August 8, 2008

Newell G. Bringhurst: The White Horse Prophecy

In writing their book Mormon Quest for the Presidency, they looked at the "white horse prophecy" issue closely. (10 Mormons have run for president from Joseph Smith to Mitt Romney.) An on-going study on the prophecy is being conducted by the authors. It is a mystery, in some ways "really crazy." More and more information is being discovered by Bringhurst and Foster even now. Many others have helped in looking into this issue including George Cobabe. (As an aside, Bringhurst thanked Scott who brought him kicking and screaming into the 21st century by requiring a Powerpoint presentation.)

What is the prophecy?
Came up during George Romney's, Orrin Hatch's, and Mitt Romney's campaigns in the media. It is among the most controversial "revelations" said to be given 6 May 1843, existence not known until after JS died. A man named Rushton said he was with JS when the prophecy was given, and he is the one who wrote the first known version after migrating to Utah working as a miller, farmer, and stock-raiser. Rushton had spoken of the prophecy often. In the first decade of the 1900s James H. Anderson from the Des News and Arnold G. Juke, witnessed the notarized statement. John J. Roberts preserved the prophecy in his journal as well.

Brief Synopsis:
The prophecy reflects the millennialism of early Mormons. "Great confusion, wickedness, etc. in the end times." It uses the 4 horsemen of the apocalypse as noted in the book of Revelation. Pestilence rides a white horse, war, a red, famine, a black, death, a pale. The four colors symbolize 4 major groups of people thought to be involved in future cataclysmic events.

The White Horse was thought to be the Latter-day Saints who in Utah would be rich and powerful. The pale would be the non-Mormon European descent in the US. The honest in heart would be gathered from them. The red horse was a powerful group playing a powerful role in the last day, acting as guardians protecting the Rocky Mountains. (Some associated with American Indians). The black horse then represented the people of African descent. They would fear being made slaves again, and would flee to overseas to get help and would be a terrible scourge. The government would hang like a thread as fine as silk fiber. If the thread breaks the US government would end. But the prophecy says the white and red horse's combined actions would save the constitution. Only power would be given to the white horse to rebuke nations far off. The final struggle will end in the whole of America being made the Zion of God.

What was the setting?

After JS reviewed the Nauvoo Legion he gave a toast rebuking the enemies of the Church, which was the setting for the prophecy.

What is LDS response?
Most oft-repeated portion talks about the constitution hanging by a thread. This has been quoted over 40 times in which JS and 6 successors have used the thread metaphor or something like it according to Rex. E. Lee and Donald L. Cannon. As early as 1854 BY proclaimed "will the constitution be destroyed? No. It will be held inviolate by this people." He then quoted JS saying the constitution would hang by a thread, etc. He made a similar comment again later.

John Taylor: "when the nations shall be convulsed, we may stand forth as saviours, and do that which will be best calculated to produce the well-being of the human family and finally redeem a ruined world, not only in a religious but in a political point of view." (JD 9:342)

Joseph F. Smith proclaimed that the time would come when the constitution would hang by a thread and the LDS would come to the rescue. Pres. Harold B. Lee also repeated it and asked "why the elders?" Because we alone know by revelation how the constitution occurred, etc. Pres. Ezra Taft Benson talked much about the dangers to the constitution. He said that this people will save the constitution from threatened destruction. The righteous will be rallied and strength will save the institutions of constitutional government.

By contrast, all have denounced most other parts of the white horse prophecy.

Joseph F. Smith and Joseph Fielding Smith denounced the version of the prophecy being circulated as a "preported vision or revelation that proceeds out of darkness, etc." It was characterized as "ridiculous" and "a lot of trash" by Joseph Fielding Smith. "broken sentences from the prophet Joseph Smith that they might have heard from time to time and formulated this prophecy" it is "simply false, that is all there is to it." Bruce R. McConkie agreed in Mormon Doctrine. He called it "a false and deceptive document that has cropped up again and again..." In a document called "How To Start a Cult" he said it refuses to die out among sensation seekers." It has never been accepted by the Church in that line. No authority of the Church has ever once spoken in support of the document. The credibility of the text was never corroborated by the prophet, and he never affirmed or corrected or saw it, etc. Even Duane S. Crowther even hesitated about the veracity of the prophecy, saying he doubted it, but said it "should be used with care and discretion."

Three candidates:
George Romney, 1967 Dialogue interview was asked about the constitution hanging by a thread, He replied that BY in quoting JS meant that sometime the question of whether we proceed on the basis of the constitution would survive, then LDS in the ranks of government would help answer the question. Romney felt the constitution (in the 60s) was being wrested, etc. Mitt Romney said his father didn't believe in the prophecy.

In 1999 Orrin Hatch faced questions about it. In June 1999 he was asked if he received "a divine nudge" to run, inspired by the prophecy. Hatch was blunt in saying "if I had a revelation I'd tell you. I've never spoken with God, I'd be doggone pissed off if anyone said that." Later he said that the Democrats political correctness will ruin the country. Religious freedom is going down the tubes, the "constitution is hanging by a thread." This came in the wake of the Clinton/Lewinsky issue.

Mitt Romney also had to face the prophecy in Nov. 2006 called "White Horse in the White House," some LDS saw it as an opportunity for an old prophecy to be fulfilled. Romney discounted the prophecy noting he hadn't heard his name associated with it, and it is not official Church doctrine. Many things are discussed that aren't official Church doctrine, it is not at the heart of Romney's religious belief, he said. In June 2007 Giuliani sought to tie Romney to the prophecy suggesting that underlying the candidacy was a desire to save the constitution. They hoped it would receive "wide, wide, play." Romney campaign denounced it as an effort to question Romney's faith.

George Cobabe, in 2004 essay, sought to discount it saying it isn't fair to bring up at all. It has been rejected by every president. But the prophecy had persistence, Bringhurst said, and that it would be brought up yet again if Romney would be selected as VP candidate. It also lives on because of persistence with which many LDS to spread it still.

Question and Answer:

Q- Why do you classify yourself as a renegade Mormon?
Bringhurst said he is a liberal bleeding heart Democrat. A "cultural Mormon." He isn't a regular, orthodox LDS.

Q- What are the new findings you found this week in the archives?
How pervasive the He went through a collection of about 30 versions of the prophecy in the archives. Most are hand or type-written versions, showing it was pervasive. Wide circulation caused J F. Smith in 1918 to sepcifically denounce it. It is becoming clearer that it is a product of the late 19th century but it does not reflect the world-views of Joseph Smith in 1843. Also, the prophecy received even wider circulation after it was denounced by JFS in 1918.

Foster: Had been doing background research on the people involved in writing the document, etc. Foster told Bringhurst that it seems this was largely stuff passed on by missionaries. He also passed along a talk by Alvin R. Dyer [which is STILL passed along; I got it in my mission in 2001]. It is part of the missionary culture where the spectacular may cause its dissemination. "Look what I got from elder so and so!" etc. This was somewhat confirmed by the copies Bringhurst recently located, a goodly number of which coming from return missionaries, etc. One of the most quoted versions came from an RM from Samoa.

Q- Comment on how civil war history relates to the prophecy
I dont see a direct relationship between that. D&C says the constitution says that we are not to be held in bondage, etc. (Being in bondage to other countries, too.)

Q-Comment on if the "thread" element predated the written version.
JS made a number of statements expressing his concern about the preservation of our government, though the earliest known mention of the "thread" was BY quoting JS ten or so years later. The idea of constitution existed.
Foster: Personal opinion is that because it was such a well-known comment it was incorporated later into the prophecy to give it legitimacy. Which also explains why it has been so persistent, because it resonates.

Brighurst sees the Constitution as more flexible and malleable. He is optimistic about the current state of things with the election coming up. He thinks they were wise. Foster contrasts by saying he does think they were inspired.

Q- Why does this refuse to die?
Foster- thinks we look at the state of things and feel like things are going badly, we are in difficult times politically speaking, and socially. It is easy for people to put that in framework of evidence for the end days rather than looking for the good, etc. They turn to books on end times, and books by Crowther, etc. It is human nature to try to explain things in a framework or box; the WHP helps them do that. Another reason it won't die is because it has incorporated legitimate parts about constitution, etc. coupled with the added stuff. Mormon folklore and rumors have persistence. Many groups demonstrate this phenomenon.

See also George Cobabe's article on the prophecy in a .pdf from FAIR here.


J. Stapley said...

Did anyone bring up other sources for the constitution-hanging-by-a-thread trope? I don't have time to look up the sermon dates, but from my notes I have several other sources than the White Horse Prophecy. The first is a recollection by James Burgess. See The Words of Joseph Smith pg. 279. There is a primary and contemporary account of a different discourse recorded by Martha Coray which is on page 416 (see also footnote 9). This latter account is also published with a lengthy discussion in the Historians Corner of BYU Studies (1979) vol. 19 no. 3.

LifeOnaPlate said...

J.: I also would have preferred more in-depth analysis of the thread issue. When I do the transcript I'll make sure to note it, but the notes for the most part reflect what was shared on this one as best as I could do.

Kevin Barney said...

j., Newell and Craig pointed out that the thread idea seemed to have a separate existence from the White Horse Prophecy, and may have been incorporated into the prophecy as a way of giving it a certain authenticity.

b., thanks for the wonderful notes!

LifeOnaPlate said...

No sweat.

Anonymous said...

I saw somewhere that Richard L. Anderson played down the theme of the "constitution hanging by a thread" because it was revelant and the one word from the President could bring Mormons to Independence. Anyone know anything about where he said that if he did?

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I meant to say that Richard L. Bushman said that President Hinckley played down the white horse prophecy because it was revelant.

BHodges said...

Afharrod, I haven't heard of this particular argument by Bushman, sorry.

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