Mormon History

Joseph Smith MormonsMormon History begins with the life of Joseph Smith Jr., the founder of the Mormon Church. Smith has written his own account of the beginnings of the Church (Joseph Smith-History 1:1). Joseph Smith was born in the year 1805, in Vermont. He would be the third child of nine. By 1820, his family had moved to Manchester, New York, amidst a great religious revival. During this period of religious debate, Joseph, then fourteen, was motivated to pray by reading in the book of James, chapter 1, verse 5. If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. In response to his prayer on the subject of which church was correct, which was offered in a grove of trees next to his farm, Joseph saw a vision. He was visited by God the Father and Jesus Christ. They told him to join none of the churches, that they had all incorporated the doctrines of men, strayed from the truth and lost the authority to act in God’s name.  Joseph was told that he would be instrumental in establishing the true Church of Jesus Christ before the second coming of the Lord.

Joseph Smith went about the usual life of a young man for the next few years. According to his account, in 1823, an angel of the Lord named Moroni visited him and told him of an ancient record hidden in a nearby hillside. Smith was appointed to translate the record and proclaim its message to the world. The angel Moroni visited him occasionally for the next few years until September 1827, when Joseph was allowed to fetch this record from the Hill Cumorah. Smith went about translating the record into English by use of the Urim and Thummim, sacred instruments that were unearthed with the ancient record. During the translation process, and in response to a prayer by Smith, he received a visitation from angels, who conferred upon him the priesthood of God and the authority to establish and administer the Church of Jesus Christ.

With the translation completed, the Book of Mormon was first published in March of 1830. A few days later, on April 6, Joseph Smith officially organized The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Fayette, New York. The newly organized church sent missionaries almost immediately to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and message of the Book of Mormon. There were many that converted to the Mormon Church and gathered together. The next few years of Mormon history were spent trying to find a place for the community of Mormons to settle. From the first time Joseph Smith mentioned his heavenly vision publicly, he faced ridicule and hostility. When he formed a church, the hostility intensified into often threatening and violent persecution.

The first relocation in Mormon history was to Kirtland, Ohio–from New York–at the beginning of 1831. Later in the year, Joseph Smith received revelation that Jackson County, Missouri, would be the location for Zion, the Promised Land for the Church, and Ohio was a temporary gathering place, while Missouri was prepared for their immigration. For a few years of Mormon history, the Church was divided between Ohio and Missouri. Mormons began buying up land in Missouri and establishing settlements. The settlers of Missouri saw this immigration as a threat, and persecution of the Mormons became politically motivated as well as religious. The solidarity and superior numbers of the Mormons arriving in Missouri prompted mob violence by the settlers, and they drove them from Jackson County into neighboring Clay County near the end of the year 1833. The following May, Joseph Smith formed a group of 200 that called itself Zion’s Camp and set out to reclaim the Mormons’ lands in Missouri and come to the aid of the Mormons driven out of Jackson County. When they arrived, however, Smith felt inspired to leave vengeance to the Lord, and Zion’s Camp merely gave aid to those displaced by mobs before returning to Ohio. The real results of Zion’s Camp were in the testing of its participants, who were able to succeed in an “Abrahamic test.”  Many went on to become great leaders in the Church.

In this same year, construction on the first Mormon temple was begun in Kirtland. The year 1836 in Mormon history saw the completion of the Kirtland Temple, but also the expulsion of the Mormons from Clay County, Missouri. After months of appeals to the government regarding the injustices against the Mormons, the state created Caldwell County for the Mormons to settle. The Mormons’ history in Ohio ended in 1837 when financial troubles embittered many members, who left the Church and stirred up persecutions among neighboring communities. Late in the year, Joseph Smith called for the Church to be assembled in one body, and the Mormons moved from Kirtland, Ohio, to Caldwell County. The Missouri settlers were still wary of the Mormons and their political influence, at least part of which was due to the abolitionist views of the Mormons. Harassment and violence continued until Governor Lilburn W. Boggs issued an extermination order against the Mormons in October of 1838. Many Mormons were killed, and Joseph Smith and several other leaders were captured and jailed, but the majority of Mormons fled to Illinois, losing their property and possessions in the process.

In April 1839, a guard friendly to Joseph Smith allowed him to escape prison, and he joined the Mormons in Illinois. He chose the banks of the Mississippi in Hancock County as the site of the new settlement and named it Nauvoo. So began the Nauvoo chapter of Mormon history. The Mormons thrived in Illinois. In 1840, just ten years after the Church was organized, the membership was 16,000. In the fall, they began building another Mormon temple. Persecution continued, Missouri attempted to extradite Joseph Smith, but without evidence, and disaffected Mormons wrote attacks on Smith, forcing him into hiding in 1842 to avoid imprisonment. The next year, Smith announced the doctrine of plural marriage, or polygamy. This was a major point in Mormon Church history. Many members would not accept it and left the church, often to persecute it.

In July 1844, the only edition of the Nauvoo Expositor was published. It attacked and denounced Smith on many points and called for him to be hung. The mayor, Smith, and city council met on what action to take. The paper was ruled as an immediate threat, one that would stir up violence, and the council ordered the Expositor press destroyed. The county sheriff sought Joseph Smith on charges of inciting the riot that followed. Again, Smith went into hiding, fearing mob retribution. But he surrendered himself at the behest of Governor Ford and was placed in Carthage jail on June 22. A mob rushed the jail on the 27th, killing Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum. The two others imprisoned survived. John Taylor was one of them, and he recorded the events (Doctrine and Covenants 135). The Mormons’ enemies expected them to disperse after Smith’s death, but Brigham Young was chosen to succeed him as prophet and president of the Church, and they stayed together. After a short respite, the attacks began again, and the Nauvoo charter was revoked in January 1845. Knowing they would never have rest in settled territories, Brigham Young decided the Mormons would go west and settle their own territory. They finished building the Nauvoo temple by the end of the year, so the “Saints” could make covenants there, and in February 1846 the first company of Mormon pioneers crossed the Mississippi River.

By June 1846, the pioneers had arrived in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and then established Winter Quarters, Nebraska, across the river. The Saints suffered bitterly in Winter Quarters, from exposure and disease.  But they were extremely well-organized under Brigham Young and made preparations to head west.  In April of the next year, Brigham Young and his party left Winter Quarters and blazed the Mormon Trail to what is now Utah. On July 24, 1847, the company arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, and Young proclaimed it as the place the Mormons would settle. The following years saw continued immigration to the Salt Lake Valley, and Young sent settlers to establish satellite communities all around the territory. The missionary efforts, which had not ceased through all the trials of the Mormons, had resulted in there being more Mormons in Europe than in America. Many of these immigrated to Utah. In 1851, Brigham Young was appointed territorial governor. The next year, the Mormon Church announced publicly, for the first time, the practice of polygamy. It was this issue that would threaten Mormon history yet again.

President James Buchanan targeted Mormon polygamy as a distraction from the more pressing matter of slavery. He used bogus claims of the Mormons rebelling against the authority of the United States to send a newly appointed governor with five thousand troops to accompany him. After a nonconfrontational campaign against the incoming army’s supply chain, Brigham Young met with new governor Alfred Cumming and obtained an assurance that Mormon settlers would not be harassed, after which he resigned the governorship. The Mormons had avoided war and further relocation. The Civil War took the pressure off the Mormons, but at its end, with slavery abolished, polygamy again became a target. Several laws were passed by Congress outlawing polygamy and punishing any who practiced it. At first these were difficult to enforce, but after the death of Brigham Young, many Church leaders practicing polygamy were jailed or went into hiding. The federal government’s sanctions increased until 1890, when Mormon Church president, Wilford Woodruff, announced a revelation to end the practice of polygamy-The Manifesto.

mormonWith the end of polygamy came statehood for Utah and a stabilizing of Mormon history. The world wars slowed and even halted missionary work for a while, but since World War II the Mormon Church has seen rapid international growth. Mormons have sent missionaries to every country they are allowed in, and have lobbied to enter others (successfully in the case of most former Soviet countries). In 1947, church membership was one million. By 1997, it was ten million. The latest era of Mormon history has been one of international expansion. With the addition of so many cultures to a church founded by Americans of Western European background, many steps have been taken to organize the programs and teachings of the Church to separate culture from doctrine. The most recent major revelation in the Mormon Church was the 1978 announcement by President Spencer W. Kimball, extending the priesthood blessings to all worthy males (Official Declaration 2).  The Mormon Church began in obscurity and has risen to a prominent place in the world. There are now thirteen million members and fifty thousand missionaries converting two-hundred fifty thousand people a year throughout the world. There are over 100 Mormon temples in operation. And now more Mormons live outside of the United States than in it. Starting with six members in 1830, the Mormon Church has grown to a highly respected international church in less than two-hundred years.

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