From the Archives: “We Have a Company of Danites in these Times”

By December 4, 2007

The summer and fall of 1838 were times of increasing tensions both within and without the Church. Internal dissent originating in the Kirtland banking crisis of late 1837 bled into 1838, and Missourian opposition to the increasing Mormon population in northern Missouri was rising to a boiling point. During the ensuing months, these tensions led to the outbreak of violence between Mormons and non-Mormons, a conflict in which neither side was guiltless, and one that resulted in the expulsion of the Latter-day Saints from Missouri in winter 1838-1839. Any discussion of Mormon vigilantism during this period must be framed within the context of what historian William G. Hartley [following Juanita Brooks] has called war hysteria.[1]

In June 1838 Mormon vigilantes formed an extralegal organization that came to be known as the Danites, apparently with the full knowledge and support of Church leaders Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon. Scholars have suggested that the Danites existed as an organization from late June to October 1838. Their existence can be divided into three (or perhaps four) rough time segments.

1) June-July 1838: The Danites served as internal regulators, intimidating (and expelling) dissenters from Far West, Missouri, as well as regulating efforts to consecrate properties and voting patterns among the Saints.

2) August-September 1838: The Danites aggressively worked to defend the Latter-day Saints against anti-Mormon vigilantes.

3) October 1838: The Danites participated in offensive attacks against non-Mormon settlements (which were largely abandoned by this time).

4) Alex Baugh suggests a fourth phase where the Danites became a rogue organization and indiscriminately destroyed and stole non-Mormon property.

Phases 3 and 4 are problematic due to overlap with another organization, the Army of Israel, the origins of which are not as clear as the Danites. The leading thinkers on the Mormon War (Gentry, LeSueur, and Baugh) agree essentially that Joseph Smith knew and approved of Danite activities during the first two phases. LeSueur argues that Smith approved and even directed Danite activities during all of October 1838. Baugh accepts that Smith approved initial and selective actions during October, but argues that Smith was not aware of indiscriminate activities later in the month. It is generally agreed that the Danites did not continue as an organization after the expulsion of the Mormons from Missouri in winter 1838-1839, although anti-Mormons continued to raise the specter of the Danites or Destroying Angels throughout the nineteenth century.[2]

In all historical topics (especially controversial issues, like the Danites), historians rely on primary sources that are imperfect representations of the past. Much of what we know about the Danites comes from writers that left the Church during or after the crisis of 1838, and as such the sources should be treated with some skepticism. Mormon sources should also be treated with care, as many leaders, including Joseph Smith, when faced with anti-Mormon propaganda, later disavowed all personal knowledge of the Danites and/or dismissed them as a rogue organization. Wading through these sources can therefore be frustrating work. Among the few contemporary sources (from summer/fall 1838) that describe the Danites in a manner friendly to the Church is Joseph Smith’s 1838 journal, known as the Scriptory Book.

The Scriptory Book is not a perfect source. It was not written by Smith himself, but rather by the General Church Recorder, George Robinson. Robinson was partial to the Danites and was even a Danite officer. Despite these limitations, the Scriptory Book is the most authentic source that historians have that confirms that the Danites were approved of and supported by Smith and other Mormon leaders, at least during the period from June to September 1838, at which time Robinson ceased recording entries in the journal.

Reproduced here are the three references to the Danites from the Scriptory Book, with my commentary in the footnotes.

July 8, 1838

The following Revelation [D&C 118] was given in Far West Mo. July 8th. 1838. And read this day in the congregation of the saints,
Revelation Given to the Twelve Apostles July 8th 1838 in Far West Mo in the presence of Jsmith Jr. S, Rigdon, H, smith, E, Partridge I, Morl[e]y J[ared], Carter, S, Avard T,B, Marsh & G, W, Robinson [3]

July 27, 1838

July 27th some time past the bretheren or saints have come up day after day to consecrate, and to bring their offerings into the store house of the lord, to prove him now herewith and se if he will not pour us out a blessings that there will not be room enough to contain it, They have come up hither [p. 60] Thus far, according to the ordr of the Dan-Ites, we have a company of Danites in these times, to put to rights physically that which is not righ[t], and to clense the Church of verry great evils which hath hitherto existed among us, inasmuch as they cannot be put to rights m by teachings & persuaysons, This company or a part of them exibited on the fourth day of July|.|
They come up to consecrate, by companies of tens, commanded by their Captain over ten. [4]

August 7, 1838

Tuesday the 7th This morning an alarm come from Galliton [Gallatin] the County seat of Davis [Daviess] County. that during the Election on yesterday at that place some two or three of our bretheren were killed in consequence of the Malignity of the Missourians, it was reported that the citizens of Daviess County who were opposed to our religion, did endeavor to prohibit the bretheren from voting at the election in that place, and that, the men who were killed were left upon the ground and not suffered to be intered, and that the majority of that county were determined to drive the [p. 65] bretheren from the county, under these conciderations quite a number of us volunteered to go to the assistance of our bretheren in that place accordingly some 15 or 20 men started from this place armed and equipt for our defence the bretheren from all parts of the County, followed after and continued to come and join us, and before we arrived at Col. Wights we had quite a large company Prest.Smith and Rigdon and H Smith, alll the first presidency, General [Elias] Higbee Gen. [Sampson] Avard myself and may others to tedious to mention at this time or in this record, were in the company [5]

___________

[1] See Hartley’s excellent My Best for the Kingdom: History and Autobiography of John Lowe Butler a Mormon Frontiersman (Salt Lake City: Aspen Books, 1993), chapters 4-7.

[2] The literature on the Danites is fairly extensive. I’m listing here major dissertations/books that treat the Danites in chapters. There are also significant articles that upon request I can list as well. See Leland Homer Gentry, “A History of the Latter-day Saints in Northern Missouri from 1836 to 1839,” (PhD. Diss., Brigham Young University, 1965), reprinted in Dissertations in Latter-day Saint History (Provo: Joseph Fielding Smith Institute and BYU Studies, 2000), 115-30; Stephen C. LeSueur, The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987), references throughout; Alexander L. Baugh, “A Call to Arms: The 1838 Mormon Defense of Northern Missouri,” (PhD. Diss., Brigham Young University, 1996), reprinted in Dissertations in Latter-day Saint History (Provo: JFSI and BYU Studies, 2000), references throughout, see esp. 36-46.

[3] Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Papers of Joseph Smith, 2 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1992), 2:256. Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and Hyrum Smith comprised the First Presidency. Edward Partridge and Isaac Morely were members of the Missouri bishopric. Jared Carter and Sampson Avard did not hold any ecclesiastical offices that I am aware of, but both were major figures in the Danite organization. Marsh was the President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. George W. Robinson was General Church Recorder and a Danite officer. This is the least revealing of the three entries, as the entry does not tell us why the people mentioned were present. Given the high profile positions of the majority of the individuals mentioned, it suggests that the Danites in early July 1838 were not considered to be a rogue organization, but held the approval of the leading brethren in the Church.

[4] Jessee, Papers, 2:262. This is the only time that the word Danites is recorded in the Scriptory Book. The entry suggests that 1) The Danites facilitated the consecration of property by Church members. 2) The Danites were known by this time as an organization that cleansed the Church of great evils that were not corrected by persuasion, likely a reference to the dissenters. 3) The Danites were part of the 4th of July parade (the same day that Rigdon gave his infamous 4th of July speech). This suggests that they had legitimacy at this point. 4) The Danites were organized according to the biblical pattern of companies of tens with captains over ten.

[5] Jessee, Papers, 2:268. On 6 August non-Mormons tried to stop the Latter-day Saints in Daviess County, Missouri from voting. A scuffle ensued, and, as mentioned in the entry, rumors spread to Far West (in Caldwell County) that a few Mormons had been killed with their bodies left in the streets without burial. Upon hearing the rumors, Danite leader Sampson Avard called for volunteers in Far West and commenced a march to Mormon leader Lyman Wight’s home in Daviess County. Robinson here records that the First Presidency marched with the company, as well as Generals Elias Higbee and Sampson Avard. Neither Higbee nor Avard were generals in the state militia, suggesting that there were acting in their roles as Danite Generals.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins From the Archives


Comments

  1. Thank you for the helpful overview, David, of what is a murky subject area for me.

    How would you rate the accuracy of the following published explanation of the Danites?

    “The Danites were a defensive paramilitary organization sanctioned neither by the state nor by the Church. They operated in northern Missouri during the summer and fall of 1838. There were essentially two Danite groups, both composed primarily of Mormons. The larger group was organized at Far West in Caldwell County in June; a second, somewhat smaller, unit was established in mid-July at Adam-ondi-Ahman in Daviess County.

    The entire organization, both in Caldwell and Daviess Counties, was led by Sampson Avard, who instituted initiation rites and secret oaths of loyalty and encouraged subversive activities. Avard worked principally with the Caldwell County group; Lyman Wight was the acknowledged leader in Daviess County. Danite influence in the military activities in predominantly Mormon Caldwell County was less pronounced because the defense operations there were primarily conducted by the regular state militia. Mormon defenders residing in non-Mormon Daviess County were not part of the county or state militia and conducted their operations under Danite leadership.

    During June 1838, Danites intimidated several key Mormon dissidents, forcing them to flee Far West. They also attempted to coerce reluctant Saints into consecrating their surplus money and property to the Church. Finally, they sought to influence the political outcome of the August county elections in favor of the Latter-day Saints.

    Joseph Smith did not have any affiliation or connection with the Danite organization. Although he was aware of the Danites’ existence, he was not told of Sampson Avard’s insurgent teachings. He did take part in the civil conflict in northern Missouri but not in concert with the Danites.”

    Comment by Justin — December 4, 2007 @ 1:40 pm

  2. Justin: In my view, it’s fairly accurate, but I’d disagree with some of the statements.

    The Danites were a defensive paramilitary organization sanctioned neither by the state nor by the Church.

    It’s debatable whether or not the Church sanctioned the early activities of the Danites.

    The entire organization, both in Caldwell and Daviess Counties, was led by Sampson Avard, who instituted initiation rites and secret oaths of loyalty and encouraged subversive activities.

    Avard gets all the press time, but he was not the ranking officer in the organization. The Danite constitution (which only survives in Avard’s 1838 testimony) describes the Danite hierarchy thus: First Presidency, then the Captain General (who first was Jared Carter and then was Elias Higbee), and then the next level of generals (Avard in Caldwell; Wright in Daviess).

    Mormon defenders residing in non-Mormon Daviess County were not part of the county or state militia and conducted their operations under Danite leadership.

    Wight was a colonel in the state militia.

    Joseph Smith did not have any affiliation or connection with the Danite organization.

    This is debatable.

    Although he was aware of the Danites’ existence, he was not told of Sampson Avard’s insurgent teachings.

    This is debatable.

    He did take part in the civil conflict in northern Missouri but not in concert with the Danites.

    As shown in the August 7 entry I provide above, JS did take part in the civil conflict in concert with the Danites.

    What is the source?

    Comment by David Grua — December 4, 2007 @ 1:52 pm

  3. It’s Baugh’s entry on the “Danites” in the Encyclopedia of Latter-day Saint History.

    What articles do you recommend on this subject? I’ve been reading through the Albert Perry Rockwood journal (as published in BYU Studies).

    Comment by Justin — December 4, 2007 @ 2:22 pm

  4. Justin: I vaguely remember reading Baugh’s entry a couple of years ago and wondering what he was thinking on some points. He’s obviously more of an expert than me, but there are some problematic parts to that entry.

    But Baugh is no where near as problematic as David Whittaker’s interpretation of the Danites. I know Whittaker and have a great deal of respect for him and his work, but the intro to the Rockwood piece and another article entitled “The Book of Daniel in Early Mormon Thought” are both deeply flawed. Whittaker was taking on LeSueur, but really botched the job. LeSueur responded in “The Danites Reconsidered: Were They Vigilantes or Just the Mormons’ Version of the Elks Club?” JWHA Journal 14 (1994): 35-51, which, in my opinion, is the best thing written on the Danites (along with Baugh’s Danite section in his dissertation). Apparently Whittaker still stands by his interpretation, but I’ve heard that Dean Jessee, who co-edited the BYU Studies piece, does not.

    Quinn’s Danite section in Origins of Power is also very good. John Thompson’s “A Chronology of Danite Meetings in Adam-ondi-Ahman, Missouri: July to September 1838,” is good but short. I’ve heard that Thompson has another recent article in JWHA, but I haven’t seen it yet.

    Comment by David Grua — December 4, 2007 @ 2:53 pm

  5. LeSueur responded in “The Danites Reconsidered: Were They Vigilantes or Just the Mormons’ Version of the Elks Club?” JWHA Journal 14 (1994): 35-51, which, in my opinion, is the best thing written on the Danites

    It also has the best title of any work on the Danites. David, do you have any idea why Bushman treated Joseph’s relationship with the Danites so softly in RSR?

    Comment by Christopher — December 4, 2007 @ 3:10 pm

  6. Chris: I agree that the title is great.

    I don’t know why Bushman used the kid gloves for the Danites in RSR. The whole chapter on 1838 is a bit problematic, imo.

    Comment by David Grua — December 4, 2007 @ 3:16 pm

  7. It seems to me that I had heard that Compton was working on a Missouri War project. Have you heard anything about that?

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 4, 2007 @ 3:20 pm

  8. LeSueur responded in “The Danites Reconsidered: Were They Vigilantes or Just the Mormons’ Version of the Elks Club?” JWHA Journal 14 (1994): 35-51, which, in my opinion, is the best thing written on the Danites.

    David, are there areas where you disagree with LeSueur?

    Comment by Justin — December 4, 2007 @ 3:29 pm

  9. J.: I read on Kofford’s website awhile back that Compton was editing a new edition of Leland Gentry’s dissertation. But I don’t know what the status is on that.

    Justin: In terms of LeSueur’s take on the Danites, I agree with most of what he says. He does take a stronger view of JS’s involvement with the Danites than I do, but that’s more of a question of how to interpret writers such as Reed Peck and the testimonies produced at the November 1838 hearing.

    Comment by David Grua — December 4, 2007 @ 3:39 pm

  10. A few notes: Don’t forget Cornelius Lott, apparently the major general in the society. Wight was appointed Colonel for Caldwell; this before he moved to Daviess, where it didn’t apply. Smith apparently knew much of Avard’s actions and teachings, but not necessarily all of them. LeSueur in his Elk’s Club article points to crop poisoning as an Avard teaching JS may not have known about. It is plausible that Smith did not know, as he writes, of significant Avard teachings or instructions. And, making war requisitions for survival is a different posture than plundering the gentiles for vengeance and glory. Quinn has some real weaknesses in his treatment, such as his supposition that JS was a Danite and was inducted by Wight.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — December 5, 2007 @ 11:38 am

  11. Mark: All good points.

    And, making war requisitions for survival is a different posture than plundering the gentiles for vengeance and glory.

    While I agree on this, let’s not let this obscure that Mormons did endow these requisitions with religious meaning, that is, consecrations to be put into the bishop’s storehouse. There is evidence that these teachings did come, in part, from JS.

    Comment by David Grua — December 5, 2007 @ 11:58 am

  12. David: Good clarification. It is more complicated than my simple point. This should be unpacked.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — December 5, 2007 @ 8:15 pm

  13. Mark: You’re right that this is a complicated issue. I think that it would be useful to write a good post examining the evidence for this “theology of larceny” and try to determine what came from JS and what came from Avard.

    I also agree that Quinn’s argument about Wight swearing in JS as a Danite is weak at best.

    Comment by David Grua — December 5, 2007 @ 8:32 pm

  14. […] specifically on this volume. The Scriptory Book, Joseph’s 1838 journal, contains some of our only contempary referencesto the Danites from a pro-Mormon source. Another important contemporary document that sheds […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » “Our rights we must have, and our rights we shall have, in the name of Israel’s God”: The Danite Constitution — November 20, 2008 @ 6:05 pm


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