Forgotten Kingdom: The Mormon Theocracy in the American West, 1847-1896
David L. Bigler, Forgotten Kingdom: The Mormon Theocracy in the American West, 1847-1896, Spokane: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1998; paperback edition, Logan: Utah State University Press, 1998.
Forgotten Kingdom is the story, honestly told for the first time, of the fifty-year struggle for sovereignty between the Mormon theocracy in the American West, known as Deseret, a synonym for the Kingdom of God, and the United States. For the loss of this history the author blames faith-promoting historians, who have imposed present Mormon beliefs on the past to make it appear that Utah and its dominant religion have turned out just as Brigham Young intended when he led his followers there in 1847. But as Bigler makes clear, nothing could be further from the truth.
After years of conflict in Missouri and Illinois, the militant millennial movement left the United States and came to the Great Basin of North America, to establish the Kingdom of God as an earthy state, allegedly ruled by God through inspired men. Conceived by the faith’s first prophet, Joseph Smith, the Mormon theocracy was believed to be the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. To the faithful, it was the stone that Prophet Daniel saw cut out of the mountain without hands that would consume within their days on earth all other realms, including the United States, as a condition of Christ’s return.
Yet only six months after they laid out their new city in Salt Lake Valley, events occurred elsewhere that would change forever their hopes to establish God’s Kingdom in the isolation of the Great Basin from which no water flows to any ocean. On 24 January 1848 workmen at Sutter’s Mill in California discovered the shining nuggets that would touch off the great population shift west, known as the Gold Rush. And less than two weeks after that, Mexico surrendered ceded to the United States the entire Southwest, including Utah and California.
Almost overnight, the self-proclaimed Mormon kingdom was back in the country from whence it came, squarely in the path of the most dynamic nation the world had ever known, founded on principles of government that were diametrically opposed to those of a theocracy, short of the millennium. The imagined stone of Daniel ran into the United States, or rather, the United States ran into it. How it all came out in the end, as related by this work, seemed better to fulfill another of Daniel’s dream interpretations, the one about the fingers of a man’s hand that wrote on the wall: “God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it.”
Confronted before they were ready, Mormon leaders created the State of Deseret (another name for the Kingdom of God) whose limits took in much of the western United States, including a seaport at San Diego, and petitioned Washington for entry into the Union as a sovereign state. Concerned with slavery, Congress in 1850 created instead a territorial form of government with the unwanted name of Utah, which put the new entity under the federal thumb and insured future conflict. President Fillmore’s appointment of Brigham Young only exacerbated the problem.
The stage was now set for a bloodless war between two incompatible systems – an alleged theocracy ruled by inspiration from above and a democratic republic governed by its citizens from the bottom up. As the author notes, “The confrontation between the Great Basin theocracy and the American republic would go on for a half century and make Utah, one of the first places settled west of the Missouri River, among the last admitted to the Union.”
To present an unbiased and authoritative account of this instructive chapter of history, the author relies almost solely on original records and government documents. In so doing, he connects such little known episodes as Utah’s Indian wars, the Reformation of 1856 and its doctrine of blood atonement, Deseret’s “ghost government,” the Mormon secession from the United States, the handcart disaster, the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the polygamy trials and underground. And he brings to life many forgotten Christian men and women who labored on what they called “the picket line of civilization” to make today’s Utah an acceptable member of the American society.
As he shows, the system that eventually prevailed was the one based on ideals of individual freedom, which managed to succeed in spite of the good intentions of officials who consistently underestimated the convictions and ability of their Mormon opponents. While this story has been largely lost, Bigler holds that it is essential to an understanding of Mormon culture and beliefs today in one of the country’s fastest growing states, yet one divided by divisions drawn in the nineteenth century.
Forgotten Kingdom won the Best Book Award of 1998 from Westerners International, a worldwide association of historians and students of the American West.