Thursday, October 12, 2006

"The Missouri Mormon Experience: From Conflict to Understanding" conference

Mormons reflect on rocky past

In 1838, Missouri Gov. Liburn Boggs issued an extermination order expelling Mormons from the state. Misunderstandings surrounding that order have, in the interim, contributed to an already painful episode in Mormon history.

G.J. McCarthy photo
U.S. Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., speaks Sept. 8 at the Missouri Mormon Experience in Jefferson City. As governor of Missouri, Bond rescinded an 1838 order expelling Mormons from the state.

In an effort to heal those past wounds and facilitate future dialogue between Mormons and non-Mormons, a historical conference last weekend addressed some of the issues that led to the clashes between two cultures in the 1830s.

The event at the Capitol in Jefferson City drew an audience of about 300 to hear a range of historical perspectives and scholarly papers on the period. "The Missouri Mormon Experience: From Conflict to Understanding" was co-sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Missouri State Archives, under the direction of Secretary of State Robin Carnahan.

Missouri State Archivist Kenneth Winn offered an overview of the period at the conference. Winn, who is not Mormon, is the author of "Exiles in a Land of Liberty: Mormons in America, 1830-1846." For the past 12 years, the Missouri State Archives has cooperated with LDS church members to preserve Missouri documents from the period for genealogical research.

"I think the conference helps to bring a new level of awareness," Winn said. "Many Missourians don't know about the extermination order." Even so, members of the LDS church have not forgotten this American equivalent of a pogrom.

Mormons in Missouri timeline


● March: "Book of Mormon" published.

● April 6: Church of Christ organized. Later becomes Latter-day Saints.


● July 20: Jackson County is designated as Zion.


● November: Mormons expelled from Jackson County; many settle in Clay County.


● Zion's Camp, a military organization, leaves Ohio to come to Missouri to help restore Saints to lands in Jackson County; camp disbands in failure.


● Caldwell County founded as Mormon reserve.


● March 14: Joseph Smith leaves Ohio Mormon settlement to settle in Caldwell County.

● October-November: Mormon War in Missouri; Joseph Smith is imprisoned in Liberty.


● Winter: about 10,000 Mormons forced to leave; they settle in Illinois.


● Joseph Smith escapes and joins Latter-day Saints in Illinois.

- Compiled by Kenneth Winn of the Missouri State Archives

"Whenever you have a people who have been persecuted, there are" continuing "ill feelings." They continue "through generations," said Michael Reall, president of the Columbia stake of the church. Reall is a member of the steering committee that helped to spearhead last weekend's events. "I wanted to get past this blot on" Missouri "history and look at the good that has come," he said. "I wanted to see healing."

Reall and the other committee members approached Winn about a year ago in hopes of getting the State Archives involved in the conference. Carnahan "thought it was a good thing. She got on board," Winn said. In addition, Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond was honored at the opening ceremony Friday evening. While he was governor 30 years ago, Bond signed a proclamation rescinding the extermination order. "We had never thanked him for that," said Dale Whitman, chairman of the steering committee.

"Nothing like this conference has been done before," said Whitman, a church member and professor of law at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Whitman and his sister, Jean Pry, co-wrote a paper on Mormons in Boone County, where Mormons were treated "kindly" during the period in question.

"It is a mixed picture. But it is clear that, in western Missouri, Mormons were pretty badly persecuted," Whitman said.

"This is a historically injured people," Winn said of the Mormons. "So they have a longer memory. About 10,000 people were expelled from the state in the middle of winter in 1838 and 1839. They lost everything - their land and all their belongings."

The source of the Mormon exile is multi-layered, Winn explained, but it began with the Mormon immigration to Missouri from New England and New York into what was then the far-western reaches of settled America. The new settlers "believed that Jesus' return was imminent. They followed their prophet like his word was the word of God. They were from a different culture with strong religious views that differed greatly from the people who had migrated from Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky," Winn said.

Missourians were further threatened because the Mormons were becoming a growing voting block, voting only for Mormon candidates, Winn said. By 1833, the independent frontier settlers clashed with the clannish Mormons; their battles came to a head five years later with the so-called Missouri Mormon War. Mobs had formed against the Mormons, and the Mormons had taken up arms, he said.

As a result of all the violence, Gov. Boggs formed a militia, intending to keep the peace, Winn said. But the militia "was filled with people who didn't like the group." That militia didn't wear uniforms, "so, when the Mormons came upon them, they assumed they were just another mob and therefore attacked a duly-authorized militia created by the governor to create peace."

The troops took some Mormon prisoners but then were routed, he said. The governor got word that the militiamen had all been killed. "Turns out that wasn't the case." Based on false information, the governor decided Mormons were in open defiance of the law, and he gave the extermination order.

Unfortunately, Winn said, when the truth came out, no one bothered to rescind the order.

Among the worst atrocities of the period was the 1838 Haun's Mill massacre in Caldwell County. Renegade militia members attacked a Mormon settlement, Winn said. Women and children fled, but 16 men and a boy were killed when they took refuge in a blacksmith shop. Some of the land was later taken over by the attackers, according to documents gathered by a presenter at the conference.

Still, not all Missourians were hostile to Mormons. Alexander Doniphan, brigadier general of the state militia, was jailed for refusing to execute Joseph Smith, the founder of the church. Doniphan was moved to a jail in Columbia, and a Boone County sheriff "probably connived to help Doniphan escape," Winn said.

In 1852, the steamboat Saluda exploded in Lexington, and many died, Reall said. "Latter-day Saints were killed, and certain non-Mormons turned out to be the saints. They took care of the injured and orphaned Mormon children. "And they did it lovingly," he said.

The public should learn more about the failures of the past, Reall said, "but also be aware that people are basically good. The extermination order was an anomaly. Emotion shouldn't drive us as much as loving principles."

Today, more than 56,000 Mormons live in Missouri, and the church continues to grow in the Midwest, Reall said. "When I came to Columbia 14 years ago, there were only three units" - wards or congregations. "Now there are six."

For Whitman, this conference shed light on many issues pertaining to the origins of the conflict, ranging from cultural differences to disputes about land.

"The Mormons were not always the good guys, and the Missourians were not always the bad guys," said Whitman, who has reached a "tentative agreement" with the University of Missouri Press to publish some of the scholarly history presented at the conference in a single volume.

"Understanding the past lends to a growth of community," Winn said. "As long as events and persons remain stereotyped, misunderstanding is easy. People remain cartoons."

Whitman looks to the future. "Maybe just knowing about this part of history will help us be more tolerant of other religions in modern times."

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