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History of the Latter Day Saint movement
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History of the Latter Day Saint movement

The Latter Day Saint movement is a religious movement within Christian Restorationism beginning in the early 19th century that led to the set of doctrines, practices, and cultures called Mormonism and to the existence of numerous Latter Day Saint churches. Its history has been characterized by intense controversy and persecution because of some of the movement's doctrines and practices that are unique within Christianity.

The driving force behind the movement was Joseph Smith, Jr, who was raised in the Burned-over district of upstate New York, and claimed to see angels and visions, eventually leading him to engineer a fundamentally unique kind of Christianity. In addition, several early leaders made marked doctrinal and leadership contributions to the movement, including Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon, and Brigham Young.

Table of contents
1 Joseph Smith's First Vision
2 Translation of The Book of Mormon
3 Founding of the Church and Early Hostility
4 The Church in Ohio
5 The Church in Missouri
6 The Church in Illinois
7 Parting of Ways
8 Related articles

Joseph Smith's First Vision

Joseph Smith, Jr was raised in a poor agricultural family of religious "seekers" in upstate New York, during the religiously turbulent Second Great Awakening. Smith's parents were Joseph Smith, Sr and Lucy Mack Smith. Smith's paternal grandfather Asael Smith had refused to join any church "because he could not reconcile their teachings with the scriptures and his reason." Richard L. Anderson, Joseph Smith's New England Heritage (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1971), 124-40. Likewise, Smith's maternal grandfather Solomon Mack had experienced a conversion soon before his death, in which he said he saw a bright light and heard someone call his name. See Solomon Mack, A Narraitive [sic] of the Life of Solomon Mack (Windsor), 19-21 (reprinted in Anderson, Joseph Smith's New England Heritage).

Joseph and his family had a difficult time committing to a particular form of Christianity. In Smith's 1838 history, he recalled that when he was fourteen years old, some of his family had recently joined the Presbyterians, and that he attended meetings of various denominations, but eventually came to prefer Methodism. See Joseph Smith--History, Pearl of Great Price. Smith further claimed that in 1820, he had a heavenly vision in a grove of trees near his home, see First Vision, in which he claimed God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to him in order to tell him not to join any religion, but that he would be the means of establishing Christ's true church on the earth again as in ancient times.

Translation of The Book of Mormon

During the next few years, Smith claimed that he continued to receive heavenly visitors, most notably repeated visits from an angel named Moroni who had reportedly been an ancient American prophet. Smith's account claims that these visits were instructive in nature, and that in 1827 Moroni entrusted him with the work of translating a book of scripture from ancient gold plates that had been buried near Smith's home. Smith said that Moroni, as the last of the ancient American prophets to have produced the plates, warned him not to show them to anyone, and that if he were to lose them by any neglect, he would be cut off from God. Using several scribes and by what he claimed was the gift of God, Smith eventually translated a portion of the plates. The translation is now known as The Book of Mormon and was first published in 1830.

While translating the book, Smith claimed he had received a revelation that three other men, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris would be allowed to see the gold plates. After returning the plates to Moroni, Smith and these three went into the woods and prayed. Soon, they claimed, a bright light came down and the angel Moroni appeared. Moroni placed the plates and several other items before the men and commanded that they should "bear record of what you now see and hear." Their witness can be found at the front of the Book of Mormon. Soon after this event, Joseph Smith recorded that he was also permitted to show the plates to eight other witnesses near the Smith home in Manchester, New York. These eight witnesses handled the plates and also recorded their witness.

Some critics have argued the accounts of these witnessess were inconsistent, or that some accounts changed over time. The issue is complicated by some of the Witnesses of the Book of Mormon's early departure from the church.

Founding of the Church and Early Hostility

The church was formally founded by Joseph Smith, Jr in New York on April 6, 1830., as "The Church of Christ." (later officially changed to "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints." ) Smith's followers have often referred to themselves as "Saints" or "Latter-day Saints." Smith declared that he was directed by God to re-establish the true church of Jesus Christ which had "fallen away" in what was described as Apostasy that began in the early years of the Christian era.

In June 1830, soon after the founding of the Church, Joseph Smith began to produce a new translation of the Bible, now known as the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible. Smith regarded this "translation" as "a branch of his calling" as a prophet. Most of Smith's revisions to the Bible were modernizations and clarifications of language in the King James Version; however, some of Smith's revisions to the Bible were extended passages that Smith claimed to have received by revelation. Smith's revisions to the Bible continued throughout his life.

Joseph Smith's religious claims met opposition and sometimes violent conflict in New York. In response to destruction of Latter-day Saints' personal properties and threats of violence, Smith claimed to have received a revelation from God directing that followers in New York (who at the time numbered about 200) were to move to Kirtland, Ohio, where an established community under the leadership of Sidney Rigdon had been converted to the faith. By the following year, most had managed the move. Because of a shortage of land in Kirtland, a group of followers from Colesville, New York traveled with Smith in 1831 to Missouri and there settled. Smith returned to Kirtland.

The Church in Ohio

Kirtland, Ohio was the headquarters of the Church from 1831 to 1838. In Kirtland, church members built a thriving community. Smith continued to claim revelations, many of which were first published in 1833 as the Book of Commandments, which later became the Doctrine and Covenants. Smith also continued to organize the leadership and missionary efforts of the church.

In late December 1832 and early January 1833, Smith received a purported revelation (now section 85 of the Doctrine and Covenants) directing Smith (1) to build a temple, and (2) to establish a School of the prophets.

The faith's first temple was completed in the spring of 1836. One of the revelations Smith claimed to receive while in Kirtland was the commandment to begin to establish Zion, which was to be centered on the Western Frontier, in Jackson County, Missouri.

The years 1837 and 1838 saw a general economic depression in the United States, which led to the failure of the Kirtland Safety Society, a banking institution established by church members in Ohio. This failure, along with sentiments similar to those produced by opposition to the religion in New York, caused organized persecution and violent mob action from the local community and from some disenchanted members of the church. In January of 1838, Smith fled to Missouri. Soon, most followers were forced to do likewise.

The Church in Missouri

Early Mormon settlers in Missouri began to build in mostly unoccupied land, and for a few years lived in relative peace. In 1833, three years after the church had been established, more than 1000 members lived there.

There was again conflict between Mormons and some of their neighbors. Some Missourians regarded the new religion as a direct threat to their way of life. There are a number of reasons for this conflict: Latter-day Saints were largely from the Northeast, largely opposed to slavery, while Missouri at that time was a slave state. Latter-day Saints tried to befriend and convert Native Americans, who were generally seen as a menace by many frontiersmen.

Perhaps the greatest source of tension was Smith's claim that Jackson County, Missouri, was Zion: a place reserved by God as a settlement for Mormons. Many Jackson County residents feared displacement.

On July 20th, 1833, a group of 400 men met at the courthouse in Independence. They demanded that Mormons leave Jackson County, that they cease the publication of their newspaper, and that no new Mormons be allowed in. When church leaders would not submit to these demands, the group attacked the newspaper office (which was also used to print the Book of Commandments), stole the printing press, and destroyed the building. They then seized Bishop Edward Partridge and another Latter-day Saint man, demanded that they denounce their beliefs and leave the town. When the men would not, they were stripped, tarred, and feathered. Three days later, the mob returned with more demands and more violence. The church sought to avoid direct conflict by appealing to Governor Dunklin and seeking legal counsel, to no avail. The destruction of property and beatings of Latter-day Saints eventually led to a skirmish on the Big Blue River, where two church men and one other man were killed.

The violence continued as the Latter-day Saints were forced to flee across the Missouri River to Clay County. Through an act of the state legislature, the Mormons were moved 60 miles north to two new counties. There they established the community of Far West, and it was hoped that this would end the conflict between Missourians and Latter-day Saints. But in 1838, a mob of 100 men forcibly prevented Latter-day Saints from voting at the election poll. A brawl ensued, with several injuries. Governor Lilburn Boggs ordered the state militia in to restore order. One of the militia's captains, Samuel W. Bogart, took three Latter-day Saints into custody. Mormons believed Boggs to be taking sides with the mob, and so organized a mission to rescue the arrested persons. The Battle of Crooked River ensued, with casualties on both sides including the fatality of a one of the church's leaders and of a state militiaman. This led directly to Governor Boggs decree of 27 October 1838, that "The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary, for the public peace -- their outrages are beyond all description." This decree became known as the Extermination Order.

Three days later, a group of Mormons took refuge from a mob in Haun's Mill on Shoal Creek. The mob ordered those who wished to live to run to the blacksmith shop. Once the Latter-day Saints were inside the blacksmith shop, the mob opened fire, killing 17 Mormon men and boys. This event became known as the Haun's Mill Massacre.

Joseph Smith and other church leaders were soon captured by the state militia, and a court-martial was held. The men were sentenced to death by firing squad, but the orders were defied by General Alexander W. Doniphan of the state militia, who warned the commanding general that if he continued to try to kill innocent men, "I will hold you responsible before an earthly tribunal, so help me God."

The Church in Illinois

While Smith and the others were being held in jail, awaiting trial, more than 8,000 Mormons crossed into Illinois to avoid being "exterminated." After six months of incarceration and several changes of venue, Smith and the prisoners were allowed to escape into Illinois to meet up with the body of church members now living there in Quincy. After his arrival, Joseph Smith led his followers 35 miles north to an uninhabited bank of the Mississippi River. There, they set about draining the swamp and building a new town, which became Nauvoo, Illinois.

In Nauvoo, Smith continued to organize the church hierarchy, establishing a "Stake of Zion" there, led by William Marks, and sent hundreds of missionaries, led by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles under the direction of Brigham Young, to various parts of the United States, Canada, and England. Smith also established the Relief Society, a Latter-day Saint women's organization still in existence. In 1844, Smith ran for President of the United States, and organized the Council of Fifty, a theocratic political organization that was involved in his campaign.

Nauvoo was also where some of the more controversial aspects of Mormonism first appeared. Smith published the Book of Abraham, as well as other significant new scriptures. Construction of a new temple was begun, and during its construction, Smith introduced a number of sacred ordinances that would later be practiced in Mormon temples. In addition, Joseph Smith secretly introduced the practice of polygamy, or plural marriage, to a few church members in Nauvoo; however, the doctrine of plural marriage was not widely known (or widely practiced) until 1852, five years after the Church reached Utah.

The Assassination of Joseph and Hyrum Smith

As Nauvoo's political and economic power increased in relation to competing towns, so did opposition to its success. Eventually, several of Smith's disaffected associates joined together to publish a newspaper called the Nauvoo Expositor. Its first and only issue was published June 7, 1844.

The bulk of the issue was devoted to criticism of Joseph Smith. The article stated three main points: The opinion that Smith had once been a true prophet, but had fallen by advocating polygamy and other controversial doctrines; The opinion that Smith, as Mayor of Nauvoo and President of the church had too much power and had overstepped his bounds; And the belief that Smith had corrupted young women by forcing or coercing them into polygamy. (Smith was privately advocating, practicing and inducting others into the practice of Plural Marriage, although leaders of the Church denied the practice as rumor. See Plural marriage (Latter-day Saint))

The Nauvoo City Council passed an ordinance declaring the press a nuisance designed to promote violence against Smith and the Latter-day Saints. They reached this decision after some discussion, including citation of William Blackstone's legal canon that included a libelous press as a nuisance. Under the council's new ordinance, Smith, as Mayor of Nauvoo and in conjunction with the city council, ordered the city marshal to destroy the paper and the press.

The destruction of printing press caused considerable disturbance, and Smith called out the Nauvoo Legion and declared martial law. Smith fled Nauvoo into Iowa, intending to depart for the Rocky Mountains and reestablish the church there. However, he returned at the request of Mormons who feared that a militia gathering outside the city would make good on its threats to attack the city if Smith was not delivered into its custody.

On June 23, 1844, Smith surrendered to officials, together with his brother Hyrum Smith, and his associates John Taylor and Dr. Willard Richards. The four were temporarily placed in a jail at Carthage, Illinois, where Joseph and Hyrum were assassinated by an angry mob on June 27, 1844.

Succession of Leadership Crisis in 1844

After the death of Joseph Smith, there was some confusion as to who was to be his successor. The issue was complicated by the fact that at the critical time, Smith's most obvious successors were unavailable to lead. According to contemporary statements of Church leaders, including Brigham Young, the most obvious successor would have been Joseph's older brother Hyrum Smith. Hyrum had been ordained Associate President and Presiding Patriarch of the church, and the successor of Oliver Cowdery, who had been excommunicated. (See Times and Seasons, 2 (1 June 1841): 128; cf. Doctrine and Covenants 124:94-95). Hyrum, however, had been killed in Carthage, Illinois with Joseph Smith. Regarding Hyrum, Brigham Young stated, "Did Joseph Smith ordain any man to take his place. He did. Who was it? It was Hyrum, but Hyrum fell a martyr before Joseph did. If Hyrum had lived he would have acted for Joseph." (Times and Season, 5 [Oct. 15, 1844]: 683.)

Second to Hyrum Smith, the most obvious choice for succession might have been Joseph's younger brother Samuel H. Smith. Sometime between June 23-27, 1844, Joseph Smith reportedly stated that "if he and Hyrum were taken away Samuel H. Smith would be his successor" (Smith, An Intimate Chronicle, p. 138; William Clayton Diary, typescript, 12 Jul. 1844, original in First Presidency's Archives). However, Samuel died from an illness on July 13, 1844, just days after his older brothers Joseph and Hyrum were killed.

Joseph Smith might have also given indications that one of his sons would succeed him. On April 22, 1839, and August 27, 1834, Joseph Smith had purportedly indicated his son Joseph Smith III would be his successor. See D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy, Salt Lake City, 1994, at 630, 638. At the time of Smith's death, however, Joseph Smith III was eleven years old, and therefore too young to accept the mantle of his father. Similarly, in April 1844, Joseph Smith had purportedly prophesied that his unborn son David would eventually become "president and king of Israel". See D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy, Salt Lake City, 1994, at 644.

Had they not been later excommunicated, Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer might also have had credible claims to be Smith's successor. Oliver Cowdery had been the "Second Elder" of the church after Joseph Smith, and had been with Smith at all the important events of early Mormonism. Like Hyrum later, Joseph Smith had ordained Cowdery as the Associate President, and had given him authority "to assist in presiding over the whole Church and to officiate in the absence of the President" (Manuscript History of the Church, Book A-1, p. 11, Church Archives). However, Cowdery had been excommunicated on April 12, 1838. (Cannon and Cook, Far West Record, pp. 162-171).

David Whitmer had been ordained President of the High Council in Zion (Jackson County, Missouri), and Joseph had blessed him on July 7, 1834, "to be a leader or a prophet to this Church, which (ordination) was on condition that he (J. Smith, Jr) did not live to God himself" (Cannon and Cook, Far West Record, p. 151). Upon forming the High Council in Jackson County, Smith had stated that "if he should be taken away that he had accomplished the great work which the Lord had laid before him, and that which he had desired of the Lord, and that he now had done his duty in organizing the High Council, through which Council the will of the Lord might be known." (Cannon and Cook, Far West Record, pp. 71-72). Whitmer, however, had been excommunicated on April 13, 1838. (Id., pp. 176-178).

Although Joseph's most obvious successors were either dead, excommunicated, or too young and thus unavailable to assume leadership of the church after Smith's assassination, several other people within the church had significant claims to be Joseph's successor, including the following:

At Smith's death, many of the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles were serving missions away from Nauvoo at the time of Smith's martyrdom. When they returned, the Quorum organized a public meeting on August 8, 1844, at which the majority of Mormons rejected Sidney Rigdon's claim to succession and voted that the Quorum would assume leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Hundreds of those who attended this meeting later stated that while Brigham Young presented his claim that the Quorum of the Twelve should succeed Smith, Young miraculously sounded like Joseph Smith or appeared to look like him.

Parting of Ways

The vast majority of Mormons accepted the leadership of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles led by Brigham Young, and followed Young west to the Great Basin area either immediately or within the following two decades. This largest group of Saints inherited the name of the church Smith organized, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the name later hyphenated as "Latter-day"), and from their base in Utah became by far the largest and most well-known Latter Day Saint denomination. For the continued history of this organization, see History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Several much smaller factions of Saints either did not accept Brigham Young as the successor of Joseph Smith, Jr, or chose not to follow Young to the Great Basin for practical reasons. Many of these groups and individuals remained in Illinois. Some of the most prominent among them included Sidney Rigdon, William Marks, and some of Joseph Smith's immediate family, including his wife Emma Hale Smith, their children, and his brother William (who was often at odds with Joseph). Joseph's mother Lucy Mack Smith also remained in Illinois, but there is strong evidence she wanted to migrate west and could not due to poor health. The families of Joseph's remaining brothers including brother's Hyrum and Samuel, migrated with Young to Utah, while Joseph and Hyrum's sisters Catherine and Sophronia stayed with their mother in Illinois. Most historians feel that the remaining brother, Samuel, would have followed the Quorum of Twelve to the Salt Lake Valley had he not died prior to the migration.

Smith's wife, Emma, major disagrement with Brigham Young was not on his leadership (Emma was present and sustained Young and the Quorum as Church leaders on a few occasions), but rather their differing views on the distribution of properties and important documents owned or managed by Joseph Smith. Young felt that documents and properties managed by Smith in behalf of the Church should be owned by the church, while Emma felt that the families should have claim on these for sustanance. Young offered on a few occasions to support Emma and other family members (and even offered to marry Emma himself), however, offers were refused and the dispute became very bitter. This disagreement later lead to the formation of the Corporation of the First Presidency and Corporation of the President to give ownership of specified documents and propeties to the church on the passing of its president. It is interesting to note that later in her life (after she remarried Colonel Bidamon), Emma gave many of the disputed documents (such as pages from the Joseph Smith Translation and Book of Mormon manuscripts, journal pages, etc.) away as souveneirs to influential people who came to the Nauvoo area, rather than to the church led by Brigham Young.

Apart from the group led by Brigham Young, there were several other organizations claiming direct or indirect succession from the Church of Christ established by Joseph Smith. One of the earliest and most prominent of these groups, led by James J. Strang, inherited the name "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints" and became popularly known as the Strangites. This group settled in Michigan and Wisconsin, and had about 12,000 members prior to Strang's assassination in 1856, when the group nearly disappeared. Today, the Strangites has a small but active following.

There were several other Latter Day Saint branches in Bloomington, Crow Creek, Half Moon Prarie, and Eagle Creek, Illinois, and Vermillion, Indiana, each led by various people. In 1863, these groups united under the leadership of Granville Hedrick. This group inherited the name "Church of Christ" and became known popularly as the Hedrickites. Today, this small church has ownership of the temple site in Independence, Missouri, and is commonly known as the Temple Lot Mormons.

Eventually, many Latter Day Saints in Illinois and the surrounding areas coalesced behind Joseph Smith's son Joseph Smith III in the 1860s. At the time of Joseph Smith's death, Joseph Smith III was only eleven years old, but many Saints held out hope that Joseph III would become the older Smith's successor. Joseph III turned down the leadership role on at least five occasions, but after his university education he decided to assume leadership of a coalescing group that became the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Today, this denomination (now called the Community of Christ) is the second-largest Latter Day Saint denomination. For the continued history of this organization, see History of the Community of Christ.

Today, there are hundreds of active organizations within the Latter Day Saint movement. Most of these organizations are very small, although world-wide, there are possibly more Latter Day Saints than Jews. Most Latter Day Saints belong to one of the two largest denominations, the largest being the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (at over 11 million members), followed by the more ecumenical Community of Christ (at over 200,000 members).

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