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Joseph Smith and His Papers: An Introduction


Smith’s various initiatives—city building, priesthood, and temples—were shaken at regular intervals by devastating persecutions. In 1833, two years after the city of Zion was begun in Independence, Missouri, the Latter-day Saints were expelled and required to start all over. In 1838, Smith and his followers in Kirtland, Ohio, were forced out of that area and moved to Far West, Missouri, where his followers were forming another Zion. In 1838 and 1839, they were expelled when the governor’s extermination order compelled Mormon withdrawal. Their next resort, Nauvoo, Illinois, begun in 1839, grew into the largest Mormon city to that point, with ten to twelve thousand inhabitants—until the Mormons were driven out and began the trek to what would become Utah. The pattern was unrelenting: Mormons gathered until their enemies forced them out, requiring them to begin still another city.

One of the perplexities of Mormonism is why a religion formed in America was so constantly in conflict with the society around it. Why could no American community tolerate the Latter-day Saints’ presence for more than a few years? In each instance of persecution, particular local complaints contributed to the enmity. The Missourians suspected the predominantly Yankee Mormons of encouraging the immigration of free blacks. Others accused the Saints of conniving with Indians to slaughter white settlers because of Book of Mormon prophecies about the ultimate redemption of America’s aborigines. In Illinois, Mormons were accused of counterfeiting, thieving, and being clannishly exclusive.

But one issue underlay all the local concerns: Mormonism and democratic government clashed. Joseph Smith’s enemies feared that he thought himself above the law. They believed that because his revelations came first, he would sacrifice obedience to worldly government. He was determined, they were sure, to build his kingdom by force if necessary. There were few specific instances of his actually breaking the law, though he wearied of what he called “vexatious lawsuits” brought for payment of debt and once declared in open meeting that he would stand for it no more.29 But he went to court anyway, scores of times, assuring government officials he was submissive to legal processes.

Nothing he did could allay suspicion. Smith’s claim to revelation by its very nature conflicted with democracy. There was always the question of which took precedence, the voice of the people acting through democratic government or the voice of God speaking through his prophet. Roman Catholics, with their belief in the pope’s infallibility, were entangled in the same conflict. Smith assured the world he had no intention of breaking the law, and a revelation admonished his followers to submit to legal proceedings.30 But the potential for conflict was always there, and in the case of plural marriage, Smith did put his revelation first. A committee of Illinois anti-Mormons summed up the prevailing reasoning. “A certain class of people have obtruded themselves upon us,” the committee reported, who have assumed “the sacred garb of Christianity.”

We find them yielding implicit obedience to the ostensible head and founder of this sect, who is a pretended Prophet of the Lord. . . .

We believe that such an individual, regardless as he must be, of his obligations to God, and at the same time entertaining the most absolute contempt for the laws of man, cannot fail to become a most dangerous character, especially when he shall have been able to place himself at the head of a numerous horde, either equally reckless and unprincipled as himself, or else made his pliant tools by the most absurd credulity that has astonished the world since its foundation.31

That was the essential anti-Mormon argument: a pretended prophet, who put himself above the law, leading a horde of unprincipled or credulous believers. The political implications were obvious. As Mormon numbers grew, one newspaper editor warned, the Mormons would “give to Revelation the balance of power in the District.”32

Mormons, on the other hand, felt that they had been repeatedly “deprived of our rights & privileges as citizenship driven from town to town place to place State to State, with the sacrifice of our homes & lands & our Blood been shed & many murdered” and never given justice.33 The Mormons could not forget the long string of abuses they had suffered at the hands of mobs. After their expulsion from Missouri, they vowed that they would never be subjected to such abuses again. In Illinois, they negotiated a strong city charter as a form of protection against further persecution and organized a state-sanctioned militia, the Nauvoo Legion, to withstand attack. Over and over, they rehearsed the horrible tale of their sufferings, certain the manifest injustice of their treatment would evoke sympathy and bring redress. But few came to their aid. Governor Thomas Ford of Illinois explained why. A democratic government, he wrote, is helpless to defend an unpopular group: “The people cannot be used to put down the people.”34

The Mormons magnified the critics’ fears by arming themselves and resorting to judicial maneuvers their enemies considered illegal. It did not help that the temperature of Mormon rhetoric rose to match that of their enemies. Fearing mobs were forming in Illinois like those that had expelled the Mormons from Missouri, Joseph Smith let loose his anger and frustration. He had taken more than he could tolerate. “The time has come when forbearance is no longer a virtue,” he declared. “If you are again taken unlawfully you are at liberty to give loose to Blood and Thunder.”35 The Mormons would not attack, but neither would they sit still if mobs came after them again.

This language and the combination of powers bestowed on Mormons by the Nauvoo charter inflamed their enemies. By building up the Nauvoo Legion to thousands of men, Smith appeared to his enemies as a prophet armed. Using the Nauvoo Municipal Court to protect himself from arrest made him seem to set himself above the law. His acquisition of the major offices in the city, the courts, and the militia, as well as in the church, opened him to charges of megalomania. By 1844, hundreds of citizens from nearby towns were ready to invade Nauvoo and drive the Mormons out.