For me, there has always been something intriguing about the time of the Mormons in Illinois. Both glorious and tragic, the events which unfolded in western Illinois would reshape the church for the next 150 years. For Illinois, it was both an exercise in tolerance and intolerance. From a historical perspective, to study the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in the 1800s is to study America in the 1800s. It is a study of westward expansion, religious fervor, and intolerance present in the time period.
America at the time…
When the founding fathers thought of freedom of religion, the intent of this freedom was two-fold. First, no government approved religion would ever exist in the United States. Second, Jefferson and Madison saw religion like a business. They saw religions competing in a marketplace of sin, salvation, theology, and social contracts. For the first two hundred years of life in North America, religions started in Europe and spread here through immigration. In the early 1800s, the US was a very religious place with a variety of philosophies expounding courses to salvation. Upstate New York was no different. Some religions were local, some national. Some came and went like the breeze. Some, were sent out of town, tarred and feathered. And some ended up in the fire or in jail. For every pious man, there was a swindler. Out of this religious fervor comes Joseph Smith.
The New York Era…
In 1820, Joseph Smith began his path to martyr. God was said to have visited Joseph and told Joseph that all religions were false and that Joseph was to create a new, true church. In 1823, Joseph Smith claimed to have been visited by the Angel Moroni and been given the location of gold plates and the tools (seer stones) with which to read the plates. It took Smith another four years to find the plates and three years to decode them. The plates, when translated, became the book of Mormon – the foundation of the church. What made Mormons different than every other church in the US was the Book of Mormon. It was not a fly-by-night pamphlet to get salvation in one night. The book, first published in 1830, made its way overseas. In fact, throughout the 1830s and 1840s, there were always more Mormons in England than there were in the United States.
The Movement Moves…
Smith, like most religions of the time period, moved – by choice, by God, and by fear for his life. Beginning in 1831, Smith and church moved to Kirtland, Ohio. For seven years, Smith tried to make a go of building a church, a temple, and to stay our of jail. He would be tarred and feathered, ran out of town, and out of money. In Missouri, the Mormons faced persecution on a larger scale. An actual war against the Mormons. Smith would end up in jail and the Governor of Missouri issued an extermination order against the Mormons. Somehow, Illinois would take them in.
Settling in Hancock County in Illinois in 1839, the Mormons began to build a community they could not build in Missouri, New York, or Ohio. For five years, the town of Nauvoo (Hebrew for beautiful) became a shining beacon along the Mississippi. It became a center for commerce, trade, and agriculture. It quickly grew to be one of the largest cities in Illinois. Its power grew out of Joseph Smith.
Smith’s power was almost omnipresent. He was the leader of the church, the mayor, and the head of the local militia. For every convert, Smith had made an equal number of enemies. In 1843-44, Smith could not hide from the enemies anymore. Some were spurned former members of the church, some were his friends, and some were neighboring towns wary of the power and the increasing size of Nauvoo.
For former Church President, William Law, Smith’s actions were more than he could take. On June 7, 1844, Law published a 4 page newspaper called the Expositor. On these four pages, Law and his editors spilled the beans on plural marriage within the church. Smith had the printing press of the Expositor destroyed.
The proclamation reads,
You are hereby commanded to destroy the printing press from whence issues the Nauvoo Expositor, and pi the type of said printing establishment in the street, and burn all the Expositors and libelous handbills found in said establishment; and if resistance be offered to your execution of this order by the owner or others, demolish the house: and if anyone threatens you or the Mayor or the officers of the city, arrest those who threaten you, and fail not to execute this order without delay, and make due return thereon.
By order of the City Council,
JOSEPH SMITH, MAYOR
The nearby communities were outraged at not only the destruction of the printing press but also rumors about plural marriage and baptism for the dead. What had seemed like five years in heaven for the Mormons would quickly convert to hell. Smith became a wanted a man by the state. A series of letter that summer between Smith and the Governor of Illinois, Thomas Ford, arranged for not only Smith’s arrest but also for Smith’s protection.
In a letter to Smith, Governor Ford Writes in the introduction
HEADQUARTERS CARTHAGE, June 22nd, 1844.
To the Mayor and Council of the City of Nauvoo:
GENTLEMEN.-After examining carefully all the allegations on the part of the citizens of the country in Hancock county, and the defensive matters submitted to me by the committee of your citizens concerning the existing disturbances, I find that there appears to be but little contradiction as to important facts, so that it may be safely assumed that the immediate cause of the existing excitement is the destruction of the press and Nauvoo Expositor, and the subsequent refusal of the individuals accused to be accountable therefore according to the general laws of this state, and the insisting on your parts to be accountable only before your own municipal court, and according to the ordinances of your city.
The letter continued to place the events beyond the legal confines of the city of Nauvoo. Smith who could control any events in Nauvoo would be taken out Nauvoo.
Smith’s Arrest Warrant
Writ of Arrest on the Charge of Treason – Joseph Smith.
STATE OF ILLINOIS
CITY OF NAUVOO
The people of the State of Illinois, to all sheriffs, coroners and constables of said state greeting:
Whereas complaint has been made before me, one of the justices of the peace in and for said county aforesaid, upon the oath of Augustine Spencer, that Joseph Smith, late of the county aforesaid, did, on or about the nineteenth day of June. A. D. 1844, at the county and state aforesaid, commit the crime of treason against the government and people of the State of Illinois aforesaid.
These are therefore to command you to take the said Joseph Smith if he be found in your county, or if he shall have fled, that you pursue after the said Smith into another county within this state, and take and safely keep the said Joseph Smith, so that you have his body forthwith before me to answer the said complaint and be further dealt with according to law.
Given under my hand and sea1 this 24th day of June, A,D. 1844.
R. F. SMITH, J. P.
The trial would be held in nearby Carthage. Smith, along with his brother Hyrum were taken to the jail in Carthage. Their stay was not long.
A mob, dressed in black face, came for Joseph and Hyrum and killed them. A witness recounts,
When President Smith had been set against the curb, and began to recover, from the effects of the fall, Col. Williams ordered four men to shoot him. Accordingly, four men …made ready to execute the order. While they were making preparations, and the muskets were raised to their faces, President Smith’s eyes rested upon them with a calm and quiet resignation. He betrayed no agitated feelings and the expression upon his countenance seemed to betoken his only prayer to be: “O, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.“
The ruffian…now secured a bowie knife for the purpose of severing his head from his body. He raised the knife and was in the attitude of striking, when a light, so sudden and powerful, burst from the heavens upon the bloody scene, (passing its vivid chain between Joseph and his murderers,) that they were struck with terrified awe and filled with consternation. This light, in its appearance and potency, baffles all powers of description. The arm of the ruffian, that held the knife, fell powerless; the muskets of the four, who fired, fell to the ground, and they all stood like marble statues, not having power to move a single limb of their bodies.
On June 27, 1844, the Smith brothers were dead. The Mormons in Illinois were dead. But the church was not. In the coming years, 2 trials would be held and no one convicted for the murders. Brigham Young would take charge of a divided church and lead them west in the winter of 1846 on a trip to a place the Mormons would want to be a new state called Deseret.
Why the Mormons in Illinois Matter…
The resulting exodus and trek west for the Mormons changed Illinois. For the rest of the 1800s, the Mormons struggled to live within the confines of the United States. Utah would not become a state until 1896. Illinois, on the other hand, continued to find its place in the expansion of the U.S. A new city in northeastern Illinois, only two years older than Nauvoo, would supplant itself as the economic center of the Midwest. Nauvoo never recovered. Today it is still a small, rural town.
Another key way Illinois changed as a result was how Illinois was structured. At a time when lawlessness and vigilantes ruled, it was not uncommon for over a 100 men to sit on a jury in Illinois at the time. Such was the case for Ford – he was powerless to stop the mobs who wanted justice. The conflict in Nauvoo resulted in a constitutional convention giving the Governor more power to deal with such matters. Illinois continued to grow and move northward, away from the Mississippi and more towards the Lake.
The Mormons would set up Utah, and Brigham Young would be the man who made the church what it is today. By the time of his death in the 1870s, the church reached over most of the western U.S. with over 100,000 members. Their trek to what was perceived a wasteland, would pave the way for thousands of Americans on what became known as “The Mormon Trail”.
PBS Video on the Mormons
For further reading