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.
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.
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.