Mormon Answers: Who were the Mormon Danites? What Role Did They Play in the 1838 "Mormon War"?
This page discusses several common allegations and questions about the band of "Danites" in Missouri in 1838 and reviews the relevant history of that era. It is another page in the suite of Frequently Asked Questions About Latter-day Saint Beliefs. This is the personal work of Jeff Lindsay. Though he is a member of the Church, Jeff's work does not necessarily reflect official LDS doctrine and has not been commissioned or endorsed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
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It's about 100k in length.
The Danites were a secretive group of Mormons organized and apparently abolished in the same year, 1838. They were founded by a man, Sampson Avard, who was striving to use the Church as a tool for power. Members were bound by oaths of secrecy to support what appeared to be a good cause, the defense of the Church in a time of mob persecution, but ultimately Avard sought to manipulate the Danites into a tool for retribution and violence. While much has been written about the Danites, it appears that they played a relatively minor role and their secret purposes were opposed once they were exposed to Joseph Smith. On the other hand, Joseph supported Avard's group for their openly stated purpose of helping to defend the Saints, and may have erred in not recognizing the dangers inherent in such an organization or the threat posed by the ambitious Avard.
Joseph was not the mastermind behind the Danites, but he gave them at least partial support initially, and his encouragement of militant action to defend the Saints may have made it easier for Avard and his Danites to flourish.
I do not accept the allegations that a violent group of secret Danites persisted for years as an approved tool of the Church - I find such claims to be without merit, though it has been the stuff of numerous movies, novels, and stories - all at least partly fictional. (For an example of rehashed modern allegations, see Wild Bill Rides Again: The Tanners on the Danites - an excellent article by Russell C. McGregor.)
Much of what anti-Mormon critics think they know of the Danites and Joseph Smith's association with them comes from testimony of Sampson Avard, who saved his own skin when he was arrested by testifying against Joseph Smith, the one whom the Missourians really wanted. Avard said Joseph was the one behind the Danites, that he was guilty of many great crimes against the Missourians, and that Danites swore to kill any who revealed their secrets or fought against Joseph Smith and the Church. For his traitorous and false testimony, Avard was released and Joseph was imprisoned for the next six months in terrible conditions in the Liberty Jail. If there were any truth to common rumors about the Danites or any truth to Avard's testimony against Joseph Smith, one would think that Avard would have lost his life for telling all. But, of course, Joseph had no such intentions. Avard was merely excommunicated for his apostasy.
Regarding the Danites, Mosiah Hancock, son of Levi Hancock, one of Joseph Smith's body guards, had this to say regarding the Danites:
Some people tried to class the Mormons with the Danites. The Danites were of a different stripe, however. The Danites tried to hold an outward friendship for the Prophet, and for the teachings of the Savior, but it was not skin deep. They tried to get a hog's office among the Saints, which proved their love for 'loaves and fishes'. They usually got a few traps that no decent devil would be justly proud of. Oft times they would locate a dwelling in a neighboring town on the prairie or in the woods. There they would let their bottom door swing in for all sorts of low-down characters to meet; where they could always boast of a deck of cards and a candle; and felt themselves safe from official scrutiny. They usually had plenty of horses when needed; and they were quite able to get up and speak in prayer meeting. They were hale fellows, well met with the black-legs and the apostates of the country. They would pay some tithing in order to pave the way for them to get benefits; and they would say, "Hurrah! for Mormonism" when they were around the Saints, and then some black-leg who belonged to the same gang would bawl out, "I'm a Mormon"! They have always been a clog in the Church and a clog in the country wherever they have been.
--Autobiography of Mosiah Hancock
The 1838 Mormon war was the culmination of years of violence against Latter-day Saints, who had been driven from two states before Missouri and had been driven from two counties within Missouri. In previous attacks from Missouri mobs, the Saints learned that the government of the state had no interest in protecting unpopular victims of violence. The Saints were on their own, and in 1838, it became a literal war of survival against forces bent on the expulsion or extermination of the Mormon settlers. After having tried to deal with their problems through appropriate civil and military channels, the Saints realized that they would have to take military action on their own to survive. Thus, in mid-October, LDS leaders sent their own state-authorized militias in Caldwell and Daviess counties to actively resist mob efforts. Unauthorized and improper events took place, possibly under influence of the Danites, including crimes of burning homes of settlers in Daviess County where the Mormons needed to drive out the gathering mobs. Naturally, the use of force by Mormons, even though it was in the name of self-defense, only further infuriated the mobs and the pro-expulsionist Governor Boggs. The so-called "Mormon War" would culminate in the imprisonment of Mormon leaders, a genuine massacre of Mormon settlers at Haun's Mill, and the issuance of an inhumane extermination order from the Governor of Missouri authorizing the expulsion or extermination of Mormons.
In 1838 the Mormons, having settled in the northwestern part of the state, were now gathering in force and were resolved not to be driven out again. Call it self-defense or stubborn militancy, the Saints were prepared to fight and resist the local mobs who were again bringing fear and violence to the Mormons. They would resist, even if it meant driving the mobs out of the area with force. Unfortunately, this militant attitude, reflecting Joseph Smith's frustration with the established legal systems and his statements that the Saints needed to quit yielding to mobs and stand up for themselves, was, in hindsight, foolish and disastrous. It only exacerbated tensions with the people of Missouri and led to an escalation of hostilities against them.
Thus, in October of 1838, several bands of Mormons associated with local and legitimate militia groups appear to have gone well beyond what legitimate state militias were normally allowed to do - but the Mormons were in a desperate bid for self-preservation. Mormon groups marched across county lines from Caldwell County into Daviess County, a place associated with mob attacks against the Saints. Sadly, some of the Mormon troops burned and plundered homes of some Missourians, most of whom had fled the county. For many, such acts were generally viewed as justified by a desperate need to remove the lethal threat of mobs. But some LDS people saw those acts as extreme and unjustified. Orson Hyde and Thomas Marsh, both Apostles, were offended by the militant actions for defense and broke ties with the Church and wrote affidavits accusing the Church of much evil, though they both later repented of what they had done and returned to the Church. Unfortunately, it is probable that the burning and plundering occurred under the influence of Sampson Avard's Danite band, who had been taught by Avard that God wanted the Mormons to have the wealth of the Gentiles and to seek vengeance regardless of the law.
The number of buildings burned is not as great as some historians have assumed, and there is evidence that the mob in Missouri used an old trick they had used before: burning buildings themselves and blaming it on their enemies. (See Gentry, 1974, p. 436, which refers to pp. 383-386 of his Ph.D. thesis, Gentry, 1965.) One source stemming from the time of the Daviess County efforts is Warren Foote's autobiography, which reports that some of the Missourians burned cabins to blame it on the Mormons. Some historians and critics are also quick to place blame on Mormons for the burning of Jacob Stollings' store in Gallatin, a seemingly dreadful deed given that Stollings was said to have been kind to the Mormons, at least extending them credit. However, at the Richmond hearing (see the "The Mock Hearing at Richmond" section of my related page, "Mormons and Danites: The Historical Background in Missouri") after Joseph Smith's arrest, John Clemenson testified that he had heard from the Danite Dimick Huntington that Missourians had removed the goods from the store and burned the building in order to blame Mormons. While the mob was off to get wagons to haul away the goods, a group of Danites arrived and carried the goods onto their own wagons and drove off. Clemenson also said that those goods and other plunder were placed with the bishop in Adam-ondi-Ahman (Gentry, 1974, pp. 435-436). Avard taught his men to plunder and bring the goods to the bishop's storehouse.
The plundering cannot be blamed entirely on Avard. Church leadership, possibly including Joseph Smith, may have felt that driving out mobbers and taking their property was fair compensation for the great losses that they had inflicted upon the Latter-day Saints. Joseph's words were sometimes heated, though his actions were much more oriented around self-defense and the avoidance of violence, a point made by Richard Bushman in Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (pp. 356-372). Regardless of who was to blame for what, it was clear to much of the State of Missouri that the Mormons could no longer be tolerated.
An order to remove or exterminate the Saints soon followed from Governor Boggs. In both the expulsion of Mormons from Jackson County in 1833 and the subsequent expulsion of Mormons from Missouri in 1838-1839, the state government refused to assist the persecuted, waited until the frustrated Mormons took up arms to act forcefully in self-defense, treated the action as a rebellious insurrection, called in the state militia to put down the Mormons and disarm them, and then stood by or encouraged expulsion of the Mormons from their homes and towns. Crimes against the Mormons were largely ignored, while the Mormons were loudly accused of treason, murder, etc. The Saints experience in 1833 taught them that if they were to survive and maintain their land, their defense was in their own hands.
A brief overview of events in Daviess County and its aftermath is given in the article of Max H. Parkin, "Missouri Conflict" in The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 2:
Raiders from Gallatin and Millport in Daviess County harassed the LDS community of Adam-ondi-Ahman. Throughout October both sides engaged in burning, stealing, and intimidation. While clearly acting first in self-defense, some Latter-day Saints nevertheless felt that military measures were excessive. In late October, Thomas B. Marsh and Orson Hyde, both apostles, signed affidavits critical of Mormon actions. These men faced a serious moral dilemma, being pained by the excesses of the Danites, giving them grave doubts about the Church. But Orson Hyde's rapid return to the Church suggests to me that he came to understand that the Danites were not an expression of Joseph's will or a genuine product of the Church leadership, but a corrupt aberration of Avard and others that ran counter to Church principles.
Hostilities soon escalated into outright warfare. Far West Militia Captain David W. Patten, an apostle, pursued a renegade band of Missouri militia overnight to the Crooked River in northern Ray County where, at dawn on October 25, they clashed. Two died on the battlefield, one on each side, and two mortally wounded Saints died soon after, including Patten.
From the Battle of Crooked River, rumors of LDS aggression spread like wildfire. On the strength of these rumors, Governor Boggs issued his infamous Extermination Order on October 27, authorizing the state militia to drive all Mormons from Missouri or exterminate them. Three days later Colonel William O. Jennings launched an unprovoked attacked on an LDS settlement at Haun's Mill, east of Far West, leaving seventeen men and boys dead (see Haun's Mill Massacre). Survivors joined other refugees fleeing to Far West. On October 31, the militia under the command of Major General Samuel D. Lucas laid siege upon Far West.
To avoid bloodshed, Joseph Smith and others agreed to meet with militia leaders, who instead arrested them. A court-martial that evening summarily sentenced Joseph Smith and his associates to be shot, and Lucas ordered Brig. General Alexander Doniphan to execute them at dawn. Doniphan thought the order illegal and heroically refused to carry it out, declaring that he would bring to account anyone who tried to do it. After Far West defenders were disarmed, Missouri attackers committed numerous outrages against women and property; a number of men were shot and at least one was killed.
While Joseph Smith and some of the others were jailed at Independence, in Richmond Jail , and finally in Liberty Jail, the rest of the Latter-day Saints were forced from the state. That winter, under the leadership of Brigham Young, approximately 12,000 suffering Saints fled Missouri, most crossing the Mississippi River into Illinois at Quincy.
A preliminary hearing was held in Richmond for the case of Joseph Smith. This incredible hearing a mockery of justice in which many defense witnesses were denied the right to speak (some where jailed, others threatened) and the defense was given no hope of justice. (See "The Mock Hearing at Richmond" on my related page, "Mormons and Danites: The Historical Background in Missouri.") After the hearing, Joseph Smith and several others spent five months in jail awaiting trial for alleged murder, treason, arson, and other charges growing out of the fall violence and attempts at defense. For the Prophet, this imprisonment evoked a legacy of strength and revelations from heaven (see Doctrine and Covenants: Sections 121-23). A trial was never held. On April 15, 1839, while being transported on a change of venue to Boone County, Joseph and his brother Hyrum were allowed to escape to join Saints and their families in Illinois.
While it is clear that offenses were committed by both sides in 1838, we should be cautious about pinning too much responsibility on Joseph Smith for the Danites and for the actions in Daviess County. In my opinion, the evidence does not paint Joseph as a violent man who masterminded evil crimes through the Danite band of Sampson Avard. Though he gave Avard initial support and obviously wanted the Saints to be able to defend themselves, he opposed Danite plans once he learned of them. I believe Joseph was opposed to such secretive groups. As for Daviess County, I conclude that Joseph felt it necessary to drive out mobs from Daviess County and may have so ordered.
Joseph was not a violent man, in my opinion, nor would he approve of acts of cruelty. He had encouraged respect for law and continued to show a spirit of forgiveness and love even while imprisoned for six months because of the false testimony of Sampson Avard and other enemies. He welcomed his once traitorous enemies back when they sought to return to the Church and showed genuine generosity and love. Based on his inspiring track record as a man of God both before and after the few dark days of the Mormon War, I feel obligated to treat the conflicting testimony in his favor. I find no clear reason to reject his affidavit, signed by other witnesses, that he had encouraged legal actions and stating that he was not involved with or responsible for the burning of homes in Daviess County. But the events of the Mormon War were truly disturbing. Afterwards, Joseph warned his people against the prejudiced attitudes and secret oaths (referring to the Danites, of course) that may have fueled Mormon offenses in the Missouri war.
While offenses and depredations generally occur on both sides in a war, no matter how just and noble the cause of either side, the tragic overzealousness of some Mormons - especially some of the secret band of Danites - in the 1838 Mormon War is a painful reminder of the need to act with caution and restraint even in times of war. A moment of rage or carelessness in war or any other setting can result in unnecessary violence that can torment a man for decades and result in irreparable harm to others. And those who adopt the maxim of "the end justifies the means" will cause more harm than the imagined good they seek.
As Richard Bushman points out, Joseph typically took a backseat role in much of what happened in the brief Mormon War. He did not command troops or bear arms. His actions can be understood given the context of war that erupted through mob persecution in a state that refused to allow the benefits of the law to be applied to a minority. They may have been foolish actions, far too optimistic about the prospects of the Saints the divine favor that they expected to be on their side, but they are not the actions of a violent maniac. Joseph talked tough, but yearned for peace and took many actions to avoid bloodshed. Here is Richard Bushman's assessment (pp. 370-372 of Rough Stone Rolling):
How responsible was Joseph for the debacle in Missouri? The December letter [from Liberty Jail] helps answer the question by shedding light on his attitudes. . . . The letter gives clear evidence of Joseph's willingness to do battle against the attacking Missourians and of his impatience with dissenters among the Saints. The letter leaves little doubt that he would have favored the expulsion of Cowdery, Phelps, and Whitmer in June when the leading brethren in Far West signed the ultimatum. One can also picture him arousing the Mormon militia to defend themselves against the invading mob in October. "Go tell the army to retreat in 5 minutes or we'll give them hell," he later recounted.When he was insulted, betrayed, or attacked, anger poured from his heart.
On the other hand, the letter is a rhetorical flourish, not one advocating offensive action. The dissenters are left in the hands of God. No actual revenge or sabotage is advocated. When it came to violence, Joseph was a man of words. In 1834, he had mobilized an army to march on Jackson County, but stopped short of an attack. Four years later, he urged the defense of Daviess, but did not carry a gun in the Mormon raids. How aggressively he wanted his troops to act at Gallatin and Millport is unclear. He certainly wanted Mormon enemies removed, but would he have fought to remove them or burned their houses? He believed his people could rightfully confiscate property in compensation for their own losses to the Missourians but no more. He is not known to have ordered any greater violence.
As the December letter said, he believed the Missourians burned their own houses and blamed it on the Mormons. His military instincts were defensive. When it was time to attack, he pulled back. As the militia approached Far West on October 30, he talked militantly, but recommended surrender. Any Mormon aggression beyond these limits probably occurred without his authorization,
Whether Joseph Smith was guilty of treason in 1838 remains moot. He was no more guilty than the mobs that had driven the Mormons out of Jackson and De Witt. Joseph thought the Saints acted only in self-defense. Was mere no legal justification for resisting attacks when the government refused to help? The editor of the St. Louis Republican offered a judgment on the Missouri conflict:
It does not appear, from any thing which I have seen, having the semblance of truth, that the Mormons offered any resistance to the properly constituted authorities of the county, civil and military. They did desire to protect themselves, their families and their property, from the licentiousness of a mob; and they did, furthermore, retaliate upon some portion of that mob, for burning Mormon houses and Mormon property in one county, by doing a similar act of injustice in another. But Squire Black, and those who acted with him, in retailing the enormities of the Mormons to the governor, singularly enough, forgot to mention that their patriotic band had been before them in scattering their firebrands.
Yet Joseph must take responsibility for the Mormon raids on their Daviess County enemies. His angry rhetoric stirred the blood of more militant men. After the Daviess raids, Rockwood wrote his father that "the Prophet has unsheathed his sword and in the name of Jesus declares that it shall not be sheathed again untill he can go unto any County or state in safety and in peace." Words like that licensed Lyman Wight's desperate plans. Joseph's approval of Rigdon's salt sermon with its strong threats against dissenters had justified the Danites' expulsion of the Whitmers, Cowdery, and Phelps, Later Joseph repudiated the Danites, speaking of "many false and pernicious things which were calculated to lead the saints far astray," wrongly "taught by Dr. Avard as coming from the Presidency." Had the Presidency known of these corruptions, Joseph insisted, "they would have spurned them and their authors from them as they would the gates of hell." But by giving them places of honor at the July 4 celebration, he acknowledged; their legitimacy.
Joseph had enough power to be a target for an ambitious character like Avard who recognized that loyalty to the Prophet was an asset. Joseph's hold on the Saints could be turned to advantage by making that loyalty the basis of a private militia under Avard's control. He won support by purporting to represent the Prophet and making submission to Joseph the heart of the Danite pledge. Considering that Avard was the chief witness for the prosecution at the Mormon hearing, he appears to have acted with consummate cynicism. After he was cut off from the Church the following March, he gave no signs of ever having sincerely believed. He was astute enough to recognize Joseph's influence and to use it for his own ends.
We cannot tell how clearly Joseph understood that power had slipped from his hands in that year. In retrospect, it seems possible that Wight and other militants took the Prophet's call for self-defense to extremes Joseph would not have approved. With only partial backing from Joseph, Avard organized the Danite band in a form Joseph later denounced as a combination of "frauds and secret abominations." He may not have understood his error in 1838, but later, in Nauvoo, he kept control of the key institutions. He served as mayor and took command of the Nauvoo legion. Under his direction, the legion restricted itself to parades, ceremonies, ; maneuvers, and speeches. No engagements ever occurred. No Lyman Wight was permitted to take the Saints into battle.
Almost all historical sources on the Danites were prepared long after 1838, and were flavored by Avard's testimony or by Mormon revulsion to the concept of secretive Danites. The Albert Perry Rockwood letters (or journals) from 1838 thus become valuable in obtaining an understanding of 1838 events. "They are significant contemporary records of the inner history of the Latter-day Saint community at Far West during this period.... revealing, as it were, a closeness that puts the reader in the eye of the storm" (Whittaker, 1990, pp. 166-167). They also reveal the error in many common views of the Danites. David J. Whittaker explains (Whittaker, 1990, pp. 169-172):
Rockwood's own narrative, if examined closely, suggests that both Mormons and non-Mormons have fundamentally misunderstood what the Danites were, and this misunderstanding is perpetuated in the continued use of the term only in ways that critics of the Church early attached to it. Rockwood's record for 22 October 1838 reads:
Far West is the head quarters of the Mormon war. the armies of Isreal that were established by revelation from God are seen from my door evry day with their Captains of 10.s 50.s 100. A portion of each Day is set apart for drill. after which they go to their several stations (VIZ.) 2 Companies of 10.s are to provide the famalies with meal, 2 provide wood, 2 or 3 Build cabbins, 1 Company of 10.s collect prepare armes, 1 company provide me[a]t, 1 Company are spies, one Company are for express, 1 for guard, 2 Companies are to gather in the famalies that are scattered over the counties in the vicinity, 1 company is to see to provide for the sick, and the famalies of those that are off on duty, Others are employed in gathering provisions into the city
Those companies are called Danites because the Prophet Daniel has said they shall take the kingdom and possess it for-ever.
Rockwood's record does several things for our understanding of the Danites. First, the origin of the "armies of Israel" predates 1838; in fact, it went back to Zion's Camp in 1834 (D&C 105:30-32). fn There, militia operations within and by the Church in 1834 were tied to divine injunctions to redeem Zion, a central part in Joseph Smith's goal of establishing the latter-day kingdom of God in Missouri. And it has been firmly established that Zion's Camp was a defensive operation, depending solely on the invitation and promises of support of the governor of Missouri. [See Crawley and Anderson, 1974]
Second, Rockwood's account of the organization of Danites speaks of the involvement of the whole Mormon community, and he describes its structure in the biblical terms of companies of tens, fifties, and hundreds (cf. Exodus 18:13-26). He clearly says the various groupings provided all kinds of community service, not just bearing arms. Some groups of Danites were to build houses, others were to gather food, or care for the sick, while others were to help gather the scattered Saints into the community. There can be no doubt that Rockwood is describing the total activities of a covenant community that viewed itself in the same terms as ancient Israel. Working in groups, these Danites served the interests of the whole. It was hardly a secret organization working under the cover of darkness. In fact, Rockwood is more explicit about Danite activity in the letters he sends than in the accounts he copies into his own letter-book journal. This would hardly be a proper course to take if the whole thing were to be kept in absolute secrecy as Avard argued. Rockwood thus presents a fundamentally different view than Avard, a view which allows for an interpretation of these developments in much broader perspective, both historically and doctrinally.
Finally, Rockwood reveals that the name "Dan" came not from the warrior tribe of Dan (Genesis 49:16-17; Deuteronomy 33:22; 1 Chronicles 12:35) or from the militant references to the "daughters of Zion" (Isaiah 3:16) as critical sources have alleged, but rather, and more consistently, from the book of Daniel, "because the Prophet Daniel has said they [the Saints] shall take the kingdom and possess it for-ever" (see Daniel 7:22). To the student of Mormon history this brings the whole notion into clear focus: early Mormons consistently used the book of Daniel in their own self-understanding of the mission of the Church. The "stone cut out without hands" was to fill the whole earth. It was, in their minds, the kingdom of God, and it was directly related to their millennial expectations. It was not to be established by bloodshed or law-breaking (cf. D&C 58:19-22; 63:28-31; 98:4-7; 105:5). The righteous were to be gathered out of the world to a central location and, as Rockwood's journal notes, what really bothered their Missouri neighbors (in addition to a number of tactless Mormon comments) was the growing concentration of Mormons in the northern counties and the subsequent implications in a democratic society for economic and political power there. General Clark's counsel, which Rockwood also recorded in his letterbook, to those who remained at Far West after the surrender of Mormon leaders was not to gather again.
Throughout Rockwood's letters Mormon millennial expectations are obvious; but nowhere is there the cutthroat secrecy that Avard later succeeded in convincing Judge Austin King and the non-Mormon public that there was. In the other known contemporaneous Mormon references to Danites, the illegal activities that Avard testified about are missing. John Smith's diary speaks of the Danite activity at Adam-ondi-Ahman in very matter-of-fact terms; and the reference in the "Scriptory Book" of Joseph Smith, kept by his scribe George W. Robinson, also confirms the essentials suggested by Rockwood...
All of this is not to suggest that every member or company of the Mormon militia obeyed all the laws, nor is it to deny that a segment of them was misled by Avard. But as Richard Anderson has recently shown, even the burning of Gallatin and the raid on Millport [assuming they were, in fact, carried out by Mormons] can be understood as defensive in nature and came only after years of patient suffering. Thus to argue that these were simply the more public side of the very dark Danite activities is not historically accurate. It might be suggested that either Sidney Rigdon's speeches or private counsel could have encouraged Avard's activities, but it is inaccurate to continue to use the term "Danite" to cover only an aberration. Rockwood's record would lead us to conclude that the original intention of Danites was to organize modern Israel more completely into a fully integrated community with each person contributing to the benefit of the whole.
Avard's testimony in November 1838 seems to have laid the foundation for all subsequent interpretations. Surely the accounts of individuals like Reed Peck, John Corrill, William Swartzell, James Hunt, Ebenezer Robinson, and even John D. Lee were framed not by what was happening in the Mormon community but by the interpretative framework that Avard managed to provide for anyone who needed a rationale for rejecting either the leadership of Joseph Smith or the centralizing tendencies of a covenant community intent on establishing Zion.
Students must also consider the various contemporary histories by individuals who remained faithful to the movement as well as other sources, usually autobiographical recollections like those of Mosiah Hancock, William Huntington, or Luman Shurtliff, which are best understood in the same sense as Albert Rockwood used the term Danites. fn
If this argument has merit, and the Rockwood letters strongly support this interpretation, then the "Danites" in early Mormon history must be completely reevaluated.
In my opinion, some writers have misunderstood the significance of the Rockwood letters. Further, some critics have relied on questionable sources that draw on the self-serving testimony of Avard and other enemies of the Church. One such source is the writing of William Swartzell, Mormonism Exposed, Being a Journal of a Residence in Missouri from the 28th of May to the 20th of August, 1838 (published by the author, Pekin, Ohio, 1840). Whittaker notes that there is no original manuscript for this alleged journal, which seems to be quite knowledgeable of future events and which "seems to reflect Avard's allegations projected back into Mormon history" (Whittaker, 1990, p. 193). It cannot be used reliably as a contemporary source, yet it has been used repeatedly as if it provided an independent confirmation of Avard's testimony. In fact, if it were a contemporary source by someone informed of Danites, it is most surprising that Swartzell would get the name wrong, calling them "darnites."
While there are only a few sources to give us firsthand insight into the events of 1838 and the Danites in particular, there are many reliable sources that give us insight into the nature of Joseph Smith and of the Latter-day saints that he taught and inspired. Was he the bloodthirsty, violent man described by Danites and generations of anti-Mormon critics? Had he trained the latter-day Saints to become vengeful, vicious people?
Rebecca Cornwall and Leonard J. Arrington note that the trouble with the Danites had the positive effect of helping the Church better define how it should react to continued persecution, and that its reaction was generally one of forbearance:
The short-lived existence of the Danite band created controversy both inside and outside the Mormon church. Most of the Danite leaders were speedily excommunicated. Even in the early Danite meetings, contentions had arisen over the volatile and secretive tendencies of its leaders It was during this period that some Church members began to distrust Sidney Rigdon, who may have supported the band by his incendiary public rhetoric. One constructive result of the Danite affair was that it defined more clearly for the whole Church the religious ethic of forbearance, which later guided Mormon response to Joseph Smith's murder, the forced exodus from Nauvoo, Indian harassments, and the Utah Expedition of 1857.
But it required "the grace of God without measure" (which Joseph Smith called for) to equably bear intolerance, violence, and governmental apathy. Joseph (and later Brigham Young) constantly found it necessary to instill some of this grace into members who were overeager for revenge. It can safely be said that although Church authorities occasionally let off steam in public, in action they were unusually restrained, counseling nonprovocation.
(Rebecca Foster Cornwall and Leonard J. Arrington, "Perpetuation of a Myth: Mormon Danites in Five Western Novels, 1840-90," BYU Studies, Vol. 23, No. 2, Spring 1983, p. 148)
Critics would paint Joseph as an egocentric, vengeful, hateful, violent man who sought retribution against all enemies. With his back to the wall, he would fight and defend his people, but he was not one seeking offensive action. Yet he had been the victim of many offenses and had seen his people and his family suffer much at the hands of mobs, stirred up in part by the testimony of former friends who became traitors in moments of weakness and trial. Such friends-turned-traitor included W.W. Phelps, Oliver Cowdery, Thomas Marsh, and Orson Hyde. Their accusations contributed to the loss of lives among the Saints and to the unjust incarceration of Joseph Smith. Each had become an enemy to the Church, but each would later return. Did Joseph seek their lives, as the testimony of his enemies would have implied? Was he filled with violent rage toward these men? His heart was not of that sort. Rather, he mourned their apostasy and yet had love for them. His greatness of soul is particularly evident in the case of W.W. Phelps. Phelps wrote to Joseph Smith on June 29, 1840, asking to regain fellowship among the Saints. Joseph's response is a testimony to his generous soul:
Nauvoo, Hancock County, Illinois
July 22, 1840
Dear Brother Phelps. - I must say that it is with no ordinary feelings I endeavor to write a few lines to you in answer to yours of the 29th ultimo; at the same time I am rejoiced at the privilege granted me.
You may in some measure realize what my feelings, as well as Elder Rigdon's and Brother Hyrum's were, when we read your letter - truly our hearts were melted into tenderness and compassion when we ascertained your resolves. I can assure you I feel a disposition to act on your case in a manner that will meet the approbation of Jehovah, (whose servant I am), and agreeable to the principles of truth and righteousness which have been revealed; and inasmuch as long-suffering, patience, and mercy have ever characterized the dealings of our heavenly Father towards the humble and patient, I feel disposed to copy the example, cherish the same principles, and by so doing be a savior of my fellow men.
It is true, that we have suffered much in consequence of your behavior - the cup of gall, already full enough for mortals to drink, was indeed filled to overflowing when you turned against us. One with whom we had oft taken sweet counsel together, and enjoyed many refreshing seasons from the Lord - "had it been an enemy, we could have borne it. In the day that thou stoodest on the other side, in the day when strangers carried away captive his forces, and foreigners entered into his gates, and cast lots upon Far West, even thou wast as one of them; but thou shouldest not have looked on the day of thy brother, in the day that he became a stranger, neither shouldst thou have spoken proudly in the day of distress."
However, the cup has been drunk, the will of our Father has been done, and we are yet alive, for which we thank the Lord. And having been delivered from the hands of wicked men by the mercy of our God, we say it is your privilege to be delivered from the powers of the adversary, be brought into the liberty of God's dear children, and again take your stand among the Saints of the Most High, and by diligence, humility, and love unfeigned, commend yourself to our God, and your God, and to the Church of Jesus Christ.
Believing your confession to be real, and your repentance genuine, I shall be happy once again to give you the right hand of fellowship, and rejoice over the returning prodigal.
Your letter was read to the Saints last Sunday, and an expression of their feeling was taken, when it was unanimously Resolved, That W. W. Phelps should be received into fellowship.
"Come on, dear brother, since the war is past,
For friends at first, are friends again at last."
Yours as ever,
JOSEPH SMITH, JUN.,
Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Section Four 1839-42, p.165-166
Orson Hyde, who returned to the Church, also noted the mercy of Church leaders after his apostasy and harmful testimony against the Church:
In the month of October, 1838, with me it was a day of affliction and darkness. I sinned against God and my brethren; I acted foolishly. I will not allude to any causes for so doing save one, which was, that I did not possess the light of the Holy Ghost. I lost not my standing in the Church, however; yet, not because I was worthy to retain it, but because God and his servants were merciful. Everlasting thanks to God, and may his servants ever find mercy. Brothers Hyrum Smith and H. [Heber] C. Kimball, men of noted kindness of heart, spake to me words of encouragement and comfort in the hour of my greatest sorrow. ("History of Orson Hyde," The Latter-day Saints' Millennial Star, Vol. 26, 1864.)
Had Joseph been the Danite master depicted by some critics, Orson's life would have been taken. Rather, he found mercy.
Remarkably, in 1837, a group of apostate Mormons including Warren Parrish, a former scribe, armed themselves with pistols and knives and tried to takeover the Kirtland Temple. The assault was put down by the police. When Joseph Smith returned to Kirtland, "these men were disfellowshipped for their actions. Those who showed sincere contrition were reinstated" (Church History in the Fulness of Times, pp. 176-177). Warren Parrish and others of that group would later cause more trouble and conflict in Kirtland. If Joseph were half the villain created by the stories of Avard and many other anti-Mormons, Parrish and his gang would have been executed. The fact that some were reinstated for showing signs of contrition, and the fact the Parrish was still present in Kirtland after the Temple assault, is a witness to the generosity of Joseph Smith.
Stephen C. LeSueur has published a book, The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1987), contending that Joseph Smith was an instigator of inexcusable violence and a supporter of the infamous Danite band during the Church's troubled time in Missouri. LeSueur, who is described only as a "writer living in Arlington, Virginia," had previously published a milder article in BYU Studies ("High Treason and Murder": The Examination of Mormon Prisoners at Richmond, Missouri, in November 1838," BYU Studies, Vol. 26, No. 2, 1986, pp. 2-26). The article suggests that the Richmond Hearing was more fair than previously supposed, but does not go so far as his book in concluding that Joseph approved of the Danites and was responsible for their misdeeds. (But the hearing was manifestly unfair. See "The Mock Hearing at Richmond" on my related page for information. Further, a local country judge, Judge Turnham, expressed his opinion that the Mormons were innocent and that the actions against them were genuine persecution, a repeat of Jackson County. See Donna Hill, p. 251.)
After reading his book, I suspected that LeSueur has an axe to grind. Several times, in my opinion, he forces his viewpoint into his interpretation of events when different interpretations could be sustained. In other cases, I feel that he overlooks evidence that might be less unflattering to Joseph Smith. Though I disagree with some of the views he pursues in his book, it nevertheless contains a great deal of valuable analysis and compiles extensive information from a complex period of time, and seems to generally be written at a good level of scholarship. And I will agree that Joseph Smith must share some responsibility for the many mistakes on the part of the Mormons in Missouri. Like all those we esteem as prophets and apostles, he was nevertheless a mortal subject to all manner of errors when making day-to-day decisions.
LeSueur focuses on war-like actions of the Mormons during the so-called Mormon War. Yes, it is true that some Mormons participated in brief episodes of plundering and burning during efforts to rid Daviess County of mobs - a fact which is acknowledged in the Church publication, Church History in the Fulness of Times (1989, p. 198) and in multiple publications of faithful LDS writers in sources such as BYU Studies and The Encyclopedia of Mormonism (see "Missouri Conflict" in Vol. 2). But LeSueur, in my opinion, overstates his case and ignores and denies the existence of evidence for buildings burned by Missouri mobs, including evidence from Warren Foote, whose text is said to be "extremely important" and the documentation of Leland Gentry's thesis (1965).
The ugly extremes of some Mormons are not necessarily in dispute. But LeSueur seeks to create a "controversial" case against Joseph Smith. He provides an large array of citations and footnotes that seem, if only indirectly, to support his major arguments, summarized on pages 250-251:
His approval of the Richmond Hearing and flattering description of the (in)actions of civil authorities in Missouri are controversial and questionable positions, in my opinion (see my related page on the historical background). I believe that Mr. LeSueur's case against Joseph Smith relies upon selective neglect of some important LDS sources and neglect of several crucial facts about the Danites and Joseph Smith's involvement. I reached the above conclusion after much study of LeSueur and other useful sources, before I encountered commentary on LeSueur's book by Jesse and Whittaker (1988), who argue that LeSueur severely misinterprets Albert Rockwood's journal. They briefly summarize LeSueur's position and Leland Gentry's:
The conceptual framework of Stephen LeSueur's recent book, The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri, is based on the assumption that Joseph Smith knew about and even led marauding Danite bands on their offensive raids on non-Mormon Missouri farms and villages in 1838. LeSueur consistently maintains an interpretation of the Danites that places the major blame on Mormon leaders for their problems in northern Missouri. Thus he concludes that the court of inquiry in November 1838 correctly bound Joseph Smith over for trial based on the evidence presented against him, particularly by Avard. On this matter, LeSueur follows directly an old interpretation.
The only other major interpretation was advanced by Leland Gentry, first in his 1965 dissertation and later in an article in BYU Studies. Basically Gentry argues that the Danites were real but that they went through three stages of development: (1) in June at Far West and in July at Adam-ondi-Ahman, groups were organized to specifically aid in the expulsion of dissenters from the Mormon communities; (2) from June to mid-October 1838, Danites provided protection for Mormons against mob violence, primarily a defensive movement; and (3) during October 1838, during the "Mormon War," the Danites began to steal from non-Mormons, a stage and activity justified and led by Sampson Avard. The value of Gentry's thesis has been that it admits that Danites existed and even that Joseph Smith could have known about the first two stages, but it disassociates the Prophet from the most militant and illegal manifestations. The irony, argues Gentry, is that Avard, in providing the testimony against Joseph Smith in November 1838 as a witness for the state, successfully shifted all blame for his own activity onto the Prophet. While Gentry's work is cited by LeSueur, at no time does he address Gentry's arguments.
(Jesse and Whittaker, p. 12, emphasis mine)
I'll discuss this puzzling failure to even address the most significant arguments of LDS scholars more fully below. Let's first deal with some of LeSueur's major contentions against Joseph Smith, offering additional evidence and commentary, where necessary, beyond what has been offered above.
LeSueur claims that Joseph never spoke against the Danites, but only spoke against Avard after he turned against Joseph. LeSueur stresses (pp. 43-44) that a well-known passage of History of the Church (3:178-181), where Joseph describes his efforts to put down Avard's plans once they were exposed to him, was not written by Joseph, but came from writings of Morris Phelps. The fact is that much of the History of Church, perhaps 60%, comes from sources other than Joseph Smith, though often written to sound as if it were Joseph speaking. But this questionable (by today's standards) editorial practice does not make the statements untrue. There is no reason to assume that Morris Phelps was lying. The editorial practice of having others write sections of the History of the Church may require more careful checking of sources in some cases, and in one case apparently led to incorrect comments being attributed to Joseph (the matter of the Kinderhook plates) - but the fact that Morris Phelps wrote the description of Joseph's early opposition to Avard is not necessarily of great significance. The passages he contributed appear to be based on his journal and appear consistent with what we know of Joseph Smith and the Danites from other sources, as I have shown in a discussion on my page about Missouri and as I will show with further evidence below.
LeSueur states that Joseph later criticized Avard, but alleges that there is no clear that Joseph Smith ever spoke out against the Danites per se (p. 44). LeSueur insists that Joseph approved of the Danites and their plans and was intimately aware of their designs. On page 43, he says, "Joseph Smith did indeed know about and approve of the Danite organization." This strong conclusion is based on much inference and speculation, and is refuted on multiple points.
Did Joseph speak out against the Danites? On Nov. 2, 1838, Joseph refers also to the surrender of Mormon troops and the capture of Sampson Avard (History of the Church, 3:192 - not attributed to others, as far as I am aware):
About this time Sampson Avard was found by the mob secreted in the hazel brush some miles from Far West, and brought into camp, where he and they were "hail fellows well met;" for Avard told them that Daniteism was an order of the Church, and by his lying tried to make the Church a scape-goat for his sins.
In this, Joseph implicitly denies Church approval of Avard's "Daniteism," apparently referring to the malicious and illegal plans of Avard that recently had been exposed.
Much more forceful and plain is Joseph's letter of March 25, 1839 from Liberty Jail - a letter clearly written by him. In this lengthy letter, parts of which have been included in the Doctrine and Covenants, Joseph expressly warns against ever permitting such a band as the Danites to be among the Saints. He also explains that threats against his own life by Avard's band hindered what he could do and say against them earlier:
And again, I would further suggest the impropriety of the organization of bands or companies, by covenant or oaths, by penalties or secrecies; but let the time past of our experience and sufferings by the wickedness of Doctor Avard suffice and let our covenant be that of the Everlasting Covenant, as is contained in the Holy Writ and the things that God hath revealed unto us. Pure friendship always becomes weakened the very moment you undertake to make it stronger by penal oaths and secrecy.
Your humble servant or servants, intend from henceforth to disapprobate everything that is not in accordance with the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and is not of a bold, and frank, and upright nature. They will not hold their peace--as in times past when they see iniquity beginning to rear its head--for fear of traitors, or the consequences that shall follow by reproving those who creep in unawares, that they may get something with which to destroy the flock.... It is expedient that we should be aware of such things; and we ought always to be aware of those prejudices which sometimes so strangely present themselves, and are so congenial to human nature, against our friends, neighbors, and brethren of the world, who choose to differ from us in opinion and in matters of faith. Our religion is between us and our God. Their religion is between them and their God.
(History of the Church, 3:303)
Joseph was clearly critical of the Danite's - that is, the secretive group of Avard's which engaged in secret oaths. LeSueur does not properly inform the reader of Joseph's position.
After the Election Day Battle, Justice Black reported that Avard and many others came to threaten him. He learned that Joseph Smith was in the group and asked to see him also. After a reasonable conversation, Black agreed to sign a statement that he would uphold the Missouri constitution and not support the mob. He mentioned bloodthirsty language and threats from Avard but indicated that Joseph Smith did not support Avard:
Witness said to Avard, you must be of a savage nature, and he replied he was, that he was an old Virginian, that it was his disposition and he could not help it. Witness then asked Mr. Smith if he protected Dr. Avard in his savage disposition, or if he possessed such a heart. He replied no.
(Adam Black, testimony 18 Sep 1838, Document, p. 162, as cited by Anderson, p. 67)
Anderson comments on this scene:
In this sole operation with Avard on center stage, Joseph Smith rejected his aggressive ways, which must be connected to Avard's lack of military position afterward. Six weeks later, the Prophet led a relief expedition to Carroll County, and Avard did not go; next, the final Daviess relief expedition was sent, and Avard went along and was in one large staff council, though he had no command. In fact, in describing final Daviess operations, Avard gives an undated dismissal:
I once had a command as an officer, but Joseph Smith, Jr., removed me from it. And I asked him the reason, and he assigned that he had another office for me. Afterwards Mr. Rigdon told me I was to fill the office of surgeon, to attend to the sick and wounded.[Document, p. 99]
This was before the Crooked River clash, for Avard had nothing to do with command or council then, and only helped the wounded.
(Anderson, p. 67)
Avard's own testimony at this point indicates that Joseph had removed him from power, consistent with Joseph's statement of opposing Avard's schemes when they were made known to him. The leader of the Danites was asked to support the Daviess County effort as a surgeon, not as one of Joseph's trusted leaders.
In my opinion, LeSueur's main thesis is based on an overly zealous effort to criticize Joseph Smith.
(For background on the events in Daviess County, please see my page, "Mormons and Danites: The 1838 Setting in Missouri.")
Certainly some Danites went with many other Mormons into Daviess County to protect Mormon settlers and to drive out the massing mobs who were bent on expulsion or extermination of the Saints. However, the leaders of the Army of Israel (the public organization for defense of the Latter-day Saints, whose existence goes back to Zion's Camp in 1834) were not the same as the leaders of the Danites - and the main Danite leader, Sampson Avard, appears to have been demoted to serve only as a surgeon. Warren Foote reports that Joseph asked ALL men that were able to participate (Foote, p. 24). The efforts in Daviess County were the result of open enrollment for the collective defense of the Saints, not the work of a secretive band.
John D. Lee's history reports that he thought the Mormon patrol in Daviess County was "nearly all" Danites. However, he arrived on the scene too late to know firsthand who was called into Daviess County. Anderson reports that Associate Commander Charles C. Rich "recalled that few volunteers were raised in Far West on short notice, so he 'rode through the settlements on Goose and Log Creeks, and rallied the brethren as I went along.' This indiscriminate recruitment did not produce a Danite operation" (Anderson, p. 67, fn. 162, quoting Charles C. Rich's history, in "History of David W. Patten," Latter-day Saints' Millennial Star 26 (1864): 440) - using the term Danite to refer to Avard's renegade band.
A critical point derived from the history of the Danites, as given above, is that the term "Danites" can refer to the public, non-secretive militias of the Latter-day Saints, as well as to a secretive band within their ranks that were willing to seek revenge and fight an offensive war. LeSueur misses this point completely, only noting the existence of this point of view in a footnote when he briefly mentions standard LDS works by Gentry and others. But with a deft stroke of a pen, LeSueur eradicates the well-supported concept of two Danite groups, one public and one secretive. Instead, woven into the fabric of his entire argument is the assumption - never stated as such - that there was only one Danite group, a secretive, violent band that somehow became increasingly visible and public. To LeSueur, Joseph Smith, as leader of the Saints and head of the defensive armies, was implicitly and intimately involved in all the crimes of the Danites. But that argument rests on the invalid assumption that the term "Danite" only refers to the secretive group formed by Sampson Avard, allegedly with the approval of Smith.
LeSueur misses the existence of the legitimate, public Danites even when offering quotes from primary sources that support that concept. For example, on page 38 he offers the following in a footnote:
Albert P. Rockwood stated that the Mormon Armies of Israel were called Dan "because [the] Prophet Daniel has said the Saints shall take the Kingdom and possess it forever" ("Journal," p. 8).
The Armies of Israel were public, not secretive, yet were called Dan. This is in contrast to Avard's group, a secret combination of Danites within the body of the public Danites.
Jesse and Whittaker (1988) comment at length on the misinterpretations LeSueur makes of Rockwood's journal, while providing extensive portions of the available Rockwood manuscripts and other documents.
LeSueur relies heavily on the testimony of Sampson Avard to describe the origins of the Danites and their relation to Church leaders. But Avard's testimony must be doubted. After some apparent crimes committed by Mormons in the 1838 fighting, Avard and others were arrested. Avard, the kingpin behind crimes, knew that Joseph Smith was the one the Missourians really wanted, and found that he could gain freedom by testifying against Joseph. Avard put all the blame on Joseph Smith and said that he was the driving force behind the Danites, that he approved of violence, etc. Avard was freed, and Joseph was jailed. Prior to Avard's testimony, Joseph did not know of the secret combination formed by Avard, having only been exposed to the positive aspects of Avard's work within the Armies of Israel/Danites. He learned of their doings, disapproved of them and sought to oppose Avard, but was cautious in this regard because of threats on his life.
LeSueur notes that Joseph Smith may have criticized Sampson Avard and his works, but makes much of the alleged fact that Joseph Smith never openly criticized the Danites. But if the Danites primarily consisted of a legitimate public group, why should Joseph speak against those bearing that name? In speaking against Avard and his works, he was clearly speaking against the secret society that was responsible for crimes and violence. But as we have seen above, Joseph explicitly spoke out against the wickedness of Avard and secretive groups in his letter of March 1839 from the Liberty Jail (cited above).
The idea of public and secretive Danites has a parallel in modern times. There are good and legitimate people and organizations that describe themselves as "patriots" or "freemen" (e.g., the Freeman Institute, a public group advocating Constitutional principles), yet there are also secretive groups that use the same titles. There is nothing wrong with being a patriot, but so-called patriots that are secretive paramilitary groups operating contrary to the law are a cause of much concern.
As for LeSueur's neglect of the difference between public and secret Danites, I feel it is misleading to not clearly inform the reader that this is at least an major argument made by defenders of Joseph Smith. LeSueur comes close to hinting at this in a footnote on p. 125, where LeSueur finally admits that Leland Gentry and B.H. Roberts offered the claim that the Armies of Israel were separate from the Danites and actually acknowledges that Danite leaders were different than the leaders of the Armies of Israel.
At this point, almost on the verge of revealing an important argument used by defenders of Joseph Smith, LeSueur seems to miss the point that Leland Gentry makes - that the term "Danites" could refer, at least in the minds of some Mormons of the time, to either the secret band of Avard or the larger, public Armies of Israel. LeSueur instead argues that the conspiring Danites and the Armies of Israel are one and the same because they were both called "Danites" by some Mormons. Thus, Anson's call statement that all members of the Armies of Israel were Danites, or Albert P. Rockwood's interchangeable use of "Danites" and "Armies of Israel," are presented as obvious refutations to Gentry's argument. He never explains how that twisted interpretation can be squared with basic facts about both organizations: 1) the leaders of the two groups were different - a point he mentions but does not deal with; 2) the Armies of Israel were public, open to all able-bodied men, and not a secret combination; 3) the number of Danites was much smaller than the number of the Armies of Israel - in fact, the meetings of the Danites involved small groups and much secrecy, in contrast to the very public meetings and assemblies of the Armies of Israel. Is it possible that LeSueur is missing the point entirely because he was not familiar with Gentry's work or had not carefully read Gentry - one of the most important LDS scholars dealing with the Danites? That seemed like a fair assumption - until I read that LeSueur, in preparing this book, "especially benefited from discussions with Dr. Leland H. Gentry" (p. vii). Gentry's article in BYU Studies is cited in the bibliographical essay and Gentry's Ph.D. dissertation is described as "an indispensable source of information and insight" (p. 276) - though I don't think it is ever cited in the text, except in passing in the footnote on page 125. Naturally, Gentry's viewpoint, which seems reasonably well supported by the data, does much to undercut many of the arguments that LeSueur uses to indict Joseph Smith. Mr. LeSueur's neglect of Gentry's "indispensable" work is surely puzzling.
At this point it is helpful to review the significance of the Albert P. Rockwood journals.
LeSueur spends only about two sentences (p. 16) briefly mentioning the early persecutions against the Saints in Missouri and seeks to emphasize that the Saints "were partly responsible for causing, or at least reinforcing, the suspicions and prejudice against them" (pp. 17-18). In making this point, he strives to find evidence that the Saints made inflammatory remarks and threats that would stir up other settlers and encourage conflict. LeSueur's treatment of 1838 is strongly skewed by his neglect of the historical context, particularly the events beginning in 1833. What happened in 1833 in Jackson County is vitally important for understanding what happened in 1838. Richard L. Anderson notes the close parallels between the two sets of events (pp. 28-29):
Studying 1838 may create tunnel vision for the epic of banishing Mormons from Missouri. State expulsion then climaxed five years of conflict, during which sizeable Latter-day Saint groups had moved on demand from three different counties: Jackson (1833), Clay (1836), and Carroll (1838). In Jackson the Saints were taken by surprise and naively sought to claim their rights of ownership and citizenship. The Jackson resistance of 1833 most resembles the Mormon stance in 1838; there is remarkable similarity between this first county expulsion and the later state expulsion. If Mormons suddenly became "street-wise" in this first case, so did Lilburn Boggs, as resident and participant in Jackson County negotiations, and as lieutenant governor, part of a state administration that publicly deplored banishment but privately surrendered to first-settlers' threats after an abortive attempt to keep the courts open.
In 1833 Boggs passively saw community leaders and officials sign demands for Mormon withdrawal, and next force a gunbarrel contract to abandon the county before spring planting. Mormons hired lawyers and petitioned Governor Dunklin for intervention, but they were directed to courts using juries of their sworn enemies. Since Mormons resisted moving, terror gangs harassed their settlements in a crisis of violence. Latter-day Saints finally used force against force, but some casualties on each side inflamed the populace. County militia was then activated at Independence, ostensibly to bring security to both parties. In the meantime, rumors came to rural settlements that several brethren had been arrested and were about to be lynched. The majority of Mormon men marched to Independence, but were met by citizens now legally mustered, and their commander confiscated Mormon guns as the price of peace. This now enabled raiders to move without opposition to drive out the minority. In review, anti-Mormon goals were reached in a few simple stages. Executive paralysis permitted terrorism, which forced Mormons to self-defense, which was immediately labeled as an "insurrection," and was put down by the activated militia of the county. Once Latter-day Saints were disarmed, mounted squads visited Mormon settlements with threats and enough beatings and destruction of homes to force flight....
In 1838 the identical process was repeated for upper Missouri, and for a Mormon population ten times the thousand expelled from Jackson County. In both cases the militia was called out "as the only means of saving bloodshed," but by forcing surrender of weapons of the Saints and leaving them unguarded, both 1833 and 1838 troops were a major tool in forcing out the unpopular. In 1833, Lieutenant Governor Boggs looked on, failed to speak for rights of the oppressed, waited until they fired back on their persecutors, and then helped to negotiate surrender of Mormon guns. Likewise in 1838, Governor Boggs looked on, ignored pleas of Mormons being driven from their homes, waited until vigorous self-defense was misrepresented, and commanded the militia to subdue Mormons "as enemies," which at a minimum meant surrender of Mormon guns. In 1833 Jackson County, the governor observed the machinery of the unprotected minority trap. Private violence first forced armed defense, which then gave the removal party the apparent moral advantage to complain of aggression and demand militia action to render the minority defenseless. Boggs had explained in writing the final escalating stages of Mormon eviction in 1833; as governor he certainly remembered the process as he assisted its steps in 1838.
(Anderson, pp. 28-30)
LeSueur does not mention the 1833 article on "Free People of Color," which truly did outrage other Missourians. The outrage was not based on what the article said, for it encouraged obedience to the laws of the state and recited the important sections restricting free people of color. But enemies of the Church used it to suggest that Mormons were encouraging free blacks to enter the state. The outrage was based on hateful misrepresentations and probably was related to the abolitionist leanings of Church members. Outrage of this sort does not seem to fit into LeSueur's view of Mormon history. Rather, LeSueur first refers to an 1835 article (too late to stimulate the violence from 1832-1835) about the destruction of the wicked. According to LeSueur,
Their claims about establishing the Kingdom of God in Jackson County, that they would "literally tread upon the ashes of the wicked after they are destroyed from off the face of the earth," excited fears that the Mormons intended to obtain their "inheritance" by force.
That statement certainly sounds inflammatory, but was it? LeSueur cites The Messenger and Advocate, Jan. 1835, p. 58, which was written by Edward Partridge. Did the mention of treading down the wicked like ashes really threaten Mormon violence against the Gentiles? LeSueur's argument loses its validity when the allegedly inflammatory writing is read in context. The discussion is about Biblical prophecies of the Second Coming and the great Millennium, quoting from Malachi 4:1-3 and other Bible passages:
I will quote a verse or two [Isa. 24:20-21]; and first, "The earth shall reel to and fro like a drunkard, and shall be removed like a cottage; and the transgression thereof shall be heavy upon it, and it shall fall, and not rise again. And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord shall punish the host of the high ones that are on high, and the kings of the earth upon the earth." This will undoubtedly be fulfilled at the time of the great earthquake, spoken of, Rev. 16th chap. "Such as was not since men were upon the earth so mighty an earthquake and so great." ... Secondly, "The moon shall be confounded and the sun ashamed, when the Lord of hosts shall reign in mount Zion and in Jerusalem and before his ancients gloriously." Thus we see that the Lord is not only to reign in Jerusalem, but in mount Zion, also, which shows that Jerusalem and Zion are two places. Thirdly, "The earth also is defiled under the inhabitants thereof, because they have transgressed the laws, changed the ordinance, and broken the everlasting covenant, therefore hath the curse devoured the earth, and they that dwell therein are desolate; therefore the inhabitants of the earth are burned and few men left." -- This agrees with what the prophet Malachi says upon the same subject in the 4th chap. [Mal. 4] "For behold, the day cometh that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble; and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch," (take away root and branch and what will be left?) "But unto you that fear my name, shall the sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall. And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I do this, saith the Lord of hosts."
From this we learn that the meek, those that fear the name of the Lord, will be preserved and will literally tread upon the ashes of the wicked, after they are destroyed from off the face of the earth, by fire, which is probably the last and sweeping judgment, or destruction, before the Millennium commences.
The article is hardly inflammatory, though it does mention burning of the wicked. But the burning is to be done by the Lord at the time of the Second Coming, not by Mormons in Missouri. I cannot imagine that anyone could read Partridge's 1835 article and thereby feel outraged enough to attack the Mormons. LeSueur seems to be sifting through publications to find evidence to support his thesis that Mormons were at least partly to blame for the outbreak of violence and that Mormon teachings encouraged or justified aggression.
To further build his case of Mormon contributions to the outbreak of early violence against the Saints in Missouri, LeSueur also cites a July of 1832 publication (too late to account for the vandalism in the spring of 1832) stating that the riches of the Gentiles would be consecrated for the Saints, which LeSueur implies was inflammatory by their neighbors.
Did the 1832 statement about the Saints benefiting from the riches of the Gentiles really have a connection to plundering and looting, as LeSueur infers? If read in context, the answer is no. LeSueur gives one sentence, but here is the relevant paragraph from The Evening and Morning Star, July 1832, p.9:
If thou lovest me, thou shalt serve me and keep all my commandments; and behold, thou shalt consecrate all thy properties, that which thou hast unto me, with a covenant and a deed which cannot be broken; and they shall be laid before the bishop of my church, and two of the elders, such as he shall appoint and set apart for that purpose. And it shall come to pass, that the bishop of my church, after that he has received the properties of my church, that it cannot be taken from the church, he shall appoint every man a steward over his own property, or that which he has received, inasmuch as shall be sufficient for himself and family; and the residue shall be kept to administer to him who has not, that every man may receive according as he stands in need; and the residue shall be kept in my storehouse, to administer to the poor and needy, as shall be appointed by the elders of the church and the bishop; and for the purpose of purchasing lands, and the building up of the New Jerusalem, which is hereafter to be revealed; that my covenant people may be gathered in one, in the day that I shall come to my temple: And this I do for the salvation of my people. And it shall come to pass, that he that sinneth and repenteth not shall be cast out, and shall not receive again that which he had consecrated unto me: For it shall come to pass, that which I spake by the mouths of my prophets shall be fulfilled; for I will consecrate the riches of the Gentiles, unto my people which are of the house of Israel. And again, thou shalt not be proud in thy heart; let all thy garments be plain, and their beauty the beauty of the work of thine own hands, and let all things be done in cleanliness before me.
In context, the riches that are consecrated are the riches of those who accept the Gospel and turn wealth over to the Church. Even though they may later leave the Church, the Church retains what has been turned over, "for I will consecrate the riches of the Gentiles, unto my people which are of the house of Israel." Indeed, this text is used in Doctrine and Covenants 42:39, with an important phrase added to further clarify the meaning:
For it shall come to pass, that which I spake by the mouths of my prophets shall be fulfilled; for I will consecrate of the riches of those who embrace my gospel among the Gentiles unto the poor of my people who are of the house of Israel.
There is nothing here to suggest that Joseph Smith advocated stealing from the Gentiles to build up the Church.
It is ironic that LeSueur would argue that the discussion of consecrated wealth would be viewed as a threat or a license to plunder the Gentiles and commit violence against them, for the previous paragraph of that 1832 publication (ibid., p. 9) reiterates commandments against such behavior:
And now behold, I speak unto the church: Thou shalt not kill; and he that killeth, shall not have forgiveness, neither in this world, nor in the world to come. And again, thou shalt not kill; he that killeth shall die. Thou shalt not steal; and he that stealeth and will not repent, shall be cast out.
However, there certainly was plundering by some of the Mormons once they turned to offensive means in their desperate attempt to fight their enemies, after all legal recourse had failed.
LeSueur also cites a non-LDS Missourian, Joseph Thorp, apparently quoted in a book from 1924, claiming that some Mormons told him not to bother planting crops because all the land in the area would soon become theirs. Such a boast may have been made by some member or members, but the documentation seems weak and removed from the time of the events. And it can't be said to represent teachings of the leaders of the Church.
After trying to put too much of the blame on the Mormons through his misuse of the 1832 and 1835 LDS publications, LeSueur does note that the Missourians began the conflict and that the Saints initially had been peaceful, law-abiding citizens, "whatever the faults of the Mormons" might be (p. 18).
LeSueur suggests that Mormons and mobsters were guilty of the same disrespect for constitutional law. After all, both groups sent troops illegally across county lines to drive out unpopular groups. But there is a huge difference between taking forceful action to defend constitutional rights and taking forceful action to deprive others of their constitutional rights. The mobs were motivated by a long-standing desire to expel or exterminate, while the Saints had long been struggling for self-defense, vainly seeking some whisper of protection from official legal sources.
Richard L. Anderson deals with Stephen LeSueur's allegation that Mormons trampled on minority rights in dealing with other Missourians in the same way the mobs trampled on Mormon rights:
The Prophet was a constitutionalist, despite his peremptory image in exposures of Missouri Mormon dissenters and in the recent 1838 study [LeSueur's book] borrowing their perspective. Since Boggs' extermination orders expressed the contemporary view that majorities could "expel unwanted persons or groups from their communities," we are told that "Mormons asserted this right when they drove dissenters from Caldwell County" [LeSueur, 153, 246]. This comparison of an elephant to a mouse deserves comment as it relates to Joseph Smith, whose strong influence is in the background of the flight of four former Mormons and their families from Far West in June of 1838. These excommunicated leaders were warned out of town for sustained slander of the First Presidency, and for filing lawsuits in a community depleted of resources in coming to a new country. These individualists had moved with the Church to continue the infighting that severely impaired Mormonism at Kirtland in the prior year. Authorities considered further tolerance a spiritual danger to their flock and an invitation to persecution if twisted images of the presidency were continually thrown to non-Mormon enemies seeking expulsion pretexts. An opposition newspaper was planned.
Those exiled by fright were Book of Mormon witnesses Oliver Cowdery, David and John Whitmer, as well as former apostle Lyman Johnson. Yet a dozen other articulate dissidents remained in Far West to its fall, besides other non-Mormons who were socially part of the Saints' center. Like many responsible contemporaries, Joseph Smith experimented with prior restraint of defamation in times of danger. But the flight of the Cowdery-Whitmer group is an exception in Joseph Smith's policy of full rights for Mormons and neighbors. Arriving in Far West in mid-March of 1838, the Prophet intensely sought civil security and soon dictated a political motto that began: "The constitution of our country, formed by the fathers of liberty; peace and good order in society; love to God and good will to man." A year later, after tedious winter imprisonment, he wrote a valedictory with unaffected political idealism:The Constitution of the United States is a glorious standard.... We brethren are deprived of the protection of this glorious principle by the cruelty of...those who...forget that the Mormons, as well as the Presbyterians and those of every other class and description, have equal rights to partake of the great tree of our national liberty.
The trade-off thesis of the 1838 Mormon expulsion claims that "both the Mormons and Missourians" believed that "majority rule" justified minority evictions [LeSueur, 246]. However, Mormon belief was defined by their Prophet, who through this period and beyond asserted that individual rights must be protected against majority tyranny. On the other hand, expulsionist party statements, typified by 1836 correspondent Anderson Wilson, admitted, "We are trampling on our law and constitution, but we can't help it." There is no parity in viewpoint here. If the Prophet and early Saints imperfectly protected some dissenters, they sincerely worked for a rule of law and largely succeeded. Joseph Smith's militaristic statements in Missouri were made in the face of impending or actual warfare. He arrived in spring and, after four months of normal living, suffered three months of savage hostility against Latter-day Saints, followed by five months imprisonment. He sounds aggressive when he was engineering defense for scattered thousands without civil protection. His militaristic words in this period have a condition, "if he was not let alone." His stated goal was peaceable possession, but he used warnings and defensive power moves to ward off violence.
(Anderson, pp. 61-64)
LeSueur argues that Missourians were cooperative with the Mormons settling in Caldwell County in 1837 and that there was no reason for Mormons to fear mob violence when Sidney Rigdon spoke defiantly on July 4, 1838, against potential mob attacks (pp. 27,51,52). LeSueur says that such fears were "unfounded" (p. 51) and quotes one person as saying that the only ones talking about violence were the Mormons. This viewpoint requires complete neglect of the historical context of the Saints in Missouri. There was simply no question that hostilities would resurface as the Saints again became a political and economic force in the region. They had already been driven from Jackson County and Clay County and had encountered trouble in Carroll County and Ray County. It took no great psychic skills to know what would happen in Caldwell County as well as they began to settle there in earnest, with thousands coming in from Ohio, where the Saints had been recently expelled as well. In fact, a group of settlers in that part of the state had already used a petition to restrict the size of the area that would be turned over to the Saints and were clearly not pleased about Mormon migration into the area. Given their attitudes and the reality of Mormon expansion as the Saints fled Ohio, conflict was inevitable (Anderson, pp. 32-33).
LeSueur's neglect of pre-1838 events does injustice to history. By missing the historical context, he concludes that Mormons introduced fear and bad-will into an otherwise peaceful area and era through their belligerent attitudes (p. 28). But the Saints knew what would happen - not only from past experiences elsewhere in Missouri, but from the negative welcome they had already received from "the mob" in Daviess County, as W. W. Phelps relates in an 1837 letter:
Public notice has been given by the mob in Daviess county, north of us, for the Mormons to leave that county by the first of August and go into Caldwell: our enemies will not slumber till Satan knows how vain is his plotting.
(History of the Church, 2: 496)
The apparent peace in 1837 was the result of Missourians believing that the Saints could be confined to Caldwell County. Their expansion numerically and geographically would surely precipitate the same old problems. Strong words about self-defense and preparations for defense from the Saints were not unfounded and were not a cause of prejudice and violence, as LeSueur seems to suggest (p. 28), but were a reaction to the violence that was bound to occur - and that had already occurred for years in Missouri.
Richard L, Anderson offers further evidence and insight:
But if Daviess settlers first backed down [not driving out the Mormons in 1837, who insisted on staying], the underlying goal was unchanged. Their program appears in surviving papers of a strange investigation. Justice Adam Black gives a polite version: "We concluded to go and see these people and request them to leave this county peaceably," an action that adds insight on why the 1838 Mormon posse took so many men to visit him the next year, and were so blunt about their rights [Adam Black, certificate of 27 July 1838, requesting James B. Turner to aid warning out the Mormons "last summer," ms., National Archives]. These Black papers also quote the scrawled 1837 public warning:
Notice is hereby given by request of a portion of the citizens on the north side of Grand River. Any Mormon that comes on this side of Grand River will beÉdrove back. No Mormon [is to] settle on this side of Grand River; if the[y] do, the[y] may abide by the consequence [William Bowman, undated certificate, ms., National Archives].
Thus the Daviess majority petitioned for containment in 1836, threatened that it would be enforced in 1837, and went to war for it in 1838. Through these years upper Missourians did business with Mormons, and some sought their political support. But the safety committees also remained in place. The recent 1838 study of LeSueur misreads a part for the whole in picturing 1837 as a year of good will; this analysis uses the flawed method of relying on vocal Mormon dissenters who rationalized that Missouri was peaceful until Joseph Smith moved from Ohio in 1838 with an agenda of aggression against insiders and outsiders. This was arguable because conflicts escalated with Joseph Smith's 1838 arrival. But the real reason for tension was the movement of all faithful Latter-day Saints to Missouri in the same year that he arrived, plus his vigorous defense of their rights to purchase available lands around the Mormon county. Thus the preconceptions of prior settlers escalated into violent action that year. Because Mormon migration coincided with the Prophet's arrival, the historian may falsely identify him as the problem instead of the victim, with his people, of restrictionists with a rigid Mormon quota.
(Anderson, pp. 34-35)
The driving of Latter-day Saints from Missouri was not a random result of accidental events nor was it caused by Joseph Smith. It was actively sought for by enemies of the Saints. The crimes committed against the Saints were numerous and severe. The are well documented in petitions of the Saints to the government, as Clark V. Johnson shows ("The Missouri Redress Petitions: A Reappraisal of Mormon Persecutions in Missouri," BYU Studies, Vol. 26, No. 2, 1986, pp. 36-43). Taken together, these petitions
tell a unified story of murder, rape, beating, thievery, and general lawlessness perpetrated upon the Saints while they were in Missouri. They make clear that the abuses which the Mormons suffered were not the result of spontaneous uprisings led by drunken town rabble (although there were clearly opportunists among the mobbers) but that these uprisings carried the sanction of the local and state governments. The petitions imply that the mobbing had a twofold objective: first, to drive all the Mormons into Caldwell County; and second, to drive them from the state. Both objectives were achieved. The petitions also indicate--at least from the petitioners' point of view--that religious differences were central to the conflict. Time and time again mobbers asked the Mormons if they were followers of Joseph Smith, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or believers in the Book of Mormon.
(Johnson, p. 42)
The Saints had much to fear from their persecutors, as history clearly shows.
LeSueur (p. 113) says that Joseph gave a speech on Oct. 14 and 15 venting "seething anger and frustration" and calling on the Mormons to attack Daviess County. He cites Warren Foote's autobiography, pp. 29-30, along with several hostile sources, and says that Foote as a source is "extremely important" because Foote was a believer who later joined the Church and who based his autobiography on notes taken at the time of the events. Thus, we are to put trust in Foote's document as authentic, not biased by anti-Mormon sentiment, and based on notes contemporaneous with the events. Unfortunately, the reference is incorrect. LeSueur must have meant pp. 24-25, which does correspond with the date of Oct. 14 and Joseph's sermon. Here is the entire entry for that date that supposedly helps demonstrate Joseph's "seething anger":
[October] 14th.  Sunday. Mr. Barnard, and I went to Far West to meeting. Joseph Smith preached. He said that those who would not turn out to help to suppress the mob, should have their property taken to support those who would. He was very plain and pointed in his remarks, and expressed a determination to put down the mob or die in the attempt. The report was, that they had gathered in Daviess County to the number of 400 or 500. Just as meeting closed, there was an alarm given, that a company of armed men were approaching the town from the south. The men immediately ran for their guns, so as to be in readiness should they prove to be enemies. But they proved to be a company of militia, who had been ordered to Daviess County, (they said,) to quell the mob. Joseph said that he wanted all the people (men) of Caldwell County to assemble at Far West tomorrow, in order to find out who will fight, and who will not. He said that the Mormons would have to protect themselves, as they could not put any dependence in the militia of the state; for they were mostly mobocrats. On our way home from meeting, we met several families from DeWitt, just getting in, amongst whom was S. Markham, and company, whom we left in Illinois. They were among those that were detained at DeWitt by the mob. During the skirmish there, Markham was shot at several times, but not hurt.
Seething anger? Foote uses the adjective "pointed" to describe Joseph's remarks. Look, Mr. LeSueur, this was war and the Saints lives were in grave danger. It was vital for the survival of the community in the lawless state of Missouri that the Saints defend themselves, and I have no qualms with punishment for those dissenters (yes, some were still there) who refused to assist in defense. Joseph's comments were not about stirring up hate for aggression, but stirring up resolve for self-defense. Mobs were gathering in Daviess County. The mobsters included many settlers living there. Driving them from that county may have been essential in the eyes of the Mormons. It backfired, to be sure, but would any other scenario have resulted in the Mormons being left alone peacefully in Missouri? Not with a state government bent on ridding itself from the Mormon rascals. The Saints desperately wished to remain and build the Kingdom of God in their "promised land" of Missouri - but for now, they would have to flee or be exterminated.
There is conflicting evidence on this point. My best interpretation of sources of and events is that he was head of the Mormons and directed that the militia be used for self-defense, but did not personally lead troops, relying instead on authorized captains and other leaders. In the Daviess County effort to remove the mob, Joseph, Hyrum Smith, and David Patten with Patten's militia went to Adam-ondi-Ahman in Daviess County, responding to reports that mob actions against the Mormons there were planned. James Rollins was on the scene and reports these events:
Soon after this transaction our brethren who had settled on Grand River were being driven in by a mob, partly to Diamon from other settlements. About this time it seemed that something must be done to protect (Adom-ondi-Ahman), and the brethren, Joseph and Hyrum, with David Patten's hundred men equipped themselves at Far West for Adam-ondi-Ahman. But before starting for Di-Ahman, 10 young men were chosen and were well equipped. Their names are as follows: Jess E. Hunder, Darwin Chase, Chauncey L. Higbee, Joel Miles, Elisha and Elijah Everett (twins) Frank Higbee, James H. Rollins, Benson Williams Durith and sometimes Ira Miles were with us. We were taken by the Prophet and his brother to the west side of Adam-Ondi-Ahman. They there gave us instructions and orders which were to go to Millport as speedily as possible, to see if the mob were there in force, as had been reported. But they had heard of our coming and had left with a cannon which they had threatened to blow up Adam-ondi-Ahman with. We saw no one as we entered Millport, but a woman sticking her head out of a window. On returning toward Di-Ahman, we met several men going to millport armed with a hundred rounds of ammunition on each man. We did not harm them. Finding that the mob had left Millport with the cannon and was making their stop at the Methodist Campground, 25 miles distance. We returned and reported what we had seen and done, then Joseph and Hyrum and David Patten's hundred traveled swiftly through their campground where we found the cannon in a very mysterious way. It was buried near the house and was discovered by Stephen Hale, the butt of the cannon had been uncovered by an old sow rooting the dirt away. Our men hunted under the house for balls and powder. We found sacks of powder there; also a cart was provided to carry the cannon, and it was taken to Di-Ahman that same day that we left Di-Ahman in the morning.
In a few days after this, we returned to Far West and were kept constantly on the move, to watch the movement of the mob. About this time a mob collected west of Far West on Crooked River. As soon as the news was heard of their collecting many of our brethren with David Patten at their head went to surprise the mob. At this time David Patten was shot and some others killed and wounded. David Patten died. The next day after this the mob gathered at Hayn's [Hauns] mill and pounced on our brethren, killing 18 of them.
(James Rollins Autobiography, BYU Archives, pp. 5-6.)
Joseph was on the scene and went into the campground where the buried canon was found - a major threat to the Mormons - but it does not sound as if he were directing troops personally. I am not aware of any reliable evidence (Avard's testimony must be discounted) that he approved of the burning of settlers' homes or authorized such. His concern seemed to be with the defense of Adam-ondi-Ahman.
Albert P. Rockwood wrote a journal entry about Joseph Smith going before the troops: "You may ask if a Prophet goes out with the Saints to battle? I answer he is a Prophet to go before the people as in times of old..." [Journal, p. 11, as cited by LeSueur, p. 112]. This need not contradict Joseph's affidavit. Joseph was the highest mortal leader of the Saints and publicly urged the Saints to defend themselves. He had been actively involved in several efforts. For example, he helped bring 150 men to Gallatin after reports of violent efforts to stop Mormons from voting, and he had personally gone into the dangerous scene at DeWitt where the Saints were under siege. And during the Daviess County actions, he called for the Saints to go there to protect the Mormons at Adam-ondi-Ahman and he personally went to that settlement while other groups of Saints were working to drive mobs out of the county. He also joined others in going to a campground where the canon was retrieved. Thus, it could be said that he "went before the people" without personally leading any troops or military excursions against settlers. Joseph and Hyrum apparently stayed most of the time in Adam-ondi-Ahman and were not leading troops, as Joseph later sated.
Lyman Wight later declared that Joseph was not involved in military service, at least partly because of problems with his leg:
I think, some time in the latter part of the winter [of 1837], said Joseph Smith moved to the district of country the Saints had purchased, and he settled down like other citizens of a new county, and was appointed the first Elder in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, holding no office in the county, either civil or military. I declare that I never knew said Joseph Smith to dictate, by his influence or otherwise, any of the officers, either civil or military; he himself being exempt from military duty from the amputation, from his leg, of a part of a bone, on account of a fever sore.
(History of the Church, 3:440)
LeSueur, however, draws extreme conclusions. After a variety of inconclusive arguments in earlier pages, LeSueur claims that Joseph did lead major military actions and makes an irresponsible statement that lacks any serious support: "He [Joseph] directed the plundering and burning of non-Mormon homes in Daviess County" (p. 250). I know of one non-hostile source indicating that goods of the mob were used to provide for the Saints (Foote, p. 25) who had been plundered by the mob just before winter, but there is no evidence to support the burning of homes or the general plundering of non-Mormons being directed by or approved of Joseph Smith.
Does the very existence of a Mormon militia show that the Mormons were bent on violence and crime? Absolutely not. From the LDS perspective at the time, the militia and its actions were purely part of self-defense, though the fine line between defense and offense may have been crossed when Mormons sought to drive mobsters out of Daviess County. Here is a statement written by John Greene shortly after the 1838 trouble ("Expulsion of the Mormons," p.24 - p.25, an LDS document from 1839):
It must be constantly recollected, that the Mormons in Caldwell County considered themselves, as they really were, the regular state militia, acting under the command of county officers and by the advice of Generals Doniphan and Parks, for the purpose of putting down a mob. They had never opposed or thought of opposing the authorities of the state, or of any county. They had in every instance agreed to keep the peace against lawless violence, as citizens, not as Mormons. They were naturally surprised when the state executive, by whom their officers were commissioned, sent other militia officers to command their surrender. It was not against the state, but for the state, not against Law, but to maintain Law, that they had armed. "The Mormon War," of which so much has been said, was then simply and truly an attempt to put down the very mob, against whom the militia of other counties has been called out; and Gov. Boggs might with equal justice have arrested any other militia officers as these officers of the Mormon militia. This two-fold relation of the Mormons,--first, of militia to preserve order under state authority, and second, of friends to those whom they were called to defend, must be carefully born in mind.
The generally nature of the allegedly violent Saints surprised General Parks, who wrote to Governor Boggs in late September of 1838:
Whatever may have been the disposition of the people called Mormons, before our arrival here, since we have made our appearance they have shown no disposition to resist the laws, or of hostile intentions. There has been so much prejudice and exaggeration concerned in this matter, that I found things entirely different from what I was prepared to expect. When we arrived here, we found a large body of men from the counties adjoining, armed and in the field, for the purpose, as I learned, of assisting the people of this county against the Mormons, without being called out by the proper authorities.
P. S.--Since writing the above, I received information that if the committee do not agree, the determination of the Daviess county men is to drive the Mormons with powder and lead.
(History of the Church, 3:84-85)
Likewise, General Atchinson wrote Boggs on Sept. 27:
Things are not so bad in that county as represented by rumor, and, in fact, from affidavits I have no doubt your Excellency has been deceived by the exaggerated statements of designing or half crazy men. I have found there is no cause of alarm on account of the Mormons; they are not to be feared; they are very much alarmed.
(History of the Church, 3:85)
Was Joseph a violent man? He certainly became angry with some of his enemies, and used some harsh and even inflammatory language, but his actions showed he preferred to avoid violence and was quick to forgive. On my Missouri background page, in an excerpt from Lyman Wight's biography, we read Lyman telling an enemy that nobody but Joseph could have restrained Lyman from seeking mortal vengeance against the villain. Joseph urged people to respect the law - but when the law broke down in Missouri, there seemed to be a need to take military action for self-defense. The results were disastrous, and some Mormons certainly got out of hand. But we must be careful in blaming Joseph for too much of this. In spite of the trying times of war in Missouri, Joseph sought to renounce war and proclaim peace.
From the depths of Liberty Jail in 1839, Joseph wrote the Saints of his admiration for the Constitution, a "glorious banner," which offered religious liberty to all, including those of other faiths. He warned against prejudice (History of the Church, Vol. 3, p. 303) and encouraged love (p. 304):
There is a love from God that should be exercised toward those of our faith, who walk uprightly, which is peculiar to itself, but it is without prejudice; it also gives scope to the mind, which enables us to conduct ourselves with greater liberality towards all that are not of our faith, than what they exercise towards one another. These principles approximate nearer to the mind of God, because it is like God, or Godlike.
He was not a man of vengeance and hate, though he had much he could have sought vengeance for. The few militant statements from earlier in 1838 can be ascribed to the exigencies of self-defense in a time of war, not to an entrenched warlike or vengeful spirit.
Some have claimed that the Danites persisted for years and committed many acts of violence against enemies of the Church. These are claims by anti-Mormon propagandists, not responsible historians. If the Danites were murderous and under the control of the leaders of the Church, why did Sampson Avard and his allies live after testifying against Joseph Smith and causing so much harm to the Church? Why was Oliver Cowdery allowed to live and even welcomed back with open arms when he later regretted his actions and returned to the Church? The same goes for William Phelps. The idea of ongoing violence and retribution against enemies of the Church is ludicrous and contradicted by numerous facts and testimonies. Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and other leaders of the Church advocated forgiveness and kindness toward others, not hate and violence - and their actions speak louder than anti-Mormon words.
LeSueur's work provides some interesting commentary and analysis of a complex time - but much of the complexity is unfairly exploited to present a largely antagonistic view of Joseph Smith.
LeSueur emphasizes his familiarity with Leland Gentry, but never allows the reader to understand Gentry's work or his major arguments - arguments that quickly diffuse the brunt of LeSueur's attack. We are told that Joseph only spoke out against Avard but never against the Danites. We are to believe that a violent, secretive band with solemn oaths expanded its ranks to include almost everyone - even the Armies of Israel - and to become generally known among non-LDS people as well. We are not told of evidence that Joseph opposed Avard prior to the Davies County events or that Avard had been demoted in essence to serve merely as a surgeon there. We are denied the critical background information about how the Missourians had repeatedly treated the Mormons prior to 1838. We are to believe that there was no conspiracy against the Mormons, that the Missourians were good-natured until the Mormons started getting militant. We are to believe that the Richmond hearing was generally proper and fair, in spite of a little intimidation of some witnesses. And we are to believe - without reliable evidence - that Joseph directed the burning of non-Mormon homes. There are arguments one can make for these points, but I don't think they have support or merit.
It was a terrible and ugly time. Joseph Smith made some mistakes, yes - trusting Avard to any degree was one of them, and thinking that the Saints could take on the mobs and militias with any hope of success was another. Indeed, the whole episode in Missouri could have been handled much better - an easy observation to make in retrospect. But some have judged him and the Church far too harshly, in my opinion.
A valuable contribution to the study of the Mormon War is A Call to Arms: The 1838 Mormon Defense of Northern Missouri (Dissertations in Latter-day Saint history) by Alexander L. Baugh (Provo, Utah: Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History and BYU Studies, 2000). This scholarly book, based on work Alexander Baugh did for his Ph.D. in history, provides new depth and balance sometimes missing in earlier works. While the work was done at BYU and has a pro-LDS slant and overtly takes issue with LeSueur, it still rises to a high level of scholarship in its reliance on primary sources and its inclusion and discussion of sources and arguments on both sides of key issues, and also in providing detailed background information that helps us better understand some of the various dynamics on both sides of the conflict (including, for example, insight into the Haun's Mill Massacre as a response to Mormon raids rather than being linked to the infamous Extermination Order).
Ronald E. Romig reviewed Baugh's book in the Journal of Mormon History, vol. 30, no. 1 (2004), pp. 269-273 for the Mormon History Association (the Journal link is to a large PDF file, with the review at the end--an archived version of the PDF is also available if needed in the future). Romig found Baugh's work to be well done, though he is critical of Baugh's slanting of arguments against LeSueur, seeing it as a book written more to rebut LeSueur than to explore the history. But then he also wonders why LeSueur is mentioned only a handful of times in the text. I believe the answer is that the bulk of the work was prepared long before LeSueur's book was written, being prepared as part of Baugh's early Ph.D. work (the dissertation was approved in 1971), and only a few parts were updated to take into account conflicting viewpoints from later scholarship. It was not originally written to refute LeSueur, if I understand correctly, but gratefully provided a helpful framework for examining some of the weaknesses in LeSueur's work when it did come out. But I am puzzled about the nearly 30-year gap between the dissertation's approval and the publication of the book based on it.
Turning to Dr. Baugh's work itself, the introduction offers an overview of his findings that may have been one of the most recent portions of the work. Baugh notes the many defects in previous scholarship on the issue, both among Latter-day Saint writers and others. Regarding the Stephen C. LeSueur's 1987 monograph, based on his graduate work at George Mason University, he notes that it was the most comprehensive work on the topic, but in spite of that, "his examination actually prompted the need for additional inquiry." More pointedly, Baugh writes:
LeSueur's work contains a number of historical problems. For example, some subjects, particular the military operations and movement of the Mormon militia, are treated too broadly and lack sufficient detail, thereby making a correct interpretation difficult. He is quick to place much of the responsibility for the conflict squarely on the Mormons and their leaders, many of whom he portrayed as being irrational and impetuous. The author also came to the conclusion that Joseph Smith oversaw all the military operations of the Mormon militia, yet he ignores sources which appear to contradict his arguments. His analysis and interpretation concerning the activities of the semi-secret Mormon paramilitary group known as the Danites, including Joseph Smith's involvement and association with the society, are also both inflated and inaccurate. Finally, he tends to accept at face value the statements and testimonies of other Missourians that appear in the public record, often failing to give credence to Mormon statements or reports that are not in agreement. (p. 2)
That is very much the same as the conclusions I came to and published above reading LeSueur and studying relevant historical sources. My review of LeSueur and this page in general has been sharply criticized and simply dismissed by some, with the dismissals offered without substantiation other than saying that I am "always apologetic" when in fact, there are multiple recognitions of Mormon failures and even crimes.
Baugh offers an overview of his findings:
This study demonstrates that local vigilantes, county regulators, and a number of state officials (both civil and military), operated illegally against the Mormons in their attempts to force them to remove from selected regions, and finally the entire state altogether. When the Latter-day Saints' efforts to settle the difficulties by legal means failed, they were constrained to take matters into their own hands. Even then, however, the Mormons made every attempt to lawfully defend themselves by operating under the legally constituted militia of the country. Furthermore, the majority of the Mormon defenders who participated in the conflict did not have criminal intentions, nor should they be characterized as being a group of lawless miscreants. Theirs was a mission of community defense. Therefore, the 1838 context must be examined from a standpoint of defensive struggle on the part of the Mormons to maintain civil order and to protect their constitutional rights as citizens.
I believe that is a fair statement. It is certainly not meant to excuse wrongdoings and the excesses that often occur in a fight for survival, but reminds us that there was a context to the troubling events near the end of the 1838 Mormon War that must be considered.
In general, I believe that Baugh must be read and considered, especially as a counterweight to the allegations of LeSueur, and I believe it stands on firmer ground.
Anderson, Richard L., "Clarifications of Bogg's 'Order' and Joseph Smith's Constitutionalism," Church History Regional Studies, Missouri, ed. Arnold K. Garr and Clark V. Johnson, Department of Church History and Doctrine, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, 1994, pp. 27-70)
Baugh, Alexander L., A Call to Arms: The 1838 Mormon Defense of Northern Missouri, Provo, Utah: Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History and BYU Studies, 2000.
Church History in the Fulness of Times, Church Educational System, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1989, pp. 193-210.
Cornwall, Rebecca Foster, and Arrington, Leonard J., "Perpetuation of a Myth: Mormon Danites in Five Western Novels, 1840-90," BYU Studies, Vol. 23, No. 2, Spring 1983.
Document Showing the Testimony Given Before the Judge of the Fifth Judicial District of the State of Missouri, on the Trial of Joseph Smith, Jr., and others, for High Treason and Other Crimes Against that State. (Washington, D. C.: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1841), as cited and used by Gentry or by Anderson, who cite it as Document.
Foote, Warren, "Autobiography," typescript at BYU, obtained on the Infobases Collectors Library '97 CD-Rom. Also available on the Web at "https://www.boap.org/LDS/Early-Saints/WFoote.html".
Gentry, Leland H., "The Danite Band of 1838," BYU Studies, Vol. 14, No. 4, Summer 1974, pp. 421-450.
Gentry, Leland H., "History of the Latter-day Saints in Northern Missouri, 1836-1839," Ph.D. Dissertation, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, 1965, as cited by Gentry, 1974.
Hancock, Mosiah, The Life Story of Mosiah Lyman Hancock, available online at https://www.boap.org/LDS/Early-Saints/MHancock.html.
Hill, Donna, Joseph Smith: The First Mormon, Doubleday and Company, Garden City, NY, 1977.
Jessee, Dean C. and Whittaker, David J., "The Last Months of Mormonism in Missouri: The Albert Perry Rockwood Journal Edited," BYU Studies, Vol. 28, No. 1, Winter 1988, pp. 5-34.
Johnson, Clark V., "The Missouri Redress Petitions: A Reappraisal of Mormon Persecutions in Missouri," BYU Studies, Vol. 26, No. 2, 1986, pp. 36-43.
Johnson, Clark V., ed., Mormon Redress Petitions: Documents of the 1833-1838 Missouri Conflict (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 1992).
LeSueur, Stephen C., The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri, University of MIssouri Press, Columbia, Missouri, 1987.
LeSueur, Stephen C., "High Treason and Murder": The Examination of Mormon Prisoners at Richmond, Missouri, in November 1838," BYU Studies, Vol. 26, No. 2, 1986, pp. 2-26.
Smith, Lucy Mack, History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, ed. S.F. Proctor and M.J. Proctor, Bookcraft, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1996.
Whitaker, David J., "The Book of Daniel in Early Mormon Thought," in By Study And Also By Faith, ed. John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks, Vol. 1, Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, and Foundation for Ancient Religion and Mormon Studies, Provo, Utah, 1990, pp. 155-201.
The Tanners and the Danites - an excellent article by Russell C. McGregor, used with permission, which reviews some misinformation from the Tanners.
Curator: Jeff Lindsay , Contact:
Created: Sept. 2004
Last Updated: Nov. 8, 2015