In the post I did about the long arm of Warren Jeffs’ law, PDOE and APJ made some interesting comments, that I think actually merit their own post. They essentially drew parallels between Warren Jeffs’ Hilldale Police Department and Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo Legion.

Nauvoo Legion

PDOE commented:

I’d hesitate to make any judgements here. It seems to analagous to the situation at Nauvoo. Now personally I think Jeffs is full of it and he has done some things that are beyond the pale. On the other hand, before we start pointing and saying “He has too much power in the community!” “He’s too closely tied to the other authority figures” and “Where’s the seperation of church and state?” we need to remember our own history. The early Saints were trying to build God’s kingdom on earth– by definition in such a place the church IS the state.

I may feel that some of Jeffs’ actions are reprehensible but for LDS people to attack the way his community is organized is for the pot to call the kettle black.

APJ commented:

I’ll respond to it. In some ways, I feel the same as PDOE. For example, the last sentence from the post, “It is as though Warren Jeffs had, and to this day maintains his own private police force, headed by what he and they feel to be a religious prophet. Very dangerous!” immediately struck me as nearly identical to Mormon history, if you replace Jeffs’ name with Joseph Smith’s.

The parallel to Joseph Smith and the Nauvoo Legion is obvious (and I’m pretty sure the Nauvoo Legion was potentially more dangerous/effective than a couple cops in Hildale!).

However, I think the sentiment that PDOE expresses is a good point to keep in mind, but not a final conclusion, nor a reason to avoid the topic entirely (and I’m not saying PDOE is trying to shut down discussion or anything).

I think that the Mormon Church’s history of self-preservation and at times “taking the law into its own hands” was in a different context than the current FLDS community, although that in and of itself doesn’t necessarily mean that early Mormons were always just trying to protect themselves.

Also, there is the obvious fact that the modern Church has over the last 150 years fully incorporated, so to speak, the 12th article of faith. I don’t think you can really say it’s a “pot calling the kettle black” situation. Today’s Mormons are several generations removed from the situations of Nauvoo and early Utah.

So, I sympathize somewhat with the FLDS situation, and innocent members who are caught in the storm. Personally, I would think it great for polygamy statutes to be repealed or at least modified (since I generally believe that victimless crimes shouldn’t be prosecuted), so that innocent people could practice their religion without having the threat of criminal prosecution or their families taken from them. But I also think that the not-so-innocent people living in polygamous relationships should be prosecuted, and not be able to hide behind religious freedom while committing crimes with actual victims.

I think there are limited similarities; however, there are also huge differences. One of the biggest is the time frame in which we live compared with when the early Saints lived in Nauvoo. George W. Givens points out in his book In Old Nauvoo: Everyday Life in the City of Joseph that in 1835 the United States Army had only 8,221 men. As a result smaller state militias were required to defend the nation, one of which was the Nauvoo Legion:

“Americans are remarkably fond of military parades and honors. . . . the militia system indulges their martial spirit, without the danger and expense attending a standing army.” 1 It was not so much the fondness of the martial spirit as it was the danger and expense of standing armies that caused Americans to prefer the militia system to European-style armies. In this, however, the foreign observer Grund was absolutely right: to support a full-time army in Europe was indeed a heavy burden and had been for generations. In France during the Nauvoo era, one of every eighty inhabitants was drawn from the work force to serve full time in the military. In the United States at the same time, the ratio was one in twenty-three hundred. 2 In 1835 the United States regular army had only 8,221 men, including 674 commissioned officers. 3

Such a small regular army meant that a large militia was needed in the event of a national emergency. In 1844 the total membership of state militias in the United States was 1,750,000 men. Militia service was required throughout the states for white males between the ages of eighteen and forty or forty-five, except for officials, clergymen, and Quakers. The ratio of militia to the entire population was about one to ten.

Illinois law, to which the Latter-day Saints were subject after 1838, required service in the militia. In that frontier state in 1840, more than 83,000 of a total population of 470,000 served in militias. Close to 20 percent of the inhabitants were under arms. In Nauvoo the number of militiamen approached 30 percent of the population. Illinois law, similar to that of other states in age requirements for white males and terms of active duty, required service for six months with the same allowances as the regular army.

Because of the persecutions in Missouri, many of which had been at the hands of state militia, Church leaders wisely concluded they could not trust any state militia not under their control. Because by law they were required to serve in the Illinois state militia, why not, they reasoned, make it a Mormon militia, at least in Nauvoo?

The Illinois legislature agreed. The Nauvoo city charter called for the establishment of a university and of an independent military body. In keeping with this generous charter, the city government authorized the organization of the Legion on 3 February 1841. Although independent, it was at the disposal of the governor of Illinois and was required to perform the same amount of military duty as the regular state militia. Within fifteen days after becoming residents of Nauvoo, eligible males were required to join the legion unless exempted from service under United States law, by a special act of the legion, or by a certificate of inability.

In Old Nauvoo: Everyday Life in the City of Joseph, George W. Givens pgs. 131-32.

I think it is difficult, if not impossible to view life in the Nauvoo period with any accuracy through the lens of the 21st century. Based on Givens’ book I see these as irreconcilable differences between Joseph and Jeffs, Hilldale and Nauvoo:

1. In 1835 the United States regular army had only 8,221 men, including 674 commissioned officers;

2. Such a small regular army meant that a large militia was needed in the event of a national emergency;

3. Militia service was required throughout the states for white males between the ages of eighteen and forty or forty-five;

4. Illinois law, similar to that of other states in age requirements for white males and terms of active duty, required service for six months with the same allowances as the regular army;

5. Because of the persecutions in Missouri, many of which had been at the hands of state militia, Church leaders wisely concluded they could not trust any state militia not under their control.

The Encyclopedia of Mormonism entry on the Nauvoo Legion by Daniel H. Ludlow has a similar entry, with similar details:

The Illinois legislative act of December 1840 that incorporated the city of Nauvoo also authorized creation of a military body or militia that came to be known as the Nauvoo Legion. Perhaps influenced by genuine disgust with the way the Latter-day Saints had been treated in Missouri, the Illinois legislature acted liberally. Under the Nauvoo charter, Latter-day Saints could manage their own affairs, provided they did not violate the state or federal constitutions.

The organization of a militia unit was customary in settlements with sufficient population, a practice as old as the Republic. Nauvoo residents were particularly anxious to have their own military protection after having been victims of mob violence and having suffered expulsion from Missouri (seeHaun’s Mill Massacre; Missouri Conflict). By 1840, they realized that they could not always rely on federal or state authorities for protection from such violence.

The Nauvoo Court Martial, consisting of the legion’s commissioned officers, was given extensive authority. Among other things, it could “make, ordain, establish, and execute all such laws and ordinances as may be considered necessary for the benefit, government, and regulation of said Legion; provided [that] said Court Martial shall pass no law or act, repugnant to, or inconsistent with, the Constitution of the United States, or of this State [Illinois]” (HC 4:244).

As part of the state militia, the Nauvoo Legion was at the disposal of the governor of Illinois “for the public defense, and the execution of the laws of the State or of the United States.” Significantly, it was also at the disposal of the mayor of Nauvoo for “executing the laws and ordinances of the city corporation” (HC 4:244).

The city council ordinance that created the Nauvoo Legion authorized the rank of lieutenant general for its commanding officer, an extraordinary authorization, since no other militia officer in the United States held rank above that of major general. The court martial elected Joseph Smith, commander of the legion.

The parades and other activities of the legion-which included mock battles-attracted visitors from near and far. Indeed, the legion became so popular that many non-Mormons joined the ranks. At its peak, it is said to have numbered 5,000 men, the largest such body in Illinois. But there were problems. According to historian B. H. Roberts:

[The Nauvoo Legion] excited the jealousy and envy of the rest of the militia in surrounding counties, and all the laudable efforts of the legion to become an efficient body with a view of assisting in the execution of the state and national laws, if occasion should require, were construed by their enemies to mean a preparation for rebellionÂ?. Hence that which was to be a bulwark to the city, and a protection to the saints, was transformed by their enemies into an occasion of offense, and an excuse for distrusting them [CHC 2:59-60].

Joseph Smith mobilized the Nauvoo Legion to defend the city and declared martial law in June 1844 as tensions mounted between the Latter-day Saints, dissenters, and hostile neighbors. Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were among those arrested by another Illinois militia and placed in Carthage Jail, where they were killed by members of yet another militia (see Martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith). Six months later, the Illinois legislature revoked the Nauvoo Charter. At that point, the Nauvoo Legion ceased to exist as a state militia, although as an unofficial body it continued to provide some protection to the beleaguered Latter-day Saints.

During the exodus westward later, some former members of the Nauvoo Legion served in the Mormon Battalion. This 500-man body, authorized by the U.S. government in 1846 as part of the campaign against Mexico, marched from Council Bluffs to San Diego.

The name Nauvoo Legion was revived in Utah and applied to the organized militia of the state of Deseret and later of Utah Territory. This legion was called upon in 1849 to subdue marauding Indians, and its members served in the so-called Walker War of 1853-1854, named after Wakara, a Ute chieftain. With the approach of the Utah expedition in 1857-1858, the Utah militia harassed and burned U.S. Army supply trains and prepared, if necessary, to prevent the entry of U.S. troops into Salt Lake City. In 1862, during the American Civil War, two units of the Nauvoo Legion protected overland mail and telegraph lines. Later, with a force of some 2,500 men, it fought against Indians in Utah’s Black Hawk War (1865-1868).

Always more responsive to Mormon leadership than to the federal appointees who succeeded Brigham Young as governor of Utah, the legion was rendered inactive by an 1870 proclamation of Acting Governor J. Wilson Shaffer, who forbade gatherings of the militia except on his express orders. The Nauvoo Legion was finally disbanded as a result of the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887. In 1894 the National Guard of Utah was organized as Utah’s militia.

During the Nauvoo period I can see several reasons why Joseph would legitimately need the services of the Nauvoo Legion. I can see no reasons today why Warren Jeffs would need his own police force. The cities of Hilldale and Colorado City would need the services of a police department; but, Jeffs, unlike Joseph, was not and is not facing the same type of persecution that the Saints of the Nauvoo period faced. In our day and age, the types of needs the Nauvoo Legion satisfied from the 1800’s just don’t exist.

While I’m certain there were likely some abuses in the Nauvoo Legion, I think by in large the Legion and Joseph’s use of it was actually quite restrained. Joseph mobilized the Nauvoo Legion in June 1844 when he declared martial law; but, we must take into consideration the factual circumstances of the time. Joseph, had he chosen, could have remained comfortable in his home in Nauvoo protected by arguably the most heavily armed and well trained standing army in all of Illinois at the time. Instead, he voluntarily chose to surrender to the supposed requirements of mob law, and face his enemies in Carthage, which he knew meant his certain death.

Warren Jeffs, on the other hand had been on the run for months and months, likely using his contacts in the Hilldale police force to assist, at least with information, if not more. I just don’t see the similarities between Joseph and Jeffs, Hilldale and Nauvoo, as compelling to make the argument that Jeffs is merely doing that which Joseph of Nauvoo did in the 19th century.