In the 19th century, as America pushed westward, there was an obstacle in the way of the U.S. government; there were people already living on the lands identified for expansion. Native Americans had been there for centuries. They had built cities, farmed land, created art, practiced religion, fought wars and studied the stars and planets. Forcing such advanced people off of their own land was not an idea easily justified.
The idea that America was a divinely created country, with a government and constitution designed by God, lead many in the country’s leadership to believe that by virtue of this divine intervention America had a mission and a destiny. The doctrine of Manifest Destiny was adopted. This doctrine stood on three pillars:
- There is a Divine virtue inherent in the people and institutions of the United States.
- It is the mission of America to redeem and remake the world in the pattern of the United States.
- America has a destiny under God to fulfill that mission.
In his 1630 sermon “A Model of Charity” (often called the “City Upon a Hill” sermon), Puritan John Winthrop admonished the colonists to become a “city upon a hill”, watched by the rest of the world. That same idea was prevalent during the American Revolution. Thomas Paine’s 1776 pamphlet “Common Sense” promoted the idea that the revolution provided a way to create a new and better society.
A Good Idea Gone Bad
Unfortunately , the ideas presented by Winthrop, Paine and others were distorted and used to force Native Americans off their lands.
Moving westward and forcibly taking land from intelligent, civilized people was not something a shining city upon a hill would do. However, if the natives are primitive, Godless savages, taking their lands is not only acceptable, it can be construed as God’s work.
As America entered the 19th century, it was well known and well documented that Native Americans were not savages. Evidence of an advanced civilization was found from the Atlantic to the Rocky Mountains. Researchers, and archeologists had found great cities dedicated to religion, commerce, and science.
To ease the conscience of those determined to fulfill America’s Manifest Destiny, Native American cities were destroyed, artifacts were covered up and evidence of great societies was hidden. With evidence to the contrary destroyed, America’s natives could be classified as savages standing in the way of civilized destiny. The way was now open for America to become a shining city upon a hill stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to beyond the Rocky Mountains.
It should be known that not everyone in America’s leadership supported such tactics. The idea of Manifest Destiny was a contested idea. In his book, “What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America 1815-1848”, Daniel Walker Howe writes, “American imperialism did not represent an American consensus; it provoked bitter dissent within the national polity…. Whigs saw America’s moral mission as one of democratic example rather than one of conquest.” (Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America 1815-1848, (2007) pp 705-6)
Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were among the religious leaders who opposed the actions being taken. Smith traveled among them and often welcomed Native American leaders to Nauvoo. Cowdery was against the idea of removing Native Americans from their land by force. He believed the land should be “held in common with the paleface.” (See the article Lamanites in North America)
The forced removal of native people from their lands was justified because they were “savages”. But in a sadly ironic twist, the destruction of evidence of great civilizations and the slaughter of men, women and children in the name of destiny, was true savagery. America had moved far from the “Model of Charity” John Winthrop envisioned.
By destroying or covering up Native American cities, not only was the history of great societies lost, but evidence of the Book of Mormon hidden. Fortunately many of these ruins are being rediscovered and movements are underway to preserve and protect them.
The following is a short segment from the documentary, “The Lost Civilizations of North America” by Steven E. Smoot, Barry McLerran and Rick Stout. In the documentary scholars such as Dr. Roger Kennedy, former director to the Smithsonian’s American History Museum, discuss the “wanton destruction” of Native American structures in the name of Manifest Destiny.
An up-coming series, “Hidden in the Heartland”, by film maker Kels Goodman, documents evidence of great civilizations in Pre-Columbian America and their connection to the Book of Mormon. The following is a trailer for this series.
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Painting of westward expansion by Emanuel Leutze (1816-1868)
Engraving by and unknown artist — original at the New York Public Library
Painting of John Winthrop by Vandyke
Indian Land for Sale — Public Domain