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Under the Prophet in Utah
In the Days of the Raid
About ten o'clock one night in the spring of 1888, I set out secretly, from Salt Lake City, on a nine-mile drive to Bountiful, to meet my father, who was concealed "on the underground," among friends; and that night drive, with its haste and its apprehension, was so of a piece with the times, that I can hardly separate it from them in my memory. We were all being carried along in an uncontrollable sweep of tragic events. In a sort of blindness, like the night, unable to see the nearest fork of the road ahead of us, we were being driven to a future that held we knew not what.
I was with my brother Abraham (soon to become an apostle of the Mormon Church), who had himself been in prison and was still in danger of arrest. And there is something typical of those days in the recollection I have of him in the carriage: silent, self-contained, and - when he talked - discussing trivialities in the most calm way in the world. The whole district was picketed with deputy marshals; we did not know that we were not being followed; we had always the sense of evading patrols in an enemy's country. But this feeling was so old with us that it had become a thing of no regard.
There was something even more typical in the personality of our driver - a giant of a man named Charles Wilcken - a veteran of the German army who had been decorated with the Iron Cross for bravery on the field of battle. He had come to Utah with General Johnston's forces in 1858, and had left the military service to attach himself to Brigham Young. After Young's death, my father had succeeded to the first place in his affections. He was an elder of the Church; he had been an aristocrat in his own country; but he forgot his every personal interest in his loyalty to his leaders, and he stood at all times ready to defend them with his life - as a hundred thousand others did! - for, though the Mormons did not resist the processes of law for themselves, except by evasion, they were prepared to protect their leaders, if necessary, by force of arms.
With Wilcken holding the reins on a pair of fast horses at full speed, we whirled past the old adobe wall (which the Mormons had built to defend their city from the Indians) and came out into the purple night of Utah, with its frosty starlight and its black hills - a desert night, a mountain night, a night so vast in its height of space and breadth of distance that it seemed natural it should inspire the people that breathed it with freedom's ideals of freedom and all the sublimities of an eternal faith. And those people - !
A more despairing situation than theirs, at that hour, has never been faced by an American community. Practically every Mormon man of any distinction was in prison, or had just served his term, or had escaped into exile. Hundreds of Mormon women had left their homes and their children to flee from the officers of law; many had been behind prison bars for refusing to answer the questions put to them in court; more were concealed, like outlaws, in the houses of friends. Husbands and wives, separated by the necessities of flight, had died apart, miserably. Old men were coming out of prison, broken in health. A young plural wife whom I knew - a mere girl, of good breeding, of gentle life - seeking refuge in the mountains to save her husband from a charge of "unlawful cohabitation," had had her infant die in her arms on the road; and she had been compelled to bury the child, wrapped in her shawl, under a rock, in a grave that she scratched in the soil with a stick. In our day! In a civilized state!
By Act of Congress, all the church property in excess of $50,000 had been seized by the United States marshal, and the community faced the total loss of its common fund. Because of some evasions that had been attempted by the Church authorities - and the suspicion of more such - the marshal had taken everything that he could in any way assume to belong to the Church. Among the Mormons, there was an unconquerable spirit of sanctified lawlessness, and, among the non-Mormons, an equally indomitable determination to vindicate the law. Both were, for the most part, sincere. Both were resolute. And both were standing in fear of a fatal conflict, which any act of violence might begin.
Moreover, the Mormons were being slowly but surely deprived of all civil rights. All polygamists had been disfranchised by the bill of 1882, and all the women of Utah by the bill of 1887. The Governor of the territory was appointed by Federal authority, so was the marshal, so were the judges, so were the United States Commissioners who had co-ordinate jurisdiction with magistrates and justices of the peace, so were the Election Commissioners. But the Mormons still controlled the legislature, and though the Governor could veto all legislation he could initiate none. For this reason it had been frequently proposed that the President should appoint a Legislative Council to take the place of the elected legislature; and bills were being talked of in Congress to effect a complete disfranchisement of the whole body of the Mormon people by means of a test oath.
I did not then believe, and I do not now, that the practice of polygamy was a thing which the American nation could condone. But I knew that our people believed in it as a practice ordained, by a revelation from God, for the salvation of the world. It was to them an article of faith as sacred as any for which the martyrs of any religion ever died; and it seemed that the nation, in its resolve to vindicate the supremacy of civil government, was determined to put them to the point of martyrdom.
It was with this prospect before us that we drove, that night, up the Salt Lake valley, across a corner of the desert, to the little town of Bountiful; and as soon as we arrived among the houses of the settlement, a man stepped out into the road, from the shadows, and stopped us. Wilcken spoke to him. He recognized us, and let us pass. As we turned into the farm where my father was concealed, I saw men lurking here and there, on guard, about the grounds. The house was an old-fashioned adobe farm-house; the windows were all dark; we entered through the kitchen. And I entered, let me say, with the sense that I was about to come before one of the most able among men.
To those who knew George Q. Cannon I do not need to justify that feeling. He was the man in the hands of whose sagacity the fate of the Mormons at that moment lay. He was the First Councilor of the Church, and had been so for years. For ten years in Congress, he had fought and defeated the proscriptive legislation that had been attempted against his people; and Senator Hoar had said of him, "No man in Congress ever served a territory more ably." He had been the intimate friend of Randall and Blame. As a missionary in England he had impressed Dickens, who wrote of him in "An Uncommercial Traveller." The Hon. James Bryce had said of him: "He was one of the ablest Americans I ever met."
An Englishman, well-educated, a linguist, an impressive orator, a persuasive writer, he had lived a life that was one long incredible adventure of romance and almost miraculous achievement. As a youth he had been sent by the Mormon leaders to California to wash out gold for the struggling community; and he had sent back to Utah all the proceeds of his labor, living himself upon the crudest necessaries of life. As a young man he had gone as a Mormon missionary to the Hawaiian Islands, and finding himself unable to convert the whites he had gone among the natives - starving, a ragged wanderer - and by simple force of personality he had made himself a power among them; so that in later years Napella, the famous native leader, journeyed to Utah to consult with him upon the affairs of that distressed state, and Queen Liluokalani, deposed and in exile, appealed to him for advice. He had edited and published a Mormon newspaper in San Francisco; and he had long successfully directed the affairs of the publishing house in Salt Lake City which he owned. He was a railroad builder, a banker, a developer of mines, a financier of a score of interests. He combined the activities of a statesman, a missionary, and a man of business, and seemed equally successful in all.
But none of these things - nor all of them - contained the total of the man himself. He was greater than his work. He achieved by the force of a personality that was more impressive than its achievements. If he had been royalty, he could not have been surrounded with a greater deference than he commanded among our people. A feeling of responsibility for those dependent on him, such as a king might feel, added to a sense of divine guidance that gave him the dignity of inspiration, had made him majestical in his simple presence; and even among those who laughed at divine inspiration and scorned Mormonism as the Uitlander scorned the faith of the Boer, his sagacity and his diplomacy and his power to read and handle men made him as fearfully admired as any Oom Paul in the Transvaal.
When I entered the low-ceilinged, lamplit room in which he sat, he rose to meet me, and all rose with him, like a court. He embraced me without effusion, looking at me silently with his wise blue eyes that always seemed to read in my face - and to check up in his valuation of me - whatever I had become in my absence from his regard.
He had a countenance that at no time bore any of the marks of the passions of men; and it showed, now, no shadow of the tribulations of that troubled day. His forehead was unworried. His eyes betrayed none of the anxieties with which his mind must have been busied. His expression was one of resolute stern contentment with all things - carrying the composure of spirit which he wished his people to have. If I had been agitated by the urgency of his summons to me, and he had wished to allay my anxiety at once, the sight of his face, as he looked at me, would have been reassurance enough.
At a characteristic motion of the hand from him, the others left us. We sat down in the "horsehair" chairs of a well-to-do farmer's parlor - furnished in black walnut, with the usual organ against one wall, and the usual marble-topped bureau against the other. I remember the "store" carpet, the mortuary hair-wreaths on the walls, the walnut-framed lithographs of the Church authorities and of the angel Moroni with "the gold plates;" and none of these seem ludicrous to me to remember. They express, to me, in the recollection, some of the homely and devout simplicity of the people whose community life this man was to save.
He talked a few minutes, affectionately, about family matters, and then - straightening his shoulders to the burden of more gravity - he said: "I have sent for you, my son, to see if you cannot find some way to help us in our difficulties. I have made it a matter of prayer, and I have been led to urge you to activity. You have never performed a Mission for the Church, and I have sometimes wondered if you cared anything about your religion. You have never obeyed the celestial covenant, and you have kept yourself aloof from the duties of the priesthood, but it may have been a providential overruling. I have talked with some of the brethren, and we feel that if relief does not soon appear, our community will be scattered and the great work crushed. The Lord can rescue us, but we must put forth our own efforts. Can you see any light?"
I replied that I had already been in Washington twice, on my own initiative, conferring with some of his Congressional friends. "I am still," I said, "of the opinion I expressed to you and President Taylor four years ago. Plural marriage must be abandoned or our friends in Washington will not defend us."
Four years before, when I had offered that opinion, President Taylor had cried out: "No! Plural marriage is the will of God! It's apostasy to question it!" And I paused now with the expectation that my father would say something of this sort. But, as I was afterwards to observe, it was part of his diplomacy, in conference, to pass the obvious opportunity of replying, and to remain silent when he was expected to speak, so that he might not be in the position of following the lead of his opponent's argument, but rather, by waiting his own time, be able to direct the conversation to his own purposes. He listened to me, silently, his eyes fixed on my face.
"Senator Vest of Missouri," I went on, "has always been a strong opponent of what he considered unconstitutional legislation against us, but he tells me he'll no longer oppose proscription if we continue in an attitude of defiance. He says you're putting yourselves beyond assistance, by organized rebellion against the administration of the statutes." And I continued with instances of others among his friends who had spoken to the same purpose.
When I had done, he took what I had said with a gesture that at once accepted and for the moment dismissed it; and he proceeded to a larger consideration of the situation, in words which I cannot pretend to recall, but to an effect which I wish to outline - because it not only accounts for the preservation of the Mormon people from all their dangers, but contains a reason why the world might have wished to see them preserved.
The Mormons at this time had never written a line on social reform - except as the so-called "revelations" established a new social order - but they had practiced whole volumes. Their community was founded on the three principles of co-operation, contribution, and arbitration. By co-operation of effort they had realized that dream of the Socialists, "equality of opportunity" - not equality of individual capacity, which the accidents of nature prevent, but an equal opportunity for each individual to develop himself to the last reach of his power. By contribution by requiring each man to give one-tenth of his income to a common fund - they had attained the desired end of modern civilization, the abolition of poverty, and had adjusted the straps of the community burden to the strength of the individual to bear it. By arbitration, they had effected the settlement of every dispute of every kind without litigation; for their High Councils decided all sorts of personal or neighborhood disputes without expense of money to the disputants. The "storehouse of the Lord" had been kept open to fill every need of the poor among "God's people," and opportunities for self help had been created out of the common fund, so that neither unwilling idleness nor privation might mar the growth of the community or the progress of the individual.
But Joseph Smith had gone further. Daring to believe himself the earthly representative of Omnipotence, whose duty it was to see that all had the rights to which he thought them entitled, and assuming that a woman's chief right was that of wifehood and maternity, he had instituted the practice of plural marriage, as a "Prophet of God," on the authority of a direct revelation from the Almighty. It was upon this rock that the whole enterprise, the whole experiment in religious communism, now threatened to split. Not that polygamy was so large an incident in the life of the community - for only a small proportion of the Mormons were living in plural marriage. And not that this practice was the cardinal sin of Mormonism - for among intelligent men, then as now, the great objection to the Church was its assumption of a divine authority to hold the "temporal power," to dictate in politics, to command action and to acquit of responsibility. But polygamy was the offense against civilization which the opponents of Mormonism could always cite in order to direct against the Church the concentrated antagonism of the governments of the Western world. And my father, in authorizing me to proceed to Washington as a sort of ambassador of the Church, evidently wished to impress upon me the larger importance of the value of the social experiment which the Mormons had, to this time, so successfully advanced.
"It would be a cruel waste of human effort," he said, "if, after having attained comfort in these valleys - established our schools of art and science - developed our country and founded our industries - we should now be destroyed as a community, and the value of our experience lost to the world. We have a right to survive. We have a duty to survive. It would be to the profit of the nation that we should survive."
But in order to survive, it was necessary to obtain some immediate mitigation of the enforcement of the laws against us. The manner in which they were being enforced was making compromise impossible, and the men who administered them stood in the way of getting a favorable hearing from the powers of government that alone could authorize a compromise. It was necessary to break this circle; and my father went over the names of the men in Washington who might help us. I could marvel at his understanding of these men and their motives, but we came to no plan of action until I spoke of what had been with me a sort of forlorn hope that I might appeal to President Cleveland himself.
My father said thoughtfully: "What influence could you, a Republican, have with him? It's true that your youth may make an appeal - and the fact that you're pleading for your relatives, while not yourself a polygamist. But he would immediately ask us to abandon plural marriage, and that is established by a revelation from God which we cannot disregard. Even if the Prophet directed us, as a revelation from God, to abandon polygamy, still the nation would have further cause for quarrel because of the Church's temporal rule. No. I can make no promise. I can authorize no pledge. It must be for the Prophet of God to say what is the will of the Lord. You must see President Woodruff, and after he has asked for the will of the Lord I shall be content with his instruction."
Now, I do not wish to say - though I did then believe it - that the First Councilor of the Mormon Church was prepared to have the doctrine of plural marriage abandoned in order to have the people saved. It is impossible to predicate the thoughts of a man so diplomatic, so astute, and at the same time so deeply religious and so credulous of all the miracles of faith. He did believe in Divine guidance. He was sincere in his submission to the "revelations" of the Prophet. But, in the complexity of the mind of man, even such a faith may be complicated with the strategies of foresight, and the priest who bows devoutly to the oracle may yet, even unconsciously, direct the oracle to the utterance of his desire. And if my father was - as I suspected - considering a recession from plural marriage, he had as justification the basic "revelation," given through "Joseph the Prophet," commanding that the people should hold themselves in subjection to the government under which they lived, "until He shall come Whose right it is to rule."
We talked till midnight, in the quiet glow of the farmer's lamp-light, discussing possibilities, considering policies, weighing men; and then we parted - he to betake himself to whatever secure place of hiding he had found, and I to return to Ogden where I was then editing a newspaper. I was only twenty-nine years old, and the responsibility of the undertaking that had been entrusted to me weighed on my mind. I waited for a summons to confer with President Woodruff, but none came. Instead, my brother brought me word from the President that I must be "guided by the spirit of the Lord;" and, finally, my father sent me orders to consult the Second Councilor, Joseph F. Smith.
Joseph F. Smith! Since the death of the founder of the Mormon Church, there have been three men pre-eminent in its history: Brigham Young, who led the people across the desert into the Salt Lake Valley and established them in prosperity there; George Q. Cannon, who directed their policies and secured their national rights; and Joseph F. Smith, who today rules over that prosperity and markets that political right, like a Sultan. Of all these, Smith is, to the nation now, of most importance - and sinisterly so.
No Mormon in those years, I think, had more hate than Smith for the United States government; and surely none had better reasons to give himself for hate. He had the bitter recollection of the assassination of his father and his uncle in the jail of Carthage, Illinois; he could remember the journey that he had made with his widowed mother across the Mississippi, across Iowa, across the Missouri, and across the unknown and desert West, in ox teams, half starved, unarmed, persecuted by civilization and at the mercy of savages; he could remember all the toils and hardships of pioneer days "in the Valley;" he had seen the army of '58 arrive to complete, as he believed, the final destruction of our people; he had suffered from all the proscriptive legislation of "the raid," been outlawed, been in exile, been in hiding, hunted like a thief. He had been taught, and he firmly believed, that the Smiths had been divinely appointed to rule, in the name of God, over all mankind. He believed that he - ordained a ruler over this world before ever the world was - had been persecuted by the hate and wickedness of men. He believed it literally; he preached it literally; he still believes and still preaches it. I did not then sympathize with this point of view, any more than I do now; but I did sympathize with him in the hardships that he had already endured and in the trials that he was still enduring - in common with the rest of us. The bond of community persecution intensified my loyalty. I felt for him almost as I felt for my own father. I went to him with the young man's trust in age made wise by suffering.
I had been directed to call on him in the President's offices, in Salt Lake City, where he was concealed, for the moment, under the name of "Mack" - the name that he used "on the underground" - and I went with my brother, late at night, to see him there. The President's offices were at that time in a little one-story plastered house that had been built by Brigham Young between two of his famous residences, the "Beehive House" and the "Lion House" (in which some twelve or fourteen of his wives had lived). The three houses were within the enclosure of a high cobblestone wall built by Brigham Young; and at night the great gate of the wall was shut and locked. We hammered discreetly on its panels of mountain pine, until a guard answered our knocking, recognized our voices and admitted us.
"He's in there," he said, pointing to the darkened windows of the offices - toward which he led us.
He unlocked the front door - having evidently locked it when he went to the gate - and he explained to a waiting attendant: "These brethren have an appointment. They wish to see Brother Mack."
The attendant led us down a dimly-lighted hall, through the public offices of the President into a rear room, a sort of retiring room, carpeted, furnished with bookcases, chairs, a table. The window blinds had all been carefully drawn.
Joseph F. Smith was waiting for us - a tall, lean, long-bearded man of a commanding figure standing as if our arrival had stopped him in some anxious pacing of the carpet. His overcoat and his hat had been thrown on a chair. He greeted us with the air of one who is hurried, and sat down tentatively; and as soon as we came to the question of my trip to Washington, he broke out:
"These scoundrels here must be removed - if there's any way to do it. They're trying to repeat the persecutions of Missouri and Illinois. They want to despoil us of our heritage - of our families. I'm sick of being hunted like a wild beast. I've done no harm to them or theirs. Why can't they leave us alone to live our religion and obey the commandments of God and build up Zion?" He had begun to stride up and down the floor again, in a sort of driven and angry helplessness. "I thought Cleveland would stop this damnable raid and make them leave us in peace - but he's as bad as the rest. Can't they see that these carpet baggers are only trying to rob us? Make them see that. The hounds! Sometimes it seems to me that the Lord is letting these iniquities go on so that the nation may perish in its sins all the sooner!"
He sneered at John W. Young who had gone to Washington for the Church. (I had met Smith himself there, earlier in the year.) "I thought he'd accomplish something," he said, "with his fashionable home and his - He's using money enough! He's down there, taking things easy, while the rest of us are driven from pillar to post." He attacked the Federal authorities, Governor West, the "whole gang." He cried: "I love my wives and my children - whom the Lord gave me. I love them more than my life - more than anything in the world - except my religion! And here I am, fleeing from place to place, from the wrath of the wicked - and they're left in sorrow and suffering."
His face was pallid with emotion, and his voice came now hard with exasperation against his enemies and now husky with a passionate affection for his family - a man of fifty, graybearded, quivering in a nervous transport of excitement that jerked him up and down the room, gesticulating.
When he had worn out his first anger of revolt, I brought the conversation round to the question of polygamy, by asking him about a provisional constitution for statehood which the non-polygamous Mormons had recently adopted. It contained a clause making polygamy a misdemeanor. "I would have seen them all damned," he said, "before I would have yielded it, but I'm willing to try the experiment, if any good can come."
He had, I gathered, no aversion to "deceiving the wicked," but he was opposed to leading his people away from their loyalty to the doctrine of plural marriage, by conceding anything that might weaken their faith in it. And yet this impression may misrepresent him. He was too agitated, too exasperated, for any serious reflection on the situation.
My brother had gone - to keep some other engagement - and I stayed late, talking as long as Smith seemed to wish to talk. He rose at last and "blessed" me, his hands on my head, in a return to some larger trust in his religious authority; and I left him - with very doubtful and mixed emotions. His natural violence and his lack of discipline had been matters of common gossip among our people, and I had heard of them from childhood; but I had supposed that tribulations would, by this time, have matured him. There was something compelling in his unsoftened turbulence, but nothing encouraging for me as a messenger of conciliation. I felt that there would be no help come from him in my task, and I dropped him from my reckoning.
I had made up my mind to a plan that was almost as desperate as the conditions it sought to cure - a plan that was in some ways so absurd that I felt like keeping it concealed for fear of ridicule - and I went about my preparations for departure in a sort of hopeless hope. As the train drew out from Ogden, I looked back at the mountains from my car window, and saw again, in the spectacle of their power, the pathos of our people - as if it were the nation of my worship that bulked there so huge above the people of my love - and I, puny in my little efforts, going out to plot an intercession, to appeal for a truce! It was almost as if I were the son of a Confederate leader journeying to Washington, on the eve of the Civil War, to attempt to stand between North and South and hold back their opposing armies, single-handed.
These are the things a man does when he is young.