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Book Review: The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri

Written by Stephen C. LeSueur

Reviewed by Eric Johnson

Not everyone likes history, especially Mormon history. But if there is a particular year that ought to be understood for a better comprehension of Mormonism, the year would have to be 1838.

In this book written by Stephen C. LeSueur, the events leading up to the 1838 Mormon War that took place in Missouri are documented. As the author writes on page 4,

The activities of the Mormons during this period often contributed to, rather than allayed, hostility toward their presence in Missouri. In Caldwell County, Mormon leaders dominated local politics, while the Danites, a secret Mormon vigilante organization, enforced religious orthodoxy, thus reinforcing the Missourians’ perception of Mormonism as a fanatic and un-American religion.

While it is unclear whether LeSueur–who has authored pieces for BYU Studies–is LDS, he certainly seems to hold to certain Mormon fundamentals, including a belief in the Book of Mormon:

The book cannot be easily dismissed as the word of an imaginative youth. It maintains a complex narrative, presents consistent doctrinal themes, and answers questions not fully explained in the Bible. In addition, a number of Smith’s friends and relatives signed statements that they examined the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated; and three of them, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris, claimed they saw the angel who delivered the plates to Smith. (10)

He overstates the case. For example, the witnesses only saw the plates with their eyes of faith in a vision. And the three witnesses he mentions all ended up leaving the LDS Church and were not there when “Moroni” delivered the plates to Smith. (Technically, LeSueur doesn’t say the witnesses were there, but it could be easily misread.)

But overall, I believe the book the LeSueur has written is well-documented and appears to be reliable. I learned a lot by reading his book.

As a historian, the author provides insights into the mindset of the Mormons living in that day. Showing the people belonged to a cooperative society, LeSueur writes,

In Jackson County and in Ohio the Saints had initiated United Orders, as the communal organizations  later became known, in which they consecrated (that is, gave) all their property to the Church, after which they received back the land, tools, goods, food, and other property necessary for their needs and responsibilities. The system proved unworkable—due largely, it was said, to the selfishness and disobedience of the Saints—and so in July 1838 Smith issued the Law of Consecration and Tithing for the Saints to practice in Missouri. (32)

Some polygamous groups, including the True and Living Church founded by Jim Harmston in Manti, UT, have attempted to revive the United Order, but I have never heard of such a system working. For a person to hand everything over to the leaders and allow them to determine how the monies are spent is a system inviting abuse that will normally collapse. This is why I believe socialism and communism fails.

Important sermons are discussed in the book, including Sidney Rigdon’s “Salt Sermon” that he gave on June 17. Speaking of a group known as the Sons of Dan (later, the Danites), LeSueur writes,

Some of the Mormons proposed killing the dissenters, but these and other radical plans were successfully opposed by Thomas Marsh, president of the Twelve Apostles, and John Corrill. . . . Rigdon denounced Mormon apostates, comparing them to the salt that Jesus spoke of in the Gospel of St. Matthew. If the salt has lost its savor, Rigdon said, it must be cast out and trodden under the feet of men. Rigdon accused the dissenters in Far West of seeking to overthrow the Church and committing various crimes. Although he mentioned no names, the Mormons knew of whom he spoke. (38)

This group of men served as a secret police for the Mormon leaders.

The Danites bound themselves with secret oaths and signs and pledged to support each other and the leaders of the Church—whether right or wrong—in all conflicts with their enemies. They prohibited excessive criticism of the First Presidency, demanded adherence to the communitarian practices of the Church, and served as an arm of the Church leadership in controlling local politics. The Danites sought by these activities to purge the Church of evil and help build a righteous city of Zion. (41)

The activities of the Danites caused many problems for the Mormons by advocating violence as a way to make right, which polarized the situation and created an “us versus them” mentality causing division with the non-Mormon residents of the state. Did Joseph Smith know about these Danites? LeSueur says he did:

However, evidence from this period—even from loyal Mormon sources—demonstrates that Joseph Smith did indeed know about and approve of the Danite organization, and that the Danites were a highly influential group in the Mormon community.  (43)

While Mormon historians have used the account in the History of the Church to show that the Prophet did not know about the Danites, LeSueur says that the evidence proves otherwise.

More than anything, though, it was probably Sidney Rigdon’s July 4th oration that was the kingpin in causing more trouble than peace for the Mormons living in Missouri. In this talk, Ridgon declared a “war of extermination” and said that “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 seat of war to their own houses, and their own families, and one part or the other shall be utterly destroyed. Remember it then all Men.”

In response, the Mormons “waved their hats high above their heads and shouted, ‘Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna to God and the Lamb!'” Later leaders called the speech “a foolish and overly aggressive statement of Mormon rights that unnecessarily provoked anti-Mormon violence. “ (51)

By August, the Mormons were “the dominant political force” in Missouri, as

they numbered about one-half of the two thousand county residents and represented at least one-third of the voting population. . . . They also tended to vote as a bloc and therefore held the balance of power in the Daviess election (59).

Over the next few months, there were a number of skirmishes and battles that tore Missouri apart. Evidence later coming from the Mormons themselves “confirms the reports that the Mormons were driving settlers from their homes, plundering, and burning” (121). Crimes were also committed by Mormon soldiers, which LeSueur says can be attributed to several factors:

Their militant activities and the belligerent speeches of their leaders during the summer and fall of 1838 had been leading them on a course of increasing lawlessness and violence. Pent-up hostility and frustration followed by years of persecution, lay waiting to explode. The Mormons’ conviction that they were God’s chosen people, that their righteous anger justified retaliation, and that their depredations were helping to build the Kingdom of God encouraged Mormon soldiers to commit crimes they normally would not have perpetrated. Their perception of all Missourians as “enemies” and “mobbers” led the Mormons to believe that their victims deserved their fate, that they brought the wrath of God upon themselves. Once the Mormon soldiers had begun, many of them discovered that they enjoyed plundering and burning on behalf of the Lord. (121)

The Samuel Tarwater incident probably epitomizes the rancor and disgust these soldiers had with their fellow Missourians. In the infamous Battle of Crooked River that took place on October 24th,

Two Mormon soldiers intercepted Samuel Tarwater as he ran to the river and gave him several piercing cuts with their corn-cutter swords. One of the Mormons, Lorenzo D. Young (brother of the future Mormon prophet), said he saw an angel’s hand hold Tarwater’s arm so he could not return the blows. The Missourian suffered a severed jaw and cuts about the throat and had his skull cut open and his upper teeth destroyed. Within minutes the Mormons had routed the Missouri troops and sent them fleeing desperately to their homes. (140-41)

The Haun’s Mill Massacre was filled with even more atrocities, with Mormons suffering the brunt of the “Gentiles” anger. One young boy even

begged for his life, but William Reynolds of Livingston County put a gun to the boy’s head and blew off the top. “Nits will make lice, and if he had lived he would have become a Mormon,” Reynolds reported said in justification of his act. (167)

According to LeSueur, “bodies lay scattered throughout the village; eighteen had been killed or mortally wounded, twelve to fifteen other wounded.” (167)

In response, the state’s governor, Lilburn W. Boggs, gave his infamous “extermination order” that said the Mormons needed “to be exterminated or driven from the state” as he “acted from a genuine belief that the Mormons had rebelled against state authority. He has become the whipping boy demonized throughout the years by LDS leaders and media, including annually at the Mormon Miracle Pageant in Manti, Utah. Still, there is no doubt Boggs made mistakes, as described by LeSueur:

Perhaps the only person who had the prestige or power to quell the disturbances was Gov. Lilburn W. Boggs, but he failed to use his influence effectively. He ignored numerous requests by Mormons, Missourians, and militia officers to come to the scene of trouble. The governor’s presence, as one of his generals remarked, would have had more effect in subduing the vigilantes than an entire regiment. Boggs might have been able to secure at least a temporary peace. By the time he intervened, the conflict has escalated beyond the control of local authorities. (5)

Smith eventually led his people to Illinois and an ugly chapter in Mormon history ended. There is no doubt there were atrocities on both sides, as pointed out by LeSueur. It seemed quite evident that the Mormons would be best suited to be governed by their own; isolating themselves from the “Gentile” population was probably going to be the only way to survive. In Nauvoo—named by Smith himself—the Mormons found partial rest, but still there were plenty of conflicts with residents from the area. Perhaps the largest conflict came from within when a group of former Mormons protested Smith’s licentious behavior and wrote about it in a newspaper called the Nauvoo Expositor, which ended up with the arrest of Joseph Smith who was placed in the Carthage Jail.

Hence, after Smith was murdered by men with darkened faces, Young realized the only way to survive was to get as far away from others as possible. The trek to the Utah territory took place a few years later. The conflicts never ended, as outsiders found their way to this place. Even passing through the land caused problems (i.e. Mountain Meadows Massacre).

I recommend LeSueur’s book for study to understand an important year in Mormon history. It’s well worth the read.

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