Interview: Michael Quinn
Michael Quinn has a PhD. in American History from Yale University. He is the author of many books on the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon Church) and the West. In Joe Hill he speaks of the social influences at work in Utah at the time of Hill's trial.
Q: One of the aspects of society right after the turn of the century is the first tentative signals of attempts to unionize, although you know that can be traced farther back than that. We see movements of workers banding together and I'm wondering how Utah and the Mormon church may have perceived the first movements toward unionization. Whether it perceived that as some type of test of loyalty or patriotic issue perhaps.
A: LDS church leaders were very American in their attitudes toward the effort to unionize. And when I say that, is the LDS church represented a leadership group. And leadership groups throughout the United States, almost without exception, were anti-union. They regarded unions as destructive of social order. Because unions in order to obtain collective bargaining, in order for any effort of benefit for workers to be successful, they used the threat of the strike or an actual strike. And from the point of view of the established order of government, whether you're looking at Utah or whether you're looking at Alabama, or whether you're looking at Missouri or whether you're looking at Massachusetts, a very liberal state, those in control regarded unions and worker strikes as an attack on the stability of society.
No matter what state you're looking at, in the United States during this period of time, the police always took the side of business, and whenever there was a strike, they, the police, weighed in with police power and we're not just talking about harsh words. They used clubs, they used weapons, firing on those who were in striking lines or those who were in picket lines outside a business.
And so the United States had a basically a unilateral attitude toward labor unions which was negative and regarded them as a form of sedition. A form of treason if you will. And this was enhanced by the perception that most labor union leaders were immigrants. And the reason for that was not some kind of of conspiracy, it was that most workers were immigrants, particularly in the urban settings. And it was natural that the advocates from among the workers would be immigrants too. But this created a perception at that time that the immigrant movement was a kind of threat to the stability of Anglo-Saxon values and control in society. And that this threat was being aided and abetted by a violent and antisocial labor movement.
And so all of this came together in American society. The fear of immigrants, the the preference for Anglo-Saxon people, most of whom were not laborers in the businesses that were on strike. And so all of this came together in America generally. And Utah was simply one manifestation of it. Utah is very American in how the leaders of the various institutions perceived those who went out on strike against business.
Q: It would seem that chasms existed in national society and in Utah society. Did those chasms narrow when the issue was unionism. Was union antipathy something that brought different forces together?
A: Certainly. Because one of the areas in which there was almost immediate cooperation between prominent non-Mormons and prominent Mormons, including the highest leaders of the LDS church was business corporations. Leaders of the Mormon church and prominent non-Mormon, Catholic and Protestant business leaders were on boards of a number of businesses together. They were officers and directors of these companies and they had a vested interest in in avoiding strikes. And stopping strikes. And in fact some of the earliest strikes that occurred in Utah, occurred against church enterprises.
And so from a very early period, from the 1870s onward, the LDS church leaders were condemning the labor movement, as an engine of sedition. Church leaders already had a clearly defined anti-union policy and rhetoric.
Q: Let's consider the Industrial Workers of the World, the Wobblies, the IWW. How were they viewed?
A: Well, the IWW, and the Mormon Church had a kind of natural antagonism. And the IWW, their most famous activities, the ones that that created some of the most a sensational headlines in the newspapers involved mining companies. And Utah was a mining state. And general authorities of the Mormon Church were leaders of mining companies. And they had business associations even in non-Mormon companies like Utah Copper. A non-Mormon enterprise, almost exclusively in its leadership. But the leaders of that group had friendly associations and some interlocking directorates as well with Mormon enterprises. And so there was a natural antagonism with the IWW over its a collective bargaining efforts and its strikes against mining companies.
Q: Did the case of Joe Hill specifically ever draw notable public comment from the Mormon leadership?
A: Joe Hill was a dramatic case nationally. And because his case occurred in Utah, this was definitely a part of the awareness of the Mormon leadership. And the leaders were aware of the case, but they didn't intervene in a direct way. They didn't need to. Because the judge, the jury and the governor all were of like mind on the question of the evil of murder and the evil of what Joe Hill was accused of doing, and the judgement of the court that he was in fact guilty of this crime. And the fact of his being a member of the IWW simply was one more factor in making him a kind of symbol. Not just for the nation, but for Utah of what was wrong with the union system. What was wrong with collective bargaining. What was wrong with labor unions.
And so yes, the general authorities as as citizens of Utah, who had very clear connections with the business community and the mining interests of Utah, they were not indifferent to the Joe Hill case. However, they did not need to actively intervene.
Q: So, does your research indicate an intervention?
A: Well, in this period, the early 1900s, Mormon power was not subtle. And the LDS church when it wanted to make a position, when it wanted elected leaders to for example, vote in a particular way in the legislature, the leadership was very willing to make direct appeals. Some of those direct appeals were in private, some of them were public, but the leadership of the church didn't simply voice a philosophy, say in a sermon and expect that to sway votes in the legislature. That's a 1980s phenomena. That is the reality now in Utah. Back at the turn of the century there was not the kind of hands off policy on a number of issues that the Mormon leadership has today.
But with the Joe Hill case it was a judicial process. It was different than a legislative process. Here they were dealing with juries. Here it was a judge. Here it was a governor who had the possibility of changing the outcome by staying the execution or by issuing a pardon of one kind or another. He was the only person for whom there was a possibility of using the traditional kind of influence. However, he was a good ol boy, and the leaders of the church knew that and knew that his views were basically their views toward Joe Hill and the IWW and this case. The church leadership did not need to put any pressure on the governor to make a particular decision. They just assumed that he would do the right thing, from their point of view, and the right thing was anti-union and the right thing was also to uphold the rule of law against a convicted murderer.
And the leadership simply had no real doubts that that's what he would do. Also, the leadership had an official church organ, the Deseret News, which was the church newspaper, and like all other newspapers at that time it would issue editorials about the Joe Hill case. And that expressed the view of church headquarters. But, they didn't need to say anything more than that because the governor agreed with that point of view.
And that was the extent of any kind of message being given to the governor. And there was really no real question in the mind of the editorial writers or the church leadership that the governor would uphold the conviction and the execution of Joe Hill.
Q: The defenders of Joe Hill later would offer their own interpretation, saying the copper bosses killed Joe Hill. Or his attorney O.N. Hilton would make the statement at Hill's funeral in Chicago that the hands of the Mormon church were all over this case. Grand conspiracy theories evolved that the church and the copper bosses were working in league.
A: No. We need to distinguish both in the past and in the present between a conspiracy and a general understanding, that represents a particular world view. And, and you have people who are operating within that particular world view, they make decisions that may seem conspiratorial, that may seem lock step. But they simply are logical consequences of a group of people, usually a leadership group, being of one mind about a particular topic. And there isn't even really much need for consultation between the various echelons of the leadership group. When they see the world in the same way, when they were faced with a particular decision, that involves that kind of unified view of the world, there's no real surprise that the decisions occur in a uniform way.
I simply do not see the LDS church as having any direct influence at any level in the decisions involving the Joe Hill case. But those decisions represented a world view. A world view in which unions themselves are suspect. They're regarded as an attack on the social order. And the IWW was the most violent of the labor groups at the turn of the century. They engaged in not only collective bargaining, but also strikes against various businesses. And because of that image, because of that kind of experience there was more than just a perception. There was the reality of the violence of strikes, and reality of the violence of the IWW.
There didn't need to be a conspiracy. The LDS church simply was not involved, either at an institutional level nor were its leaders involved at a personal level, in arranging for the outcome of the Joe Hill case.
Q: This era, 1896 to 1916, seems vital to the LDS church. It appears to be turning away from some long-held perceptions of the LDS church just being an insular group to being more fully integrated with the world, more fully integrated with the American experience. Is that a fair assessment?
A: That's a very fair assessment. The LDS church went through this very interesting pattern after 1890, of wanting to demonstrate that they were super patriots. This happened on an individual level, it happened at a church leadership level. Now there's kind of an ironic background to that, and that is that Mormons, particularly native born Mormons had always regarded themselves as Americans. Very American. And immigrant Mormons who came to Utah, as soon as they could, obtained US citizenship. So there is this irony that in their own perception, they'd always been American, and always been loyal Americans.
Yet, at the turn of the century the Mormon people were continually challenged to prove their loyalty. And after 1896, the stakes were higher. Because now the leadership of the LDS church felt that they needed to prove that the U.S. government had made the right decision. And they became super patriots. So the first real opportunity was the war of 1898. Or the Spanish-American war. And the church leadership, for the first time, issued a statement urging the support of a national decision for war. This had never happened before.
And urged the young men, including married men, of the Mormon church to volunteer for service in the war of 1898. This occurred again in 1917 when the U.S. Congress declared war against Germany, and that became the Great War as it was called at the time. As we now know it, World War One.
Again, in this case, the U.S. government was at war, and the Mormon leadership became very much concerned that they be perceived as loyal. So they urged young men to volunteer for service in the war. They established Red Cross units. They established local defense units. Utah was one of the most highly subscribed states in the union to the war bonds, which were issued by the U.S. government and purchased on an individual basis which helped to support the major costs of that war. So the United States was in many ways a kind of goal for the Mormon leadership. To see that the United States would include Mormons among the ranks of the best citizens. And include Utah as one of the most loyal of states.
The leadership wanted the Mormon Church, and Utah as kind of a secular extension of the Mormon church, to be perceived as totally American.
Q: Looking at this era, before national entry into World War One, produces a global picture of the world changing very rapidly. There is economic revolution. There's a fear of anarchy dismantling the old aristocratic order of Europe. This seems to be an era in which strongly competitve views are fighting for the very future of the nation. Perhaps even fighting for the soul of America in the 20th century.
A: Well, in a very real way, the leadership of America did perceive itself under attack. The Anglo-Saxon majority that had founded the nation and had controlled its destiny for one hundred years was, after 1876, seeing themselves as out-numbered by this wave of unrestricted immigration.
And the immigration was not coming from Anglo-Saxon countries. It was coming primarily from eastern Europe and southern Europe. Which, in a cultural sense the Old Guard of America regarded as culturally inferior. But in a religious sense, those eastern and southern Europeans were primarily non-protestant. They were either Catholic or they were Orthodox or they were Jewish. These were people who did not fit the stereotype of the Old Guard.
And the Asians represented both a racial and a religious assault. And from that point onward, the Old Guard saw itself as an embattled minority, although really it was still the majority leadership. And so you have, in 1880, the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was passed just four years after the centennial celebration of the document that declared that "all men are created equal"-the Declaration of Indepndence. Those who aren't Asians are able to freely immigrant to America. From that point forward, American's are increasingly convinced of being under siege by those who are inferior, by those who are racially inferior, who are representing religious challenges.
Now, as a part of that, the leadership of the LDS church in many ways felt a kind of kinship with the Old Guard of the United States, because for the most part the leadership of the United States was Anglo-Saxon, at least Nordic. The same as leadership in the Mormon Church. There was a very strong northern European background to those leaders. And certainly they were not pleased by the increase of other religious groups in the United States.
The LDS church saw itself as God's true church. It had always had enough problems competing with the protestant and the catholic growth of population. So the LDS church in many ways joined hands with the Anglo-Saxon leadership of the United States in supporting these restrictions, feeling these same kinds of concerns, and sharing a unity of perception. Again, we are not talking about an organized or sinister conspiracy, but a unity of perception and shared purpose.
And this unity carried itself out in legislatures throughout the United States and in Congress and in the White House. So that when, inevitably, the Supreme Court was asked during this period to make decisions about collective bargaining or about immigration, the decisions were always in favor of business interests, were always in favor of maintaining the control of the white Anglo-Saxon majority.
So in many ways one of the prices that the LDS church paid for joining hands with this movement, was that in some respects, a previously persecuted minority became a part of the tyranny of the majority in America.