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BYU Studies Quarterly Vol. 60 (2021)
Historians of the Latter-day Saint tradition have often dissected the origins, members, and activities of the Danites—and much has been made about Joseph Smith’s involvement with the group—but what often gets overlooked is how this nascent organization drew from a broader political tradition of rights and belonging within a democratic society. The society was more than just a replication of frontier vigilante justice. Indeed, the creation of the Danites—as well as its constitution—represented the culmination of tense discussions concerning who can and cannot reside within a particular community. It looked both outward toward Missouri neighbors and inward toward Mormon dissenters. The Danite constitution was the Latter-day Saint attempt to stake their political right to not be forcibly removed while also justifying their liberty to define the boundaries of their own community. This article traces the intellectual genealogy for this debate in an attempt to accomplish two objectives: first, to add layers to what happened in Far West, Missouri, in spring and summer 1838, including a better understanding of why the Saints were seen as so threatening to their neighbors and how the members of the faith justified their decision to fight back; and second, to better understand the broader antebellum culture’s struggle to define constitutional rights in an era where majoritarian rule seemed to verge on outright oppression. This article then concludes by highlighting how the actions in Missouri set the stage for another constitution written six years later in Nauvoo, another moment in which the Saints’ seemingly radical actions reflected broader political anxieties. Indeed, America’s democratic tradition is rife with moments of defining conflict, and the Mormon-Missouri War should be understood as exemplifying that uneven trajectory.
A natural tension seems to exist between two important features of the Book of Mormon. On one hand, Mormon includes in his record a version of the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus gave to the Nephites—an address that sets the standard for discipleship and that contains teachings obviously opposed to violence. In it, we hear about not resisting evil, turning the other cheek, going another mile when compelled to go one, loving our enemies—and so forth (3 Ne. 12:39–44). On the other hand, Mormon also presents various Nephite leaders as righteous even though they were immersed in violence. Captain Moroni stands out among these leaders because his wartime activities dominate the last third of the book of Alma: we see him in significant detail. The juxtaposition of these two threads appears contradictory. We see righteous men, including prophetic figures, engaged in the very activities that the text itself seems to prohibit. And this apparent contradiction seems significant even though most of these leaders lived before the Sermon was even given. This is because it is natural to think of the Book of Mormon as a whole—as a collection of significant experiences and teachings that are consistent with one another and that together present a unified, divine message to the world. We thus expect to see the book’s most prominent leaders actually live the standard found in the book’s most prominent teachings— whether they actually possessed the Sermon on the Mount or not. And therein lies the problem. Although these prominent teachings clearly seem to be opposed to violence, we see these prominent leaders very much engaged in violence. It is not necessarily obvious how to resolve this tension. One strategy, of course, would be to ignore the tension and to simply avoid thinking about it. But a sacred text requires more from us than that. So the apparent disparity has to be faced. How is it possible to reconcile Captain Moroni with the Sermon on the Mount?
In a previous issue of BYU Studies, John W. Welch explores the early Christian allegorical interpretation of the good Samaritan and argues that this parable “become[s] even richer when understood in terms of restored Latter-day Saint doctrines of God’s plan of salvation.” In a version of that article adapted for the Ensign, he further explains how understanding the parable in this way “adds eternal perspectives to its moral imperatives.” The same is true of the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, which, like the parable of the good Samaritan, were traditionally connected with Christ’s incarnation. In fact, I argue that this is their primary meaning and that subsequent moral lessons are valuable but subordinate.
This article illustrates the Nephite notions of priesthood and church in order to show that the Book of Mormon conception of priesthood is based on Judahite notions of kingly priesthood and ideas firmly rooted in the biblical law of Moses and the Sinai Covenant. This is the underlying idea behind Alma2’s discussion of Melchizedek in Alma 13. In this article, I first look at “priest” in the biblical record and tradition. I follow this with a discussion of Book of Mormon “priesthood” notions up to Alma1 and Alma2 (including the interaction with Nehor). Finally, I examine the conflict between Alma2 and the Nehorite people of Ammonihah, where Alma2 draws on a narrative expansion of the Melchizedek tradition in Genesis 14 to make his point about his priesthood order and its superiority to the order of Nehor.