The Missouri Debacle of the 1830s

By Bill McKeever 

Touring sites of historical significance is not uncommon for religious people. For centuries professing Christians have journeyed to the Holy Land to see for themselves the very streets where Jesus walked. Muslims strive to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, the city made famous by Islam’s founder Muhammad. Mormons too, have their special places. Many Mormons tour sites in Central America believing they are visiting the land once inhabited by the people mentioned in the Book of Mormon. The Mormons also have places of significance in the United States and each year thousands of Latter-day Saints visit places like Palmyra (NY), Sharon (VT), Kirtland (OH), and of course, Salt Lake City. Another prominent area important to the Latter-day Saint is the state of Missouri, for it is in Missouri that the early LDS Church faced many of its most severe challenges. Eric Johnson and myself have visited many sites in the state of Missouri, and while no doubt many LDS feel such an experience is very faith-promoting, I couldn’t help but see a disturbing pattern as I read the many signs and markers.

Beginning in Independence we toured the RLDS temple dedicated in 1994. This building was completed by the largest splinter group of Latter-day Saints known as The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This group was formed in 1860 and followed the leadership of Joseph Smith’s eldest son, Joseph Smith III. Today the church has a membership of less than 250,000. Our tour guide made it very clear that this building was not at all like the ones owned by the LDS Church headquartered in Utah because it is open to the public. He even encouraged us to take as many pictures as we wanted. Having heard several rumors about the changes in RLDS theology, we asked several questions about the distinctive doctrines of the RLDS faith. Like the Mormons, our guide insisted he was a Christian, but when Eric asked what a person needed do to be saved, he remarked that such an answer was too “complicated” for the time allowed. Too complicated?

We then walked across the street to the lot Joseph Smith dedicated for a temple in 1832. This prophecy can be found in Doctrine and Covenants 84. Today the lot is empty except for a white building on the northeast corner owned by an LDS splinter group that chose to return to the original name of the church, The Church of Christ. Led by Granvill Hedrick in 1863, these followers of Joseph Smith claim they are not “a faction, but a remnant of the Church of 1830, bearing the same name, teaching the same doctrine, believing the same truths, practicing the same virtues, holding the same revelations as originally given and enjoying the same spirit” (Divergent Paths of the Restoration, p.77).

South of the RLDS temple and east of the RLDS Auditorium is a visitor’s center and church owned by the Utah Mormons. This arrangement especially caught my attention, for I recalled a trip to New York and a landmark the Mormons affectionately call confusion corner. In downtown Palmyra (the village where Mormonism began) there is an intersection that has four denominational churches. To many Mormons this supports their position that Christianity cannot be true because it is fragmented. However, how many Mormons notice a similar arrangement in Independence? In one small area there are three fragmented groups of Latter-day Saints, each believing they are the one carrying on the true teachings of Joseph Smith.

North of Independence is Liberty, Missouri, the site of the famous Liberty Jail that housed Joseph Smith from December of 1838 to April of 1839. Our tour guide often stressed that Smith was held there unjustly and without cause. During the question time, I gave several examples from history demonstrating how Smith was not at all guiltless; he was, in fact, responsible for much of the trouble caused in the area during the 1830s. Sermons and revelations given by Smith regarding the area, coupled with fiery remarks like those given in Sidney Rigdon’s July 4th Oration only fueled the distrust many of the locals had for the Mormons flooding the area. In that speech Rigdon declared, “And that mob that comes on us to disturb us; it shall be between us and them a war of extermination, for we will follow them, till the last drop of their blood is spilled, or else they will have to exterminate us: for we will carry the seal of war to their own houses, and their own families, and one party or the other shall be utterly destroyed.” Smith was so impressed by this speech that he had this message printed into a pamphlet.

One Mormon in the crowd felt that the retaliation on the part of the Mormon people was justified in light of the persecution they had received from their Gentile neighbors. I rebutted explaining how retaliatory actions may have been understandable and perhaps even justified, but it is wrong to insist that Smith was arrested without cause when the evidence shows he was culpable.

Traveling north on Highway 35, we visited Far West. Although markers explain how God told Joseph Smith that Far West was to become a city complete with a temple “for the gathering of my saints” (D&C 115), the temple never became a reality. All that remains today are four cornerstones.

East on Highway 36 and north on Highway 13 is the site of Adam-ondi-Ahman, located a few miles north of Gallatin. Smith claimed it was at this place where the first man, Adam, “called Seth, Enos, Cainan, Mahalaleel, Jared, Enoch and Methuselah, who were all high priests, with the residue of his posterity, who were righteous, into the valley of Adam-ondi-Ahman, and there bestowed upon them his last blessing” (1835 Doctrine and Covenants 3:28). Joseph Smith told his followers that Adam’s altar once existed at this spot. Several faithful Mormons of years gone by have testified that they have actually handled some of the broken rocks from this ancient edifice.

Markers at Adam-ondi-Ahman do not mention Adam’s altar. Instead, a reference is made to the History of the Church 3:35 that speaks of an “old Nephite altar or tower that stood there.” The marker at Tower Hill states, “the exact location of the structure is not known today and there is no visual evidence remaining.” The marker is especially confusing since many of today’s Mormon scholars insist that the Nephites were confined to a limited area in Central America. If that is so, what is a Nephite altar doing in Missouri?

Seeing these sites in western Missouri, it isn’t difficult to sense how disheartened many of Joseph Smith’s followers must have felt. Their prophet had made several grandiose claims, yet few of them ever came to fruition. Independence never became Zion, nor did it see the shadow of a temple on the lot dedicated by Smith. Promises of a temple in Far West and Adam-ondi-Ahman also failed, and homes had to be abandoned. Failure after failure, but still these people clung to the hope that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God.

Early LDS history reminds me in some ways of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. In that story Orwell tells of Farmer Jones who is run off his homestead and replaced by a new government led by a group of pigs. When trouble comes to the farm due to a lack of executive ability, the blame is laid on some enemy, never on the leadership. Such is true in Mormonism. Trouble was (and is) always laid at the feet of non-believers and less-than-faithful members, never Joseph Smith. To hear the tour guides at various sites in Missouri and Nauvoo, one would think Joseph Smith was the epitome of integrity. History questions such a conclusion.

I also couldn’t help but feel a bit angry at what Smith had done to his followers. Taking advantage of their gullibility, he used the title of a prophet and promises of utopia to get these people to do his bidding. Instead, they were brought face to face with death, disease, and despair. He had clearly led them astray. While I am sure a faithful Mormon, guided by his testimony, would disagree, I can’t help but conclude that Smith’s constant course corrections were the result of him being either a false prophet, or his God being very shortsighted. Wisdom dictates that neither should ever be followed.


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