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.