Joseph Smith’s Prophecies of the Overthrow of the United States

The Occupation of Newport, Rhode Island, December 1776. By Cleverley, Robert (1749-1809). National Maritime Museum. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

One of the tragedies of historical study is that there are many items in private collections that we historians simply do not have access to. A few years ago, the Spink Shreve Galleries sold off a large collection of important Mormon documents and fortunately put some images and excerpts online. This offers a rare glimpse of some documents we otherwise might not know existed. Among the items sold is a July 6, 1849 letter from Ursula B. Hascall to her sister Ophelia. The letter says in part,

I call upon you to repent of your sins and flee … I call upon you thus that you may rise up and say Ursulia you knew all this … Ophelia did I not spew the profhecy spoken by Joseph Smith by the authority of Jesus Christ concerning the overthrow of the United States – the destruction of the states as a nation is just as sure as the sun will ever rise and set – it is near at hand, it is all ready to burst upon it.

This letter provides interesting additional confirmation for a prophecy that Joseph Smith uttered on at least three known occasions in 1843 and 1844: once while dining with Stephen Douglas in Carthage, Illinois, once in the Nauvoo City Council, and once during a meeting of the Council of Fifty. On the first occasion, when dining with Douglas, Smith reportedly said,

I prophesy in the name of the Lord God of Israel, unless the United States redress the wrongs committed upon the Saints in the state of Missouri and punish the crimes committed by her officers that in a few years the government will be utterly overthrown and wasted, and there will not be so much as a potsherd left for their wickedness in permitting the murder of men, women and children, and the wholesale plunder and extermination of thousands of her citizens to go unpunished, thereby perpetrating a foul and corroding blot upon the fair fame of this great republic, the very thought of which would have caused the high-minded and patriotic framers of the Constitution of the United States to hide their faces with shame. (DHC 5:393-94)

On the second occasion, while discussing a petition to Congress with the Nauvoo City Council, Smith “prophesied, by virtue of the holy Priesthood vested in me, and in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, that, if Congress will not hear our petition and grant us protection, they shall be broken up as a government, and god shall damn them. And there shall nothing be left of them – not even a grease spot” (Millennial Star v.22, p. 455).

On the third occasion, in the Council of Fifty, Smith reportedly “prophecied the entire overthrow of this nation in a few years” (George D. Smith, ed., An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton [Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995], 129).

Mormonism is often viewed as an unreservedly patriotic and quintessentially American movement. While this is partly true, there is also a strong Mormon tradition of prophetic critique of the United States. In good Puritan style, the early Mormons viewed the United States as a chosen but apostate people, and themselves as the “saving remnant”. Klaus Hansen has described this as a “higher patriotism”. Their allegiance was to the United States as it is meant to be, rather than to the United States as it actually is. The prophetic critique of America remained popular among Mormons until the revocation of polygamy around the turn of the twentieth century, when the Church made a conscious decision to cultivate a more patriotic image.

This history of scathing prophetic denunciation seems foreign to the modern Church of flags and boy scouts. For the most part, I’m glad those days are over. Yet part of me hopes Smith’s radicalism is still latent beneath Mormonism’s surface. After all, America doesn’t just need sycophants. She needs fiery radicals challenging her to do—and to be—better.

Comments

Joseph Smith’s Prophecies of the Overthrow of the United States — 18 Comments

  1. That’s an issue, but for me, as a non-Mormon, it’s not the “key” one. I’m more interested in what it tells us about who Mormons are and where they came from.

  2. Chris, I like this thought a lot. “Klaus Hansen has described this as a “higher patriotism”. Their allegiance was to the United States as it is meant to be, rather than to the United States as it actually is.”

    “Yet part of me hopes Smith’s radicalism is still latent beneath Mormonism’s surface. After all, America doesn’t just need sycophants. She needs fiery radicals challenging her to do—and to be—better.”

    As a fan of John Lilburne, I have to say amen.

  3. “This history of scathing prophetic denunciation seems foreign to the modern Church of flags and boy scouts. For the most part, I’m glad those days are over. Yet part of me hopes Smith’s radicalism is still latent beneath Mormonism’s surface. After all, America doesn’t just need sycophants. She needs fiery radicals challenging her to do—and to be—better.”

    Sums it up beautifully.

  4. These prophecies blame the mistreatment of the Saints for the coming retribution to the U.S. The reason for the destruction of the U.S. in at least one earlier prophecy by Joseph Smith is not about how the Saints were mistreated, but because of the general apathy of Americans towards religion.

    A decade earlier in 1833, Joseph Smith wrote a lengthy letter to a Rochester newspaper “by Commandment of God” and “by the authority of Jesus Christ” warning that “not many years shall pass away, before the United States shall present such a scene of bloodshed as has not a parallel in the history of our nation.”

    The reason? Joseph Smith explained “it is high time for a Christian world to awake out of sleep.” (http://bit.ly/12IYsxe)

    So I wonder if it possible to trace a shift in rationale for retribution over time? (Note, I’m not suggesting varying rationale to be contradictory)

    Is there more than these two reasons given for a predicted apocalyptic event?

    Can a pattern be discerned from his prophecies of destruction over time?

    This may be a bit out of scope for this post, but I find the comparison to be interesting.

  5. The scathing denunciation was more a symptom of the situation the United States was actually in.

    Joseph was railing against the mistreatment of his people and the injustices they had suffered. But those wrongs were really symptomatic of a much deeper hatred and violence infusing American society at the time. Genocidal campaigns with the Indians, frontier wars over slavery, slavery itself, the persecution of the Mormons, and the underlying hatred seething within the body-politic. All of these came to a head in the catastrophic American Civil War – one of the most traumatic and revolutionary events in US history.

    And a conflict the Mormons largely escaped by “fleeing Jerusalem into the wilderness.”

    In this sense, you could call Joseph’s condemnations and warnings both timely and well-deserved by the society he was faced with. Hopefully, we won’t face such a state again where such condemnations are needed.

    But the general cycle of human history gives me little reason for optimism on that score.

  6. Yes, interesting indeed, Clair. I do think there’s a shift, though I also actually agree with Seth R that Joseph may have regarded the two reasons as two sides of the same coin.

    I also agree with you, Seth, that American society in Joseph’s day was somewhat more deserving of such condemnation. Early America had quite the culture of violence. Of course, the Mormons participated in that culture to some extent, so I think it’s debatable whether the prophecies of mass bloodshed were a reaction to the culture of violence or a product of it. Still, a great observation.

  7. Sure it came true. You don’t get a much bigger collapse than the Civil War. And after it’s conclusion war was indeed poured out upon all the nations – in one of the bloodiest centuries ever in human history – the 20th century. You can criticize Joseph for a variety of things, but he pretty much hit this one out of the ballpark.

    Not that this debate has anything to do with Christopher’s post though.

  8. Seth,

    I have to disagree with you. The prophecy was that the U.S. government would be overthrown and that not so much as a potsherd left.

    Presuming that the Civil War was part of this, then the prophecy was a pretty off the mark. The U.S. government not only survived and became even stronger. No one can credibly argue that the nation was laid waste. In fact, the North suffered very little. Outside of parts of Virginia and Georgia, most of the South was intact afterwards.

    This one was a bust . . .

  9. The government that survived the Civil War was not the same one that existed at Joseph’s day. The entire Whig Party was destroyed by the events that unfolded. The US government suffered a complete fragmentation. All plenty sufficient for the fulfillment of the terms.

    Good try though.

  10. Seth,

    So, by your theory, the U.S. government was destroyed in the 19th Century because one political party fell out of favor. I presume that you would deem the GOP loss in 2012 as roughly equivalent? Did Romney’s loss constitute the end of the American Republic (I’m conservative and I don’t agree with that sentiment).

    As to fragmentation, the Civil War was THE great unifying event. There hasn’t been serious talk of the U.S. dissolving since.

    I’m not buying the post hoc rationalization.

  11. Nah, the term “government” had a rather British definition back then. Like how we call the Labor Party in Britain the “Labor government.” The Whig Party ceased to exist. The GOP isn’t even remotely there.

    And even if you don’t like that explanation, the US government did collapse. The only way you can say it didn’t is in hindsight having been fed a lot of high school propaganda about our “national narrative.” The Civil War really did destroy the existing nation. What was left afterward was something else entirely.

  12. Seth,

    We are going to have to disagree.

    One point I would make is that the issues in Missouri occurred in 1838. The only Whig presidential wins were in 1840 and 1848. I have trouble believing that the revelation was referencing a political party that only won two national elections. Destruction of the U.S. Government has a broader ring than such a narrow reading.

    A final point indicating the inapplicability of the fate of the Whigs is that the Mormons in Illinois backed Whig congressional candidates.

  13. Steve, The Civil War did destroy the United States. It went from a Republic that it was meant to be into a Federal system that killed off State’s Rights. The way you are seeing it is through the lens of the winners getting to re-write history.

    “She needs fiery radicals challenging her to do—and to be—better.”

    Mormonism still does, but I don’t think you are going to like the politics of those who are doing so. They are the same people who wave flags and think of the boy scouts. Think Glen Beck.

  14. Seth,

    I personally believe the crushing of the pre-Civil War so-called “state rights” movement was one of the great moments in U.S. history. States rights in that context meant the right to own slaves and foster slavery within the given state, the right to develop separate trading or foreign policy, the right to specify which rights the citizens of the state had, etc. No matter how it is cloaked, it was a rather evil movement. I agree states should play a bigger role in the federal system in terms of responsibility but I think that concept is logically distinct from the darkness of the 1830-1860s Southern States.

    I presume you are one that thinks Abraham Lincoln was the most evil President in U.S. history. I honor his memory.

    We obviously disagree rather distinctly. I’m very comfortable with my position.

  15. Obviously I said nothing of the sort Steve.

    If you can’t win this debate fair and square without resorting to cheap shots, just say so and have done.

  16. “Yet part of me hopes Smith’s radicalism is still latent beneath Mormonism’s surface. After all, America doesn’t just need sycophants. She needs fiery radicals challenging her to do—and to be—better.”

    We are here. You haven’t looked.