Question: Did Aaron DeWitt, an ex-Mormon in Utah, receive threats to his life from the Church?

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Question: Did Aaron DeWitt, an ex-Mormon in Utah, receive threats to his life from the Church?

DeWitt may have sincerely believed he was at risk, but we must not turn his suspicion (or even paranoia) into historical fact without further evidence

The violent "Utah theocracy" portrayed by critics of Mormonism seems strangely impotent in his case—probably because it is fictitious. DeWitt can show us that at least some apostate Mormons believed the omnipresent anti-Mormon propaganda regarding Utah, but it provides little evidence to substantiate those claims: even when its author claims to be someone who was at risk of that same Mormon violence and intimidation.

DeWitt was a lapsed Mormon, known for a letter to his sister in a time capsule, as well as journals and poems.

Avoiding material helpful to the Church

D. Michael Quinn writes that:

Two years later [in 1875] LDS apostate Aaron DeWitt was a principal witness in the murder trial of Thomas E. Ricks, Cache Valley’s sheriff and high priest quorum president. Accused of murdering a horse thief in his custody as sheriff, Ricks was acquitted. Upon his return to Logan, DeWitt said that ‘the local Mormon leaders had threatened his life,’ and one account even claimed that ‘the [high] council decided to take his life, and appointed a time, but one of them proved traitor and went and told him [DeWitt], so he was on guard and thus saved his life.’

Quinn's citation for this claim reads as follows:

Ian Craig Breaden, ‘Poetry, Polity, and the Cache Valley Pioneer: Polemics in the Journal of Aaron DeWitt, 1869-96,’ Utah Historical Quarterly 61 (Fall 1993): 329, for circumstances of Ricks killing prisoner Elisha David Skeen, and 335 for quote.

Quinn requires the reader to search out the cited article to learn about the circumstances behind the death of the horse thief. If we may judge based upon Quinn's practice through his books on the "Mormon Hierarchy," if these details had painted the Church or its members in a bad light, he probably would have included them. Unsurprisingly, the circumstances are somewhat exculpatory, since the rustler had escaped from jail in Salt Lake, and was allegedly shot while trying to escape from the sheriff's custody:

The presence of cattle and other livestock, such as horses, attracted rustlers, and one of these, Elisha David Skeen, had become notorious within the Mormon communities along the Wasatch Front. Skeen came to Cache Valley in 1860 after escaping from the Utah County jail, which held him on charges of assault and challenging to duel. Thomas E. Ricks, the sheriff of Cache County, arrested Skeen in late June after the rustler had stolen several horses. Betraying "the Polity ruling the land where they stay," Ricks shot Skeen five times as the prisoner allegedly attempted to escape from the Cache jail. DeWitt heard the shots and ran to the scene in time to see Skeen die. [329]

Page 335, also cited by Quinn, describes the prosecution of Ricks as "overzealous," a detail which Quinn likewise requires the reader to learn through checking the original source:

In March 1875 Thomas E. Ricks came to trial in Salt Lake City for the shooting death of Elisha David Skeen in 1860. As one of the primary witnesses for the overzealous prosecution, Aaron DeWitt put his life in jeopardy by testifying against Ricks, who lived near DeWitt in Logan. Despite evidence that suggested Ricks's guilt, on March 23, 1875, the jury decided for his innocence, and by March 28 Ricks had returned to Logan and continued unquestioned in his duties as a member of the High Priests Quorum. DeWitt also returned to Logan and soon after claimed that the local Mormon leaders had threatened his life.

DeWitt's inconsistency

Despite DeWitt's claim to be at risk from the Mormons, he was not afraid to publicly oppose the Church and its policies even before the murder trial:

By 1872 DeWitt obviously believed he had given enough of his money and spirit to the LDS religion, felt ready to "live and live upright," and signed a petition against statehood for Utah, a petition that the Deseret News printed. With this his apostasy became open, and the following year DeWitt lent the use of his home and bakery (by now abandoned) which only six years previously he had lent to the Cache Stake quorum—to St. John's Episcopal Church, recently formed in Logan by Bishop Daniel S. Tuttle. [334]

And, despite DeWitt's fears, he had legal protection:

Despite DeWitt's suspicions of Mormon treachery, by 1874 his situation as a non-Mormon began to improve considerably. The Poland Act "transferred to federal officials the duties of the territorial attorney general and marshall; and gave federal judges considerable leeway in the selection of jurors. . . ." Congress had begun to fear the power that the Mormons had consolidated in Utah, and the passage of the Poland Act in response to that concern directly affected the life of Aaron DeWitt. Historian A. J. Simmonds wrote, "In practice [the Poland Act] meant that every potential jury would be chosen from a list that was one-half Gentile or Apostate and one-half Mormon. And on July 23, 1874, Aaron DeWitt was chosen as a Federal venireman in the first jury selection under the Poland Act."23 The gentile community of Cache suddenly found it had political power, power that continued to grow until 1896 and statehood

DeWitt remained in Cache Valley, and ran for election against a Mormon candidate in 1888. He was defeated, but it seems implausible that if the Mormon "Danites" wanted him dead, he would be able to live unmolested from 1872-1888. DeWitt alleges his danger and the risk to his life--yet, he lived for at least 16 years as a known apostate in Cache Valley without suffering harm. He reported no attempts on his life known to him, merely hearsay from "an account" (in Quinn's terminology) who claimed that "the council decided to take his life, and appointed a time, but one of them proved traitor and went and told him, so he was on his guard and thus saved his life" [335]. What Quinn does not tell us is that this report was from Reorganized Church (RLDS) Apostle W. H. Kelley, who certainly had reasons to portray the LDS in a negative light.[1] Kelley also reported that DeWitt carried a revolver "to defend himself against his neighbors." However, the trial had been the following winter--it seems strange that a council able and willing to plot the murder of a man would be stymied by its victim simply being "on his guard" or carrying a revolver (which can hardly have been unusual in that time and place).

Why did DeWitt himself not give such an account in his journal, or before the courts once greater federal power was exerted in Utah? He wrote his sister and included all sorts of claims about Mormon abuses (e.g., the Mountain Meadows Massacre), but everything is second hand. He is a witness to none of it, and if ever there was a time to tell of his own brush with Mormon vigilante justice, this was it. He claimed that "if you did not behave and act the hypocrite, the bishop would send the Danites to use you up and send you across lots to that bright brimstone home we read about." And yet, despite his open disaffection, no bishop or Danites came for Aaron DeWitt.

DeWitt's whole claim (and that of the critics who use him to attack the Church) rests on an insistence that the Church controlled everything in Utah, and could break the law with impunity. How did he manage, simply by being vigilant, to elude such a powerful group for so long--even while a visible and vocal apostate? His continued existence with no first-hand account of a threat to his life is a powerful argument against his claim.

Even a hostile historian grants that most of DeWitt's claims are false

A.J. Simmonds is a historian hostile to the Church. But, as even he notes of DeWitt's letter to his sister:

The bulk of Dewitt's letter is the standard 19th Century Gentile charge against the Mormons— largely dismissed in light of later scholarship—and Dewitt's repetition of the horrors of the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the murder of the Morrisites lend nothing to the historical record except (and it is a major exception) that a pioneer settler of Logan believed them and was moved by them, could accept those stories as basically true and act upon that acceptance—that those stories did not contain any incident that contradicted anything that in the ten years of pioneers between 1857 and 1867 he had learned of LDS Society, of individual Mormons, and of what they were capable either collectively or individually in "defense" of their faith. (emphasis added)

Simmonds (who participated in counter-cultist Ed Decker's Saints Alive Capstone Conference, and published in his anti-Mormon journal) is obviously straining to keep DeWitt's value for anti-Mormon polemic by arguing that these claims were found by DeWitt to be potentially "basically true" and "not contain[ing] any incident that contradicted anything that...he had learned of LDS society." But, Simmonds has already granted that most of these claims were false. Thus, DeWitt's credulity tells us something, but it tells us far more about DeWitt and the process of apostasy than it does the 19th century Mormon frontier.

DeWitt was anxious to condemn the Mormons, and yet he could add essentially nothing new--despite his "familiarity" with the Mormons and Mormon culture, he could add no first-hand account of new atrocities, or even second-hand ones. He had to rely on the same tired accounts that pepper 19th-century anti-Mormon propaganda—which even Simmonds has granted are largely without foundation.

Simmonds ignores that a rational assessment of such charges and claims against a former religious group is unlikely once one has become a confirmed apostate. Simmonds ignores that it was likely DeWitt's hostility to his former co-religionists that made these claims seem true, not their inherent plausibility or consistency with the evidence. DeWitt was also struggling (as apostates in all religious traditions do) to justify himself and his behavior to himself and his sister—he had to explain why he had joined the Church, why he had stayed for so long even though it was a deception, and why he had remained silent or inactive if all the horrors he reported of his former faith were true. His is a classic apostate exit narrative.[2]

Simmonds himself, in his zeal to condemn the Church, likewise falls victim to the same shoddy reasoning.

Notes

  1. Kelley to Joseph Smith, III, letter, 26 June 1875.
  2. See David G. Bromley, "The Social Construction of Contested Exit Roles: Defectors, Whistleblowers, and Apostates," (19-48); Armaund L. Mauss, "Apostasy and the Management of Spoiled Identity," (51-74) in Bromley (editor), The Politics of Religious Apostasy: The Role of Apostates in the Transformation of New Religious Movements (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1998). For example, Bromley notes: "From the perspective of their opponents, Subversive organizations embody quintessential evil and are considered to pose a maximum degree of threat to the established social order. [One sees this clearly in DeWitt's claim that Mormons flaunted the law and could literally get away with murder.]...Because [such groups] are presumed to be so nefarious, the burden of proof in dispute resolution proceedings shifts to the organization [i.e., the Church] whatever the legal formalities....It is the avowed inability of the former member of a Subversive organization to have done otherwise, a claim which is accepted by the oppositional coalition, that distinguishes apostates from traitors....The archetypal account that is negotiated is a 'captivity narrative' in which apostates assert that they were innocently or naively operating in what they had every reason to believe was a normal, secure social site; were subjected to overpowering subversive techniques; endured a period of subjugation during which they experienced tribulation and humiliation; ultimately effected escape or rescue from teh organization; and subsequently renounced their former loyalties....Emphasis on the irresistibility of subversive techniques [and what is more irresistible than being isolated in Utah at risk of Danite murder?] is vital to apostates and their allies as a means of locating responsibility for participation on the organization rather than on the former member."