One of my great heroes of the early days of the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was not LDS himself.
Thomas L. Kane first encountered the Latter-day Saints in 1846 during a lecture, and he became their best friend in an hour of great need.
It's hard to overstate his contribution. Kane was the son of a district judge and his brother was a famous Arctic explorer. He was active in the underground railroad and in other causes that helped the poor and needy.
Kane was captured during the Civil War, shot and badly wounded. After a prisoner exchange, he garnered enough strength to rise from a hospital bed to fight honorably on Culp's Hill at Gettysburg.
But his efforts to help the Latter-day Saints remain his great contribution. He helped arrange for the settlement of Winter Quarters, for Brigham Young's appointment as territorial governor and for the arrangement of the peace that settled the Utah War of the 1850s. He was shot at and arrested during the negotiations.
In 1850, he delivered a discourse to the Pennsylvania Historical Society, a classic of church and U.S. history.
He wrote of the Latter-day Saints in this haunting passage:
"The Mormons in Nauvoo and its dependencies had been numbered the year before at over 20,000. Where were they? They had last been seen, carrying in mournful trains their sick and wounded, halt and blind, to disappear beyond the Western horizon pursuing the phantom of another home. Hardly anything was known of them: and people asked with curiousity, what had been their fate — their fortunes?"
It seems not an exaggeration that aside from Brigham Young and a few others, no mortals did more for the Latter-day Saints in their hour of great need than this great man, honored today with a statue in the Utah Capitol.
A few recent online articles reminded me of Thomas L. Kane and friends like him. Now, this is an era when only a few — thankfully only a few — attack The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but none threaten as then to remove the Latter-day Saints from their homes.
But just as it was then, today some of the best powerful defenders of the Latter-day Saints include those not of the faith.
Perhaps the most vigorous, most well-written defense of the Latter-day Saints I have seen during this long year of LDS coverage came this week in the online journal Inside Higher Ed, from a non-Latter-day Saint.
A professor at Idaho State University, Thomas C. Terry, defended Latter-day Saints, whom he says receive disdain at academic conferences.
(I've been to one or two of those and seen stuff like that. I remember one academic mocking the Book of Mormon — not having read the Book of Mormon, his criticism came because he was bothered by the Arnold Friberg paintings at the beginning of the edition he'd seen. Sigh.)
The stoutest part of the defense was Terry's description of Latter-day Saints acting as we all wish we would, in ways that many of my neighbors do, in fact, act:
"My next-door neighbor spent nearly two hours one weekday morning (he was late to work) helping me restore my snow blower to life after five years in the humid South. Another helped flush and fix my sprinkler system. A third returned my dogs after they’d escaped. Several just showed up with family members to help me move in. A fourth one tossed me the keys to his Cadillac after the transmission in my Suburban disassembled on my driveway. 'Bring it back when you don’t need it anymore,' he said."
A second defender has come through the conservative and controversial website Breitbart.com. I stumble upon defenses of the church there with detailed, smart expositions of LDS doctrine by a blogger who goes by the name B.W.
It is obvious that B.W. is a Latter-day Saint, so the defenses in and of themselves aren't surprising. What's surprising is the location. While I don't always agree with B.W.'s exposition nor the contentious tone of Breitbart.com, that a prominent conservative website about politics would feature discussions of personal revelation and "the gospel of Jesus Christ" strikes me as significant and provides a credible defense for Latter-day Saints to those who like Breitbart's work.
"Don't trust news sites to portray the LDS Church, its beliefs, or its membership accurately. Far from being victims or oppressed by their Church, Mormons aren't expected to blindly obey and be kicked out if they don't. We are encouraged to get our own answers and testimonies through personal revelation. Whether or not someone leaves the LDS Church is a product of individual faith and conversion to the gospel of Jesus Christ more than it is a reflection upon the LDS Church or its doctrine."
While Latter-day Saints don't chase phantoms of new homes today, the generosity of others remains a welcome gift today, just as it was in the 1840s and 1850s.
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.