Through Missourian Eyes: Remembering the Mormon War in Missouri

By April 2, 2009

We recently had a stirring discussion over at BCC concerning the causes of the 1838 conflict in Missouri. Much of the discussion concentrated not on the historical evidence that has survived, but on the role of bias in determining what gets included and what gets left out when individuals narrate the past. For example, when Latter-day Saints began committing their stories to paper in the late 1830s and early 1840s, they framed their presentations to highlight their place in the grand narrative of God’s persecuted peoples, situating themselves alongside the ancient prophets, the early Christians, and other peoples that suffered at the hands of God’s enemies. In other contexts, Latter-day Saint authors also framed their recollections within the grand narrative of republican virtue in American history, presenting themselves as the true defenders of the American revolution against the corruption of mobs that threatened the downfall of the Republic. These two frameworks are not contradictory, but they do illustrate that the construction of identity is situational, with individuals choosing to portray themselves differently according to the audience appealed to. The first framework illustrates how Mormons sought to represent themselves to potential converts, while the second provides insights into how the Latter-day Saints hoped the American nation and its officials would understand the conflict when the time came to determine whether federal or state aid would be given to the Saints in their efforts to reclaim their lands.[1]

The Missourians of course also had a stake in how the past was understood by others. Elected officials such as Lilburn Boggs needed to justify their actions to the citizens of the state, as well as to the nation at large. As the following 1840 statement from Boggs illustrates, the Latter-day Saints had succeeded rather well in spreading their version of the conflict throughout the U.S. and even in Europe, which caused Boggs great concern. In the statement Boggs calls for the publication of documents produced during the conflict and during the resulting legal proceedings as a means to counteract Mormon narratives, documents which were published the following year. How does Boggs represent the causes of the conflict, the parties involved, and Mormon religion? What frameworks and discourses does he rely on to paint a picture that would eventually intervene in the public debates over the Mormons?[2]


Since your last session the unpleasant difficulties between a portion of the citizens of our State and the Mormons have entirely subsided, with the exception of some slight interruptions on our northeastern border. — After that infatuated and deluded sect have left our State they industriously propagated throughout the Union, the most exaggerated details of our difficulties and the foulest calumnies against our citizens. In some of our eastern cities, missionaries of their creed were employed daily in making converts to their cause by proclaiming the cruelty which they alleged they had endured at the hands of our authorities. The report of our alleged barbarities has not been confined to our Union, but even at this day in Europe they are made the ground work of proselyting, and their orators have it to their interest to distort the facts into a persecution, which in every religious excitement that has marked the history of the earth, has always been found the most effective method of conversions.

In all intestine commotions, particularly when mingled with religious fervor, it frequently happens that cases occur of peculiar hardship and unusual distress, and when public sympathy is excited in their behalf, these unavoidable consequences of civil dissension may easily be magnified into barbarous cruelty- that such cases arose in the course of the difficulty, I do not doubt.-But they must be attributed to the excited nature of the contest of the parties and not to any desire on the part of our constituted authorities to willfully or cruelly oppr[ress] them.

These people had violated the laws of the land by open and avowed resistance to them-they had undertaken without the aid of the civil authority to redress their real or fancied grievances [sic]-they had instituted among themselves a government of their own, independent of and in opposition to the government of this State-they had, at an incleme[p. 10]nt season of the year, driven the inhabitants of an entire county from heir homes, ravaged their crops and destroyed their dwellings. Under these circumstances it became the imperious duty of the Executive to [i]nterpose and exercise the powers with which he was invested, to protect the lives and property of our citizens, to restore order and tranquility to the country and maintain the supremacy of our laws.

We owe to our reputation. both at home and abroad, the duty of cleansing every aspersion that may rest upon it. Our State character should be held equally as dear as our individual reputation and we should use the same exertion in maintaining the one as spotless as the other. Full testimony as to all the necessary facts of that controversy has been preserved or can easily be procured. Written evidence, on both sides, has been filed among the papers of your last session, forms part also of the records of several of your courts. The facts, as they occurred, can be presented to the world upon proof perfectly conclusive, and the reputation of our State can be rescued from reproach by an exposition of the true causes and events of these difficulties.

In recommending the publication of this testimony, I have no care about its effect upon the principles of that sect. Our constitution has given us the high privilege of religious independence, and left the worship of the Supreme to the unfettered will of every member of the community. If true, the creed of that sect will ultimately triumph; if false, it will “die amidst its worshippers.” To explain the attitude which we have been made to assume, I would recommend the publication of all the evidence relating to the occurence [sic] and distributing the same to the chief authorities of each State.


[1] For more on the ways that Mormons constructed persecution narratives during the two decades following the 1838 expulsion, see my MA thesis, available here.

[2] Indeed, these documents proved to be a crucial tool used by anti-Mormons during the 1840s and subsequent decades to counteract Mormon claims to being innocent victims of persecutions, by representing the Saints as radical and dangerous fanatics intent on using violence to further their designs. Academic historians have likewise in recent decades relied heavily on these documents in their monographs describing the Missouri conflict. However, little work has been done to understand the ideological and discursive backdrop that led to the creation of these documents. Spencer Fluhman analyzes some of these documents within his larger discussion of nineteenth century anti-Mormon discourses in his dissertation.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins From the Archives Memory


  1. Thank you for providing the link to your thesis. I have downloaded it, printed it and hope to read it soon. I recently bought Alexander Baugh’s dissertation on the Missouri conflict through BYU Studies and look forward to reading it as well. Obviously, every conflict has at least two sides to it. I was not previously aware of the justifications / rationalizations of the Missourians, but it has been interesting to see how they framed the situation so as not to appear as the villains.

    Comment by Rick — April 2, 2009 @ 3:54 pm

  2. David-

    I’d like to read your thesis, in part because I’m interested in how religious believers deploy the trope of persecution as publicity and in identity-formation. In my own work on spiritualism, I found that embattled mediums made heavy use of persecution stories in newspaper advertisements and stories.

    (By the way, can one just download the thesis?)

    On another note (not meant as a threadjack, just an observation), Lilburn Boggs presents us with an intriguing ?almost historical? irony that I’ve always relished.

    When the Saints were making their way across Iowa from Nauvoo to Council Bluffs in 1846, Boggs was also on the move, leaving Missouri for California. The Mormons and Boggs weren’t destined to cross paths that year.

    But think for a moment if Boggs had waited a couple of years to try for California: he likely would have passed through Salt Lake City. Once the Saints arrived in the Great Basin, the trail along the Bear River into what is now Idaho fell into disuse and most emigrants began using the Salt Lake Cutoff. (They could now stop in Salt Lake, recruit their stock, and resupply, instead of pushing on to the smallish Fort Hall and trying to resupply there.)

    How would the Mormons have reacted? At the least, they would have made Boggs eat his words. An “infatuated and deluded sect?? ?Intestine commotions ? mingled with religious fervor?? Are you sure you want to stick with that story, Governor Boggs?

    Comment by Brandon — April 2, 2009 @ 6:27 pm

  3. Brandon, yes, the pdf is available from the link I provided. I’d be interested in knowing more about the persecution narratives of the spiritualists.

    Chapter IV of my thesis, which is really my conclusion, discusses the very question you’re asking (IIRC, Boggs’ train does come close to Mormon trains on the trail, and it gets mentioned by Mormon diarists). I ask the question of how the memory of persecution shaped interactions with non-Mormon “others” in the West. Check it out and let me know what you think.

    Comment by David G. — April 2, 2009 @ 6:47 pm

  4. Boggs’ words are self-serving and, unfortunately for him, what remains of the historical record shows that he acted in bad faith, both with regard to the Mormons while the conflict was ongoing and in this statement and the subsequent years in which he tried to make the same arguments.

    After the 1833 abuses suffered by the Mormons, Mormons tried to get redress for those wrongs through legal channels for five years, through the courts, appeals to legislatures and the executive and to the Missourians’ better nature. These efforts failed because the government officials involved, from justices of the peace to sherriffs and judges, to legislators and two governors of the state were either indifferent to the suffering of religious fanatics or were actively complicit in the illegal and inhumane actions taken against the Mormons from 1833 through 1838. Documents that have survived even show that neutral non-Mormon by-standers attempted to speak reason to Missouri militia leaders and Governor Boggs, and this advice was ignored.

    Boggs’ words in the quoted statement are therefore disingenuous.

    A third framework exists for Mormons’ retention and publication of the actions taken against them in Missouri, aside from the two that you mention in your first paragraph: the abuses happened, they were severe, illegal and, frankly, eggregious, justice was never obtained for them (but the publication of the fact of them was meant as part of the process for seeking such redress), and the curious tendency, as illustrated by Boggs’s 1840 statement, to deny that injustice was done or that Mormons were persecuted and driven from the state of Missouri, and all their lands, property and belonging stolen, in large part because of their religion. This isn’t the same as the first “framework” you mentioned in your first paragraph, in which Mormons just recount their sufferings in Missouri to depict themselves as God’s persecuted chosen people. Rather, this is much more practical — Mormons sought but never got justice for these things, the persecution was based in large part on their religion and there is no reason that Mormons should stand by while others re-write that history to say that Missourians’ didn’t act out of disgust for the Mormons’ religion.

    Comment by john f. — April 3, 2009 @ 5:40 am

  5. David-

    I can send you a pdf of Chapter 1 from my dissertation if you’re really interested in reading more about spiritualist persecution narratives. (You should know that I can barely bring myself to read it these days. Chalk it up to dissertation fatigue.)

    Contact me offline if you’re interested.

    Comment by Brandon — April 3, 2009 @ 12:47 pm

  6. David-
    Interesting post!

    In briefly skimming your thesis (thank you btw) I wanted to ask with regard to scriptural texts, if Mormons had any tendencies towards the HB v. NT (maybe specifically the Exodus narrative?) in relating to the prophets and/or oppressed of ancient times and/or creating their collective memory of oppression. The HB seems to play a much bigger role in, for example, African-American churches and/or Latino/a churches (i.e. historically oppressed groups) than most Anglo Protestant denominations. Any parallels concerning Mormons to speak of with regard to oppression and biblical texts?


    Comment by DMN — April 4, 2009 @ 3:40 am

  7. The more relevant texts in my experience are the anti-Catholic persecution texts, the sort of narratives supported by Foxe’s Actes and Devotions (“Book of Martyrs”). This provided a wonderful way to portray one’s enemies as royalists or papists, groups with absolutely no authority in antebellum America. This tradition interpreted the NT traditions of “losing one’s life” for one’s religion, an interrelated set of tropes employed not just by people suffering the threat of physical violence (Mormons, other visionaries, abolitionists), but by people who suffered inconvenience, negative feedback from the establishment, and threats to health (primarily Methodist and Baptist itinerants).

    Comment by smb — April 4, 2009 @ 7:25 am

  8. D, thanks for stopping by.: I would say that NT provided more martyrological inspiration than the HB, although I did find referrences to the Exodux narrative and Mormons did like to construct their persecutors using HB prototypes. That’s interesting that the historically oppressed groups relied more heavily on the HB, while Protestants used the NT more. I bet there’s a lot to explore there comparatively.

    Comment by David G. — April 4, 2009 @ 9:24 am

  9. RE #9
    The Shakers applied the same imagery (of symbolic martyrdom) to celibacy and the death of the “man of sin” which, by the way, was their only use of violent rhetoric.

    Comment by SC Taysom — April 4, 2009 @ 10:38 am

  10. Unfortunately, Mormons at the time had begun to define the world in black and white: on the one hand were the Saints and on the other were the Gentiles. This idea helped them create a powerful organization and self-identity. But it also caused problems because Mormons began to perceive non-Mormons as a monolithic group with a single agenda. The bulk of non-Mormon Missourians (and all other Americans, including most Mormons) believed in the free exercise of religion, so long as that exercise did not conflict with anyone else?s rights. As Governor Boggs? predecessor, Governor Daniel Dunklin put it, the Mormons ?have the right constitutionally guaranteed to them, and it is indefeasible, to believe, and worship JOE SMITH as a man, an angel, or even as the only true and living God, and to call their habitation Zion, the Holy Land, or even heaven itself. Indeed there is nothing so absurd or ridiculous, that they have not a right to adopt as their religion so that in its exercise they do not interfere with the rights of others? (Letter to Col. J. Thornton, 6 June 1834, reprinted in the Times and Seasons 6 [1 Jan. 1846]:1077.) In other words, Dunklin and his fellow centrists in Missouri didn?t respect Mormon beliefs, but he respected their right to exercise them.

    Unlike Dunklin, Boggs and fellow antagonists were, in fact, committed enemies of the Mormons. But by lumping all the non-Mormons together, Mormons viewed bad acts by an antagonistic minority as the general program of ?the Gentiles.? This framework allowed Mormons to justify their own bad actions against any Gentile, whether that Gentile had previously been antagonistic to the Mormons or not. These bad actions, in turn, swayed public opinion in favor of the Mormons’ antagonists, allowing Boggs and others to say ?I told you so.? When the Mormons proved that the exercise of their religion was going interfere with the rights of others — i.e., when they dispossessed the dissenters and their families, when they drove the non-Mormons out of Daviess County, and when they attacked the state militia in Ray County — they played right into the hands of Boggs. Given Boggs?s known bias and his position as governor in 1838, Mormon provocations were especially foolish and results predictable.

    Boggs then overplayed his hand, mustering a massive militia force at significant cost, which proceeded to illegally dispossess the Mormons of all their property and forced them out of the state. Although Mormon leaders were brought to trial for their crimes, no Missourians were ever brought to trial for their crimes. By 1840, this miscarriage of justice and misadministration of the gubernatorial office were becoming increasingly clear, which led to the self-serving statement by Boggs above.

    Both Boggs and the Mormons in 1838 would have done well to heed the excellent advice which Dunklin gave the Mormons in 1834:

    ?Permit me to suggest to you, that as you have now greatly the advantage over your enemies, in public estimation, that there is a great propriety in retaining that advantage, which you can easily do by keeping your adversaries in the wrong. The law both civil and military seems to be deficient in affording your society proper protection; nevertheless public sentiment is a powerful corrective of error, and you should make it your policy to continue to deserve it? (Letter to W.W. Phelps et al., 20 April 1834, copied into the Book of John Whitmer, 62-63).

    Public sympathy was a powerful corrective (for good and ill). The Mormons parlayed the public sympathy they gained in 1833 to acquire their own county in 1836; and they squandered it through their outrageous behavior in 1838. Meanwhile Boggs?s outrageous behavior in 1838 allowed the Mormons to regain public sympathy and, by 1840, the state of Illinois was the Mormons? oyster. Finally, I imagine that Boggs? regained a good deal of public sympathy in 1842 when he survived an assassination attempt, which everyone presumed was an act of Mormon revenge.

    Comment by John Hamer — April 4, 2009 @ 5:22 pm

  11. According to Gordon B. Hinkley, The siants were indeed vindicated of the hardships in 1933. During the Nauvoo Temple dedication Pres. Hinkley told of the downward spiral of Lilburn Bogg’s place in history and his progenitors demise.

    Comment by Desert Rat — April 5, 2009 @ 11:22 am

  12. This is really very interesting. I grew up on stories of what happened in Missouri and to this day I can’t read accounts with getting all emotional. To maintain objectivity I have had to study Mormon history about which I had no prior knowledge. I have, in particular, enjoyed reading through documents written by the “other side.” My work doesn’t compare to the great stuff I have seen here, though. Thank you.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — April 18, 2009 @ 11:09 pm


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