Israel” called America.

For the Irish Catholics the idea of a new “Promised Land” would have resonated as they fled the financial and human tragedy going on in Ireland.   The first great famines hit Ireland in 1838 then again in 1842 just before the final great one in 1845.  For many of the people leaving Ireland in boats the crossing was not kind as cholera killed as many as 10 percent of the passengers by the 1850s on the “coffin ships”[11].   The arrival of these poor Catholics left much of the Irish parishes as bankrupt as their membership.  John Hughes Bishop of the church in New York summed it up, “Our situation has been that of a people unprovided with churches, and who in providing them, have contracted a heavy debt, the interest alone… if paid only tends to impoverish us the more.”[12]

By 1840 the problems plaguing the Irish specifically but Americans in general was creating friction.  The wages continue to plunge fueling a growing anti-immigrant and especially anti-catholic sentiment across the country.  In communities the debates were waged about Catholicism and “Popery” as the Protestants began to publish pamphlets, books and other sensationalized documents claiming the evils of all things Catholic.

One of the more spectacular was the book put out around 1836 claiming to be complete journal of the life of a former Catholic nun from Montreal.  The book called Awful Disclosures at the Hotel Dieu Nunnery of Montreal.[13]  This exposé was meant to show Catholics just how evil their own leaders were, the book was considered the most successful American written book until Uncle Tom’s Cabin[14].  In the book a young protestant Canadian, named Maria Monk, had moved to Montreal.  Shortly after her arrival she converts to Catholicism in order to fit in with the Canadiens already living there.  She then goes on to describe some of the “abuses” launching a tale filled with mystery and intrigue one where the poor girl is abused both physically and sexually by the evil nuns and fathers.  These accusations went as far as to the nuns dumping babies born because of these encounters in an underground pit.  This book worked to create a star out of Monk and the firestorm she created almost lit the fires of a religious war in America.[15]

This literature is something of a typical tale of the writing of the 1800s where literature was written so to present an image of the separate society, Mormon or Catholic, as being mysterious, full of deceit. The sole purpose of these groups in this fiction it seemed was to lure young protestant girls into their circle, they were almost always the focus of this which made it that much worse in the eyes of a public that read it. Kenny in The American Irish labeled writing “a form of nineteenth century pornography”[16].  This popular literature was tied in with other arguments against the leadership, culture or general nature of the group, either Mormon or Catholic.

In the case of the Catholics the building tension led to the first fit of violence in 1834, even before the troubles of the 1840s.  According to Professor Ray Billington this was due in part to the panic created in England over the Emancipation bill of 1829 which recognized Catholicism as free religion in Britain.[17]   The panic saw the creation of many anti-popery tracts which were republished in America helping to stir up hatred amongst the Protestant population.   This exploded in 1834 when the Ursuline convent in Charlestown Massachusetts was burned to the ground in a fit of a mob of thousands.[18]


[1] Ó Gráda, Pgs. 23-24[2] Steve Taylor, Views of the Famine, (Poughkeepsie: Vassar College), nd, http://vassun.vassar.edu/~sttaylor/FAMINE/Examiner/Archives/Sept1846.html (site visited 12 August, 2005)

[3] Taylor, http://vassun.vassar.edu/~sttaylor/FAMINE/ILN/Tide/Tide.html

[4] Taylor, http://vassun.vassar.edu/~sttaylor/FAMINE/ILN/Depopulation/Depopulation.html

[5] Kenny, pgs. 80-82

[6] HC, Volume 2, pgs. 487-488

[7] HC, Volume 2, pg. 490.

[8] CHC Volume 1, pgs. 404 – 408.

[9]             , Church History in the Fulness of Times, (Salt Lake: Intellectual Reserve), 2000, Pgs. 195-198

[10] CHC Vol. 1 Pgs. 500-506 (Hereafter noted as CHFT)

[11] James T. Fisher, Communion of Immigrants: A History of Catholics in America, Oxford: Oxford University Press), 2000, pg. 44

[12] Jay Dolan, The Immigrant Church, (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press), 1975, pg. 48

[13] Maria Monk, Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Convent of Montreal, (New York: np), 1836, Republished as a facsimile by Archon Books in 1962.

[14] Monk, from the Publishers Preface, “perhaps the best native American seller until the appearance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

[15] Ray Billington, The Origins of Nativism in the United States 1800-1844, (New York: Arno Press), 1974, pg. 221 (This was taken from Billington’s unpublished Doctorial Thesis from Harvard in 1833)

[16] Kenny, pg. 80

[17] Billington, pgs. 111-113

[18] Billington, pg. 111

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