Divine Intervention

In 1839, a local farmer defended freedom of speech—then he reconsidered.

Freedom is more prized in new than established churches. The Catholic Church, born under the Jewish/Roman oppression, invented the Inquisition. The Puritans, seeking liberty from a corrupt state church, hanged “witches.” Even Quakers, who prized freedom of conscience, attempted to suppress critical books just a few years after their arrival in Pennsylvania.

A similar transition was made by Edward Hunter, a Chester County farmer and early Mormon leader. In 1839, Hunter defended, to a hostile crowd, the right of Mormon missionaries to speak. Five years later, after joining the church, he helped suppress an anti-Mormon newspaper at Nauvoo, Ill. “I did not care how many papers were printed in the city, if they would print the truth,” wrote Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, “but would submit to no libels or slanders from them.”

Destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor, whose publisher charged that Smith had tried to seduce his wife, worsened relations with non-Mormon neighbors. Days later, Smith was killed by an anti-Mormon mob.

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Raised near Newtown Square, Hunter was born to an unchurched family with Quaker antecedents. Edward Hunter Sr. was repelled by organized religion, his son later wrote, but believed passionately in freedom of thought. A popular family story was that of their ancestor Robert Owen—a supporter of Oliver Cromwell—who’d refused to swear allegiance to Charles II when the English monarchy was restored in 1660.

“[Hunter] was fond of referring to this incident in the life of his ancestor,” wrote Mormon historian Orson F. Whitney. “He would relate the circumstance in his quaint, desultory way and, coming to the close, repeat the words: ‘Oath of allegiance—yes, yes—refused to take it—imprisoned for five years—and then, lifting up his hands, throwing back his head and half-shutting his eyes in a sort of dreamy ecstasy, would exclaim: ‘Beautiful! Beautiful!’”

In a short autobiography, Hunter wrote that, as a boy, he had “a great dislike for going to school.” His father allowed him to drop out, but insisted that he learn a trade. Hunter worked at tanning hides until the tree bark tannins so irritated his skin that he was forced to quit. He studied surveying but couldn’t find work. In 1816, he took a long, wandering trip through the South, where jobs were scarce and wages low. Discouraged, he came home and managed a store in Philadelphia.

In 1817, Hunter’s father was murdered. The senior Hunter, a justice of the peace, was shot by a man angered that his court testimony had cost him an inheritance. Hunter came home to manage the family farm and seems to have slipped into his father’s shoes as a respected community figure. He was a county commissioner and served in the Delaware County militia. According to one biographer, he was one of two militiamen selected to escort the Marquis de Lafayette during the Frenchman’s 1824 visit.

Then, perhaps feeling an urge to start over, Hunter sold the Newtown place and bought a farm in West Nantmeal. Shortly after, he came down with the near-fatal case of typhoid to which Mormon historians and Hunter descendants credit his later conversion.

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“Edward’s personality took on a radical change,” wrote descendant William Hunter (author of Edward Hunter: Faithful Servant). “During his convalescence, he appeared bewildered and wandered about the plantation like a lost sheep.”

He started church shopping. Hunter’s neighbors were mainly Presbyterian, so he tried their churches. He investigated the Swedenborgians and the Seventh-Day Adventists. Nothing satisfied.

“I used to say they were all hewing out cisterns that would not hold water,” Hunter later wrote. “The whole of [religion] has been a scene of bloodshed and murder.”

Hunter continued to shop—even after he met and, in 1830, married Ann Standley.

At a corner of Hunter’s property facing Little Conestoga Road, a previous owner had allowed the township to build a log schoolhouse. In 1832, the building burned when someone carelessly swept hot coals into a wooden barrel intended for ashes and left it on the porch. The township proposed rebuilding the school in stone. Hunter agreed to a 99-year lease with the sole provision that the building—which would also function as a community center and house of worship—be open to “all persons or persuasions.”

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The West Nantmeal Seminary, which still stands, has been called the Wallace Seminary since 1852, when Wallace Township was created.

In 1839, the Mormons arrived. In an era of controversial new sects, they were more controversial than most. Organized in upstate New York by Smith, who claimed that Christ had come to America after his resurrection, Mormons were aggressive proselytizers. When they learned of a chapel open to all, they sought it out. “Immediately, the devil was raised,’” Hunter later wrote. “‘They are a terrible people,’ said the neighbors.”

Not so fast, he said: “When I gave the lease for that land and helped to build that house, it was particularly agreed and stated that people of every religion should have the privilege of meeting there. Now, those Mormons are going to have their rights, or else the lease is out and I’ll take the seminary.”

That would mean no school, no community center and no worship place for other congregations.

So, the Mormons spoke. And that one thing led to others. Hunter invited the missionaries to his home. That winter, Smith himself visited. And when Hunter personally drove him to the train at Downingtown, he remarked on his affection for the young missionaries.

“How is it that I am attracted to those backwoods boys?” said Hunter. “I believe I would risk my life for them.”

In response, Smith gave him “the most friendly look I ever got from Man.” Within a year, Hunter had been baptized. Within two years, he sold his Chester County property and moved to Illinois’ new Mormon settlement at Nauvoo.

Nauvoo was not the first Mormon settlement. Mormons had previously established outposts in Ohio and in Missouri, where non-Mormon residents were alarmed by the group’s rapid growth. But when Mormons ordered dissidents out of the county “or a more fatal calamity shall befall you,” non-Mormons feared a theocracy.

Other incidents followed. In 1838, the governor of Missouri declared, “the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace.”

Most of Missouri’s 10,000 Mormons were forced to abandon their properties and resettle at Nauvoo. That community was still getting established when Hunter arrived. With Smith’s backing, he was elected to the Mormon-dominated city council and became an officer in the Nauvoo Legion, a Mormon militia.

It was at Nauvoo that Smith introduced practices that came to define Mormonism among outsiders—baptism for the dead and plural marriage. Writing to a skeptical uncle, Hunter defended the practice of allowing proxy baptisms for members’ deceased relatives: “I do not feel anything like denying the faith, but I hope through my service to increase it,” he wrote. “Baptism for the dead is going on here every week. There was 450 baptized last week, and yesterday I saw Brother Appleby from New Jersey baptized 34 times for his departed relatives.”

Hunter also accepted polygamy. In 1845, he married a second wife, Laura Kauffman; in 1846, a third, Susanna Wann; and, in 1857, a fourth, Henrietta Spencer. He had children by each—14 in all—but no more with Ann Standley Hunter after the second marriage. Smith is variously reported as having had 30 to as many as 49 wives, aged 15-55.

Polygamy was a hard sell. Some Mormons left the church over it. Brigham Young famously said “it was the first time in my life that I had desired the grave” rather than embrace a church doctrine. (He got over it and married 55 women, though 10 divorced him.)

Among the outraged was William Law, a former member who claimed that the Mormon prophet had made several proposals to Law’s wife, Jane. According to Law, Smith had asked her “to give him half her love; she was at liberty to keep the other half for her husband.” To expose the practice, Law spread this and similar stories across the first (and only) issue of the Expositor, published June 7, 1844.

An emergency meeting of the city council—of which Hunter was a member—declared the paper a public nuisance and ordered it destroyed. A posse led by Nauvoo’s Mormon marshal hauled the press into the street and beat it to pieces.

It was Missouri all over again. Law found allies among non-Mormons. A county newspaper editorialized furiously: “Citizens arise, one and all!!! Can you stand by, and suffer such infernal devils! To rob men of their property rights, without avenging them? We have no time for comment! Every man will make his own. Let it be with powder and ball.”

Smith called out the Nauvoo Legion to defend the town, but later submitted to arrest by county officials. He was in jail at nearby Carthage, charged with treason, when a mob broke in and shot him to death.

Hunter was made a bishop and, when the Mormons abandoned Illinois in 1847, personally led a hundred wagons across the plains to the Great Salt Lake. From 1851 until his death, he served as presiding bishop, the church’s highest religious office. In this role, his top concern was helping church members around the world immigrate to Utah, where Mormons were free to speak and—for a time, at least—critics were absent, silent or both.

“I have acted in the priesthood and the part allotted me,” said Hunter at the laying of the cornerstone of the Salt Lake Temple in 1853, “and I hope acceptably in the sight of God and those who preside over me in this Latter-day work.”

E-mail comments to Mark E. Dixon at dixon_mark@verizon.net.

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