9—LEAVING THE LDS CHURCH
2—‘MORMON HISTORY—REVISITED’: THE CHURCH WENT FROM BEING A SMALL AFFAIR IN NY STATE TO A PEOPLE CAUGHT UP IN A FIRE OF SPIRITUAL EVENTS AND VIOLENCE
Today’s LDS members can be critical of their leaders (which does not bother me) and of the Joseph Smith and Brigham Young (which does). Yet this is northing new: the Saints in Kirtland had a lot of grievances against the Prophet Joseph. At times they even got violent.
This not in LDS Sunday School manuals. Because the Church has rewritten its tumultuous history for its members and turned its founders into Disney (and monogamist) characters. Not only is this dishonest, and has the adverse effect of making members feel betrayed when they find out (thank you, Google!), leading some to apostatise, but also, the clean-cut edited depiction of the Saints of old puts the stakes too high for faithful members who never feel they are good enough (making Utah the #1 US consumer of anti-depressants).
Members in Europe often have a romantic idea of American Saints. When I was LDS (in the 90s), we imagined Joseph, the early Saints, but also modern Saints, to be just as they were portrayed in Church movies. The first time I visited (the Church in) Utah I was disappointed. Not that I was (or French members were) perfect, but being a religious minority in a fanatical secular country (and often first, or at best second-generation Mormon) meant that active French members often were committed, if not zealous, while many in Utah were just going through the motions or were grossly self-righteous. Brigham repeatedly remonstrated with the Utah Saints for all sorts of wrong-doings in the 1860s. Many Saints in the 1830s were shocked to see Joe Smith was a ‘normal’ bloke.
That is when his friends started calling him “a fallen prophet”
Yet the early Saints were heroes: men and women who faced much hardship to follow the Prophet. If they were deeply human, that makes them more ‘real’ and relatable than those one-dimensional Church movie characters. Like Old Testament men and women are more ‘real’ and relatable to me than New Testament characters. Like our God (who once was a man) is more relatable than the God of the Christians (a good spirit here or there or everywhere that has always been and was also Jesus even though Jesus prayed to Him).
I feel blessed for the knowledge of the nature of God the Prophet shared with the Saints as he was building the Church as well as the Kingdom of God on the earth. But when God builds His Kingdom, Satan builds his too. Satan will do all he can to spoil Paradise.
On March 27, 1836, 1,000 Saints gathered at the Kirtland, Ohio, temple: the first temple dedication in this last dispensation. Accounts of incredible visions and manifestations abound: angels sitting between some men, the sense of the divine presence and heart “filled with joy inexpressible and full of glory” according to Eliza R Snow. Joseph and Oliver Cowdery had a vision of Jesus (who accepted the house of the Lord). Moses, Elias, and Elijah also appeared to them to restore the keys of the fulness of the Melchizedek Priesthood (including sealings for eternal marriages for both the living and the dead).
But less than two years later, Joseph had to flee, taking his family to Missouri, never to return. Kirtland was were the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was organised, where the first Quorum of the Seventy was organised, where the first Stake of the Church as well as the School of the Prophets were organised. The first High Priests were ordained there. Heber C. Kimball and others went on missions to England from Kirtland. Joseph gave the first patriarchal blessings of this dispensation there, and the Doctrine and Covenants was accepted as a standard work of the Church.
Did Joseph look back on all the defining moments he and the Church experienced in Ohio? New revelations were given in Kirtland, like the Word of Wisdom or the ground-breaking visions of the three kingdoms of glory (D&C 76), the Inspired Translation of the Bible was completed there, Emma’s hymnal was printed there. And Joseph spent months ‘translating’ the Egyptian from papyrus scrolls and mummies a man sold to the Church.
So much had happened in Ohio. In May 1834, Joseph Smith formed an army called Zion’s Camp and marched to Missouri to put an end to the conflict between the Saints and the old settlers. He was unsuccessful. But Zion’s Camp created unbreakable bonds between leading men. On a more personal level, Emma Smith gave birth to twins, who died shortly after, and the couple adopted twins whose mother had died when giving birth. Two sons were later born.
As Joseph left during the night with his (now larger) family, did he look back to the temple? Joseph had wanted the temple had to be at the heart of the new city, so as to be in the heart of the members. It was the anchor of his Kirtland. In 1836, the Church had been in disarray when, in 1836, Joseph and several leaders gathered in the yet unfinished temple. They performed an Old Testament-based ritual of washing and anointing their bodies. Joseph received a vision of the celestial kingdom (D&C 137) at that time.
Mormonism had begun 17 years earlier in a sleepy town in upstate New York. But missionary success in Ohio had led Joseph to move 250 miles west to the little town of Kirtland. With few people and little money, the Saints completed the first temple in 1836. But this success was marred with the debts associated with building the temple and other financial concerns, such as a nationwide bank panic. Many blamed Joseph for financial losses incurred through the Kirtland Safety Society. And that is when his friends started calling him “a fallen prophet”.
Church members had to choose whether to believe in Joseph as both a prophet and an imperfect human, or if their expectations of a prophet required perfection, the Prophet said. But many in the Church grew disillusioned with him and his leadership all the same. Apostle Heber C Kimball wrote that “there were not twenty persons on earth that would declare that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God” (1).
While Joseph was visiting the Saints in Missouri (where he had got them to establish the Church there as well) for five weeks, David Whitmer, Martin Harris, and Oliver Cowdery (the three witnesses of the Book of Mormon), pledged their loyalty to a girl with a black stone who claimed to be a prophetess. The High Council excommunicated 28 members, including Martin Harris. Church dissenters brawled with faithful Saints in the temple; lawsuits were brought against Church leaders who fled to Missouri. The Church in Ohio was crumbling (while a new church was formed—the first Mormon schism).
When Joseph learned about yet another warrant for his arrest in January 1838, he left Kirtland for good under cover of night. Faithful Saints still in Ohio began to make plans to join the Prophet (and escape from the financial crash of Kirtland while those who stayed faced more hardship). Today, visitors can visit the places that have been restored by the LDS and the Community of Christ (formerly the Reorganised Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) who own much of the site.
Disputes with Missourians led to the Mormon War that ended when the state’s governor issued an “extermination order”
So now Joseph as other Church leaders were headquartered in Missouri. In 1831, Joseph had declared that the righteous would gather in Independence, Missouri, for the Second Coming. This is where the city of Zion was meant to be built. Sidney Rigdon dedicated Jackson County for a place of gathering; Joseph dedicated the temple site. The Prophet received revelations in Missouri (D&C 58, 59, 60). The state was declared to be where the ancient Garden of Eden had been (and Adam-Ondi-Ahman the site where Father Adam blessed his posterity).
But Missouri was not ‘in a good place’ either. Long before the Kirtland ‘exodus’, between 1,000 and 1,200 Saints based in Jackson County unsettled the old settlers. Mob violence had previously erupted in Independence, W. W. Phelps’s printing office had been destroyed, with pages of the Book of Commandments (the first edition of what would become the Doctrine and Covenants) scattered. Local leaders had even got tarred and feathered while Church settlements throughout the county got attacked. The Church purchased a site that became the city of Far West, and in 1836 Caldwell County was created specifically for the Saints, but tensions remained.
Disputes with Missourians led to the Mormon War that ended when the state’s governor issued an “extermination order” to expel the Mormons: the only order of this type in the history of the United States. (2)
Large-scale evacuation from Missouri to Illinois began in 1839. Today, the plot of land in Independence that Joseph said would be the site of Zion’s great temple is a vacant lot, owned and safeguarded by a small Mormon offshoot. Meanwhile, the Community of Christ (formerly Reorganised LDS and now a mainstream Christian denomination like the LDS Church is becoming) have a big conch-shaped temple across the street from the designated temple site and LDS Church has a Visitor Center too. A few miles away, the LDS have built a temple. Further afield, a group of Fundamentalist Mormons have completed their own temple, where I will receive my own endowment someday.
(1) Brodie, “No Man Knows My History”, page 203