[See The Mormons by Gunnison, 1852]

Notes & Discussion

"A religionist may be an enthusiast, and imagine he sees what has no reality: he may know his narrative to be false, and yet persevere in it, with the best intentions in the world, for the sake of promoting so holy a cause: or even where this delusion has not place, vanity, excited by so strong a temptation, operates on him more powerfully than on the rest of mankind in any other circumstances; and self-interest with equal force. His auditors may not have, and commonly have not, sufficient judgement to canvass his evidence: what judgement they have, they renounce by principle, in these sublime and mysterious subjects: or if they were ever so willing to employ it, passion and a heated imagination disturb the regularity of its operations. Their credulity increases his impudence: and his impudence overpowers their credulity."
David Hume "An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding" pt II #94; 1748


I have separated any discussion from the body of the text in order to avoid accusations of bias etc. Gunnison's book was written in the early days of Salt Lake City some five years after the murder of Joseph Smith and some six years before the Utah War of 1857, which as he foretold, could not be won by the US Army.

He was a trained, professional observer and surveyor, used to accurately recording the terrain, and, I believe, fairly applied these traits in his description of the Mormons. He gives due praise to their industry etc., notes with distaste the persecutions they suffered but is even handed in also noting the unlawful activities of the Mormons themselves on several occasions. His comments on self-government, viewed with hindsight, appear wise, and, if acted upon, could probably have saved many lives. A judgement by his biographer is 'a remarkably fair and balanced view for the time'.

A short biography of John William Gunnison (1812-1853) is available as part of the Utah Encyclopaedia - the period covered in his stay was summer 1849 through to summer 1850; he was particularly associated with Albert Carrington, a Mormon, who helped with the survey and together with Captain Stansbury and Lt Gunnison presented the report to Congress in 1851.

He is critical of Joseph Smith and sceptical with respect to the true intent of many of his actions. His suggestion that the 'real' reason for the sending of so many, and so senior, missionaries to Britain in 1837 onwards was to remove them from the seat of power (and at the same time by forcing them to proselytise, to confirm their 'faith') is interesting and deserves further study.

An interesting aside re Gunnison is his appearance in one of the many anti-mormon tracts that appeared around this time ["Female Life among the Mormons" by 'The wife of a Mormon Elder' London:G. Routledge & Co 1855]

A young American officer had visited Mormondom, some time before, on business or pleasure, I am unable to say which. A small party accompanied him, and they were hospitably received and entertained by the Mormon elders. Gunison, the leader, was a man of talents, a shrewd observer, and he possessed likewise no small share of that feminine quality, termed curiosity. He knew that polygamy was in vogue among us, but he seemed rather dissatisfied with the accounts given him by the masculine portion of the community, and their praise of the system, and employed various endeavours to get the judgment of the women upon it. His designs becoming known, he was subjected to the strictest scrutiny, and not a woman permitted to speak with him. Some of his men, however, were more fortunate, and two of them discovered distant relatives, who gave their opinions of Mormonism and polygamy unreservedly, with the stipulation they should be immediately taken away, as their condition was unendurable, and they would rather bear all the hardships, and fatigue, and exposure incident to their long journey back to the world and civilization, than remain any longer with the Mormons. Perhaps these women were ignorant, or in their ardent desire to escape did not sufficiently and prudently consider the danger to which they were exposing their friends. Perhaps they trusted to chance, or providence, or fate, but by the employment of stratagem they escaped successfully from the Salt Lake City Their absence being discovered at the same time when Gunison went away, of course their abduction was laid to him. The rage of the elders, aware of this, knew no bounds. They honoured the gallant officer and his companions with the most opprobrious epithets, and a meeting was summoned immediately. This much I knew at the time but the result of that meeting, and the assassinations to which it led, I learned from the conversation alluded to above. It appeared also that Gunison had otherwise rendered himself obnoxious to the Mormon saints, by the discovery of some of their secret designs. At any rate, it became their murderous policy to attempt his destruction.

Coolly, and with all the complacency imaginable, did the Mormon elder proceed to relate the story of their sanguinary deed. How the party sent to cut off Gunison prospered on the way, how the Lord directed them to his trail, and how they followed it many days, and finally discovered him, with his companions, encamped on a hill. How the Mormon leader, seized with sudden inspiration, ordered his men to choose every one his man, and when their rifles were discharged, to rush in with their knives and tomahawks, and kill the wounded, declaring that the curse of God would rest on them if they left one alive, except the women who were to be reserved for a more cruel fate.

The extract, from an anonymous abduction and exposure novel, also shows the common belief at the time that Gunnison's death was actually murder.

A brief description of Kirtland is given by Henry Howe in 1849, in which he also summarises the main case against any divine inspiration of the Book of Mormon.

Main Questions

Many questions can be posed with regard to the divine inspiration of the Book of Mormon - these can I suggest be split into three main headings:

That there are significant doubts over the early life of Smith has been shown by many writers - his reputation amongst his neighbours was not good, he was arrested at one point for his 'seeing' activities, not one of his immediate family remained a Mormon (apart from brother Hyrum killed with him, and his father who died in 1840 - even his mother remained sceptical), all the early 11 'witnesses' to the existence of the plates also removed themselves from the sect though it has been pointed out to me that none of them actually formally denied their witness. That he had a 'roving eye' for women is mentioned by Gunnison and also appears in many, more censorial, accounts. Smith married at least 27 (some state over 40) women in the period from 1835 (though the revelation officially dates from 1842) until his death in June 1844. Brooke dates the first to his extramarital affair with a servant girl Fanny Alger in the summer of 1835; being caught in the act Smith had a violent confrontation with his wife Emma (who according to Thompson denied for many years his polygamy) and led to the disillusionment of many of his colleagues. That a racist strand existed in Mormonism is commonly acknowledged, even a Manx 'poet' writing a somewhat scurrilous verse re the Manx missioning in 1841 (Mona's Herald April 1841), included the following stanza:

None of the wild red Indian race
Shall enter the celestial place,--
Nor blacks, nor esquinaux disgrace
The church of the Missouri

In his 'translation' of the Bible all books were left as inspired except the Song of Solomon - which confused me until I recalled verse1.5 " I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon" - one could not have a major biblical figure marrying a descendant of Ham!. See the extracts from Abdy's Journal for an interesting side-light.

Rigdon, who was responsible for much of the early Mormon Theology, expected to take the place of the dead prophet, but was instead ousted by Young, and left to form a break-away sect - thus becoming a 'non-person' as far as official Mormonism was concerned. Comments by Gunnison must throw doubt on his sanity, at least towards the end of this period.

Both Gunnison and Henry Howe give similar versions of the relationship of Spaulding to the Book of Mormon - it is true that some details differ and John Taylor for one (see Manx Liberal) used such fine discrepancies to pour scorn on similar attacks in the Manx press in 1841. It should be stated here that Spaulding's manuscript was found in the 1885 in Honolulu where Eber D. Howe had removed to; the manuscript was then published by the Mormons (and break-away sects) to disprove the earlier attacks. From a brief summary in the Mormon Encyclopaedia (vol 3) it is stated that Spauldings book concerns a fleet of Roman soldiers blown off course who settle in North America - the introduction describes the finding of 'parchments' in a stone chest near Conneaut, Ohio which has some similarity with the 'finding' of the Book of Mormon. The article states that the connection between Spaulding's manuscript and Smith first surfaced in June 1833 being raised by Dr Philastus Hilbert, an excommunicated convert. Thus the Spaulding manuscript may well be a red herring that has confused many - both Spaulding and Smith drawing on common themes. Along these lines it is interesting to read Hodgson's Letters from North America of 1824 (appendix to vol 2) in which he discusses both Boudinot's suggestion that the American Indians are descendants of the Ten Tribes of Israel (which Hodgson states can be simply disproved by reference to the Indian languages - a prescient point considering that modern thought places native Americans as first arriving about 35,000 b.p. via a land bridge across the Bering Straits) but more interestingly the suggestions which he reports from the American press: "that part of North America was once inhabited by a race, probably differing from the present Indians in physical conformation, and certainly superior to them in civilization and knowledge of the arts".

Brooke, following Brodie, points out that the book of Mormon can be read as a disguised autobiography which draws heavily on contemporary influences (especially those of free-masonry) - he gives the following impression of Smith "the evidence seems incontrovertible that Joseph Smith's imagination and personality were driven by a series of overlapping, opposed dualities, dualities that involved virtue and corruption, purity and danger, and that may well have been rooted in something approaching the identity crisis sketched out by Fawn Brodie". This split nature may well explain the strong attraction felt by many as well as the way Smith felt himself to be above the law.

Internal discrepancies in the Book of Mormon were pointed out from its first publication - the complete lack of any archaeological findings to backup up its history of two warring tribes; no previous, or subsequent, appearance of 'reformed Egyptian'; the appearance of a magnetic compass well before its use was known; the use of the greek 'Christ' (or anointed) as a 'surname' - a review in the Athenaeum, reprinted in Mona's Herald, pointed out these as just two, among many, examples of a Biblical reading based on the Authorised Version which rather post-dates the supposed date of writing. Internal contradictions in its teachings were also noted by Gunnison and many since. Brooke's The Refiners Fire provides a most readable and comprehensive survey of the various strands within it.

Subsequent revelations - allowance of polygamy and then a later revelation (1890) that it was no longer required; the later revelation (in 1978) that black men were after all eligible for the priesthood. Both these later revelations conveniently deflecting external public opinion. The revelation re noneligibilty of blackmen was based on the Book of Abraham which Smith 'translated' from a fragments of Egyptian Papyrus brought to Navoo in 1835. The original was thought to have been destroyed but resurfaced in 1967 when it was seen to have nothing to do with Abraham but was a section from the Book of Breathings or Book of the Dead; from this Smith appears to have produced some forty-nine verses (2,000 words) from a passage of just four lines!

Why so many emigrants

An extremely difficult question to answer - that after the initial missioning the number of converts was not related to the number of missionaries sent is openly admitted by R Evans (p240) - I would however suggest it was strongly based on the social conditions of the time.

Brook examines the religious origin of many of the early Vermont and New York state converts and concludes that they originated in those places where Masonic and/or Christian fringe groups existed.

The Manx mission was a small part of a much larger British mission that started in 1837 and continued until the 1850's although once polygamy was fully known and promulgated in 1852 most Mormon missioning was subject to ridicule - a much more potent weapon than doctrinal attack. Probably 1851 (the year of the religious census) was a high point of the Mormon church in Britain; certainly the numbers of meeting places and adherents surprised everyone; Horace Mann included a good summary of the Mormons in his introduction to the report on the census. The census indicated 222 meeting places with, allowing for multiple attendance, an estimated following of some 25,000 to 30,000. By 1850 Mormon statistics indicated that some 17,000 English (presumably this included Scots and Welsh) converts had already sailed. Many more of these adherents would emigrate in the later push which coincided with the Crimean War of 1853-6 and the final push of 1868 by which time a total of over 30,000 emigrants would had left,. The Utah Encyclopaedia reports that in 1870 some 24% of Utah (then virtually entirely Mormon) were of British birth, which allowing for their American born children probably meant that around 50% of the population were of immediate British descent. Of the non-British most were Scandinavian - products of a very successful mission in the early 1850's.

Brook states that the 'Mormon missions to England were targeted at the heart of the radical tradition' - by this he refers to Preston, Lancashire, then a rapidly growing town with a long history of radicalism (it was also in the centre of what was proportionally the strongest Roman Catholic area in England!). Personally I think the choice of Preston, a relatively short distance from Liverpool where the first missionaries landed, was more of a happy accident than design. One of these missionaries had a brother, James Fielding, ex Methodist and now primitive Christian, who led a small chapel in Preston; initially he invited them to preach there but quickly withdrew further offers, However the Mormons with their belief in healthy living, including abstinence from alcohol, were welcomed as helpers by the fledgling temperance movement which was founded in Preston in the early 1830's; they allowed the Mormons to use their hall as a base.

It was the second mission, coming in late 1839, that saw many of the senior figures in the church arrive in Britain - Gunnison may have struck a correct chord in suggesting that they were sent by Smith to remove them from the seat of power, as well as to remove them from possible future demands by Governor Boggs of Missouri for their extradition to face criminal trial. It was this second missioning effort that breathed life into what had become a faltering mission. The Millennial Star was first published, from Manchester, in May 1840. Day, from the evidence of the 1851 Religious Census, traces the line of Mormon penetration from the ports of Southampton, Bristol but particularly Liverpool - Lancashire, Cheshire and the adjacent West Riding of Yorkshire provide some 24% attendances, Dorset, Somerset, Wiltshire Hamphire and Gloucestshire 23.5%, London 12%, with the remainder in Warwickshire and Nottinghamshire. Day, unlike Brooke, does not speculate on the religious traditions of the converts, noting that Mormon missionaries were, as in Preston, initially invited to preach in small independent chapels 'being mistaken for itinerant Christian evangelists'. Presumably the existance of these chapels indicated a much older history of dissent in these areas - certainly many converts were from these independent primitivists and Methodist breakaways such as Robert Aitkin's groups. What is interesting from the maps provided by Day is to see how these Mormon counties, with the exception of the West Riding, are adjacent to, but don't overlap areas of strong Primitive Methodism which also appealed most strongly to the poor.

Most Mormon converts were poor and as Nauvoo was made to sound like the Garden of Eden they eagerly responded to the call to emigrate. The 1840's were correctly termed the hungry decade with poor harvests, potato famine and industrial depression; which coupled with the very efficient Mormon emigration scheme must have been a very strong inducement. A number of non-poor emigrants on reaching Nauvoo and finding the situation not quite as described had sufficient resources to return, but for most it was a one-way journey.

Walker "Wayward Saints. The Godbeites and Brigham Young" describing an unsuccessful challenge by British Mormon Intellectuals to the authoritarian regime of Brigham Young, points out that the early Saints depended more heavily on English immigration than had been previously realised.

Other Reading

The Church of LDS is possibly the worlds fastest growing religious body, the growth being mostly fueled by conversions rather than organic growth even within a heavily pronatalist church. In the 1960's 90% of Mormons could be found within Utah - as of 1998 only 50% (15% within Utah) are resident in the USA with some 25% in the previous entirely Catholic Latin America. Over the 150 years many of the doctrines have been 'adjusted' or emphasis changed from those of the founders; in many ways it has attempted to align itself more with fundamentalist Christianity. but still keeps much of the Millennial nature of its birth.

As one would expect, any religion which claims to usurp others, and to rewrite their scriptures, will provoke considerable opposition. So far most of that has come from fundamentalist Christian sects - as they too believe in the literal interpretation of scriptures (a position that generally disappeared from mainstream Christianity by the end of the 19th Century) they sometime find it difficult to argue against many of the obvious nonsenses; as Cardinal Newman once said "The translated Bible is the stronghold of heresy".

Kurt Van Gorden Mormonism Michigan:Zondervan 1995 (ISBN 1-85078-165-6) is an avowedly critical text but in my opinion is scrupulous in avoiding diatribe and justifying every statement by quotation from Mormon sources. It follows a fundamentalist biblical line.
M & A. Thomas Mormonism: A gold plated Religion Alpha Books:Aylesbury 1997(ISBN 1-898938-32-6) written by an ex-Mormon couple fills in much more of the social binding that gives Mormonism such a hold over its members; it also sketches the British history of the cult.

I have found it difficult to find an intellectually respectable pro-Mormon text (the Mormon Encyclopaedia does not really rectify this though it provides a useful source book); R. Thompson The Mormon Church New York:Hippocrene Books, 1993, (ISBN 0-7818-01266-5) is an easy read and in places quite entertaining as Thompson squirms on the hook of changed 'doctrines' re polygamy and role of non-whites within the church.

The scholarly investigation of an all-American religion has produced a large library of texts on various sociological issues, from the very non-american communalism of Brigham Young's authoritarian Salt Lake City, to the effects of polygamy and the role of women within the male dominated system - see references in either Brooke or Walker Wayward Saints.

Perhaps the most fascinating recent book is John L. Brooke The Refiner's Fire The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844 Cambridge: University Press 1994 (ISBN 0-521-34545-6) which offers a detailed and exceptionally well documented account of the strands of occult thought that find parallels in Mormon beliefs; cannot be too highly recommended.

H. Horn (+ editors of Time-Life Books) The Old West: The Pioneers 1974 New York Time-Life Books - Chap 5 'The odyssey of the Saints' tells (with many illustrations) of the trek to Salt Lake City and the early days there. Concentrates more on the trek and avoids many contentious points.

A good source of background, though when it describes Mormons and Mormonism, rather sanitised, information is the Utah Encyclopaedia.

John D. Gay The Geography of Religion in England London: Duckworth 1971, (ISBN 0-7156-0557-7) provides an excellent, though short, discussion of the spread of Mormonism within England.


Fawn M. Brodie No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet 2nd Ed New York 1985

B.H.Roberts Life of John Taylor 1893 - Salt Lake City Bookcraft ed 1963 reprinted 1994 (ISBN 0-88494-106-0)


My intent in adding this section was to provide some accessible background for the Manx contribution to the extensive British emigration to 'Zion' from 1840 onwards.

P.A.M. Taylor Expectations Westward: the Mormons and the emigration of their British converts in the nineteenth century 1965 Edinburgh

R.L. Evans A Century of Mormonism in Great Britain 1984 Publishers Press , (ISBN 0-916095-07-X) (especially chap 18 'Gospel Tidings to the Isle of Man') - a reprint from 1937 based on newspaper articles in the Mormon press.

C.B. Sonne Saints on the seas A maritime History of Mormon Migration 1830-1890 ,1983, Salt Lake City: Univ. of Utah Press



Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received The Editor
© F.Coakley , 2001