Antebellum Liberty vs. Mormon Individuality

I put this one up a couple of years ago, but I want to revisit it in light of some current discussion on Mormonism and politics. Patrick Mason’s recent article in Church and State (summer 2011) 53:349-375, made me wonder again about our presentist impositions.

In a 1990 article, Gregory Schneider observed,

Early versions of republicanism conceived of liberty and rights as belonging to the people taken as a whole in opposition to the power and interests of rulers. Liberty was, first of all, public and political, not private and individual. Hence, there could be no legitimate opposition between individual liberties and the common good of the people in the republic. Those who place their private interests above the common good were diseased tissue in the body politic, and might be subjected to harsh remedies. Unity in the cause of the common good, then, sometimes required an oppressive conformity.[1]

This notion of liberty, as a property of the body politic rather than the individual tends to run against the notion of liberty in today’s popular media. However, it plays into early Mormonism
in several ways. The Missouri Troubles and the Nauvoo conflicts for example. But it seems to stand in some opposition to (Nauvoo especially) Mormon doctrines regarding the soul or mind of man being eternal, having the property of “self-existence”[2].

Mormons themselves were uncomfortably cohesive to outsiders. The fact of Mormons, exercising their “constitutional rights” in going about their ways, building a temple, improving the land and their standard of living was not a threat in itself. But Mormon liberty was in some opposition to Gentile liberty, which had different poles of normalcy. In either case however, liberty really had nothing to do with the freedom to defy established convention. Liberty was founded in moral consensus and community behavior. You participated in social drinking and partying on court days and election days and in cock fights, horse racing and so on. Failure to conform could invite charges of cowardice or even treason.[3]

In some sense, Mormon doctrine in Nauvoo bore marks of anarchy (see at [2]). Is that why some of Joseph Smith’s ideas never found fertile ground in Utah until the 20th century? Antebellum American liberty “walked hand in hand with unity.”[4] That was the sort of liberty that found a home in early Utah. And it almost certainly was a factor in the community divisions of post-civil-war Utah (I means Mormon v. Gentile). Was the hippy generation a real expression of Mormonism? Nah. But liberty and individuality had an uncomfortable interface in early Mormonism apparently and backdating the terms shows that it still exists in some respects, I suppose. Modern Mormon conceptions of liberty bear strong resemblance to the antebellum idea. Conformity of the individual preserves the liberty of the body? Or something like that. Positing the necessary existence of human minds/souls works against the community picture of the Divine family, at least that’s what some Mormon leaders felt in the early 20th century.
[1] A. Gregory Schneider, “Social Religion, The Christian Home, and Republican Spirituality in Antebellum Methodism.” Journal of the Early Republic 10 (Summer 1990): 169. Schneider’s piece bears on a number of aspects of early Mormonism.

[2] Self-existence in Joseph Smith’s time was generally applied to God. God’s existence had no beginning. He was uncreate, unbegotten, uneverything. To apply the same term to human persons, had anyone paid much attention, would have been regarded as clearly blasphemous. (See here, here, here and here for some specifics.) The notion was clearly overshadowed by deification and the related complex of notions. JS’s sense of what “eternal” meant was pressed vividly into service in KFD5 (sermon in the grove so-called). The Utah ontology dreamt a different dream. This “change” continued to frame Mormon discourse. John Taylor’s recasting of the meaning of theos and demos for Mormons changed the meaning of “vote” forever in Church contexts.

[3] Schneider, 169.

[4] Schneider, 168.

3 Responses to Antebellum Liberty vs. Mormon Individuality

  1. Ben Park says:

    Interesting stuff. For what it’s worth, my recent MHA paper explores these tensions as they related to Mormon perceptions of heaven during the same period, which is a fascinating look at this dynamic tension between ‘individuality’ and a unified, communal ‘liberty.’ I have a small segment of it in a JI post here:

  2. W. V. Smith says:

    Thanks, Ben and thanks for the link. It’s an interesting concept (the tension between the two ideas of liberty/freedom), which I believe pervades much of modern Mormonism in a somewhat different way. Think: Mother in Heaven!

  3. i am a convert to mormonism so when i converted to mormonism i had prevouisly came from a e liberal individualistic christian background in the christian world.I was in the most conservative born again evangelical fundamentalist christian church and realized then about the anomaly problematic problems regarding individual christians in the church that were either conservative or liberal and free thinkers like myself who were very individualistic in their views so when i converted to mormonism i had already came in with the perception of being liberal and individualisticin my free thinking of mormonism.After being active and inactive in and out of mormonism i would classify myself as a modern liberal individualistic free thinker sunstone mormon rather then a classic mormon mcckonkie conservative.a excample of the 21st century issue within mormonism i have found that there are moderate individual thinkers on the issue of gays and lesbians in the church that has effect in the institutional church as well as the fullness of the gospel taught in the seminries,conferances and manuals.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: