THE LATTER-DAY SAINTS
The Mormon Battle for the American West
On this date, April 6, 1830, the Mormon Church – which became known as the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints – was founded by prophet Joseph Smith. Over the years, the church has been violently opposed by many people, but embraced by millions of others. There is no denying that the Mormons have a strange history, which is steeped in occult traditions and lore, tainted by violence and bloodshed, tied to its polygamist past and of course, still considered mysterious and unforgiving to outsiders. But there is no denying that the Mormons also have a unique place in our history. They were the first truly American religious faith, they withstood all manner of persecution and hatred, they heroically conquered the American West and carved a “promised land” out of the Utah desert.
Founder of the Mormon Church, Joseph Smith
The founder of the Mormon religious movement was Joseph Smith, who was born in Vermont in 1805, but moved to western New York with his parents and eight siblings when he was 15. His father was a farmer and Smith grew up in an area that was rife with religious zealotry. Things were so bad that it had been given the derogatory nickname of “the Burned-Over District” because so many evangelists, revival meetings and religious renewals had hit the common folks that the religion had been “burnt out of them.” But religion had not been burned out of Joseph Smith…
One day, while praying in his upstairs bedroom, the 17-year-old Smith claimed that he was visited by a figure that was bathed in light that was “as bright as the midday sun.” The figure, an angel named Moroni, told Smith that God had work for him to do. The angel returned to visit Smith several more times in the years that followed and eventually led him to discover the golden tablets upon which were engraved the words that would become the basis of the Mormon Church. Smith was the only person to ever see these tablets (which could only be read with a pair of “magic spectacles”) but by 1832, he had translated what became known as The Book of Mormon, which held that two tribes of Israelites had been guided by God to North America 600 years before the birth of Christ. These people had built a powerful civilization but then had turned away from God and had fallen from grace, regressing into the Native American tribes that the Europeans found living on the continent centuries later. The angel Moroni was the last of God’s true prophets in North America and he had hidden the golden tablets until Smith could reveal the Mormon story to the world.
Joseph Smith and the Angel Moroni, who he claimed guided him to the golden plates that became the Book of Mormon.
Perhaps unsurprisingly in an era of bizarre religious movements, these fantastical tales met a receptive audience and the ranks of the religion that Smith was calling the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints began to swell. Just as unsurprisingly, Smith and his followers began to meet resistance and persecution for their unorthodox beliefs.
Smith and his followers were driven out of western New York by mainstream Christians who felt they were blasphemous. They moved to Kirtland, Ohio, on the southern shores of Lake Erie where they made plans to start a new Mormon community. The Saints believed that it was essential that a new Zion be built in the American wilderness so that they could create a Mormon paradise on Earth that would be duplicated in Heaven.
At first, the 2,000 Mormons were met with open arms by the people of Kirtland, but it wasn’t long before they wore out their welcome. Smith, a handsome, charismatic man, began to spread a philosophy of polygamy (he would eventually take on 49 wives of his own), although he called it “celestial marriage” and justified it by pointing to the great characters of the Bible who all had many wives. Polygamy became a source of conflict both in and out of the Mormon Church, especially in a frontier community where the men greatly outnumbered the women. The general public was horrified and fascinated with the practice and it would plague the church for many decades to come. Even today, fundamentalist Mormons who practice polygamy are seen as radical zealots, even by other Mormons.
But it would be money that would drive the Mormons from Ohio. As the bank panic of 1837 hit the United States, a bank that Smith had opened spread useless paper currency around the area. Facing criminal charges, he fled Kirtland in the middle of the night, first for Missouri and then for Illinois and the remote community of Nauvoo. The story was the same everywhere. As the ranks of the Mormons grew larger and larger, people began to resent them and violence broke out. The lieutenant governor of Missouri stated publicly that “Mormons are the common enemies of mankind and ought to be destroyed.”
There were those who followed his suggestion. A band of vigilantes attacked a Mormon settlement at Haun’s Mill, Missouri, in 1838 and gunned down an entire family, including a 10-year-old boy, in cold blood. “Nits grow lice,” one of the men reportedly said before he put a bullet into the boy’s head.
After real threats like these – as well as many imagined ones – Smith created an armed militia that he called the Army of God. The 2,000 troops were a quarter of the size of the standing U.S. Army at the time. Smith made himself a general and wore a uniform of his own design. He also selected a top-secret group of men to surround him called the Sons of Dan, or the Danites. These men were essentially Smith’s personal assassins. Taking their name from the biblical prophet Daniel, they dealt out vengeance in the form of “blood atonement” to people inside and outside of the church who had crossed Smith in some way.
In 1843, Smith made his policies on plural marriage public and more and more people began to speak out against him and his church. In addition, people were complaining about being cheated by Smith’s shady business dealings and word leaked out about the Danites. Eventually, Smith was arrested and killed by an angry mob while locked up in the Nauvoo jail. Once again, the Latter-day Saints were on the move, this time to Utah under the leadership of their new prophet, Brigham Young.
Brigham Young was a dynamic speaker and natural leader who had made numerous successful recruiting missions to England on behalf of the church. He began to rule the church with absolute authority and an iron hand. But even as fiery as Young was, he knew the Mormons could not remain in Illinois and prosper. He still needed to create the new Zion that Smith has espoused and he knew it needed to be far to the west in an unpopulated territory. With that decision made, Young led his people on a terrible journey in 1847 and settled them in the arid country around the Great Salt Lake in present-day Utah. It was not the biblical paradise that Smith had envisioned, but Young insisted that they begin irrigating the country on the day they arrived and gradually, Salt Lake City began to grow.
Early Salt Lake City, a gateway to the west coast for emigrant settlers and the Mormon “promised land.”
Two years later, when gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, Brigham Young controlled land that became a crucial link between California and the rest of the country. The Mormons were in control of every route into and out of Utah – every river, trail and mountain pass. By the early 1850s, he had created his own kingdom, apart from and beyond the control of the federal government. Finally, President Millard Fillmore was forced to surrender to the inevitable and make the Mormon leader Utah’s territorial governor.
But even then, the Mormons acted as if the laws of the U.S. did not apply to them. In 1853, a federal surveying party was attacked and massacred because the Mormons did not want the government measuring their land. Federal judges were murdered. A settler who foolishly courted one of Young’s daughters was butchered. But was it the Mormons who carried out these crimes? Not according to church members. In every case, the murders were carried out by Native Americans – or so it seemed. The victims were scalped and mutilated in what was presumed to be methods perpetrated by Indians and witnesses even stated that they had seen painted warriors fleeing the scenes of the crimes.
The Mormons may have thought they had thrown suspicion off the Danites, but not everyone was fooled. As the bloody incidents increased, outrage grew among the population back East, and the federal government, under President James Buchanan, decided to send soldiers to quell what Buchanan and others believed was a rebellion in the Utah Territory. The relatively peaceful Utah War ensued from 1857 to 1858, in which the most notable instance of violence was the Mountain Meadows massacre, when leaders of a local Mormon militia ordered the killing of a civilian emigrant party that was traveling through Utah during the escalating tensions. (See my book A PALE HORSE WAS DEATH for details). In 1858 Young agreed to step down from his position as governor and was replaced by a non-Mormon, Alfred Cumming. Nevertheless, the Mormon church still wielded significant political power in the Utah Territory.
A scene from the largely bloodless Utah War, which saw American troops sent to the wilds of Utah to put down a Mormon rebellion. It was eventually settled when Brigham Young stepped down as the territorial governor.
After Young's death in 1877, he was followed by other Latter-Day Saints (LDS) Presidents, who resisted efforts by the United States Congress to outlaw Mormon polygamous marriages. In 1878, the Supreme Court ruled in Reynolds v. United States that religious duty was not a suitable defense for practicing polygamy, and many Mormons went into hiding; later, Congress began seizing church assets. In September 1890, church president Wilford Woodruff issued a Manifesto that officially suspended the practice of polygamy. Although this Manifesto did not dissolve existing plural marriages, relations with the United States markedly improved after 1890 and Utah officially became a state. After the Manifesto, some Mormons continued to enter into polygamous marriages, but these eventually stopped in 1904 when church president Joseph F. Smith disavowed polygamy before Congress and issued a "Second Manifesto" calling for all plural marriages in the church to cease. Eventually, the church adopted a policy of excommunicating members found practicing polygamy, and today seeks actively to distance itself from "fundamentalist" groups that continue the practice.
A Utah polygamist of the late 1800s with his wives, children and grandchildren
During the early twentieth century, Mormons began to become part of the American mainstream. In 1929 the Mormon Tabernacle Choir began broadcasting a weekly performance on national radio, becoming an asset for public relations. Mormons emphasized patriotism and industry, rising in economic status from the bottom among American religious denominations to middle-class. In the 1920s and 1930s, Mormons began migrating out of Utah, a trend hurried by the Great Depression, as Mormons looked for work wherever they could find it. As Mormons spread out, church leaders created programs that would help preserve the tight-knit community feel of Mormon culture. During the Great Depression the church started a welfare program to meet the needs of poor members, which has since grown to include a humanitarian branch that provides relief to disaster victims.
The LDS Church grew rapidly after World War II and became a world-wide organization as missionaries were sent across the globe. The church doubled in size every 15–20 years, and by 1996, there were more Mormons outside the United States than inside. As the ranks have grown over the years, so has the Church’s wealth. Today, the LDS church is regarded as the wealthiest on earth, surpassing even the wealth and power of the Catholic Church.
It’s been a long, strange trip from a handful of believers in golden tablets to the size and strength that the Mormon church wields today.