Is the Mormon religion the worst religion to have ever blighted the Earth?
Most likely not.
Let us first look to one of the most basic tenets of morality: avoiding the intentional killing of innocent people.
The people who have been murdered on behalf of the religion is a paltry few compared to that of other world religions (Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Hinduism and its offshoots).
Of course, organizational size does need to be taken into consideration. Currently, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints finds its numbers in the millions; somewhere in the ballpark of 14 million, to be more precise. This is far fewer than its fellow world religions, some of which boast numbers greater than a billion. (Catholicism is reputed to be around 1.2 billion.1 Islam is a little big bigger, currently estimated to have close to 1.6 billion followers.2)
But (membership) numbers do not change the bottom line fact that the religion has caused far fewer innocent deaths than its competition. A force of 14 million people could easily cause millions of deaths. This notwithstanding, a person would be hard-pressed to find evidence showing how true-believing Mormons have collectively killed over a thousand people.
We can also examine religious violence in terms of proportional numbers. In this case that would be the number of people in the organization measured against the number of deaths they have been responsible for. In various other idiotic cults (Aum Shinrikyo and the Branch Davidians being notable examples), it is obvious that the number of lives a cult can take from the Earth can equal a very significant percentage of its membership numbers.
I feel a need to explicitly state that the Mormon religion is not the worst religion partly because of the true-believing Mormons out there. Sometimes, they make it sound like “anti-Mormons” hate the Mormon Church more than anything else in the world. Many do not, yet still have enough reason to hate the institution to a severe degree.
It is not the worst religion, or organization, at least when it comes to violence (and perhaps, basic morality as a whole). It can be argued that it is one of the dumbest religious foundations, especially given that it is a modern-day religion and people know more about the world now than they did in the bronze age. That is a slightly different area of discussion and should be discussed separately.
It is still undoubtedly a harmful, unnecessary religion and has the potential to become more of one in time.
Today, when people hear about “religious wars” from whatever source, Mormonism is probably far removed from the equation. War was a part of the Church’s early history, however, and so was the deaths of innocent people, even if was to a much lesser extent than other religions’ histories.
One of the most commonly used examples of this is what happened to Mormons in Missouri. In a place known as Haun’s Mill, 17 Mormons were killed and 13 others were wounded. This was a result of a legally binding extermination order against Mormons.3 “Haun’s Mill massacre”, as it came to be known, was only one part of the 1838 Mormon War in Missouri.
Joseph Smith, Jr. was the man who was ultimately responsible for his people getting killed. He led them into strange, dangerous paths on the basis of personal revelation. Unfortunately, he did not have the dignity to take responsibility for his actions. In response to the lives that had been lost at Haun’s Mill, he said the following: “Up to this day God had given me wisdom to save the people who took counsel. None had ever been killed who abode by my counsel.”4
On a separate occasion, Sidney Rigdon, a counselor in the First Presidency of Joseph Smith, declared that any mob that would disturb the Mormon people would face “a war of extermination; for we will follow them until the last drop of their blood is spilled; or else they will have to exterminate us (…)”.5
Mormons tried to become more America-friendly over time and while the extermination order remained in Missouri until 1976, Mormons became tolerated elsewhere sooner than expected.
It is well-understood by many that Mormons did not eventually conform to the laws of the land out of a respect for America or an interest in rule utilitarianism. They changed their ways because of fear and a strategic desire for survival.
The uniform switch from polygamy to monogamy is the example I will be discussing here. Wilford Woodruff backed off from the Church’s insistence upon polygamy because he cowered before the will of a non-Mormon people. In light of his religion, he Chose the Wrong: that of non-Mormon America over that of God’s people.
This is evident in his “Excerpts from Three Addresses by President Wilford Woodruff Regarding the Manifesto”, which is canonized in the Doctrine & Covenants. (The “Manifesto” referred to is one which declares that polygamy is no longer an acceptable practice within the Church.) He asked: “Which is the wisest course for the Latter-day Saints to pursue—to continue to attempt to practice plural marriage, with the laws of the nation against it and the opposition of sixty millions of people, and at the cost of the confiscation and loss of all the Temples, and the stopping of all the ordinances therein, both for the living and the dead, and the imprisonment of the First Presidency and Twelve and the heads of families in the Church, and the confiscation of personal property of the people (all of which of themselves would stop the practice); or, after doing and suffering what we have through our adherence to this principle to cease the practice and submit to the law, and through doing so leave the Prophets, Apostles and fathers at home, so that they can instruct the people and attend to the duties of the Church, and also leave the Temples in the hands of the Saints, so that they can attend to the ordinances of the Gospel, both for the living and the dead?”
In the sentence preceding this lengthy question, he had the gall to say that the Lord told him to ask the Latter-day Saints this.6 (Like an omnipotent being would just give up one of his commandments because the people of the world did not like it. This flies in the face of most Abrahamic God variants, who would remain steadfast towards their own tenets, even if it meant martyrdom or a loss of rights for the people.)
Even true-believing Mormons have no room to believe that this move was anything other than a matter of self-preservation. Mormons were outnumbered and powerless in this situation. That is why they changed their ways.
Polygamy has not been permanently removed from Latter-day Saint canon either. Despite the Church’s many revisions of its own eternal scripture, a reader can quickly open up the Doctrine & Covenants and see that the infamous polygamy section (Section 132) is still there. On Mormon.org, the question “Do Mormons practice polygamy?” is answered in an official capacity. Here is the answer: “The Lord’s law of marriage is monogamy unless he commands otherwise to help establish the House of Israel”.7 In other words, polygamy can return at any time.
So can war. History shows that Mormonism is clearly not fixed in its nature. It operates in accordance with its own accumulated power. If and when it becomes the world’s dominant religion and insinuates itself into every crevice of mankind, these horrors will have the opportunity to reveal themselves once more. At that point in time, the Church will have no reason to restrain itself from anything it wishes to do.
1. “How many Roman Catholics are there in the world?”. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-21443313
2. Drew Desilver, “World’s Muslim population more widespread than you might think”. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/06/07/worlds-muslim-population-more-widespread-than-you-might-think/
3. Sherrie Johnson, “Persecutions in Missouri”. http://www.lds.org/liahona/1997/06/persecutions-in-missouri?lang=eng&query=haun%27s+mill
4. Henry B. Eyring, “First Presidency Message: Safety in Counsel”. http://www.lds.org/liahona/2008/06/safety-in-counsel?lang=eng
5. Chapter Fifteen: The Church in Northern Missouri, 1836-38 Church History In The Fulness Of Times Student Manual, (2003), 181–192http://www.lds.org/manual/print/church-history-in-the-fulness-of-times-student-manual/chapter-fifteen-the-church-in-northern-missouri-1836-38?lang=eng
6. Wilford Woodruff, “Excerpts from Three Addresses by President Wilford Woodruff Regarding the Manifesto”.
7. “Do Mormons practice polygamy?”. http://mormon.org/faq/practice-of-polygamy. See also Encyclopedia of Mormonism Vol. 3, pp. 1091-1095.