Ep 76 – Blasphemers Beware
On this episode, we take a look at the avalanche of acts and ordinances that were being passed in Nauvoo to establish some semblance of a real operating city. Joseph Smith and his favored elites had a lot of work to do and were in the process of forming new committee and organizations on a daily basis to answer the myriad needs of the burgeoning community. Once again, we find speculation to be the sole ruling factor in the formation of any Nauvoo business or agency. Jo even passed an act against intolerant speech against people of faith, we can’t have those atheists building a church in Nauvoo now, can we? After that we’ll get into part 2 of my conversation with Jack Naneek of the Mormon Awakenings podcast, where we really discuss some hard issues with the church’s stance on LGBTQ+ people and the value churches give society. Patreon subscribers be sure to check your feed. There’s an exciting announcement with Ryan McKnight as a separate episode over there and patrons of the show get to hear it a week early.
History of Blasphemy Laws
Charles Lee Smith
Mormon Awakenings Podcast w/Jack Naneek
Holy Crap Vlogcast guest spot
Music by Jason Comeau http://aloststateofmind.com/
Show Artwork http://weirdmormonshit.com/
Legal Counsel http://patorrez.com/
Voicemail Line (864)Nake-dMo (625-3366)
For some milk today, let’s review where we sit in the timeline. Basically, we’re in the foundational days of Nauvoo. There was so much work to be done in order to establish it as the Mormon utopia envisioned by the prophet and his favored elites. John C. Wreck-it Bennett was elected Mayor of Nauvoo and he’s been running the place as a dictator, giving tasks to Jo which were necessary to carry out for building up the kingdom on the Mississippi. Little side note, thank you to the unnamed sender who sent me a copy of Robert Flanders book, it was a very kind gift and you can see a picture of me with it as soon as I opened it up on the Naked Mormonism facebook page. Once again, thank you, whoever you are. Jo and Bennett were creating a bunch of new committees and organizations which they hoped would make Nauvoo a real town with a thriving economy. That was the hope, we’ll see how it plays out in the coming years leading up to the removal of the saints from Nauvoo.
Let’s devour some meat and see how what new projects Jo picked up through the rest of February and March of 1841.
By mid-February 1841, where we currently reside in our timeline, Nauvoo was becoming too populous and cumbersome to deal with as a single entity. In response to the challenging logistics this posed, Jo and John Wreck-it Bennett responded by subdividing the city up into separate wards. Mormons today will recognize that word as being the terminology used for churches today. In any given area, there is usually a wardhouse or stake center with the local population divided up into multiple wards based on geography or income of the neighborhood or a few other factors. This was the first time the word “ward” was used in early church history. Prior to this, congregations were referred to as stakes of Zion, like how you stake a tent. These congregations were seen as groups which all supported the main contingency of Mormons at Zion HQ, wherever that was at the given time. Zion was the tent and the other congregations were stakes. With Nauvoo growing at the rate it was and requiring so much infrastructure to support the population, it was divided into 4 separate wards, surveyed and sanctioned by the prophet himself.
The HoC has the entire ordinance, but I’ll spare you reading it because it’s meaningless to us. It is important to note that Jo immediately passed another ordinance creating new positions inside the Nauvoo government to help deal with the fracturing of the city into separate wards:
“Be it ordained by the city council of the city of Nauvoo, that in addition to the city officers heretofore elected, there shall be elected by the city council, one high constable for each ward; one surveyor and engineer, one market master, one weigher and sealer, and one collector for the city, whose duties shall hereafter be defined by ordinance.”
Beyond separating Nauvoo out into 4 separate wards, Jo decided to create a couple of committees and incorporate a business venture or two. The first he sought to create wasn’t just a committee, but an entire association which Nauvoo desperately needed.
“An Act to incorporate the Nauvoo Agricultural and Manufacturing Association in the County of Hancock.
Sec 2. The sole object and purpose of said association shall be for the promotion of agriculture and husbandry in all its branches, and for the manufacture of flour, lumber, and such other useful articles as are necessary for the ordinary purposes of life.
Sec 3. The capital stock of said association shall be one hundred thousand dollars, with the privilege of increasing it to the sum of three hundred thousand dollars, to be divided into shares of fifty dollars, which shall be considered personal property, and be assignable in such manner as the said corporation may by its by-laws provide:..
Sec 5. Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and William Law shall be commissioners to receive subscriptions for, and distribute said capital stock for said corporation;…”
Yes, this was Jo and 20 of his friends creating another business venture in the form of an Ag and manufacturing association, and they set the price of stock in the business. The thing is, this wasn’t already a profitable business which could be successfully divided up, it was just a business they made up on paper and sold stock shares in. This association may have served some kind of real purpose, but let’s not take the noble sounding title at face value, this was another company made so the Mormons could speculate in the hopes of making it big. The first section of the act did list the 20 people who were named the trustees and paid in stock for serving on the board of the association. You’re supposed to have capital in a company before you trade it around and speculate on its stock, but all these companies were missing that crucial part of their investing, real capital.
I’ll just add this in to the mix, Governor Thomas Carlin, as well as the speakers of the state senate and house of representatives signed the act creating this association. They weren’t unaware of what the Mormons were doing with creating these businesses, but I assume they, like the Mormons, had some kind of blind optimism in hopes that Nauvoo would pan out and eventually the capital and manufacturing of the city would match the need for all these committees and associations. But never forget this detail, they were all overseen by the same group of Mormon elites, continually spreading themselves ever thinner.
The next act to pass was “An act to incorporate the Nauvoo House Association”. We’ve discussed this a bit in the pass, so we won’t rehash it, but needless to say, it was just another company that was created on paper with tradeable stock without having any real capital to throw around. Jo and friends hadn’t learned from the KSS company and were just creating another bubble in the Nauvoo economy.
Creating business ventures damned upon their creations wasn’t the only thing Jo was doing, this was one of his most active times in church history when it came to documentable day-to-day activities. It was nearly every other day that Jo was bringing an act, report, or ordinance to the Nauvoo government officials to be passed, and basically anything Jo brought to them was rubber stamped through because, well…. He’s the prophet and his followers aren’t going to oppose legislation and business ventures he brought to them. Jo took a page out of the American playbook when it came to territory. The way I had always understood Nauvoo history was that the Saints initially began settling in Commerce, Illinois, then once the Nauvoo charter was passed, Commerce just became Nauvoo. That was inaccurate and the HoC sheds a bit of light on this subject. Basically, Commerce still existed as an incorporated township, but Nauvoo was set to absorb any nearby town into its boundaries, which is what happened with Commerce.
“Your committee, to whom was referred that portion of the address of his
honor, the mayor, which is recommended the propriety of vacating the
Town Plats, Commerce, and the city of Commerce, and incorporating them
with the city plat of Nauvoo, would respectfully report:--That they
consider the recommendation contained in the address as one of great
importance to the future welfare and prosperity of this city, and if
carried into effect would make the streets regular and uniform, and
materially tend to beautify this city. We would therefore respectfully
recommend that the survey of the city of Nauvoo be carried through the
Town Plats of Commerce and the City of Commerce, as soon as it may be
We would therefore recommend to the council the passage of the following resolution: That the Town Plats of Commerce, and Commerce City be vacated, and that the same stand vacated from this time forth, and forever; and that the same be incorporated with the city of Nauvoo, from this time henceforth and forever.”
With this ordinance passed, Jo effectively dissolved Commerce, Illinois and annexed the land into the township of Nauvoo. Prior to Nauvoo being a real town, Commerce was the incorporated city that Nauvoo was placed on top of, but there wasn’t any actual city infrastructure for Nauvoo to absorb, it was just empty acreage. Jo was a product of his time; there’s a bunch of land without anybody or very few people on it, we’ll just call it part of our bigger civilization and assume control over the land. We European settlers had made quite a habit of doing this to American soil.
Jo thought it was a good idea to emulate even more aspects of American law and policy beyond just annexing large swaths of land. The founding fathers had trotted out their best arguments for what should and shouldn’t be included in the American constitution 54 years before Nauvoo was incorporated as a city, and they made good cases for why certain provisions like free speech and right to assembly should be enshrined in the constitution. Jo sought to follow their example in more ways than one.
From the Vogel HoC 4:300
“Sec. 1. Be it ordained by the city council of the city of Nauvoo, that in order to guarantee the constitutional right of free discussion upon all subjects, the citizens of this city may from time to time, peaceably assemble themselves together for all peaceable, or lawful purposes whatever; and should any person be guilty of disturbing or interrupting any such meeting or assemblage, he shall on conviction thereof before the mayor or municipal court, be considered a disturber of the public peace, and fined in any sum not exceeding five hundred dollars, or imprisoned not exceeding six months, or both, at the discretion of said mayor or court.
Sec. 2. Should any person be guilty of exciting the people to riot, or rebellion, or of participating in a mob, or any other unlawful riotous or tumultuous assemblage of the people, or of refusing to obey any civil officer, executing the ordinances of the city, or the general laws of the State or United States, or of neglecting or refusing to obey promptly, any military order for the due execution of said law; or ordinances, he shall, on conviction thereof as aforesaid, be fined or imprisoned, or both as aforesaid.”
This was a good provision to write into law for a few reasons. The Mormons were a large congregation of people and they wanted the right to peaceably assemble without raising the attention of, or offending, any mob or militia force, especially the occasional Missouri militiaman who would wander into town trying to serve arrest warrants to the prophet. Also, the Mormons were people, and people aren’t happy with stuff so they get out of their homes and get together in groups with pitchforks and they yell about whatever may grieve them. No TV to satiate boredom.
The first American blasphemy law I could find on record came out of His Majesty’s Province of the Massachusetts-Bay in 1697.
“An act against atheism and blasphemy:
Be it declared and enacted by the Lieutenant Governor, Council and Representatives, convened in General Court or Assembly, and it is enacted by the Authority of the same; That if any Person shall presume willfully to blaspheme the holy Name of God; Father, Son, or Holy Ghost; either by denying, cursing or reproaching the true God; his Creation or Government of the World; or by denying, cursing, or reproaching the Holy Word of God; that is, the canonical Scriptures contained in the Books of the Old and New Testaments; namely (lists books of Bible sans apocrypha); Every one so offending shall be punished by Imprisonment, not exceeding six Months, and until they find Sureties for the good Behaviour; by sitting in the Pillory; by Whipping; boaring thorow the Tongue, with a red hot Iron; or sitting upon the Gallows with a Rope about the Neck; at the Discretion of the Court of Assize, and General Goal Delivery, before which the Trial shall be; according to the Circumstances, which may aggravate or alleviate the Offence.
Provided that not more than two of the fore-mentioned Punishments shall be inflicted for one and the same Fact.”
This came right on the heels of the Salem Witch Trials and executions which had happened less than half a decade prior to this law being passed. Of course, this happened before almost all of the laudable founding fathers were born and America was actually declared as a secular nation, so let’s look at laws passed after America became the United States to get a bit more context. A Maryland statute was first created in 1723, but enshrined as law in 1819 which states:
“If any person, by writing or speaking, shall blaspheme or curse God, or shall write or utter any profane words of and concerning our Saviour, Jesus Christ, or of and concerning the Trinity, or any of the persons thereof, he shall, on conviction, be fined not more than one hundred dollars, or imprisoned not more than six months, or both fined and imprisoned as aforesaid, at the discretion of the court.”
What’s interesting here is that this and most similar blasphemy laws are fairly limited in scope in that they only protect Christianity, but they could be interpreted quite broadly. For example, a person could hand out pamphlets all day that said Allah is a false God and Mohammed a false prophet, clearly blasphemous speech, and it seems that nobody would bother you. But, as soon as somebody living in a state with blasphemy laws said that the bible isn’t true, it was off to the courthouse with them which frequently resulted in fines or jail time.
In the 1800s, it wasn’t considered a violation of church and state separation or free speech to have blasphemy laws and many states still have completely impotent blasphemy laws on their books. Thanks to a small handful of rulings, juris prudence has completely neutered these laws, so they only take up paper and ink and do nothing for anybody, but that’s a luxury of our modern laws. It wouldn’t be until the early 1900s that rulings came out of various supreme courts which nullified blasphemy laws. In 1928, a man named Charles Lee Smith began handing out pamphlets promoting atheism and evolution in Arkansas. He was charged with blasphemy and ended up refusing to swear oath in court on the bible, so the court refused to let him testify on his own behalf. The judge in that case withdrew the charge of blasphemy, for which Lee was originally convicted, then slapped him with a charge of distributing obscene, slanderous, or scurrilous literature. That charge stuck and Lee ended up paying the fine and serving jail time for distributing what was seen as the legal equivalent of porn for free to minors.
Let’s not mince words about Charles Lee Smith though, he was a product of his time, being born in 1887, and was totally on board with eugenics and the white master race. He held to evolution as an immutable truth and as a pseudo-logical step thought white’s were the superior race, but he was an early atheist activist. We can appreciate some actions people have taken to move society forward, even if those people held some deplorable and ignorant beliefs, and Charles Lee Smith is a great example of a person we can commend for good actions, but condemn for holding to certain bigoted beliefs.
The reason it’s relevant to discuss some of the history of blasphemy laws is to shed some light on the legal atmosphere from which the Nauvoo city laws and ordinances were derived. Jo passed another ordinance, this one titled “An ordinance in relation to Religious Societies.”
“Be it ordained by the city council of the city of Nauvoo, that the Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Latter-day Saints, Quakers, Episcopalians, Universalists, unitarians, Mohammedans, and all other religious sects and denominations whatever, shall have free toleration, and equal privileges, in this city; and should any person be guilty of ridiculing and abusing, or otherwise depreciating another, in consequence of his religion, or of disturbing or interrupting any religious meeting within the limits of this city, he shall on conviction thereof before the mayor or municipal court, be considered a disturber of the public peace, and fined in any sum not exceeding five hundred dollars, or imprisoned not exceeding six months, or both at the discretion of said mayor or court.”
The second section puts the teeth in saying anybody seen ridiculing a person based on their religion should be immediately arrested and dealt with according to this ordinance. You can read through the Book of Mormon and the occasional atheist will pop up and have an argument with the prophet. Atheists were surprisingly common back in 19th-century America. I found this article in the Evening Post published in NY, NY March of 1822 which seems to bring up some interesting points.
“It is said that attempts are making to produce a political effect upon the community by the agitation of the question touching the decision of the Supreme Court in regard to the admissibility or exclusion of witnesses on the ground of their religious faith…This very question was a subject of consideration in our late Convention and on a motion made by Gen. Root, “That no witness shall be questioned as to his religious faith.”—
Col. Young said, “If by religious faith were meant a belief in a supreme being and in future rewards and punishments he should oppose it.—The testimony of and Atheist and Infidel ought not to be placed upon an equality with others, as he could feel no responsibility.”
The question on the motion of Gen. Root was then taken by ayes and noes, and decided in the negative, ayes 8, noes 94.”
This was a fairly common way atheists were treated in the 19th century. Their testimonies weren’t taken as truthful in court and when they would pass out pamphlets and whatnot saying God isn’t real they were seen as disturbers of the peace and often suffered fines or jail time for preaching their atheism. This ordinance Jo wrote into Nauvoo law was a product of its time, all religions enjoyed a protection, but somebody without a religion could be fined or thrown into prison for voicing their opinion, should they be deemed a disturber of the peace by the Nauvoo government, which was comprised of almost entirely the Mormon elite.
Are we somehow past this? The main reason I find history so interesting and compelling is it informs us of how we got to where we are. I get so frustrated hearing arguments that because we had the 14th amendment and the civil rights movement that we’ve somehow left it all behind us and we’re enlightened beyond the constraints of our ignorant past. No, we’re still a product of our society and still operate within the margins of tolerance dictated by the world we leave behind when we wake up every morning. Society has solved so many issues which used to hold us back, but it’s an upward trend that needs active attention to continue towards the goal of total equality. There will be blips where equality dips on our way, but society is a hell of a lot more equal today than it was in Joseph Smith’s day. Back then, they didn’t accept an atheists testimony in court because an atheist doesn’t have morals and you can’t trust somebody if they don’t swear over the bible. In Jo’s day, women’s say in politics was nothing more than them raising good men who would one day grow up and vote for their own mothers. When Joseph was alive people owned other people as farm implements as a person owns a windrower today. That’s where America was 5 generations ago, and I’m optimistic to see how far we’ve come and hopeful for where we’re going, as long as we don’t let society slip backwards in our apathy.
When we last left off with Jack, he and I were discussing whether or not it’s a worthwhile endeavor to seek validation from the church and a person’s community when that church and community don’t agree with the person’s lifestyle.
Church gets reinvented every 20 yrs, but what about people who suffering in the mean time
Church accepts a lot of different kind of people and taking care of them, only when you do what the church says and aren’t gay
Church protects children from big life altering dangers that can happen during teen years, drugs?
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