The Missouri Mormon Experience

The Missouri Mormon Experience

by Thomas M. Spencer (Editor)

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Overview

The Mormon presence in nineteenth-century Missouri was uneasy at best and at times flared into violence fed by misunderstanding and suspicion. By the end of 1838, blood was shed, and Governor Lilburn Boggs ordered that Mormons were to be “exterminated or driven from the state.”

The Missouri persecutions greatly shaped Mormon faith and culture; this book reexamines Mormon-Missourian history within the sociocultural context of its time. The contributors to this volume unearth the challenges and assumptions on both sides of the conflict, as well as the cultural baggage that dictated how their actions and responses played on each other.

Shortly after Joseph Smith proclaimed Jackson County the site of the “New Jerusalem,” Mormon settlers began moving to western Missouri, and by 1833 they made up a third of the county’s population. Mormons and Missourians did not mix well. The new settlers were relocated to Caldwell County, but tensions still escalated, leading to the three-month “Mormon War” in 1838—capped by the Haun’s Mill Massacre, now a seminal event in Mormon history.

These nine essays explain why Missouri had an important place in the theology of 1830s Mormonism and was envisioned as the site of a grand temple. The essays also look at interpretations of the massacre, the response of Columbia’s more moderate citizens to imprisoned church leaders (suggesting that the conflict could have been avoided if Smith had instead chosen Columbia as his new Zion), and Mormon migration through the state over the thirty years following their expulsion.

Although few Missourians today are aware of this history, many Mormons continue to be suspicious of the state despite the eventual rescinding of Governor Boggs’s order. By depicting the Missouri-Mormon conflict as the result of a particularly volatile blend of cultural and social causes, this book takes a step toward understanding the motivations behind the conflict and sheds new light on the state of religious tolerance in frontier America.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826218872
Publisher: University of Missouri Press
Publication date: 03/05/2010
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 200
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Thomas M. Spencer is Director of Honors Student Affairs, The Sandra and Jack Pine Honors College at Eastern Illinois University. He is the author of The St. Louis Veiled Prophet Celebration: Power on Parade, 1877-1995 and editor of The Other Missouri History: Populists, Prostitutes, and Regular Folk (both available from the University of Missouri Press).

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

The Missouri Context of Antebellum Mormonism and Its Legacy of Violence

Kenneth H. Winn

The Mormon Church's sojourn in northwestern Missouri in the 1830s is an interesting story but not a happy one. It reflects poorly at one point or another on virtually all of the actors involved.

Yet despite its troubles in Missouri, Mormonism has since become America's most successful indigenous religion. As of May 2007, the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints claimed nearly thirteen million adherents worldwide. Its smaller sibling, the Community of Christ, which has its headquarters in Independence, Missouri, claims an additional quarter of a million. Many thousands of these church members, of course, live peacefully in the very region their nineteenth-century forebears experienced such trouble.

It is a commonplace that history is written by the winners. The vanquished are described as deserving their fate, or their concerns or claims are marginalized or forgotten. Surely those who regarded Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt as heroes have had a more influential voice than those who championed Jefferson Davis and Herbert Hoover.

But generally speaking, it is the losers in historic strife who have the longer memories, especially if they are "a people." Most Americans remember that the United States saved England and Europe's "bacon" in World War II, and then again, afterwards, with the Marshall Plan. Fewer Americans are aware that the United States sent troops to help overturn the Mexican Revolution in 1914 and the Russian Revolution between 1918 and 1920. Even fewer Americans remember that the CIA organized the coup that put the shah of Iran on the throne in 1953 or arranged for the democratically elected Guatemalan government to be overthrown in 1954. However, the Mexicans, the Russians, the Iranians, and the Guatemalans all remember. African-Americans still carry a consciousness and personal sense of injury about slavery that mystifies some whites, even as some prideful white southerners continue to uphold the "Lost Cause," calling the Confederate flag an emblem of heritage, not racism.

In this framework, the unhappy transit of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is unusual. Mormon Church members unsurprisingly have the stronger knowledge of the history than do non-church members who live in Missouri. Every Mormon schoolchild of faithful parents knows the part the state played in the divine drama of the early church. It is hard to forget that the governor of a state ordered the banishment or extermination of your ancestors, or that the founder of your church was ordered shot by a Missouri firing squad, a sentence commuted at the last minute only to leave him to languish in jail without a trial. Dozens of church members, however, died in Missouri and nearly all lost their property.

At the same time, the Mormons have proven the historical winners — both as a successful people and in the writing of this chapter in American history — at least mostly so. Initially church members interpreted what happened to them in Missouri as religious persecution, pure and simple. For some Mormons that remains the interpretation. But if bigotry is the answer, we need to understand why. Reducing the problem to evil's opposition to God's chosen people is not a satisfactory answer for historians. Beginning about forty years ago, many church scholars have attempted, often with great insight, to discuss these matters in a more sophisticated fashion. Since then a veritable army of historians have numbered the hairs on the prophet Joseph Smith's head and performed a study on his words during the 1830s, but few have looked at the church through the eyes of those who opposed its settlement in Missouri. Non-Mormon historians largely have not taken it up as an academic problem, nor is there a constituency of non-Mormon descendants clamoring for an explanation of the governor's "extermination order" or the massacre at the Mormon settlement known as Haun's Mill.

If we really want to understand why Mormons and western Missourians hated each other in the 1830s and continued to fear and distrust each other into the twentieth century, we must reach deeper into the non-Mormon culture of the era and bring a more sophisticated understanding of Mormonism into that environment. Let me offer some ideas on approaching the task.

Here is Joseph Smith's classic observation about Missourians as the Mormons encountered them in 1831: The Mormons, he said, "coming from a highly cultivated society in the east" naturally observed "the degradations, leanness of intellect, ferocity, and jealousy of a people that were nearly a century behind the times," and "roamed about without the benefit of civilization, refinement and religion." The Saints found the Missourians' habits repugnant. Relatively abstemious in their own behavior, the Mormons recoiled from their neighbors' addictions to horse racing, gambling, drinking, and swearing. Another Mormon leader, W. W. Phelps, observed in an account he sent to a New York newspaper in late 1831 that the southerners who had settled the area held to "customs, manners, modes of living and a climate entirely different from the northerners, and they hate Yankees worse than snakes, because they cheated them or speculated on their credulity with so many Connecticut clocks and New England notions. The people are proverbially idle or lazy, and mostly ignorant; reckoning nobody their equal to themselves in many respects, and as it is a slave holding state, [and] Japheth will make Canaan serve him."

Both Smith and Phelps were trying to explain and win sympathy for their troubles from non-Mormons back east, but they were not making things up. Here is how a nineteenth-century Clay County historian described the area's first state senator in 1826: "The successful candidate in 1826 was Martin Palmer ... who lived on Fishing River ... Palmer was a 'statesman' somewhat of the David Crockett species, uneducated, illiterate and uncultivated, but possessing natural good sense, a considerable amount of shrewdness, and an acquaintanceship with the ways of the world."

"Uneducated," "illiterate," and "uncultivated": One man's degraded intellect, living a hundred years behind the time, was another's Davy Crockett, one of nature's noblemen. When the Mormons encountered them, these "old settlers," as they were called, had lived in the region less than ten years. Many of these immigrants had, in fact, come about the same time as the Saints. European and American settlement in what was to become Missouri in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century clung to the Mississippi River. But by the conclusion of the War of 1812, the Indian menace to interior migration had ended. The agriculturally rich Missouri River bottomland that stretched across central Missouri to the territory's western boundary proved a magnet for land-hungry settlers, culminating in the land rush of 1819. This settlement, which began in Howard, Saline, and Boone Counties, worked its way west, reaching the western counties in the 1820s: the legislature formed Lafayette County in 1820, Clay County in 1822, and Jackson County in 1826. By 1830, Lafayette had a population of 2,912; Clay had a population of 5,338; and Jackson 2,823. As small as these numbers seem to us today, the population was growing very fast.

Most of the immigrants to the western Missouri River valley came from the Upper South — Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky. The endless parade of caravans flowing along the central-west ribbon across the state led the famed Baptist missionary, John Mason Peck, to declare, "Kentucky and Tennessee were breaking up and moving to the 'Far West,'" as the area was then known.

Initially, living conditions on the western frontier were quite primitive. Most settlers began as subsistence farmers, raising swine for cash and living in single-room log houses. Within a decade, however, the cabins had been replaced by white frame houses for most, brick homes for the wealthy. Latecomers to the region often took up tenant farming, which was recognized as a temporary condition in this economically mobile region and bore no social stigma.

These new immigrants, thus, were not hunters, trappers, or, except at the very beginning, mere subsistence farmers. They did not come as squatters to escape the growing civilization back east. Rather, they were enthralled by a single-minded pursuit of economic gain. By the early 1830s, many had made the switch from subsistence to commercial farming. As immigrants from the Upper South, they tried to duplicate the agriculture of their home states — sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Cotton growing, for example, was a notable failure, while tobacco and hemp growing proved successful. During the early years of settlement, the region's farmers shipped their produce to New Orleans for national and international distribution. As time passed, however, St. Louis became their end destination and the region's economic future in the years before the Civil War became firmly linked to that economically booming city.

Emulating the agriculture of the Upper South brought other consequences. Tobacco and hemp growing was hard, dirty, labor-intensive work that fueled the demand for slaves. When the Mormons met Missourians in the 1830s, few of the old settlers owned slaves but they aspired to, much as most Americans aspire today to owning their own home, a car, and other attributes of economic success. Slave ownership both served as such a symbol and promised greater wealth. The Missouri River counties stretching from Boone County to Jackson County (Columbia to Kansas City) at the state border would become the state's "Black Belt," with African American slaves making up about 24 percent of the population by 1850.

Yet as rooted as slavery became, it rarely approached the scale found on the large plantations of the Deep South; typically slaveowners held only a few slaves and they worked alongside them in the fields. By 1850, Jackson County's slave population had reached 21 percent; in Clay County it had reached 27 percent; in Lafayette County it had reached 34 percent, the highest of any Missouri county.

Eventually those from the Upper South who moved into the western Missouri River Valley proved economically successful, the region becoming the most prosperous agricultural area in the state. But when the Mormons started moving in the 1830s, they had just begun setting down the rudiments of political or social organization.

This essay began with the unflattering characterizations of Missourians by the Mormon prophet and William Phelps. The Missourians, for their part, had no higher respect for the Saints. In 1833, one anti-Mormon spokesman declared that "each successive autumn and spring pours forth its swarm of Mormons among us, with a gradual falling of the character of those who compose them." Samuel D. Lucas, a rabid Mormon-hater who would hound the church throughout the decade, was more rhetorically violent, terming the Saints a "mass of human corruption" and a "tribe of human locusts" who "from their pestilent hive in Ohio and New York" threatened to "scorch and wither a goodly portion of Missouri." One anti-Mormon manifesto claimed that if the Saints "had been respectable citizens in society and thus [religiously] deluded, they would have been entitled to our pity rather than to our contempt and hatred; but from their appearance, from their manners, and from their conduct since coming among us, we have every reason to fear that, with but very few exceptions, they were the very dregs of that society from which they came, lazy, idle, and vicious." It has a familiar ring. Note that, like the Mormons, these writers have in mind an audience beyond their own community and are trying to explain their hostility to the church.

The basic outline of what happened when the Mormons settled in Missouri is well-known: the violent expulsion from Jackson County in 1833, the expulsion from Clay County in 1834, the creation of Caldwell County as an Indian-style reservation for Mormons in 1836, and finally the Mormon War, in which Governor Lilburn Boggs, a citizen of Jackson County, issued his famous extermination order expelling church members from the state in 1838.

Historians have explored the effect of the church's violent transit across Missouri, from the psychological effect on the Saints to more practical matters, like the subsequent creation of the Nauvoo Legion in Illinois. I would assert that the effect of the Mormon War cut two ways. Most historians of Missouri have treated the Mormon period in the state's history as a brief, if queer interlude, in which some peculiar-thinking northeasterners got chased out of the region. Then traditional patterns resumed and the Mormons left scarcely a ripple upon the pond of the state's history.

I do not believe this is true. Western Missouri was largely populated by young men in the 1830s. Governor Boggs was the old man of the group at forty-one when he first encountered the church as a merchant in Independence. Samuel Lucas was thirty-four when he took up active leadership against the church. When Alexander Doniphan and David Rice Atchison served as lawyers for the church after the Jackson County expulsion, they were twenty-five and twenty-six years old. When future governor Austin King presided over Joseph Smith's 1838 state "treason" hearing, he was thirty-six. These are the famous names, already the leaders in their communities. The rank and file who followed them were even younger.

The Mormon War framed the thinking of an entire generation of young men in western Missouri, and helped frame it for violence. Governor Boggs's aggressive appetites apparently unsated by the Mormon conflict, he massed Missouri troops in 1839 to fight against the Iowa militia in the so-called Honey War, a state border dispute. More significantly, while Missourians supported the Mexican-American War in 1846, no part of the state furnished more troops and had a greater war spirit than western Missouri. Indeed, Alexander Doniphan became a national hero for his leadership of these soldiers.

When "free-soilers" began flocking into Kansas territory in the 1850s, western Missourians described them as degraded New England fanatics. Missourians, of course, had no monopoly on denouncing antislavery men as insurrectionary scum, but the sectional strife prefigured in the Mormon War was reenacted as thousands of western Missourians, known as "border ruffians" — many of them Mexican War veterans — organized themselves into mobs, flocked into Kansas to cast proslavery votes, and physically intimidated northern settlers. Their leader was U.S. Senator David Rice Atchison. In 1854 he wrote Jefferson Davis, "We are organizing to meet their organization. We will be compelled to shoot, burn & hang, but the thing will soon be over. We intend to 'Mormanise' the Abolitionists."

The brutal violence born in western Missouri continued through the Civil War, most infamously manifesting itself in the massacre of two hundred unsuspecting men and boys in Lawrence, Kansas, in August 1863 during an attack by western Missourian guerrillas. The border troubles that afflicted Kansas and Missouri left an angry legacy, which, like the Mormon War, lasted well into the twentieth century.

The violent tradition continued into the early 1880s, symbolized best by Jesse James, a psychopathic thug originally romanticized as the Confederate guerilla who refused to surrender. Through him and his lesser imitators, Missouri earned the unenviable national nickname of the "Robber State." Violence and political strife marked western Missouri for a full half century, with only occasional respite.

I am not arguing that persecuting the Mormons led to the Lawrence massacre or to Jesse James. There were many causes involved. Geography had a lot to do with it. Kansas is located on Missouri's western border, not Georgia's, to cite only one factor. But I am suggesting that the Missouri reaction to Mormonism worked as a poison pill, giving western Missourians a psychological framework, a language, and a behavior to deal with those whom they opposed. Were it not for the national events that led to the Mexican War or "Bleeding Kansas," these behaviors might have been muted or died out. Instead they strengthened the cultural violence found in the 1838 Mormon War. And violence once committed leaves a legacy not easily undone — a legacy often fraught with tragic consequences for generations to come.

CHAPTER 2

Reassessing Joseph Smith's "Appointed Time for the Redemption of Zion"

Ronald E. Romig and Michael S. Riggs

In the aftermath of the 1833 expulsion from Zion and for the remainder of the decade, it became Joseph Smith's prophetic preoccupation to restore his Missouri followers to their temporal properties and spiritual inheritance. Much attention has focused on Smith's first attempt called "Zion's Camp" to redeem properties he had prophetically designated as "promised lands" his followers were divinely entitled to inherit in Jackson County, Missouri. In 1834, Smith's prophecy was refuted, however, when the armed company he commanded was unable to fulfill their mission to restore to the Mormons their confiscated properties. According to one historian, this "failure seriously demoralized many of Smith's followers, thus contributing to a major apostasy crisis a few years later."

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "The Missouri Mormon Experience"
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Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: "Persecution in the Most Odious Sense of the Word" by Thomas M. Spencer
The Missouri Context of Antebellum Mormonism and Its Legacy of Violence by Kenneth H. Winn              
Reassessing Joseph Smith's "Appointed Time for the Redemption of Zion" by Ronald E. Romig and Michael S. Riggs
Mormonism, Millenarianism, and Missouri by Grant Underwood              
The Great Temple of the New Jerusalem by Richard O. Cowan      
The Mormon Temple Site at Far West, Caldwell County, Missouri by Alexander L. Baugh           
"Was This Really Missouri Civilization?": The Haun's Mill Massacre in Missouri and Mormon History by Thomas M. Spencer     
But for the Kindness of Strangers: The Columbia, Missouri, Response to the Mormon Prisoners and the Jailbreak of July 1839 by Jean A. Pry and Dale A. Whitman    
Lessons Learned: The Nauvoo Legion and What the Mormons Learned Militarily in Missouri by Richard E. Bennett        
Between the Borders: Mormon Transmigration through Missouri, 1838-1868 by Fred E. Woods

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