2:19 PM EDT, August 29, 2013
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has, when you think about it, been a remarkably good sport when it comes to "The Book of Mormon."
As that money-spinning, massively irreverent musical lampooning the Mormon religion and many of its sacred tenets enters its final weeks in Chicago, there have been no LDS pickets outside the Bank of America Theatre, no attempts to organize a boycott, no statements of condemnation nor claims of religious persecution. History shows that other religions satirized by the creators of "South Park" have not always been so generous. But the LDS church even took out an advertisement in the Playbill for the Chicago production. "You've seen the show," the text reads, accompanying a photograph of a hip and attractive young woman, "now read the book."
Several theories are out there as to why the church has taken such a tolerant stance. Perchance its calculation was political: "The Book of Mormon" first opened in New York during Mitt Romney's campaign for the presidency, when the church was keeping a low, supportive profile. Perchance its elders decided, probably correctly, that there was no upside to a protest beyond fanning fevered flames. Maybe the church can genuinely take a joke.
Or perhaps the Mormon respect for freedom of expression is rooted more deeply than most outsiders realize.
Maybe one way to explain what happened with "The Book of Mormon" in 21st century America is to think about what happened with LDS founder Joseph Smith in and around Nauvoo, Ill., during the 1840s.
Indeed, just as "The Book of Mormon" exits Illinois this fall and migrates west, an interesting new Mormon-themed show will start up in the Land of Lincoln. The timing is coincidental, and therefore all the more fascinating.
For those with only a passing interest in Mormon history, the general view is that Illinois did not work out well for Joseph Smith or the Latter Day Saint movement: Smith was, after all, killed on June 27, 1844 by an angry mob that had stormed the jail in Carthage, where Smith was being held. (The LDS church now owns that site.) Although men were tried for his murder, the state of Illinois convicted none of them. Persecution of Smith's followers continued. By 1846, Brigham Young had led the Mormons off to the Salt Lake Valley, with Illinois in the rear-view mirror.
But events this fall will look back at a matter involving Smith, Mormons and Illinois that took place not in 1844, but in 1842 and 1843, when neighboring Missouri twice tried to have Smith extradited from Illinois after somebody fired a shot at Missouri Gov. Lilburn Boggs, and it the authorities reported that the shooter had a connection to Smith. Smith, who understandably did not anticipate fair treatment in Missouri, was arrested in Illinois by officers from Missouri but released after seeking a writ of habeas corpus (a legal action requiring law enforcement officers to show up in court and justify their act of detention).
Later this month, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and the Illinois Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission (both are in Springfield) plan to re-enact Smith's case (there were three Smith habeas corpus hearings) and explore a couple of centuries' worth of the application of habeas corpus, from Lincoln's suspension of the right during the Civil War to the much more recent issues at Guantanamo Bay. Gery Chico, a former candidate for mayor, is the moderator. Following the events in Springfield, there will be a follow-up in October at the University of Chicago's Logan Center in Hyde Park, and there also will be various events in Nauvoo, the town where Smith and his followers settled after entering Illinois. More information is at the dramatically titled website josephsmithcaptured.com.
The stated intent of all these programs is to explore whether or not the court is supposed to be "a safeguard for community values," and whether or not people with polarizing beliefs, lifestyles or value systems can, or should, get a fair trial.
These days, the mostly conservative LDS church generally lines up on the side of "safeguarding community values," of course, though that is an inherently loaded term.
But back in the Illinois of the 1840s, the Mormons were on the opposite side of that equation: After Smith's death, Illinois Gov. Thomas Ford said that he was all for driving the Mormons out of Illinois, on the grounds that their beliefs and actions were too different to have survived in the state. As the events this fall will surely show, Smith and his followers were turning to the courts in Illinois for much-needed protection of their freedoms. They found some satisfaction in the Land of Lincoln. Briefly.
It's a long way from real-life Nauvoo to the fictional South Park, Colo., I suppose. But history here might go some way toward explaining the tolerance that many non-Mormons who have looked into their Playbill at the Bank of America Theatre over the past year have found surprising.
As with any reach into history, it's all terribly complicated.
I asked John Lupton, the executive director of the Illinois Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission, whether he thought that Illinois had been admirably respectful of the rights of Smith and the Mormons, and he pointed out that Smith and his followers represented a big voting bloc (15,000-20,000 people was a lot of new voters, then and now) when they came across from Missouri into sparsely populated Illinois, so political expediency was surely a factor.
Some things about Illinois don't change.
Lupton also noted that Smith's successes came on narrow legal grounds rather than on the merits of his particular situation, as Smith surely must have wished. Still, Lupton said without hesitation, "Missouri was an awful place for the Mormons."
By comparison, Illinois—well, official Illinois—was much more hospitable. Indeed, representatives of the LDS church are taking part in the re-enactments this fall, and historians from Utah have been contributing material and ideas to the inquiry.
There's another interesting parallel, too. Arguably, one of Smith's mistakes, or over-reachings, in Nauvoo happened in 1844 when he ordered the destruction of a printing press that had been used to publish publications critical of his teachings and practices. That caused great offense and deepened Smith's troubles.
That misguided attempt to muzzle criticism surely did not justify what happened to Smith in the end at Carthage, an event that must count among one of the darkest moments in this state's history, when a violent mob undid writs and protections for a minority, a violation of civil rights that other Illinois mobs would echo in the century that followed.
But in the little matter of "The Book of Mormon," those who hold Smith a martyr have taken a much smarter approach to criticism within a free country.
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