Mormon Metaphysics & Theology

I teach them correct principles
November 28, 2006

While checking through my log I came upon a curious link from wikipedia. Apparently there was a discussion of the origin of Joseph Smith's famous quote, "I teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves." Now way back in the early days of this blog I'd mentioned how I'd tried to find the origin of the quote. While I found a lot from the 19th century I couldn't find any sources prior to 1860. Well someone at the wikipedia did and I figured I'd pass them along.

The first is from John Taylor on November, 1851 in the Millennial Star 13:22 page 339. Thanks to BYU's excellent online collection of old texts I was able to look it up.

Concerning government: Some years ago, in Nauvoo, a gentleman in my hearing, a member of the Legislature, asked Joseph Smith how it was that he was enabled to govern so many people, and to preserve such perfect order; remarking at the same time that it was impossible for them tot do it anywhere else. Mr. Smith remarked that it was very easy to do that. "How?" responded the gentleman; "to us it is very difficult." Mr. Smith replied, "I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves."

Now if anyone knows an older source for the quote I'd be interested. I should add that the quote, as presented above, is clearly wrapped up with the political situation in Illinois in the 1840's. It's an interesting story and those interested might wish to check out the book Junius and Joseph: Presidential Politics and the Assasination of the First Mormon Prophet. It's a terribly interesting piece of American history that isn't well known. It is wrapped up in the end of the Whig party and the rise of the Republican party. Abraham Lincoln is involved in the events and ends up getting a very bad reputation among Mormons that lasts for at least 50 years if not more. (He wasn't involved in the assassination of course and I think that the 19th century LDS judgment of his was extremely unfair)

Basically one of the many problems of the period was that Mormons tended to vote as a bloc. This tended to occur when Joseph and other leading figures promoted a political view and the majority of the church would vote in mass accordingly. Joseph tried to play both sides of the political fence and it came back to haunt him. Basically in the heated political environment of the time having such a large group voting as a bloc posed political problems to both parties. And not just in Illinois.

So that context to John Taylor's comments tends to provide a slightly different insight to the quote. If I'm reading between the lines correctly, the Legislator that Joseph is talking to is discussing why the Mormons all vote as a bloc.

I should add in passing that John Taylor told this story ten years later in General Conference. (JD 10:49) There the question once again is government and teaching correct principles. That was, as I noted in my original post, the earliest I'd been then able to find the quote. It's an interesting discourse that deals in passing with the Civil War that had then just begun.


1: Posted By: Rich Knapton | November 28, 2006 05:49 PM

There was a problem with Joseph’s response and others knew it. The problem is in defining “correct principles.” Joseph could tell them what the ‘correct principle’ was and the members would then vote that way. This was a recognized problem in discussions concerning statehood for Utah. The problem was how to allow Utah to become a state and at the same time keep it from voting as a block. Brigham Young settled this in a very straight forward way. He sent officers of the Church to go door by door and told every other household to vote Democrat or Republican. This came to light in a study of voting patterns in Utah. What they found was that voters tended to vote as their parents voted. As that was followed backward in time it was discovered that a great majority of the ancestors of current voters first began to vote for Republican or Democrat at the instigation of Brigham Young.


2: Posted By: Clark | November 28, 2006 06:11 PM

Yeah, Alexander's Mormonism in Transition had some fun stories about the drive for statehood as well. People were more or less appointed to run for either party by the Church to ensure there was diversity.

They were really paranoid about the return to bloc voting in some ways, even though arguably in many ways Utah still does it. (Come on, we're talking about a state where Clinton came in third behind Perot!) It obviously doesn't always vote Republican. Utah County went Democrat in the 90's for instance. But typically that was because of people really disliking the Republican nominees. The only reason it has a Democratic congressman at all right now is that he covers Salt Lake City which isn't that Mormon anymore and the guy is among the most conservative Democrats on Capitol Hill.

3: Posted By: Jared* | November 28, 2006 08:33 PM

As I understand it, the problem in Illinois was not just that the Mormons voted as a bloc, but also that their support could shift based on whichever candidate was thought to be most favorable. Thus, neither party could really rely on them. You had Joseph promising support for one candidate and then switching.

We emphasize the persecution aspect of our history, but on the other hand our rough treatment is understandable. A religious leader who is seemingly untouchable by the law, has political and military power, and whose associates are breaking from him over sexual scandal--it was a recipe for disaster. I don't think we would tolerate it of any other group, and in retrospect it isn't surprising that Illinois didn't tolerate it of us (even if we had the best of intentions).

4: Posted By: Clark | November 28, 2006 09:12 PM

Yes, the straw that broke the camel's back was Joseph telling Cyrus Walker that he would vote for him which also helped Joseph get the state to authorize the laws for Nauvoo that he wanted. Joseph then gives a sermon where he says he never had a revelation on who to vote for and that he was voting for Walker because Walker was a friend. He then says (quoting from Wicks and Foister now) Walker, "withdrew all claim to your vote and influence if it will be detrimental to your interest as a people." He then says that he never authorized William Law to tell everyone who he (Joseph) was going to vote for. He finally says, "Brother Hyrum tells me this morning that he has had a testimony to the effect it would be better for the people to vote for Hoge...I never knew Hyrum to say he everr had a revelation and it failed. Let God speak and all men hold their peace."

Hyrum then gets up and gives his views on the election.

The Mormons then vote, pretty much as a bloc, for the Democrat over the Whig. Except for Joseph who voted as he promised.

Walker was leading in most of the other counties but Nauvoo's population ends up giving Hoge the election.

There were a few other bloc voting examples but I think the real problem was that the Whigs and Democrats were trying to play typical politics. i.e. promise gifts for votes - the same sort of thing that goes on today. However the Mormons weren't playing by the expected rules and couldn't be controlled.

I think that while the bloc voting might have still led to problems the playing of the sides for the power of Nauvoo in Illinois really made people angry. Add in the natural distrust of the LDS faith as not a "normal" Christian sect and then the rumors about polygamy and so forth and the events that led to the martyrdom were pretty much to be expected.

5: Posted By: J. Stapley | November 30, 2006 12:38 PM

There were several comments by Church leaders in the Brigham Young Journal Book D that were scathing accusations against Lincoln. Definitely no Love there. Then after the turn of the century, the first centralized RS Lessons (1914) on civics have a section that illustrates how "Washington and Lincoln merit respect and love."

I've read elsewhere that you had liked Junius and Joseph. Have you reviewed it? I'm interested in your take.

I believe the 1851 MS is the earliest that we have.

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