Harris: Personal reflections on modern apocalyptic Mormon survivalism

Madison Harris is a senior history and biomedical sciences double major at UCCS. Paul Harvey, distinguished professor of history, advised Madison on her publication, “Religious Extremism and Conspiracy: A Student’s Observation.”

“Over the years my devout Mormon grandparents have given my family and me a year’s supply of MREs, dried foods, and several 72-hour emergency kits, all of which sits in our basement today collecting dust. We are lapsed Mormons and haven’t attended church in years, but my grandparents love us enough so that when the apocalypse comes, we’ll be ready.”

So begins a reflection on extremist preparations for the apocalypse, written by Madison Harris, a senior history and biomedical sciences double major. Published by Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought in 2021, the reflection is titled “Religious Extremism and Conspiracy: A Student’s Observation.”

Drawing inspiration from Tara Westover’s bestselling New York Times memoir “Educated,” in which Westover discusses how her survivalist Mormon parents embraced a conspiratorial worldview, Harris centers her reflection on the influence of Ezra Taft Benson over modern Mormon thought. Benson served simultaneously in the United States Cabinet and in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, one of the governing bodies in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Harris writes that “[Benson] believed that God had called him to save the U.S. Constitution from godless forces as part of his ultra-patriotic duty to maintain American exceptionalism – a teaching that many Mormons still embrace today. Ninety-four percent of Mormons believe that the Constitution is divinely inspired, evidence of Benson’s lasting influence…[and] because of Benson’s lasting influence promoting conservatism and conspiracy, Mormons have been faithful Republican voters ever since the early 1970s.”

Harris connects Benson’s lingering influence to a modern apocalyptic Mormon survivalist ethos – the source of her grandparents’ doomsday prepping, and one that drives other members of the Church of Latter-day Saints to stockpile food, weapons and ammunition in preparation for the End Times, when adherents of Mormonism believe worldwide disasters will presage Jesus Christ’s return to Earth.

“I wanted to explore the intersection of religion and conspiracy, particularly how they relate to voting trends, doomsday preppers, and religious fanatics,” Harris shared after the reflection’s publication.

Though she draws parallels between her own grandparents and Westover’s doomsday prepping parents, she concludes that “My grandparents mirror most Mormons, who are neither radical doomsday preppers nor clannish conspiracy theorists…More importantly, they follow the current teachings of the church and are not beholden to any political ideology or cause.”

As she wrote in the reflection’s conclusion, “I’m glad my grandparents never embraced Ezra Taft Benson’s conspiracy theories, although they did prepare my family and me for the End Times. Perhaps we didn’t escape Benson after all.”

Read Harris’s full reflection online.