photo credit: Doug Lloyd

President Boyd K. Packer’s discourse during the last session of general conference seems, at first glance, to be a loosely-related collection of historical stories related to the patriotism of the early members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Reading between the lines, however, I believe that there is a powerful message to be told regarding the political loyalty and sentiments of the Lord’s people in America.

Having this context and additional insight is crucial if one wishes to understand the implications of President Packer’s words. In three separate occasions in his remarks, he refers to the importance of understanding the purpose and meaning of the Saints’ patriotic celebration:

  1. "It may seem puzzling, incredible almost beyond belief, that for the theme of this first celebration they chose patriotism and loyalty to that same government which had rejected and failed to assist them. What could they have been thinking of? If you can understand why, you will understand the power of the teachings of Christ."
  2. "If you can understand a people so long-suffering, so tolerant, so forgiving, so Christian after what they had suffered, you will have unlocked the key to what a Latter-day Saint is."
  3. "If you can understand why they would celebrate as they did, you can understand why we have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, in the principles of the gospel."

Despite affirming on three separate instances the importance of understanding why the Saints were behaving in such a manner, President Packer offers no explanation save for a brief reference to their being anchored to revelation. That insight is left up to the inquisitive reader and researcher. I was fortunate enough to be pointed in the right direction by a friend, and I now share with you what I believe to be the context behind President Packer’s remarks, and the information necessary to understand why these suffering Saints were lavishing the fundamentals of American government with pomp and praise.

The context for this talk can be found in the footnotes, where in five instances President Packer sources a biography of Lorenzo Snow, written by his sister, Eliza. It is here that the patriotic celebration on the two year anniversary of their arrival in Deseret is recorded, documenting in detail the parade and ceremony President Packer mentioned in his talk. The speech given during this event was by one of the “twenty-four aged sires”, an Elder by the name of Phineas Richards. A couple lines of this address were cited in passing by President Packer, but after reading the entire address (one of the most stirring theopolitical discourses I’ve ever read) one can’t help see in Elder Richards’ words the answer and insight into what the Saints were feeling—the “understanding” President Packer thrice deemed necessary.

Elder Richards’ remarks, and what I believe to be the context behind President Packer’s recent discourse, are as follows (with my emphasis added):

To our honorable President and this respectable Audience:

Respected Fellow Citizens:—Permit us, the aged Fathers in Israel, to mingle our voices with yours on this interesting occasion—an occasion which is calculated to call into exercise the most acute feelings of the human heart.

The circumstance which we this day commemorate, will form a very important item in the history of succeeding ages. Two years ago this day, when President Brigham Young first entered this valley, he completed the most extraordinary expedition ever recorded in the annals of history.

There are sometimes small and seemingly trivial events in the life of man, with which every other period most naturally associates. There are circumstances in the history of nations, which seem as fulcrums, around which everything else revolves. But the period, the circumstance, the event which we now commemorate, is one with which is associated the interests of the world—the salvation of the whole human family.

What must be the feelings, this day, of President Young, the leader of that noble band of Pioneers, while he contemplates the results of the last two years? Realizing the responsibility of his position as the head of a numerous people, persecuted and driven from their cherished homes, where their first leader and Prophet had sealed his mission with his blood; we say, what must have been his feelings when, with a little band, with barely necessaries sufficient to sustain life for a few months, and leaving their families nearly destitute, on lands claimed by faithless savages, he started forth into the wilderness in search of a home for his people, like Abraham of old, "not knowing whither he went?" But he knew that God had called him—he trusted in the arm of Omnipotence, and by the unseen hand of the Almighty Jehovah, their feet were directed across a trackless desert to this place. And who, fellow citizens, with the recollections of the past and the anticipations of the future, would attempt to describe the feelings that on this occasion fill the breasts of your aged fathers?

Soon, like the Patriarchs of old, we expect to be gathered to our fathers. Our bosoms swell with gratitude to the Most High, that after years of tossing to and fro, our feet are once more established upon a land of peace; although exiled by the bloody hand of persecution from the much loved lands of our nativity—our once beautiful homes and quiet firesides, where we inherited the sweets of domestic life from those who fought the battles of the American Revolution, to establish the principles of equity, and a government of peace. From them, too, as a natural inheritance, have we imbibed, and with ardor cherished, the holy fire of patriotism; which, having been constitutionally implanted in our natures, can never become extinct. As easily might the earth be removed from its orbit—as well might yonder sun be made to emanate darkness instead of light, as the glorious principles of liberty be eradicated from our bosoms.

Little did our fathers think, while rehearing to their children the sufferings of the pilgrims who fled from the religious oppression of the Old World, and while recounting the scenes of hardship, privation and death, while passing through the struggle that “tried men’s souls,” to plant the tree of liberty, to establish freedom and equal rights, and to bequeath the laws of protection and republicanism to their posterity—we say, little did they think that we, their sons, would have to cower beneath the hand of oppression—be chased like the roe upon the mountains, and forced to flee before the reeking sword of an unhallowed mobocracy, and hunt a refuge, a hiding place, beyond the track of civilization! Little did they think that so soon the proud-crested Eagle would seek an asylum behind the western hills, and that the blood of the noblest martyrs that ever graced this lower world would remoisten the soil which had so lately been purchased by the blood of heroes!

But, brethren and friends, we who have lived to threescore years, have beheld the government of the United States in its glory, and know that the outrageous cruelties we have suffered proceeded from a corrupted and degenerate administration, while the pure principles of our boasted Constitution remain unchanged. President Joseph Smith experienced and well comprehended this corruption; and, inspired by the Spirit of the Almighty, foretold the sequel, and, with the pencil of heaven, portrayed the impending desolation and ruin; and, prompted by an unction from the upper world, essayed to put forth his hand to preserve the tottering fabric from destruction. "But they have done unto him as they listed"—they have driven the Saints from their midst—they have demolished the bulwarks of liberty and protection, and now the vengeance of insulted heaven awaits them!

In our humble opinion, having been taught by bitter experience, that under a defective administration of political government, religious toleration can exist only in name, it devolves upon us, as a people instructed by the revelations of God, with hearts glowing with love for our fallen country, to revive, support, and carry into effect the original, uncorrupted principles of the Revolution, and the constitutional government of our patriotic forefathers.

To you, President Young, as the successor of President Smith, do we now look, as to a second Washington, so far as political freedom is concerned, to replant the standard of American liberty, to unfurl the banner of protection, to re-establish equal rights, to nourish the broad-plumed eagle that has fled to the recesses of the mountains crowned with eternal snows, to unsheath the sword of justice, to do honor to the memories of the heroes of the Revolution, and to his memory whose blood now cries from the ground in behalf of a loyal, innocent, persecuted and exiled people.

From a long personal acquaintance, and a knowledge of the inflexible, godlike integrity which has characterized your adherence to, and your support of, our murdered Prophet; with the utmost confidence we pledge ourselves to uphold, and, as much as lies in our power, to assist you in resuscitating and re-establishing those glorious principles, while we live; and when we die, we bequeath this pledge as a sacred legacy to our children. As we have inherited the spirit of liberty and the fire of patriotism from our fathers, so let them descend unadulterated to our posterity.

Should not we, who have suffered atrocious cruelties, rise up and redeem our once sacred Constitution from the foul disgrace with which it has been stamped, and the eternal infamy to which it is destined, unless a spirit of philanthropy and independence shall somewhere be aroused for its rescue? Shall not we, fellow citizens, rise up in the spirit of freemen and do honor to the shades of the departed heroes of ’76? Let us show ourselves to be worthy sons of our noble, patriotic ancestors. Let us prove to the United States, that when they drove the Saints from them, they not only drove from their midst soldiers who were bravest in protecting their western frontier, but also the firmest supporters of American Independence. Let us be true to our trust. Profiting by scenes of suffering in the recent school of our experience, let us watch with jealous eye the first encroachment of civil power. Should the infernal monster despotism dare lift its hydra head upon this western Territory, Mr. President, although burdened by the weight of years, and worn down with hardship, privation and fatigue, we, the gray-headed, with you for our leader, are ready at any moment to step forth and unsheath the sword in defense of that which our fathers have taught us to hold dearer than life.

Yes, we are ready; and, as we follow you, we call upon these young men, our sons, to follow us; and sooner lay their lives upon the holy altar of liberty than submit to be crushed by the inquisitorial Juggernaut of oppression. Let the sacred motto "Liberty or Death" be inscribed on every scabbard, helmet, buckler and shield.

Yes, here, with this Territorial government, let a standard of liberty be erected that shall reach to heaven, and be a rallying point for all the nations of the earth. Here let the insigniaed banner begin to be unfurled that shall yet extend its benign protecting wand to every kingdom upon the face of the earth; that while revolution treads on the heel of revolution—while commotion, anarchy and devastation push forward the reckless besom of destruction, and with continuous sweep are annihilating the last hopes of comfort in human life; while in the prophetic language of Scripture, "all faces shall gather blackness," here let the ensign of peace, like a heavenly beacon, invite to a haven of rest, an oasis of civil, political and religious liberty.

From here let peans of theo-democracy or republicanism reverberate from valley to valley, from mountain to mountain, from Territory to Territory, from State to State, from nation to nation, from empire to empire, from continent to continent, till the thrilling echo shall be responded from Behring’s Straits and the straits of Magellan, from Great Britain and the states of Europe, from Africa, from Hindostan and even from China, the proud, self-styled “celestial empire” of the east.

At the conclusion of the address, the assembly arose and shouted three times, “Hosanna! hosanna! hosanna to God and the Lamb, for ever and ever, amen and amen!”

If you do not see the power, symbolism, and meaning of this talk, please read it again. This is, in my opinion, perhaps the most rousing, passionate affirmation of patriotism and liberty since Tom Paine’s Common Sense swept across the nation and enlivened men’s souls 73 years before.

Elder Richards’ remarks, if understood to be representative of the sentiment and political outlook of his fellow Latter-day Saints, signifies a moving and spirited rally around the standard of liberty. Note that several times in this speech, Richards makes reference to the need to restore and revive the Constitutional guarantee of liberty that had been lost—an “apostasy” from the pure principles of government.

Now, why did President Packer base his talk on this speech? Latter-day Saints do not read scripture and study history merely for curiosity. Rather, we have a pressing obligation to learn from the past and be guided in our future actions. President Packer’s choice of this historical event as the basis for his own remarks cannot be interpreted to be without modern implications and parallels. Indeed, his persistent mention of the need for us to understand their feelings in light of their persecutions must be taken as an indication that for those who have ears to hear (or, in my case, friends to email them!), a richer and deeper meaning and correlation exists.

Seemingly referencing Elder Richards’ encouragement that his fellow Saints be “true to [their] trust” as sons of liberty and supporters of the principles established in the Constitution, President Packer commented that “whatever tests lie ahead, and they will be many, we must remain faithful and true.” Such tests can come in a variety of forms, but they share a common goal. In all tests, we must prove faithful to the restored principles of the gospel and fight earnestly on the side of liberty in a war that has been waged since before this world was created.

The obligation of Latter-day Saints to study, understand, support, and defend the “pure principles of our boasted Constitution” has always been greater than that of others, since we know their source. The “glorious principles of liberty” must not “be eradicated from our bosoms,” as Elder Richards stated, for it is our responsibility to ensure their protection, propagation, and augmentation.

In light of recent events, one might argue that the need for those who have a “holy fire of patriotism… constitutionally implanted in [their] natures” has never been greater. One can only speculate with curiosity what the aged sires of 1849 would think of their posterity in 2009, when for many this holy fire has, through the generations, been smothered into dormant embers of apathy and indolence.

But as President Packer remarked, we must anchor ourselves as families and as a church to these principles. The sacrifice of our forefathers is cheapened when we esteem too lightly our inheritance and endowment and refuse to fuel the fire of true patriotism within us. Fortunately, the time is never too late for us to “do honor to the memories of the heroes of the Revolution” and unite our voices with those championing the cause of liberty and constitutional purity against “corrupted and degenerate administration[s]” of our own day.

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