On February 26, 1840, Douglas Miln, a Scotsman visiting St. Louis, Missouri, wrote a letter to Reverend William Beckett of Aberdeen, Scotland. This document, 3¼ pages on 10″ × 16″ paper, has been preserved in the collections of the Filson Historical Society in Louisville, Kentucky. Specific details, such as whether the letter ever made its intended transatlantic voyage and how it ended up in this particular repository, remain unknown. It is clear, however, that during his sojourn in St. Louis, Miln penned keen observations of antebellum American culture, including a lengthy and straightforward description of early Mormonism. Consequently, the document reveals how The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was being discussed and exemplifies how geographically vast such conversations could be. Even more significantly, in a culture where Latter-day Saints struggled to gain a fair hearing, Miln’s document, which relies heavily on John Corrill’s history of Mormonism, suggests that the Saints sometimes succeeded in telling their own story to fair-minded inquirers. The letter is reproduced below with permission of the Filson.
Throughout much of the nineteenth century, St. Louis stood at the center of “trade and culture for the great western waterway system of the upper and lower Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois Rivers.” River traffic made St. Louis less dependent economically on rural Missouri and Illinois and caused the city to thrive despite the economic downturn that began in 1837.1
Miln used his letter to assess American society and culture. He wrote of taxes, mob violence, and slavery, but used most of his ink to detail the religious diversity so prevalent in the American republic. He noted the stunning variety of denominations, described the religious practices of slaves, and compared Scottish and American Presbyterianism, but he seemed most interested in describing Mormonism. His fascination with the array of America’s denominational choices may have been influenced by Scotland’s simultaneous experience with religious diversity.
Beginning in the eighteenth century, rapid industrialization and resulting urbanization revolutionized Scotland’s political, economic, and social landscapes. Poverty, disease, crime, and infant mortality rates increased, and religiosity waned. Many Scots were discouraged about the Presbyterian Church, Scotland’s national denomination, which seemed “unable or unwilling to use its influence to mitigate the evils of the industrial age.”2 One result of the economic and social upheaval, according to historian Callum Brown, was a “belated but very rapid and extensive process of pluralisation in religion.”3
In the 1820s and 1830s, Edward Irving and other Scottish clergymen fostered a revival; they believed Presbyterianism had strayed from primitive Christianity. Such meetings drew large crowds, evidencing a dramatic religious shift. The groundswell became strikingly evident in 1834, when the Evangelical Party gained the majority of seats in the General Assembly for the first time in a century. As a result, a long debate ensued, known as the Ten Years’ Conflict.4 By May 1843, Presbyterianism had fractured. More than four hundred ministers defected to form the Church of Scotland Free.
Mormonism joined the increasingly varied religious scene in Scotland during this tumultuous decade. Although Miln and probably Beckett were not likely aware of it, LDS missionaries were active in Scotland as Miln composed his letter. In the mid-1830s, Scotsmen Alexander Wright and Samuel Mulliner had joined the Church in Upper Canada. In 1839, they sent a copy of Parley P. Pratt’s Voice of Warning to relatives in their homeland, where they were subsequently called to serve as missionaries. By May 1840 they had baptized eighty individuals. Shortly thereafter, Orson Pratt organized in Paisley the first Scottish branch of the Church. By the end of the century, ten thousand Scots had embraced Mormonism; approximately half of this group emigrated to Utah.5
Writing in the middle, if not the midst, of the decade-long religious dispute in Scotland, Miln described early Mormonism at great length. He had been unaware of this church before his visit to the United States, but in St. Louis, a location that historian Stanley Kimball dubbed as “the most important non-Mormon city in Church history,” knowledge of the Church came readily to hand. For example, newspapers in St. Louis often detailed the conflict between Mormons and Missourians. Some Latter-day Saints appear to have sought employment and safety in St. Louis after an October 1838 executive order from the governor demanded that they leave Missouri. Many residents of St. Louis expressed sympathy and support for the Mormon exiles. Dissident Mormons also found a safe haven in St. Louis. Later, the burgeoning city served as an “emigrant center” for those migrating west.6
The only obvious source of Miln’s knowledge of Mormon history and doctrine is John Corrill’s fifty-page booklet titled A Brief History of the Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints, (commonly called Mormons;) including an account of their doctrine and discipline; with reasons of the author for leaving the church.7 Much of what Miln wrote about Mormonism is quoted verbatim from Corrill’s work. An early convert to the Church, Corrill served in the bishopric in Missouri and was frequently asked to keep church records. He accepted an assignment to write a church history after dissident John Whitmer refused to give his account to Joseph Smith.8 But as the title of Corrill’s booklet conveys, he too was disaffected from Mormonism by the time he filed for copyright on February 11, 1839. He was excommunicated on March 17.
Corrill’s history is richly autobiographical. The first three chapters detail his conversion; the last chapter describes his alienation. Chapters 4–15, meanwhile, depict the divine origin and contents of the Book of Mormon, followed by a discussion of Mormon doctrine and some history. Taking Corrill’s descriptions at face value, Miln quoted freely from the central part of the booklet, saying nothing of Corrill’s more personal chapters.
Miln’s evenhanded treatment of Mormonism is highly unusual given how controversial Mormonism was in antebellum America. Reports of the Church in newspapers and correspondence were often charged with emotion and overwhelmed by the vituperative editorial tone of the times. There is none of that in Miln’s report, even though he clearly had Corrill’s more emotional material at his disposal. By choosing to so straightforwardly cite Corrill’s admittedly miraculous history, Miln becomes an example of a seldom-seen approach to Mormonism in the antebellum period: a truly dispassionate inquiry into the origins and significance of Mormonism.
What follows is a verified transcription of Miln’s letter, including original spelling, syntax, capitalization, and punctuation. Angle brackets <like these> enclose words added by Miln. Strikeouts
like this indicate words or characters deleted by Miln. Square brackets [like these] indicate editorial insertions for clarification. Bolded type like this indicates words quoted directly from John Corrill’s history, described above.
Letter from Douglas Miln to William Beckett
St. Louis, 26th February 1840
My Dear Sir,
I was duly favoured with your kind letter of the 30th September & 10 October, for which I tender you my best thanks. I value it more highly as it was a volunteer one. I not having fulfilled my part of the agreement in writing you first. I have also to apologize for not acknowledging its receipt sooner, but really the state of money matters has been such in this country, since I received it, that my whole time & energies have been occupied in the business in which we are engaged.9 I trust however that this will be a sufficient excuse and I shall endeavour to make up by length & quantity for the time I have apparently negl[e]cted you.
An immense distance now separates us, and I think it would be putting pen ink & paper, not to mention time, to the worst possible use, to employ them in the discussion, of party or political questions and I shall not therefore make any comparison between this, & the Country of my birth in a political view, but simply remark that the more I see and compare this “The Land of Freedom!!!” with “the Aristocracy ridden & taxed devoured land” I have left behind the more I become confirmed in and the more I cherish my old Tory notions.10 The Land of Freedom forsooth Wherein does the freedom consist? In the freedom with which mobs commit their riots—In the freedom of the Citizens abusing, robbing, stabbing, & murdering one another with impunity—In the freedom with which every unpopular law is broken, the Mobbocracy well knowing that the Government dare not enforce such, however just—In the freedom of the rich tyrannising over the poor—and in the freedom which the political parties in power have of enriching themselves & their friends & harassing their oponents—and “therefore. I’ll none of it.”11 The Government is weak & imbecile—It cannot, nor dare not enforce its own decrees, but must run & shift with every blast of popular clamour, however unwise & impolitic that course may be. This follows as a natural consequence seeing that the political & numerical majority of the country are one, and that the Rabble is the most numerous body. The Aristocracy (for it is absurd to speak of all men being free & equal) are the worst in the world, for they consist wholly of the rich. They have acquired riches, perhaps not by the most honorable means & they take pride, & glory in their illgotten gain, scarcely concealing their contempt & scorn of the poor. If a Stranger came amongst them, the question is not Is he honest or respectable? But it is Is he rich? Every one strives to be of this favoured class, and thinks himself better than his neighbours, and thus a mean jealousy & hatred continually subsists between them, which destroys all pleasures arising from social intercourse. You may think, and it may be the case, that I put the worst view before you or at least that I exaggerate but I am sorry to say it is correct in the main feature. There are [no] doubt many, very many, who act and do other wise, but these are only exceptions. It is true a man in this country, however lowly he may have been born, or however poor, may raise himself to, and fill the highest offices in the State but, how are these honors acquired? Seldom by honest & straightforward conduct. Every means however base & muckling12 and every plan however deceitful is put in requisition to obtain the object in view, but I have said enough, the very thought of such things is debasing.13
You say I am becoming the apologist of American Slavery. I solemnly deny the charge. No one would more gladly see or use
their<his> endeavour to procure the abolition of Slavery than I. By saying that it existed only in name, I meant that Slavery did not bear that hideous and distorted form, set forth by Mr. Thomson and the other Abolitionists of Britain.14 The slaves here are well clothed, well fed, and appear to be happy[.] they dress as well, if not better than the whites and far better than the free Negroes[.] If they are sick they are well attended to, and in their old age when unable to work they are protected and cherished.15 At their work they are forever singing—the jest and the laugh is constantly in their mouth and they are as merry as the day is long.16 Some with whom I have conversed tell me that they would not accept of their freedom if their masters would give it them.17 In the city they have a church of their own & a preacher of their own colour.18 Those who belong to this church are of the Baptist persuasion but many of them attend the churches of their owners, where they have a gallery set apart for themselves.19 Selling is the worst feature of Slavery, but then it is generally the worst Slaves who are sold—no one will sell or part with a good or well behaved servant.20
By the bye speaking about selling human flesh—what do you think of selling a white man such a thing now & then occurs here, and I think it would be a good thing if something similar were done in Britain.21 When a person in this country is convicted of vagrancy and has no visible means of supporting himself, his services for 6 months are sold to the highest bidder—a much better and less expensive plan, in my opinion, than sending him to prison. Since my arrival here some four or five of these sales have taken place—the last was on the 15th instant when a vagrant or loafer, as the term here is, of the name of James Clark was sold. What price he brought or who bought him, I have been unable to learn but I understand that his predecessor was purchased for the mighty sum of fifty cents about 2/3d sterling.22
I now turn to a more pleasing and I have no doubt especially to you a more interesting subject—religion. In this small city containing only about 20,000 Inhabitants the number of religious sects is incredible.23 We have Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, two different sects of Presbyterians, two of Methodists, Baptists, Unitarians, Jews & some others whose names I forget, besides a good number who attend no church & make no professions as also <professed> Deists and Infidels. The most numerous as they indeed are in all the <South> Weste[r]n States are the Catholics. The next are the Presbyterians—the third in numbers are the Episcopalians—the Baptists, Methodists & Unitarians are about equal & the Jews are also pretty numerous—the Presbyterians as I have before mentioned are divided into two sects and style themselves First Presbyterians & 2nd Presbyterians but the difference in their peculiar tenets I have been unable to discover.24 The 1st are the most numerous of the two, & have two churches—the latter only one. The Church which I attend is the 2nd Presbyterian of which the Revd. M. Potts is pastor.25 They are altogether different from those of Scotland. The Totalism is made a church question & one cannot be a member without joining that society. Convi[vi]al parties, Cards, Novels, The Theatre, and the innocent dance are also forbidden. Likewise cooking & other such things on Sunday. If a member is known to have committed any of these enormous sins, he is first reprimanded and if the offense is repeated, expulsion follows. This appears to me to be “righteuos overmuch.” M. Potts is a good preacher, as long as he keeps teatotalism, Novels, the Theatre & but once he touches on these things he is apt to get into extremes. I cannot say I like them—and I often feel inclined to attend the Episcopal Chapel. The other sects are I suppose similar to those of the same persuasion at home but they all seem more or less inclined to fanaticism—In fact they seem rather to be acting hypocritically than under the influence of true religion.
The different religious sects in this country are innumerable and new ones are springing up every day. There is one sect which I believe you have not heard of, at least I never did until my arrival here. they call themselves “Mormons” or “Church of Christ latter day saints.”26 Their origin is said to be thus—Sometime in 1825 one Joseph Smith Junior was informed by an angel that there was a valuable record concealed in the earth and that the time had now arrived for it to be brought forward & published to the world.27 After being warned several times he went to the place pointed out by the Angel & found the record engraved on leaves or plates of gold-fastened together by rings. These plates were about 6 by 8 inches square and very thin. They were carefully enclosed in a stone box provided for that purpose, which Smith broke open. After he obtained the plates and before he left the place he began to contemplate the vast riches he would acquire by their means. While thus thinking and contemplating upon the subject, the Angel hid the plates from his view and chastised him for his wickedness in acting contrary to the commandment for the Angel had informed him that it was for the bringing about of gods purposes in the salvation of his people that the Lord gave him access to the plates, but as he thought to become rich & aggrandize himself, that therefore he should not obtain the plates again until he had repented of his folly. About two years elapsed before he again got possession of the plates—after which through much difficulty on account of persecution & poverty, he translated them by degrees, with the assistance of others who wrote as he dictated.28 One Martin Harris who contributed much towards the publication of the Book, drew off several of the characters written on the plates which were said to be the reformed Egyptian and took them to the learned in New York to see if they could be translated but he was requested to bring them the plates, which Smith was forbidden to do of the Lord, but was commanded to translate them himself which he did by the help of what he calls the Urim & Thummim—two stones set in a bow and furnished him by an Angel for that purpose. After finishing the translation the plates & stones of Urim & Thummim were again taken and concealed by the Angel for a wise purpose and the translation was published to the world 1829 & 1830.29 I have obtained a copy of this Book, it is about the size of a common pocket bible & contains 620 closely printed pages—its title runs thus
“The Book of Mormon: An account written by the hand of Mormon, upon plates taken from the plates of Nephi. Wherefore it is an abridgment of the record of the people of Nephi; and also of the Lamanites; written to the Lamanites, who are a remnant of the house of Israel; and also to Jew and Gentile; written by way of commandment and also by the spirit of prophecy and of revelation. Written and sealed up and hid up<unto>the Lord that they might not be destroyed; to come forth by the gift and power of God unto the interpretation thereof: sealed by the hand of Moroni and hid up unto the Lord to come forth in due time by the way of Gentile: the interpretation thereof by the gift of God. An abridgement taken from the book of Ether: also which is a record of the people of Jared: who were scattered at the time the Lord confounded the language of the people when they were building a tower to get to heaven: which is to show unto the remnant of the House of Israel what great thing the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever, and also to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God manifesting himself unto all nations. And now if there are faults, they are the mistakes of men; wherefore condemn not the things of God; that ye may be found spotless at the judgment seat of Christ.”
In the course of the translation, the plates were shown to eleven persons by the special command of God—three of whom had it manifested and shown to them by an Angel from heaven who declared the truth of the book and the other eight saw the plates and handled them, and all were commanded to bear testimony to the world of the truth of what they had seen and handled—their affidavits are therefore publis[h]ed in the end of the book. The Book of Mormon contains an account of the posterity of Joseph who was sold into Egypt. It gives the history of their journey from Jerusalem across the ocean to this land (America) and their settlement here, with their manners, customs wars and more especially their religion, which was the same as existed among the Jews both under the law of Moses which they brought with them and also the gospel after Christ in its purity.
The Mormons believe in the same God, in the same Saviour and in the same Gospel that other professions do and they believe as firmly in the scripture of the Old and New Testaments as any other people. They look upon their new revelations only as bringing about the fulfilment of the Bible. The main difference between them & other professions is that they believe rather more firmly in the promises of God, especially those that require great faith for their fulfilment. They believe on the subject of prophets, prophesying and the gifts of revelation in modern times. They believe in and constantly practice the
ylaying on of hands & praying for the healing of the sick, and if unsuccessful they blame the patients want of faith. They believe that baptism by immersion is for the remission of Sins & the ylaying on of hands for <the gift of> the Holy Ghost.
Smith gives out that he is and is believed by the others of the sect to be a prophet He receives revelations direct from God, Consecrates High Priests, Bishops, Priests, Elders, Teachers and Deacons—and dispenses his gifts by the laying on of hands.
Soon after the publication of the Book of Mormon they increased rapidly & emigrated in a body to this State. Great numbers flocked to join them and the surrounding Inhabitants grew jealous of their encreased power & strength and persecuted & harassed them. One of the High priest after the order of Melchisedeck (for they have different grades of priesthood) at a fourth of July oration stirred up the people to resist & follow to their houses, any, who would abuse them, and to make it a war of extermination to one or the other party.30 These feeling were much fostered & party spirit at last grew so high that at the next election, when one of the Mormans & another citizen quarrelled—sides were taken and a general conflict ensued. This affray increased the excitement on both sides and meetings were held at which very inflammatory speeches were delivered. At length the Mormans declared war & took the field in open<& armed>defiance of the laws of the state. They had a company organized called the Destructionist whose commander was named the Destroying Angel. This companys duty was to burn & destroy whomsoever and whatsoever fell into their hands. Several battles took place sometimes with success to the one party and sometimes to the other. The Governor of Missouri was at last obliged to call out all the force under his command and after a severe conflict the Mormons were driven out of the state. They have since taken refuge in Illinois where they still remain. They are now peacable & are increasing rapidly in numbers & wealth. On the 6th of April 1830 they numbered but six members but now they are estimated at from twenty to thirty thousand.
In relation to church matters at home, I am glad that you are in so prosperous a condition and hope for a long continuance. The new Entrance, railing & Gate I have no doubt will improve the appearance of the Relief Church very much but I am afraid it is much in the same state as the Irishmans gun, requiring a new Stock, a new lock and a new barrel. The present site & building is a great drawback to your success but I hope that by the time I return to Aberdeen that this will be remedied. The Churches on the whole in this country are mean on the outside but inside they are elegantly fitted up with mahogany sofa seats & they are rather too comfortable for they make one feel inclined to take a nap. They want however the solemnity & gloomy grandeur of our old Gothic Churches.
In regard to my own personal affairs—I am weal, stout, & hearty, have never been better in my life and <am> fatter than ever I was—the climate seems to agree with me well and of course I will also try & do my utmost to keep on good terms with it—The cold this winter I am told has been more severe here than it has been known for many years past.31 The winter is now nearly over, the rivers are beginning to open, & business is becoming brisk. Steam Boats are puffing away at a great rate, the streets are groaning under the weight of the heavily laden wagons.32 Emigrants are arriving & the streets are crowded, yea almost impassable.
Expecting to hear from you soon and again thanking you for your letter
and kind wishes
My Dear Sir
Yours very sincerely
Douglas E. Miln
P.S. I saw your Brother at Toronto several times, but I had only the pleasure of seeing Mr. Beckett once—the night I spent at their house—but you know or at least have heard of such a thing as love at first sight. When you write them, be so kind as send my best respects. D. E. M.
paid Single Sheet
The Revd. William Beckett
22 S. Andrews Street
Via New York & Liverpool