God told Ammon Bundy to fight back against the government.
One day before Bundy became the public face of a group of ranchers and militia members who seized a government building in Harney County, Oregon, he posted a video to YouTube. The video explains why Bundy became involved in the Harney County protest, beginning with the time he felt an “overwhelming urge” to find out more about a pair of Oregon ranchers facing prison for burning land.
In response to his urge to learn more, Bundy studied through the night, then finally prayed about what to do. God answered.
“I began to understand how the Lord felt about Harney County and about this country, and I clearly understood that the Lord was not pleased with what was happening to the Hammonds,” Bundy says in the video, referring to the Oregon ranchers. “What was happening to them, if it was not corrected, would be a type and a shadow of what would happen to the rest of the people across this country.”
It’s a curious story, but also an extremely telling one; the Bundys and some of those involved in the Oregon standoff are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, aka the Mormons, and their rhetoric is deeply colored by Mormon history.
Though they don’t, by a long shot, represent the majority of the Utah-based religion’s members, their conflict is in many ways an outgrowth of their church’s history, a new chapter in a story about conflict and persecution. And so to understand what’s happening, it’s useful to understand Mormonism’s complicated, often fraught relationship with the government.
Early Mormon history is a story of one conflict with the government after another.
Mormonism was founded in 1830 in upstate New York, and quickly ran into hostility. The hostility arose for a variety of reasons — theological disagreements, political tension, eventually polygamy — and led the early Mormons to head west, setting up bases in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois.
There are too many specific instances of violence during this time to mention them all here, but the period between 1831 and 1839 has sometimes been referred to as the Missouri Conflict or the “Mormon War” thanks to the many clashes that took place there. In one particularly well-remembered incident, a Missouri militia attacked and killed Mormon settlers in what became known as the Hauns Mill Massacre.
Later, the governor of Missouri issued an “extermination order”, calling for the Mormons to be driven away or killed.
The Mormons responded to some of this violence by trying to defend themselves; in Illinois, they created the Nauvoo Legion, a local militia designed to protect their community, and the religion’s founder, Joseph Smith, appeared in public wearing military clothing and brandishing a sword.
Eventually Smith was jailed, then murdered, and the faithful fled to Utah, where the conflicts continued.
In 1858, the U.S. government sent troops to Salt Lake City. The Mormons prepared to fight, and the incident became known as the Utah War, though actual bloodshed was ultimately avoided. In the late 1800s, the U.S. passed laws targeting polygamy — then an important religious doctrine in the church — which led to more than 1,000 Mormons being jailed.
The Mormons’ hands were not entirely clean during the first decades of the religion’s existence, but the lingering consequence of this period is a culture that strongly remembers being hunted, persecuted, and driven away — often by government forces.
“There is this persecution complex that Mormons have and have had for a long time,” Steve Evans, editor of the popular Mormon blog By Common Consent, told BuzzFeed News Sunday.
But the story of Mormonism’s relationship with authority is more complicated than a simple one about conflict and persecution. Evans — who counts himself among the many in the church who disapprove of Bundy’s actions — pointed out that Mormons see the U.S. government and constitution as divinely appointed, so when complaints about authority arise, they are viewed as the government straying from its purpose.
“You see two sort of counter currents going through Mormon history,” Evans said. “You see this major theme of ‘this country is here because God wants us to be here.’ And you see ‘we’re an oppressed minority, the government doesn’t always do what’s right.’”
Over time, some of these currents faded for many Mormons. In a conversation last year, Patrick Mason — professor of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University — noted that the religion moved toward assimilation into the mainstream during the 20th century. Most Mormons “clearly cast their lot with the conservative side of the ‘culture wars,’” Mason said, though the church today is more diverse than ever. The rise of Mitt Romney in many ways epitomizes the newer, assimilated-into-the-mainstream church, and for most Mormons today armed resistance against the government would be unthinkable.
Still, the conflicts from the church’s early days never entirely faded from memory, and that’s especially true in rural parts of the West, where land use issues — water, grazing, management, etc. — remain contentious. In other words, the places where the Bundys and their supporters live.
It’s consequently easy to see the tropes of Mormon history — a specific type of persecution, an overbearing government that has lost its way, militias and armed resistance, etc. — coursing through the rhetoric coming out of the Oregon standoff.
Mormon scripture also teases out this complicated relationship with authority.
Mormon scripture is filled with tales of government misbehavior and righteous people who fought back. At one point, the Book of Mormon recounts the story of a wicked and lazy King Noah, who among many other sins “laid a tax of one fifth part” on his subjects in order to support himself and his “whoredoms.”
Later, the Book of Mormon tells the story of the Gadianton Robbers — the worst of the worst among Mormonism’s villains — who took over the government, sought glory, and let “the guilty and the wicked go unpunished because of their money.”
These are issues not unlike those being raised by the people involved in the Oregon standoff.
Also relevant to the Oregon standoff: Ammon Bundy is named after Ammon of the Book of Mormon, an ancient missionary who visited the enemies of his people, promised to serve their king, and ended up cutting off the arms of a bunch of bandits.
But probably the most powerful, and currently relevant, story is that of Captain Moroni, a military leader who, Mormons believe, lived in the Americas around 100 B.C.
Moroni was a righteous general who among many notable accomplishments became angry with his government over its “indifference concerning the freedom of [its] country.”
In response, Moroni threatened to march against the government and “stir up insurrections among you, even until those who have desires to usurp power and authority shall become extinct.”
Nonbelievers generally view these stories as fictional, but the faithful see them as real, historical records. They’re taught in church. Kids — including this reporter years ago — play at being Moroni. Atop most Mormon temples there is a gold figure blowing a trumpet; that’s supposed to be the Angel Moroni, another prophet-warrior in Mormonism, named after Captain Moroni.
Mormonism also has plenty of scripture requiring adherents to comply with their respective governments, including a passage that explicitly states “we believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” The idea of any sort of actual fight against authority is distasteful to the vast majority of Mormons, and in the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s events, some even took to social media to call on the church to discipline the people involved in the Oregon standoff.
Still, the stories about sinful governments and righteous resisters have a powerful bearing on Mormon culture. When a Mormon complains of taxes, there are echoes of King Noah. And when a group of Mormon ranchers leads resistance movements against the federal government, it’s no surprise that Captain Moroni’s name comes up.
The Oregon standoff isn’t a “Mormon movement,” but it does ultimately represent the mixing of Mormon themes, common Western land use issues, and the rhetoric of far-right patriot groups.
Evans pointed out Sunday that conflicts over land use and resources have been common in the West since it was settled by people of European descent. Mormons have not been immune to those conflicts, and the standoff in Oregon runs through both veins.
“That just meshes real well with the overall message of ‘don’t tread on me,’” Evans said of historical Mormon tropes.
Ammon Bundy’s comments are a good example. In a series of emails earlier this year, he regularly cited Mormon scripture while calling people to action. And his video, in which he discusses getting involved in the Hammond case, closely parallels the Joseph Smith’s story about founding the Mormon church after praying and studying.
“I got on my knees and I asked the Lord,” Bundy recounts in the video, “and said ‘Lord, if you want me to write something then please help me clear my mind and show me what I should write.’ And that’s what happened.”
Evans called that kind of story “very typical Mormonism,” because it emphasizes the importance of personal revelation and communicating directly with God — both important concepts within Mormonism. But, Evans said, there’s a twist.
“It’s being applied outside of a personal salvation context,” Evans said, “to an armed uprising to government.”