The Mormon War
The Mormon War
Beginnings of the Conflict
The commandment to gather to Missouri had been given to the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1833, but Joseph Smith and other Church leaders were still centered in Ohio, so the gathering of the Saints was not fixed on Missouri. However after being driven out of Kirtland, Joseph and the others gathered to Far West, Missouri, and by 1838, the Mormons were arriving in droves. In a matter of eight months, the Mormon population in northwestern Missouri had grown from between three and four thousand to more than nine thousand, with thousands more expected to come. Though relations between the Mormons and the Missourians had been peaceful upon the first arrival of the Saints, several factors led to tension. The numbers in which the Saints were gathering was overwhelming the citizens of Missouri, and, due to false rumors about the Mormons, many people did not want to live in the same communities as they did. Property values plummeted and tensions rose. In addition, actions of a group called the Danites, who took it upon themselves to purge and cleanse the Church of the unfaithful, heightened uneasiness.
The attitudes of some of the Mormons certainly didn’t help matters. It had been revealed to Joseph Smith that the area they were now in was the original location of the Garden of Eden, and was also the area Adam and Eve had lived in after being expelled from the Garden. The Mormons believed all of this to be sacred ground. The Lord had given them a commandment to build up His kingdom and had promised the Saints the land would be theirs. Some of the Saints unfortunately took this to mean they had rights to all of the land there, and, though they were willing to pay for it, their attitudes affected their neighbors.
At this time Missouri was very much on the frontier of the United States. There were fortunes to be made by some, and politics played an important role in the relations between the two parties. Though Mormons were free to vote however they chose, and were more than willing to vote for any candidates who were friendly towards them, they did tend to vote similarly. Missourians felt they would soon take over everything by sheer number and that they would soon control the government, though the Mormons had no inclination to do this at all. They simply wanted to live peaceably and build up the kingdom as they had been commanded to do.
Due to dissenters in the early stages of the Church, certain members felt the need to purge the Church of the unfaithful and to renew commitments to live the gospel fully. In the past, dissenters had played large roles in stirring up anti-Mormon feelings, resulting in the Saints being driven from their homes. Desirous to avoid being persecuted and driven even more, there was a somewhat antagonistic attitude among some of the Mormons towards any who seemed unfriendly to them. A group called the Danites formed, pledging itself to create a righteous community and to protect it. Unfortunately, this attitude stirred up more hard feelings, and the Missourians began to band together, convinced they would have no peace until and unless the Mormons left.
The Danties took other matters into their own hands when they chose to expel dissenters from their community. A few members were tried by the Mormons and were found guilty of selling their land contrary to the revelations Joseph Smith had received (for their personal gain rather than for the good of the community), had violated the Word of Wisdom, and had tried to undermine Joseph’s authority by falsely accusing him of having committed adultery. These men were found guilty and were excommunicated. The Danties took it upon themselves to expel these men and their families from the community. Several of the Mormons were upset by this unlawful action, causing more tension within the Church as well as without. While the man principally credited with forming the Danites, Dr. Sampson Avard, is also accused of forming and leading this group to gain personal power, no mention was made of his faults until after things got out of hand. Avard did begin twisting the cause of the group, claiming their members were beyond the reaches of the law and that they should rescue any Danite from governmental trial to be tried instead by their own people. This goes strongly against the teachings of the Church, specifically Article of Faith #12, which states all members of the Church are subject to the government under which they live.
It is hard to reconcile the Church’s teachings with the actions of individuals or even groups at this time in Church history. While some actions can neither be condoned, nor excused, it is perhaps important to remember how much the Saints had been persecuted and driven; how much they had suffered; how much they had sacrificed. They had been peaceful and had turned the other cheek (Matt. 5:39) many times. They were determined to not be driven any more. They resolved to protect their families and their homes.
After Sidney Rigdon, a prominent Church leader, gave a fiery speech encouraging the Saints to defend themselves against their enemies, members of Carroll County resolved to expel the Mormons for having settled at Dewitt, which many Missourians were upset about. The Carroll County citizens determined to do things as peaceably as possible (though still unlawfully). They seemed to hope by talking about it so much, and through threats of expulsion, the Mormons would just leave. At this time support through most of the state not directly concerned with the issue was inclined to be on the side of the Mormons. Though other citizens sometimes did not have sympathies for the religion itself (or what they had heard the religion was), they still respected the rights offered by the Constitution more than the personal wishes of non-Mormon citizens to not live with Mormons.
Mormons Not Allowed to Vote in Gallatin
On August 6, the day of state and county elections in Gallatin, Missouri, tensions reached a boiling point. When a group of Mormon men went to vote they were blocked by an angry group of men. Dick Weldon, who was drunk at the time, insulted and assaulted a Mormon shoemaker named Samuel Brown. Fists began to fly and soon all thirty Saints and forty or fifty Missourians were fighting. No guns were used, and no one was killed, but many were hurt. The Mormons came out the victors, but were still surrounded by angry Missourians, and the Mormons left without voting. Exaggerated reports soon spread to both sides, and several Mormons gathered together that night to prepare for an attack that never came—at least not until much later.
Because tensions were still so high, a group of Mormons visited Judge Adam Black, who was reportedly heading mobs trying to expel the Mormons, requesting he sign a document stating he would have no relations with the anti-Mormon mobs. He believed his word should be enough guarantee, but Joseph wanted something concrete to show the Saints to try and ease their fears. Though he was not forced to sign the document, Black felt he was being bullied by the group (mostly of Danites), he feared for his family, and so he created his own document, which he signed. The Mormons were satisfied and let him alone. Black and others soon brought charges against Mormon leaders for their conduct, but the trials seemed only to resolve in building tensions higher on both sides.
Things continued in a cyclical pattern for some time. False charges were raised against the Mormon leaders to try and get them out of the state. The Mormons appealed to all forms of government for help. They wanted matters peacefully settled, but when no help was offered, they felt compelled to form militia to protect themselves. The conflict spread to other counties and soon required the attention of the governor. Governor Lilburn W. Boggs was known to be anti-Mormon and was inclined to believe the worst reports he heard of them. He organized a large militia to march and went himself to help sort the matter out.
Previous to the governor’s arrival, two generals, David R. Atchison, and Alexander W. Doniphan, arrived with their men and began to sort things out. They discovered the claims against the Mormons were false and that the Mormons were acting defensively. They sent word to Gov. Boggs that they had sorted matters out, but that if he would still come and speak to the people, they believed that would be of much more use than the presence of the militia. However, when Boggs arrived and discovered most of the trouble to be coming from the non-Mormons, and received the report too late that his gathered army was no longer needed, he returned home without speaking to the people.
Siege of DeWitt
When matters continued uneasily, non-Mormons concluded they would have no peace unless the Mormons left. After telling the Mormons they would leave, however, and even sold some of their land to them, the Missourians resolved once and for all to drive them out of Carroll County. A two-week siege began on the town of DeWitt, and forces gathered on both sides. When the Saints sent A. C. Caldwell, a non-Mormon, to once again petition Boggs for aid, Caldwell returned saying Boggs had refused and said it was a waste of government time and money and that the people would have to sort things out themselves. Boggs later denied this, but with both sides believing this to be his stance, the Mormons had no choice but to surrender. The terms agreed on were that the Missourians would pay the assessed value of the Mormons’ property and compensate them, but all the Mormons would have to leave the county. The Mormons were forced to leave, but were only partially compensated.
This victory on the side of the Missourians sparked action throughout the other counties inhabited by Mormons. Each county was desirous to expel the Mormons, and they believed that if they acted quickly, they would succeed. Joseph Smith determined they would fight and himself took charge of the Mormon troops. It is difficult to say under what orders, if any, some of the troops began raiding and plundering their local non-Mormons. They seemed to think they were justified in taking the equivalent of what had been taken from them previously. Their tempers finally exploded, after years of persecution and frustration that they continued to receive no governmental aid. They began to view all Missourians as their enemies, even though many had helped them in the past. When Missourians retaliated in full force, the Mormons prayed for the state militia to arrive, which it never did. After hearing that vigilantes in Carroll County intended to drive out the Saints, General Parks organized the Ray militia and went to intervene. Upon his arrival, he found true civil war had broken out. Parks wrote to General Atchison asking for help and advice. He was afraid his men would join the vigilantes if he joined the fray, resulting in more destruction of the Mormons. He felt the best choice he could make at that time was passivity. Other generals refused to call upon troops, still feeling that the Mormons were being treated abominably.