Monday, January 4, 2016

Captain Moroni's "Title of Liberty," Jefferson's "Tree of Liberty," and Armed Insurrection

A self-proclaimed "freedom loving" band of insurrectionists grabbed headlines this past weekend by storming the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon. They are, even at this hour, occupying the federal building in protest of what they call "tyranny over land and its resources."

The group is led by Ammon Bundy, a self-styled patriot and Mormon who has fused both his love of God and country into a means of justifying what he calls "a willingness to kill or be killed for my God and my countrymen." Bundy is also the son of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who defied federal restrictions on cattle grazing and is more that $1 million dollars delinquent in fees and penalties for having violated such laws.

Ammon Bundy, like his father, is a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and like his defiant father has used his religion as a means to justify his actions and to even give them divine sanction.  "The main reason we're here is because we need a place to stand," Bundy stated. "We stand in defense, and when the time is right we will begin to defend the people of Harney County."  During that same interview, at least one follower of Bundy invoked Mormon teachings when he told the reporter, "I am Captain Moroni."

The reference to Captain Moroni is no small or trivial thing. After all, Captain Moroni is, according to Mormon scripture, the man who was "angry with the government, because of their indifference concerning the freedom of their country" (Alma 59:13) and as a result threatened to "take my sword to defend the cause of my country" (Alma 60:28). Permit me just a moment to explain this incredibly important and popular figure from Mormon scripture to those unfamiliar with him:

In the Book of Mormon (one of four books that comprise LDS scripture), the story of Captain Moroni appears roughly half way through the book (in the Book of Alma to be exact). Moroni is made Captain over the armies of the Nephites, a group of God and freedom-loving people who have been involved in repeated conflicts and wars with their distant relatives, the Lamanites, who are determined to wipe them off the face of the earth. Captain Moroni, who assumes command of the Nephite armies at the age of 25, is an exceptional figure to say the least.  As the Book of Mormon itself states:
Yea, verily, verily I say unto you, if all men had been, and were, and ever would be, like unto Moroni, behold, the very powers of hell would have been shaken forever; yea, the devil would never have power over the hearts of the children of men. Behold, he was a man like unto Ammon, the son of Mosiah, yea, and even the other sons of Mosiah, yea, and also Alma and his sons, for they were all men of God (Alma 48:17-18).
To make a long story short, Captain Moroni struggles not only in his battle against the outside threat of the Lamanites, but he also struggles against the government of the Nephite nation itself, which has become corrupt over time. To help combat this evil, Captain Moroni, in his finest hour, stood defiant against the political leaders of his day.  One particular political figure, by the name of Amalickiah, desires to make himself king of the Nephites and to destroy their Christian religion. In response, Captain Moroni becomes a symbol of Christian and patriotic liberty to his people, causing them to reject the evil intentions of Alalickiah.  Again from the Book of Mormon:
7. And there were many in the church who believed in the flattering words of Amalickiah, therefore they dissented even from the church; and thus were the affairs of the people of Nephi exceedingly precarious and dangerous, notwithstanding their great victory which they had had over the Lamanites, and their great rejoicings which they had had because of their deliverance by the hand of the Lord.
8. Thus we see how quick the children of men do forget the Lord their God, yea, how quick to do iniquity, and to be led away by the evil one. 
9. Yea, and we also see the great wickedness one very wicked man can cause to take place among the children of men. 
10. Yea, we see that Amalickiah, because he was a man of cunning device and a man of many flattering words, that he led away the hearts of many people to do wickedly; yea, and to seek to destroy the church of God, and to destroy the foundation of liberty which God had granted unto them, or which blessing God had sent upon the face of the land for the righteous’ sake. 
11. And now it came to pass that when Moroni, who was the chief commander of the armies of the Nephites, had heard of these dissensions, he was angry with Amalickiah.
12. And it came to pass that he rent his coat; and he took a piece thereof, and wrote upon it—In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children—and he fastened it upon the end of a pole. 
13. And he fastened on his head-plate, and his breastplate, and his shields, and girded on his armor about his loins; and he took the pole, which had on the end thereof his rent coat, (and he called it the title of liberty) and he bowed himself to the earth, and he prayed mightily unto his God for the blessings of liberty to rest upon his brethren, so long as there should a band of Christians remain to possess the land— 
14. For thus were all the true believers of Christ, who belonged to the church of God, called by those who did not belong to the church. 
15. And those who did belong to the church were faithful; yea, all those who were true believers in Christ took upon them, gladly, the name of Christ, or Christians as they were called, because of their belief in Christ who should come. 
16. And therefore, at this time, Moroni prayed that the cause of the Christians, and the freedom of the land might be favored.
And a short LDS Seminary video that depicts these events:

This "Title of Liberty," which serves as a quasi-"Star-Spangled Banner," stirs the hearts of the people to the point of remembering God and rejecting the evil of their day,  In short, Moroni wins.

It shouldn't take a Mormon to see just how easy it would be for a family like the Bundy Clan to make Captain Moroni a symbol of modern conservative Christian pride.  Lesser minds usually twist the words of others to fit their respective perverted agendas,

The Bundy fiasco and their misunderstanding of Mormon scripture has reminded me of others who have done the same with similar declarations, which in their minds, are used to sanction violence and/or insurrection of government.

 In 1787, Thomas Jefferson -- who was then living in France -- wrote a letter to his friend William Smith. In the letter Jefferson wrote the following words, which have, from time to time, been quoted to affirm the right of the people to rebel against one's government:
The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it's natural manure. 
Simple enough, right? Well, not quite. And while Jefferson's "tree of liberty" quote has become a favorite of many who oppose the direction of government, the quote has an important and often forgotten context.

As mentioned before, Jefferson was still living and working in France in 1787. At the time, Jefferson was deeply concerned about some of the proposals for the new United States Constitution -- particularly the role of the executive branch, which he saw as being far too powerful. In addition, Jefferson believed that the recent rebellion in Massachusetts -- which became known as Shays' Rebellion -- had heightened the fears of the American elite, causing them to throw their weight behind a stronger executive government.

Shays' Rebellion was essentially an armed rebellion against taxes being levied on Massachusetts farmers. It's leader, Daniel Shays -- who had served as a soldier during the American Revolution -- used the legacy of the American Revolution to garner support for his cause. As a result, scores of patriotic Massachusetts men, most of whom were farmers themselves, resurrected the legacy of the "liberty tree" to fight the perceived injustices of the newly created government. As a result, America's governing class -- and yes, it was a class -- believed that a strong centralized government was the only surefire way to ensure America's future security.

For Jefferson, this was a textbook example of how passions could cloud judgement, creating an atmosphere of panic and fear. As Jefferson states in his letter to William Smith:
Yet where does this anarchy exist? Where did it ever exist, except in the single instance of Massachusetts? And can history produce an instance of rebellion so honourably conducted? I say nothing of it's motives. They were founded in ignorance, not wickedness. God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. We have had 13. states independent 11. years. There has been one rebellion. That comes to one rebellion in a century and a half for each state. What country before ever existed a century and half without a rebellion? And what country can preserve it's liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? 
Simply put, Jefferson understood Shays' Rebellion to be a common and important component of republican government. Without it, the people could not be effectively represented and the communal "lethargy" would eventually destroy the nation. On the flip side, however, Jefferson also notes that the people are rarely if ever well informed (i.e. the Bundy Clan) and as a result will oftentimes make hasty and stupid decisions (again, i.e. the Bundy Clan). It is this communal ignorance -- Jefferson emphasises ignorance and not wickedness -- that Jefferson believes the government must endeavor to remedy. He continues:
 The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. 
The remedy is not suppression or rejection of public discontent, rather persuasion and public discourse.

So would Captain Moroni and Thomas Jefferson support the actions of the Bundy family?   I doubt it, but even if they did I highly doubt that this guy would:


Tom Van Dyke said...

I dunno. They're kinda like the


Ray Soller said...

Saying that "Ammon Bundy, like his father, is a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons)" is problematic, because of the 12th Article of Faith - "We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law."

Ray Soller said...

See the article, Explainer: The Bundy Militia's Particular Brand Of Mormonism, for more about self-titled militiaman Captain Moroni.

See here for an official LDS statement condemning the actions of armed Militia members currently occupying a federal building in Oregon.

jimmiraybob said...

Thanks for the insight Brad. Personally, I would have gone for the park headquarters at Yellowstone NP or Grand Teton NP (go for the siege, stay for the cross country skiing). But that's just me.

Anonymous said...

WWJ[efferson]D? It's always fun--but futile--to speculate about how statesmen from the past would handled contemporary challenges. Jefferson believed that public lands would provide the means to preserve America as a land of yeoman farmers. Selling lands would also provide revenue.

Instead, the US government today seem to want to expand holding of public lands, often for the use of wildlife, effectively forcing farmers and ranchers off their lands.

Anonymous said...

where in the world this suppousely happened? this is ridiculously funny, pure fantasy obviously. lol