The story of 19th century communist Etienne Cabet helped me believe The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is true.
His story inspired me in unexpected ways and taught me about the fickle nature of history as a guide to faith.
Before I describe his story, I should mention that lately there seems to be a cluster of news stories about members of the church who decide to leave the faith.
There's a common thread among many of them. Some people say they stumble upon an Internet post about the church or about its founding that fails to match their perception of what the history of the church is or of how they perceive the way that history was taught to them. Ultimately, they move on.
These stories are tragic to me. That's because history is fickle, based frequently upon perception and argument. As facts emerge, interpretations change depending on that context and upon perception. And much of history is always unknowable. It's a thin reed upon which to rest faith.
That having been said, the study of the history of the church has helped me believe.
To be sure, my belief, or as Latter-day Saints say, my testimony, doesn't originate in history. My belief comes through prayerful study of the Book of Mormon and other scriptures and through asking God about the truth contained therein. When I read the Book of Mormon and attend the temple and pray, I feel better inside. That feeling is deep, moving and profound. Truly, it is the peace that surpasseth understanding.
I think it likely my existing testimony strongly shapes my perception of history — just as a lack of faith might color another's perception of historical facts.
One historical story that moves me is the story of Cabet, an early communist. Indeed, some list Cabet as an important predecessor to Karl Marx.
Cabet was a Frenchman, a Christian and a journalist, if you will, who published a popular radical newspaper, Le Populaire.
He sat in the French parliament for a time, but was exiled to England for his radical views.
He became a utopian socialist, a communist as it came to be called. Eventually, Cabet wrote a book about his views of a utopian society called "The Travel and Adventures of Lord William Carisdall in Icaria." The book sold roughly a half million copies. Cabet became so popular that he stood for the presidency of France, but lost to Napoleon III.
By then, Cabet's followers had begun to establish communes. Cabet sailed to Texas to join some in the Red River Valley.
As Cabet arrived, however, the group suffered disease and other problems, so a new home was needed. Cabet headed north along the Mississippi River until he found a place.
Cabet and his followers, the Icarians, eked out a living until the group grew tired of Cabet's autocratic leadership. He was voted out. The group splintered. Cabet left and tried to start again, but he died a disappointed man a few months later. Groups of his followers continued their experiment for another four decades before the group disbanded in the 1890s.
How exactly does this story enhance my testimony?
It turns out Cabet settled in Nauvoo, Ill. just after the Latter-day Saints left.
Certainly, the Icarians have stories worth remembering and admiring, but I found the failure of the Icarian experiment at Nauvoo profoundly instructive because of the contrast it provides.
The contrast between the Latter-day Saints and the Icarians helped me see the success of the Latter-day Saint movement. My religion changes people and thereby changes the world.
This insight came as I read B.H. Roberts' wonderful biography of LDS Church President John Taylor. President Taylor opened France to missionary work. Roberts records Taylor's conversation with a radical newspaper editor in Paris named Krolokoski, a vocal supporter of Cabet's efforts at Nauvoo.
According to Roberts, President Taylor said:
“Monsieur Krolokoski, you sent Monsieur Cabet to Nauvoo, some time ago. He was considered your leader — the most talented man you had. He went to Nauvoo shortly after we had deserted it. Houses and lands could be obtained at a mere nominal sum. Rich farms were deserted, and thousands of us had left our houses and furniture in them, and almost everything calculated to promote the happiness of man was there. Never could a person go to a place under more happy circumstances.
“Besides all the advantages of having everything made ready to his hand, M. Cabet had a select company of colonists. He and his company went to Nauvoo — what is the result? I read in all your reports from there — published in your own paper here, in Paris, a continued cry for help. The cry is money, money! We want money to help us carry out our designs.
"While your colony in Nauvoo with all the advantages of our deserted fields and homes — that they had only to move into — have been dragging out a miserable existence, the Latter-day Saints, though stripped of their all and banished from civilized society into the valleys of the Rocky Mountains there our people have built houses, enclosed lands, cultivated gardens, built school-houses, and have organized a government and are prospering in all the blessings of civilized life. Not only this, but they have sent thousands and thousands of dollars over to Europe to assist the suffering poor to go to America, where they might find an asylum.
" Our people have not been seeking the influence of the world, nor the power of government, but they have obtained both. Whilst you, with your philosophy, independent of God, have been seeking to build up a system of communism and a government which is, according to your accounts, the way to introduce the Millennial reign. Now, which is the best, our religion, or your philosophy?”
According to B.H. Roberts, the editor replied, “Well, Mr. Taylor, I can say nothing.”
The kinds of ideas that shaped Marx and Cabet and Krolokoski still influence the world today. Yet, in a noteworthy experiment in Nauvoo, these ideas failed while the Latter-day Saints quietly grew there and in their desert home.9 comments on this story
Something in John Taylor's interchange taught me that my Latter-day Saint belief is capable of saving the world. It's not just a set of lovely moral teachings. I don't expect the story to have the same effect on anyone else, but that's what happened to me. It was a beautiful moment.
In short, I don't believe that The Church of Jesus Christ could have survived the turmoil of the 19th century if it hadn't provided truth, especially when contrasted with the failure of the grand romantic revolutionary Etienne Cabet.
Floating around the Internet is this idea that there are things in history that can counter faith. Yet, my experience shows that history — coupled with testimony — cuts both ways. My testimony has grown thereby.
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.