Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1199
In the early 1820’s, a young man in Palmyra, New York, had visions that led him to believe himself a prophet of the Lord. The young man was Joseph Smith and his visions were the basis upon which he built the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormon Church. In those days, his followers were few, being only his family and a handful of friends.
In March of 1830, the BOOK OF MORMON was published. Shortly after it appeared, Joseph Smith ordained his brothers and the men of the Whitmer family as Latter-day Saints. After Joseph was reported to have cast out the personal devil of a man called Newel Knight, word of the miracle spread about the country near Palmyra and many people were converted.
With success came trouble, however, as on one occasion a mob of men almost lynched the new prophet. On another, he was taken to court for trial. He realized that his life was no longer safe in the state of New York.
Joseph’s three hundred followers left New York State for Ohio. Meanwhile, Joseph sent two men, one of them Oliver Cowdery, his first convert, to travel beyond the Mississippi River for the purpose of converting the Indians and locating the place where the Saints were to build their Zion. In Ohio, Joseph Smith was again persecuted. One winter night, a mob abducted him from his house and tarred and feathered him. Shortly afterward, Joseph decided to take his flock to Missouri, and he went with a few of his followers to survey the country.
More trouble awaited him when he returned to Ohio. Several of his converts had set themselves up as prophets during his absence. Reports reached him that the people he had left in Missouri were being mobbed. Then one day, two men came to offer their services to Joseph Smith. One was Brigham Young, the other Heber Kimball. Brigham Young was a great help to the Saints’ community because he could make men do what he wished, something that Joseph Smith, the mystic, was never able to learn.
While the Saints in Ohio were facing internal strife, the people of the new faith in Missouri were being horsewhipped, murdered, and driven from their homes by mobs. Eventually, Brigham Young was authorized to organize an army to march upon Missouri and rescue the Mormons there. At the last minute, Joseph Smith went with the army as its leader. The expedition was doomed to failure. Cholera and Indians took their toll among the men. They never fought the Missouri mobs.
For the next few years, the Latter-day Saints prospered in Ohio. Joseph Smith and Brigham Young opened a Mormon-operated bank, which failed, along with many others, in the panic of 1837. The loss of their money turned the Latter-day Saints against their leaders as nothing else had done, and Brigham Young and Joseph Smith fled to Missouri for their lives. They were soon joined by three hundred families from Ohio, who remained true to Joseph’s religion and prophetic power.
In Missouri, mobs again harassed their settlements. The desperate Latter-day Saints organized a retaliating secret society called the Danites or Destroying Angels. Finally the governor of Missouri ordered all the Mormons to leave the state or be killed. Again, Joseph Smith and his leaders were tried for treason. Through a friendly guard, they escaped execution.
The Latter-day Saints settled next at Nauvoo, in Illinois, where Joseph Smith began the practice of plural marriages in an effort to keep the women in the church, who outnumbered the men, from becoming charity cases or harlots. Joseph himself soon had twenty wives. His first wife, Emma, made him send away all but two.
Joseph Smith never left Illinois. He was killed by a mob when he gave himself up to stand trial for treason a third time. Brigham Young then took over the leadership of the Mormons, not as a prophet, but as a leader. He decided that the only way for the Mormons to find peace was to leave the United States, to seek a place in the far West.
Trudging westward through the snow, three thousand Mormons started out under Young’s leadership. Those left behind felt lost without their leader and soon there were fifteen thousand more people following Young westward.
In the spring of 1847, Brigham Young set out from his winter camp for the Rocky Mountains with a hundred and fifty selected men. The others were to follow later. Young had determined to settle south of the salt lake in Utah. By the winter of 1847, seventeen hundred Mormons were already in Utah. When Young learned that the Utah territory had been ceded to the United States by Mexico, he felt that the Mormons would never have a land of their own. The next winter, five thousand of the Mormons lived through a year of intense cold and starvation rations. The third year in Utah brought a new problem to Brigham Young. California gold attracted thousands of rascals and adventurers, many of whom passed through the settlement of the Mormons on their way to the coast. These scoundrels stole from the scanty stores of the settlers and made trouble among the women.
As the years passed, the Latter-day Saints flourished. Brigham Young was elected governor of the Utah Territory. In 1852, he took a bold step when he announced publicly what many people had long known or at least suspected: the practice of polygamy by the leaders of the Mormon Church. The hue and cry against the practice amazed and embittered Young, for he could say truthfully that it had maintained morality in the Mormon settlements.
In 1855, locusts demolished their crops. Many of the Latter-day Saints turned against the practice of polygamy, for in times of famine a man could not secure enough food for his overexpanded family.
Two years later, the Mormons heard that the Federal government had sent an army to deal with them. From their previous experiences, the Mormons knew they could expect little mercy. The territorial governor sent by the president was vigorously defied, and the Mormons threatened to burn Salt Lake City and leave the country a desert as they had found it. Finally, the president sent a pardon to the Mormons.
With General Grant in the White House, the Mormon problem again became a pressing one. Federal prosecutors invoked the antibigamy law and began to imprison Mormon leaders. Then the prosecutors attempted to indict the leaders, including Brigham Young, for murder. Young was never tried, however, for he died of natural causes.
After Young’s death, the authorities secured more indictments in the hope that the Mormons would repudiate polygamy. They also moved against the cooperative stores and industries, which had been founded, and attempted to deprive the Mormon Church of all assets in excess of fifty thousand dollars. The sum of those strains was too great. The president of the Mormon Council denounced plural marriages. No longer could the Mormon community hold itself apart in order to continue its existence. The Latter-day Saints and the settlers from the East would live side by side in the new state of Utah.
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