The 10 chapters in this week’s Sunday School lesson (#31) are among the most exciting in the Book of Mormon—at least if you are a 10-year-old boy. They tell the story of Captain Moroni, the battles he fought for freedom, and his “Title of Liberty.”
Of course, even for adults they are important chapters, detailing a struggle for liberty and raising the kind of questions that so many in the world have to face, even today, when addressing what kind of government their country needs. Even in most western democracies, the issues of liberty have at least a peripheral connection to what we choose at the ballot box. After all, if it is possible to choose a democracy, then it must also be possible to choose not to have one!
The issues of liberty were firmly in the minds of the early Mormons, who faced similar issues to those that Captain Moroni faced, although the presentation of the issues in the Book of Mormon sometimes makes them seem easier than the complications that Mormons faced in Nauvoo, for example. And the experience of being expelled from Missouri, as well as the later experience of conflicts with neighbors in Illinois, certainly turned members views in different directions. While Mormons were generally very patriotic, after the expulsion from Missouri and the failure of their petitions for redress to the U.S. Government many Mormons became very pessimistic about liberty in the United States.
Eliza R. Snow is a good example. I’ve found two of her poems that address liberty. The first, which appeared initially in the Qunicy Whig (the Illinois city where Mormons found refuge after their expulsion from Missouri), is quite patriotic. The second, written just six months later, is less so:
Reprinted from the Quincy Whig
By Eliza R. Snow
- “I love the land with banner spread
- And waving gloriously—
- The country where our fathers bled
- To purchase Liberty.
- I love the land where regal lord
- Has never trod the soil:
- Where humble merit meets reward
- And plenty follows toil.
- And when on fancy’s wings, I ride
- To other lands, afar;
- My thoughts return—with conscious pride
- I hail my country’s star.
- To frigid climes, thro’ airy plains
- By fancy’s skill, I stray;
- Where winter, crown’d with night, maintains
- A lengthen’d rigid sway.
- There, human thought, and seas and streams
- Are mutually congeal’d;
- And there existence, almost seems
- With nonexistence seal’d.
- I visit Grecia’s Turkish coasts,
- Long, long in darkness chain’d:
- While superstitions sombre ghost
- O’er intellect has reigned!
- There female character, unfreed
- From bigotry’s control?
- Too well attests Mohammed’s creed,
- That “woman has no soul!”
- I list to music soft and sweet
- Along Liberia’s shore;
- Where Afric sand’s salute the feet
- Of Afric’s sons, once more.
- And while beneath the torrid skies
- O’er burning plains I tread;
- And see the lofty bamboo rise,
- And broad banana spread.
- With thrilling pleasure, oft I gaze,
- Upon the scenery where
- The briliant fire-fly torches blaze
- Upon the midnight air.
- To Asia’s empires, widely spread,
- I decorously resort;
- And with impartial def’rence, tread
- Each high, imperial court.
- And then, with fairy speed, I fly
- To lands of brighter fame;
- And Europe’s prouder standards try,
- And freedom’s banner, claim.
- But O I find no country yet,
- Like our Columbia, dear;
- And often times, I ALMOST, FORGET
- I LIVE AN EXILE HERE.
Times and Seasons,
December 1, 1840
Ode for the Fourth Day of July
By Eliza R. Snow
- Shall we commemorate the day
- Whose genial influence has pass’d o’er?
- Shall we our hearts best tribute pay,
- Where heart and feeling are no more?
- Shall we commemorate the day
- With freedom’s ensigns waving high,
- Whose blood stain’d banner’s furl’d away—
- Whose rights and freedom have gone by?
- Should we, when gasping ‘neath its wave,
- Extol the beauties of the sea?
- Or, lash’d upon fair freedom’s grave,
- Proclaim the strength of liberty?
- It is heart-rending mockery!
- I’d sooner laugh ‘midst writhing pain,
- Than chant the songs of liberty
- Beneath oppression’s galling chain!
- Columbia’s glory is a theme
- That with our life’s worm pulses grew,
- But ah! ’tis fled—and, like a dream.
- Its ghost is flutt’ring in our view!
- Her dying groans—her fun’ral knell
- We’ve heard, for oh! we’ve had to fly!
- And now, alas! we know too well,
- The days of freedom have gone by.
- Protection faints, and Justice cow’rs—
- Redress is slumb’ring on the heath;
- And ’tis in vain to lavish flow’rs
- Upon our country’s fading wreath!
- Better implore His aid divine,
- Whose arm can make his people free;
- Than decorate the hollow shrine
- Of our departed liberty!
- Illinois, N. A.
Unfortunately, this sentiment appeared again following the expulsion from Illinois starting less than five years later. And even in the Utah period, Mormons struggled with their relation to government and to the idea of liberty as they tried to maintain the practice of polygamy. It has only been in the past 100 years that Mormons in the U.S. have turned into “super-patriots” (at least in the view of some) and become strong believers in the American system of government.
Today, we might remember all this—perhaps by reading Eliza R. Snow’s sentiments above—and realize that our understanding of liberty is often influenced by the events in our lives. Perhaps in the future we will once again find ourselves on the other side of the majority view and at odds with the government because of our beliefs. It is all to easy for might to mean that the strong are right and too simple for the majority to assume that their views are moral. Liberty isn’t easy. The same tools that support it can also be used to destroy it. While righteousness is perhaps the only guarantee of liberty, I suspect that the principle of “loving your neighbor as yourself,” and therefore seeking to maintain your neighbor’s liberty even when it is not your own, is the real tool to obtaining liberty, for that is how we lose our liberty so that we can find it.
To be honest, I wish our relationship with the State had retained some of the cool distance of early Mormonism, rather than full-on embracing the authority of the government and becoming “super-patriots”. I hope we can keep our distance enough to be critical of the State when necessary, and find a place in our theology and culture to approve acts of defiance against unjust laws laid down by the government.