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Religion Library: Mormonism

Exploration and Conquest

Written by: Stephen Taysom

Early Mormonism was a peripatetic sect. Between 1830 and 1847, the LDS headquarters moved from its birthplace in New York to Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, and the Great Basin area of the American west in rather rapid succession. During the Church's time in the east and midwest, its members remained a minority group and suffered a great deal of violent persecution and cultural disapprobation. Conflicts were particularly intense during the years that Mormonism struggled to establish settlements in Missouri and Illinois.

Between 1831 and 1838, Mormons built and were forced to abandon several settlements, including those at Independence, Far West, and Adam Ondi Ahman. Non-Mormon settlers in these areas disliked Mormon rhetoric and feared the power that Mormons wielded in politics and economics when they voted, bought, and sold, as part of a united bloc.

When the Mormons settled in western Illinois, Joseph Smith sought to ensure a greater degree of autonomy, insularity, and tranquility by seeking a city charter for his settlement at Nauvoo. The Nauvoo charter granted Smith sufficient power to control all administrative and judicial elements of city government. Conflict eventually arose in Nauvoo too, however, stemming externally from jealousy of growing Mormon political power and internally from antipathy to Smith's secret practice of plural marriage. Dissenters started a newspaper, the Expositor, which publicly accused Joseph Smith of sexual impropriety and labeled him a fallen prophet. In response, and with the backing of the Nauvoo city council, Joseph Smith ordered the newspaper's printing press destroyed. Shortly after these events, Smith was arrested on related charges and taken to jail in Carthage, the seat of Hancock county. On June 27, 1844, Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were murdered in the Carthage Jail by a mob. The Mormon settlers of Nauvoo were forced to flee in the years immediately following the murder.

In 1847, a large body of Mormons followed Brigham Young to the West, where they hoped to live in isolation and to practice their religion without interference from outsiders. The Mormons arrived in what would become Utah territory in July 1847, and immediately began mapping and settling towns throughout the Great Basin. Settling in an area that was not held by a single Native American tribe, but that was a buffer between three separate tribes, Mormons and Native Americans coexisted peacefully. Brigham Young originally proposed that a Mormon-dominated area stretching from Idaho to San Diego, California, be admitted to the U.S. as the state of Deseret. This proposal was rejected, and the Mormons ended up settling for a much smaller area that was admitted as the state of Utah in 1896.

In the 19th century, the national press and the American imagination frequently portrayed Utah as a theocracy in which LDS Church leaders ruled in the fashion of the sultans and caliphs that Americans knew about from sensationalized accounts of visits to the near east. Central to this image was the practice of polygamy, which the Mormons openly practiced after 1852.


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