Mormon History Time Periods Overview
The Church of Christ (now officially The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint) was organized with six founding members in Fayette, New York, on April 6, 1830. (The current name, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did not appear until 1838.) The earliest members were almost all family, friends, or neighbors of the Prophet Joseph Smith. The fledgling Church immediately began missionary activities, which led to rapid growth, especially in northern Ohio. Persecution in New York caused the Church and most of its members to move to Kirtland, Ohio. Subsequently the Church moved again, first to western Missouri, then to Illinois, and ultimately across the great plains to the Rocky Mountains. All attempts to dislodge the Mormons from that region failed, and, with the ending of official persecution at the close of the nineteenth century, the Church entered upon a sustained period of growth and prosperity, which continues to this day. In its nearly two hundred year history, Mormonism has grown from a small Church centered in America to a large, dynamic, international body of believers from over 160 different countries, speaking dozens of languages. The history of so broad a movement cannot be adequately condensed, but in the pages that follow is an outline of Mormon History from 1820 to contemporary times. Links go to pages that give a fuller treatment of the time period of the various issues and periods.
Outline of Mormon History New York Period: Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon (1805–1831)
Joseph Smith is born and raised in New England. He sees God the Father and Jesus Christ in the First Vision in 1820. Later, an angel visits Joseph and calls him to be a prophet and to translate the Book of Mormon from golden plates of ancient origins buried in a nearby hill. He publishes the book, receives the priesthood authority from God, and founds The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on April 6, 1830. Mormon missionaries begin proselyting in New York and the surrounding areas. Persecution follows the Church. Missionary work begins in Ohio, where many convert.
The Mormons began to arrive in Kirtland early in 1831 just as Mormon missionaries were arriving in western Missouri near what is now Kansas City. This was the first “gathering” in Mormon history, gathering being a theme which is very prominent in Mormonism. Though local Campbellite ministers were stirring up some trouble, the Mormons found a safe haven in Ohio. Shortly after his arrival, Joseph Smith received a revelation that is called the “Law of the Lord,” now contained in Doctrine and Covenants section 42. This revelation discusses ordination, missionary work, blessing of the sick and afflicted, the importance of consecrating property, and living peacefully with one another.
Two Church Centers: Ohio and Missouri: The first temple, the calling of the Twelve Apostles (1831–1838)
Driven by persecution, Mormons leave New York. Some settle in Northern Ohio, near Cleveland, in the city of Kirtland, while others travel to western Missouri where Joseph Smith has designated a place for the center of the gathering of the Church. In Ohio, the Prophet Joseph Smith receives many revelations about organizing the new Church. Bishops, high priests, and Apostles are called. Joseph Smith works on translating the Book of Abraham and his own translation of the Bible (now called the Joseph Smith Translation). The Doctrine and Covenants is first published. The first Mormon temple is built in Kirtland. Missionary efforts in Canada and England begin. Zion’s Camp is launched to help rescue the persecuted Mormons in Missouri who are being mobbed and attacked.
Meanwhile, Mormons have begun settling western Missouri since 1831. In 1833, they are expelled from Jackson County, where most Mormon Missourians were living at the time. Their leaders are tarred and feathered, their buildings burned down, and members are attacked and driven. They find temporary refuge in Clay County. Zion’s Camp brings 200 members from Ohio to help, but to no success. The Mormons eventually settle in Caldwell and Daviess counties, beginning in 1836. Tensions continue as mobs harass outlying Mormon settlements and prevent Mormons from voting. Some Mormons, who call themselves the Danites, organize to fight back and defend their families. The Missourian-Mormon conflict escalates, as Joseph Smith and the other Ohio Mormons move to Missouri in 1837 and 1838. After several skirmishes with mobs and the state militia, Joseph Smith is arrested and thrown into Liberty Jail for several months without trial. On October 27, 1838, Governor Lilburn Boggs issues the Extermination Order that requires all Mormons to leave Missouri or be killed. Dozens of Mormons are massacred at Haun’s Mill and others are burned out of their homes in the middle of winter. Brigham Young and the Apostles lead the Mormons to Illinois.
The Mormons finally establish their own city, which they call Nauvoo, Illinois. It quickly grows and becomes one of the largest cities in Illinois. Mormon missionaries begin in earnest to proselytize in Europe, especially in England and Scandinavia. By the mid 1840s and 1850s, more Mormons will live in Europe than in America. Mormons build the beautiful Nauvoo temple. Persecution continues as Missouri seeks to extradite Mormon leaders for alleged crimes during the Missouri conflict. Joseph Smith and others must frequently go into hiding. Many important revelations are received and published during this period, including doctrines and practices such as polygamy, baptism for the dead, celestial marriage in temples, the full plan of salvation, and temple work. In June 1844, Joseph Smith and others are arrested in the aftermath of a riot in Nauvoo, spurred when the Nauvoo city counsel destroyed an anti-Mormon printing press. On June 27, Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum are murdered in jail. The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles leads the Mormon Church. They finish the temple quickly, but are expelled from Nauvoo in February 1846. The last of the Mormons are forcibly driven from Nauvoo late that year in the Battle of Nauvoo.
The Mormons scatter throughout Iowa and the surrounding territory, though most follow Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve, who lead them to Winter Quarters in Nebraska. The United States requests men to fight in the U.S.-Mexican War. The Church provides the Mormon Battalion. This group never fights, but helps explore New Mexico, Arizona, and California. The first Mormon pioneers cross the Great Plains and establish the Mormon trail to Utah. Only July 24, 1847, the main body of the first pioneers arrives in the Salt Lake Valley. Over the next ten years, the Mormons establish cities in Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, Arizona, and Idaho. U.S. President Millard Fillmore appoints Brigham Young as territorial governor. For ten years, the Mormons have peace in the Rocky Mountains.
Under intense political pressure, U.S. President James Buchanan reacts to lies from former government officials in Utah, that the Mormons are rebelling, by sending Johnston’s Army to quell the nonexistent rebellion and replace Brigham Young as governor. No notice is sent to the Mormons, but rumors trickle in from explorers and missionaries about the army, and Utah goes under martial law, fearing a repeat of the Missouri expulsions. They harass the invading army by burning forage grass and scattering horses. Ultimately, a peaceful solution is found, and President Buchanan issues a general amnesty. While the war was virtually bloodless, fears caused by the invasion drove some Mormons in southern Utah to massacre settlers bound for California at a place called Mountain Meadows. This is the tragedy of the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
The Era of Official Persecution: The U.S. Civil War, polygamy, and the struggle for statehood (1858–1896)
For a few years, the Mormons have peace, as the nation is preoccupied with the U.S. Civil War. Missionary work generally continues and begins in Mexico, South America, Asia, and the Pacific Islands. After the Civil War, the U.S. Congress passes ever stricter laws against Mormon polygamy, a practice which had been publicly announced in 1852. By the 1880s, thousands of Mormons are jailed and others forced to go into hiding. Laws in Utah and Idaho ban Mormons from voting, holding public office, or owning property. Loyalty oaths are introduced to keep Mormons out of some jobs. Many Mormons flee to Mexico and Canada. Finally, the Mormon Church is disincorporated and all appeals to the Supreme Court fail. Praying for guidance, Mormon President and Prophet Wilford Woodruff receives a revelation ending polygamy in the Utah Territory. (Later, in 1904, Joseph F. Smith will issue a manifesto that ends the doctrine officially, and mandates excommunication for members who continue to practice polygamy, outside the United States or in.) U.S. President Grover Cleveland pardons all polygamists. Utah becomes a state in 1896 and the Church continues to grow both in the United States and abroad.
As the Mormon Church regains its property and emerges from the severe persecution of the nineteenth century, there are a few decades of relative peace. Official persecution has ended, but it is still difficult for Mormons to obtain public office. Reed Smoot, a Mormon Apostle, is elected in the early 1900s, but must fight for two years to take his seat. This marks a turning point in Mormon history. President Joseph F. Smith receives an important revelation about salvation for the dead. The Church celebrates its centennial and begins buying historic sites. During the depression, the Mormon Church creates the Church Welfare program to assist members. Also during this period, Mormon immigration to Utah slows and most begin to stay in their home countries. Missionary work takes off in South America and the Pacific Islands, and the first missionaries are sent to China, Japan, Russia, and India, though they meet with little initial success. The Mormon Church builds temples in Canada, Europe, and New Zealand. During World War II, Mormons are found on both sides of the conflict. Many Mormons remain behind the Iron Curtain after the war.
Following World War II, the Mormon Church enters an era of great international growth, which has continued through today. Temples are built throughout the United States, Oceana, South America, and even in Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe. President David O. McKay becomes the most widely-traveled Mormon president. The Church establishes humanitarian programs, expands its welfare efforts, and gives valuable aid in the reconstruction of Europe. As missionary efforts expand, missionary training centers are built throughout the world to help train missionaries in teaching techniques and languages. President McKay encourages all members to reach out to others and become missionaries. Later, President Spencer W. Kimball receives a revelation that all men should serve missions. By the 1980s, the Mormon Church would have over 50,000 missionaries out in the field at any given time.
All this growth leads to duplication and waste of resources. President McKay institutes the correlation program to streamline church programs. This saves money and resources by printing tracts and manuals at one place and by coordinating the building of churches. The growth of the Church in Brazil, the Caribbean, and Africa causes President Spencer W. Kimball to pray about lifting the ban on blacks from holding the Priesthood. In 1978, he receives a revelation extending the priesthood to all worthy men regardless of race. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Mormon Church focuses on the basic doctrines and on translating the Book of Mormon into dozens of additional languages. By 1990, the Book of Mormon would be published in nearly 100 languages. With the growth of the missionary force, the translations of the Book of Mormon, and the extension of priesthood authority to all men, the Mormon Church grows exponentially in Africa and South America. Members, and not just missionaries, respond to their prophet’s call to “flood the earth” with the Book of Mormon.
Since the early 1990s, the Mormon Church has surpassed 13,000,000 members worldwide. The majority of them live outside the United States. Much of this growth has occurred in South America and Africa and, to a lesser extent, in the countries of the former Soviet Union. This growth requires hundreds of new chapels to be built, as well as dozens of temples. In 1995, Gordon B. Hinckley becomes president and prophet of the Church. He surpasses David O. McKay as the most widely traveled Mormon leader. He issues the Proclamation on the Family and the Living Christ. He receives a revelation calling for the building of more temples. By 2000, there would be over 100 temples worldwide, built in such diverse places as China, Japan, the Philippines, Africa, North and South America, and throughout Europe. The Nauvoo temple is rebuilt and, in 1997, the Church celebrates the sesquicentennial of the Mormon pioneers’ trek to Utah. In 2002, the Olympics come to Utah and the Church receives much press throughout the world. In 2005, Mormons celebrate the bicentennial of Joseph Smith’s birth.
Mormon history is full of suffering, persecution, and trials, but always the Saints were faithful and rose above the challenges they faced. With God, all things truly are possible.