Mormonism. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, popularly known as the Mormons, initially seemed just another odd outcropping on the sacred topography of the period. By the Civil War it was clearly much more—to some, a true faith; to others, a powerful delusion. The growth of the church, alarming to non-Mormons, meant that it could not be easily dismissed, and Mormonism became an integral chapter in Western religious history. Opponents railed at the church’s sanction of polygamy and at its union of religion and politics: the former defiled the Christian family while the latter sullied the ideals of the American republican experiment. Yet the American religious establishment realized that, somehow, Mormonism spoke to the unmet yearnings of thousands; it ran both with and against the grain of religion in the antebellum age.
Origins. For Mormons the spiritual beginnings of the church can be traced to September 1823, when Joseph Smith, their founder and leader, experienced his first prophetic vision. The eighteen-year-old Smith was visited three times by the angel Moroni, who told him of golden plates hidden in a nearby hill that contained the lost history of the Americas. Once translated, this new scripture would provide the basis for the restoration of the true church. Joseph discovered the plates at the site foretold, but his heart was not yet right with God, and so he had to wait four years until the angel Moroni at last permitted him to remove the treasures and begin the translation. Within eighteen months The Book of Mormon (1830) was ready for publication.
Organization. Because the present churches were all corrupted and condemned by God, a fresh bestowal of authority was necessary in order for Smith to recapture the purity of the primitive church. Although believers hailed The Book of Mormon as proof that God spoke in the here and now, the basis for the restoration of the church was firmly grounded in Smith himself and in his role as the prophet and revelator. According to tradition, in May 1829 John the Baptist appeared to Smith and to his scribe Oliver Cowdery and endowed them with the Aaronic priesthood, or the power to baptize for the remission of sins. Later that summer the Apostles Peter, James, and John conferred upon them the Melchizedek priesthood, or the power to ordain and to organize the true church. In April 1830, at a gathering of about sixty people, the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, as it was soon called, was formed, with Smith and five others as elders. Outwardly, the structure of the church was ordinary: a pyramid topped by elders, who ordained priests, teachers, and deacons. However, what connected all the parts was Smith’s claim to charismatic leadership, that is, that he had been endowed with divine power. In one of his numerous revelations that informed the doctrine of the church, Smith declared that he was God’s prophet, whose authority to decide for the Latter-Day Saints was not to be questioned. He alone held the keys to the mysteries, for as another revelation disclosed, “No one shall be appointed to received commandments and revelations in this church excepting my servant Joseph Smith, jun.”
Mormon Beliefs. In the 1830s and early 1840s the message of Mormonism was simple: God was speaking through his prophet Joseph Smith. There were three sources for the church’s doctrine: the Bible, The Book of Mormon, and the incontestible revelations of Joseph Smith, which were eventually compiled as Doctrines and Covenants (1835). Since The Book of Mormon had come directly from God, there was no possibility of error. On the other hand, the Bible was susceptible to mistakes in translation, which accounted for any inconsistencies between the two texts. The “articles and covenants” of 1830 contained such familiar theological tenets as faith in Christ, repentance, baptism by immersion, and the laying on of hands for the Holy Spirit. However, these ordinances were only valid if performed by those to whom the dispensation to act in the name of God had been restored, that is, those ordained by Joseph Smith. Membership in the Latter-Day Saints required re-baptism, as an affirmation that the church was the only one favored by God. Everyone else was lost. Other Mormon precepts dispatched the puzzles of the Trinity (how could there be one God divided into three parts?) and the Eucharist (was Christ physically or metaphorically present in the communion elements?)—debates that still divided Christendom. Smith’s answer was to posit an anthropomorphic conception of God and Jesus Christ, who were separate personages of material substance. In his view the idea of a nonmaterial deity was nonsense. Even the Holy Spirit possessed a body, though made of purer stuff than human beings and only discernible by pure eyes.
Kirtland, Ohio. Early members of the church came primarily from the relatives of Smith’s small circle. In 1830 Smith sent missionaries westward to scout for a site for the new Zion. Stopping in Kirtland, in northeastern Ohio, they converted Sidney Rigdon, a former Campbellite minister. Rigdon became one of Smith’s counselors and substantially increased Mormon numbers when he brought his flock of more than one hundred into the fold. Harassed by neighbors in Western New York, the Saints community around Smith moved to join Rigdon in Kirtland in 1831, whereupon they continued to expand and organize. By 1835 nearly two thousand Mormons had gravitated to the area. Although the later success of the church has given its development an aura of inevitability, for many years it seemed entirely possible that the Church of Latter-Day Saints would follow the pattern of other sects in the antebellum era and become a footnote in American religious history. Their sojourn in Ohio came to an abrupt end when a Mormon banking venture collapsed in the financial Panic of 1837. Smith declared Independence as the site of the New Jerusalem, and the Mormons migrated to Missouri. The state was already something of a maelstrom because of slavery, and hostility against the Mormons reached a fever pitch. Smith delivered a Fourth of July oration in 1838 in which he promised vengeance on any who persecuted the Saints. Open warfare broke out; Smith was arrested on charges of treason; and the governor of Missouri declared the Mormons a blight to be exterminated. After six months in jail, Smith escaped. The wearing process of founding a community and then abandoning it continued as the Mormons headed northeast to Illinois.
Nauvoo. On a peninsula jutting out into the Mississippi, the Saints began once more to build Zion, which they called Nauvoo. The elections of 1840 offered an opportunity for the Mormons to achieve some measure of security. Utilizing the weapon of the ballot box, Smith pledged and delivered Mormon support for a gubernatorial candidate in exchange for a city charter, which guaranteed their autonomy. The Mormons promptly began to transform Nauvoo, and by 1844 it was the second largest city in Illinois, with a population of 10,000, not counting outlying Mormon communities. The infusion came partly from immigration. In a daring gamble at a low point in Mormon fortunes, Smith had sent to England seven Apostles from the elite Quorum of Twelve. They had an immediate impact, especially in urban areas, and from 1837 to 1846 about 18,000 Saints were baptized; 4,700 of them journeyed to Nauvoo. Migration compensated for the inevitable falling away of converts after the first blush of excitement. Some of Smith’s earliest followers, including Oliver Cowdery, were excommunicated, often for opposing the Prophet, and former elders, such as John Bennett, became determined enemies. The doctrines revealed by Smith during this time were a key source of division, for Nauvoo marked a new stage in Mormon theology. The Saints became less identifiably Christian and more sui generis. Among the most controversial revelations were baptism for the dead (a vicarious offer of salvation to the deceased); the potential divinity of man, which implied a plurality of gods (though only God the Father was the proper object of human worship); and polygamy (a practice kept secret until 1852).
The Book of Mormon
The Book of Mormon (1830) is a long and extraordinarily complex story, a retelling of God’s plan of salvation with North America at its center. The bulk of the narrative deals with the descendants of an Israelite named Lephi, who received a vision in the sixth century B.C., before the Babylonian captivity, that he was to lead a band out of the desert. Eventually reaching the Indian Ocean, the Israelites constructed a boat and sailed to the west coast of the North American continent. Soon the people divided into warring factions, allied with either Nephi or Laman, the sons of Lephi. The conflict continued for centuries. In the meantime the Nephites met favor in the sight of God, building a flourishing civilization with temples and cities. The Lamanites turned away from God and reverted to warring and hunting. The Lamanites were the ancestors of the Native Americans, cursed by God because of their disobedience. “Wherefore, as they were white, and exceeding fair and delightsome,” the “sin of blackness” was placed upon them. After his resurrection, Jesus Christ appeared to the descendants of Lephi, and for two hundred years all the people lived in idyllic harmony. They strayed again into unrighteousness, and the peace was shattered by internecine war. By the close of the fourth century, the Lamanites were on the verge of eradicating the last of the Nephites, so Mormon, a Nephite prophet-historian, gathered together the ancient records of his people and wrote an abridged account of their history. Mormon instructed his son Moroni to bury the plates on which this scripture was written in a hill called Cumorah (near Palmyra, New York) after the final battle between the Lamanites and the Nephites. Moroni, the only Nephite survivor, added an epitaph on the extermination of his people and then followed his father’s instructions. The plates lay hidden until uncovered by the one who would restore the ancient church: Joseph Smith. Mormon detractors were hard-pressed to account for this six-hundred-page opus, written by a semiliterate man at a pace of three thousand words a day and imitating the style of the King James Bible. For many years opponents attributed the work to one of Smith’s counselors. Sidney Rigdon was an acknowledged biblical scholar, and many non-Mormons thought that he adapted The Book of Mormon from a contemporary fictional tale whose central plot was that one of the lost tribes of Israel had found its way to the American continent. The timing of events discredited this explanation, and what has persisted is an “environmentalist” critique, first proposed by Alexander Campbell and expanded by modern-day analysts. As Campbell expressed it in the Millennial Harbinger of February 1831, The Book of Mormon contained “every error and almost every truth discussed in N. York for the last ten years.” Some of the book’s appeal did draw from its familiarity with great controversies of the day: the origin of the Indians, Free Masonry, anti-Catholicism, national destiny, and, in religion, free will over predestination. Woven throughout its histories of ancient peoples were simple object lessons on why civilizations rose and fell, and their repetition has led the historian Nathan Hatch to characterize The Book of Mormon as a “populist manifesto.” The wrath of God repeatedly struck down proud people who flaunted their wealth and defined success by riches and status, or who claimed authority based on secular learning rather than knowledge of God. Divinely inspired or not, The Book of Mormon was never intended to be a theological tract, nor was it used in an exegetical sense. A companion to the Bible rather than its replacement, the mere existence of a new scripture became the basis for faith. The Book of Mormon was, in a sense, Joseph Smith’s license to serve as Prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Sources The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ, translated by Joseph Smith (Nauvoo, III.: Printed by J. Smith, 1842);
Appeal. In several key ways Mormonism drew from broader sentiments running through antebellum religion. First, American denominationalism had produced what seemed to many as a cacophony of competing churches. Religious freedom may have offered a surfeit of choices for people, with no guarantee except individual conviction that the choice made was the right one. The result was a longing for certainty through the reclamation of the one true church. The Christians and the Disciples of Christ, another movement that blossomed in the West, also sought to reclaim spiritual authority in an age of doctrinal rivalry. Their answer was “no creed but Christ,” giving priority to the individual conscience seeking knowledge and faith through contemplation of the Bible. In contrast to this spiritual restoration of the New Testament church, Mormons believed in a literal restoration. Simply put, God had withdrawn from the churches until the moment when Joseph Smith received his new dispensation. Now only the Mormons possessed the authority to baptize in the name of Christ and to carry out God’s will for humankind. This exclusive claim was joined to a universal appeal—that is, every person was endowed with the free will to decide to become a Saint. For those who searched for religious authority, there was no greater comfort than the belief in the direct revelation of God to the Prophet Joseph. Second, the evangelical thrust of the Second Great Awakening had congealed in a massive reform movement. Mormonism again spoke to the urgent twin concerns of the religious: what must I do to be saved? and, what must I do next? Once embraced by the Latter-Day Saints, a convert immediately set to work on the practical tasks of building the new kingdom of God here and now. Belief followed by action was a common thread in antebellum religion, yet Mormon enterprises offered a structure and direction that was sometimes lacking in the disputatious evangelical united front. Third, The Book of Mormon had “mythic potency,” in the words of the theologian Mircea Eliade, and tantalized those drawn more to the supernatural than the rational. The story that unfolded in this new scripture also provided a biblical history for the Americas, an immensely satisfying account that literally made the West (near Independence, Missouri) the site of Eden and therefore the location of God’s restored kingdom. Given this interpretation, the “new world” now asserted a prior claim over the “old” in God’s great plan of salvation. No other doctrine, secular or religious, had placed American destiny in such a spectacular historical context. Mormons believed that from the moment Columbus set foot on the New World, events had been unfolding to prepare the way for the recovery of the church. Even independence from Great Britain had occurred so that Joseph Smith would be able to claim his mantle as Prophet. For those uncertain of the future of the American experiment within the great sweep of human history, here was a religious assurance of its necessary continuance. Finally, Mormonism was a religious expression of the Jacksonian credo of the common man. Anyone could be granted the gift of revelation within their sphere of relations (individuals for themselves, fathers for their households, and bishops for their wards), though only the Prophet could speak for the whole church. All worthy males, except for blacks, who bore the “mark of Cain,” could be ordained to the lay priesthood. The prerequisite for advancement was unquestioned loyalty to Smith and demonstrated merit of some kind. Ordinary people who had been denied access to upward mobility may have found that “sainthood” offered better opportunities for empowerment. Further, as expounded by Smith in Nauvoo, Mormonism asserted that all beings evolved, including God. By following the pathways of righteousness, true Saints could advance after death to a celestial stage and continue to grow in the faith until they themselves attained godhood. This celebration of the infinite potential of man was captured in Smith’s maxim: “As man is, God once was; as God is, man may become.”
Death of the Prophet. In 1844 visitors to Nauvoo would have seen a neat, bustling town, with sawmills, flour mills, a tool factory, a foundry, a chinaware factory, and, in the center, an unfinished yet clearly ambitious temple. However, jealousies again began to mount, as non-Mormon merchants and developers in the surrounding areas saw themselves shut out from the benefits of Nauvoo growth. Illinois politicians had been willing to use Mormon bloc voting, but suddenly they perceived it as a dangerous corruption of democratic politics. Residents felt threatened by Mormon expansion, and rumors of the Saints’ bizarre beliefs exacerbated public hostility. Especially in the communities surrounding Nauvoo, there were several instances of petty violence, theft of property, and harassment. Given the various sources of public antagonism, it is questionable whether the persecution can be considered strictly religious. Mormons were not passive victims, and the violence between Mormons and non-Mormons was typical of the antebellum West. The Danites, formed in 1838, were a formidable group of avenging Mormons who followed the dictum of an eye for an eye. The Nauvoo Whittling and Whistling Brigade, created for Mormon youth in 1844 also engaged in retributive activities. The Nauvoo Legion consisted of two thousand troops, which Smith enjoyed parading in formation as a not-too-subtle reminder of strength. Both sides justified the use of force, creating a volatile situation even under normal circumstances. During 1844 Smith sent some of his Apostles to the East to construct a foundation for a presidential bid—an alarming suggestion of combined religious and political ambitions. Meanwhile, in Nauvoo a group of disaffected Mormons published an anti-Mormon newspaper, whereupon Smith sent representatives to confiscate all copies and destroy the printing office. The dissidents swore out a complaint against Smith at the county seat of Carthage. Smith submitted to a trial in Nauvoo before a sympathetic, if non-Mormon, judge, and the court declared him innocent. Enraged, the adversaries of the Saints appealed to the governor, who ordered Smith to comply with the original warrant. Smith declared martial law and mobilized the legion. Illinois militia groups, empowered by the governor, advanced on the town, so Smith, his brother Hiram, and two other Mormon leaders placed themselves in custody. At Carthage the governor did nothing to quench the rising anti-Mormon hysteria, and in fact left the town and the Mormons to the mercy of state militia. On the evening of 27 June 1844, a group calling themselves the Carthage Greys stormed the jail, shot Hiram and Joseph Smith to death, and then beat a hasty retreat.
Succession. The Saints mourned the loss of the Prophet and faced a crucial turning point in their restoration of the Church of Jesus Christ. No provision had been made for succession. However, Brigham Young’s unflagging loyalty to Joseph Smith had made him first among the Apostles. Raised in a strict Methodist family in Vermont, Young was also among the disenchanted of the Second Great Awakening, drawn to Mormonism by his devotion to Joseph Smith and by the practical orientation of the faith. His conversion to Mormonism brought to the Saints a man of incredible organizational skill. While Joseph had the ability to inspire, Young had a gift for putting ideas into action. A remarkable individual in his own right, he asserted himself only as the divine designee of Joseph Smith. When Young offered his leadership to the assembled Saints in August 1844, many there swore that his “form, size, countenance, and voice” were that of Smith. The Prophet had passed the scepter to Young directly. (After Young’s death in 1877, succession became a matter of seniority rather than a manifestation of prophecy.) The emergence often or so splinter groups, each claiming to have inherited Smith’s authority, belied the seeming ease of the transfer of power. Only the Reorganized Church of Latter-Day Saints constituted a permanent alternative to “Brighamism.” Among its members were Emma, Joseph’s wife, and her son Joseph III, who became the church’s leader when he came of age. Centered in the Midwest, the reorganized church eventually rejected all of the Nauvoo teachings, including the exclusion of blacks from the priesthood.
Westward Immigration. For a time after the death of Smith, Young turned the attention of the Saints to the completion of the temple, for it was only there that the sacred rites enjoined by the Prophet could be performed. In 1845 the Illinois legislature revoked the Nauvoo charter. Young and the Twelve Apostles recognized that the time had come to seek the protection of an isolated setting, a project that Smith had begun investigating several years before. After examining the report of the explorer John C. Fremont, Young decided that the arid Salt Lake valley, a neglected possession of the independent Mexican state, would not be a pearl coveted by other settlers. Although Young had hoped for an orderly departure, stepped-up harassment prompted a more precipitated evacuation, which occurred in waves from February 1846 until the fall. The Mormons had to leave many possessions behind and sold land and goods for well below market value. As 12,000 Saints straggled across 120 miles of Iowa, Young halted the migratory stream near present-day Omaha to wait out the winter. Meanwhile, he prepared the Mormons for the thousand-mile journey ahead to the Salt Lake valley. It was an organizational tour de force. Young divided the emigrant families into groups
of tens, fifties, and hundreds, assigned leaders to each unit, and ensured that each company had the necessary supplies and survival skills. In April 1847 a pioneer contingent, streamlined for speed, traversed the little-known territory to the Salt Lake valley in three months. Young left instructions on settlement and headed back to guide ten more companies to the new Zion. In the analysis of the historian Jan Shipps, the rigorous trek forged the Mormons into a people, imbued with a selfconscious identity that set them apart from the Gentiles, or non-Mormons. With Young’s encouragement, the exodus and its trials became a transformative Exodus event in Mormon consciousness. Thereafter, the Saints commemorated the parallels between their journey and that of the ancient Hebrews: like them, the Mormons had been led by a Moses through a wilderness to a promised land.
Salt Lake Valley. In contrast to the gradual and often haphazard gathering of other Western settlements, the entire community of Mormons was transplanted and nearly operational within months of their arrival in the Great Basin. The precise layout of Salt Lake City mirrored the comprehensiveness of the church’s control over everyday affairs. At the center of the city was the site for the temple (not completed until the end of the century), and from it streets radiated out in graphlike fashion. The area was divided into ten-acre blocks, which in turn were partitioned into eight lots of one-and-one-quarter acre each. Sidewalks were laid twenty feet from the street, and houses had to be set back another twenty feet from the sidewalk. The migration had reinforced the mandate of obedience upon the Saints, and everyone had a role in the building of the kingdom. The Council of Fifty, now the de facto governing body, organized the settlement into wards, or congregations, of seventy to one hundred families. The “bishop” in charge, appointed by the church hierarchy, was often the same leader who had brought the group across the desert. The bishop’s functions were both temporal and spiritual and included oversight of schools, worship, provisions for the poor, and public works. Through his office the council regulated the disparate communities. The Mormons had experimented with communal ownership in Kirtland, following precepts in the Book of Enoch. Since then the leadership had pursued a course of directed growth through cooperative enterprise. Brigham Young was less interested in promoting a particular economic system than in shielding the Saints from the speculation and commercial preoccupations that had distracted them in the past. Yet the environment encouraged central planning in the management of the scarce resources of water and timber. At the ward level, the mandatory tithe continued the communal ideal. Each family had to contribute one-tenth of its livestock, grain, flour, butter, eggs, vegetables, and commodities to a storehouse for distribution to the poor or for times of shortage.
Polygamy. In 1852 Brigham Young publicly announced the revelation that had been kept secret since 1843: plural marriage (the “Order of Jacob”) was a holy rite incumbent on the Saints whom the leaders deemed worthy of the privilege. Elder Heber C. Kimball was the most dedicated practitioner in Mormon history, with more than forty wives, and Young himself had more than twenty wives. Such numbers were the exception. During the fifty years that the Order of Jacob was in force, the vast majority of Mormons were monogamous, and plural unions frequently involved no more than two wives. Despite the relatively small percentage of participants, polygamy was a continued source of outrage to non-Mormons. Critics pointed to it as proof that Smith was a false prophet—that he indulged his lust under the guise of religious commandment. The high divorce rate during Young’s leadership in Utah, as well as the lower birth rates in plural marriages, testified to the strains of polygamous unions, especially for first wives. Regardless, women not only acquiesced to the practice but defended it, convinced that their demonstration of piety would yield the highest exaltation in the next life. Certainly polygamy strengthened the Mormon sense of difference from surrounding society. However, the reaction of Emma, Joseph’s wife, maybe taken as an indication of its controversial nature for even the firmest believer. Smith was apparently “sealed” in marriage to as many as forty-eight women, though only a handful of these may have been physical relationships. Emma allegedly burned the first record of the revelation on plural marriage. Not only did she never accept it, she initially counseled women against it and later denied that Joseph had had other wives.
Native Americans. As Mormon colonists began to move into areas contiguous to Salt Lake City, they encroached further on tribal lands, especially those of the Utes. The result was periodic armed conflict, until the U.S. Army solved the problem by forcing the indigenous peoples of the region onto reservations in the late 1850s. In Mormon eschatology, the conversion of the Native Americans was an essential prerequisite to the Second Coming, but the construction of Zion preoccupied the Saints more than the conversion of the Indians. Despite the inclusion of the Indians in the Mormon worldview, Mormon missionaries expressed the same mandate as their Protestant counterparts: to educate the “despised and degraded sons of the forest” in “the arts of civil life … principles and practice of virtue, modesty, temperance, cleanliness, industry, mechanical arts, manners, customs, dress, music.” The Mormon appeal included the notion that the Indians’ acceptance of The Book of Mormon was the means by which they would once again become great, “and have plenty to eat and good clothes to wear, and should be in favor with the Great Spirit.” Young pragmatically decided that it was easier to feed and clothe the Indians than to eradicate them, but benevolence gave way before the priority of protecting the Saints. Ultimately, therefore, there was little noticeable difference in the Indian policies of Mormons and non-Mormons.
Prosperity and Growth. Migration had stripped the Mormons of much of the wealth accumulated at Nauvoo, but the Mexican War provided an opportunity to recoup some losses. President James Polk had welcomed a force of 500 Mormons who volunteered for Col. Stephen Kearny’s expedition to California. Although they saw no action, the wages of the recruits added nearly $70,000 to the church’s coffers. Since the death of the Prophet Joseph, competing factions had whittled away at the membership of the official church; after migration, the forbidding Utah Basin and the lure of California gold drove others to seek more hospitable climes. Once again, strong missionary drives overseas replenished the Saints. By 1845 nearly 2,000 young men had set out as proselytes. The church established a Perpetual Emigrating Fund to provide loans to emigrants. Between 1852 and 1855, 10,000 migrants received its assistance. Of the 22,000 converts traveling to the Salt Lake valley through 1855, 19,500 were from Great Britain, 2,000 were Scandinavians, and the rest were French, Italians, and Germans. Brigham Young acknowledged in 1855 that many of the newcomers were “actuated by no other motive than to have the privilege of being removed from their oppressed condition to where they will not suffer.” Even so, the practical prophet instructed church agents to recruit skilled workers, especially in the iron and textile industries, for the voyage to the United States. By the mid 1850s the burgeoning flock had become somewhat unruly. Young’s counselor called for a Reformation to wake up the Saints and exhort them to keep their covenants. Bishops went from house to house to remind ward members that their personal cleanliness and the tidiness of their homes were necessary for spiritual purity. Missionaries also visited the congregations and, in revival fashion, roused the people with impassioned sermons. To some the reports of visions and speaking in tongues seemed evidence of success, but one bishop preferred to define “reformation” as “good fences, clean streets, debts paid, tithing receipts.”
Deseret. In 1849 the Council of Fifty converted the Mormon colony into the State of Deseret, complete with a ratified constitution and currency. Deseret encompassed 210,000 square miles at the farthest communities and included present-day Nevada, Western Utah, southern parts of Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon, and most of southern California. The Mormons lobbied the federal government to accept Deseret as a new state, but instead, in the Compromise of 1850, the United States Congress delineated the area as Utah Territory. This meant federal governance, but Mormons were relieved when President Millard Fillmore named Brigham Young as the first territorial governor. For several years there was little outside intervention in Mormon affairs, though relations with federal appointees were often bitter. Then in 1856 the Republican Party platform declared opposition to “twin relics of barbarism—slavery and polygamy.” Because of the public outciy President James Buchanan felt pressured to replace Young as governor and tame Mormon resistance to federal authority. In 1857 he mustered a force of 2,500 men, but the Utah expedition was something of a fiasco from the start. Regardless, the Mormons reacted to federal intervention as a hostile invasion, and by the fall they had fortified the mountain passes and burned their supply forts. Their exaggerated fears led to the Mountain Meadows Massacre in August 1857, in which a combined force of 54 Mormons and 300 Ute allies attacked and killed 120 members of a wagon train of California-bound settlers. The massacre was a rallying cry for Mormon opposition throughout the century since it seemed to prove the callous disdain Mormons felt for Gentiles. While winter storms halted the expedition in the Rocky Mountains, Young recognized that it was counterproductive to take on the U.S. government, so he indicated his willingness to negotiate. Buchanan was receptive, given the mounting opposition to the campaign’s costs and its ominous implications for states’ rights. In 1858 the president granted the Mormons a full pardon; the new territorial governor was installed without incident; and the army set up camp forty
miles outside of Salt Lake City to ensure the peace. When they left in 1861, with the outbreak of the Civil War, the Mormons could claim to have gotten the best of the deal in the profits they made from trade with the army. Moreover, in the initial panic over rumors of invasion, Young had responded by gathering in all the outlying settlements. The episode thus served as a timely and compelling reminder for the Mormons of their unified identity in the face of an unfriendly world.
Conclusion. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was a recognizable product of the nineteenth-century milieu from which it emerged. As the New England poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote in 1845, “They speak a language of hope and promise to weak, weary hearts, tossed and troubled, who have wandered from sect to sect, seeking in vain for the primal manifestation of the divine power.” Nor could the Mormons ultimately escape the economic and intellectual influences of the surrounding culture. As the historian Sidney Ahlstrom has observed, by the end of the nineteenth century “a strait-laced kind of prosperity and stability had replaced enthusiasm and millennial expectation as the leitmotiv of Mormon life.” Yet the Mormons were also something completely original. In their secular organization they seemed to assail the separation of church and state enshrined in American religious liberty, creating instead a political, theological, and economic nexus of unprecedented scale. In their beliefs they tested the boundaries of the new nation’s commitment to religious toleration. The Mormon challenge to antebellum orthodoxy was vigorous and successful, suggesting to the Christian establishment that neither reason nor providence could eradicate human delusion.
Leonard Arrington and Davis Bitton, The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-Day Saints (New York: Knopf, 1979);
John L. Brooke, The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644–1844 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994);
Mario S. De Pillis, “The Quest for Religious Authority and the Rise of Mormonism,” Dialogue, 1 (Fall 1966): 68-88;
Jan Shipps, Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985).