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.