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  Mormonism/RLDS Historical Overview   

Mormonism/RLDS Historical Overview - The Joseph Smith Era

  1820 – 1844

The Origins of Mormonism

The genesis of the Mormonism movement, according to the official history of the RLDS Church, was a vision Joseph Smith, Jr. experienced in 1820. Interestingly enough, there is no written account of this “first vision” in any of the early church documents, papers, letters or journals until 18 years after it is supposed to have occurred. The background for this revelation was an alleged revival in the vicinity of Palmyra, New York, with “great multitudes” joining the Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian churches. However, historical records confirm that there was no revival at that time in that place.[1] The official history goes on to relate that Joseph, not knowing which denomination to join, decided to inquire of the Lord. As a result, he reported the following encounter with two heavenly personages.

“One of them spake unto me, calling me by name, and said, (pointing to the other) ‘This is my beloved Son, hear him’…. I asked the personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects [churches] was right, and which I should join. I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong…that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors [people professing belief in God through those creeds] were all corrupt.”[2] (emphasis added).

Joseph claimed to have had a second vision three years later, in the fall of 1823, in which an  angel named Moroni informed him that there was a special work for him to do.[3] The angel related to Joseph, that buried in a nearby hill, were gold plates inscribed with the historical records of the ancestors of the American Indians. According to the angel, these gold plates also contained “the fullness of the everlasting gospel.” 

A New Book of Scripture and a New Church

      Joseph’s story goes on to say that he met with the angel on the same date for the next four years receiving further instructions about his special work.[4] In the fall of l827 he obtained the gold plates and began translating them into what would become known as the Book of Mormon. Joseph’s wife Emma and other eyewitnesses described the translation process as involving the use of a “seer stone” placed in a hat. The translation was finished in l829 and published in March of 1830. Joseph declared that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth and that, “a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts than by any other book.”[5]

      On April 6 of 1830, in Fayette, New York, Joseph Smith organized the “Church of Jesus Christ” with a charter membership of six men, although many people had already been baptized.[6] Shortly thereafter, Joseph sent four men westward to preach to the Indians, but they first stopped in the area of Kirtland Ohio. Within three weeks they had baptized 127 souls, including a number of Campbellites and their pastor Sidney Rigdon, who was to become an important figure in the Mormonism movement.

      Early in 1831, Joseph and his followers moved to Kirtland and established headquarters there. A revelation convinced church members that the move to Ohio was necessary. This was the beginning of the gathering concept, which Joseph continued to use for the remainder of his life to secure his position of leadership, power and control. This mindset was also useful in the continuing quest for Zion, the elusive utopian community that Joseph had promised to his followers.  

Independence Missouri—The Center Place

      Later that summer, Joseph traveled to Independence, Missouri. There, on August 3rd, he dedicated a plot of ground where he prophesied a temple would be built in his generation. He also declared that Independence was Zion, the location of the kingdom of God on earth and the place to which the Saints, as his followers now called themselves, were commanded to gather (Doc. and Cov. 57:1a-d, 83:2a). Joseph returned to Kirtland, while others of his group remained behind to begin the building up of Zion. 

Trouble in Zion

      Soon, serious trouble erupted in Joseph’s Center Place. The Saints had purchased a printing press and were compiling Joseph’s revelations into a volume entitled A Book of Commandments. The revelations indicated, among other things, that Independence was the land of promise for the Saints, that the current landowners were to be considered enemies and that the rebellious (those who opposed Mormonism) were to be ‘plucked out’ and should not inherit the land.[7]

      Some copies of the revelations found their way into the hands of  “the Gentiles,” the original settlers of Jackson County. When they discovered they were to be driven out of the areas that the Saints now claimed as their own, the Missourians were outraged. 

“We are daily told,” the old settlers said, ‘and not by the ignorant alone, but by all classes of them [the Saints] that we of this county are to be cut off, and our lands appropriated by them for inheritances. Whether this is to be accomplished by the hand of the destroying angel, the judgments of God, or the arm of power, they are not fully agreed among themselves.’ ”[8] 

      Understandably, the Missourians feared for the safety of their homes, their land and their civil rights in view of the expressed intentions of the growing Mormon population. The animosity on both sides continued to escalate until July of 1833 when a group of settlers destroyed the Saints’ printing press and demanded that the Mormons leave Jackson County. David Whitmer, one of the three Book of Mormon witnesses, summarizes these incidents as follows.  

“The main reason why the printing press was destroyed, was because they published the Book of Commandments. It fell into the hands of the world, and the people of Jackson county, Missouri, saw from the revelations that they were considered by the church as intruders upon the land of Zion, as enemies to the church, and that they should be cut off out of the land of Zion and sent away. The people seeing these things in the Book of Commandments became the more enraged, tore down the printing press, and drove the church out of Jackson County.”[9] 


The Saints appealed to Governor Dunklin for help, and although he promised his support, he failed to take any action. Mobs of Missourians harassed the Mormons over the next several months so that by late fall of that year virtually all of the Saints had left. Some of them escaped north to Clay County, Missouri, while others fled to Kirtland.


When Joseph received the news of the expulsion of the Saints, he realized his reputation as a prophet was in jeopardy. He had made it clear that Independence was to be the Center Place of Zion, yet the Saints had been driven out of their ‘Promised Land.’ Compelled to take action on their behalf, he said that he had been instructed by God in a revelation to reinstate the Saints, by force if necessary. The Lord reportedly told Joseph, “I have decreed that your brethren, which have been scattered, shall return to the land of their inheritances and build up the waste places of Zion…. Behold I say unto you, the redemption of Zion must needs come by power; therefore I will raise up unto my people a man [Joseph Smith],[10] who shall lead them like as Moses led the children of Israel, for ye are the children of Israel, and the seed of Abraham; and ye must needs be led out of bondage by power, and with a stretched out arm; and as your fathers were led at the first, even so shall the redemption of Zion be. Therefore, let not your hearts faint, for I say not unto you as I said unto your fathers, Mine angel shall go up before you, but not my presence; but I say unto you Mine angels shall go before you, and also my presence…. Inasmuch as my enemies come against you to drive you from my goodly land I have consecrated to be the land of Zion…you shall curse them; and whomever ye curse, I will curse; and ye shall avenge me of mine enemies. Let no man be afraid to lay down his life for my sake.”[11] 

Zion’s Camp


In accordance with this revelation, Joseph and approximately 200 armed volunteers, calling themselves Zion’s Camp, set out for Missouri in early May of 1834, with the goal of redeeming their promised land. While camped at Fishing River, they were warned by Cornelius Gilliam, Sheriff of Clay County, that to enter armed into Jackson County would be considered an act of insurrection. This warning, in combination with an outbreak of cholera (which afflicted more than 60 members of Zion’s Camp, taking 13 lives), a fierce storm, and a lack of food brought the expedition to a premature end.[12] In an apparent attempt to save face, Joseph blamed the cholera on the rebelliousness of his men. “I called the camp together and told them that in consequence of the disobedience of some who had been unwilling to listen to my words, but had rebelled, God had decreed that sickness should come upon them and that they should die like sheep with the rot, that I was sorry, but could not help it.”[13] Joseph reinforced his statement with a revelation, “Behold, I [the Lord] say unto you, were it not for the transgressions of my people…they might have been redeemed even now; but, behold, they have not learned to be obedient…. And my people must needs be chastened until they learn obedience, if it must needs be, by the things which they suffer” (Doc. and Cov. Sec.102:2).  

      As the dejected group prepared to return to Kirtland, Joseph attempted to cheer them up with another revelation in which they were told that the Lord had prepared a blessing and an endowment for them if they were faithful.

      To further console his people, Joseph prophesied publicly that within three years they would march into Jackson County and “there would not be a dog to open his mouth against them.”[14] (This prophecy failed to materialize). It is interesting to note that while Zion’s Camp did not achieve its intended goal, it did transform Mormon leadership and culture, injecting a military component into the movement that had not previously existed.[15] 

The Book of Abraham

     After the failure in Missouri, Joseph decided to make Kirtland the center for his movement. However, murmuring about Joseph’s credibility as a prophet was increasing. The neighboring Gentiles had long scoffed at his claim to speak for God, but now Joseph’s own followers were seriously questioning his leadership. Fortunately for him, his reputation was salvaged with the arrival in town on July 3, l835, of Michael Chandler, a traveling Irishman with four Egyptian mummies and a collection of Egyptian papyri.[16]

      Joseph used this event to resurrect his plummeting popularity and to restore his stature as a seer by asserting he could translate the ancient writings. Since the ability to decipher ancient Egyptian had been lost for centuries, Joseph did not have to fear scholarly opposition to his claims. He announced that part of the papyrus record was an expanded version of the Biblical account of the life of Abraham. He wrote, “With W.W. Phelps and Oliver Cowdery as scribes, I commenced the translation of some of the characters or hieroglyphics, and much to our joy found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham, another the writings of Joseph of Egypt.”[17]

      Joseph entitled his work, The Book of Abraham. As he continued the “translation” process, new doctrines began to emerge: the plurality of gods, eternal progression to godhood and the pre-existence of men’s spirits, doctrines that Joseph would later teach to his followers.[18] This Egyptian episode, undoubtedly much to Joseph’s relief, served to restore him to his former stature as God’s spokesman for these latter days in the eyes of his followers.

      Joseph had no way of knowing that these same papyri, once thought to have been destroyed by fire, would be re-discovered in 1967, one hundred and thirty years later, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. When submitted to several different professional Egyptologists for translation, it was determined that the papyrus Joseph had claimed was the basis for the Book of Abraham, was in fact, a funeral text for a man named Hor. While the papyri contained the names of more than fifteen Egyptian gods and goddesses, there was no mention of Abraham or the God of the Bible.[19]

      In view of the findings of these Egyptologists, it is not surprising that the RLDS church today is reluctant to claim that the Book of Abraham is an inspired translation. However, the early RLDS church did believe that Joseph Smith received divine assistance in producing the Book of Abraham as evidenced by the following statement from an 1860 Saints Herald, “The Book of Abraham was translated by the gift and power of the Holy Ghost by Joseph Smith.”[20] 

The Kirtland Temple

      The Egyptian excitement behind them, church members in Kirtland now refocused their attention on completing the construction of the temple begun in 1833. This endeavor required great sacrifice on the part of the faithful members who generously donated their money, labor and prized personal possessions to the cause. The temple was dedicated in 1836 with those in attendance reporting many supernatural manifestations, including visitations by Jesus, Moses, Elias, Elijah, and multitudes of angels.[21] The church believed that this was the spiritual endowment that Joseph had prophesied would come, after the Zion’s Camp experience, if the people were faithful.

      Though the Kirtland temple had been completed and dedicated, the church still owed thirteen thousand dollars. In addition, church leaders had become heavily involved in land speculation, entering into many large contracts for real estate in and around Kirtland.[22] Unfortunately, the Saints were unable to make their payments and Joseph was in desperate need of money to settle their many debts. 

Buried Treasure

      A story in the “Painsville Ohio Telegraph” about a fortune buried beneath an old house in Salem, Massachusetts revived Joseph’s long-held fascination with hidden treasures. So it was, that in August of 1836, Joseph traveled to Massachusetts claiming to be on a missionary trip, taking his brother Hyrum, Sidney Rigdon, and Oliver Cowdery with him.

      Only Joseph knew the real reason for the journey. After searching diligently for the treasure over the next month, Joseph had to return to Kirtland empty-handed, despite a revelation he had received assuring him of success.

“I, the Lord your God, am not displeased with your coming on this journey, notwithstanding your follies. I have much treasure in this city for you, for the benefit of Zion…. I will give this city into your hands, that you shall have power over it…. And its wealth pertaining to gold and silver shall be yours. Concern not yourselves about your debts, for I will give you power to pay them…. Inquire diligently concerning the more ancient inhabitants and founders of this city. For there are more treasures than one for you in this city. Therefore, be ye wise as serpents and yet without sin.”[23]  

The real reason for Joseph’s trip to Salem was in due time, made known to his followers.

“The true nature of the trip could no longer be kept secret, and his followers shook their heads in sorrow and disbelief. ‘We speak of these things with regret,’ wrote Ebenezer Robinson in l889 in describing the episode.’ Joseph made no apology for this indiscretion. In his history he described the trip to Salem as an ordinary missionary tour, and the incident eventually was forgotten.”[24] 

The Kirtland Safety Society Bank

In January of 1837, the church newspaper, Messenger and Advocate, announced the organization of the Kirtland Safety Society Bank, with Sidney Rigdon as president and Joseph Smith as cashier. In addition to other illegalities, bills were printed with no collateral to cover them.[25] By the fall of 1837, the investors had lost thousands of dollars. Fawn Brodie records that non-Mormon individuals and firms alone lost well over $150,000 in the venture. Many church members, trusting the leadership of their prophet, had willingly supported the enterprise, only to end up destitute. This, in spite of Joseph Smith’s prophecy (printed in the April 1837 Messenger and Advocate) promising riches to all those who would work to build up the city of Kirtland,  “This place must and will be built up, and every brother that will take hold and help secure and discharge those contracts that have been made, shall be rich.”[26]

      In the wake of this financial disaster, many men who had been Joseph’s loyal supporters became disillusioned and separated themselves from the prophet. They included all three of the original witnesses to the divinity of the Book of Mormon; Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, and David Whitmer, as well as the ranking bishop Edward Partridge, and over half of the twelve apostles.[27]

      Oliver Cowdery had not only been the principal scribe in the translation of the Book of Mormon, but he had also been Joseph Smith’s loyal friend from the inception of the movement. However, Joseph’s handling of the Kirtland bank, in conjunction with his attempt to control the temporal and spiritual lives of his people, created an ever-widening rift in their relationship. Oliver’s refusal to retract his accusation that Joseph had been involved in an adulterous affair with Fanny Alger was the last straw. Thus it was that the breach between the two former friends was never mended.[28] In early September of l837, Oliver left Kirtland for Missouri, where he remained active in the church until he was excommunicated in 1838. 

Chaos in Kirtland

      As the situation in Kirtland continued to deteriorate, some disillusioned church members decided to break away from Joseph and form their own church. Joseph retaliated by calling for a trial in order to excommunicate these apostates.

“There followed a bitter fight, as charges and counter-charges were hurled back and forth. Joseph completely lost control. Shouting above the din, he called for an end to debate and a vote on the excommunications…. The meeting finally broke up, and Joseph left the temple conscious that he had lost, probably forever what had been seven years in building. Shortly after, when word came that Grandison Newell had secured a warrant for his arrest on a charge of banking fraud, Joseph knew that this was the finish and fled in the night with Rigdon, his horse turned toward Zion…. Three days after Joseph’s flight, the building housing the printing press caught fire and burned to the ground. Warren Parish [Joseph Smith’s secretary] accused Joseph of being responsible for the incendiarism, saying that he had done it to prevent its printing matter against him, and also to fulfill Joseph’s prophecy that God would destroy Kirtland by fire for its wickedness. Parish, by this time, had come to believe the worst of Joseph and Rigdon, whom he had once looked to as gods. ‘I believe them to be confirmed infidels,’ he wrote, ‘who have not the fear of God before their eyes…. They lie by revelation, run away by revelation, and if they do not mend their ways, I fear they will at last be damned by revelation.’ ”[29]

     The lessons Joseph should have learned from the Kirtland experience apparently went unheeded as noted by Fawn Brodie.

“[Joseph] could not see himself as part of the world; he was always astride it. The Kirtland debacle became a persecution symbol which heightened, rather than humbled his sense of destiny. So swift a downfall could be explained only in terms of enemy conspiracy and the machinations of the devil hence there was no self-searching and but few regrets…. [He] began to speak of the Kirtland era with contempt as ‘seven long years of servitude, persecution, and affliction in the hands of our enemies.’ ” [30]  

Far West

      When the Saints had fled Jackson County five years earlier, many had sought refuge in Clay County to the north. However, as their numbers steadily increased, Clay County residents became alarmed and asked them to move on. The State Legislature, in hopes of preventing future problems such as Jackson County had experienced, set aside Caldwell County in northwestern Missouri for the Mormons.[31] It was there that the town of Far West was established and in a relatively short period of time, experienced extraordinary growth as Saints gathered from England, Canada and other parts of the United States. Plans were made for schools, businesses, and a temple. The Saints in Far West were living at peace with their neighbors and felt the favor of heaven was upon them at last. It was to this community that Smith and Rigdon fled, arriving on March 14 of 1838.

      To be driven from Kirtland by his own disciples had been a shocking and humiliating experience for Joseph, but the reception he and Sidney received at Far West quickly turned his disappointment into elation as the cheering residents welcomed them with open arms.

      With the arrival of Smith and Rigdon in Far West, however, things began to change. Church Historian John Whitmer records, “Joseph Smith, Jr., S. Rigdon, and Hyrum Smith moved their families to this place, Far West, in the spring of 1838. As soon as they came here, they began to enforce their new organized plan [to rid the church of apostates], which caused dissensions and difficulties, threatenings and even murders.”[32]

     Quarreling within the church had made bitter enemies between Joseph’s loyal supporters and the group of dissenters who had previously migrated from Kirtland (John and David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, Lyman Johnson and others.) On April 12, 1838, Oliver Cowdery was expelled from the church. The next day David Whitmer and Lyman E. Johnson were also expelled but all three continued to reside in Far West. [33] Martin Harris had been cut off from the church while still in Kirtland.  

The Danites

      These dissenters were now considered traitors and enemies to the church, and plans were made to deal with them accordingly. A secret band, known as the Danites, [also referred to on occasion as Gideonites, Gadiantons, Daughters of Zion, Sons of Dan and Destroying Angels] was formed for the purpose of defending the First Presidency and ridding the county of all dissenters. Reed Peck, who was a member of the church at Far West and a member of the Danites, gives the following account of its origins.

“Jared Carter, Geo. W. Robinson and Sampson Avard under the instruction of the presidency … formed a secret military society called ‘The Daughter of Zion’ [Danites] and were holding meetings to initiate members. The principles taught by Sampson Avard as spokesman, were that, ‘as the Lord had raised up a prophet [Joseph Smith] in these last days like unto Moses, it shall be the duty of this band to obey him in all things, and whatever he requires you shall perform, being ready to give up life and property for the advancement of the ‘cause’, no person shall be suffered to speak evil or disrespectfully of the presidency. The secret signs and purposes of the society are not to be revealed on pain of death.… All the principles of the Society tended to give the presidency unlimited power over the property, persons and…lives of the members of the church as physical force was to be resorte[d] to if necessary, to accomplish their designs. The blood of my best friend must flow by my own hands if I would be a faithful Danite, should the prophet command it...Sampson Avard presented the society to the presidency who blessed them and accepted their services.” [34] (emphasis added) 

     That Joseph Smith condoned the Danite band is made clear from the following statement he recorded in his journal, “We have a company of Danites in these times, to put right physically that which is not right, and to cleanse the Church of very great evils which hitherto existed among us inasmuch as they cannot be put to right by teachings & persuasyons [sic].”[35]

     The secret doctrine of blood atonement, which was practiced in Far West and later in Nauvoo, began with the formation of this Danite Band. This doctrine taught that Christ’s blood could not atone for certain sins such as murder and apostasy. The sinner’s own blood had to be shed in order to have those sins forgiven. Therefore, to kill the sinner was considered an act of mercy on his behalf. The Danites would be active throughout Joseph Smith’s life. John D. Lee, one of Joseph Smith’s personal bodyguards, recorded, “I know of many men being killed in Nauvoo by the Danites. It was the rule that all the enemies of Joseph Smith should be killed, and I know of many a man who was quietly put out of the way by the orders of Joseph Smith and His Apostles while the church was there. [emphasis added]”[36]

Dissenters Driven Out

In early June of 1838, at Far West, Sidney Rigdon of the First Presidency preached his infamous ‘Salt Sermon.’ He had become very bitter toward the dissenters in the church as was reflected in his rendering of Matthew 5:13, the text for his sermon. He inferred that the dissenters were salt that had lost its savor and that it was the duty of the Saints to trample them under their feet. In a short speech Joseph Smith sanctioned what had been said by Rigdon, adding, “I don’t want the brethren to act unlawfully but will tell them one thing, Judas was a traitor, and instead of hanging himself was hung by Peter.”[37] This sermon prompted the Danites to issue the following threat to dissenters Oliver Cowdery, David and John Whitmer, William W. Phelps and Lyman E. Johnson, in June, 1838.

“Whereas the citizens of Caldwell county have borne with the abuse received from you at different times and on different occasions, until it is no longer to be endured; neither will they endure it any longer, having exhausted all the patience they have.… Out of the county you shall go, and no power shall save you…. For there is but one decree for you, which is depart, depart, or a more fatal calamity shall befall you, we will put you from the County of Caldwell; so help us God.”[38]

      Regarding the Danite expulsion of these dissenters, D. Michael Quinn wrote, “Counselor Rigdon told Apostle Orson Hyde at Far West that ‘it was the imperative duty of the Church to obey the word of Joseph Smith, or the presidency, without question or inquiry, and that if there were any that would not, they should have their throats cut from ear [to] ear.’”[39] John Whitmer, who had been called by revelation to be the Church Historian, gives the following account of what happened next.

“Smith called a council of the leaders together, in which council he stated that any person who said a word against the heads of the Church, should be driven over these prairies as a chased deer by a pack of hounds, having an allusion to the Gideonites [Danites] as they were termed, to justify themselves in their wicked designs…. They had threatened us to kill us, if we did not make restitutions to them, by upholding them in their wicked purposes and designs…. To our great astonishment, when we were on the way home from Liberty, Clay County, we met the families of Oliver Cowdery and L. E. Johnson, whom they had driven from their homes, and robbed them of all their goods, save clothing, bedding, etc. While we were gone Jo. and Rigdon and their band of Gadiantons kept up a guard, and watched our houses, and abused our families, and threatened them, if they were not gone by morning, they would be drove out, and threatened our lives, if they ever saw us in Far West.”[40]  

     Fear of similar treatment temporarily controlled opposition from other concerned church members who did not want to be labeled apostates and who could not afford to lose favor with the church leaders who controlled the money and the land.[41]

     The Danites’ activities reflected the increasing aggression of the church leadership, a trend that was underscored by the inflammatory speeches of Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon and others. Thus, the Danites were not an aberration of Mormon attitudes and teachings; instead, they represented mainstream Mormonism at that time and place.[42]

The Gentiles and the Saints

     The dissenters dealt with, church leaders now turned their attention to another irritant, the Gentile (non-Mormon) population in the area around Far West. When Joseph and Sidney arrived from Kirtland, there were approximately three thousand Mormons in Missouri, most of them located in Caldwell County. A month after his arrival, Joseph issued a revelation instructing the Saints in America and abroad to come and help build the kingdom of God in the West. Between March and October, more than five thousand Mormons responded to the call and migrated to Missouri.

     As land in Caldwell County became scarce, the Mormon leaders directed new arrivals into the surrounding counties. In May, the town of Adam-Ondi-Ahman was established in Daviess County. This town, according to one of Joseph Smith’s revelations, was the place where Adam’s family fled when expelled from the Garden of Eden. In July, the community of DeWitt in Carroll County was established. Mormon immigrants also settled in Chariton, Clinton, Livingston, Ray and many more adjacent counties. The Mormon population in Missouri eventually reached 10,000 with the number per county ranging from 1800 to 4500 people.[43]

    Understandably, the original settlers of these counties were alarmed at this rapid influx of outsiders. The oaths and activities of the Danites also concerned them. Many citizens took their concerns directly to Governor Boggs.

     Undaunted by the concerns of the non-Mormon population, Sidney Rigdon issued another inflammatory oration, this time at a large Fourth of July celebration in Far West with many Missourians in attendance. He condemned all those who had persecuted the church in the past and gave a solemn warning to all present and future enemies of the Saints.

 “We are wearied of being smitten, and tired of being trampled upon.… But from this day and hour, we will suffer it no more.…  And that mob that comes on us to disturb us, it shall be between us and them a war of extermination; for we will follow them till the last drop of their blood is spilled, or else they will have to exterminate us; for we will carry the seat of war to their own houses and their own families, and one party or the other shall be utterly destroyed.”[44] (emphasis added)

      Fawn Brodie describes the response of the Saints to Rigdon’s speech, “The crowd broke into wild cheering and then shouted in unison with a thunder that carried over the prairies: ‘Hosanna, hosanna to God and the Lamb!’ The Gentiles, hands on their guns, slipped away silently. Joseph imprudently allowed the speech to be published in the Liberty press and had copies distributed in pamphlet form. The Missouri newspapers replied with tirades of abuse.”[45]    

     As news of Rigdon’s speech spread through the northern Missouri counties, rancor between the Missourians and the Mormons intensified.

 “The fact that the Mormon leaders violated the civil rights of their own people by driving out dissenters from their midst caused many non-Mormons to conclude that they were dealing with a very dangerous group. As they heard reports by those who were driven out, they became increasingly fearful of the Mormons.”[46]

     Lyman Wight, who headed up a company of Danites in Adam-Ondi-Ahman, exhorted his fellow Saints to make war on the citizens of Missouri who would not embrace the Mormon faith declaring, “they ought to be damned, and sent to hell, where they properly belonged.”[47] Interestingly enough, according to historian Stephen C. LeSueur, the records of the Saints report no trouble with non-Mormons prior to the Fourth of July speech by Rigdon, suggesting that the Mormons’ fear of persecution was exaggerated and unfounded at that time. [48] 

Election Day Brawl

     Reed Peck, church member and eye witness to the events at Far West, recounts the activities of church leaders concerning the August 1838 election.

“Previous to the General Election a meeting was called…. Sampson Avard informed those present of a neglect of duty they had been guilty of in not inquiring of the Lord through the Prophet what persons should be supported as candidates at the coming election…. A committee was forthwith appointed to wait on the presidency and the result was an order for printed tickets to be sent about the county to each precinct that all may know for whom to vote. Saturday the tickets were struck off, and on the next day Sampson Avard distributed them among a large collection of Danites from all parts of the county, with the accompanying word that they were according to the will of God which was sufficient to make nearly every person vote that ticket and no other.”[49]  

     Election day, August 6, 1838, saw numbers of Missourians and Mormons travel to Gallatin, Missouri to vote. Candidate William Peniston, who justifiably feared the Mormons would vote as a bloc against him, delivered a warning to the assembled crowd. After denouncing the Mormons as horse thieves, liars, counterfeiters and dupes, he cautioned the settlers that permitting the Mormons to vote would result in the Missourians losing that right in the future. When the Missourians then attempted to keep the Mormons from voting, a confrontation ensued.

“The participants used no guns, but struck at one another with whips, clubs, rocks and knives…. The Mormons knocked dozens of men to the ground, and several Missourians, foreheads and faces bleeding, were carried off…on the opposite side, a Mormon retreated with a knife between his shoulders. The conflict raged briefly but intensely.” [50] 

      This incident destroyed the fragile peace that had existed between the two groups. When false reports quickly spread that two Mormons had been killed and that the Missourians were forming a mob, Sidney Rigdon reacted by declaring, “We are the people of God, and the only people that believe in his Word…. We will be no more driven from this blessed land…. We will bathe our swords in the vital blood of the Missourians, or die in the attempt!"[51]

     Over the next few weeks, Mormons and non-Mormons alike spread exaggerated reports of mob action. Millers refused to grind Mormon grain at any price, flour in Far West soon disappeared and food became scarce. Mormons began stealing food from the settlers and armed bands of Missourians “prowled about, firing haystacks and grainaries, stealing horses and cattle and whipping Mormon farmers.”[52] When the settlers demanded that the Mormons leave DeWitt, Joseph Smith retaliated by reinforcing the town with two hundred newly arrived Canadian converts. In response, the Missourians laid siege to DeWitt in earnest, firing on everyone who approached. 

“Under cover of darkness Joseph made his way to the beleaguered town. He found his people desperate for food and fuel and pathetically eager for miracles. The Missourians had caught some of the men out foraging and had beaten them into unconsciousness with hickory withes.”[53]

In a speech to his people, Joseph Smith declared,

“If the people will let us alone…we will preach the gospel in peace. But if they come on us to molest us, we will establish our religion by the sword. We will trample down our enemies and make it one gore of blood from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean. I will be to this generation a second Mohammed, whose motto in treating for peace was ‘the Alcoran or the Sword.’ So shall it eventually be with us—Joseph Smith or the Sword!”[54]

     On Thursday, October 18, by order of the first presidency, David Patten led 150 men in a raid on Gallatin, Missouri.

 “The Mormon soldiers, finding themselves in possession of the town, looted the small shops, piling clothes, bedding, and other merchandise in the street, and then loaded the plunder on their horses and wagons to haul back to Diahman. Before leaving they set fire to the town.” [55] (Incredibly, a store where the Saints had been given goods on credit was one of the buildings they burned down).   

     The loot was taken to the Bishop of the church to be consecrated for the use of the Saints. Joseph had taught his followers that the ancient order of things had returned and the time had arrived for the riches of the Gentiles to be consecrated to the house of Israel [the Mormons].[56] Reed Peck, who witnessed these events, records the following.

“[The Mormon raiding parties] were constantly bringing in plunder and reducing the dwellings to ashes.... For ten days the Mormons were employed in this way without opposition, pillaging houses harvesting the corn and collecting the horses, cattle and hogs of the frightened citizens.... The citizens of Daviess, men women and children, fled through the sno [sic] in wagons on horseback and on foot after the plundering & burning was commenced.” [57] 

     On the one hand, the Mormon soldiers claimed they were a state-sponsored militia but on the other hand, they felt justified in their illegal acts against the citizens of Missouri, claiming their activities were sanctioned by the Lord. They even came up with code words for their acquisitions; hogs were bear, cattle were buffalo, and stolen goods were consecrated property. Apparently they felt they were not really stealing if the plunder was taken to the common storehouse for the use of all the Saints. It is estimated that the Saints burned as many as 100 cabins and stores, driving scores of non-Mormon families from their homes. By the end of October, nearly all non-Mormon citizens had fled Daviess County.[58] 

The Missouri Mormon War

      On October 25th, 1838, in a move that would initiate the Missouri Mormon War, David Patten led his troops in an attack against a Missouri militia camped at Crooked River, an act which later caused the Mormons to be charged with treason.[59] The Mormons had received word that three of their men had been taken prisoner and their homes burned. Patten and his men were determined to rescue them. The Mormons succeeded in scattering the militia, but the battle claimed the lives of three of the brethren, one of them being Patten. (Note that Patten’s death prevented the fulfillment of Joseph Smith’s prophecy of April 17, l838. In this prophecy Joseph  stated that Patten  would go on a mission for the church the following year.)[60]

     The Mormons won this encounter but it would mark the beginning of the end of their militant activities in Missouri. The battle was reported to Governor Boggs as a massacre committed by the Mormons. On October 27, Boggs responded to the reports by issuing the following extermination order, “The Mormons must be treated as enemies and must be exterminated or driven from the state, if necessary for the public good. Their outrages are beyond all description.”[61] 

Haun’s Mill Massacre and Crooked River Atrocities

      When Joseph realized the seriousness of the situation, he instructed his people in outlying areas to gather back to Far West for safety. One small group of Mormons did not heed his warning and remained at Haun’s Mill, a few miles outside of town. On October 30, two hundred Missouri militiamen, some of whom had been in the battle of Crooked River, attacked the mill and massacred seventeen Mormons in a brutal manner.[62] Although this cold blooded act certainly cannot be justified, D. Michael Quinn puts it into perspective by showing that the action of the Danites at the Battle of Crooked River led to the slaughter at Haun’s Mill five days later.

 “Apostle David W. Patten (a Danite captain with the code-name ‘Fear Not’) told his men [at Crooked River]: ‘Go ahead, boys, rake them down.’ The highest ranking Mormon charged with murder for obeying this order was Apostle Parley P. Pratt who allegedly took the careful aim of a sniper in killing one Missourian and then severely wounding militiaman Samuel Tarwater. This was after Apostle Patten received a fatal stomach wound. In their fury at the sight of their fallen leader, some of the Danites mutilated the unconscious Tarwater ‘with their swords’ striking him lengthwise in the mouth, cutting off his under teeth, and breaking his lower jaw; cutting off his cheeks…and leaving him [for] dead.

      “He survived to press charges against Pratt for attempted murder…. A generally unacknowledged dimension of both the extermination order and the Haun’s Mill massacre, however, is that they resulted from Mormon actions in the Battle of Crooked River. Knowingly or not, Mormons had attacked state troops, and this had a cascade effect. Local residents feared annihilation…  Upon receiving news of the injuries and death of state troops at Crooked River, Governor Boggs immediately drafted his extermination order...because the Mormons ‘have made war upon the people of this state.' Worse, the killing of one Missourian and mutilation of another while he was defenseless at Crooked River led to the mad-dog revenge by Missourians in the slaughter at Haun's Mill.” [63] 

Terms for Peace

     In accordance with Bogg’s extermination order, the Missouri militias began surrounding Far West. Joseph, knowing he was defeated, sent his representatives to negotiate, with instructions to “beg like a dog for peace.”[64] The terms of the agreement were severe. 

·        The Mormon leaders would surrender their arms and be tried for treason.

·        All Mormon property would be confiscated for the purpose of liquidating their debts caused by the war.

·        All Mormons must leave the state. 

     Realizing that the only alternative to these terms was the extermination of his people, Joseph surrendered on November 1. Thus ended the Missouri Mormon War of l838. In a hasty trial called by General Lucas, Joseph and six of his leaders were charged and found guilty of treason, murder, arson, burglary, and other crimes. General Lucas ordered them to be publicly executed at nine a.m. the following morning in the Far West square.

     It was only because General Alexander Doniphan refused to carry out the execution orders that the Mormons were spared and taken instead to Liberty, where they were incarcerated. It should be noted that although Doniphan initially befriended the Saints and was responsible for sparing the lives of their leaders, he eventually came to regard them as “fanatics, capable of directing their vengeance against innocent citizens.”[65]

     Back in Far West, the Saints prepared to leave the state in compliance with the Governor’s order. In response to a petition from Brigham Young and several church leaders, the Missouri Legislature appropriated $2,000[66] to aid the Saints in their winter exodus from the state. Brigham Young also instructed 200 of the wealthiest Mormon families to pool their resources and set up supply stations for the Saints as they fled from Missouri. The refugees crossed the Mississippi River and arrived in Quincy, Illinois, where they were received warmly by the residents. 

Joseph Escapes

     In April 1839, after a change of venue was approved, Joseph Smith and the other prisoners held in the Liberty jail were ordered to Boone County for trial. While in transit, Joseph and Hyrum managed to escape.

“On the way to Boone County, Hyrum bought a jug of whisky sweetened with honey. To this propitiatory offering Joseph added a bribe of $800. It was enough. The sheriff obligingly sold them several of the horses…. The guard got drunk and went conveniently to sleep. Joseph mounted a fine dark chestnut stallion and with the other prisoners close behind him pounded up the road toward his old settlement, where he joined the last remnant of the Mormons who were headed for the Mississippi.”[67]  

     Joseph remained a fugitive from justice until his death in 1844. Though some have tried to blame the troubles of the Saints in Far West on Sidney Rigdon, Joseph Smith alone must shoulder the blame, as historian Stephen LeSueur points out.

“The militant spirit and lawless activities of the Saints can be traced directly to Joseph Smith. Some Mormons later asserted that Sidney Rigdon was responsible for the excesses emanating from the Mormon leadership. Although Rigdon, who was known to have a violent temperament, played an important role in these events, nearly all Mormon accounts—both contemporary journals and reminiscences—place Joseph Smith at the head of Mormon activities. He knew and approved of the Danites. He directed the plundering and burning of non-Mormon homes in Daviess County. In addition, the Mormons destroyed a considerable amount of property in Daviess, much more than was destroyed by the anti-Mormon vigilantes. And the evidence shows that the Mormons were not acting on orders from state militia officers, as they later claimed, but on their own initiative.”[68] 

     Both sides in this war broke laws and overreacted to rumors, and both groups felt justified in their actions. The Missourians felt they were defending their rights as U.S. citizens from an invasion of religious fanatics who seemed to be determined to take over every community they moved into. The Mormons, on the other hand, perceived themselves as ‘the Lord’s chosen people’ on a mission to build the kingdom of God. This conviction resulted in the belief that they were invincible, a mind-set which ultimately led to their defeat.

     Perhaps one of the few winners in this tragic war was John Corrill. He had been a faithful follower of Joseph Smith, a member of the Danites, and a member of the Missouri legislature, so accordingly was a key player in the events which transpired. When he repudiated his beliefs in Mormonism, he returned to, and possibly embraced more appreciatively, his original Christian heritage. Of his years in Mormonism he wrote the following.

“When I retrace our track, and view the doings of the church for six years past, I can see nothing that convinces me that God has been our leader; calculation and calculation has failed, and plan after plan has been overthrown, and our prophet seemed not to know the event till too late. If he said, go up and prosper, still we did not prosper; but have labored and toiled, and waded through trials, difficulties and temptations of various kinds, in hopes of deliverance. But no deliverance came.

        “The promises failed, and time after time we have been disappointed; and still were commanded, in the most rigid manner, to follow him, which the church did, until many were led into the commission of crime...many have been obliged to abandon their country, their families and all they possessed, and great affliction has been brought upon the whole church.…. My advice is to follow [common sense].… In preference to those pretended visions and revelations which have served no better purpose than to increase your trouble, and which would bind you, soul and body, under the most intolerable yoke.”[69] 


      Thus, with the Saints’ expulsion from Missouri, one of the most tragic chapters in Mormon history ended—and another one began. The Saints soon migrated from Quincy to Commerce, Illinois. After much diligent labor and many deaths due to malaria, the mosquito-infested swamplands of Commerce were transformed into a thriving city. The Saints renamed their community “Nauvoo…the city beautiful” and it quickly grew to become the dominant political and economic force in the State of Illinois. Free of their enemies, the Saints saw this as an excellent opportunity to build their utopian community of Zion.

      The Mormons had been warmly welcomed by the people of Illinois for two main reasons; sympathy and politics. Initially, the residents of Illinois felt concern and pity for the plight of the Mormon refugees from Missouri. In addition, there was the awareness by Illinois politicians of the potential strength of the Mormons as a voting bloc. As a result, the Mormons were soon able to obtain from the Illinois State legislature, a city charter that was used to great advantage by Joseph Smith.

“[It created] a fairly autonomous government built to the church’s unique social and communitarian specifications. Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, merged the executive, judicial, and legislative functions of the charter into a single theocratic system and thereby challenged standard American governmental practices…the charter [also] provided for establishment of a powerful state militia, called the Nauvoo Legion, which Smith commanded.… All of this suggests…in Nauvoo the civil and ecclesiastical governments were essentially identical in the person of Joseph Smith and the charter was used as his own device, ‘concocted…for the salvation of the church’, according to the prophet.”[70] 

Joseph’s Influence and Power

            As a result of the Charter, Joseph’s influence expanded greatly in Nauvoo. He was not only prophet, seer and revelator to the church, but mayor of the city, trustee in trust for all church real estate, Chief Magistrate, editor of the newspaper [Times and Seasons], head of the school system and Lieutenant General of the Nauvoo Legion, one of the largest military forces in America and second to none in the state of Illinois. All eligible male citizens between the ages of eighteen and forty-five were compelled to join the Legion, and by l844, it boasted of approximately 4,000 recruits, while the entire United States Army had only 8,453.[71] 

The Nauvoo Temple and the Masonic Connection

      In the spring of 1841, ground was broken for the Nauvoo Temple. Speaking of the Temple, Joseph boldly declared.

“The first great object before us, and the saints generally, is to help forward the completion of the temple and Nauvoo House—buildings which are now in progress according to the revelations, and which must be completed to secure the salvation of the church in the last days; for God requires…a house wherein his servants may be instructed, and endowed with power from on high, to prepare them to…proclaim the fullness of the gospel for the last time, and bind up the law, and seal up the testimony, leaving this generation without excuse.… Soon the kings and queens the princes and nobles…will come up hither to visit the temple of our God and to inquire concerning his strange works.” [72]

      Great effort and sacrifice on the part of the Saints was required to build the temple in Nauvoo which soon became the center of religious activity.

“The Nauvoo Temple was the focus of religious innovations which revolutionized Mormonism. Ordinances for the dead, as well as novel and secret ordinances for the living, including marriage for eternity, plural marriage, and other extraordinary familial arrangements, were introduced by Smith and Young.… Participation in Temple building became a test of faith, since anyone who did not tithe was barred from its ordinances.” [73]  

      The Saints were well aware of a previous revelation given through Joseph, in which he implied that those who did not tithe would burn, (Doc. and Cov. 64:5), and therefore many gave beyond their means to avoid such a curse.

      The Masonic Lodge was established in Nauvoo on March 15, 1842 and Joseph was installed as grand chaplain. A short time later, Joseph called seven of his leading men together and instructed them “in the principles and order of the Priesthood, attending to washings, anointings, endowments and the communication of keys” which Joseph said instituted the ancient order of things for the first time in these last days.[74] Soon afterwards, Masonic rituals began to appear, as a part of the Mormon Temple ceremonies.

“The men were stripped, washed, anointed, and then, as in the Masonic ceremony, dressed in a special ‘garment’ which was held together with strings…. The Masonic square and compass were cut into the garment on the breast and a slash was made across the knee…deep enough to penetrate the flesh…. There was also a slash in the garment across the abdomen, symbolic of the disemboweling that would be the fate of anyone who revealed the sacred secrets. After swearing to an oath of secrecy the initiate was dressed in white robes and permitted to witness a long allegorical drama depicting the creation of the earth and the fall of Adam….

      “After being expelled from the Garden of Eden, the actors representing Adam and Eve donned tiny white aprons which were exactly like the Masonic aprons except that they were painted with green fig leaves. Then followed instruction in certain grips, passwords, and ‘keys.’ Each man was given a secret name by which he was to be known in the kingdom of heaven…. Joseph made free use of other Masonic symbols—the beehive, the all-seeing eye, the two clasped hands, and the point within the circle…. The temple mysteries were closely bound up with Joseph’s new theories about the nature of heaven and hell. After death, he said, all souls went to the world of spirits—similar to purgatory of Catholic theology—where they remained in a not unpleasant imprisonment until the Judgment Day.”[75]  

     Joseph’s use of secret Masonic rituals and bloody oaths in his temple ceremonies infuriated the Masons outside of Nauvoo and by 1844 they declared all Mormon lodges clandestine, and revoked their charters.[76]

       Though the temple was never completed, some special rooms in the attic were made ready for tithe-payers to receive their endowments, which ceremonies included signs, grips, tokens, and garments, copied from Masonic ceremonies. Between December of 1845, and February of 1846, more than 5,000 members received their temple endowments.[77] On October 9, 1848, the temple burned. Only the walls were left standing. Shortly afterwards a violent windstorm toppled three of the walls and the remaining wall was later blown up as a precautionary measure. 


      As early as 1841, rumors had begun to circulate that Joseph Smith was teaching a spiritual wife doctrine, otherwise known as polygamy. John Bennett, Quartermaster of Illinois and experienced military leader had converted to the church in 1840. He played a prominent role in the development of this system of plural marriage. He had been attracted to Mormonism because he viewed it as a growing enterprise. Joseph took Bennett into his confidence and granted him several influential positions.

“Bennett was in Nauvoo from September, 1840, to May, 1842. During that time he had part in drafting and promoting the city charter, was mayor from the first election in February, 184l, until his departure, and was instrumental in starting the Masonic lodge. He was chancellor of the city university…[and was Major General] of the Nauvoo Legion of which he was architect, organizer, and functional commander.”[78] 

      Smith and Bennett, who had quickly become best friends, were both involved in taking spiritual wives. However, their relationship abruptly ended when each sought the affections of Nancy Rigdon, nineteen-year-old daughter of Sidney Rigdon. Joseph asked Nancy to become his wife but she refused him.[79] When Bennett, who himself had seduced many women, threatened to expose Joseph’s illicit relationships, their friendship ended and Bennett was excommunicated.

     Though the secret teaching of ‘spiritual wifery’ was only to be shared with the upper echelons of the church, by 1843 rumors of the practice were widespread. This caused much confusion among church members as the leadership continued to steadfastly deny that any such practice existed. Joseph was finally forced to bring forth a revelation to legitimize the practice and on July 12, l843, he dictated his revelation to his secretary William Clayton. Below are excerpts from Joseph’s revelation. 

“Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you, my servant Joseph…. I reveal unto you a new and everlasting covenant [polygamy]….  And if ye abide not in that covenant then are ye damned for no one can reject this covenant and be permitted to enter into my glory…. And I command my handmaid Emma Smith to abide and cleave unto my servant Joseph, and to none else. But if she will not abide this commandment she shall be destroyed…and again, verily I say unto you, if a man marry a wife…by the new and everlasting covenant, and it is sealed unto them by the Holy Spirit…then shall they be gods because they have all power…. And if he [priesthood member] have ten virgins given unto him by this law, he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him, and they are given unto him, therefore is he justified.” [80] 

Baptism for the Dead

     The building of the Nauvoo Temple was not only necessary for this sealing of spiritual wives, but it was also required for the new rite of Baptism for the Dead, which had been revealed to Joseph from the Lord.

“For a baptismal font there is not upon the earth; that they, my saints, may be baptized for those who are dead; for this ordinance belongeth to my house…. But behold at the end of…[the appointed time] your baptisms for your dead cannot be acceptable unto me; and if you do not these things at the end of the appointment, ye shall be rejected as a church with your dead, saith the Lord your God…. For I deign to reveal unto my church things which have been kept hid from before the foundation of the world; things that pertain to the dispensation of the fullness of time.”[81] 

     The baptismal font was dedicated on November 8, 1841, and the first rites were held on November 21, when about forty people were baptized for the dead. On December 28, Joseph Smith wrote in his journal, “I baptized Sidney Rigdon in the font, for and in behalf of his parents; also baptized Reynolds Cahoon and others.”[82] 

The Decline of the City Beautiful

      Although the issue of polygamy was the primary cause for the disintegration of Nauvoo, there were many factors that contributed. Testimonies given by ‘ungodly gentile neighbors’ attest to the fact that the Mormons were stealing livestock and other goods. They were not only stealing from their Illinois neighbors but also were making large purchases on credit from Missouri residents and then refusing to pay for them. William Law, who was counselor to Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, recalled a meeting which both Joseph and Hyrum Smith attended. Hyrum, presiding Patriarch of the church, commented.

“ ‘The Missourians have robbed, plundered and murdered our people. We should take our revenge on them as thoroughly as possible, and regain what we have lost in Missouri. The simplest way would be if our people would go to Missouri and buy their horses and cattle on credit, and then not pay for them; and our merchants would go to St. Louis and take their large quantities of goods on credit and then, when the notes became due, simply not pay them…’ Some of those present applauded the proposition, and said that would be only fair.”[83]

     The Saints who took part in the unlawful thefts, apparently felt justified because they themselves had been forced to leave their land and possessions behind in Missouri when they were ordered to leave the state.

“Some of the Mormons, embittered against Gentiles because of their recent experience and impoverished because of their forced abandonment of homes in Missouri, stole food, livestock, and other things from farms in the Nauvoo area. And non-Mormons soon learned that trips to Nauvoo in search of stolen goods, or to seek payment for items sold to the Mormons, were fruitless—and could even be frightening. The highly unified, separatist community did not cooperate with outsiders, and some of the Saints resorted to intimidation.”[84]

The Whistling and Whittling Brigade     

      This intimidation was exemplified by the activities of a band called “the whistling and whittling brigade” that bullied innocent victims out of Nauvoo. Hawkins Taylor, Sheriff of Lee County, Iowa, explains how this brigade operated when he sent officers into Nauvoo to serve writs for the purpose of reclaiming stolen property from the Saints.

“Several hundred men were hired to work on the temple. These men had to be fed. To do this, they lived on the Smith (stolen) cattle, sheep, and grain of all kinds, all taken to the temple, consecrated and then given to the Lord’s workmen on the Lord’s temple… The people [farm owners] had no remedy. The Mormons were the majority in the county and had all the officers of importance. If a writ was taken out, the officer was whittled out of the city.

      “The process of whittling out an officer was as follows: A great tall man by the name of (Hosea) Stout was the captain of the Whittling society, and he had about a dozen assistants. They all had great bowie knives and would get a long piece of pine board and get up close to the officer and pretend to be cutting the pine board, but would cut over it and cut near the officer. In the meantime, small boys would get tin pans, old bells and all sorts of things to make a noise with and surround the officer. No one would touch or say a word to him, but the noise drowned all that he would say.

      “The result would be that he would get out of the city as soon as possible and never come back again. The Mormons would send teams out, load [them] with what they found and take it before the eyes of the owner. Farmers were forced to sell out their farms for whatever they could and went away. I believe that I [Hawkins Taylor] was the only officer that ever took a prisoner from Nauvoo without being whittled out.”[85]

The Council of Fifty

      In March of l844, three months before his death, Joseph Smith formally organized the Council of Fifty, a secret society which was intended to represent the political kingdom of God on earth. It was to be the nucleus of a world government for the Millennium.[86] The members were known as “princes in the Kingdom of God” and Joseph was crowned “king to reign over the House of Israel forever.”[87]

      Duties of this exclusive group included promoting Joseph Smith’s candidacy for President of the United States and providing bodyguards for church leaders in order to deal with apostates and enemies of the church, much like the Danites had done in Far West. In fact, former Danites accounted for one-third of the men Smith admitted into the Council of Fifty, all of whom were required by Smith to take an oath of secrecy or face the penalty of death.[88] 

The Death of Nauvoo

      Immorality and internal corruption in Nauvoo inevitably brought about its downfall. In the spring of 1844, Hyrum Smith went before the Nauvoo Stake High Council and read Joseph Smith’s revelation on polygamy. Publicly the leadership repeatedly denounced this practice while secretly many of them continued taking ‘spiritual wives’ and having their marriages sealed in the newly built, but unfinished temple. Despite the secrecy, rumors of these activities increased among the laity, and innocent Saints gathering to Nauvoo were horrified to discover that the “City Beautiful” had become instead, a cesspool of iniquity.

      The issue of polygamy climaxed in June of 1844, when a reform group led by William Law, member of the First Presidency, determined to expose Joseph Smith’s illegal and unethical activities.

“Law had come from Canada, a wealthy man. He had invested in real estate, construction, and steam mills, fostering more than anyone else the sorely needed industrialization of the city. In the beginning Law hid his resentment over the prophet’s monopoly of the management of real estate in and about the city, though he thought it unseemly in a man of God. He had been particularly shocked when Joseph threatened to excommunicate any wealthy convert who came to Nauvoo and purchased land without his counsel…. The rift between William Law and the prophet thus began in a fundamental divergence of economic attitudes.

      “The final break in their friendship, however, came from a question, not of finance, but of fidelity. With sorrow and suspicion Law watched Joseph ever enlarging his circle of wives. Then the prophet tried to approach Law’s own wife, Jane. In a violent session with his leader, Law called for a reformation and an end to the debauchery that was corrupting the church. Joseph argued, pleaded, and quoted the Old Testament, to no avail. Law threatened that unless Joseph went before the High Council, confessed his sins, and promised repentance, he would expose his seductions before the whole world.

      ‘I’ll be damned before I do,’ Law later quoted Joseph as saying. ‘If I admitted to the charges you would heap upon me, it would prove the overthrow of the Church!’ [Law replied] ‘Is not that inevitable already?’ [Joseph retorted] ‘Then we can all go to Hell together and convert it into a heaven by casting the Devil out! Hell is by no means the place this world of fools suppose it to be, but on the contrary, it is quite an agreeable place.’ Outraged by the prophet’s banter, Law turned on his heel, saying bitterly: ‘You can enjoy it then, but as for me, I will serve the Lord our God!’”[89] (emphasis added)

Law’s defiance of Joseph Smith’s authority resulted in his excommunication.

“Law, his wife, and other church dissidents were excommunicated in absentia without having been notified of the proceedings or served with specific charges…. Joseph’s response to events surrounding the abrogation of church justice that characterized the excommunication of William Law suggests a fear of the truth and demonstrates the extent to which he was ready to manipulate organizational and judicial procedures to protect himself against attacks that might expose him to a loss of credibility and power. Tragically, he was apparently unable to appreciate the impropriety of his acts or the consequences in which they would result so convinced was he of the power he wielded.”[90]  

The Expositor

      Undaunted, William Law and several other concerned citizens, were determined to tell the truth. They purchased a printing press and published The Nauvoo Expositor, a newspaper revealing Joseph Smith’s polygamous activities and other false doctrines.

“[The newspaper] condemned the taking of plural wives…opposed Smith’s efforts to hold himself above the law…and the practice of stealing from non-Mormons (spoiling of the gentiles). The Expositor not only opposed Smith’s control of Nauvoo but also held his behavior up to precisely the kind of critical examination that he had managed to avoid within the church…. Moreover, [it] challenged the myth of persecuted innocence upon which the gathering of the Saints at Nauvoo had been based…. The opposition newspaper offered a view of the community which the prophet could not tolerate. Joseph’s conception of Nauvoo as a God-led, separatist theocracy was at stake.” [91] 

      After the first copy of the Expositor was printed, Joseph called a city council meeting in which the decision was made to destroy the press and all copies of the paper, calling it a public nuisance. This was a desperate attempt to conceal damaging information which Joseph realized would destroy the church if made public. He had confided to William Marks, “we are a ruined people if the practice [of polygamy] is not stopped” and had also admitted to Marks that he [Joseph] had been deceived regarding polygamy and wanted the practice stopped in the church.[92] 

The Death of the Prophet

      Time was running out for Joseph – he was not able to undo the damage that had been done. When he was summoned by Governor Ford to stand trial in Carthage for destroying the printing press, he and his brother Hyrum fled across the Mississippi River with hopes of escaping to the west. Many of his followers felt this was a cowardly act. When Joseph received a letter from his wife Emma, begging him to give himself up, he relented and returned to Carthage with Hyrum where they were arrested and jailed on charges of treason, without a preliminary hearing. 

      Destroying the printing press, one of America’s most treasured freedoms, was a serious felony and gave Joseph’s enemies, both in and out of the church, the reason they needed, to bring to an end his excesses and dictatorial rule.

      From his jail cell, on the morning of June 27, Joseph sent an order to Major General Jonathan Dunham to lead the Nauvoo Legion in a military attack on Carthage. But Dunham refused to obey the order for fear of a blood bath with anti-Mormons.[93]

      On the same day, Governor Ford traveled from Carthage to Nauvoo, leaving only a small number of men to guard the prisoners. With his departure, an angry mob gathered at the jail and pushed its way up the stairs to Joseph’s cell. Hyrum was killed first. According to John Taylor, a fellow prisoner, Joseph shot into the advancing crowd with a smuggled six-shooter, killing two men and wounding several.[94] Joseph then sprang to the window where he lifted his hands to heaven and began the Masonic distress cry, “Is there no help for the widow’s son?” Before he could finish, a shot from the door caught him in the back and he fell, mortally wounded, to the earth.[95] (Note: Joseph prophesied in 1843 that he could not be killed within five years from that time, that he had received an unconditional promise from God).[96]  

      In Nauvoo, Joseph had suppressed freedom of speech by destroying the printing press; abused marriage laws by introducing polygamy, taught blasphemy by declaring that men could become gods, condoned stealing from the Gentiles and numerous other illegal acts. Despite these unconscionable activities, his self-image was such that he could make the following claim just one month before his death.

“I have more to boast of than ever any man had. I am the only man that has ever been able to keep a whole church together since the days of Adam…. Neither Paul, John, Peter, nor Jesus ever did it. I boast that no man ever did such a work as I. The followers of Jesus ran away from Him; but the Latter-day Saints never ran away from me yet.”[97]  

      Amazingly, his loyal followers eulogized their beloved prophet as a “martyr” second only to Jesus Christ. The RLDS Doctrine and Covenants records,

“Joseph Smith, the prophet and seer of the Lord, has done more (save Jesus only) for the salvation of men in this world than any other man that ever lived in it…. Hyrum Smith…and Joseph Smith…will be classed among the martyrs of religion; and the reader in every nation, will be reminded that the “Book of Mormon” and this Book of Doctrine and Covenants of the church, cost the best blood of the nineteenth century, to bring it forth for the salvation of a ruined world.” (Doc. and Cov. 113:3a; 6a,b; 1955 ed.)

[1]     Wesley P. Walters, New Light On Mormon Origins From the Palmyra (N.Y.) Revival, (Utah Christian Tract Society, 1967).

[2]     The History of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, hereafter referred to as RLDS Church History, (Independence, Missouri, Herald Publishing House, 1967), Vol. l, p. 9. 

[3]     Although the RLDS Doc. and Cov. 26:2 and 110:20 refer to this angelic messenger as Moroni, the RLDS Church History Vol. 1 page 12, refers to him as Nephi.   

[4]     “The details of the 1823 visitation would have suggested that Smith’s initial meetings with the heavenly messenger were the dramatically successful result of ritual magic, specifically necromancy, communication with the dead.” Dr. D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, pp. 118-119.

[5]     Documentary History of the Mormon Church, (hereafter referred to as LDS Church History), 4:461.

[6]     David Whitmer, Address to All Believers, (Self-published, Richmond Mo. 1887), p. 33.

[7]     Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith the Mormon Prophet, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, second edition, 1971), p.131, Doc. and Cov. 64:6-7.

[8]     Ibid. p. 131. These quotations are from a summary of the grievances of the old settlers published in the “Western Monitor” (Fayette, Missouri, August 2, 1833.)

[9]     David Whitmer, Address to All Believers, p. 54-55.

[10]    When the Lord declared He would raise up one like Moses, He made it clear that He was referring to Jesus Christ not Joseph Smith (See Acts 3:22).

[11]    Doctrine and Covenants, hereafter referred to as Doc. and Cov., (Independence, Mo., Herald Publishing House, 1955 ed.) Sec. 100: 3a,d,e, 5b,c, 6a. Compare this with Luke 6:28.   

[12]    Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Salt Lake City Messenger, May 1995, p.2.

[13]    RLDS Church History, Vol. l, pp.  476-477.

[14]    Reed Peck, Reed Peck Manuscript, (Quincy Adams City, Ill. September, 1839, reprinted by Gerald and Sandra Tanner with permission of James Wardle), p.3.

[15]    “The military experience of Zion’s Camp (rather than any ecclesiastical service) was the basis upon which Smith said he was selecting men for the newly organized Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the Seventy. Unlike other American denominations, the church militant was a literal fact in Mormonism, not just a symbolic slogan.” D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy, p.85.

[16]    Charles M. Larson, By His Own Hand on Papyrus, (Grand Rapids, Mich., published by Institute For Religious Research, revised 1992), pp.12-19.

[17]    RLDS Church History, p. 569. The Book of Abraham was first published in 1842 in serial form in the church periodical, Times and Seasons, and is still used by the Utah Mormon church as a part of the Pearl of Great Price, one of their four books of scripture.

[18]    Book of Abraham, Chapters 3-5. (See The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papers, compiled by H. Michael Marquardt, 198l, available in the archives of the RLDS Church). 

[19]    Tanner, Salt Lake City Messenger, Sept.1992, pp. 1-4.

[20]    Saints Herald, 1860, p. 270, as cited in R.C. Evans, Forty Years in the Mormon Church, Why I Left It, (Toronto, Canada, Lambert Book House, 1976), p. 56.

[21]    RLDS Church History, Vol. 2, p. 47, Note: Elias is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Elijah.

[22]    Brodie, No Man Knows My History, pp. 192, RLDS Church History, Vol. 2, p. 100.

[23]    Ibid.  p. 193.

[24]    Ibid.  p. 193

[25]    Ibid. p. 198. 

[26]    RLDS Church History, Vol. 2, pp. 100-101. See also Tanner, Salt Lake City Messenger, May 1995, p. 3.

[27]    Roger D. Launius, Journal of Mormon History, “The Dynamics of Dissent in the RLDS Church,” p. l47.

[28]    Brodie, No Man Knows My History, pp. 18l-182.

[29]    Ibid. p. 207.

[30]    Ibid. p. 209-210.

[31]    Stephen  C. LeSueur, The l838 Mormon War in Missouri, (Columbia, Mo., University of Missouri Press, 1990), pp. l8-l9.

[32]    John Whitmer’s History, p.22 (available on microfilm in RLDS Historian’s office).

[33]    Reed Peck Manuscript, pp. 6-8, LeSueur, The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri, p. 38.

[34]    Reed Peck Manuscript, pp. 9-11.

[35]    Dean C. Jessee and David J. Whittaker published this entry in Joseph Smith’s journal found in Brigham Young University Studies, (Winter 1988), p. 14.

[36]    John D. Lee, Confessions of John D. Lee, (New York, Bryan, Brand and Company, 1877), p. 284.

[37]    Reed Peck Manuscript, p. 7.

[38]    Senate Document, 189, Feb. 15,1841, pp. 6-7. Testimony given before the judge of the fifth judicial circuit of the state of Missouri, in the trial of Joseph Smith, Jr., and others, for high treason, and other crimes against that state.

[39]    D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy, (Salt Lake City, Signature Books in association with Smith Research Associates, 1994), p. 94.

[40]    John Whitmer History, p. 22.

[41]    Reed Peck Manuscript, p. 7-8.

[42]    LeSueur, The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri, p. 46.

[43]  Ibid. p. 35.

[44]    Brodie, No Man Knows my History, p. 223.

[45]    Ibid. p. 223.

[46]    Tanner, Salt Lake City Messenger, May, l995, p. 7.

[47]    William Swartzell, Mormonism Exposed, (Journal of a Resident in Missouri, from the 28th of May to the 20th of August, 1838, (Pekin, Ohio, A. Ingram Jr., printer, 1840, photomechanical reprint of 1840 ed. by Utah Lighthouse Ministry, Salt Lake City, Utah), p. 13.

[48]    LeSueur, The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri, p. 51.

[49]    Reed Peck Manuscript, p. 14.

[50]    LeSueur, The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri, p. 63.

[51]    Swartzell, Mormonism Exposed, p. 29.

[52]   Brodie, No Man Knows My History, p. 227

[53]    Reed Peck Manuscript, p. 16-2l, Brodie, No Man Knows my History, p. 227-228.

[54]    Brodie, No Man Knows My History, p. 230, 23l.

[55]    LeSueur, The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri, p.117.

[56]    The Reed Peck Manuscript, p. 20.

[57]    Ibid. p.21.

[58]    LeSueur, The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri, p. 124.

[59]    Ibid. p. 139.

[60]    (LDS) Doc. and Cov. Sec.114. This failed prophecy was omitted from the RLDS Doc. and Cov.

[61]    RLDS Church History, Vol. 2, p. 217.

[62]    Brodie, No Man Knows My History, pp. 236-237.

[63]    Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy, pp. 99-100.

[64]    John Corrill, A Brief History of the Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints,  (St. Louis: printed for author, 1839), p.41.

[65]    LeSueur, The 1838 Missouri Mormon War, pp. 169, 189, pp. 249-250.

[66]    RLDS Church History, Vol. 2, p. 283.

[67]    Brodie, No Man Knows My History, p. 255.

[68]    LeSueur, The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri, p. 250.

[69]    Corrill, A Brief History of the Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints, p. 48.

[70]    Ibid, p. 21-22.

[71]    Gary James Bergera, “Joseph Smith and the Hazards of Charismatic Leadership”, cited in the John Whitmer Historical Association Journal, Vol. Six, 1986, p. 34. See also Georgia Metcalf Stewart, How The Church Grew, (Independence, Mo. Herald Publishing House, 1959), p. 181.

[72]    Epistle of the Twelve Apostles to the English Saints, November 15, 1841, Joseph Smith’s History, 4:449, as cited in Flanders, Nauvoo: Kingdom on the Mississippi, p. 179.

[73]    Robert Bruce Flanders, Nauvoo: Kingdom on the Mississippi, (Urbana, Ill., University of Illinois Press, 1965), pp. 208-209.

[74]    LDS Church History, Vol. 5, p. 2, as cited in Brodie, No Man Knows My History, p. 280 See also,  Flanders, Nauvoo: Kingdom on the Mississippi, pp. 247-248.

[75]    Brodie, No Man Knows my History, pp. 280-282.

[76]    S. H. Goodwin, Mormonism and Masonry, p. 40.

[77]    Flanders, Nauvoo: Kingdom on the Mississippi, p. 335-336. “On Sunday, Feb. 8, 1846, the Council of the Twelve met in the Temple attic and dedicated the building to God: ‘We knelt around the altar, and dedicated the building to the Most High. We asked his blessing upon our intended move to the west; also asked him to enable us someday to finish the Temple, and dedicate it to him…and to preserve the building as a monument to Joseph Smith.’ ” See also Hallwas and  Launius, Cultures in Conflict, p. 324.  

[78]    Ibid. p. 260.

[79]    Brodie, No Man Knows my History, p. 311.

[80]    In his diary for July 12, 1843, Joseph made the following entry: “Wednesday, 12th. I received the following revelation in the presence of my brother Hyrum and Elder William Clayton.”  The RLDS Church did not include this revelation in their Doctrine and Covenants. It is, however, recorded as Sec. 132 in the LDS Doctrine and Covenants. 

[81]    Doc. and Cov. Sec. 107: l0d, e, f; 11a,b; 13b, 1955. In 1970 Sec. 107 was moved to the appendix of the Doc. and Cov. and in 1990 was removed from the book.

[82]    Flanders, Nauvoo: Kingdom on the Mississippi, p. 198. 

[83]    John F. Hallwas and Roger D. Launius, Cultures in Conflict, A  Documentary History of the Mormon War in Illinois ,(Logan, Utah, Utah State University Press, 1995), p. 76.

[84]    Ibid. p. 67.

[85]    Ibid  pp. 54-55.

[86]    Gary James Bergera, “Joseph Smith and the Hazards of Charismatic Leadership”, cited in the John Whitmer Historical Association Journal, Vol. 6, 1986, p. 35.

[87]    Zion’s Harbinger and Baneemy’s Organ, 3:53, July 1853, reprinted in Saints’ Herald, 51:73, January 27, 1904, as cited in Flanders, Nauvoo: Kingdom on the Mississippi, p. 292.

[88]    D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy, pp.124, 128-129.

[89]    Brodie, No Man Knows my History, pp. 368-370.

[90]    Bergera, “Joseph Smith and the Hazards of Charismatic Leadership,” cited in John Whitmer Historical Association Journal, Vol. 6, 1986, p. 37.

[91]    Hallwas and Launius, Cultures in Conflict, p. 142.

[92]    Zion’s Harbinger and Baneemy’s Organ, 3:52,53, July, 1853.

[93]    Tanner, Salt Lake City Messenge, May 1995, p. l3.

[94]    Tanner, Mormonism: Shadow or Reality? (Salt Lake City, Utah, Modern Microfilm Co. 1972), p. 259. John Taylor was one of the twelve apostles at the time of Joseph’s death.

[95]    Brodie, No Man Knows my History, p. 394. 

[96]    Hallwas and  Launius, Cultures in Conflict, pp. 256-257.

[97]    LDS Church History, Volume 6, p. 408-409.

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