This is the eighth installment of the first annual JI Summer Book Club. This year we are reading Richard Bushman’s landmark biography of Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005). JI bloggers will be covering small chunks of the book in successive weeks through the summer, with new posts appearing Monday mornings. We invite anyone and everyone interested to read along and to use the comment sections on each post to share your own reflections and questions. There are discussion questions below.
- Part 1: Prologue, Chapters 1-2
- Part 2: Chapters 3-4
- Part 3: Chapters 5-6
- Part 4: Chapters 7-9
- Part 5: Chapters 10-12
- Part 6: Chapters 13-15
- Part 7: Chapters 16-18
- Next week (Part 9): Chapters 22-24
In the previous installment of the summer book club, Tona brought us through early January 1838, when, acting on a revelation, Joseph Smith (JS) fled Kirtland, Ohio, and reestablished the church’s headquarters in Far West, Caldwell County, Missouri. As chapter 19 begins, Bushman lays out JS’s vision of the burgeoning Mormon settlement in northwestern Missouri and the palpable optimism that the Saints felt regarding Far West’s prospects. However, as 1838 progressed, that optimism would fade in the face of internal dissension and external opposition, ultimately resulting in the violent deaths of perhaps forty church members, the government-sanctioned expulsion of the Latter-day Saints from the state, and JS himself incarcerated on charges of treason and other crimes. Sifting through an uneven historical record, Bushman seeks to evaluate JS’s role and responsibility in these difficulties.
The internal dissent that had plagued JS and the church in Kirtland in 1837 followed him to Missouri. In February 1838, church members voted to remove David Whitmer, W. W. Phelps, and John Whitmer as the presidency of the Missouri church, based on charges of mishandling church funds and properties. In March and April, church courts excommunicated the Whitmers, Phelps, and Oliver Cowdery, another church leader. These men had been among JS’s earliest and staunchest supporters, but by 1838 they had become estranged from the prophet. Cowdery had objected to what he saw as un-republican ecclesiastical interference in personal affairs. Bushman uses Cowdery’s trial as “a reminder of the complex ideological environment of Mormons in the 1830s. Most of the time they spoke Kingdom of God language, using words like ‘faith,’ ‘righteousness,’ ‘Zion,[’] ‘gathering,’ ‘priesthood,’ and ‘temple.’ At the same time, as American citizens, they knew the political language of rights and freedom” (348). Although JS himself used republican language when declaring that the Mormons would not submit to mob violence, he was less enthusiastic when his followers used it to undermine Latter-day Saint beliefs in consecration and unity.
Although excommunicated, Cowdery and the other dissenters remained in Far West and continued to undermine the church and its leadership. In June 1838, a group of men loyal to JS formed a secret oath-bound society known as the Danites, who were intent on expelling the dissenters from Caldwell County. Historiographically, a substantial amount of ink has been spilled trying to determine whether JS knew and approved of the Danites. Some writers have argued that the Danite society was JS’s private army, ready to commit any crime to fulfill his will, while others have contended that a church member named Sampson Avard started the Danites without JS’s knowledge. “Unfortunately,” Bushman explains, “the secrecy of the organization and the obscurity of the records hinder efforts to distribute the blame between” JS and Avard (348-49). In seeking to evaluate JS’s involvement in the Danites, Bushman relies heavily on two histories written in 1839, one by John Corrill and the other by Reed Peck, both of whom were highly critical of the Danites. Both also believed, but could not prove, that the First Presidency controlled the Danites. One of the only contemporary sources that we do have—JS’s 1838 journal—was kept by George W. Robinson, a Danite officer. Although Robinson referred approvingly in the journal to the Danites, Bushman cautions that we not rush to conclude that JS likewise approved of the society. On 17 June 1838, Sidney Rigdon, JS’s counselor in the First Presidency, preached what became known as the “Salt Sermon,” in which he compared the dissenters to salt that had lost its savor (Matt. 5:13). Avard and more than eighty other church members, including Hyrum Smith, JS’s brother and counselor in the First Presidency, signed a lengthy letter that listed the accusations against the dissenters and warned them to leave Far West, which they did on 19 June. Although he stops short of defining JS’s immediate involvement in either Rigdon’s sermon or writing the letter, Bushman concludes that JS “certainly favored evicting dissenters” (352).
Chapter 20 discusses the outbreak of violent conflict between the Latter-day Saints and other Missourians in summer and fall 1838. On 4 July, JS presided at the Independence Day festivities, where Avard and others were publicly recognized as Danite generals. Rigdon delivered an oration lauding the founding of the United States and the principle of religious liberty. Recounting earlier mob violence against the Saints and Missouri officials’ failure to protect the Mormons, Rigdon declared they would now defend their rights against oppression, even if it led to a “war of extermination.” The sermon was circulated in print and JS himself endorsed the sermon in an editorial published in the church’s newspaper. Just over a month later, violence did break out between the Saints and other Missourians during an election held in Daviess County, just north of Caldwell. In response, JS and other Latter-day Saints marched from Caldwell County to Daviess to investigate, leading to a confrontation at the home of Justice of the Peace Adam Black. Bushman argues that JS held back during this expedition, allowing Avard and others to take the lead, only asserting a leadership role when invited. When describing the incident in JS’s journal, Robinson viewed things differently, recording that the First Presidency led the march to Daviess, although Avard and other Danite leaders also assumed prominent roles. Bushman does not address this entry directly, perhaps due to his suspicion of Robinson as the journal’s recorder.
Daviess County vigilantes used the confrontation at Black’s home as a rallying cry for additional troops to assist in the expulsion of the Mormons. Bushman, following previous scholarship, argues that Mormon expansion out of Caldwell was the root cause of these expulsionist tendencies. Bushman concludes that non-Mormons tolerated the Saints in small numbers, but when the Mormon population approached a significant plurality of a county, rumblings of expulsion would arise. In October, the vigilantes succeeded in expelling a group of Latter-day Saints living in Carroll County to the south of Caldwell. Seeing that the civil authorities would not intervene to protect the Saints’ rights, and fearing that the emboldened vigilantes would next attack Mormon settlements in Daviess County, JS and other church leaders decided to launch an aggressive preemptive strike against the mob’s havens in Daviess. Here, Bushman acknowledges that JS gave a powerful speech in mid-October just prior to commencing the expedition to Daviess, where Mormon troops burned buildings and confiscated property. Although the vigilantes fled the county, no pitched battles were actually fought. JS did not actually command Mormon troops in the field, which Bushman sees as additional evidence that JS was allowing others to take the lead. On 25 October, blood was shed at Crooked River south of Caldwell County, with three Latter-day Saints (including apostle David Patten) and one non-Mormon losing their lives. Based on exaggerated accounts of Mormon activities, on 27 October Missouri governor Lilburn W. Boggs ordered his militia commanders to either “exterminate” or drive the Mormons from the state. On 30 October, acting independently of the governor’s order, a group of Missouri militia/mob attacked Hawn’s Mill, a small Latter-day Saint settlement in eastern Caldwell County, killing ten Mormon men and boys and fatally injuring seven others.
Acting under the governor’s expulsion order, several thousand Missouri militiamen laid siege to Far West on 31 October. Overwhelmed by these numbers, JS and other church leaders submitted to arrest and surrendered the city. The militia commanders attempted to execute JS after an ad hoc court martial, but Brigadier General Alexander Doniphan stopped the execution from proceeding. During the latter half of November, Judge Austin A. King of the Fifth Judicial Circuit presided at a court of inquiry in Richmond, Missouri, where JS and several other Latter-day Saints were charged with treason and other crimes. On 1 December, JS was committed to the Clay County jail in Liberty, Missouri, to await a spring trial. Bushman uses JS’s letters written from the jail to further assess JS’s responsibility for the crisis, concluding that although JS allowed others to take the lead, ultimately “Joseph must take responsibility for the Mormon raids on their Daviess County enemies. His angry rhetoric stirred the blood of more militant men” (371). In chapter 21, Bushman continues his discussion of the letters JS wrote to the Saints offering leadership and guidance during and after their removal to Illinois and Iowa Territory. Of particular interest was a series of general epistles that JS dictated to the Saints in late March 1839. In them, JS reflected on the causes and meaning of the Saints’ persecutions and suffering and he recorded revelatory responses in the voice of Deity. Bushman argues that these revelatory responses “turned the raw Missouri experience into a theology of suffering” with an emphasis on experience:
“Experience” was an unusual word to answer the problem of evil. Nothing was said about purification, or the greater glory of God, or redemption. The word “experience” suggested life was a passage. The enduring human personality was being tested. Experience instructed. Life was not just a place to shed one’s sins but a place to deepen comprehension by descending below them all. The Missouri tribulations were a training ground. (380)
JS also devoted space to reflections on religious liberty and the inspired nature of the Constitution, as well as encouraging church members to seek redress for their losses. Portions of these March 1839 letters were later canonized as Doctrine and Covenants 121–123. Bushman concludes the chapter with a discussion of JS’s mid-April escape from custody and the origins of what would become Nauvoo, Illinois.
Discussion Questions: What do you think of Bushman’s use of sources in these chapters? How well does he navigate the historiographical tensions surrounding JS’s role in the Danite Society and the later conflict with non-Mormons? What do you think of Bushman’s theological analysis of JS’s jail letters? For those that follow scholarship on Mormon history in Missouri, what recent literature has appeared since Rough Stone Rolling that would challenge or add to Bushman’s analysis?