Chapter 6: The Church in Missouri

"Chapter 6: The Church in Missouri," Truth Restored, (2001)

We return to the year 1831. Western Missouri was then a beautiful prairie country of rolling hills and wooded valleys. Its rich soil, pleasing contour, and tolerable climate made it a land of great opportunity. It was only sparsely settled; for instance, Independence, the seat of Jackson County, had only a courthouse, two or three general stores, and a few homes, most of them log cabins.

Joseph Smith indicated to his people that in this area, midway between the Atlantic and the Pacific, they should build their Zion, a city of God.

Their missionaries to the Indians had returned with reports of the nature of the country, and in July 1831, the first group of Saints arrived in western Missouri. About sixty of them had come in a body from Colesville, New York. Twelve miles west of Independence, in what is now part of Kansas City, they laid the foundations of a settlement.

The City of Zion

Other members of the Church soon followed. Joseph Smith, who was then in Missouri, declared that they should acquire by purchase sufficient land that they might live together as a people. He pointed out the site on which they should build a beautiful temple, dedicated to God as his holy house. This should become the crowning glory of the city of Zion.

The Prophet also designed the city. His was a novel and significant concept in civic planning. There would be none of the slums and blighted areas so characteristic of the cities of that day. Nor, on the other hand, would the farmer’s family live isolated and alone. This city was to be a mile square, divided into blocks of ten acres with streets 132 feet wide. The center blocks were to be reserved for public buildings. Barns, stables, and farms were to be on the lands adjoining the city. “The tiller of the soil as well as the merchant and mechanic will live in the city,” the Prophet said. “The farmer and his family, therefore, will enjoy all the advantages of schools, public lectures and other meetings. His home will no longer be isolated, and his family denied the benefits of society, which has been, and always will be, the great educator of the human race; but they will enjoy the same privileges of society, and can surround their homes with the same intellectual life, the same social refinement as will be found in the home of the merchant or banker or professional man.

“‘When this square is thus laid off and supplied,’” the Prophet continued, “‘lay off another in the same way … and so fill up the world in these last days.’” 1

Although there was no opportunity to put the plan in all of its details into operation, its basic principles made possible successful Mormon colonization in the West years later. The common practice of the time was for each man to settle on a large tract of land where he was isolated from his neighbors. But Church members undertook the pioneering of new country in groups, building communities in which homes were maintained near church, school, and social centers, with the farms being located outside the town.

Among the first undertakings in the new settlement was the establishment of a printing press for the publication of a periodical, the Evening and Morning Star, as well as other literature. Appointed as editor of the Star was William W. Phelps, who, prior to his conversion, had served as editor of a paper in New York. He was a man with considerable literary ability, and his journal soon became a significant force in the community.

The Beginning of Trouble

With bright prospects before them, the Saints set to with a will to build their Zion. But they soon found themselves in serious difficulties. The old settlers resented their religion and their industry. Two ministers were particularly active in creating opposition. Members of the Church were pictured as “the common enemies of mankind.” 2 Another source of friction was their differences in politics. Most members of the Church were from the northeastern, antislavery states, while Missouri was linked with the South as a proslavery state. These and similar differences were enough to arouse the antagonism of the old settlers.

The first real indication of trouble occurred one night in the spring of 1832 when a mob broke windows in a number of Mormon homes. In the autumn of that same year, haystacks were burned and houses were shot into. These acts were but the beginning of a storm of violence that was eventually to sweep the Mormons from the state of Missouri.

In July of 1833 the old settlers, who had been agitated by troublemakers, met in Independence for the purpose of finding means to get rid of the Mormons, “peaceably if we can, forcibly if we must.” 3 There was no suggestion that Church members had violated any law, simply that they were an evil which had come into their midst, and which had to be removed at all costs. They demanded that no members of the Church should henceforth be permitted to settle in Jackson County, that those residing there should promise to move from the county, that they should cease printing their paper, and that other businesses should cease their operations. An ultimatum to this effect was drawn up, and a committee of twelve was detailed to present it to the Saints.

The meeting was recessed for two hours to allow the committee to present the manifesto and return with an answer.

When notice was served on the Saints, they were in no position to give an answer. The demands were entirely without legal warrant. The Saints had purchased the ground on which they lived; they had broken no law and had not been accused of breaking any. They were stunned by the whole affair, and they requested three months to consider the matter. This was promptly denied. They then asked for ten days, and were told that fifteen minutes was time enough. Obviously they could not agree to the terms presented them.


The committee returned to the meeting and reported. The result was a resolution to destroy the printing press. Three days later a mob of five hundred men rode through the streets of Independence, waving a red flag and brandishing pistols, clubs, and whips. They destroyed the press and swore that they would rid Jackson County of the Mormons. Every plea for mercy and justice was met with scoffing. In an effort to save their associates, six of the leading elders of the Church offered themselves as ransom for the Saints. They indicated their willingness to be scourged or even put to death if that would satisfy the mob.

With an oath they were answered that not only they, but all of their associates would be whipped and driven unless they left the county.

Realizing their helplessness, Church members agreed under duress that they would evacuate by April 1834. With this understanding, the mob dispersed. But it was only a matter of days until they were again breaking into homes and threat-ening the Saints. Knowing there was no security for them, the Saints appealed to the governor of the state. He replied that they should take their case to the local courts. Such a suggestion was ridiculous in view of the fact that the judge of the county court, two justices of the peace, and other county officers were leaders of the mob. Nevertheless, the Church engaged counsel to present its case.

As might have been expected, the court procedure was without effect, unless it served further to incite the mob. On October 31 a reign of terror commenced. Day and night, armed men rode through the streets of Independence setting fire to houses, destroying furniture, trampling cornfields, whipping and assaulting men and women.

Not knowing where to turn, the inhabitants fled north to the desolate river bottoms. Their trail over the frozen, sleet-covered ground was marked by blood from their lacerated feet. Some lost their lives as a result of exposure and hunger. Fortunately, their brethren in Ohio, on learning of their troubles, brought aid and comfort as rapidly as possible. By the time they arrived, more than two hundred homes had been destroyed. Even more tragic, their dream of Zion had been shattered.

In Upper Missouri

The Saints found temporary refuge in Clay County across the Missouri River opposite Jackson County. To sustain themselves and their families, they worked for the settlers of the area, doing all kinds of labor, from wood chopping to teaching school. Temporary log houses were constructed, in which they lived under wretched conditions until they were able to secure themselves more permanently.

To the northeast of Clay County was a wild, largely unbroken prairie country. They saw in it a land of opportunity, and others saw in it a place to put the Mormons where they would be by themselves.

In December 1836, the Missouri legislature created Caldwell County with the thought that it should become a “Mormon county.” With characteristic enterprise, the Saints purchased the land and proceeded to lay out cities and farms. Their chief settlement was Far West, and another major colony was planted to the north at Diahman. Two years after the creation of the county, Far West had a population of five thousand, with two hotels, a printing office, blacksmith shops, stores, and 150 houses. Much of this growth had resulted from an influx of Church members from Ohio, including Joseph Smith, who, as we have seen, left Kirtland in January

The Financial Law of the Church

During this period of intense activity, the Prophet pronounced as a revelation the law of tithing, under which all members were to pay one-tenth of their income to the Church for its work.

This was, of course, only a restatement of an ancient law. In fact, as with other matters of Church doctrine and practice, the institution of tithing in 1838 was but a restoration of a principle that had been pronounced in biblical days. It had been the law of God to his people in Abraham’s day and in the times of the prophets who had followed him; and now God had declared anew that his people should be tithed and that this should be “a standing law unto them forever.” 4

A Plague of Sorrow

On July 4, 1838, Church members in Far West held a celebration in observance of the nation’s Independence Day and the freedom which they then enjoyed from mobs. On this same day, they laid the cornerstone for a new temple. It was to be 110 feet long by 80 feet wide, larger than the structure in Kirtland. Band music and a parade, followed by a reverent dedication, made this day a notable occasion.

But these conditions of peace and progress which they celebrated were to be short-lived. Their old enemies, noting the ever-increasing population of Church members, again sowed dissension. It should be remembered that Missouri was then America’s western frontier, and the frontier was generally characterized by a spirit of lawlessness, by the bigotry that comes of ignorance and extremely limited social intercourse, and by suspicion and jealousy. In such an atmosphere it was easy to fan latent fires of intolerance and hatred.

Such agitation led to a conflict in the town of Gallatin on August 6, 1838. It was a minor affair, hardly worthy of notice but for the consequences which followed. A non-Mormon candidate for the state legislature stirred up the old settlers, saying that if the Mormons were allowed to vote, the old settlers would soon lose their rights. It was a simple political contest, but when the Saints went to cast their ballots, they were forcibly prevented from doing so.

An exaggerated report of the affair reached Far West, and a group of Church members went to investigate. No action was taken, and on their way back to Far West they called at the home of Adam Black, a justice of the peace, and obtained from him a certification to the effect that he was peaceably disposed toward the Mormons and would not attach himself to any mob.

But the enemies of the Saints soon made the most of this trip to Gallatin on the part of the Far West group. Several of them, including this same Justice Black, signed an affidavit to the effect that five hundred armed Mormons had gone into Gallatin to do harm to the non-Mormons of the area. This vicious falsehood was like a match to a pile of straw. Rumor chased rumor until a great fabric of imagined grievances had been built up.

To add to the gravity of the situation, an avowed anti-Mormon of Jackson County days, Lilburn W. Boggs, had become governor. To him the mobocrats sent reports that the Mormons were in insurrection, that they refused to submit to law, and that they were preparing to make war on the old settlers.

Again mobs menacingly rode through the Saints’ communities, determined to wage “a war of extermination.” When a group of peaceful, non-Mormon citizens appealed to the governor, he is reported to have replied, “The quarrel is between the Mormons and the mob, [and they can] fight it out.” 5

With such license, trouble spread like a prairie fire before a high wind. When Church members tried to defend themselves, the governor used it as an excuse to issue an inhumane and illegal order of extermination—“The Mormons must be treated as enemies and must be exterminated or driven from the state, if necessary for the public peace.” 6

On the 31st day of October, a mob-militia approached the town of Far West. Colonel George M. Hinkle, who led the defenders of the city, requested an interview with General Samuel D. Lucas, commander of the militia. During his interview he agreed to surrender the Church leaders without consulting these men. This treachery resulted in the delivery of Joseph Smith, Hyrum Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Parley P. Pratt, and Lyman Wight.

A court-martial was held that night, and the prisoners were sentenced to be shot at sunrise on the public square of Far West. General A. W. Doniphan was ordered to carry out the execution.

To this order Doniphan indignantly replied: “It is cold-blooded murder. I will not obey your order. My brigade shall march for [the town of] Liberty tomorrow morning, at 8 o’clock; and if you execute these men, I will hold you responsible before an earthly tribunal, so help me God.” 7

Doniphan was never called to account for this insubordination which saved the Prophet’s life. As for Joseph Smith and his fellow prisoners, they were placed in a cramped, dark jail, where they languished for more than five months.

Greatly outnumbered and denied any semblance of legal protection, fifteen thousand members of the Church fled their Missouri homes and property then valued at a million and a half dollars. Through the winter of 1838–39 they painfully made their way eastward toward Illinois, not knowing where else to go. Many died from exposure or from illness aggravated by it. Joseph Smith was in prison, and Brigham Young, a member of the Council of the Twelve Apostles, directed this sorrowful migration, which was to prove to be the forerunner to a yet more tragic movement a scant eight years later, and of which he was to serve as leader.

Show References


    1. CHC 1:311–12.


    2. See HC 1:372.


    3. See HC 1:374.


    4.  D&C 119:4.


    5. HC 3:157.


    6. HC 3:175.


    7. HC 3:190–91.