When the Constitution “Hangs by a Thread” – The White Horse Prophecy in Modern Mormonism
Following the Mormon expulsion from Missouri in 1838, Joseph Smith made a trip to Washington, D.C. “to present to the National Congress the petition of the Saints for a redress of their grievances, suffered in Missouri” (History of the Church 4:xxvi). Arriving in November 1839, Smith met with several powerful politicians of that day, including President Martin Van Buren, and left Washington in disappointment. As the story goes, President Van Buren told the Mormon prophet, “Gentlemen, your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you...If I take up for you I shall lose the vote in Missouri” (Allen and Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints, p.144).
Joseph Smith’s frustration with both political parties led to a considerable amount of rhetoric predicting divine judgment on the United States government. On page 137 of his book Quest for Refuge, Mormon historian Marvin S. Hill wrote, “To secure legal sanction for his call to arms, Smith petitioned Congress to form Nauvoo into a federal district and grant him authority to command federal troops in defense of the city. He warned his closest friends [in the Nauvoo City Council] that ‘if Congress will not hear our petition and grant us protection, they will be broken up as a government, and God shall damn them, and there shall be nothing left of them—not even a grease spot.’” Needless to say, Congress ignored his petition and life went on.
Another of Smith’s predictions, the “White Horse Prophecy,” gets its name from the biblical book of Revelation. The prophecy has been given a dubious distinction since there is no evidence that Smith ever gave it in a public setting. Instead, its pedigree goes back to two Mormons, Edwin Rushton and Theodore Turley, who said they personally heard Joseph Smith give this prediction at Smith’s home on or about May 6, 1843. Smith allegedly gave numerous predictions in this prophecy, but the portion that is most repeated speaks of a day when the Constitution of the United States will “hang by a thread.” It will be “preserved and saved” by a White Horse, A.K.A. the Mormon Church.
Mormon apologists find it necessary to place doubt on the prophecy since it contains information that is certainly spurious. For instance, it speaks of a revolution that “will take place in America,” leaving it “without a supreme government.” There will be no peace except “in the Rocky Mountains.” England, for a time, will be neutral during this conflict and will only intervene to “stop the shedding of blood.” It also states that “the two Popes, Greek and Catholic, will come together and be united.” This has not prohibited LDS leaders from picking out the portions they feel are still appropriate.
In a general conference message in October 1918, sixth LDS President Joseph F. Smith said that “it was never spoken by the prophet in the manner in which they [Rushton and Turley] have put it forth.” “It is simply false,” Smith said, “that is all there is to it.” Still, this did not stop Smith from condoning at least part of the prophesy five years earlier. “Joseph Smith, the prophet, was inspired to affirm and ratify this truth, and he further predicted that the time would come, when the Constitution of our country would hang as it were by a thread, and that the Latter-day Saints above all other people in the world would come to the rescue of that great and glorious palladium of our liberty” ( Conference Report, October 1912, p.10).
In 1855, Young declared in the Salt Lake Tabernacle that “when the Constitution of the United States hangs, as it were, upon a single thread, they will have to call for the ‘Mormon Elders to save it from utter destruction; and they will step forth and do it” (Journal of Discourses 2:182). In 1868, Young again referred to the White Horse Prophecy when he said, “How long will it be before the words of the prophet Joseph will be fulfilled? He said if the Constitution of the United States were saved at all it must be done by this people. It will not be many years before these words come to pass” (JOD12:204). Apparently Mormon Apostle John Widtsoe felt the above statements were factual since he included them in his book, Discourses of Brigham Young (pp.360-361).
In an October 1942 conference message, J. Reuben Clark, at that time a Mormon apostle, said, “You and I have heard all our lives that the time may come when the Constitution may hang by a thread. I do not know whether it is a thread, or a small rope by which it now hangs, but I do know that whether it shall live or die is now in the balance” (Conference Report, October 1942, p.58).
Speaking in general conference in 1961, Mormon Apostle Ezra Taft Benson (he would become Mormonism's 13th President in 1985) stated, “In connection with attack on the United States, the Lord told the Prophet Joseph Smith there would be an attempt to overthrow the country by destroying the Constitution. Joseph Smith predicted that the time would come when the Constitution would hang, as it were, by a thread, and at that time "this people will step forth and save it from the threatened destruction” (Conference Report, October 1961, p.70).
In 1963 Benson again mentioned this prophecy in a conference message: “The Prophet Joseph Smith said the time would come when the Constitution would hang as it were by a thread. Modern-day prophets for the last thirty years have been warning us that we have been rapidly moving in that direction. Fortunately, the Prophet Joseph Smith saw the part the elders of Israel would play in this crisis. Will there be some of us who won't care about saving the Constitution, others who will be blinded by the craftiness of men, and some who will knowingly be working to destroy it? He that has ears to hear and eyes to see can discern by the Spirit and through the words of God's mouthpiece that our liberties are being taken” (Conference Report, April 1963, p.113).
Benson made another passing reference to this prophecy in his "14 Fundamentals in Following the Prophet" talk given in 1980:
"God has preserved you for the eleventh hour—the great and dreadful day of the Lord. It will be your responsibility not only to help “bare off” the kingdom of God triumphantly but to save your own soul to strive to save those of your own family and to honor the principles of our inspired constitution, which at this time seems to be almost hanging by a thread" (transcribed from the speech as it was originally delivered).
In his bid for the U.S. presidency in 2000, Utah Senator Orrin Hatch made reference to the prophecy while complaining about the Democrats tolerating everything that is bad. Said Hatch, “I've never seen it worse than this, where the Constitution literally is hanging by a thread” (“Did Hatch Allude To LDS Prophecy?” Salt Lake Tribune, Nov. 11, 1999). More recently, Susan Easton Black, a BYU professor of church history and doctrine, reportedly said that “the prophecy as a whole is false” (“White Horse in the White House,” www.opinionjournal.com, November 3, 2006). Black’s blanket denial seems incredibly inconsistent in light of the above statements. If LDS leaders felt the prophecy as a whole is false, why refer to any of it? Conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck also referred to the "hang by a thread" portion of the White Horse Prophecy when interviewed by Fox host Bill O'Reilly. One need only google the words "Romney" and "White Horse Prophesy" to see that this is an issue that is likely to haunt any and all Mormon candidates running for public office outside of Utah.
On January 6, 2010 the LDS Church issued the following statement on its Newsroom blogsite: "The so-called 'White Horse Prophecy' is based on accounts that have not been substantiated by historical research and is not embraced as Church doctrine." The claim that it is not "embraced as Church doctrine" does not explain why so many LDS leaders have referred to it. Would these leaders even bother to speak of the prophecy if they really didn't believe at least portions were true? Words like "doctrine" and "official" have little meaning given the fact that many aspects of Mormonism are believed to be true by members even though a particular teaching may never be described as "binding" or "official."
Modern Mormons tend to ignore the more bizarre, apocalyptic language of the White Horse prophecy. The context of the “hang by a thread” phrase has been jettisoned, but the phrase itself has not. How each Mormon politician views his or herself as the fulfillment of this prediction must be judged on a case-to-case basis; however, there can be no denying that to many Latter-day Saints, Smith’s prediction is taken very seriously and is very much a part of the Mormon political landscape.