The Demise of the LDS Church in Kirtland

DSC05086By Sharon Lindbloom 

For a group of photos of the Kirtland Temple, go here.

Mormonism began in 1830 in a sleepy township in upstate New York. After Mormon missionaries realized great success gaining converts in Ohio, the religion’s founder, Joseph Smith, moved his fledgling church 250 miles west to the little town of Kirtland. Within months, Joseph sent a number of Church members farther west to Missouri to begin to establish the Church there as well. Though this division of resources resulted in two centers of Mormon activity, the LDS Church headquarters remained in Ohio. With few laborers and little money in Kirtland, the Mormons completed their first temple in 1836. Just two years later the Mormons abandoned their homes and their temple and moved west to Missouri.

In November 2007, LDS Church News ran an article about the LDS Church in Ohio. In the process it left readers with a mistaken impression regarding the early days of the Saints. I’d like to offer some historical clarity. It reported,

“After developing a thriving community in Kirtland, Ohio, in the early and mid-1830s, violence against the Church escalated to the point that it was no longer safe for members to remain.

“The Prophet Joseph Smith, warned by the Spirit, moved immediately to Missouri. Members followed, leaving behind their comfortable homes, their cherished possessions, and their beloved temple built commandingly atop the hill in their extreme poverty.” (“Firmly Entrenched,” Church News, November 17, 2007, 11)

The earliest persecution in Ohio was brought against Joseph Smith on March 24th, 1832, a little more than a year after his arrival in Kirtland. On this night, Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon were beaten by a group of drunken men and both were tarred and feathered. In the years that followed this act of violence, the Mormons and their neighbors in Ohio got along fine. But this was not the case for the Mormons in Missouri who were engaged in tremendous struggles with the non-Mormons there. In May 1834, Joseph Smith formed an army called Zion’s Camp and marched his men from Ohio to Missouri to try to put an end to the Missouri conflict. He was unsuccessful. However, historian Fawn Brodie noted that after Joseph and his men returned home, the Mormons in Ohio enjoyed an unprecedented season of peace:

“At no time in Joseph Smith’s career was he more at peace with the world than in the three years following the march of Zion’s camp.” (No Man Knows My History, 165)

  Things changed late in 1837; however, the loss of peace was not caused by violence against the Church but by financial duress.  A bank illegally organized by Joseph Smith and other LDS leaders in 1836, The Kirtland Safety Society, failed in November 1837, loosing

“a hornet’s nest. Creditors swarmed in upon Joseph armed with threats and warrants. He was terribly in debt…the local non-Mormon creditors whom he could not repay brought a series of suits against the prophet…

“Thirteen suits were brought against him between June 1837 and April 1839, to collect sums totaling nearly $25,000. The damages asked amounted to almost $35,000. He was arrested seven times in four months…only six [suits] were settled out of court — about $12,000…”(No Man Knows My History, 199-201)

Many in the Church grew disillusioned with Smith’s leadership. Heber Kimball, an LDS apostle at the time, wrote that “there were not twenty persons on earth that would declare that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God” (No Man Knows My History, 203). While Joseph was away from Kirtland for five weeks, David Whitmer, Martin Harris, and Oliver Cowdery, the three witnesses of the Book of Mormon, pledged their loyalty to a young girl with a black stone who claimed to be a prophetess. The Church in Ohio was crumbling.

LDS Church members with financial resources pulled up stakes and moved west to Missouri, escaping from the financial crash of Kirtland. Those who stayed faced further distress. Church dissenters brawled with faithful Saints in the temple; more lawsuits were brought to bear against Church leaders, causing them to flee to Missouri; and a new church was formed by disenchanted Mormons. Due to the bank failure and the chaos that followed, Joseph was “exiled by his own disciples” (No Man Knows My History, 208). When he learned of yet another warrant for his arrest in January 1838, Joseph left Kirtland for Missouri under cover of night, never to return.

Church members who were still in Ohio began to make plans to join the Saints in Missouri as well.

“Joseph’s going had left a void that they had found intolerable. With each passing week they remembered less of their prophet’s financial ineptitude and more of his genial warmth and his magnetic presence in the pulpit.

“Six hundred Saints finally pooled their resources and started for Zion in the longest wagon train that Kirtland had ever seen. The gentiles [non-Mormons] shook their heads in wonder. ‘It was marvelous,’ wrote Christopher Crary, ‘to see with what tenacity they held to their faith in the prophet, when they knew they had been robbed, abused and insulted.’” (No Man Knows My History, 210)

To what the Church News was referring when it said, “violence against the Church escalated to the point that it was no longer safe for members to remain,” is a mystery; for that was not the case. Joseph Smith left Kirtland because of financial and legal troubles while current and former members of the Church were floundering in their faith in Joseph as a true prophet. The majority of members eventually left Kirtland because their faith returned and they wanted to be near their prophet, not because their lives were in danger.

LDS historian B. H. Roberts mentions some concern for the Prophet’s “personal safety” in Ohio during this period, but the threat is attributed to “false brethren.” B.H. Roberts sums up the situation of the LDS Church in Kirtland with these words:

“Pride and worldly mindedness among the saints had preceded some of their financial difficulties, and when their troubles came thick upon them they accused each other of all kinds of sin and folly; there were evil surmisings, bickerings, fault-finding, false accusations and bitterness, until the spirit of the gospel in Kirtland was well neigh eclipsed.” (A Comprehensive History of the Church 1:402)

The Church News gave the distinct impression that the Mormons were driven from their homes in Ohio, fleeing for their very lives. The article’s implication was that non-Mormons had persecuted the Saints to the point of grave physical danger and loss. The unvarnished truth, that Joseph Smith’s poor decisions brought financial ruin and spiritual desolation to his people, may not be pretty; but it’s honest. Instead of telling the truth or choosing not to mention that period in LDS history at all, the Church News put tremendous spin on the story, laying blame on the innocent while manipulating sympathy for the guilty. Unfortunately, history has shown this technique to be commonplace within Mormonism.


For more on the Kirtland Safety Society bank failure, see here.

For a look at other historical issues related to Mormonism, please click here.