Last month, my family was in Nauvoo for a family reunion. One night we watched the Nauvoo pageant. As Joseph Smith is headed to Carthage, we are told that he goes there on “trumped up” and “false” charges. This was not entirely true; he was there for his connection to the Nauvoo Council’s decision to destroy the Nauvoo Expositor’s printing press. The few days we were in Nauvoo, we also went to Carthage and heard the story of the martyrdom multiple times at various historical sites. And I looked at my kids and thought, “Please, please, please, do not absorb the Mormon persecution complex. Please, please, please.” I know what it does and it is not good.
Back in high school I found myself in a conversation with my friend, Ali. She was arguing that Christopher Columbus was not the pious and noble explorer that our elementary school lessons had presented, but that he had done really bad things and that the genocide of Native Americans was wrong.
This was the first time I had heard this argument. Being Mormon, I grew up with lessons that would reference 1 Nephi 13 and surely if scripture said that Spirit of God came down an wrought on a man, then what he did was God-sanctioned and right. So I tried to argue that point.
Ali countered by explaining more of the atrocities of native genocide and colonization. I, having no foot to stand on grasped the last thing I could, “Well, the Mormons were persecuted and we were kicked out of Missouri and Illinois.” You see I, being Mormon, thought I could turn this conversation towards the suffering of “my” people and make a plea to emotional persuasion.
“Well, I don’t think that’s right either,” she replied. I immediately knew that was poor arguing on my part and we left it.
I am not a descendant of Mormon pioneers; my parents are converts. No one in my family was persecuted for being Mormon. And yet, through Primary, Sunday School, and church pageants, I was fully entrenched in the Mormon persecution complex. And it made me, as the scriptures say, stiff-necked. Because I thought “my people” were so persecuted, I was cold towards the suffering of others. I could not cultivate the charity and empathy I need to be kind to my fellow human beings. And I don’t want that for my children.
When we teach Mormon history, I think it’s important to learn Mormons were persecuted and kicked out of the country. That is bad. Such persecution did give them a common enemy, which helped bind the hearts of the saints together. But I also hope we’ve learned and grown beyond that 170 years later. We don’t need a common enemy to connect us, we have a common friend in Jesus Christ.
Our history is one of persecution, but we are living that no longer. Let our future be one where we say, “We know about persecution. It’s wrong, and we are going to step in and stop it when we see it.”