1838: Two Church Centers
Gathering to Far West, Missouri
On April 26, 1838, Joseph Smith received a revelation from the Lord instructing him to have the Saints build up the city of Far West, Missouri. By this time most of the Saints had been forced to leave Jackson County, and so many of them travelled west. The Lord instructed that the Saints build up Far West and prepare to build another house unto the Lord.
Mob Keeps Mormons from Voting
In August of 1838, Mormons attempting to vote in the town of Gallatin in Daviess County were attacked and kept from the polls. A man named William P. Penniston, who was a local judge, led the mob and, after shouting various insults at the group of Mormons who had come into the town to vote, said, “I headed a mob to drive you out of Clay county, and would not prevent your being mobbed now.” The Mormons, who were few in number anyway, were outnumbered about ten to one. Though they tried to avoid physical confrontation, the mob started attacking them, hurting several severely, but luckily not killing any of them.
Joseph Smith was in a neighboring county at the time, and when he heard of the actions the next day, everyone gathered to ride over and find out what had happened. He said, “From the best information, about one hundred and fifty Missourians warred against from six to twelve of our brethren, who fought like lions. Several Missourians had their skulls cracked. Blessed be the memory of those few brethren who contended so strenuously for their constitutional rights and religious freedom, against such an overwhelming force of desperadoes!”
Throughout all their persecution, for months and even years, the Saints sought legal redress, but to little or no avail. Always the mobs returned; always they were driven further. Joseph remarked in frustration that the Mormons had been driven and persecuted long enough, had borne more than was reasonable, had always sought peace, and would no longer be trampled upon, but would defend themselves. However, the Prophet still did not cease seeking legal protection.
Mob Rule and the Danites
In October 1838 tensions had risen so high that the Saints in De Witt, Missouri, in the nearby Caldwell County, were forced to leave their homes. It was negotiated that the citizens of the county would pay them for their losses and all property they were forced to leave behind, but when the Mormons returned home to have their property appraised, they found their animals slaughtered and many of their homes burned. They were not refunded anything, but decided to leave anyway, for their own safety. Due to the exposure many of the Saints were subjected to, due to the harassment of the mob, many died while travelling from De Witt to Caldwell County.
No sooner had the Saints gathered for protection in Daviess and Caldwell Counties, than the mobs who had just driven them out of their homes conspired to drive them out of the neighboring counties. The mobs desired the Mormons to leave so they could take their land and sell it to other US citizens coming West.
The Mormons organized militias for defense, which was a common practice at the time as most cities had militias, but a certain segment of the militia, calling themselves Danites, began to be more active in their defense. This group was organized and led by a recent convert by the name of Samson Avard. Avard was a power-hungry man who simply waited for tensions to rise and then secretly ignited them in some of the Saints who had been persecuted so much. He encouraged the Saints to fight back and told the members of his secret group that his actions were approved by Joseph. However, Joseph did not condone this group’s actions as they became increasingly hostile. The Danites eventually got out of control and began to attack non-Mormon villages. Avard and several others were later excommunicated for their actions.
In October, Mormon Apostle David W. Patten was killed in a battle along the Crooked River in Ray County. The Mormons had heard an exaggerated story of the kidnapping of some of their members and went to rescue them. Tragically, some were killed on both sides. In turn, exaggerated reports of this battle, along with the actions of the Danites, reached the governor.
Governor Boggs’ Extermination Order
The Danites caused much more trouble than they had bargained for. Their actions were blown out of proportion, and when the governor heard about things (from members of mobs who had been attempting to drive the Mormons out), he issued an infamous order. On October 27, 1838, Governor Lilburn W. Boggs issued what later became known as the Extermination Order. It said, in part:
“The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary, for the public peace-their outrages are beyond all description. If you can increase your force, you are authorized to do so, to any extent you may consider necessary.”
Three days after the order, a mob attacked the village of Haun’s Mill and massacred dozens of men, women, and children. On October 31, 1838, Joseph Smith and several others were arrested. The militia leaders illegally condemned the men to death, but General Alexander Doniphan, a former state legislator and friend to Mormons, refused to allow it to be carried out, declaring that such action would be cold-blooded murder. Moreover, he said, the militia could not condemn Joseph Smith, because he was a civilian and therefore had to be tried before a civilian court. Joseph and other leaders were still imprisoned, though, and were transferred from jail to jail.
After the Extermination Order, the Mormons were once more driven from their homes in the dead of winter. Brigham Young, who was by this time the senior Apostle, and the other members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles lead them to Quincy, Illinois, where kind people took care of them.
Joseph Smith remained in the drafty basement cell of Liberty Jail from November 1838 until April 16, 1839. Overcome for a time with despondency about what had occurred, he prayed fervently. Ultimately he obtained two revelations (Doctrine and Covenants 121 and 122) which brought consolation and counsel. The revelations told him that while he and the Saints had suffered because of their sins, God still accepted them and would help them be successful in the end. Joseph was also reminded of how much the Savior had suffered and was comforted in knowing that the Lord would bless him according to his righteousness.
Joseph and his fellow inmates remained in jail and were repeatedly abused and mistreated. Their appeals for lawyers and even for the right to call witnesses on their behalf were denied. Finally, on April 16, 1839, as they were being led to Columbia, Missouri, the jailer permitted them to escape. They rejoined their families on April 22, 1839, and on May 10 the Mormons moved to Commerce, Hancock County, Illinois, which they renamed Nauvoo.
The period of Mormon settlement in, and their ultimate expulsion from, Missouri figures as one of the most tragic periods in the history both of Mormonism and the United States of America. The Mormon Church’s experience in Missouri tested the American commitment to free exercise of religion, freedom to vote, and ultimately the ability of a democratic government to protect unpopular minorities.