HM - March 2017 - Backstory: American Prophets

Classroom Applications

American Prophets
Teacher Resource Set

by Joan Musbach


Background for Teachers
When tuning in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir from Temple Square on Christmas Eve, or watching BYU (Brigham Young University) in the NCAA Tournament, you would hardly suspect that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had once been the object of an Extermination Order, hounded from place to place, experienced the assassination of their leader, then eventually chose a place that no one else would want in order to practice their religion freely. Simplistically we teach about the addition of the Bill of Rights and the content of the First Amendment leaving a “they all lived happily ever after” impression.  Yet the story of the Mormons shows the limitations of words written on paper.
As the BackStory segment, “American Prophets,” explains, the Mormon religion is one created in America.  It emerged in the 1830s, in the context of the Second Great Awakening, when a wide variety of religious denominations vied for converts.  A number of religious groups were formed, creating utopian religious communities such as Brook Farm, the Amana Colonies, and New Harmony.  In upstate New York’s Burned-over District, Joseph Smith, seeking religious truth from a multiplicity of doctrinal claims, produced the Book of Mormon and founded the Latter-day Saints. Intensely religious and community-minded, the Mormons collided with the growing individualism and frontier democracy of the Jacksonian Age. In this story, there are echoes from other ages and hemispheres:  City of Zion, God’s “Chosen People,” “The Promised Land.”  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints established a community in Kirkland, Ohio and moved to Independence, Missouri because their leader received a revelation from God that this land was to be THEIR inheritance, where they were to build THEIR City of Zion, and await the Second Coming of Jesus Christ; financial troubles and apostasy also haunted Smith in Ohio. As has happened in similar stories, when the Mormons moved to Missouri, other people were already there!  Conflict was inevitable.  But shouldn’t the story in America be different?  After all, the United States had land titles, acceptance of the rule of law, and religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment.  As the story of Mormon settlement emerges, students can come to understand the tentative and limited nature of these “accepted truths.”  Over a seven-year period, the Mormons were successful, expanding, and persecuted.  Their religious certainties, their economic system, their political cohesion, their beliefs about slavery and Indians were all at variance with the prevalent beliefs of people on the frontier.  The Mormon experience in Missouri reached its climax in the Governor’s order that Mormons either be driven from the state or exterminated. The Saints packed up what they had left and moved to western Illinois to start a new community, and here they faced similar challenges.  The leaders of the church were assassinated, and the Mormons were ordered to leave.  The drama of moving 12,000 people 1,300 miles gives us one of the epic stories in American frontier history. This is not the story of individuals setting out on “get-rich-quick” journeys, but a cohesive religious people fleeing the land of their persecution to a place of safety, a place selected because it was so inauspicious that no one else would want it!
The story of the Mormons from 1831 to 1857 is content-rich for helping students develop History’s Habits of Mind. Through these lessons, students interrogate texts and artifacts, posing questions about the past that foster informed discussion, reasoned debate, and evidence-based interpretation. How did the protection of religious free exercise in the first decades after the First Amendment was ratified differ from our understanding of that protection today?  What provoked the violent interactions of people on the Frontier? How and why does the concept of rule of law break down? Why were the Mormons able to withstand forced movement from place to place and ultimately achieve safety and respect as a religious group?  This story also provides students with the opportunity to understand the impact made by individuals, groups, and institutions at local, national, and global levels both in effecting change and in ensuring continuity. How might the Mormon story have been different if Joseph Smith had not been assassinated?  The Illinois mob thought they were wielding a death-blow to the Mormon Church by killing their leader.  Perhaps they actually facilitated its survival.  Bernard DeVoto describes Smith as a man “drunk on God and glory. . . whose mind swooned with apocalyptic splendor, but [who] was not an effective leader.”  By contrast, Brigham Young was “an organizer of the kingdom on this earth. . . . [one of the] foremost intelligences of the time. . . who learned how to colonize the desert.”  This is the story of a complex, often uncertain and ambiguous world; encountering these sources will help equip students with the appreciation for multiple perspectives.
This story is also fertile ground for students to understand the relationship between geography and history and the importance of geography as a context for events. 
Competition for good land was fierce on the American frontier.  Americans were an agricultural people, who needed to grow enough food to feed themselves and others if they were to get ahead.  Land was the source of wealth.  The first two settlement choices made by the Mormons beyond the initial community in eastern Ohio—western Missouri and western Illinois—were areas with adequate rainfall, proximity to rivers for transportation of goods to markets, fertile soil, and a good growing season.  They prospered and engendered the jealousy of non-Mormons who wanted those same geographic advantages.  When forced to move his people, Brigham Young briefly considered California, Oregon, and Vancouver.  Realistic leader that he was, he chose land that others would not want—Utah territory—short on rainfall, low levels of soil fertility, and away from markets and convenient transportation.  And, to get to that “promised land,” Mormons had to interact with the hardships of land and weather that would have defeated a less motivated, less cohesive people.  Young used the land more effectively than other westward migrants.  He established settlements along the way. Crops were planted; supervisors were left behind to manage the settlements; those who ran out of provisions could stay and grow food to continue the trip in the next year. On the Upper Platte River, over 900 miles from Nauvoo, he established a commercial ferry to raise money from other pioneers heading west.  The story of the Mormon trek west is an exemplary story of a people interacting with the geography they encounter to further their purposes.
These lessons teach about a religious people, the realities of frontier life, religious prejudice, westward movement, and the complexity of settling the west.  There is a wealth of material provided, enabling teachers to make choices based on the amount of class time you can devote to this story and the academic level of your students. 
The group of people central to the story is officially The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Because they derive their religious tenets from The Book of Mormon, they are most commonly called Mormons.  They call themselves “Saints.”  In the materials provided, these three designations are used interchangeably. Also, the story is broader than the initial evacuation of Nauvoo.  The Saints were a growing group, gaining converts from near and far.  Migration to the Great Salt Lake Basin continued for over a decade, swelling the number of migrants and settlers detailed in parts of this lesson.

Procedures: Part 1—Parchment Promises
Step 1:            Ask students to brainstorm the word “extermination.” What comes to mind? What comes to mind if the term is used in terms of “exterminating” people? (students might consider Nazi Germany and the Holocaust; ethnic cleansing in the Balkans; the Armenian genocide of 1915; or the Rwandan genocide in 1994)
Step 2:            Explain to students that on October 27, 1838 the Governor of Missouri issued Executive Order 44 (project the document image from the Missouri State Archives if possible). This Order said a group of religious followers “…must be treated as enemies and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary for the public peace. . . .” Leaders of this group were arrested, imprisoned, and sentenced to be executed. Units of the state militia were called out, and these people were driven from the state. Ask students to consider how this event could happen in a land partially founded by religious dissenters, for freedom to worship?  Where was the First Amendment guarantee of the “free exercise” of religion?
Step 3:            Explain to students that the religious group involved was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, most commonly called Mormons; the church of former presidential candidate Mitt Romney; founders of Brigham Young University; one that today has 4 million adult members in America and a worldwide missionary endeavor.
Step 4:            Instruct students to read “The Persecution of the Mormons” located on the website of the Constitutional Rights Foundation. As students read they should:

  • look for explanations for why this persecution occurred
  • note the sequence of events, as they will be asked to put events in order and describe them
Step 5:            Print the twelve event(s) statements found in Handout 1 in large print on separate cards.
Distribute “event” cards to pairs of students. Ask students to line up around the room in chronological order, based on the event(s) they hold.  Beginning with 1830, have each pair recount the event(s) on their card, adding significant details describing the cause and effect relationships.
Step 6:            While pairs of students report out, ask one or more other students to compile a list of reasons why the Mormons were driven out of Missouri and Illinois. Discuss these reasons as a class in order to prepare students for a subsequent discussion about the Mormon experience and the First Amendment.

Procedures: Part 2—Parchment Promises
Step 1:            Ask students to review the different aspects of the First Amendment. Project or distribute Source 1. Review the significance of the wording in the First Amendment and the specific rights outlined:
  • The First Amendment begins with the words, “Congress shall make no law”; why is this wording significant? How would the meaning of the First Amendment change if the wording read, “Congress gives you the right to”?
  • What is the common understanding of the parts of the First Amendment today?
  • How might our interpretation of the First Amendment have changed over time?
Step 2:            Explain to students that when the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791, it was not considered to apply to the individual states; it only protected people’s rights against infringement by the federal government. Actions by state governments did not fall under its protection and have been incorporated selectively over time. The guarantee against establishment of religion was incorporated to apply to actions of states in 1947 in the case of Everson v. Board of Education. The guarantee of free exercise of religion, the clause that would have applied to the Mormons in Missouri, was incorporated to apply to actions of states in 1940 in the case of Cantwell v. Connecticut.
Step 3:            Instruct students to compare and contrast the Puritan and Mormon stories. Students might use a Venn Diagram to help them organize their comparison. For example, both groups:
  • were persecuted for their religious beliefs and driven out of their homes
  • were convinced they were God’s chosen people, preaching the only true religion
  • initially held property in common, then changed to private ownership of property
  • established theocracies: government and church leadership conjoined
  • were friendly and accepting of Indians
Step 4:            Pose the following questions for discussion: Why were the Puritans considered “founders and pioneers for religious liberty” and the Mormons dubbed “religious fanatics”? Were there significant differences between the Puritans and the Mormons? How might time and place have also played a role?
Step 5:            Play the BackStory segment, “Go West, Young Man” from Backstory's American Prophets broadcast.
Step 6:            Exit card: What new perspectives about the Mormons did you gain from this broadcast?


Procedures: Part 3— In Search of Religious Freedom in an Unforgiving Landscape
Step 1:            Remind students that when the Mormons decided to leave western Illinois, they faced an enormous task: do the math! First ask students to consider the size of this operation.  An initial 12,000 Mormons needed to quickly leave Nauvoo and migrate to the Great Salt Lake Basin, 1,297 miles away.  In the years that followed, thousands more, converts from Europe and the eastern United States, migrated.  Some of these migrants were so poor they pushed all their possessions in handcarts, leading one or two cows.
At five to six miles a day, how many days would it have taken the Mormons from Nauvoo to reach their destination? 1,297 miles divided by 5 mile/day = 260 days! By 6 miles/day = 216 days.
At five people per wagon, how many Mormon wagons were crossing the Great Plains in 1846-1847? 12,000 divided by 5 = 2400!
Step 2:            Distribute Source 2. Ask students to consider who created this list, when it was written, and what the recommendations might reveal about the authors’ understanding of the journey and the participants.
Step 3:            Project or distribute Sources 3, 4, and 5. Engage students in a comparison of the maps, focusing on the areas of Independence, Missouri (Kansas City area), Nauvoo, Illinois (western Illinois), and the Great Salt Lake Basin. Ask students to use the maps to pose and answer questions about the features of the land in each location, focusing on altitude, terrain, annual rainfall, suitability for growing crops, and other natural features such as rivers.
Step 4:            Ask students to consider what challenges the Mormons would have faced in their new environment. How might their religious community have been suited to survive in these new conditions?
As students think about the features of the land and the Mormons’ decision to migrate west, guide them to consider the following: People of the 1830s needed to be able to grow enough food for themselves and others.  The vast majority of people in the nineteenth century were farmers. Why would the Mormons give up settlement in fertile, productive land and move to land as inhospitable for agriculture at the Great Salt Lake Basin? Not only was their new home not desired by others, it was far removed from others, a sort of “quarantine.” The social and economic organization of the Mormons played well in the aridity of Utah.  While land was privately owned, they held water and timber, two scarce resources, in common.  These resources were then allocated by church authorities for the common good.  The church also organized labor to create the dams and ditches necessary for irrigation.  This level of cooperation, scarce among other pioneers, helps explain their success in this unforgiving landscape.
Step 5:            Project or distribute Source 6.  Ask students to consider the following question: What lies hidden under and around this line on a map? What important information is not conveyed or is missing?
Step 6:            Distribute and have students read Source 7. Ask students to consider what this letter reveals about the Mormons’ situation at this time. Ask students to make predictions about the challenges the Mormons will face during their journey. What evidence from the letter supports these predictions?
Step 7:            Distribute Source 8. Instruct students to read these accounts of life along the Mormon Trail, paying close attention to the effects of geography and the human dimension of the line on the map. Assign the entire reading to all students or divide the reading assignment among various students, as appropriate.
Step 8:            Distribute Handout 2 and assign as homework.


Procedures: Part 4—From Persecuted to Persecutor
Step 1:            Ask students to share what they know about the long and short-term effects of bullying on the person who is bullied.  Consider school shootings (Columbine, Newtown, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech). How many of these shooters were reported to have been bullied? How and why do those who have been persecuted sometimes become persecutors? Are there instances in history where entire groups of people feel persecuted and seek retribution by becoming persecutors?
Step 2:            Distribute and have students read Source 9. Based on the information provided in Source 9, discuss these Mormon experiences.
  • To what extent are the Mormons justified in feeling that their lives and their religious practice are in danger?
  • What effect do the adversities experienced have on group cohesion?
  • Why are Mormons feared by non-Mormons?
  • Why does the crisis escalate? What might have been done to defuse the situation?

Step 3:            Instruct students to identify reasons why Mormon and non-Mormon settlers in Missouri and Illinois found it impossible to live together. Having students work either in groups or alone, separate these reasons into categories: social, economic, and political.  Lead a discussion: What cause(s) do you believe to be most important? How did the social, economic, and political factors intertwine to create an explosive situation? How many villains do you see in this story?
Step 4:            Read Source 10. Instruct students to draw a Venn Diagram comparing the Mormon persecution in Missouri with the massacre at Mountain Meadows in 1857.  How can you explain why the “persecuted” became “persecutors”? What primary sources would you need to examine in order to investigate this event?
Step 5:            Distribute Handout 3 and instruct students to use it as a guide to write a response to the question posed above.


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Standards and Citations