On Oct. 30, 1838, an armed mob of 240 men descended on a settlement on Shoal Creek in Caldwell County, Missouri. Under a blacksmith’s bellows hid 10-year-old Sardius Smith. Bullets flew through the air. After the initial attack ended, militants found the boy and with a musket blew the child’s head off. When 78-year-old Thomas McBride surrendered his musket to a militant, he was shot and his body hacked apart with a corn knife. All told, over 30 Mormons — men, women and children — were killed or wounded in what became known as the Hawn’s Mill Massacre.
Whether the ruffians knew it or not, their actions had a legal basis. Days earlier, Missouri Gov. Lilburn Boggs — in his infamous Executive Order 44, known as the “Extermination Order” — directed that Mormons “must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state.” The message was clear: Mormons had no place in Missouri in 1838.
Events around the world and here at home have prompted a similar question: Do Muslims have a place in 21st century America? In recent months, that political rhetoric has suggested closing borders to all Muslims indefinitely, surveillance against mosques, and creating a database of American Muslims. During his first presidential visit to a U.S. mosque, President Obama last week in Baltimore repeated questions that some Muslim children in America now ask — questions that surely were asked by Mormon children who survived the Hawn’s Mill Massacre: “[A]re we going to be forced out of the country, or, are we going to be rounded up? Why do people treat us like that?”
As we continue to think about how best to handle our religious differences, we do well to remember an important lesson about religious freedom. It is a lesson that the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty’s founder Seamus Hasson has taught: “If anyone in America doesn’t have religious liberty, no one in America has religious liberty. There is no point in sitting around hoping the bear eats you last.”
President Obama apparently agrees: “We have to understand an attack on one faith is an attack on all our faiths” and “as Americans, we have to stay true to our core values freedom of religion for all faiths” and “together, we’ve got to show that America truly protects all faiths.” Putting those words into practice means protecting the religious exercise of Catholics, Mormons, Evangelicals, Jews, Native Americans, Sikhs, Muslims and people of all faiths. At the National Prayer Breakfast a day after his mosque visit, the president recognized that free exercise is broader than simply the right to worship, which has been a sticking point with his administration: “[J]ust as we call on other countries to respect the rights of religious minorities, we too respect the right of every single American to practice their faith freely.”
As an American mother of four and a religious freedom advocate, I was raised on stories of what my Mormon ancestors endured, sometimes lawfully. Repeatedly during my people’s early history, we fled vicious persecution — from New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois to Nebraska — and eventually found peaceful settlement in the Great Salt Lake Valley. To leave this persecution behind, my own third great-grandmother drove an oxen team right out of the United States, across the Great Plains. She reached the Salt Lake Valley on Sept. 28, 1847, and recorded in her journal: “My soul was filled with thankfulness to God for bringing us to a place of rest and safety — a home.” For over four centuries, America’s promise has been a place of rest and safety for people of all faiths from anywhere.
Hannah C. Smith twice clerked at the United States Supreme Court and is a member of the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board. She is senior counsel at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public interest law firm that defends religious liberty for people of all faiths. Follow Hannah on Twitter @hclaysonsmith. The views expressed here are her own.