Comparing the Missouri Mormon War with Contemporary Conflicts

UPDATE 11 January 2010: Kenny and Jake Ballentine, two brothers who make films together, have just announced the upcoming release of a new movie ‘Trouble in Zion’, a documentary on the Missouri Mormon War. Several years ago, Kenny Ballentine read the essay attached to the below posting and talked with me about it while making the film. Click here to find out more about their movie.

The 1838 Missouri Mormon War (see LeSueur’s great book) resulted in at least 22 fatalities, millions of dollars worth of property destruction and the displacement of 15,000 people. Fought in a context of fierce rhetoric, sectarian and paramilitary violence, weak governmental authority and a privatization of military force, it actually bears significant resemblance to what some security scholars (e.g. my former PhD supervisor Mary Kaldor) have called the “New Wars.” These contemporary conflicts in places like the Former Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Columbia, Rwanda, Somalia and Sudan are characterized by the targeting of civilians; powerful non-state actors; prolonged, seemingly intractable, hostilities; connections to organized crime; and exclusivistic ethnic, religious and sectarian ideologies.

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Joseph Smith, Jr. as a Warrior Prophet: Messianic Warlordism in Times of State Fragmentation, Economic Disruption and Religious Upheaval

In 1986, in the midst of a violent conflict between the newly installed Museveni government and remnants of the former regime, Alice Auma, a spirit-diviner in northern Uganda believed she was commanded by a Christian spirit called ‘Lakwena’ to lead a military-religious rebellion on behalf of the northern Acholi people and bring about heaven on earth. She claimed:

The good Lord who had sent the Lakwena decided to change his work from that of a doctor to that of a military commander for one simple reason: it is useless to cure a man today only that he be killed the next. So it became an obligation on his part to stop the bloodshed before continuing his work as a doctor.

Alice Auma, assuming the name Alice Lakwena, led a insurgency against the new government, known as the Holy Spirit Movement, which had several early victories before being defeated by the new Ugandan Army. (For more information on Alice Auma/Lakwena and the Holy Spirit Movement, see this book or this article).

Alice Lakwena, as a religio-military commander, stands in a long tradition of Warrior Prophets that extend as far back as Joan of Arc, Guru Gobind SinghMohammed and King David. Warrior Prophets have been particularly prominant in modern Sub-Saharan Africa, associated with guerilla movements in, for example, Zimbabwe and Sudan. In areas of the world where political authority is fragmented and the state does not have a monopoly on the use of violence, savvy and consummate ‘political entrepreneurs’ take advantage of their ability to wield violence to rise to power (and often prosperity) by offering security to people willing to accept their authority and punishing those who are unwilling to do so (For further information, see this book on warlordism in Africa, or this one on Afghanistan). Likewise, Paul Gifford, a scholar of African Christianity, has argued that charismatic and dogmatic religion provides believers with a sense of stability as Africa faces great social, political and economic upheavals in its encounter with modernity.  Warrior Prophets are thus able to capitalize on the dual opportunities created by chaos — people’s perceived needs for 1) a powerful, paternalistic protector and 2) a charismatic diviner who is able to provide assurance of cosmic certainty. They offer the promise of both physical and spiritual security.

It may be enlightening to understand Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of both the Mormon and Community of Christ churches, as having played a similar role in mid-19th century America. His time was one of great political, social and economic upheaval.

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