The martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith at Carthage, Illinois, on 27 June 1844 precipitated a succession crisis in the Church. The Prophet Joseph Smith, youthful and robust and with a history of escaping from perilous predicaments, was gone. Understandably, some Church members wondered if the dynamic leader could be replaced.
The succession crisis was partially defused when the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, upon hearing of the tragedy at Carthage, quickly returned to Nauvoo, Illinois, from their missions in the eastern United States. Within days of their return, Church members politely listened to the pleas of would-be leaders like Sidney Rigdon but overwhelmingly voted to sustain the Quorum of the Twelve, headed by President Brigham Young, as their presiding leaders.
Sustained by their fellow Saints, President Young and the Twelve moved quickly. They had two main priorities: (1) complete the Nauvoo Temple so the Saints could receive their endowments; and (2) plan the western exodus. By December 1845 the temple was sufficiently completed that ordinance work could begin. All together, nearly 6,000 Saints gratefully participated in endowment services before commencing their western journey.1 The completion of the temple amid hostile surroundings was regarded by many of the brethren as an answer to earnest prayer. “Many times we [the Twelve] do not go to bed until three o’clock in the morning,” observed Elder Heber C. Kimball, “calling on the Father in the name of Jesus, to protect us, until that house shall be built.”2
The great exodus westward from Nauvoo began in wintry February 1846. Why? Certainly the Saints felt pressured by their enemies to leave Nauvoo, but they didn’t need to leave until spring. The main reason President Young started the exodus early was to send an advance party of 300 men to the central Rocky Mountains that very year, a group that ideally would be there in sufficient time to plant crops by late summer. But within weeks, President Young reluctantly concluded that it was not feasible.
Practically speaking, the Saints were “rained out.” Expecting to cross the 300-mile expanse that was Iowa Territory in less than two months, the plucky but exhausted Saints spent nearly four months trudging over (or through) trails that had become quagmires of mud. Of necessity, some 12,000 to 15,000 Latter-day Saints spent the winter of 1846–47 shivering in sundry encampments that stretched from Nauvoo to the Missouri River. The majority eventually encamped at Winter Quarters, Nebraska, and Kanesville, Iowa—in hastily constructed settlements on the west and east banks of the Missouri River. Hundreds died during this grueling and trying time.
In April 1847 the first pioneer company from Winter Quarters headed west for the Great Basin, located outside of the early boundaries of the United States. The well-organized Saints, heeding instructions given by revelation through President Young and having covenanted to “keep all the commandments … of the Lord” (D&C 136:2), had a relatively uneventful journey of three months. The route they followed became known as the Mormon Trail because for more than 23 years some 70,000 Latter-day Saints made their way to Zion over this route. It became their pathway from persecution, the path to the promised land.
Even before the Saints left Nauvoo, President Young knew their eventual refuge would be in the central Rockies, no farther north than Bear River Valley (the current Utah-Idaho border area) and no farther south than Utah Valley (around Utah Lake).3 However, a good many of the Saints were unsure as to their exact destination. From whence did President Young obtain his knowledge? Primarily, he knew their destination as a result of personal revelation. In addition, he had studied the journals of western explorers for some months—perhaps even years—and he had conversed thoroughly about the subject with the Prophet Joseph Smith and others. He said that the pioneers had come “according to the direction and counsel of Brother Joseph, before his death.”4
Interestingly, as that first group of pioneers journeyed along the trail, a good many of them were unsure of their exact destination. To those who openly inquired about their final stopping place, Elder Erastus Snow of the Quorum of the Twelve shared the guarded but serenely confident words of Brigham Young: “I will show you when we come to it. … I have seen it in vision, and when my natural eyes behold it, I shall know it.”5 Earlier, while in the Nauvoo Temple, President Young had received a vision wherein he saw the Prophet Joseph point to a particular mountaintop with an ensign flying above it and instruct the Saints “to build under the point where the colors fall.” Shortly after this visionary experience, President Young declared, “I know where the spot is” and “I [know] how to make the flag.”6
On 23 July 1847, at the top of Big Mountain, Brigham Young confirmed this destiny. As he glimpsed a portion of the valley floor for the first time, he noted, the “spirit of Light rested on me and hovered over the valley, and I felt that there the Saints would find protection and safety.”7 Upon entering the valley the next day, 24 July, President Young said of the hill later named Ensign Peak, “I feel fully satisfied that that was the point shown me in the vision.”8 Two days later and still weak from the effects of mountain fever, President Young insisted on climbing Ensign Peak with the Apostles. On the 28th of July, he testified that this view of the valley and the peak confirmed his earlier visionary view—a remarkable confirmation that the Saints were in the right place: “I knew this spot as soon as I saw it.”9
The Saints called their new city Great Salt Lake City, Great Basin, North America. The area was an ill-defined portion of Mexican Territory a thousand miles from civilization. Following the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, which ceded the large tract of land that is now the southwestern portion of the United States, the Saints applied for statehood. While waiting for federal approval, they established the provisional State of Deseret. The Saints’ petition was not granted, and with the vast borders of the State of Deseret sheared considerably, Congress created Utah Territory.
Compared to more hospitable areas—such as California and the Willamette Valley in Oregon—Utah left much to be desired. As one historian noted, “The Willamette Valley is a mild land that wants to be a forest. Utah is a harsh land that wants to be a desert.” Temperatures could be extreme, and native plants were bunch grass, rabbit grass, and sagebrush rather than forests. It rained about 15 inches a year in the valleys, necessitating the use of dams and ditches for irrigation.10 No question about it—for an area as large as the Great Basin, there were comparatively few fertile niches.
But to focus on the land is to miss the point. For Latter-day Saints, the earth was the Lord’s—the Saints were but temporary stewards (see D&C 104:13, 54–56). One day after arriving in the valley, President Young clarified land policy: “No man should buy or sell land. Every man should have his land measured off to him for city and farming purposes, what[ever] he could till. He might till it as he pleased, but he should be industrious and take care of it.”11 Farm plots were about 5 or 10 acres in size. There were no real estate developers to be found, no speculators monopolizing access to streams, wood, or timber. The water master, often a bishop, regulated the use of irrigation water.12 It was an orderly system that placed a premium on community cooperation.
For President Young, perhaps the most attractive feature about the landscape was that others found it comparatively unattractive and therefore chose to settle elsewhere. In truth, isolation was a necessary condition for successful settlement of the Latter-day Saints. Church members had been pillaged in the past, and President Young feared that living in close proximity to others would in due time result in Missouri or Nauvoo revisited. In addition, they had enough good soil, enough mountain streams, and enough timber to get by. The growing season in most regions was sufficiently long. Clay beds supplied adobe for home construction, and there was plenty of salt and coal.13 Besides, an occasional environmental challenge, if not overly severe, could “strengthen the soul.” Overall, President Young rejoiced that it was “a first-rate place to raise Latter-day Saints.”14
Raising Saints, of course, was a fundamental and integral part of President Young’s life work—that of building Zion. This staggering responsibility could be broken down into four components: first, preaching the gospel to the ends of the earth; second, gathering the Saints to their newly founded Rocky Mountain refuge; third, settling the Saints in colonies throughout the Great Basin; and fourth, creating communities of faith.
Missionary work, of course, had been a paramount responsibility from the inception of the Restoration. The message conveyed by early missionaries to all within earshot was simple: (1) God had spoken in these latter days to a prophet named Joseph Smith; (2) through the instrumentality of Joseph Smith, the Lord had brought forth additional scripture and had restored His Church; and (3) all who embraced the gospel needed to gather with other Saints in order to build Zion.
By the late 1840s and early 1850s, Latter-day Saint missionaries extended their fields of labor beyond the United States, Canada, and Europe to Latin America, the Pacific Islands, India, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and Asia. Between 1855 and 1864, more than 400 missionaries were sent out, most going to European nations. Through the years, the number of missionaries increased, and in the 1880s more than 2,300 missionaries were called to serve. In the decade between 1890 and 1900, more than 6,000 missionaries were called, and several new missions were created.15
Once people accepted the gospel, the all-consuming task was to get them to Zion. The majority of converts were poor, making emigration a challenge, and over the years hundreds of converts must have asked, “How shall I gather?” Fortunately, the determination of converts to get to Zion was matched only by the determination of Church leaders to help them get there.16 Whether by sailing ship, wagon train, handcart, steamship, or, after 1869, by railroad, immigrating Saints were assisted by the Brethren. Of all the grand designs devised by President Young and others to aid the immigration, perhaps the most effective and best known was the Perpetual Emigrating Fund (PEF). This revolving fund helped more than 100,000 Saints migrate to Zion during its 38-year history, from 1849 to 1887. Of this number, some 40,000 to 50,000 received financial assistance from the PEF.17
Once converts arrived in the valley, they often did not stay for long. In many cases, by as early as the next spring, they had been called to be part of a colonizing company to found a new town or settlement. These communities were almost exclusively located in valleys along a narrow north-south strip parallel to the mountains of Utah Territory.18
Some colonies, like Fort Limhi in central Idaho, were founded primarily to do missionary work among Native Americans; others, like the Iron Mission in Cedar City, Utah, were founded mainly to produce essential goods that would help bring about self-sufficiency. Others settled in the saline and parched desert region of southern Utah, including those who somehow cut and crept their way through the precipitous Hole-in-the-Rock to settle the San Juan Mission.19
By the end of the century, the colonization period of Latter-day Saint history had ended, but not without leaving a legacy—a string of settlements and towns, more than 500 in number, extending from Alberta, Canada, to Chihuahua, Mexico.20
Those people who lived over a century ago and passed on such a legacy of faith and devotion were in many respects not so different from us. They exercised their agency and earnestly tried to live worthy lives. Most of their worship patterns and many of their social patterns revolved around the ward. Indeed, in 19th-century Utah, the ward served as religious hub, political forum, community and recreational outlet, and humanitarian center.21
To care for the varied needs of ward members, 19th-century Church presidents established a number of new auxiliary organizations. Richard Ballantyne organized the first Sunday School for youth in 1849. The Relief Society for women was reorganized in 1867 under Eliza R. Snow. Society sisters helped their bishops with charitable projects and home industry. In subsequent years, auxiliaries were created for young women (the Young Ladies’ Retrenchment Association in 1869—later renamed the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association in 1877), for young men (Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association in 1875), and for children (the Primary Association in 1878). All such organizations, though altered somewhat to meet changing circumstances, have continued to wield a positive influence on Latter-day Saints to the present time.
As it is today, temple worship was the apex of pioneer Saints’ religious experience. Within just four days of his arrival in the valley in 1847, President Young selected a site for the Salt Lake Temple. To build such an imposing structure in this remote area must have struck outsiders as daring. Indeed, it took “daring and skill to conceive and begin such a structure early in the stage of settlement.”22 Dedicated in 1893, it was the last to be completed of the four temples built in pioneer Utah; temples in St. George, Logan, and Manti were already in use. In addition to serving the spiritual needs of present-day Church members, these four temples today stand as monuments to the rugged but deeply ingrained spirituality of three generations of Latter-day Saints.
Through the years Church members had to work through challenges with neighbors. If the neighbors happened to be fellow Church members, the problems were generally settled agreeably by block teachers (now called home teachers) and bishops. If the problems were with Native Americans, the solutions were more difficult to come by. Most historians agree that Latter-day Saints diligently tried to coexist peacefully with local Indian tribes and generally succeeded. However, despite operating with pure intentions, by settling on lands claimed or frequented by American Indians, Church members did sometimes conflict with the Indians.23
In early 1857, a serious challenge to peace in Utah came when false reports of a Latter-day Saint rebellion reached Washington, D.C. In response, President James Buchanan sent troops led by Albert S. Johnston to Salt Lake City to replace President Young as governor. The Saints buried the foundation of the temple, and most families fled south to Utah Valley. Fortunately warfare was averted, and the families returned, but uneasy feelings remained.
Over the years, tensions mounted with non-LDS immigrants who began arriving in greater numbers after the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. For the most part, from the earliest days of the Restoration, mutual distrust had characterized relationships between Latter-day Saints and non–Latter-day Saints. Church members rightly pointed out that they had left New York under some duress and had been booted out of Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois—sometimes in brutal and inhumane fashion. Indeed, viewing the broad spectrum of their history, it is clear that Latter-day Saints chose to relinquish their individual rights and move to a new region rather than risk all-out civil war with its resultant bloodshed.24
Many who were not of the LDS faith could not abide LDS belief in prophets, angelic visitors, additional scripture, and golden plates. They were unsympathetic with LDS attempts to create a society where individual freedoms would be compromised by the needs of the broader community.25 In Utah, non–Latter-day Saints objected to the strong Church-influenced political system, the block voting tendencies, the cooperative economic practices, and especially the practice of plural marriage. To them, all such systems and practices seemed un-American.
By the end of President Young’s administration in 1877, it was clear that his desire for an independent Latter-day Saint society would of necessity give way to greater integration with the larger American community.26 The most unrelenting pressure on Saints to change their economic, political, and social practices took place during the administration of President John Taylor in the 1880s.27 Gradually accommodations were made to the larger American culture. President Wilford Woodruff succeeded President Taylor and after considerable soul-searching and divine direction issued the Manifesto in 1890, declaring an end to the practice of plural marriage. By the 1880s and 1890s, it was clear that Church members were becoming more integrated into the freewheeling American capitalistic system. In this same era, competing national political parties replaced the former Latter-day Saint versus non–Latter-day Saint political alignments.28
Truly the era of 1844–98 was a time of continued growth, while also a time of resolving external conflicts and eliminating or altering some practices in order to gain acceptance in American society. It was an era that brought peace. On 4 January 1896, Utah became the 45th state of the United States. This step essentially brought an end to an era. Consider the following. First, while the Saints never did reach the level of independence and self-sufficiency that President Young desired, his overall plan for community development was successful. Starting in a less-than-hospitable land, the Saints had by the mid-1850s established urban centers, settled thousands of newcomers in outlying colonies, and begun a working economy. By first creating an agricultural base, then branching into small manufacturing and the mining of lead and coal, President Young created an infrastructure that, according to one noted historian, “could offer much to those in developing nations around the world today.”29
Second, after the Saints were forcibly expelled from Missouri and Nauvoo, an initial period of separation was important to heal wounds and regain spiritual equilibrium. The Saints had needed and found a place of refuge. They could tell members in England or Scandinavia or elsewhere that they could make it because they had found a land “where none shall come to hurt or make afraid.”30
Third, this period of isolation likely permitted the physical survival of the kingdom. It was those successive waves of immigrant Saints who provided the numbers and the technical skills necessary to colonize remote regions.31
Fourth, the common goal of creating Zion cultivated a sense of purpose. “Without the build up of Zion as both symbol of achievement and nerve center,” it has been argued, “Mormonism might have lost its sense of destiny.”32 As converts gathered from an array of nations, Latter-day Saints came to see themselves as “peculiar people” with a worldwide mission. And in spite of beginning to blend in more with the larger American culture in the late 19th century, the Latter-day Saint sense of distinctiveness and mission survived intact.
Fifth, the “wilderness period” produced a community consciousness that united Latter-day Saints of various backgrounds and still lives on today. When Elders Erastus Snow and Franklin D. Richards traveled to Cedar City in 1852 to ascertain just why the Iron Mission was floundering, they reported finding “a Scotch party, a Welch party, an English party, and an American party,” but optimistically noted that “we turned Iron Masters and undertook to put all these parties through the furnace, and run out a party of Saints for building up the Kingdom of God.”33 Interestingly, President Young’s iron project ultimately failed, as did some others, but the spirit of cooperation engendered by such projects fostered an enduring sense of community.
These qualities—a sense of mission, cohesiveness of faith, community consciousness—are among the important legacies we have inherited from those who left Nauvoo and built their homes and their temples in the tops of the mountains (see Isa. 2:2; Micah 4:1). Well over a century later, present-day Latter-day Saints maintain the vision of these LDS pioneers, build on their foundations, and continue their good works in extending the gospel kingdom—a kingdom that “shall never be destroyed” but “shall stand for ever” (Dan. 2:44; see also D&C 65:2).