Moroni and the Swastika: Mormons in Nazi Germany

Moroni and the Swastika: Mormons in Nazi Germany

by David Conley Nelson

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While Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist government was persecuting Jews and Jehovah’s Witnesses and driving forty-two small German religious sects underground, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints continued to practice unhindered. How some fourteen thousand Mormons not only survived but thrived in Nazi Germany is a story little known, rarely told, and occasionally rewritten within the confines of the Church’s history—for good reason, as we see in David Conley Nelson’s Moroni and the Swastika. A page-turning historical narrative, this book is the first full account of how Mormons avoided Nazi persecution through skilled collaboration with Hitler’s regime, and then eschewed postwar shame by constructing an alternative history of wartime suffering and resistance.

The Twelfth Article of Faith and parts of the 134th Section of the Doctrine and Covenants function as Mormonism’s equivalent of the biblical admonition to “render unto Caesar,” a charge to cooperate with civil government, no matter how onerous doing so may be. Resurrecting this often-violated doctrinal edict, ecclesiastical leaders at the time developed a strategy that protected Mormons within Nazi Germany. Furthermore, as Nelson shows, many Mormon officials strove to fit into the Third Reich by exploiting commonalities with the Nazi state. German Mormons emphasized a mutual interest in genealogy and a passion for sports. They sent husbands into the Wehrmacht and sons into the Hitler Youth, and they prayed for a German victory when the war began. They also purged Jewish references from hymnals, lesson plans, and liturgical practices. One American mission president even wrote an article for the official Nazi Party newspaper, extolling parallels between Utah Mormon and German Nazi society. Nelson documents this collaboration, as well as subsequent efforts to suppress it by fashioning a new collective memory of ordinary German Mormons’ courage and travails during the war.

Recovering this inconvenient past, Moroni and the Swastika restores a complex and difficult chapter to the history of Nazi Germany and the Mormon Church in the twentieth century—and offers new insight into the construction of historical truth.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806146683
Publisher: Longleaf Services on Behalf of University of Oklah
Publication date: 02/26/2015
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 434
Sales rank: 1,103,845
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

David Conley Nelson holds a Ph.D. in history from Texas A&M University. He served six years as an officer in the United States Marine Corps and is now an independent researcher and commercial airline captain. He is the author of Moroni and the Swastika: Mormons in Nazi Germany.

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Moroni and the Swastika

Mormons in Nazi Germany

By David Conley Nelson


Copyright © 2015 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-4974-5


Mormonism's Long Nineteenth Century in Germany

From Pariahs to Skilled Survivors

Joseph Smith had fewer than ten weeks to live when he preached his most significant sermon as the organizer of what would become the largest and most influential religious organization founded on American soil. Speaking on April 7, 1844, at the funeral of a friend, Smith outlined the doctrinal issues that separated Mormonism from mainstream Christianity. Elements of the "King Follett Discourse" had been introduced into LDS theology during the fourteen years that followed the church's founding, but never before had Smith expressed them all in one sermon. The importance of Smith's address extends beyond a public summation of the LDS Church's more controversial tenets: the nature of God, how the world was created, and humankind's relationship to God in the afterlife. Less prominent passages of that sermon suggest why Smith considered German-speaking converts so important to the future of his fledgling religion.

Smith delivered the funerary oration on a Sunday afternoon in a tree-lined amphitheater on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River town of Nauvoo, Illinois. Mormonism's founder described his faith's idea of the deity, which differed from traditional Christianity's Trinitarian concept. God the Father, whom Smith referred to using the Old Testament name of Elohim, was not a spirit but instead a corporal entity—blessed with a perfect, everlasting body of flesh and bones. His son, Jesus Christ, whom Smith called Jehovah, also possessed a physical body. The Holy Spirit was the only member of the Mormon godhead that did not manifest a physical presence.

The creation story told in the Book of Genesis revealed only part of the truth, Smith maintained, for God had not formed the entire universe from nothing, nor did he do it alone. Rather, when Elohim created the earth, he did so as a member of a group of gods, each of whom had ascended to divinity after a probationary period as men who lived in worlds similar to earth. As Elohim had once been a man who became a god, all humans who inhabit the earth have the potential to achieve godhood in their own right and to preside as Supreme Being over worlds of their own. In contemporary times, Smith preached, that path wound through the church he had established.

Then, in a section of the King Follett Discourse that most scholars ignore, Smith maintained that the German version of the Bible, as adopted by members of the Evangelical Church, is "the most nearly correct translation, and corresponds to the revelations which God has given me for the past fourteen years." In remarks made to a smaller group a few days later, Smith expounded on his belief that the German Bible provided scriptural justification for his sect's deviations from orthodox Christianity: "The old German translators are the most nearly correct, and the most honest of any of the translators."

Smith's fascination with biblical German may have stemmed from association with Peter Whitmer. Smith and his wife Emma lived in Seneca Country, New York, with the Whitmer family in 1829 while Smith ostensibly translated the Book of Mormon from golden plates he had obtained during an apparition of the Angel Moroni. Peter, along with five of his sons and one son-in-law, comprised seven of the original eleven "witnesses" who claimed they had seen the golden plates. Whitmer, who had grown up in Pennsylvania while speaking German as his first language, belonged to a German Reformed congregation before he became a believer in Mormonism. All members of the Whitmer household spoke English with a German accent. A few years later, Smith studied German under the tutelage of Mormonism's first Jewish convert, Alexander Neibaur, who converted in Germany and emigrated to America in 1838. Neibaur, a dentist, had capped Smith's tooth, broken several years earlier when Smith had been beaten, tarred, and feathered by a mob in Ohio. A former rabbinical student, Neibaur may have prompted Smith's belief in polytheism: Elohim, in Old Testament Hebrew, is plural.

While speaking to that small group of believers in Nauvoo several days after he delivered the King Follett Discourse, the Mormon prophet enlarged the scope of his remarks from German-language scripture to the German people themselves, pronouncing what may have been his rationale for ordering an intensive nineteenth-century conversion effort in the territory of the German states prior to unification: "The Germans are an exalted people!"

Exaltation, in Mormon theology, refers to achieving the highest degree of God's favor in a stratified heavenly afterlife. An adherent whose earthly faith and good works earns postmortal residence in the Celestial Kingdom would also qualify to progress to godhood as Elohim had done. Joseph Smith proclaimed the German potential for exaltation, but no record has been discovered that documents Smith's evaluation of the prospects for godhood among the other particular nationalities and linguistic groups that his church targeted for conversion.

The importance that Mormons placed on converting Germans, either because of Smith's belief in their potential for divinity or because they subsequently became hardworking settlers on the American frontier, drove the missionary effort in Germany. The more missionaries they sent to the German states, the more converts those efforts produced, and thus, the German influence on Mormonism intensified. From the beginning of missionary work in the mid- nineteenth century until 1950, more German speakers joined the Latter-day Saints than any linguistic group other than English speakers. Residents of German-speaking lands made up the third most populous group of immigrants to the American Zion, after residents of the British Isles and Scandinavia.

Successor Mormon prophets have reemphasized the importance of catering to the spiritual needs of the large German ethnic minority that populated the Mormon Culture Region, as well as to German Mormons living abroad. Joseph F. Smith, a member of the church's three-member ruling council who would later ascend to the office of prophet, seer, and revelator, visited the Swiss and German Mission in 1875. He did this in the midst of German harassment of Mormon missionaries in states that ranged from Schleswig-Holstein in the north to Bavaria in the south, and from the Rhineland in the west to East Prussia. As part of a visit to Great Britain and continental Europe in 1937, Heber J. Grant, the last polygamous church president, visited both German-speaking Switzerland and Nazi Germany during a period in which Hitler's government threatened the existence of other small, American-based new religious groups in Germany. In 1951, David O. McKay, by this time the prophet, seer, revelator, visited Germany and dedicated new church construction projects. In 1973, Harold B. Lee, the eleventh church president, spoke to an assemblage of East German Mormons who had been granted special dispensation to attend a conference in Munich during the height of the Cold War. He urged them to remain loyal to both their civil government and their religious tenets, and to return to their homes behind the Iron Curtain.

Shortly after the Second World War, Thomas S. Monson, who later became the Mormon Prophet in February 2008, began his adult church service as the bishop (lay minister) of a metropolitan Salt Lake City ward (congregation) made up of many descendants of German immigrants. During the 1960s and 70s, he served as Mormonism's visiting emissary to East Germany, where he catered to the needs of German Latter-day Saints who struggled with the challenges of practicing an American religion in a communist state. He eventually negotiated an agreement to build a Mormon temple in Freiberg, Saxony, the first such structure erected behind the Iron Curtain, as well as an agreement for a reciprocal exchange of Mormon missionaries between East and West Germany—some four years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. When Monson became church president, he chose a former German citizen and Lufthansa Airlines pilot, Dieter Uchtdorf, as the Second Counselor in the First Presidency—the number three leadership position in Mormon hierarchy.

In order to understand why the Mormons cooperated eagerly with the government of the Third Reich, one must start at the beginning, at the religion's founding on the American frontier. Although the effort to win converts far away on German soil proved to be difficult, missionaries continued to follow Smith's admonition to cultivate an "exalted" strain of Germanic adherents. After Smith's death the Mormons, with their pragmatic worldview, continued to embrace Germans as productive converts and immigrants whose temperaments fit well with the church's authoritarian leadership style. But as Smith made clear in one of his last public pronouncements before being killed by a jailhouse mob two months later, God's prophet on earth viewed Germans as a breeding stock for deity.

American Frontier Mysticism and the Roots of Early Mormonism

On the American frontier in the early nineteenth century, during a period religious historians call the Second Great Awakening, pioneers found restorationist Christianity to be an appealing concept. The Millerites, Seventh-day Adventists, and Shakers, in addition to the Mormons, claimed to correct erroneous beliefs and practices promulgated by the mainline Protestant churches of the day. As a fourteen-year-old boy in 1820, Joseph Smith proclaimed that God the Father and Jesus Christ had visited him one day in a grove in western New York, to answer his prayerful pleading for guidance as to which church he should join. They told him to affiliate with no established religion, as all were wrong. Later, Smith claimed to have conversed with John the Baptist and the apostles Peter, James, and John, who ordained him to various levels of the priesthood.

Smith had the background to establish what has become the most successful religious denomination conceived entirely on American soil. He grew up in western New York's "burned over district," so designated because during his boyhood itinerant evangelists and circuit-riding preachers peddled their spiritual wares as fervently and frequently as traveling tradesmen sold goods. Thus, Smith had the advantage of knowing the burning theological questions of the day. One of the hottest topics was the origin of the American Indians. As Smith's most widely read biographer, Fawn McKay Brodie, maintained, some of the most prominent clerics of early America—William Penn, Cotton Mather, Roger Williams, and Jonathan Edwards—preached that the natives they encountered were the descendants of the ten lost tribes of Israel. As a boy, Smith had access to private lending networks that allowed books to circulate for hundreds of miles. One of those, View of the Hebrews, published in two editions in 1823 and 1825, became popular during his late adolescence. Author Ethan Smith, unrelated to Joseph, argued that the American Indians were Jews, and that the gospel of Christ had been preached in ancient America. He further contended that the Western Hemisphere had been populated by early inhabitants who undertook long sea voyages for religious reasons, and that these Semitic migrants had divided themselves into warring tribes, some that were highly civilized and others less so. All of these claims are central themes of the Book of Mormon.

A Distinctly American Church Relies Extensively on Foreign Converts

Joseph Smith founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on April 6, 1830, in Peter Whitmer's house in western New York. Six charter members enrolled. Smith bestowed upon himself the spiritual title of prophet, seer, and revelator, as well as the temporal position of church president. Later, when he sent his brother Samuel from town to town selling copies of the Book of Mormon, the younger sibling preached the doctrine of a new faith: The "American Prophet" would restore the doctrinal beliefs and priesthood authority that the early Christian church enjoyed before it became corrupted under the influence of the Roman emperor Constantine.

By the autumn of that year, four full-time missionaries proselytized among the American Indians, and the first Mormon missionaries to preach outside of the United States began recruiting converts in Canada. According to Columbian University historian Richard L. Bushman, these missionaries "went without training or indoctrination.... No education was required." Their fresh converts quickly became the newest missionaries. An early Mormon elder, Eber D. Howe, described the quality of these first emissaries of the faith: "Nearly all of their male converts, however ignorant and worthless, were forthwith transformed into 'elders,' and sent forth to proclaim, with all their wild enthusiasm, the wonders and mysteries of Mormonism."

Through determined efforts by these crudely polished converts, several hundred new members joined by the end of the church's first year. Domestic missionary efforts continued unabated, and by the end of the church's fifth year in 1835, membership had grown, astonishingly, to 8,835. During this period, preliminary preparations for overseas missionary work commenced with the conversion of immigrants from Europe, whom Smith and his lieutenants hoped would provide a foundation of expertise to send missionaries worldwide. In 1837, Joseph Smith dispatched Heber C. Kimball to open a mission to the British Isles. By the end of 1841, nine of the serving members of the Quorum of the Twelve, whom the Mormons considered to be the modern-day equivalent of the twelve apostles, had relocated to Great Britain for the purpose of recruiting new members who would move to the United States. As the year 1842 concluded, some 5,500 British subjects had become Mormons, and by 1857 more than fifteen thousand Britons had converted. Most subsequently sailed for the new American Zion. By the end of the 1850s, Smith and his successor, Brigham Young, had sent missionaries to Austria, Canada, Chile, China, France, Germany, Gibraltar, Great Britain, Hawaii, India, Italy, Jamaica, Malta, Palestine, Scandinavia, South Africa, the islands of the South Pacific, and Switzerland. Each dispatched the majority of its converts to Zion, which by 1847—because of constant Mormon conflict with neighbors in New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois—had relocated to the barren northernmost outpost of Mexican territory in the North American Intermountain West.

The First German Missionary Efforts: A Template for Later Success

James Howard, a recent English convert to Mormonism, took a job in a Hamburg foundry in September 1840. He tried missionary work but soon became discouraged. "I am too weak a creature to do anything with them," Howard wrote to Joseph Smith before he returned home, admitting defeat as the first Mormon who tried preaching in the territory that later became unified Germany. Nine months later, Mormon Apostle Orson Hyde stopped in Frankfurt on his way to Jerusalem, where he planned to "dedicate Palestine for the return of the Jews." Mormons believe an interpretation of the New Testament Book of Revelation that requires the return of the Jews to their historical homeland, a prerequisite to the thousand-year reign of Christ on earth prophesized to occur prior to the Apocalypse. While Hyde waited for his visa to visit the Holy Land, he claimed to have attained a remarkable mastery of German in the astonishingly short period of five days, which he used upon his return from Jerusalem to author the first German-language LDS religious tract. When he presented Ein Ruf aus der Wüste, A Cry out of the Wilderness, to a printer in Regensburg, the city's censor rejected it as "likely to cause excitement and unrest among the people."

These first two ambassadors of Mormonism in the German-speaking world, Howard and Hyde, illustrate several key aspects of Mormon experience that recurred with regularity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Early LDS histories in German-speaking lands abound with miraculous tales: healings of the sick, fervent prayers that provoke divine intervention with recalcitrant authorities, and the "gift of tongues"—in Mormon theology the God-given ability to master foreign languages rapidly for missionary purposes. Apostle Hyde's claim of miraculous short-term German language mastery seems to have provoked skepticism, even by author Gilbert Scharffs, who is otherwise known for his faith-promoting historical accounts and apologetic argumentation. "Elder Hyde must have made amazing progress in learning German," Scharffs declares, "because those with whom he stayed found it hard to believe he had neither spoken nor studied the language prior to his arrival in Frankfurt."


Excerpted from Moroni and the Swastika by David Conley Nelson. Copyright © 2015 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
Introduction: Deliverance on the Night of Broken Glass,
Part I. The Mormon Sonderweg: The Road to Nazi Germany,
1. Mormonism's Long Nineteenth Century in Germany: From Pariahs to Skilled Survivors,
2. German Mormons in the Great War: Lessons Learned in the Crucible of Combat,
3. Mormons in the Weimar Republic: Honing Survival Skills in a Fledgling Democracy,
Part II. The Prewar Nazi Years, 1933-1939: A Forgotten History,
4. The Mormon Battle Plan in the Third Reich,
5. Genealogy: Promoting a Common Worldview on Earth and in the Afterlife,
6. Mormon Basketball Diplomacy in Hitler's Reich,
7. Boy Scouting: The Mormons' Only Unconditional Surrender to the Nazis,
8. The Führer's Chosen People? The Mormons' Hitler Myth,
9. A Countervailing Myth: Nazi Persecution of the Mormons,
10. God's Oberführer: The Mormon Mission President,
11. J. Reuben Clark: Mormon Ambassador Plenipotentiary and His Entourage,
Part III. Beacons of Mormon Memory in Nazi Germany,
12. The Second World War and Its Aftermath,
13. Forgotten Heroes and Rediscovered Villains,
14. Mormons and Jews: An Inconvenient Association,
15. Helmuth Hübener: A Memory Beacon with a Dimmer Switch,
16. A Premature Curtain Call,
Conclusion: To Save the Church?,

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