Terror and Faith: Part III

  In the face of these anti-Catholic expressions the Irish Catholics tried to clear up the issue by printing off their own versions of why they came to the United States and how they were determined to live.  In one tract a man calling himself Hibernicus says, “But I would ask any unbiased American, who has offered libations sixty-eight years to the genius of liberty… how he should like any Church, established by law, in the centre of the United States, before whose altar he would be compelled to worship”.[1]The arguments of the Irish on the whole was simple, if America is a place of religious liberty should it not be that it is a freedom which all denominations should have access.  At a time when the religious reason was simply an excuse to cover what appeared to be a largely economic prejudice.  The Protestants were not upset that the Irish were Catholic as much as they were stealing jobs.  The painting of the problem as religious made it more justifiable in the eyes of some.

The economic problems of the English were creating a problem of a different kind for Heber Kimball and his colleagues in the central part of England.  As Kimball describes the English in a letter to his wife, “They are quite ignorant, many of them cannot read a word… It is as much as they can do to live… there are some who have not a bed to sleep in themselves”.[2]    The English were joining in large numbers.  Nearly 1,300 converts had joined in little more than nine months.  This fast growing church was becoming the envy of the other non-conformist churches in the area.  It was not long before the reaction against the church started as ministers of local flocks were doing all in their power to stop this development.  Nevertheless by the summer of 1838 Kimball had left a healthy and growing organization in England. 

The arrival of Kimball back in the United States along with a few English Saints would have far reaching effects on the church.  In 1840 the Apostles led by Brigham Young once more returned to England to share their message.  The space between Kimball’s first mission and the arrival of Young and others two years later had seen the church expand to 1,800 members.  With the force of church leadership now in Britain the conversion rate began to blossom yet again under their guidance. The leaders established themselves in Manchester and began to publish hymn books, Book of Mormons and other documents arguing for the church.  This process saw the church expand over night to a total of 2,513 members in three months.[3]     

This increase continued to grow dramatically over the year as they spread from the centre out to all parts of Britain.  In one year as Kimball left for the second time the membership had grown to 5,814 members.  By 1841 the exodus had begun as over 800 of these Saints began to immigrate to the United States.  The reason for their arrival was different than those of their Irish fellows.  The British Mormons were going because of a religious conviction that they were needed, in Joseph Smith’s words, “to build Zion”.  This meant they were needed in the United States.  So they willingly boarded ships and started to migrate to the United States.

The arrival of converts from Britain joined converts from the south and eastern parts of the United States settling in Illinois with the majority of the Mormon population.  This immigration created turned the former village of Commerce, Nauvoo, from backwater malaria infested swamp into a burgeoning city which became the biggest in Illinois even out growing the small city of Chicago.  Combined with this rise was the increasing political dominance of the Mormon population on their neighbours.

Yet, with this there was still not a match to light the fuse of mobs and fury which so often plagued the Mormons in their relations with others.  Once again it took their membership leaving to once again create this disturbance.  This time many of those leaving were bringing up a new doctrine which was being preached in private among the Mormons.  This new doctrine was called Plural Marriage, better known as polygamy.  This doctrine would become one the greatest points of conflict for Mormons and their neighbours for 50 years after its installation.

Joseph Smith claimed he knew of the doctrine as long ago as 1833 but it was only in the settlement of Nauvoo and the relative peace of the period that he was able to spread the idea amongst the leadership.  It would first be revealed to non-Mormons by John Bennett the former Mayor of Nauvoo who was excommunicated from the church over his hiding the fact he was married and had several children with a wife in Pennsylvania.  His anger over being separated from the community led to his writing anti-Mormon literature claiming that Smith was teaching about Plural Marriage.  Also Bennett accused the Mormons to be, “…pledge themselves to poison the wells and the food and drink of dissenters, apostates and all enemies of Zion”[4].

As well as the doctrinal changes the isolation of the Church members in small communities away from the main population led to stories which were impossible to disprove as so many failed to explore what the truth might be it led to more confusion and hostility.   Of course not helped in this was the fear amongst the Mormons of the problems of Missouri repeating so stayed secretive about some of the doctrines which were obviously controversial.  The Church did not even acknowledge practicing Plural Marriage openly until the 1850s after they had been exiled to the Great Salt Lake Basin.

The final straw for many in Nauvoo was the intervention of the city council in destroying the Nauvoo Expositor, a newspaper being published by former Mormons.  The Expositor in a city of 20,000 worshipping Saints represented a nuisance according to Joseph Smith, the mayor at the time, because, “The prospectus showed an intention to destroy the [Nauvoo city] Charter, and the paper was filled with libels and slanderous articles upon the citizens and the City Council from one end to the other.”[5]

The destruction of the press became a point for area residents to rally around those who hated the Mormons.  Mobs threatened to destroy Nauvoo and kill Smith and his followers just as they had tried to do in Missouri.  The Nauvoo city charter however was a protection for the city as it allowed Smith to create the Nauvoo Legion, a militia force which was able to be formed in quick order and fight off potential trouble.

The Charter had give some special status for Nauvoo which also worked against the Saints as the protection afforded them from having their own council, court and militia allowed those who opposed them to seek for it to be withdrawn.

In June of 1844 things were coming to a head.  Illinois Governor Thomas Ford was put in an awkward position.  He could not be seen as siding with either side.  In retrospect he felt that his whole borderland was up in arms about the Mormons and he would have just done as well without them.  As he had no choice but work between the two growing groups he asked Joseph to stand trial, along with a few others from the Council, for the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor newspaper.

Smith then offered to be tried, but by those who might be friendly to him and not in Hancock County where the majority of those hostile to Smith were gathering.  Ford could not accept this position as he felt he must show some magnanimity to those like Thomas Sharpe a sharp tongued editor of the Warsaw Signal was one of the leaders of this group.  His influential writing stirred up much of the towns of Carthage and Warsaw against Smith and the Mormons.  Ford now in trouble with both sides did the most political thing he could do.  He offered Smith to be tried in Carthage but that Ford would personally guarantee the safety of all members of the party.

It was a bold stroke, one that satisfied the anti-Mormons but left the Mormon leaders in a position of having to accept or look as though they were flouting the law.  Smith replied, “We dare not come, though your Excellency promises us protection.  Yet, at the same time, you have expressed fears that you could not control the mob, in which case we are let at the merciless.”[6]

In his estimation of events in the letter to Ford, Joseph Smith was completely correct.  Ford was able to get Smith to come to Carthage to stand trial, within a few days Ford would go back on his promised protection as he went to Nauvoo to inspect and address the Nauvoo Legion.  Not more than a few hours after he left the mobs, some of which included, according to witnesses, members of the militia which were supposedly protecting the Mormon leaders.  The mobs stormed the prison where Smith, his brother Hyrum, Apostles John Taylor and Willard Richards were being held.  In the fury Hyrum Smith was shot in the face and killed instantly on the first charge, Joseph was killed after seven shots falling from the window of the second story jail.  Taylor was hit with seven balls while Richards escaped without injury.

The death of their leader and prophet was a hammer blow to the Saints.  Many of them spoke about feelings of dread around the time of Smith’s death.  The feeling of loss was felt amongst all and as they felt the horror sink in many of the Saints, many of whom were people who had just arrived from Britain to settle in Zion only to see what they thought as a perfect world come crumbling around them. 

However, as the Editor of the Tompkins Democrat noted, “Indeed, we do not know which has the worst effect on the community, the doctrines of Smith or the ten thousand false rumors constantly put in circulation against him.  One thing is certain, his name will survive when those who grossly misrepresent him have become blanks on the page of the future.”[7]

In Philadelphia as grieving Mormons prepared to bury their Prophet the sparks of another aggressive mob were about to explode.  The Irish in the ghettos were coming under increasing pressure from a new force in American politics.  The anti-immigrant Nativist party, also known as the Know Nothings, referring to their insistence when questioned about acts of violence on Irish and German immigrants that they knew nothing, was now leading the fight against what they perceived as the fault nature of America.

 In Philadelphia the local Bishop, Francis P. Kenrick was fighting for Catholic rights in the public school system in the area.  Kenrick wanted to get the anti-Catholic books out of the public schools.  He also was trying to stop a practice where the teacher each day would read a bible verse to the class without comment.  It was seen by the Catholics as a heretical practice, particularly when combined with the use of the Anglican King James Version of the bible.[8]

He had inflamed passions over his opinion that the King James Version of the Bible should not be used in the schools for instruction.  The Resulting argument went violent when volunteer firemen from competing companies of Orangemen and Catholics collided in open warfare in the streets.  According to Sister Mary Gonzaga the conflict began because, “Many citizens had assembled to adopt some resolutions… when some Irish Catholics insulted them and made such a noise the speaker could not be heard.  One word led to another until a battle ensued.”[9]

The battle was fought in an Irish area of the city, when it was finished the Hibernia Hose Company, a seminary, Augustinian Priests Library, St. Michael’s and St Augustine’s churches were all up in flames.  While the matter cooled after that it was only the beginning as by July of 1844 the Protestants were at it again as they marched in a parade to honour “the martyrs of Kensington”.  This was then further exacerbated by a rumour that weapons were being stored in the St. Philip Neri Church.  [10]

Unfortunately for the Catholics there was a cache of weapons found at the church, given by the armory in need of self defense.  This led to Irish militia being called out to defend the building, then more people milled about in the night as confusion, shootings and general chaos erupted.  By the end of the “battle” fourteen soldiers and civilians were dying or dead while another fifty were wounded.  The Catholics were universally blamed for the conflict.[11]

At this event a name which for next fifteen years would become a major source of the troubles between Catholics and their Protestant neighbours was revealed at the riot. According to the Pennsylvania Freeman newspaper, “In the evening of that day, crowds calling themselves “Natives,” collected about three of the Catholic churches, the largest amounting perhaps to one thousand people, being at St. Philip’s.”[12]  This idea that the Protestant forces were native born Americans opposed to the immigrant Catholics became a recurring issue during the conflict.  The Nativists, as they were later called, took the simple anti-Catholicism of Lyman Beecher and Maria Monk and turned it into complaint against immigrants in general. 

As the Irish Catholics there is some question as to why they maintained their heritage.  In the face of racism, it would be natural for the persecuted look for ways to remove the main issue for that racism in their Catholicism.  However, as pointed out by David Cochrane, “Immigrants may be willing to offer allegiance to their new homeland but they do not leave their ethnic identifications behind. Indeed, the trauma of the immigrant experience often causes them to identify even more closely with their fellow ethnics.”[13]


[1] Hibernicus, What Brings So Many Irish to America, (New York: np), 1845, pgs. 17-18 (Reprinted by facsimile by R and E Researchers from San Francisco)  [2] Stanley Kimball, Heber C. Kimball: Mormon Patriarch and Pioneer, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press), 1981, pg. 46

[3] Kimball, pgs. 70-71

[4] Gary L. Bunker and Davis Bitton, The Mormon Graphic Image 1834-1914, (Salt Lake City: University of Utah), 1983, pg. 13 (quote taken from Bennett’s History of the Saints)

[5] HC, Volume 6, pg. 460

[6] HC, Volume 6, pg. 540

[7] HC, Volume 7, pg. 182

[8] Rob Boston, Bible Riots: When Christians Killed Each Other Over Religion in Public Schools, Originally published in Liberty: A Magazine For Religious Liberty May/June 1997 edition, this article was located in the Liberty archives at http://www.libertymagazine.org/html/riots.html Currently a copy of the article is located http://www.aoh61.com/history/bible/rob_boston.htm (Site visited 13 August, 2005)

[9] James Hennesey, American Catholics: A History of the Roman Catholic Community in the United States, (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 1981, pg. 123

[10] Hennesey, pg. 123

[11] Hennesey, pgs. 123-124

[12] David W. Blight ed., The Philadelphia Anti-Catholic Riots, (New Haven: Gilder Lehrman Center) 2005,  http://www.yale.edu/glc/archive/953.htm, (site visited 14 August, 2005), taken from “The Riots,” Pennsylvania Freeman, n. 14. 18 July, 1844.

[13] David Cochrane, “Ethnic Diversity and Democratic Stability: The Case of Irish Americans”, found in Political Science Quarterly, Winter95/96, Vol. 110, Issue 4, (New York: The Academy of Political Science), 1995, pg. 589

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