The Mormon Persecution Complex – the give and take of Mormon persecution

The Mormon Persecution Complex – the give and take of Mormon persecution

A response to Gordon B. Hinckley’s The Mormons’ Trail of Hope

In 1997, the LDS church celebrated the 150th anniversary of their pioneer trek across the United States into Utah. The church was the focus of many articles and much publicity during this commemoration. Never one to pass up the opportunity of additional public relations, the church leadership used the events to inform the masses of their message. One of these typical messages was published in the Wall Street Journal by LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley.

While Hinckley’s story is partially true–there was an ‘extermination order’ from Gov. Boggs, (some) Mormons were driven from Missouri, and Joseph and Hyrum Smith were killed by a mob–he neglects to tell the whole story. A reasonable person would surely ask, ‘why would such things have happened and what were the causes’? In a Mormon Sunday School class one is likely to hear of causes being such things as Satan, other apostate churches, or the fact that the scriptures say that the Lord’s true church will be persecuted. Therefore, Mormons had to be persecuted in order to prove that they were the “one true church”. While the persecutions Mormons received were at times horrible, and many of the persecutors did things that were totally unjustified, these Sunday School answers don’t do justice to history and what really occurred. It would have been more honest for Gordon B. Hinckley to tell the whole story. It is undoubtedly true that most of the Mormons were a peaceful people, but it was the occasions when the few were not peaceful and when the leaders made hostile speeches and produced threatening ‘revelations’ that led to the calamities Hinckley refers to in his article.

From the earliest years, Mormons in both Ohio and Missouri began to isolate themselves. To validate their uniqueness they minimized socialization with outsiders and emphasized their differences. Being eccentric made them feel special, and they did not understand that what seemed to be solidarity to them appeared to be insularity to outsiders, an exclusivity that would provoke tragic misunderstandings, persecution, and bloodshed.

The deciding distinction between (other closely bonded religious) groups and Mormons was that the former neither sought political power nor pressed their opinions on outsiders through newspapers or proselyting.

Mormons viewed the Promised Land (Missouri) as their God-given entitlement. They proclaimed that high-minded belief to native Missourians, who naturally took umbrage. (Richard Van Wagoner in Sidney Rigdon)

According to one Missiourian who later became hostile to the Mormons,

Mormons and old settlers got along well until W. W. Phelps began to publish ‘the so called revelations of Joseph Smith’. (as related by Richard Van Wagoner in Sidney Rigdon)

There are numerous occasions in the D&C where Joseph Smith commanded the saints to do harm to the non-Mormons or to take over lands of others which he thought the Lord had given to him. In one instance, it is put in parable form so that the non-Mormons may not know what was going on when the Mormons were instructed to “break down the walls of mine enemies; throw down their tower, and scatter their watchmen. And inasmuch as they gather together against you, avenge me of mine enemies” in D&C 101:55-58. In another instance, former Mormons are considered “salt that has lost its savor” which should now be “trodden under foot of men”. This included former Mormons who wanted nothing more than to be left alone and worship how, where, or what they may as Article of Faith #11 suggests is condoned by Mormonism. This can be found in D&C 103:2-15 which also includes supposed instructions from the Lord that “I have decreed that your brethren which have been scattered shall return to the lands of their inheritances, and shall build up the waste places of Zion” and “the redemption of Zion must needs come by power”.

D&C 103:24-26 is not better when we learn that the Lord’s “presence shall be with you even in avenging me of mine enemies, unto the third and fourth generation”. Much earlier than these revelations however, in D&C 52:42, Joseph Smith has the Lord saying “assemble yourselves together to rejoice upon the land of Missouri, which is the land of your inheritance, which is now the land of your enemies”. What are the non-Mormons in Missouri supposed to think when they read such a revelation? What would Mormons think if the Pope suddenly published a revelation in which he said “assemble you Catholics together to rejoice upon the land of Utah, which is the land of your inheritance, which is now the land of your enemies”?

When Mormons began taking over the lands in large numbers, the native Missourians began to wonder what was going on. The Mormons block voted so their candidate, once they had significant numbers, always won the elections. The politicians had to grant favors to the Mormons rather than the natives in some cases in order to secure the Mormon vote. This kind of practice was seen later to a larger degree in Illinois.

Moving ahead to 1838 and the Extermination Order

The ‘extermination order’ is perhaps the most famous document that Mormons use to show that they are persecuted. Few know the circumstances surrounding its origin. About three months before it was issued, Sidney Rigdon delivered his famous 4th of July speech of 1838 which was partially reproduced in the church’s Comprehensive History of the Church, vol. 1, page 441 as follows:

And that mob that comes on us to disturb us, it shall be between us and them a war of extermination; for we will follow them until 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 party or the other shall be utterly destroyed.

Joseph Smith approved of the speech and it was subsequently printed in The Far West, a weekly newspaper, and the church’s own Elders’ Journal. Joseph Smith said in History of the Church, “The oration was delivered by President Rigdon, at the close of which was a shout of Hosanna, and a song, composed for the occasion by Levi W. Hancock, was sung by Solomon Hancock. The most perfect order prevailed throughout the day.” What were the non-Mormon readers supposed to think of these remarks? What were they to do when the church subsequently led battles against non-aggressive former Mormons and mistakenly led a battle against the state’s own militia? A couple of faithful Mormons had this to say about the subsequent Mormon aggressions which occurred before the extermination order of Boggs:

“The females hastily took from the houses what they could carry, and here I might say there was almost a trial of my faith in my pity for our enemies… Among the women was one, young married and apparently near her confinement, and another with small children and not a wagon, and many miles away from any of their friends, and snow had begun already… to fall. My sympathies were drawn toward the women and children, but I would in no degree let them deter me from duty. So while others were pillaging for something to carry away, I was doing my best to protect… the lives and comfort of the families who were dependent on getting away upon horse-back….While others were doing the burning and plunder, my mission was of mercy….Before noon we had set all on fire and left upon a circuitous route towards home.”
— Benjamin F. Johnson


“At the time that Galeton was to be burned, I pleaded with father to let me go; but to no effect. On the appointed day I went to the top of the hill… and cast my eyes in the direction of Galeton…and saw smoke rising towards Heaven, which filled me with ambition, the love of excitement, tumult and something new…The next day I went to Bishop Knights and saw the plunder, and o what lots, I…heard them tell, in what order they took the place… The store they burned, but the goods were preserved.”
— Oliver B. Huntington

Michael Quinn commented on the events as follows:

In the skirmishes that both sides called ‘battles,’ Mormons used deadly force without reluctance. Benjamin F. Johnson wrote that Danite leader (and future apostle) Lyman Wight told his men to pray concerning their Missouri enemies: ‘That God would Damn them & give us pow[e]r to Kill them.’ Likewise, at the beginning of the Battle of Crooked River on 25 October 1838, Apostle David W. Patten (a Danite captain with the code-name “Fear Not’) told his men: ‘Go ahead, boys; rake them down.’ The highest ranking Mormon charged with murder for obeying this order was Apostle Parley P. Pratt who allegedly took the careful aim of a sniper in killing one Missourian and then severely wounding militiaman Samuel Tarwater. This was after Apostle Patten received a fatal stomach wound. In their fury at the sight of their fallen leader, some of the Danites mutilated the unconscious Tarwater ‘with their swords’ striking him lengthwise in the mouth, cutting off his under teeth, and breaking his lower jaw; cutting off his cheeks…and leaving him [for] dead.’ He survived to press charges against Pratt for attempted murder. (Pratt subsequently escaped from prison and resumed his position in the Quorum of 12 Apostles)

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. Local residents feared annihilation: ‘We know not the hour or minute we will be laid in ashes,’ a local minister and county clerk wrote the day after the battle. ‘For God’s sake give us assistance as quick as possible.’ Correspondingly, the attack on state troops weakened the position of Mormon friends in Missouri’s militia and government. Finally, 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. (The Mormon Hierarchy, pages 99-100)

Even though Mormons of today know next to nothing about these events and precursors to the Mormon exodus, the Mormons of the day were well aware of why they were being ‘persecuted’. When Brigham Young was jockeying the presidency of the church away from Sidney Rigdon after Joseph Smith died he said, “Elder Rigdon was the prime cause of our troubles in Missouri by his fourth of July oration.” (Times and Seasons, vol. 5, page 667) As B.H. Roberts said over 50 years later,

The deliverance of a very noted “Oration” by Sidney Rigdon at Far West, on the Fourth of July, 1838, in the course of which there was expressed a strong determination to no more submit quietly to mob violence, and acts of pillage. At this distance of time from that occasion, and balancing against the heated utterances of the speaker the subsequent uses made of them to incite the public mind to that series of acts which culminated in the expulsion of the Saints from the state, we say those utterances were untimely, extreme, and unwise. So indeed they were. The speaker seems to have thrown discretion to the winds, and in the fervor of his rhetoric made threats of retaliation on behalf of the Saints.

Although Hinckley’s letter doesn’t mention it, you frequently hear Mormons claim that they were driven out of Ohio too. For much more on the Ohio issue, see Van Wagoner’s book referenced above and Brigham Young University Studies, Summer 1977, pages 437-38, 458 which shows that the Kirtland Bank Joseph Smith established was illegal, and he left Ohio, not because he was driven out but, in order to escape paying his debts and having to face criminal charges.

For more background on the Missouri conflict see: The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri which people have told me is the very best source to finding out both sides of this issue. BYU professor William G. Hartley’s My Best For the Kingdom is also an excellent source. For a better background and history of the Mormon Trail (including accounts of the pioneers that needlessly died because they listened to leaders rather than reason) see: The Pioneer Camp of the Saints : The 1846 and 1847 Mormon Trail Journals of Thomas Bullock.