It was 150 years ago last month Brigham Young sent the first message by telegraph from the old Utah Territory.
Out East, the American Civil War was beginning to rage, so his short message was one of great import: “Utah has not seceded but is firm for the Constitution and laws of our once happy country."
I was reminded of this powerful message by a — mostly — fascinating blog post at the New York Times this week describing Abraham Lincoln’s relationship with the Latter-day Saints.
Of note, Brigham Young’s message was the first message by a president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints through electronic communication, a standard for the years ahead. For 150 years, Latter-day Saints have been using electronic technology to spread their message. Perhaps the “I’m a Mormon” advertising campaign is just the latest example of the public relations messages that Brigham Young started that October day.
Beyond that, it’s hard to imagine that Lincoln didn’t have strong impressions of the Latter-day Saints before he received Brigham Young’s message, though it seems unclear exactly what those impressions were. Springfield, the Illinois capital where Lincoln spent much of his adult life, is about 120 miles from Carthage and Nauvoo, where the Latter-day Saints lived and where Joseph Smith died.
The newspaper of record in Springfield where Lincoln lived and worked was the Sangamo Journal, a paper that published significant libels by the anti-Mormon John C. Bennett in July 1842. Lincoln was active in Illinois politics then.
It is possible that Lincoln missed some of Bennett's libel — he was courting Mary Todd at the time and likely suffering the lingering effects of one of his bouts of depression.
According to the Times, Lincoln worked hard to get a balanced opinion of the Latter-day Saints during his time as president, even receiving a copy of the Book of Mormon from Library of Congress researchers who helped him study whether Latter-day Saints would be loyal to the Union.
As it turned out, Lincoln told the Latter-day Saints to avoid the war altogether, telling an emissary, “You go back and tell Brigham Young that if he will let me alone, I will let him alone.”
I am no Civil War historian, but some of the most memorable experiences of my life have been when I visited Civil War battlefields. I stood behind the stone wall at Marye’s Heights at Fredricksburg and marveled at the courage it must have taken to march up that long, sloping hill. At Chancellorsville, I stood where the Union boys stood when the men of Stonewall Jackson came suddenly over the ridge that long summer day. At Bull Run, I saw where Jackson stood — like a stone wall. I walked across the bucolic but horrible Burnside Bridge too.
At Gettysburg, I sensed the power of the place where Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the 20th Maine stopped the Alabamians on Little Round Top and felt the awful quiet at the cemetery not far from there.
But unlike many longtime American families here for several generations, I have no ancestors who fought there, at any of the battlefields. Mine weren’t invited to participate, and what a blessing that fact is, upon reflection.
Imagine for a minute if some Union division general with distrust of Latter-day Saints had commanded a regiment from Provo during the Civil War. It is easy to imagine that during fight after fight, those Latter-day Saints might have been placed where the battle was hottest and that entire neighborhoods could have been emptied of their Mormon boys. Even one unlucky battle might have set the LDS movement back decades, robbing it of thousands of its young men.
As it was, Latter-day Saints suffered the ill words of Colonel Patrick Connor during the Civil War, but little else.
Think of the powerful irony. For a generation before the Civil War, Latter-day Saints faced the trials of the trail. Thousands died along the way. There was persecution and distrust that followed, but, in the end, the distrust was a blessing.
No one seemed to trust the Latter-day Saints to fight for the Union, though they surely would have, in my view. Instead, those Mormons were protected from the worst tragedy their country ever faced.
It was a good thing, then, that Latter-day Saints were misunderstood because that misunderstanding provided safety for their futures. To the extent that Latter-day Saints are misunderstood today, perhaps that will work out well in the end, too.
I learn many lessons from the Civil War. I learn of valor and courage and the power of words to make meaning of suffering.
I learn of the power of Joseph Smith’s ability as a seer — prophesying as he did of a Civil War starting in South Carolina (see Doctrine and Covenants 87).
Still, the lesson I learn most as a Latter-day Saint from the Civil War is embedded in the saga of the protected Latter-day Saints in their desert home: Life is filled with challenges like crossing the plains or with misunderstandings like the Utah War, but with patience and faith, God is always able to turn those challenges to long-term protection.
Lane Williams teaches journalism and communication at BYU-Idaho. He is a former journalist whose scholarly interests include Mormon portrayals in the media, media and religion and religion and politics.