Persecution and Polygamy: How Many Mormons Actually Died as a Result of 19th Century Persecution?

By Bill McKeever

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It is rare to hear a Mormon tell of his church’s history without a reference being made to the persecution the Mormons faced in Missouri and Illinois during the 1830s and 1840s. That Mormons were mistreated is a matter of actual history, and I certainly have no intention to downplay any atrocities against the LDS people during that period (despite the fact that some LDS historians have admitted that the Saints were not always without blame when it came to conflict between them and their “Gentile” neighbors).

On a number of occasions, I’ve been told by members of the LDS Church (missionaries included) that there is a connection between persecution and the practice of polygamy. For instance, more than once I’ve been told while touring the Beehive House in downtown Salt Lake City that polygamy was necessary in order to take care of the many widows who lost husbands during the persecution period. Why would marriage be necessary if the purpose is to merely meet the material needs of the woman? I’ve been told it was for legal purposes. However, polygamy was never legal under American law, even though the Federal government didn’t do much to stop it until President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act in 1862, and even then, the Civil War postponed serious action until the Edmunds-Tucker Act was passed in 1887.

I’ve often asked how many married women lost their husbands in order to justify such a huge shift in social ethics. Most of the Mormons I’ve spoken with about this subject simply admit they just don’t know. One thing is certain: Smith’s alleged revelation on plural marriage had nothing to do with taking care of widows. In fact, Smith married at least ten women who at the time had living husbands!

I have yet to find any list that specifically documents how many people actually died from persecution in the early years of Mormonism, although I have heard Mormons insist that it was a very large number. For example, on MRM’s blog site, Mormon Coffee, one LDS poster insisted, “The historical facts are clear and irrefutable: persecutions against Mormons and the LDS Church during the 19th century were often violent, vicious, and cruel. Many Mormons were murdered and HUNDREDS died fleeing their persecutors during the Missouri War. Even HUNDREDS more Mormons perished from exposure fleeing their persecutors after the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyram (sic) Smith. This is not fiction, this is historical fact!”  Is this really a historical fact?

In chapter one of their book, Massacre at Mountain Meadows, LDS historians Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley, and Glen M. Leonard, recap the struggles the Mormons faced in Missouri. On pages 12-13 they note that “while the Saints never made a full accounting of their casualties, their various reports listed rape, gunshot wounds, beatings, exposure, and dozens of resulting deaths.”

Speaking in general conference in October 1907, Mormon historian and Seventy B.H. Roberts said, “First, let me tell you the net results of the persecution of the Latter-day Saints in Missouri, so far as they can be told in a summary: There were killed outright of men, women and children, so far as careful estimates can be made, more than fifty souls. There were as many more wounded and beaten. How many perished by slow death, suffering untold agonies, by reason of exposure and cruelties, no one knows, nor can it be computed” (Conference Reports, October 1907, pp. 118-119).

If Mormon officials never made a “full accounting of their casualties” and no one really knows how many died from exposure, etc., why do some Mormons insist that hundreds perished? Though the loss of 50+ souls should never be minimized, if B.H. Roberts’ assessment is accurate, are we really to believe God decided to alter the one man, one woman tradition of marriage embraced by much of the western world because fewer than a hundred women living in 19th century America lost their husbands to indefensible acts of persecution or while relocating to the Salt Lake Valley?  Such a radical switch seems even more unnecessary when it is considered how this practice was renounced in 1890, a mere 38 years after it was publicly announced.


See more on the issue of polygamy by clicking here.