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Religion Library: Mormonism

Early Developments

Written by: Stephen Taysom

The main body of Mormons, both those fleeing Missouri and those coming from Kirtland, spent the winter of 1838-1839 in the city of Quincy, Illinois, until Joseph Smith founded yet another city, this time on the banks of the Mississippi River in western Illinois. Smith arranged to purchase 18,000 acres of land in Hancock County, Illinois, and Lee County, Iowa.  The Mormons purchased a small town called Commerce on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River, and made it the focal point of their new settlement effort. Joseph Smith re-christened the town Nauvoo, which Smith suggested was a Hebrew name denoting a place of rest or refreshing.

Having learned from experiences in Missouri, Smith sought, and was granted, significant judicial and political power over his new settlement. The secure environment allowed Mormonism to expand and develop theologically and politically. In the years between 1839, when the Mormons arrived in Nauvoo, and 1844, when Smith was murdered, he introduced polygamy, eternal marriage, the temple endowment, the secret Council of Fifty, and ran for president of the United States. The Church also continued its tradition of newspaper publishing with the religiously oriented Times and Seasons and the more politically inclined Mormon Wasp and the Nauvoo Neighbor.

A newspaper led to Smith's downfall.  Dissidents in Nauvoo who objected to his growing political power and disturbing new doctrines like polygamy published a call for reform in the Nauvoo Expositor.  Fearing it would rile the growing number of opponents outside the city, Smith and the city council closed the paper.  Outraged at this affront, his enemies had him arrested.  While awaiting trial in nearby Carthage, he was killed by a mob.

Smith's murder in 1844 did not placate the Mormons' enemies.  Faced with the threat of invasion and violent expulsion, the Mormons agreed to leave Nauvoo by the fall of 1845 at the request of representatives of the state of Illinois. Under the leadership of Brigham Young, the Mormons began leaving Nauvoo in February 1846. In July 1847, Brigham Young and his vanguard pioneer company entered the valley of the Great Salt Lake in what was to become Utah territory.

From 1847 until 1890, the Mormons prospered in the Great Basin as their settlements spread into Idaho, Arizona, California, Mexico, and Canada. Plural marriage, practiced openly in Mormon settlements after 1852, eventually drew criticism and legal action. After years of attempting to establish their constitutional right to practice polygamy, the Mormons finally disavowed the practice in 1890, although it would continue to be practiced in some quarters until the second decade of the 20th century. With the turn of the new century, Mormons gained entry into the mainstream of American society, and gradually overcame their identity as alien outsiders.

Study Questions:
1.     How is it argued that Mormonism was formed out of divine guidance?
2.     Who was Moroni? What did he offer?
3.     Describe the relationship between sacred space and the origins of Mormonism.
4.     Explain the role of the media in creating controversy for the Mormon faith.


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