The term Antimormon refers to a person or organization who actively opposes the mission of the Mormon Church. This is not the same as disagreeing with the claims of Mormonism, or even disliking Mormons. The differentiating factor is that those in the anti-Mormon camp undertake to assault and vilify the Church and its members through books, pamphlets, videos, protests, and internet sites.
Because of the historical consciousness of persecution that Mormons have faced, many Mormons are sensitive, and sometimes overly so, to criticism. Moreover, Mormonism teaches that unity and loyalty to one another are very important. This leads many to believe that any critique of Mormonism or even of prominent members is an attack on the faith and the community. The ideal of unity means that vociferous internal critique can be viewed as disloyal or even apostate. This is not always true.
Antimormon attacks have traditionally come from one of two philosophical orientations: religious movements who view Mormonism as either a threat or a cult, and secular humanists who see in Mormonism a discomfiting paradox of American determination and anti-rationalism, even superstitious belief.
What distinguishes a true anti-Mormon from a mere critic or critical non-believer in Mormonism is that anti-Mormons are attempting to destroy or fight the Mormon Church. These attackers generally follow certain prescribed formulas. They present themselves as neutral, unbiased experts on Mormonism who have a genuine love for the Mormon people, whom they view as benighted and deceived by vicious, hypocritical leaders. Typically they use emotionally charged terms like “cult” and frequently misrepresent Mormon beliefs or else use quotes out of context to make Mormonism appear strange and exotic, the opposite of what is “Christian” or “rational.” They stoke prejudice and even legal harassment, which has followed the Church since the days of Joseph Smith. Many either are or pretend to be former members and using that launching point, describe how they were supposedly duped by the lying Mormons into their Church.
Anti-Mormonism is generally divided into four periods: the initial wave of ad hominem attacks against Joseph Smith by outsiders and bitter ex-Mormons (1820-1846); the exoticizing and orientalizing of Mormonism during the struggle against polygamy (1846-1896), the rise of psychological and naturalistic explanations for Mormon origins (1897-1945); finally, the rise of the anti-cult and conspiratorial denunciations (1946-present). It should be noted that dates are approximate and are limiting since many naturalistic critiques are still written and the anti-cult movement utilizes ad hominem and straw-man attacks frequently. Today, attempts to exoticize Mormons are less effective since growth of the Church has brought many people into contact with them. This requires anti-Mormons to create elaborate conspiracy theories to explain the alleged secret truth about Mormonism.
1820 to 1846: Personal Assaults on Joseph Smith
In the early days of the Mormon Church, most of the attacks centered on Joseph Smith personally. They accused him of everything from money-digging, occultism, laziness, greediness, to adultery. Many ridiculed him for his apparent lack of education and refinement, something Smith generally agreed with. He said on one occasion:
- I am like a huge rough stone rolling down from a high mountain; and the only polishing I get is when some corner gets rubbed off by coming in contact with something else, striking with accelerated force against religious bigotry, priestcraft, lawyer-craft, doctor-craft, lying editors, suborned judges and jurors, and the authority of perjured executives, backed by mobs, blasphemers, licentious and corrupt men and women—all hell knocking off a corner here and a corner there. Thus will I become a smooth and polished shaft in the quiver of the Almighty. …
- ~Teachings of the Prophet Joseph, pg 304
In his personal history, Joseph Smith records that soon after he began speaking of his first vision he immediately began receiving personal attacks and even an attempt on his life. The first concerted effort to discredit him came from a local journalist named Abner Cole who in 1829, stole proof sheets of the Book of Mormon from the printing press and began publishing them in the newspaper under the name Obadiah Dogberry. He ridiculed Joseph and the book, but eventually was forced to stop since Joseph had secured a copyright. In the 1830s most anti-Mormon writings came from ministers and embittered former Mormons who had been offended by a church member or excommunicated for serious sins. The first of these was E.D. Howe’s “Mormonism Unveiled.” Howe, not a Mormon, worked with Philastus Hurlbut, an excommunicated Mormon, to write a muckraking exposé. They gathered false affidavits attacking Joseph Smith and his family and portrayed him as a superstitious, lazy, money-digging trouble maker. Later books and articles continued these charges, though the family and some of their friends from New York tried to refute them. Alexander Campbell, eponymous founder of the Campbellites, later Disciples of Christ, lost hundreds of members to the Mormon Church, including some preachers like Sidney Rigdon and Parley P. Pratt. He wrote “Delusions,” another sensationalist book which tried to claim that Joseph Smith collaborated with others to write the Book of Mormon.
Newspapers across America continued to write sensational accounts vilifying Mormons as the Church was driven from New York to Ohio, then to Missouri, and finally to Illinois where Joseph Smith was murdered along with his brother on June 27, 1844. In Nauvoo, John C. Bennett, a former confidant of Joseph Smith and erstwhile mayor of Nauvoo, was excommunicated for adultery. In retribution he penned “An Exposé of Joe Smith and Mormonism,” and went on a lecture tour ascribing those charges made against him to Smith. Thomas C. Sharp, editor of the Warsaw Signal, a local paper, vilified Smith and the Mormons and even called for him to be murdered. Finally, in 1844, several dissident Mormons published the Nauvoo Expositor which accused Joseph Smith of being a vile sinner who needed to be removed.
1847 to 1896: Mormons as the "Other"
For a time after Joseph Smith’s martyrdom, the Mormons had peace, as their persecutors believed that the movement would die without Joseph Smith. But as the Church continued to grow, the persecutions mounted again. Through the late nineteenth century and continuing into the twentieth century, Mormons, now isolated in far off Utah whither they had been driven by Illinois mobs, became the “other.” They were described as exotic, effeminate, overly sexual, and violent. They became the antithesis to everything considered American. The first of these attacks came from Pomeroy Tucker in his “Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism.”
During this period, Mormons also became stock characters in literary works throughout America and Europe, even in French and German writings. Most of the early novels portrayed Mormons as violent, sex-obsessed men kidnapping hapless women. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used this stereotyped image in his first Sherlock Holmes’ novel, “A Study in Scarlet.” Famous western writer Zane Grey used Mormons, and their “Avenging Angels,” a fictitious group of Mormons seeking revenge, in many of his westerns like “Riders of the Purple Sage.” Others such as Irving Wallace’s “The Twenty-Seventh Wife” portrayed Mormons as violent and adulterous, locking their women away in oriental harems. It is important to note, however, that not all writers wrote poorly of Mormons. Luminaries like Charles Dickens, Sir Richard Burton, and Jules Verne wrote reasonably favorable, though not always accurate, portrayals of Mormons. Still, nearly 60 novels published in the latter half of the nineteenth century portrayed Mormons as villains.
1897 to 1945: The Rise of Psychoanalysis
Two events in the later 1800s changed the way Mormons were viewed and treated. First, in 1890, the Church forbade polygamy followed shortly by Utah’s statehood and subsequent integration into the national economy. Second, Sigmund Freud published his theories on psychoanalysis. While exoticizing and vilifying Mormons continued in the early twentieth century, especially in the new medium of film in which dozens of anti-Mormon movies were made, scholars and others less qualified began to apply psychoanalytic techniques to explain the origins of Mormonism. Bernard De Voto was the first to do this, but the most famous was Fawn Brodie’s, “No Man Knows my History,” a psychobiography of Joseph Smith which tried to show naturalistic explanations for his life and work. She rejected earlier conspiratorial views for lack of evidence and portrayed him as a prodigious myth-maker and profoundly ambitious and capable, possibly self-deluded, charlatan.
1946 to Present: Continuation of the Past and the Anti-Cult Movement
Contemporary anti-Mormon writings and productions have continued to employ the naturalistic explanations of De Voto and Brodie on the one hand, while other groups have reawakened the conspiratorial and sensationalist hate propaganda of the mid-nineteenth century.
The most vociferous critics have emerged from the anti-cult movement which has sought to label Mormonism as non-Christian and dangerous. Most prominent of these have been D. J. Nelson, Jerald and Sandra Tanner, John Ankerberg, and Ed Decker. Some of these, such as the Tanners and Decker, are embittered ex-Mormons who have become evangelical Christians. Their attacks on Mormonism center on trying to prove that the Church is a dangerous, non-Christian cult which has lied about its past. Joseph Smith is still a favorite target as are controversial events in Mormon history like the Mountain Meadows massacre, or the practice of polygamy. Decker’s attacks have been the most extreme and have been condemned even by other anti-Mormon writers such as the Tanners.
These organizations produce books, pamphlets, and movies to assault and isolate Mormons by once again portraying them as the “other.” Some in the anti-cult movement portray Mormons as being behind a vast conspiracy to take over the government, or even the world through alleged secret councils. They frequently make the claim that Mormons publicly teach one thing and then secretly believe something else as a way to lure unsuspecting Christians into their net. It should be noted, that many of these organizations also target other groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics, and Muslims.
With the growth of the internet, webblogs have arisen targeting Mormonism. There are some Evangelical Christian blogs, but most seem to be secular in nature, though often no less sensationalistic than the anti-cult sites. These sites generally do not deal with broader issues like the historicity of the Book of Mormon, but deal rather in personal attacks and bitter accusations. Many contributors cite that they felt lied to or offended by another member of the Church or that they consider Mormons to be foolish and superstitious. Conspicuous amongst their complaints are what they deride as group-think. Secular critics often accuse the Church of forcing conformity or discouraging freedom of thought and expression. All too frequently, these attacks become personal diatribes launched at leaders and defenders of the Mormon Church.
Mormons have historically avoided outright confrontation with critics, but have instead focused on sharing their message and allowing their audience to choose between the two sides. However, over the years, The Mormon Church and its members have participated in debates and even published books and articles geared for non-Mormons to explain the truth about Mormonism as experienced by those who live it. In the mid-nineteenth century, President Brigham Young sent men to various cities to found newspapers to present the Church’s teachings and positions. John Taylor founded The Mormon in New York City in 1855, Erastus Snow founded the The Saint Louis Luminary in 1854 in Missouri, and George Q. Cannon founded the The Western Standard in San Francisco in 1856. While The Western Standard continued until 1956, most of the others lasted only a few years. Today, the LDS Church has a newsroom on its website devoted to dispelling myths and inaccuracies in the news.
Despite these various, isolated attempts, Mormon apologetics really got underway with Hugh Nibley, a professor at Brigham Young University whose broad erudition and unique insights opened up new frontiers in studying Mormon history and scripture. He was among the first to seriously study the Book of Mormon as a historical document and likewise defended the Book of Abraham with his knowledge of ancient societies and Egyptian culture. While subsequent research has shown that some of his conclusions were wrong, he nevertheless is responsible for inspiring many more Mormon scholars to seriously defend Mormonism with scholarly acumen. Since then, FARMS, the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, was established to study Mormonism in relation to ancient Christianity and Judaism. FAIR, the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, was established to more broadly defend the claims of Mormonism. With the growth of the internet, more and more websites have been created by Mormons to defend their beliefs and respond to critics.
This article has touched only superficially on the various methods and motives behind attacks on the Mormon Church. The sites listed above deal with the many various charges and concerns more specifically. Fundamentally, Mormons believe that each person has the agency to choose what they will believe and the Mormon Church invites everyone to read the Book of Mormon and the writings of the modern prophets for themselves and decide. The Book of Isaiah says of those who attack God’s faithful:
- And in that day shall the deaf hear the words of the book, and the eyes of the blind shall see out of obscurity, and out of darkness. The meek also shall increase their joy in the LORD, and the poor among men shall rejoice in the Holy One of Israel. For the terrible one is brought to nought, and the scorner is consumed, and all that watch for iniquity are cut off: That make a man an offender for a word, and lay a snare for him that reproveth in the gate, and turn aside the just for a thing of nought. Therefore thus saith the LORD, who redeemed Abraham, concerning the house of Jacob, Jacob shall not now be ashamed, neither shall his face now wax pale. But when he seeth his children, the work of mine hands, in the midst of him, they shall sanctify my name, and sanctify the Holy One of Jacob, and shall fear the God of Israel. They also that erred in spirit shall come to understanding, and they that murmured shall learn doctrine.
- ~Isaiah 29:18-24
Mormons believe that the best approach is to present the teachings and truths of Mormonism in a positive manner and allow others to decide for themselves. Those that seek for every imperfection in God’s human servants will find them, but that will not alter or diminish the message of Mormonism.
- Answers to 50 Anti-Mormon questions — FAIRlds
- FAIRlds:Comments on the DVD Jesus Christ/Joseph Smith
- Response to Anti-Mormon critics -- Lightplanet
- Reflections on Secular Anti-Mormonism -- FAIR LDS
- Questions for Anti-Mormons -- Jeff Lindsay
- Misconceptions about Mormons -- Them Mormons
- A critique of antimormonism. -- AllAboutMormons.com
- Spotting an Anti-Mormon Book by Davis Bitton -- FAIR
- FAIR Topical Guide
- Are Mormons a cult? -- Mormanity
- Reflections on Secular Anti-Mormonism -- FAIR
- Historical or Hysterical— Anti-Mormons and Documentary Sources Matthew B. Brown -- FAIR
- Review of Behind the Mask of Mormonism by John Ankerberg and John Weldon -- FARMS
- Do Latter-day Saints Belong to a Cult? -- Jeff Lindsay
- Video:The Fallacy of Fundamentalist Assumptions
- FAIRlds:a refutation of the film, The God-Makersru:Антимормоны