Leaving Nauvoo, 1846

By Sharon Lindbloom
13 February 2017

Last week the Fort Madison [Iowa] Daily Democrat reported on the LDS commemoration of the 171st anniversary marking the start of the Mormon pioneer trek from Nauvoo, Illinois to Salt Lake City, Utah. Beginning in early February 1846, Mormons left Nauvoo for a new home in the west. Every year since 1996 a gathering of mostly Latter-day Saints have re-enacted this “Mormon Exodus.”

The Daily Democrat explained,

“For some [participants], it was their first time gathering to remember the Mormon Exodus, which occurred Feb. 4, 1846, as a result of tension and conflict growing between the Saints and their neighbors in Nauvoo, Ill. Despite efforts at peace and resolving differences amongst their neighbors, Brigham Young (successor to Church founder, Joseph Smith) was persuaded to begin the move earlier than the expected spring departure for the west territories.”

The “tension and conflict” referred to here began soon after Mormons settled this “City of Joseph,” Nauvoo, Illinois. According to historians John Hallwas and Roger Launius, the conflict arose out of “an ideological struggle between two cultures – that is, groups with differing social visions.” The historians write,

“In short, Mormon Nauvoo was ‘an ambitious theocracy that asserted itself within a Jacksonian social environment deeply devoted to democracy.’ When [Joseph] Smith extended his religious ideology to temporal affairs – by holding all the important offices in Nauvoo, controlling the political life of his community, directing the voting behavior of his followers, and planning to establish a political kingdom of God on earth (with himself in charge) – he placed Nauvoo on a collision course with the rest of America. Conflict of some kind was inevitable, and when he condemned his Mormon critics as enemies of the people and suppressed their civil rights through institutionalized violence, the non-Mormons – politically frustrated and fearful of despotism – resorted to mobocratic measures.” (Cultures in Conflict, A Documentary History of the Mormon War in Illinois, 4)

Trouble between Mormons and non-Mormons in Hancock County, Illinois escalated all the way to the violent 1844 deaths of the Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother, Hyrum. Many thought the violence would end there, but it didn’t. Hostilities on both sides continued to build until it became clear that the two groups could not and would not ever be able to live peacefully side-by-side.

In September of 1845 the non-Mormon residents of several Illinois counties contacted Brigham Young and requested that the Mormons leave the state. The Mormon leader responded in the affirmative, announcing that they would leave in the coming spring of. Furthermore, he stated, “We had commenced making arrangements to remove from this county previous to the recent disturbances; that we now have four companies organized of one hundred families each…preparatory to removal.” (Brigham Young letter to John J. Hardin, 1 October 1845)

The Mormons requested help from the non-Mormons for preparing and selling the Mormons’ properties and for keeping the peace through the winter. Brigham Young asked that “all men will let us alone with their vexatious lawsuits.” The state’s governor, Thomas Ford, later explained, “The two parties agreed that, in the meantime, they would seek to make no arrests for crimes previously committed; and on my part I agreed that an armed force should be stationed in the county to keep the peace.” (A History of Illinois, Volume 2, 302)

But the peace agreement didn’t last. On 16 November 1845 Illinois state attorney Mason Brayman wrote,

“Depredations on both sides continue, and I am convinced that a general outbreak is intended. Several robberies have been committed by the Mormons during the past week… They continue to send out spies, patrols, and armed companies prowling the prairies and interrupting travelers.

“On Wednesday night the Anti-Mormons, about 25 in number, burned the house of Rice…first taking out the family, and after keeping them in custody, until the house was in a blaze, released them and fled. Property mostly saved. This is the house in which the [LDS] Council is Said to have been held, by which it was voted to murder [non-Mormon Andrew] Daubenmeyer [Daubenheyer], some weeks since…

“But I regard this as only the beginning of New and Still more serious troubles.” (quoted in Cultures in Conflict, 295-296)

“Civil war was on the very point of breaking out more than a dozen times during the winter,” Governor Ford wrote. He became very concerned about “the horrors of a civil war in the winter time, when much misery would have followed from it, by the dispersion of families and the destruction of property.” (Ford, History, 2:203-204)

In the midst of all of this conflict and worry, a United States Marshal brought word to Governor Ford that nine of the twelve LDS apostles had been indicted on charges of counterfeiting:

“Indictments had been found against nine of them in the circuit court of the United States for the district of Illinois, at its December term, 1845, for counterfeiting the current coin of the United States. The United States Marshal had applied to me for a militia force to arrest them; but in pursuance of the amnesty agreed on for old offences, believing that the rest of the accused would prevent the removal of the Mormons and that if arrested there was not the least chance that any of them would ever be convicted, I declined the application unless regularly called upon by the President of the United States according to law. It was generally agreed that it would be impolitic to arrest the leaders and thus put an end to the preparations for removal, when it was notorious that none of them could be convicted; for they always commanded evidence and witnesses enough to make a conviction impossible.” (Ford, History, 2:304-305)

Nevertheless, with Governor Ford’s growing concern over the “horrors of a civil war,” he ensured that LDS Church leaders “were made to believe, that the President would order the regular army to Nauvoo as soon as the navigation opened in the spring” (Ford, History, 2:305).

In addition to this threat of arrest, Brigham Young received a letter from a Church member who was living in the eastern United States. The letter warned that the government was planning to intercept the Mormons and confiscate their firearms as they emigrated west (see Newell and Avery, Mormon Enigma, 227). According to Brigham Young’s biographer John Turner,

“Simultaneously, Young heard rumors that Ford intended to declare martial law under ‘mob militia’ led by General Hardin, who, Young surmised, ‘will no doubt renew those writs that had been issued for the 12 & others & thereby commence harassing us again.” (Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet, 140)

All of these threats were nothing but rumors — all untrue — but the Mormon prophet-leader believed them. These are the circumstances that persuaded Brigham Young “to begin the move earlier than the expected spring departure.”

Heidi Naylor, writing for the Idaho Statesman, asserted a common LDS misperception of what happened in Nauvoo:

“In the winter of 1846-47, Mormons were forced to leave the prosperous city of Nauvoo, Ill., which they’d built in swampland purchased and drained for settlement after the Missouri expulsion. Religious bias turned locals against the Mormons’ vigorous growth and electoral power.”

But religion wasn’t really the issue. Hallwas and Launius explain in their Introduction,

“The memoirs, letters, speeches, newspaper articles, and other items provide evidence of misunderstanding, narrowness, bigotry, self-glorification, intimidation, criminal behavior, and violence on both sides. Furthermore, the documents in this volume… demonstrate that the Mormon conflict was not a matter of religious persecution. Non-Mormons did not much care for the oddities of Mormon belief – and some reacted with emotions ranging from curiosity to horror – but they did not try to suppress faith in the Book of Mormon or the prophet’s revelations, or prevent the Saints from worshipping as they pleased.” (Cultures in Conflict, 4)

The issues surrounding the Mormon War in Illinois and the resulting Mormon emigration to the west are complicated and involved. The matter cannot be reduced to a simple assertion of religious persecution against the Mormon community by those who didn’t believe. Such a view is but a myth. Hallwas and Launius write,

“In psychological terms, both sides repressed (and hence ignored) their own potential for evil and projected it onto their ideological opponents…The Mormons, whose dichotomous myth was more fully realized and deeply held, were actually dependent upon their image of wicked, persecuting enemies for their very identity. Unless the followers of the devil were at the gates, there was no purpose, no defining struggle for the righteous children of God. Hence, the Mormons preferred their mythic version to the more complex, disturbing reality – that the dividing line of good and evil cut through their own hearts as well as those of their enemies.” (Cultures in Conflict, 6-7)

The Mormon War in Illinois well-illustrates the Word of God:

None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside;
together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one. (Romans 3:10-12)

However, there is also good news:

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. (Romans 3:21-25)

Mormons and non-Mormons are no different today than we were 171 years ago. All our righteousness is as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6), polluted by the evil that runs through every human heart. But God, in His mercy, freely offers redemption in Christ Jesus. May we each humble ourselves to receive the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ.