This lithograph depicts Joseph Smith as the head of the Nauvoo Legion. The Nauvoo Temple is in the background.
The non-Mormons of Hancock County, Illinois, in the early 1840s probably disliked the Mormons from the first, in the same way that most Americans have generally disliked what they have viewed as religious fanaticism, but they were initially disposed toward toleration because they sympathized with its members as refugees from oppression in Missouri. That view, however, soon began to change. Some of the Mormons, embittered against “Gentiles” (non-Mormons) because of their recent experience and impoverished because of their forced abandonment of homes in Missouri, stole food, livestock, and other things from farms in the Nauvoo area. And non-Mormons soon learned that trips to Nauvoo in search of stolen goods, or to seek payment for items sold to the Mormons, were fruitless—and even frightening.
The highly unified, separatist community did not cooperate with outsiders, and some of the Saints resorted to intimidation. For example the “whistling and whittling brigade” of young ruffians made unwelcome visitors fear for their lives as they encircled them during their visits to the Mormon stronghold. Nauvoo quickly developed a reputation among western Illinois residents as a place where lawbreakers friendly to the church were shielded from arrest.
Historic rendering of Nauvoo Temple from the 1840s.
The amount of Mormon theft is impossible to determine, since some stealing by others was undoubtedly blamed on the Saints, nor can Joseph Smith’s involvement be established with any certainty, despite what some memoirs fron older residents imply. Certain Mormon raiders may have felt they had Smith’s approval when in fact they did not. In any case, the evidence of Mormon theft is substantial, and that activity caused some non-Mormons in townships near Nauvoo to oppose the Saints.
But of far greater importance to the development of non-Mormon animosity and to the eventual eruption of mobocratic violence was the perceived threat to democratic government posed by Smith and his theocratic community. That view was expressed as far away as Macomb, Quincy, Alton, and other Illinois communities, but it was centered in Hancock County, where the Mormons dominated local politics by 1842.
Warsaw, a town of about 500 people in the early 1840s, spearheaded the opposition to Smith and political Mormonism. Founded in 1834 as a place for shipping and commerce, Warsaw was something of a microcosm of pluralistic America, an open, ambitious, progressive community where residents did not hold the religious preconceptions that made Nauvoo’s theocracy possible. Instead, local residents firmly subscribed to republicanism, the ill-defined civil religion of the Jacksonian era. Common democratic ideals lashed the people together, and the rituals of self-government affirmed the community’s ideological bond.
To the people of Warsaw, the nation had transcendent value, and republicanism was the operative faith of their town. So, it is not surprising that residents there objected to Smith’s theocratic domination of government at Nauvoo, his encouragement of bloc voting for candidates he supported, his use of the Nauvoo Charter to avoid prosecution, and, eventually, his violation of the civil rights of his critics.
The last address of Joseph Smith in Nauvoo.
That Joseph Smith also headed a huge militia, the Nauvoo Legion, made the threat of despotism seem all the more real. When a united political effort, the Anti-Mormon Party of 1841-1842, failed to curb Smith’s secular power, non-Mormons became increasingly frustrated, and there was talk of mobocratic measures to stop the threat of political Mormonism.
At the same time, after two arrest attempts by Missouri officials, the Mormon prophet became increasingly fearful of the authorities in that state, whom he regarded as thoroughly evil. He drew his supporters more closely around him by depicting the Saints as innocent chosen people and himself as their champion fighting the enemies of God. Critics and opponents in Illinois were associated with those enemies, and thus fear and intolerance increased among the Mormons and governmental authority at Nauvoo became centered in Smith. Apparently unaware of the contradiction between real democratic government and his theocratic control of Nauvoo, the prophet placed the church on a collision course with the non-Mormons in Hancock County—and, ultimately, with America.
No question, the conflict between the Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo and the residents surrounding Nauvoo, Illinois, in the 1840s is one of the most important aspects of early Mormon history. Controversies between the Mormon and non-Mormon population began almost immediately when the Latter -day Saints arrived in Illinois in 1839 and grew in intensity and violence by the middle-1840s. The assassination of Joseph Smith Jr. in 1844 and a Mormon war that only ended with the members’ removal from Illinois 1846 are only the two most visible aspects of this struggle.
By taking violent action the citizens of Hancock County reasserted fundamental direction over local government whether for good or ill. Political scientist Jurgen Habermas has suggested that when the “instrumental rationality” of the bureaucratic state intrudes too precipitously into the “lifeworld” of its citizenry, they rise up in some form to correct its course or to cast it off altogether. The “lifeworld” is evident in the ways in which language creates the contexts of interpretations of everyday circumstances, decisions, and actions. He argued that the “lifeworld” is “represented by a culturally transmitted and linguistically organized stock of interpretive patterns.”
Artist’s depiction of the assassination of Joseph Smith on June 27, 1844.
For a sizable proportion of the citizens of Hancock County, the activities of the Mormons intruded into their “lifeworld,” as their expressions of discontent demonstrated, and they could obtain no resolution through the “instrumental rationality” residing in the state. Accordingly, they took direct and violent action and justified it without a tinge of conscience for the rest of their lives.
By doing so, they violated the very democratic ideals to which they subscribed and committed the most notorious acts of the Mormon conflict—the murders of Joseph and Hyrum Smith in June 1844 and the expulsion of the remaining Mormons from Nauvoo in September 1846.
With regard to the Mormons, they can be praised for their religious idealism, hard work, and personal sacrifice, but the anti-democratic tendencies of their dogmatic, crusading spirit are equally apparent. Conflict with their neighbors in Illinois was inevitable because their myth of identity made community with other Americans impossible. Their experience at Nauvoo demonstrated the dangers of theocratic government, the danger of demonizing other people, and the deceptions fostered by the illusion of innocence.
A map of Nauvoo, Illinois, at the time of the Latter-day Saints in the early 1840s.
These same three dangers—theocratic government, demonizing other people, and the illusion of innocence—should be persistent issues in studying the history of Mormonism.
They are not largely because the Mormon conflict is viewed as part of the sacred history of the church—a church whose mission was, and remains, to restore erring humanity’s true relationship to God, build the kingdom of God, and bring salvation to the peoples of the Earth. While honest in intent and sound in methodology, historians have seldom explored beyond the safe boundaries of the Latter-day Saint faith story to analyze the Mormon war for what it was, a clash of world views.
From the very earliest history of the Latter Day Saint movement, the sense that Joseph Smith and his followers were being unjustly persecuted by a sinister group conspiring to destroy the gospel was a persistent theme. The vision of a widespread and sinister conspiracy seeking to destroy Joseph Smith personally and the Mormon Church collectively represented a paranoia about the way in which the world worked. This is not a particularly unusual occurrence in history, but the logical conclusion of this mindset was that Mormonism went to war with American society.
Photograph of Nauvoo in the middle 1840s with the Mormon Temple in the background
Interpreting the Nauvoo experience in this manner makes impossible a larger exploration, one that I believe would lead historians to appreciate that the conflict was an ideological struggle between two civilizations with differing social, political, and institutional visions.
Conflict of some kind seems inevitable in this context, and when Smith condemned his Mormon critics as enemies of the people and suppressed their civil rights through institutionalized violence, the non-Mormons—politically frustrated and fearing despotism—resorted to mobocratic measures. Other causes, such as lawlessness by some Mormons aimed at the Gentiles economic and social strife, contributed to the outbreak of violence, but in my view this ideological struggle was central.