Mormon History

From “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”
James B. Allen
Utah History Encyclopedia, 1994

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (“Mormons”) was founded by Joseph Smith, who was born in Sharon, Vermont, on 23 December 1805. In 1816 he moved with his family to western New York state, sometimes known as the “Burned-over District” because of the waves of religious revivalism that periodically swept over the area. Young Joseph attended revivals in the vicinity of Palmyra and became a devout believer in Christ, but he was also confused at the conflicting doctrines he heard. In the spring of 1820 he prayed for guidance as to which church was right and received a vision in which two persons (whom the Latter-day Saints accept as God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ) appeared to him, told him that he was to join none of the existing churches, and assured him that “the fullness of the gospel” would be made known to him at some future time.

Three years later, Joseph Smith claimed to receive a series of visits from another heavenly messenger, Moroni, who informed him of an ancient record, buried in a hillside near Palmyra. Joseph found the record, written on metal plates that had the appearance of gold, and later translated it “by the gift and power of God,” and through the medium of two stones, the Urim and Thummim. It told the story of three groups of people who had migrated to America in ancient times, focusing primarily on one that arrived about 600 B.C., flourished for a thousand years, and received a visit from Jesus Christ shortly after His resurrection.

The translated record was called The Book of Mormon, after the prophet-warrior who had compiled it anciently, and it was published early in 1830. Its primary purpose, as stated in the preface, was to be another witness to the divinity of Christ. It soon became the major missionary tool for the Church.

Joseph Smith, meanwhile, became the object of scorn and criticism; but despite the harassment he gained a number of followers. On 6 April 1830 he and five other men organized themselves under the name of the Church of Christ. The church officially took its present name eight years later.

Mormonism came forth at a time when numerous “restorationists” were seeking to reestablish the original gospel of Christ, when “seekers” were moving from church to church in their quest, and in a religious atmosphere charged with millennialism and Christian perfectionism. Its restorationist message, along with The Book of Mormon appealed to many and the new church grew rapidly. One early convert was Sidney Rigdon, a restorationist minister. The conversion of Rigdon and most of his congregation paved the way for Joseph Smith to move to Kirtland, Ohio: Rigdon himself soon became a counselor to the Mormon leader.

Less than a year after the organization of the church, Joseph Smith led most of the Mormons from New York to Ohio, where there were already more than a thousand converts.

In Kirtland, a beautiful temple was dedicated in 1836. It was used mainly as a meetinghouse and schoolhouse, but it also became the scene of various heavenly visions and intense spiritual experiences for the Mormons. Church leaders were also deeply involved in the economic development of the area, including the founding of the Kirtland Anti-Banking Society bank. Serious economic problems beset them, however, which contributed to a growing hostility against the Mormons as well as extensive dissatisfaction and apostasy among church members themselves. The bank failed amid the national panic of 1837, and this along with other problems eventually compelled Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, one of the most prominent of the Twelve, to flee for their lives to Missouri.

The Mormons were no more popular as a group in Missouri than they were in Ohio. Their seeming exclusiveness, their apparent liberal attitude toward free blacks, and old settlers’ fears that the Mormons would soon dominate the area both economically and politically all led to their forcible expulsion from Jackson County in 1833. They found refuge in adjoining counties, but similar problems plagued them everywhere. By 1838 the conflict had reached a state of virtual civil war as mobs beat, pillaged, and murdered the Mormons. The state militia entered the fray to keep the peace but was clearly in sympathy with the older settlers, and Governor Lilburn W. Boggs issued his infamous “Extermination Order” requiring that the Saints either leave Missouri or be exterminated. Finally, in the winter of 1838-39, they were driven from the state.

The next place of refuge was western Illinois where, on the banks of the Mississippi, the Mormons purchased land and began to build the city of Nauvoo. Eventually some 12,000 people lived in this well-planned, industrious community of Saints, and hundreds of Mormons lived in other surrounding communities. Joseph Smith envisioned Nauvoo as a grand cooperative enterprise where all citizens would work for the well-being of the community and toward building the Kingdom of God. The spiritual and the temporal were so closely interrelated in the minds of the Saints that there was little distinction between religious and secular affairs. In the political realm, for example, Joseph Smith was able to obtain a charter for the city that made it practically independent of the state. He became mayor of Nauvoo, newspaper editor, and lieutenant general of the Nauvoo Legion. He promoted the economic development of the city and even became a candidate for the presidency of the United States in 1844, though he was murdered more than four months before the election by an angry mob.

The Saints built a magnificent temple in Nauvoo, intended not just for meetings but also for the introduction of the sacred ordinances now performed in all Mormon temples. Other distinctive Mormon teachings and practices were introduced in Nauvoo, but none was more controversial, or fraught with more far-reaching consequences for the church as an institution, than plural marriage. It began after Joseph Smith received a revelation in answer to his query about why ancient biblical prophets had more than one wife, and he was commanded to institute the same practice among the Latter-day Saints. In Nauvoo it was practiced secretly, and limited to a relatively small number of selected church leaders. It was first preached publicly in 1852, after the Saints were securely settled in the Great Basin.

Problems similar to those they encountered in Missouri continued to plaque the Mormons. Their growing political and economic strength, and rumors of polygamy, eventually alienated many of their neighbors and led to the threat of civil war in western Illinois and the intervention of the governor to try to avert such a catastrophe. Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were taken to jail in Carthage, Illinois, and there, on 24 June 1844, they were murdered by a mob. Some controversy ensued over who should succeed Joseph Smith as leader of the church, but by the end of August the large majority of Saints were convinced that the Quorum of the Twelve, under the leadership of Brigham Young, were the proper successors.

Persecution continued, and even as Brigham and the other leaders were pushing the temple to completion they were also planning the move to the West earlier envisioned by Joseph Smith. The exodus from Nauvoo began ahead of schedule when mob activity forced the Saints to begin crossing the ice-covered Mississippi River in February 1846.