by Sharon Lindbloom
6 September 2023
Kirtland, Ohio was once the headquarters of what is today known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. From February 1831 to January 1838 the church’s founder, Joseph Smith, lived in Ohio while directing the church’s affairs. The Kirtland years were very important in laying the foundation of the Mormon church. One LDS leader remarked that “Kirtland is truly a holy ground of this dispensation… It has been said that we may yet discover that Kirtland is our most significant Church history site” (Apostle M. Russell Ballard, “What Came from Kirtland,” November 6, 1994).
In 2003 the LDS church dedicated Historic Kirtland, a site that the church had partially restored and rebuilt to reflect the town as it was in the 1830s. Late last month, on August 26th (2023), the LDS church dedicated a new addition to Historic Kirtland–the home of Joseph and Emma Smith.
It’s not surprising that this event would be reported in LDS news sources, but it’s also been widely reported in non-Mormon media outlets. Various news agencies have emphasized different aspects of the LDS church’s history in Kirtland and Joseph’s life there, but one thing I’ve noticed in every article I’ve seen is a statement that the Smith family lived in Kirtland until January 1838, when they “fled” the city “because of persecution and threats of violence.” (For examples see here, here, and here.)
None of the articles I’ve seen have explained or identified what comprised the “persecution and threats of violence” the Smiths were running from. That information was not included in the church’s news release. But without any historical background or context, it’s easy for readers to assume that Joseph was fleeing religious persecution brought to bear against the Mormons by non-Mormons who wouldn’t tolerate this new religion in their midst. But that’s not what was going on in Kirtland.
During the 1830s the town–and the LDS church–experienced unprecedented growth. As noted by historian Dan Vogel, by mid-1836
“…the Mormons in Kirtland began dreaming of getting rich. In early July , Ebenezer Robinson, after returning from a five-week mission, observed: ‘We discovered a great change had taken place in the church, especially with many of its leading official members. A spirit of speculation was poured out, and instead of that meek and lowly spirit which we felt had heretofore prevailed, a spirit of worldly ambition, and grasping after the things of the world, took its place. Some farms adjacent to Kirtland were purchased by some of the heads of the church, mostly on credit, and laid out into city lots, until a large city was laid out on paper, and the price of the lots put up to an unreasonable amount…’” (Charisma Under Pressure: Joseph Smith, American Prophet, 1831-1839, 810, Kindle edition)
As Joseph and other church leaders continued to engage in land speculation, they incurred mounting debt. In late 1836 Joseph decided to establish his own bank, the Kirtland Safety Society (later known as the Kirtland Safety Society Anti-Banking Company) and encouraged Latter-day Saints to invest in it. According to LDS leader Warren Parrish, Joseph claimed that he had established the bank under God’s direction when he
“declared that the audible voice of God, instructed him to establish a Banking-Anti Banking institution, which like Aaron’s rod should swallow up all other Banks…and grow and flourish and spread from the rivers to the ends of the earth, and survive when all others should be laid in ruins.” (Quoted in Vogel, 815)
But the Kirtland Safety Society Anti-Banking Company was underfunded and mismanaged. In an effort to prop up the failing venture, Joseph and other church leaders borrowed even more money. But their efforts were in vain. Just a few months after opening its doors, the Kirtland bank failed, leaving members of the church in dire financial straits and creditors scrambling to recoup their money. Dan Vogel writes,
“The collapse of the Kirtland economy brought a crush of creditors upon Smith demanding payment. E. D. Howe later remarked: ‘Many of our citizens thought it advisable to take all the legal means within their reach to counteract the progress of so dangerous an enemy in their midst, and many law suits ensued.’ Between June 1837 and January 1838, Smith was involved in at least twenty-two lawsuits.” (901)
So during the night of January 12, 1838, Joseph Smith and his family fled Kirtland “to escape mob violence,” Smith claimed, “which was about to burst upon us under the color of legal process to cover the hellish designs of our enemies” (History of the Church 3:1).
The Kirtland “persecution and threats of violence” recently mentioned by so many news outlets was not “anti-Mormon” in nature; it was not perpetrated by armed mobs intent on getting rid of Mormonism. In fact, the Kirtland “persecution” was dominated by lawsuits, the “legal process” of trying to get Joseph Smith to pay his debts.
There’s more to the story, of course. The failure of Joseph’s bank caused Latter-day Saints to become disillusioned with Joseph and his claim to be God’s prophet. In 1856 LDS apostle Heber C. Kimball remarked that after “the Church was broken up in Kirtland,”
“there were not twenty persons on the earth that would declare that Joseph Smith was a Prophet of God.” (“Emigration—The Saints Warned to Repent or Judgments Will Come Upon Them,” Journal of Discourses 4:108)
Dissenters challenged Joseph’s leadership and many people turned away from the church:
“Historians have estimated that ‘between November 1837 and June 1838, possibly two or three hundred Kirtland Saints withdrew from the Church, representing from 10 to 15 percent of the membership there.’” (Vogel, 901, quoting Milton V. Backman, Jr., The Heavens Resound, 328)
Joseph Smith’s church in Kirtland, Ohio was unraveling. Dan Vogel reports:
“Reflecting on Smith’s difficulties in Kirtland, John Corrill, who had been appointed church historian in April 1838, wrote shortly after his own disaffection in 1839: ‘During their mercantile and banking operations they not only indulged in pride, but also suffered jealousies to arise among them, and several persons dissented from the church, and accused the leaders of the church with bad management, selfishness, seeking for riches, honor, and dominion, tyranising over the people, and striving constantly after power and property.’ On the other hand, he continued, ‘the leaders of the church accused the dissenters with dishonesty, want of faith, and righteousness, wicked in their intentions, guilty of crimes, such as stealing, lying, encouraging the making of counterfeit money, &c.’” (Vogel, 904)
These were very troubled times for Joseph Smith and his church. While the LDS church today is eager to keep alive the perception of Mormons being a religiously persecuted people, Joseph’s nighttime flight from Kirtland in 1838 was not an effort to escape Mormonism’s enemies, but to escape those who had once been Joseph’s closest friends and confidants. When his bad business decisions caused enormous problems for Joseph in Kirtland he fled, leaving his followers in financial–and spiritual–ruin.
That’s the part of the story the LDS news release failed to mention.
To see Sharon’s other news articles, click here.