Lincoln used skilled diplomacy to charm the once-hostile Mormons

The crude, casual racism of a long-ago era is striking in this Nov. 28, 1860 Deseret News advertisement from merchant George Goddard. It reads, “Abe Lincoln, Republican, elected by a large majority!!!, immense excitement!, Democrats all but crazy!!!, Niggers rejoicing at the prospect of freedom!!! and before they are all let loose — over 4,000,000, Geo. Goddard is determined to close out his present stock of goods at the following reduced prices: What follows is a list or ordinary merchandise, everything from grey overshirts, to fine tooth brushes, to tobacco to McGuffey’s Readers, etc.

Mr. Goddard’s published bigotry underscores the hostility that Utah’s Latter-day Saint hierarchy greeted the presidential election of Republican Abraham Lincoln 151 years ago. Historian George U. Hubbard, writing in the Spring, 1963 issue of the Utah Historical Quarterly, notes that the election of Lincoln was greeted with derisive speeches by Mormon leaders, including Church President Brigham Young and apostle George A. Smith. As Hubbard writes in, “Abraham Lincoln as seen by the Mormons,” the Illinois president was described as “weak as water” or as a “King Abraham” who would oversee the destruction of the United States. Prominent Mormon John D. Lee, who would later be executed for the Mountain Meadows Massacre, referred to Lincoln as “the Black Republican,” recounts Hubbard.

The Deseret News editorialized on Feb. 27, 1861, that “…Abraham the I. has, in all probability, been installed into office as successor of James the IV (James Buchanan) … we still believe as we have for many years, that the Union, about which so much has been and is being said, will go to destruction …”

Apostle Smith publicly worried that Lincoln’s crusade against slavery would extend to persecution of Utah Mormons. Smith, after blasting Lincoln’s anti-slavery crusade as “a priestly influence,” added that “the spirit of priestcraft” would lead to him putting “to death, if it was in his power, every man that believes in the divine mission of Joseph Smith, or that bears testimony to the doctrines he preached.”

Hubbard’s piece notes the irony of the Utah antipathy for Lincoln. In fact, it had been his chief opponent, Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, who had been most critical of Utah Mormons during the 1860 campaign. The reason for Utah opposition to Lincoln was two-fold. The Republican Party platform of that era described slavery and polygamy as the “twin relics of barbarism.” That must have stung Utah Mormons, who had only recently admitted that their church promoted and practiced polygamy. The second reason for opposition to Lincoln by the Mormon faith was rooted in LDS theology. Mormon doctrine sees the establishment of the United States as overseen by God. As Hubbard writes, “To the Mormons the election of Lincoln meant the dissolution of the Union, a nation whose creation was divinely inspired.”

With those concerns, it’s perhaps not surprising that the LDS Church hierarchy was a strong opponent of the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln’s plans to free the slaves. The Deseret News, which spoke only what church leaders’ approved of, blasted the idea, describing it as radical and unconstitutional. The Deseret News wrote, “He (Lincoln) is fully adrift on the current of radical fanaticism” and further described the president as having been “coerced by the insanity of radicals…”

Harsh words, nevertheless, history tells us that two years later Utah’s religious leadership, and by extension its citizens, were strong supporters of President Lincoln, cheering his re-election victory and later mourned and paid tribute to Lincoln after his assassination. The about face in support, explains Hubbard, was due to the president’s extraordinary diplomatic skills.

Lincoln was no stranger to the “Mormon question.” As a Whig legislator in Illinois in the early 1840s, he had sought — like any other pol — the support of the Mormon voting bloc. In fact, in one election Lincoln had assumed support from the Mormons only to see it taken away by Joseph Smith for political reasons. The future president was too mature a politician to allow the snub to have long-term consequences, and refrained from harsh criticism of the church.

Hubbard writes that the first significant positive response Lincoln received from church leaders was in April 1862 when he bypassed federal officials and instead directly asked Brigham Young to supply an armed force to protect telegraph and mail lines from Indians. Hubbard writes: “The Mormon leaders were delighted with this recognition and demonstration of confidence on the part of the federal government, and their response was immediate.”

Lincoln’s diplomatic skills further charmed Utah Mormons after a dispute — common in that era — erupted between church leaders and the non-Mormon leadership of the Utah territory.

Instead of the norm, which would have been to take the civilian official’s side, Lincoln responded with a compromise solution. He provided the Mormons some political victories, as well as the civilian leadership. One significant move was that the anti-Mormon governor was removed from office.

The clinching act of diplomacy that endeared Lincoln to Utah Mormons, Hubbard relates, was an interview that the president provided then-active Mormon T.B.H. Stenhouse in 1863. The thrust of Lincoln’s remarks as to the Mormons was to let them have autonomy in Utah. Lincoln, to Stenhouse, said, “You go back and tell Brigham Young that if he will let me alone, I will let him alone.”

That advice was manna to Mormon leaders, who had sought without success such a policy for 33 years. From that point on, the Mormon change of opinion on Lincoln was complete. Hubbard writes, “As a result, the Mormon population had become fervent supporters of Abraham Lincoln, and they were looking forward to his re-election.”

The death of Lincoln united, at least temporarily, Mormons and gentiles who flocked to the Tabernacle for an overflow memorial service for the president in April 1865. Future LDS leader Wilford Woodruff delivered the benediction. As Hubbard related in 1963, Abraham Lincoln has been a revered figure in the Mormon faith ever since. Nothing has changed in 2011, 48 years later.

This post also ran in Currents, the Standard-Examiner’s digital-only section on politics and culture.

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17 Responses to Lincoln used skilled diplomacy to charm the once-hostile Mormons

  1. Mikeasell says:

    Thanks Doug. Unfiltered Utah history is fun and provides a great perspective on the culture that has followed. Interesting that Mormons opposed Lincoln and taught that he would end the union simply because he was coming after slavery, oh how they change tunes…

  2. Owain says:

    Is that a sign of bigotry or crude casual racism (use of the n-word that is anathema today) or was that just the descriptive word in use at that time, and only over time has it become unnacceptably objectionable?

    You can see the same process in effect today. When I was a youngster, the polite accepted term was ‘negro’. That became less acceptable, and the term ‘colored’ became more acceptable (as in NAACP – National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).

    We’re now debateing whether ‘black’ or ‘african-american’ is to be preferred, since I understand there is a disagreement on this point within the black/african-american community. Wait a year or two, and I suppose there will be newer terms that will have temperary preference.

    Liberal or progressive shows the same politically correct usage creep. The progressive movement in the early part of the last century was associated with eugenics and racism, but that is forgotten in the attempt to flee from the term ‘liberal’.

    You have to be careful in applying the fashions and ephemera of language today to what was in common use 150 years ago.

    • Doug Gibson says:

      It’s not just the use of the “N” word that shows racism. I included the whole ad, plus comments such as “before they are let loose,” and quotes from John D. Lee and the Deseret News’ anger at the Emancipation Proclamation. The refusal to provide LDS priesthood blessings to blacks was derived in racism. Of course, the racism was societywide, and not exclusive to the LDS leadership. In that sense I would agree with you, Owain.

      • Owain says:

        Good points. The n-word caught my eye (it tends to do that, doesn’t it?), but there is more to that paragraph than just language.

  3. BobBecker says:

    So, Zion’s modern-day paranoids come by their affliction honestly: they inherited it from their forebearers. Interesting that the paranoid rhetoric applied to Lincoln, and the apocalypitic predictions about what he would do [which all turned out to be wildly inaccurate] tracks with eerie closeness the ravings of the loopier elements of the paranoid right in Utah today.

    Another interesting Mormon history piece by Mr. Gibson. Looking forward to the next one.

  4. Owain says:

    “… tracks with eerie closeness the ravings of the loopier elements of the paranoid right in Utah today.”

    And which ravings would those be, Bob? I distrust fuzzy generalizations, so specify please, who and what.

    • BobBecker says:

      Well, let’s see…. I’ve had passed on to me from Utahns emails warning me that President Obama is a radical Muslim who is working to impose Sharia law on all Americans, that he’s a communist seeing to undermine the nation’s independence, that he’s ordered detention camps prepared to hold prisoners from a mass arrest of “true patriot Americans,” and recently that he plans to cancel the coming presidential elections. Hows that for openers? show more show less

      • Owain says:

        I’ve had emails from the President of Nigeria asking me if I’ll help him launder $80 million. So what?

        Is that ALL you got?

        FAIL.

  5. Dave says:

    Did you know that the LDS (“Mormon”) church was on of the first to allow black and whites to sit together side-by-side? Did you know that the “Mormons” were kicked out of Missouri – with an execution order – mainly for being anti-slave? Did you know that some of the first missionaries were black? Did you know that there have been blacks holding the priesthood since 1832? Yes, Brigham Young was a bigot, and other apostles called him out for it. The Church had and understanding with Lincoln, you leave us alone and we’ll not bother you. It was the best deal the Church got thanks to American bigotry. The only issue the some “Mormons” took with Lincoln was that he wouldn’t let the south leave the union. After the war the US government started with the “Mormons” there were some that wanted to leave the union too. But more were loyal and understood that the US government was just buying into the anti-Mormon propaganda.

    For more and “blacks” and the LDS church, check out

    http://blacklds.org

    It is not run or authorized by the church, but it has great facts that few people know about the controversy within and without the church.

  6. Bill Johnson says:

    For more complete information on The LDS history of “blacks” and the priesthood ban without all the sugarcoating, check out

    http://www.mormonthink.com/blackweb.htm

    It also is not run or authorized by the church, but it has great facts that few people know about the controversy within and without the church.

  7. Porterfield says:

    Humorous piece; it is amazing what one can do with a bunch of quotes taken out of context. I’ve seen similar things done with modern elementary text books. I always find it interesting when we presume to judge historical artifacts by modern ethical standards. The results are guaranteed to be skewed, especially we so much pertinent information was intentionally omitted. Next, let’s judge the historical custom of laying people out before burial, we could critique this ritual based on modern vampire sitcoms!

  8. Doug King says:

    In 1862, the overwhelming majority of whites, including Mormons, were racist by today’s standards. And that includes Abraham Lincoln.

    Says historian Eric Forner: “…[Lincoln] shared many of the prejudices of the society in which he lived. Lincoln used the word [“n-word”] privately and, occasionally, in public. He enjoyed going to blackface minstrel shows, and his seemingly endless repertoire of stories and jokes included overtly racist humor.”

    Foner, Eric (2010-10-04). The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (p. 120). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition. (I highly recommend Forner’s book.)

    Was Lincoln therefore a “bigot”? Or was he a great president? Could he have been both?

    I see him as a remarkably pragmatic and progressive man who learned from his experiences. His attitude towards blacks evolved over time; not until nearly the end of his life did he begin to consider blacks as equals. I see Lincoln as our greatest president.

    Judging people from 150 years ago by today’s norms is unfair. Whether they are famous presidents or Mormons or illiterate slaves, people should be judged by the standards of their generation and their life experiences.

  9. Graham Ambrose says:

    I find it ironic that early church leaders would derogatorily label Lincoln “King Abraham.” When Lincoln stated by messenger to Brigham Young, “[I]f he will let me alone I will let him alone,” paralleled Abraham’s conversation with his nephew Lot. Recall that Abraham, when negotiating with Lot about where each should settle in the land Canaan, gave Lot the first choice:

    “Is not the whole land before thee? separate thyself, I pray thee, from me: if thou wilt take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if thou depart to the right hand, then I will go to the left.” (Genesis 13:9)

    In other words, Abraham, having allowed Lot his free choice, could rightfully say to him, “If you will let me alone, I will let thee alone.”

    Such is the wisdom of both Abraham and Lincoln.

  10. Pingback: 16 November 2011 | MormonVoices

  11. Karin says:

    I think further research into early LDS history will reveal that Lincoln was a great friend to the LDS Church in the days of the Nauvoo Charter. It was the only city charter of it’s time and gave Joseph Smith broad powers that the Saints did not enjoy in other areas they lived. Lincoln was instrumental, even vital, in the passage of the charter in the Illinois legislature.

  12. jg says:

    I am from the South and even today unfortunately people still say the “N” word. In Lincolns day that was normal language, as was the word darkie. The War between the States was not about slavery, it was about keeping the South in the Union and abolishing slavery and a war would break the South, and that is exactly what happened. Lincoln was a racist, as were most Caucasions of his day. Native Americans were called “Injuns” and other bad names, and were treated just as badly as Blacks, and still are today.
    A lot of people in Lincolns day spewed rhetoric, like Brigham Young did. TV preachers today spew rhetoric as well as other people and politicians.
    It amazed me to find out how wrong my history books were when I was growing up and today it is not much better. History is still not taught honestly and without bias. Sad sad sad.

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