Peace and Violence among 19th-Century Latter-day Saints

A 19th century depiction of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, printed in T. B. H. Stenhouse’s book The Rocky Mountain Saints (1873).

A new essay on the Gospel Topics website went up this morning. It is titled “Peace and Violence among 19th-Century Latter-day Saints” and covers, among other things, 19th century vigilantism and violence among Latter-day Saints.

The article begins by emphasizing that the Church strives to emulate Jesus’ call to peace.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is founded on the teachings of Jesus Christ. The virtues of peace, love, and forgiveness are at the center of Church doctrine and practice. Latter-day Saints believe the Savior’s declaration, found in the New Testament and the Book of Mormon, that “blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.” In Latter-day Saint scripture, the Lord has commanded His followers to “renounce war and proclaim peace.” Latter-day Saints strive to follow the counsel of the Book of Mormon prophet-king Benjamin, who taught that those who are converted to the gospel of Jesus Christ “will not have a mind to injure one another, but to live peaceably.”

But, given the religious persecution perpetuated against the Saints in the 1830s and 40s, and given the historical context of vigilantism in 19th century America, the article goes on to discuss lamentable moments of violence and retaliation that the Saints committed. During the 1838 Missouri War, for example, “some [Mormon] leaders and members organized a paramilitary group known as the Danites, whose objective was to defend the community against dissident and excommunicated Latter-day Saints as well as other Missourians.” While the Danites may initially have had noble intentions, as the war escalated their actions quickly turned violent and aggressive.

Danites intimidated Church dissenters and other Missourians; for instance, they warned some dissenters to leave Caldwell County. During the fall of 1838, as tensions escalated during what is now known as the Mormon Missouri War, the Danites were apparently absorbed into militias largely composed of Latter-day Saints. These militias clashed with their Missouri opponents, leading to a few fatalities on both sides. In addition, Mormon vigilantes, including many Danites, raided two towns believed to be centers of anti-Mormon activity, burning homes and stealing goods.

But violence among 19th century Mormons did not end in Missouri. As the Saints settled the Rocky Mountains, vigilantism and violence cropped up in some instances of conflict with Native Americans. As relationships between some Mormons and Native Americans strained, “A series of battles in February 1850 resulted in the deaths of dozens of Utes and one Mormon. In these instances and others, some Latter-day Saints committed excessive violence against native peoples.”

During this time was also the so-called “Mormon Reformation” of the mid-1850s.

In the mid-1850s, a “reformation” within the Church and tensions between the Latter-day Saints in Utah and the U.S. federal government contributed to a siege mentality and a renewed sense of persecution that led to several episodes of violence committed by Church members. Concerned about spiritual complacency, Brigham Young and other Church leaders delivered a series of sermons in which they called the Saints to repent and renew their spiritual commitments. Many testified that they became better people because of this reformation.

One aspect of this “reformation” was the proliferation of violent rhetoric or imagery in the sermons of some Church leaders, such as Brigham Young and Jedediah M. Grant.

Nineteenth-century Americans were accustomed to violent language, both religious and otherwise. Throughout the century, revivalists had used violent imagery to encourage the unconverted to repent and to urge backsliders to reform. At times during the reformation, President Young, his counselor Jedediah M. Grant, and other leaders preached with fiery rhetoric, warning against the evils of those who dissented from or opposed the Church. Drawing on biblical passages, particularly from the Old Testament, leaders taught that some sins were so serious that the perpetrator’s blood would have to be shed in order to receive forgiveness. Such preaching led to increased strain between the Latter-day Saints and the relatively few non-Mormons in Utah, including federally appointed officials.

Commonly termed “blood atonement,” this rhetoric, while mostly just that, also appears to have led to violence in some instances.

While many of the exaggerated claims that appeared in the popular press and anti-Mormon literature [about blood atonement] are easily disproven, it is likely that in at least one instance, a few Latter-day Saints acted on this rhetoric. Nevertheless, most Latter-day Saints seem to have recognized that the blood atonement sermons were, in the words of historian Paul Peterson, “hyperbole or incendiary talk” that were “likely designed to frighten church members into conforming with Latter-day Saint principles. To Saints with good intentions, they were calculated to cause alarm, introspection, and ultimately repentance. For those who refused to comply with Mormon standards, it was hoped such ominous threats would hasten their departure from the Territory.”

Violence committed by 19th century Mormons reached its bloody apogee in 1857 with the terrible massacre of a group of emigrants from Arkansas at the site of Mountain Meadows in southern Utah. The history of this event, besides being summarized by the new essay, has been discussed in an article published in the Ensign and in the 2008 volume Massacre at Mountain Meadows. As explained by the essay, “while intemperate preaching about outsiders by Brigham Young, George A. Smith, and other leaders contributed to a climate of hostility, President Young did not order the massacre. Rather, verbal confrontations between individuals in the wagon train and southern Utah settlers created great alarm, particularly within the context of the Utah War and other adversarial events.” So then who was ultimately responsible for this crime? “A series of tragic decisions by local Church leaders—who also held key civic and militia leadership roles in southern Utah—led to the massacre.”

The essay concludes by acknowledging violence committed by 19th century Mormons but also emphasizing a need for caution in outright condemning the early Saints as a violent people.

Many people in the 19th century unjustly characterized the Latter-day Saints as a violent people. Yet the vast majority of Latter-day Saints, in the 19th century as today, lived in peace with their neighbors and families, and sought peace in their communities. Travelers in the 19th century often noted the peace and order that prevailed in Mormon communities in Utah and elsewhere. Nevertheless, the actions of relatively few Latter-day Saints caused death and injury, frayed community relationships, and damaged the perception of Mormons as a peaceful people.

The violent actions committed by early Mormons should not be excused or justified, but should be understood in proper historical context. Thankfully, the tumultuous early years of the Church, which saw violence being committed both against and by Mormons, are behind us. Hopefully we can learn from the mistakes of the past while also tempering rash judgement with sound historical understanding.

For more on the topics discussed in the new essay, be sure to check FairMormon’s articles on the Mormon Reformation, crime and violence in early Utah, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and blood atonement. Also, as you’re browsing the new Gospel Topics essay, be sure to click on the links on the right of the page, such as on the link to the new Doctrine and Covenants and Church History seminary manual, for further reading.