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Early Mormon History 

Joseph Smith's Vision 

Joseph Smith Jr. is the founder of the Mormon Church and Mormon History began when his life did.  Joseph Smith was born in 1805 to a God-fearing family of New England farmers; he was the third child of nine.  The Smiths moved their family several times and by 1820 they had moved to Manchester, New York amidst a great religious revival.  During this period of religious debate, Joseph, then fourteen, took a great interest in the revival and wanted to know which church was correct.  He felt compelled to pray about his confusion when reading in the book of James, chapter 1, verse 5:  If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.  In response to his prayer, offered in a grove of trees near his family's farm, Smith told of a vision he received.  He was visited by God the Father and Jesus Christ.  They told him that none of the churches on the earth were the true church, and that he would help build up the Church of Jesus Christ in the last days. 

The Book of Mormon 

Joseph Smith went about the usual life of a young man for the next few years without any more miraculous visions.  But in 1823 an angel of the Lord named Moroni visited him and told him of an ancient record hidden in a nearby hillside written on golden plates.  It contained an account of the people of God on the American continent.  This record contained what is now the Book of Mormon.  Smith was appointed to translate the record and proclaim its message to the world as a testament that the Church of Jesus Christ was restored to the earth.  That angel visited him annually, giving further instructions and warnings about his coming mission, until September 1827 when he was told to fetch this record from the Hill Cumorah.  Joseph Smith commenced translating the record into English by use of the Urim and Thummim, seer stones that were buried with the ancient record.  During the translation process, Joseph inquired of the Lord concerning several points of doctrine. In response he received a visitation from angels who conferred the priesthood of God upon him and the authority to establish and administer the Church of Jesus Christ. 

The Church of Jesus Christ 

The Book of Mormon was published in March of 1830, just a few days before the official organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by six individuals in Fayette, New York on April 6.  The newly organized church sent missionaries almost immediately to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and the message of the Book of Mormon, the first missionary being Joseph's brother, Samuel Smith.  For many years those that converted to the Mormon Church gathered together in one place to help build Zion, the community of the people of God.  The following years in Mormon history were spent trying to find a place for the Mormons to settle.  From the first time Joseph Smith mentioned his heavenly vision publicly he faced ridicule and hostility.  When he formed a church it intensified into violent persecutions. 

Ohio and Missouri 

The first central location for the Church in Mormon history was Kirtland, Ohio in 1831.  Later that year Joseph Smith received revelation that Jackson County, Missouri was the location for the building of Zion, the Promised Land for the Mormons, and Ohio was only a temporary gathering place, while Missouri was prepared for their immigration.  Mormons began buying up land in Missouri and establishing settlements.  The settlers of Missouri saw this immigration as a threat and persecution of the Mormons became politically motivated as well as religious.  The superior numbers of the Mormons that began to arrive in Missouri and the united political voice under a single leader prompted mob violence by the settlers and they drove the Mormons from Jackson County into neighboring Clay County near the end of the year 1833.  Joseph Smith and other Mormon leaders constantly petitioned the government for protection and justice but to little avail.  A few months later a group of 200 men that called itself Zion’s Camp set out to reclaim the Mormons' lands in Missouri and come to the aid of the Mormons driven out of Jackson County.  But when they arrived, Joseph felt inspired to leave vengeance to the Lord and they merely assisted those displaced by the mobs before returning to Ohio.  In this same year construction on the first Mormon temple was begun in Kirtland.  Joseph Smith taught of higher instructions and covenants and blessings that were possible through ordinances performed in a temple. 

Mormon history saw the completion of the Kirtland Temple in 1836 but in that same year the settlers of Clay County, Missouri voted to expel the Mormons.  The state of Missouri created Caldwell County for the Mormons to settle.  The Mormons' history in Ohio ended in 1837 when a bank set up by Joseph Smith failed and embittered many members who stirred up persecutions among neighboring communities.  Late in the year Joseph Smith called for the Church to all gather in one body and the Mormons in Kirtland moved to Caldwell County.  The Missouri settlers were still wary of the Mormons and their political influence.  Harassment and violence continued until Governor Lilburn W. Boggs issued an extermination order against the Mormons in October of 1838.  Many Mormons were killed, Joseph Smith and several other leaders were captured and jailed, but the majority of Mormons escaped to Illinois. 


In April 1839 Joseph Smith managed to escape his wrongful imprisonment and joined the Mormons in Illinois.  He chose the banks of the Mississippi in Hancock County as the new gathering place for the Mormons.  So began the Nauvoo chapter of Mormon history.  The Mormons thrived in Illinois.  For a time, Nauvoo was the biggest city in the state of Illinois.  In 1840, just ten years after the church was organized, the membership was 16,000.  In the fall they began building another Mormon temple.  Enemies of the Mormons continued to threaten them.  Missouri attempted to extradite Joseph Smith and disaffected Mormons wrote attacks on Smith forcing him into hiding in 1842 to avoid imprisonment.  The next year Joseph Smith began teaching the doctrine of polygamy.  This was a major point in Mormon Church history.  Many members would not accept it and left the church, and in turn persecuted it.  A few began to practice polygamy in secret to avoid greater persecutions. 


In July 1844 the only edition of the Nauvoo Expositor was published.  It attacked and denounced Smith on polygamy and many other points and called for him to be hung.  Joseph Smith was the mayor of Nauvoo and he and the city council ruled the paper an imminent threat to the safety of Nauvoo and ordered the Expositor press destroyed.  The county sheriff sought Joseph Smith on charges of inciting a riot and Joseph went into hiding again.  He surrendered himself at the request of Governor Ford and was placed in Carthage Jail with his brother Hyrum and two other Mormon leaders.  On June 27, 1844, a mob rushed the jail, killing Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum.  The two others imprisoned survived.  John Taylor, future Church president, was one of them and recorded the events (see D&C 135).  The Mormons' enemies expected them to disperse after Joseph Smith’s death but Brigham Young rallied the Mormons together and they stayed.  When it became apparent that the Mormons were not leaving the attacks began again and the Nauvoo charter was revoked in January 1845.  There had been talk among Mormon leaders before Joseph's death of moving to the Rocky Mountains. Brigham Young prepared the Mormons to go west and settle their own territory.  In February 1846 the first company of Mormon pioneers crossed the Mississippi River. 

Trek to Utah 

By June 1846 the Mormon pioneers had arrived in Iowa and established Winter Quarters, Nebraska as a departure point for the migration.  In April of the next year Brigham Young and his party blazed the Mormon Trail to what is now Utah.  On July 24, 1847 the company arrived in the Salt Lake Valley and Young proclaimed it as the place the Mormons would settle.  In a few years the Mormons had all gathered in Utah.  Brigham Young sent settlers to establish Mormon communities in southern Utah, Arizona, Idaho, and all around Salt Lake City to strengthen their resources.  Mormon missionary efforts, which had not ceased through all the trials and persecutions, had resulted in more Mormons in Europe than in America.  Many of these immigrated to Utah, further increasing their numbers.  In 1851 Brigham Young was appointed territorial governor.  Now that they were well-established, the Mormon Church announced publicly for the first time, the practice of polygamy.  It was this issue that would threaten Mormon history yet again. 

Utah War 

The Republican Party held that the two relics of barbarism remaining in the United States were slavery and polygamy.  Several federal appointees of Utah returned east creating rumors of insurrection among the Mormons.  President James Buchanan targeted Mormon polygamy as a distraction from the more pressing matter of slavery.  He used the bogus claims of the Mormons rebelling against the authority of the United States to send a newly appointed governor and five thousand troops to restore order.  The Mormons refused to be driven from this place and prepared to defend themselves.  Under this climate of war one of the most tragic events in Mormon history occurred.  The Mountain Meadows Massacre happened shortly before the army and new governor arrived in Utah.  The army was slowed in arriving to Utah which prevented a violent confrontation between them and the Mormons during the height of their paranoia. Brigham Young met with the new governor Alfred Cumming and obtained an assurance that Mormon settlers would not be harassed, after which he resigned the governorship.  The Mormons had avoided war and further relocation.  The Civil War took the pressure off the Mormons for a time, but at its end, with slavery abolished, polygamy again became a target.  Several laws were passed outlawing polygamy.  At first these were difficult to enforce, but after the death of Brigham Young many church leaders practicing polygamy were jailed or went into hiding.  Pressure from the federal government increased until 1890 when Mormon Church president Wilford Woodruff announced a revelation from the Lord to end the practice of polygamy (Official Declaration 1).   

Growth of the Church 

With the end of polygamy came statehood for Utah and the violent and unpredictable early Mormon history came to an end.  The world wars slowed and even stopped missionary work for a while, but since World War II the Mormon Church has seen rapid international growth.  In 1947 church membership was one million.  By 1997 it was ten million.  The latest struggle of Mormon history has been international expansion.  With the addition of so many cultures to a church founded by Americans of Western European background, many steps have been taken to organize the programs and teachings of the church to separate culture from doctrine.  The most recent major revelation in the Mormon Church was the 1978 announcement by President Spencer W. Kimball allowing blacks to hold the priesthood (Official Declaration 2). 

Mormon history began with the miraculous vision of a farm boy in 1820 and has resulted in a worldwide church of twelve million members and fifty thousand missionaries converting two-hundred fifty thousand people a year throughout the world.  There are over 100 Mormon temples in operation.  And now more Mormons live outside of the United States than in it.  Starting with six members in 1830, the Mormon Church has grown to a highly respected international church in less than two-hundred years.

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