By the time my FHE activity was over, I had the counselor in the bishopric grumbling about how I was on the high road to excommunication (“like those historians at BYU”). Why? Because I suggested that Joseph Smith might have actually temporarily imagined a different “right place” besides the Rocky Mountains. Where? Texas.
Background: Back in my days frolicking around in the warm of fuzz of Provo’s Never-Never Land (which, for me, is code for “Never, Never Marry” land), I immersed myself in Church history. Fret not, my kitsch-hating friends. This was no immersion in obnoxious trinkets that only reaffirm old narratives. I studied the good times. The bad times. The awkward times. The product of my research? A masterpiece. An imposing edifice to reason and intellect–a Mormon version of jeopardy for my FHE group. The Texas bombshell proved to be of particular interest to our born-in-the-wool Utah counselor (whom I admire a great deal, for the record).
The relationship between the Church and the historic Texas Republic is a fascinating one. Even to this day (so I hear from a missionary who served in McAllen, TX), members will insist that Texas is the real “right place.” Texas had long held a place in the imagination of abolitionists and utopians alike. The Nauvoo press teemed with laudatory articles about Sam Houston’s bravery in the face of Mexican intrigue, even as he batted back the legislature’s calls for war.
The plans to consider settlement in the Texas Republic crystallized when Lyman Wight (who would be instrumental in spreading the “real right place” myth in Texas) sent Joseph a letter saying that the local Indian tribe of Menominees wanted assistance in moving down to Texas. Well, ole’ Wight had an idear–Brother Joseph, maybe we could use Texas as a gathering point for Saints in the South as well as jump-off point to open up missionary work in Latin America.
Joseph seized on the idea. In a secret meeting of the Council of Fity, Joseph directed that emissaries be sent to Houston to negotiate a treaty by which they could purchase the land between the Colorado and the Nueces Valley. The plan was to become a buffer state between the Texas Republic and Mexico.
We know that Joseph was promoting the annexation of Texas as part of his campaign speeches. Yet we also see evidence that the Saints were truly hoping for the annexation bid to fail–Brigham Young even saw the accidental death of Secretary of State Abel Upshur as divine intervention in opening up the path. Ambassador Lucien Woodworth left for Texas to have secret negotiations with Houston. Unfortunately, we have almost no documentation about their meeting available to us–in Houston’s papers or elsewhere. It was an explosive time for the Texans and if anything leaked, it could have prompted an aggressive military action from Santa Anna to prevent the Mormons’ occupation plan. We only know that Joseph had entertained the notion of using the Nauvoo legion to protect whatever new settlement he was pursuing; this, one can speculate, would have been rather attractive to Houston with a buffer of over 5,000 man. This was theological realpolitik at its finest.
The plan obviously dissolved when Joseph was killed; after all, we have no evidence to suggest that Joseph preferred moving an entire city thousands of miles away over winning the Presidency. However, Lyman Wight led a break-off group to the Texas region and built what was arguably the first temple west of the Mississippi in Zodiac, Texas (esp. given his continued affiliation with the Church at the time of the Nauvoo exodus). However, by 1847, Salt Lake was calling Wight to return to Utah. He refused and was excommunicated the next year.
So where is “the right place”? I am perfectly fine with calling Salt Lake City the spot God wanted to build his Church from, in spite of Joseph’s attempts to make contingency plans as his city is under siege. But perhaps some Utah die-hards will feel a little disquiet over this.
Talk amongst yourselves.
P.S. Full disclosure: the above information came largely from Michael Van Wagenen, The Texas Republic and the Mormon Kingdom of God (Bryan, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2002).