Violence in Early Mormonism - Was It All Unjust Persecution?

Violence in Early Mormonism - Was It All Unjust Persecution? 

By Bill McKeever

Members of the LDS Church often make a big issue of the fact that their ancestors faced terrible persecutions during the early years of the LDS movement. To most people, Missourian sites like Independence, Liberty, Far West, and Caldwell County mean very little. Yet to the faithful Latter-day Saint, these places carry a great amount of significance.

It is true that the Mormons were driven from several states before finally arriving in what is known today as the state of Utah, and this violence can never be condoned. However, with all of the talk of the persecution early Mormons faced, there is rarely any discussion as to the role played by the Mormons in those early years. To be sure, the average Mormon has no idea that both sides had their share of human rights abuses. To many Latter-day Saints, their forebears were simply innocent victims.

It would be wrong to say that the Mormons were treated badly simply because they had theological disagreements with their new neighbors. In his book The Mormon Hierarchy - Origins of Power, former LDS historian D. Michael Quinn wrote,

"Fear of being overwhelmed politically, socially, culturally, economically by Mormon immigration was what fueled anti-Mormonism wherever the Latter-day Saints settled during Joseph Smith's lifetime. Religious belief, as non-Mormons understood it, had little to do with anti-Mormonism. On the other hand, by the mid-1830s Mormons embraced a religion that shaped their politics, economics and society. Conflict was inevitable" (p.91).

On page 82 of the book, The Story of the Latter-day Saints, LDS historians James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard wrote, "Impressed by the Mormon image of group solidarity, some old settlers expressed fears that as a group the Mormons were determined to take over all of their lands and business."

In his book, The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri, historian Stephen C. LeSueur notes that "non-Mormon land speculators could not hope to compete with the Mormons, who were purchasing large tracts of land with Church funds," and that the huge immigration of Mormons to the area also "threatened to displace older towns as the political and commercial centers for their counties" (p.3).

Arrogance on the part of the Mormon settlers certainly did not help the situation. As Allen and Leonard write,

"The Saints themselves may not have been totally without blame in the matter. The feelings of the Missourians, even though misplaced, were undoubtedly intensified by the rhetoric of the gathering itself. They were quick to listen to the boasting of a few overzealous Saints who too-loudly declared a divine right to the land. As enthusiastic millennialists, they proclaimed that the time of the gentiles was short, and they were perhaps too quick to quote the revelation that said that 'the Lord willeth that the disciples and the children of men should open their hearts, even to purchase this whole region of country, as soon as time will permit" (The Story of the Latter-day Saints, p. 83).

Smith's leadership didn't help ease the tension. For instance, when First Counselor Sidney Rigdon gave a fiery "Fourth of July Oration" (1838) that threatened the state of Missouri with what he called a "war of extermination," Smith made this speech into a pamphlet. Also adding to the Missourians distress were the rumors of Mormon "Danites," a secret band of Mormon hit men known to intimidate non-Mormon "Gentiles" and LDS dissenters.

The acts of violence brought against the Mormon settlers and the fact that the Mormons felt they would not receive proper redress compelled them to retaliate. Writes LeSueur,

"Although Mormon military action was generally initiated in response to reports of violence, the Mormons tended to overreact and in some instances retaliated against innocent citizens. Their perception of themselves as the chosen people, their absolute confidence in their leaders, and their determination not to be driven out led Mormon soldiers to commit numerous crimes. The Mormons had many friends among the Missourians, but their military operations undercut their support in the non-Mormon community" (The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri, p.4).

LeSueur believes much of the blame for the "plundering and burning committed by Mormon soldiers in Daviess County" can be laid at the feet of Joseph Smith himself.

I have heard Latter-day Saints justify these actions by saying the frustrations experienced by the Saints would seem to warrant retaliation. While I may sympathize with their desire to "respond in kind," we must keep in mind that in doing so the moral high ground is lost. Once you lower yourself to the level of your enemy, you can no longer claim to be guiltless in the situation. This, unfortunately, is what many Mormons do.

Attempts to get along in Missouri proved fruitless. Both sides blamed the other, and each claimed to be the defender rather than the aggressor. The violence came to a head in late 1838 when a group of Missouri militia, led by Captain Samuel Bogart, moved through Ray County disarming Mormon settlers and ordering them to leave. Reports circulated among the Mormons that Bogart's men had burned and plundered several Mormon homes in their two-day march. Though there is no evidence to support this claim, LeSueur writes that it was readily believed by Mormon leaders (p.133).

On October 24, two Mormon spies were captured by Bogart's men and taken to their camp on Crooked River. In response, a band of over 50 Mormons led by LDS Apostle David Patten engaged in a firefight with Bogart's men. When the Mormons drew their swords and charged the camp, the militia fled, leaving one dead and another man wounded. Patten himself was mortally wounded in the battle. Two Mormon soldiers, coming upon the wounded and unconscious militiaman by the name of Samuel Tarwater, mercilessly mutilated the man's face with their swords and left him for dead.

When listing the atrocities brought against the LDS people in Missouri, the massacre at Haun's Mill always seems to come to the forefront. Speaking of the persecution faced by Mormons in the past, LDS Apostle Bruce R. McConkie wrote:

"We have staggered under the iron fist of persecution during our whole latter-day history, and we know that hatred and ill will and death will continue to be spewed out upon us until the coming end of the world. We have been driven and scourged and slain; the blood of our prophets stains Illinois; at Haun's Mill the innocent blood of the martyrs for truth cries unto the Lord of Hosts; and on frozen and desolate hills, across half a continent, lie the lonely graves of suffering saints who chose death in preference to the creeds of compulsion of a decadent Christendom" (A New Witness for the Articles of Faith, pp. 656-657).

McConkie's dramatic rhetoric fails to take into account the fact that the Haun's Mill massacre took place just one week after the battle of Crooked River. Quinn writes:

"A generally unacknowledged dimension of both the extermination order and the Haun's Mill massacre, however, is that they resulted from Mormon actions in the Battle of Crooked River. Knowingly or not, Mormons had attacked state troops, and this had a cascade effect… upon receiving news of the injuries and death of state troops at Crooked River, Governor Boggs immediately drafted his extermination order on 27 October 1838 because the Mormons 'have made war upon the people of this state.' Worse, the killing of one Missourian and mutilation of another while he was defenseless at Crooked River led to the mad-dog revenge by Missourians in the slaughter at Haun's Mill" (Origins of Power, p.100).

The Mormons would eventually be forced to leave Missouri and settle in Nauvoo, Illinois. Controversy, however, would not disappear. When Smith became the target in a newspaper known as the Nauvoo Expositor, he ordered the destruction of the press. This action caused no small disturbance, and in order to insure order, Smith called out his standing army (The Nauvoo Legion) and placed the city under martial law. Illinois Governor Ford felt the only way the problem could be solved was by a trial to be held in Carthage, the county seat. Although Smith was in the process of fleeing to the west, he was persuaded by friends to turn himself in. A gripping tale of persecution and unjust imprisonment is told during the tour of the Carthage Jail. The guide tells how Joseph Smith claimed that he was going to Carthage as a "lamb to the slaughter" (D&C 135:4). However, such a description of Joseph Smith's final moments is hardly close to the truth, as John Taylor's account in volume seven of the Documentary History of the Church shows:

"Elder Cyrus H. Wheelock came in to see us, and when he was about leaving drew a small pistol, a six-shooter, from his pocket, remarking at the same time, Would any of you like to have this?' Brother Joseph immediately replied, `Yes, give it to me,' whereupon he took the pistol, and put it in his pantaloons pocket. The pistol was a six-shooting revolver, of Allen's patent; it belonged to me, and was one that I furnished to Brother Wheelock when he talked of going with me to the east, previous to our coming to Carthage…I was sitting at one of the front windows of the jail, when I saw a number of men, with painted faces, coming around the corner of the jail, and aiming towards the stairs. The other brethren had seen the same, for, as I went to the door, I found Brother Hyrum Smith and Dr. Richards already leaning against it, They both pressed against the door with their shoulders to prevent its being opened, as the lock and latch were comparatively useless. While in this position, the mob, who had come upstairs, and tried to open the door, probably thought it was locked, and fired a ball through the keyhole; at this Dr. Richards and Brother Hyrum leaped back from the door, with their faces towards it; almost instantly another ball passed through the panel of the door, and struck Brother Hyrum on the left side of the nose, entering his face and head. At the same instant, another ball from the outside entered his back, passing through his body and striking his watch. The ball came from the back, through the jail window, opposite the door, and must, from its range, have been fired from the Carthage Greys, who were placed there ostensibly for our protection, as the balls from the firearms, shot close by the jail, would have entered the ceiling, we being in the second story, and there never was a time after that when Hyrum could have received the latter wound. Immediately, when the ball struck him, he fell flat on his back, crying as he fell, `I am a dead man!' He never moved afterwards. I shall never forget the deep feeling of sympathy and regard manifested in the countenance of Brother Joseph as he drew nigh to Hyrum, and, leaning over him, exclaimed, `Oh! my poor, dear brother Hyrum!' He, however, instantly arose, and with a firm, quick step, and a determined expression of countenance, approached the door, and pulling the six-shooter left by Brother Wheelock from his pocket, opened the door slightly, and snapped the pistol six successive times; only three of the barrels, however, were discharged. I afterwards understood that two or three were wounded by these discharges, two of whom, I am informed, died, I had in my hands a large, strong hickory stick, brought there by Brother Markham, and left by him, which I had seized as soon as I saw the mob approach; and while Brother Joseph was firing the pistol, I stood close behind him" (pp. 101-103).

Having taken this tour several times, I noticed that mention of the smuggled gun is always left out. In fact, when the subject of the gun was brought up in my 1998 tour by a Christian in the crowd, we were told that it was not smuggled (it was "brought in") and that the shootout was not a "gun battle." This is an incredible game of semantics given the fact that journalists often use this phrase when describing armed conflict regardless of how many participated or how many shots were fired. The fact that Smith tried to defend himself disqualifies him from being described in the same manner as our Lord during His arrest, trial, and death (Acts 8:32).

After Smith's demise, things would be quiet for a time. Eventually, however, troubles between the Mormons and their Gentile neighbors would resurface. With little hope to see things resolved, plans were being made by the LDS leadership to leave Illinois. On August 23, 1845, a strategy was approved for an expedition beyond the Rocky Mountains. The first company, composed of 143 men, 3 women, and 2 children, would leave in mid-April. Three and a half months later they would arrive in the Salt Lake Valley.

Even with my strong views regarding the errors of the Mormon faith, religious persecution as properly defined, is always wrong. I say properly defined because many Mormons feel that any verbal disagreement with their faith is a type of persecution. However, it gets a little tiring to hear of Mormons constantly pointing to their 19th century persecutions as if this is some sort of sign of God's divine approval on the LDS Church. If violence against a certain faith were the only way to determine truth, then certainly the Mormons themselves would have to recognize that our Christian faith was just as viable as theirs. Can a Mormon, off the top of his head, recall when the last Mormon was killed just because he was a Mormon? Certainly we have heard of Mormons being tragically killed while serving missions, but these cases involve circumstances other than true martyrdom (robberies, car accidents, being mistaken for CIA agents, etc). On the other hand, it is not uncommon to hear of Christians around the world who are being killed because they refuse to denounce their belief that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life. While martyrdom seems to be a thing of the past for the Mormons, it is a common occurrence among those who have placed their total trust in the Jesus of the Bible.