The story of the Latter-day Saints who enrolled in the U.S. Army to protect their religious liberty has parallels with the epic struggle of Tai Ji Men for justice.
by Massimo Introvigne*
*A paper presented at the seminar “California Land of the Free: A Call to Freedom and the Tai Ji Men Case,” co-organized by CESNUR, Human Rights Without Frontiers, and Action Alliance to Redress 1219 on October 8, 2023 at the Hilton San Jose, San Jose, California.
There are so many stories about California and freedom of religion or belief that it is difficult to choose only one. An extraordinary story that always impressed me deeply concerns the Mormon Battalion.
“Mormon” is the nickname given to the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the most successful among the American new religions founded in the 19th century. As it often happens to new religions, Mormons were heavily persecuted. Their founder Joseph Smith was assassinated in 1844, and the beautiful city they had built in Illinois, Nauvoo, was largely destroyed. They were driven from their homes, some were killed, and most of their properties were stolen. To continue practicing their faith freely, they decided to move West, initiating the process that would lead to their arrival in what is now Utah in 1847, under the charismatic leadership of Smith’s successor, Brigham Young.
To be able to move West without further persecution, they needed two resources they did not have, the benevolence of the American government and money. In 1846, while they were camping in Iowa after having been compelled to leave Illinois, the Saints approached U.S. President James K. Polk, who had just declared war to Mexico. Polk asked the Saints to form a 400-men battalion who would serve in the Mexican war, stating that they could use the soldiers’ pay to finance the migration and that the government would show their gratitude to them.
Most Mormons were reluctant to enlist. They were peace-loving people and did not want to serve in a war on behalf of a government that had failed to protect them from persecution. The needed four hundred men eventually accepted to serve because they believed in the authority of Brigham Young, whom they regarded as the prophet of God and who also prophesied that they would not have to participate in combat, and nobody would die in battle.
Young’s words proved true. The Mormon Battalion was not called to fight the Mexican Army. They did police work in areas conquered by United States in Southern California and protected Native Americans from the exactions and violence of both armies. Their long march ended in San Diego, where they were discharged on July 16, 1847. As Young had predicted, no men of the Battalion died in battle, although twenty-two died of disease. The money they sent to the church did help finance the migration West, the more so because Battalion members were the first to find gold in California, thus being at the origins of the subsequent California Gold Rush.
Three of the former soldiers were killed at what is now called Tragedy Spring, California, allegedly by Native Americans but perhaps by anti-Mormons. However, that happened when they were going to Utah after having remained for a while in the gold fields, almost one year after the Battalion had been discharged.
The Mormon Battalion remains the only religion-based unit in the history of the American Army. Those who enrolled in it were not interested in participating in a war, and in fact were against it. They accepted to serve as their leader, whom they respected as God’s prophet, had told them that this was necessary to affirm and protect the religious liberty of the Latter-day Saints and their right to worship freely far away from their persecutors.
There are similarities, as well as obvious differences, in the epic of the Mormon Battalion and the epic of Tai Ji Men dizi struggle for peace and justice, as described in the book “Who Stole Their Youth?” In both cases, a generation of members of a minority spiritual movement suffered persecution. In both cases, youth answered generously to the need of protecting their movement from persecution and to the inspired worlds of their leader.
In both cases, they acted peacefully. Although the members of the Mormon Battalion wore a uniform, they did not participate in actual battles. While they had to leave their homes for a long march to the West, Tai Ji Men dizi did not leave Taiwan. However, they also devoted a sizable amount of their time, in summer or winter, with sun or rain, to demonstrate and fight for their freedom of religion or belief.
In both cases, a part of their youth was stolen. But for those who believe in peace and justice, what is stolen is also gained. The Latter-day Saints gained their religious liberty. So one day will Tai Ji Men.