Why I am a Tory

RussellMormon 27 Comments

Perhaps it is the heretical imp in me, but I have often shifted in my seat uncomfortably as I sit in classes at BYU and in the church house while folks accept as axiomatic all the talk about the American revolution as merely the harbinger of the Restoration. The argument goes like this: the gospel could not be established in a land of tyranny, it is argued. Whatever the errors or skeletons of our founding fathers (if they be admitted at all), they served as Cyrus figures for the Saints. They were “wise men” who helped to shake the shackles of tyranny from the colonists (“shake” here should be read as war and destruction of human life—just so we’re on the same page). I have two problems with this: 1) I hate war. Elder McConkie is correct: war is one of the greatest tools of Satan and 2) while no nation is free from the blood of innocents, for being the land of freedom, America has not been kind to LDS ideals to say nothing of the LDS people. To soothe my theo-ideological angst, I sometimes engage in a rather subversive counterfactual: could the Lord have carried out the restoration in a British America?

The question flies in the face of many an hour of American heritage instruction at BYU and BYU-I. Given that the horrors of slavery were enshrined in the Constitution and the horrors of war to which the American colonists allowed themselves to sink (the colonists cut off ears and fingers in just as barbaric of a fashion as any soldier in My Lai), I find little veracity in the glowing images of the Constitution. How might I–if only as a thought experiment–separate providence from the Founding? I understand that the counterfactual explodes all bounds of propriety within traditional historical scholarship. Yet I think it important that we not let American exceptionalism infect true doctrine as the Church continues to expand into countries with very different political traditions than those of America.

The primary scriptural difficulties are found in 1 Nephi 13 and D&C 101 where Nephi sees the Revolution as the “power of God.” Those who opposed it experienced the “wrath of God.” The Constitution, in the Lord’s words, was based on “just and holy principles” and was crafted by “wise men whom I have raised up.” Seems airtight, right? I might suggest, however, that prophecy is not always a comprehensive view of what could have happened but what will happen. I understand this is a theological can of worms; but I think it is safe to say that there are numerous prophecies delivered that forecast less-than-ideal events. Simply because Nephi saw the Revolution as being the power of God does not indicate divine approval of the colonists’ actions but rather approval of the principles for which they were fighting. If the colonists had been more inclined to diplomacy (as the British were through much of the era), then Nephi might have seen a very different vision. It was the colonists who drove the British moderates like Edmund Burke to the margins of Parliament. The Revolution’s outcome of an autonomous America–which was the Lord’s goal by all accounts–was not inseparably attached to the highly destructive cost of a Revolutionary War. It was an unnecessary war for a conflict that might have easily been won through less-destructive means.

As far as the “just and holy principles” of freedom from state-sponsered religion espoused by the Revolution, we can tentatively conclude that the British colonies were equally welcoming to the growth of a new religious movement as any state in the United States would be during Joseph Smith’s time. The best way to measure this is to examine the status of religious and political freedom in the British empire in the time leading up to the Restoration.

Religious Freedom

The metropole of London at the time of the earliest days of the Church was hardly an oppressive state in the area of religion. The evangelical awakening of the 1820s played a significant role in William Wilberforce’s push to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire. The Church had a large branch in Manchester with 240 members. While radical sects were occasionally persecuted in mainland Britain (Ann Lee spent time in jail—in fact, her jail time would later become an important part of the Shaker narrative). While it is true that London was seeking to establish an American bishop, the establishment of a state religion (as in modern Germany where even Latter-day Saints must pay the “church tax” to the Lutheran church”) has at no time prevented the Church from growing in foreign countries. Catholicism is so prominent in Latin America that it is a de facto state religion with the priests practically serving as heelers in their communities. This has obviously not prevented church growth.

Within the colonies, there was a similar atmosphere of religious freedom. At the time of the revolution, the New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania colonies were all part of a “toleration belt.” In Quaker-founded Pennsylvania, the Quakers were themselves a minority. In Richard Bushman’s award-winning book, From Puritan to Yankee, he even notes of an instance where the Crown instructed Connecticut to rescind its anti-Quaker laws (Bushman, 166). While this strong hand didn’t always work (the religious civil wars in Maryland and all that), this was certainly no worse than what America would offer them 30 years later. The Church could have used this central authority in later years as it struggled with Martin Van Buren and various Governors to ensure its freedom to practice its religion.

Political Freedom
The immigrants came to America in an effort to strengthen and expand the British empire, not to disintegrate it. They saw themselves as blights on London’s society and came to America to free Britain of them, not they from Britain. There is a radical strain among our people that, I fear, envisions Zion as a 19th-century Utah redux: always on the watch, ready with their guns, living in their bunkers. Granted, I know very few who view it in such extreme terms. But those who do offer the Church no favors as it seeks to become a global faith.

Often, proponents of this perspective appeal to the rugged individualism of the founding fathers, to the Minutemen, and to Captain Moroni in defending their vigilance. It only follows that the Revolution should be seen as a magnificent, Cosmos-Historical Event (hat tip to Hegel) that gave the Church their ability to be politically free as well as religiously free. However, the political freedom they extol so much was not more available to the American population. Indeed, at the time of the revolution (as it is almost trite to say for you colonial historians), the American colonists were wealthier, more landed than any other colonial people. Further, until the 1820s, a large percentage of white Americans were not eligible to vote. If any of these same defenders of the Revolution lived in an apartment complex, they themselves would not be allowed to vote. In fact, with its abolition of the slave trade in 1808 and the total abolition of slavery in 1832, we find a Great Britain more welcoming to the American ideals of mankind’s equality than anything we find in antebellum America.

The Benefits of the Revolution for the LDS Church

What, then, made the American Revolution even helpful to the LDS cause? (the historiography on this one is so massive that I shudder to even dare address it). Gordon Wood—in his singular work on the ideological origins of the Republic—argues that republicanism rested at the core of the revolution. To these founders, republicanism was rooted in the embrace of the common good, of personal restraint and an eschewal of opulence. Referred to by the founders as “virtue,” these qualities could exist in any government—including the British empire as it then stood. Indeed, the colonists argued, they were the true guardians of the British legacy of freedom (Wood, chpt. 2).

Even the idea of a Constitution was not terribly radical—except in one aspect: it was written (Wood, chpt. 7). The British constitution, while derived from the idea of separate limited branches of governent (the House of Lords, the House of Commons, and the Crown), existed as an organic, moldable entity in which branches could interfere with each other. It was used in a context similar to the description of one’s general demeanor, the way he carries him/herself. Therefore, the just and holy principles of the Constitution, I would argue, were the Lord’s way of ensuring that the new government allowed for the Saints to flourish in the land of promise. Had there been no revolution, he could have easily prompted reformers in the British government to follow similar just and holy principles–incidentally, just such a reformation began to take place in the post-Revolution era. Reformers such as William Cobbett maintained that British financiers had become rich contracting out the Hessian mercenaries and that the Crown had expanded the central government so radically that traditional liberties were being quelched. The Revolution revolutionzed both Great Britain and America. Notice that the scriptures appeal to ideas of justice, not a Whiggish idea of American exceptionalism.

My purpose here is not to jump on the tired bandwagon that likes to throw dirt on dead men. I like the Constitution, and I like personal property. I like not paying a Church tax—I might even be a “fan of America” on Facebook. But even assuming these things were necessary, they were already in place or on their way at the eve of the Revolution. As the Church grows to include states with high degrees of socialism, we shouldn’t expect members there to accept American exceptionalism to the degree where they accept the Revolution as providential. While we can still gush over the founders for their accomplishments., let’s keep our inner Whigs in check and remember that the war as, at best, a necessary tragedy, and at worst, a conflict that brings out the most depraved side of humankind.

Comments 27

  1. “It was an unnecessary war for a conflict that might have easily been won through less-destructive means.”

    I have never heard this statement from any reputable source and find it, frankly, unsupportable. My problem with your post is that you are arguing essentially that things weren’t that bad so there was no need for revolution. This argument basically says that the colonists shouldn’t have been concerned with governing themselves, because even though they were subjects without proper representation, they were being treated well and allowed to worship generally as they pleased, so they should have just appreciated what they had and kept quiet. In my opinion, it doesn’t matter how well they had it, they remained subject to a rule to which they no longer consented. This is the end of the story. The principles of the revolution were that man has the right to govern himself, or at least choose the government to which he will be subject. That the colonists were denied this freedom is without question. So I think many of the issues you point out in your post are missing the point. They could have been the wealthiest, most prosperous people in history, and they would still have been justified, in my opinion, in revolting against the british crown. Obviously neither the revolution nor its leaders were perfect, but that doesn’t change the fact that they were justified in taking action to organize and implement their own government.

  2. I appreciated the thought provoking post Russell and I did have at least one question. Where did McConkie say “war was a tool of satan”? I can see many aspects of war that are cruel and almost satanic. I can also see how evil people would take advantage of war to express their worst passions. But God often uses war as instruments of his judgement. Babylon was used to punish Judah, and the Lamanites were used as a “scourge” for the Nephites. In fact within the BoM war was a often used a gauge of Nephite spritually, and the sucess of warfare often acted as a diagnostic of their spiritual health. And the BoM even espouses its own version of a Just War theory, articulated by President Hinckley in 2003. Based on those criteria it would seem that war is a tool of God more than a tool of Satan. So I’m a little confused that the stick of Bruce disagrees. I am short on time so I apologize in advance for any spelling errors.

    I still enjoyed the post and look forward to discussing this with you.

  3. In light of MD’s comment, I guess my question would be: is your main point that the Revolutionary War specifically was not justified, or that war in general is bad and should be avoided? That makes it sound oversimplistic, but I’m just wondering if you were getting specifically at the motivation and circumstances surrounding the RW or if you wanted to discuss war generally.

  4. Post

    In a sense, yes…but it’s war in general I detest. That leads me naturally to loathe the American Revolution as well as most other wars (WWII, perhaps being the exception).

    As far as support, I would suggest you take a look at Quentin Skinner’s Foundations of Modern Political Thought (Skinner is, if you will, one of the patron saints of the intellectual history of politics) as to whether revolution is justified. He discusses how Protestant thought allowed for a political (rather than religious) theory of revolution after the bloody religious wars of late 16th-century France. This was after the St. Bartholemew’s day massacre and atrocities galore. Pretty far removed from the cozy life (both politically and economically) of the colonists.

    Given that the Revolution was in response to probably the smallest provocations in the history of oppression, I am not willing to say that the human life lost in the Revolution was worth less than some shillings in taxes. If a people are lumbering under a dehumanizing force (and who is going to seriously argue that the Crown was treating the colonies that poorly), then circumstances are quite different. If anybody had “the right to revolt,” it was the slaves, not the colonists.

    Furthermore, there is nowhere in the Standard Works (certainly not post New Testament) that justifies popular revolt by force of arms–certainly not for political reasons (taxes, all that). And if state-sponsered killing justifies revolt, then why didn’t we rise up to support in revolt after Kent State? I think most MOrmons would be appalled if we did. And rightfully so.

  5. Post


    He says it in Mormon Doctrine (2nd edition, of course 🙂 And I think that applies to all of the calamities in the world. People get shot in drive-by shootings, yet it brings a family together. Of course, he would have preferred for the family to come together without it. And he didn’t *control* that drive-by shooter. He just knows how to use the other variables to bring out his ends. I think of him as the master chess player. He can manipulate even the most disagreeable moves to his ends.

  6. brjones,

    The principles of the revolution were that man has the right to govern himself, or at least choose the government to which he will be subject. … They could have been the wealthiest, most prosperous people in history, and they would still have been justified, in my opinion, in revolting against the british crown. Obviously neither the revolution nor its leaders were perfect, but that doesn’t change the fact that they were justified in taking action to organize and implement their own government.

    Do you think, then, that the South was justified in seceding from the United States in 1861?

  7. I’m afraid that I disagree with your analysis Russell. War IS abhorrent. It should NOT be treated as something that we lightly enter into.

    There are some who point to the example of Canada (who eventually became largely self-governed) as what the US should have done, but I don’t think Canada could have gotten what they did from Britain without the example and position that the USA had won through conflict (I say this as the child of a Canadian mother who has never become a US citizen as she felt that she was too loyal to Canada for that–and I respect Canada in many ways).

    Now, I’m going to toss all that aside in pursuit of what I think is really a much more interesting question (and honestly, I think should be the driving point of the discussion, personally): if the colonies had been under British rule what would have been the implications for the gospel. That all depends on one’s analysis of what the religious environment would have been like. As a piece of speculative fiction, I think that it hold just as much potential as Orson Scott Card’s Alvin Maker series in terms of a fictional America–perhaps more.

  8. Whether or not the United States Constitution may be inspired, depends on whether we requires inspiration to be perfect.

    The United States Constitution is certainly imperfect. However, it is also a step in the right direction.

    Mormonism would be less problematic if we did not view inspiration as perfectly divine.

  9. “Mormonism would be less problematic if we did not view inspiration as perfectly divine.”

    I agree totally with that, Hellmut.

    Russell, I have no time right now, but this is an interesting post, to be sure.

  10. I like this post, Russell, and it’s quite thought-provoking. I fear that you might touch a nerve here, telling people their “Sacred War” might not have been necessary. Me, I’m not sure, but I’ve noticed what kuri seems to be alluding to, and that is, many of those who see the Revolutionary War as a holy war of self-governance think that the South had absolutely no right to secede from the Union. I see it as quite fascinating anyway, and when those people are pressed, I hate to hear them say things like, “Well, war is okay if you’re RIGHT,” which is, needless to say, problematic.

    I’m curious about this.

  11. #6 – Sure, I think the South was “justified” in seceding. I’m a utilitarian above all else, and if the South thought that they had to secede to protect their interests, I have no problem that they tried. I think they were correct in their perception that it was the only way they were going to be able to keep slavery. That said, I also think it was fine that Lincoln and the North went to the lengths they did to prevent the South from accomplishing their goals. I think Lincoln was also correct in his perception that the nation needed to remain united to survive. Frankly, I have no problem that there are states and municipalities today that make efforts to secede from the U.S. I also have no problem that the U.S. slaps them down and refuses to let them out. People are going to do what’s best for them, and I generally have no problem with that. The flip side of that is that I have no problem with other people who have a directly conflicting interest doing what’s best for them, and whichever group prevails, so be it.

    Let me make clear, however, that I do not support the South, their secession or their reasons for doing so. Their political and moral motivations were based largely in slavery, and although I will stop short of judging 19th century values and understandings by today’s standards, I will still assert that they were as wrong then as they are now. So, while I think they were “justified” in seceding, I would not agree that their justification was right or moral, as I would argue was the case for the American colonists in the Revolutionary War.

  12. OK, thanks. I was just wondering if your view was a consistent one, or if it was more of a knee-jerk reaction. I see that there’s some consistency there.

  13. I think you’re ignoring the post-Revolutionary evolution of religion in the US that created a (IMO) necessary precondition for the Church to be able to be founded in a viable fashion. You’ve not established that the British government would have begun showing respect to its colonial subjects without having it’s nose rubbed in the issue by the military defeat the American Revolution became. And your reasoning begins with the conclusion you desire, and continues by cherry-picking your evidence to support that conclusion.

    The difficulty with American exceptionalism is that America is exceptional. There are no historical analogs for it. That this exceptionalism is misunderstood and misapplied doesn’t make that not so. I have no problem abhorring the excesses of all war on all sides, and do not give American Colonials a free pass for theirs. There is no way the situation could have been as black-and-white as the common understanding of it it was, but that doesn’t make it a uniform shade of indistinguishable gray either.

    So I find your questions and points interesting, but unpersuasive. And being persuaded about a hypothetical alternate history or not doesn’t really matter — what happened is what happened, and reality doesn’t have to explain or justify itself to our satisfaction.

  14. Post


    If you notice in my post, the driving point of my discussion DOES deal (in large part) with the implications for the gospel. I am suggesting that colonies could have housed the Restoration at least as well as the American republic. Incidentally, there were a number of British colonies that were exercising relative autonomy well before the Revolution. India (its colonists, not its natives) was almost fully autonomous before 1857, free of British regulation in all matters political. Therefore, I do not believe that Canada needed the American example merely to have autonomy (and again, we’re talking about the colonists’ autonomy, not the natives…natives were disenfranchised in all colonial schemes). They had an established example in British India.


    I would argue that in this case, a hypothetical *does* matter. Quite a bit. To what degree do we tie American exceptionalism to the gospel? To what degree do we canonize war as God’s modus operandi? My point is that the gospel could have been the gospel with/without the American Revolution. In the era of an international church, the more we can shed nationalism, the better.

    More to the point, all the evidence demonstrates that the British were actually conceding point after point well before the Revolution began. Their autonomy was more than sufficient to acquire wealth and prosperity…even political freedom (for the colonists, not the colonized…but then again, America didn’t fare well on that point either).

  15. The merits of the American Revolution aside, it should be clear that the doctrine of the Church generally does not allow or support violent revolution in such relatively benign circumstances.

    “We believe that all men are bound to sustain and uphold the respective governments in which they reside, while protected in their inherent and inalienable rights by the laws of such governments; and that sedition and rebellion are unbecoming every citizen thus protected, and should be punished accordingly; and that all governments have a right to enact such laws as in their own judgments are best calculated to secure the public interest; at the same time, however, holding sacred the freedom of conscience.” (D&C 132:5)

    If you have freedom of religion, freedom of speech, your life, liberty, and property are protected, etc. your cause for violent revolution is small. I generally think the South in political terms had a greater right to secede than the American colonists did. The tradeoff for the North for not letting them go is primarily 600,000 lives vs. the probable perpetuation of slavery in the South for another half century or so. If it weren’t for the slavery issue, I don’t think a large scale civil war would have been justified.

    The same question applies to the British. If a significant majority of a colony wants independence, and they are not planning severe injustice against some unfavored minority, why should the colonizing country go to extraordinary lengths in terms of lives expended to prevent them from doing so?

  16. This is very good.
    One nitpicky comment, though…Germany doesn’t tax LDS members a Lutheran tax. It is true that all Lutherans are charged a tax, and all Catholics are charged a tax, and for that they can get a gravestone in a respectable church cemetery, a church wedding, etc. Members of other churches, including the LDS church, are not asked to pay this tax.

  17. Pingback: Notes from All Over - through June 7 | Times & Seasons, An Onymous Mormon Blog

  18. Tim,
    Further, because the LDS church is “anerkannt”, a recognized religious entity, they could opt to automatically receive tithing from it’s members (the full 10%). All catholics are taxed by the government and the money is given to the Catholic Church. All Evangelisch churches are taxed by the government and the money is given to the Evangelisch church. It isn’t because Mormons don’t pay a tax that they can’t easily get a graveplot, but rather because they are religious heretics, under German Catholic and Evangelisch beliefs. The cemetaries are owned by churches, not the government. Contrarily, all Jewish and Christians who live in Muslim nations are taxed for not being the right religion. Jewish taxes merely ensure the survival of the church by charging all members of that church, and providing to the church of their choosing.

  19. If you have freedom of religion, freedom of speech, your life, liberty, and property are protected, etc. your cause for violent revolution is small. I generally think the South in political terms had a greater right to secede than the American colonists did.

    Question: “The South” aggressively deprived about one-third of its population (i.e., those of African descent) of freedom of religion, speech, life, liberty, property, etc. Did it still have a right to secede under the terms of D&C 132:5?

  20. I appreciate the post, Russell, if for no other reason that I, like you, have tired of members treating te revlotion as “the harbinger of the Restoration”, as you so put it. My mission president even taught that te first vision happened when it did because after winning the war of 1812 the USA was finally strong enough that it could not be defeated by some other power that would then squelch the freedom of religion that existed there.

    Whether I agree with you, I don’t know enough about the topic to even state an opinion. I just wanted to say thanks for any theory that might shed some light on the subject instead of the simple “founding fathers followed god and established nation for the restoration” line of thinking.

  21. Dexter:


    Tim and NOYDMB:

    True, Mormons don’t *have* to pay the Church tax (my bad on the looseness of language).

    The cultural pressure on Mormons to pay the tax is immense. While it is true that church members can technically opt out of the church tax, as I understand it (after research of my own and conversations with those who have worked with members there), one must go through a process involving where a member officially leaves the religious community and pay a withdrawal fee. This is most applicable to converts, since they have to formally declare their separation from the Lutheran church. And if you’re a minority religion (like LDS), then you have to declare “No Religion” (”So do you still believe in God, Hans?”). The ramifications of this are probably more social than economic. As I understand it, there is a certain stigma associated with opting out of the church tax. For LDS in part-member marriages, it becomes even more difficult. The state gov’t informs the church that one has removed himself from the Church. Plus, the church tax is tax-deductible, so there is real pressure to just go with the flow.

  22. 14 — Okay, but I’m at the disadvantage because you’ve presented none of the evidence, all of which (all? Really?) supports that the British were on the brink of giving their colonial subjects full enfranchisement and representation.

    And I think you’re addressing only the legal/political obstacles to the Restoration, while I think the cultural consequences of the Revolution were key to preparing the ground for the Restoration. Religious tolerance as an applied fact was not so well established in 1830, even with more than four decades under the First Amendment, that it kept the Mormons from being vulnerable to mob actions — it’s still not nearly as established today as religious apathy nearly eighteen decades after that.

    I think it’s interesting to consider this contrafactual hypothetical to see if our nationalism is getting out of hand, but it remains contrafactual. Maybe it could have worked differently, but it most certainly didn’t. Arguing with numerous priesthood leaders past and present on the merits of American exceptionalism doesn’t particularly interest me. I don’t share the belief that any expression of nationalism is bad, and am satisfied if nationalism simply doesn’t get out of hand.

  23. There’s no denying the counterfactual nature of the beast, but historians use that all the time (finishing up an M.A. in history, I feel, gives me a fair degree of experience in the matter). As far as the evidence, let’s just say that until the Intolerable acts were passed, all of the taxes levied against the colonists were revoked. Until they sent the troops, the colonists were living a pretty fat life. The British repealed the tax act in 1778, just so they could end the war. The Townshend acts were partially repealed on the day of the Boston massacre.

    Anyway, I just want to stave off the arrogance that President Hinckley warned us against.

  24. #6- You stated: “I think they [the Confederate states] were correct in their perception that it was the only way they were going to be able to keep slavery.”

    This is not actually the case. After several southern states had seceded but before the CSA had adopted a constitution and the war had officially begun, the US House and Senate passed and sent to the states a constitutional amendment that would have safeguarded slavery in the southern states. (The full text of the amendment is “No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.”)

    By this point, the leaders of the secession movement were in no mood to back down from their goal of complete independence and so the proposed amendment became moot. Search on “Corwin amendment” to read more. However, had they wanted to do so, the South very likely could have attained their objective without independence and war.

  25. 22 — I will meet you at the conclusion that we should not be arrogant. I continue working on it, and have reason to think it might actually happen, God willing, in a thousand years or two.

  26. Question: “The South” aggressively deprived about one-third of its population (i.e., those of African descent) of freedom of religion, speech, life, liberty, property, etc. Did it still have a right to secede under the terms of D&C 132:5?


  27. It is not clear that continued British rule would have resulted in the growth of the American colonies in the way that the United States grew, first into the Northwest Territories, then with the Louisiana Purchase, then adding Texas and in the war with Mexico that added California, and the threat of war with Britain over Oregon Territory, and ultimately the acquisition of Alaska and Hawaii. There were specific political reasons for each of these events, and it is not at all clear that any of them would have happened if America had remained British colonies. Would Britian have supported this expansion, or restricted it on the grounds that it was difficult to maintain a colonial regime over that broad a territory?

    The USA that actually existed has played a significant role in protecting freedom in western Europe, establishing freedom in Japan, and eventually supporting the freedom of Russia (such as it is) and Eastern Europe. That expanding freedom has been the foundation for LDS missionary entry into many of those nations.

    The example of the US revolution was, I think, an important precedent for the independence of states in Latin America as well. Remember that Spain itself was under a dictatorship until pretty recently; would a Latin America dominated by a dictatorial Spain have been more free? (This is not to say, of coourse, that there haven’t been dictatorships in South America, just that they could have been even worse.)

    If the Confederate secession had succeeded, there is no question but that it would have been hard for the Mormons in Utah to resist following that precedent when the polygamy raids started in earnest. and there were plenty of ambitious men who would have been happy to take Texas, California and Oregon Territory out of the Union.

    There is not just one alternate history. I think we have to be skeptical about the notion that an alternate America would have been more hospitable for the Restoration.

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