Chapter 17: Zion
The emigration to this land is very extensive and numerous[.]…[The First Presidency are chiefly engaged in counciling and settling the emigrants to this land. The [prophecies] are fulfilling very fast upon our heads and in our day and generation. They are gathering from the North, and from the South, from the East, and from [the] West unto Zion for safety against the day of wrath which is to be poured out without mixture upon this generation according to the prophets.
—Joseph Smith (1838)1
The Missouri era (1831 to 1839) casts a deep shadow over the history of Mormonism.2 Joseph Smith taught that the area was the land of antediluvian Old Testament narration, that Jackson County was old Eden. Adam-ondi-Ahman, in nearby Daviess County, was the place where Adam and Eve fled when driven from the idyllic garden, and Far West, in Caldwell County, was the “spot where Cain Killed Abel.”3 Mormons hoped initially and perhaps naively that Jackson County, the fabled “land of their inheritance,” would be rescued from non-believing hordes. Joseph Smith advised Lyman Wight and others of the Missouri High Council on 16 August 1834 “to be in readiness to move into Jackson County in two years from the 11th of September next, which is the appointed time for the redemption of Zion.”4
With the passing of time it became clear that Zion would not be redeemed nor would the Saints be redressed for their Jackson County losses. The Missouri legislature moved in 1836 to organize Caldwell County for Mormon settlement; thus most Saints left Clay and Ray counties and established new lives in Caldwell. John Whitmer and W. W. Phelps chose the county’s center for a new city of refuge which they named Far West. Developed on large tracts of wild prairie lands, the village eventually became home to 2,500 people, the largest Mormon population in the state. Between December 1837 and mid-July 1838 more than 1,600 Kirtland Saints migrated to Far West, abandoning homes and flocking to this new colonizing adventure in the wilderness of western America. Land was cheap. In Caldwell County the Saints purchased nearly 250,000 acres of federal lands for $1.25 an acre; nearly thirty townsites were eventually settled.
Far West at its apex consisted of hundreds of log cabins, four dry goods stores, nine groceries, six blacksmith shops, and two hotels. The schoolhouse, where Sidney Rigdon preached shortly after settling in the area, was moved to the center of the town square for use as a combination church, town hall, and courthouse.5 The Rigdon dwelling, a two-story log cabin directly across the street from the town square, was the village’s largest home. Upon leaving Kirtland, Rigdon lost virtually everything he owned, including twelve acres of property valued at $4,211.6 He rebounded financially in Missouri, however, quickly finding sustenance from church coffers.
Mormonism’s theological preoccupation with economics has been evident since the earliest days of the movement. The Book of Mormon implied that the rewards for righteous living included material wealth (Alma 1:29, 31). While the Mormon work ethic, as pointed out by historian D. Michael Quinn, was “communitarian rather than individualistic, and socialistic rather than entrepreneurial or capitalistic,” church leaders such as Rigdon, Smith, and later Brigham Young, seldom went without.7 Rigdon and Smith, upon arriving in Caldwell County, presented their financial plight to the Far West High Council on 12 May 1838. Both leaders indicated that during the previous eight years they had spent their “time[,] tallents],] & property, in the service of the Church, and are now reduced as it were to absolute beggery, and still were detained in service of the Church.” They had now reached the point, they expressed, where either something “should be done for their support.… by the Church” or they “must do it themselves.”
After a lengthy discussion, during which George M. Hinkle forcefully opposed “a salaried ministry,” the high council voted eleven to one to give the two men eighty acres of land each and to contract with them for their services, “not for preaching or for receiving the word of god by revelation, neither for instructing the Saints in righteousness,” but for work rendered in the “[p]rinting establishment, in translating the ancient records &c, &c.” After negotiations, they ultimately agreed to offer Rigdon and Smith an annual contract of $1,100 apiece, more than three times what the average worker of the day could earn.8 Ebenezer Robinson, the high council’s clerk, later wrote that “when it was noised abroad that the Council had taken such a step, the members of the church, almost to a man, lifted their voices against it. The expression of disapprobation was so strong and emphatic that at the next meeting of the High Council the resolution voting them a salary, was rescinded.”9
Angered by this refusal, Rigdon and Smith sought additional sources of church revenues. A revelation given to them in Kirtland on 12 January 1838, but not yet public, was dusted off and presented to the membership. In response to the question: “O Lord, show unto thy servants how much thou requirest of the properties of thy people for a tithing,” the Saints were told: “I require all their surplus property to be put into the hands of the Bishop of my Church of Zion, for the building of mine house and for the laying the foundation of Zion, and for the priesthood and for the debts of the presidency of my church.”10
Ten days later another revelation explained that surplus tithing was to be “disposed of by a Council composed of the First Presidency…and of the Bishop and his Council; and by my High Council” (D&C 120). On 26 July still further instruction declared that the “first presidency [should] keep all their properties, that they can dispose of to their advantage and Support and the remainder be put into the hands of the Bishop or Bishops agreeably to the commandments, and revelations.”11 For those unwilling to be so “tithed,” the 8 July revelation threatened: “If my people observe not this law, to keep it holy, and by this law sanctify the land of Zion…behold verily I say unto you, it shall not be a land of Zion unto you.”12
Rigdon expanded on the revelation’s warning, adding that noncompliers would be “delivered over to the brother of Gideon and be sent bounding over the Prairies as the dissenters were a few days ago.”13 But fate failed to discriminate between non-tithers and tithe payers. Within four months the entire body of Mormons was driven from their promised land by looting, pillage, and gratuitous violence. Trouble began on 6 August 1838 at Gallatin, the county seat of Daviess County. During the third week of July, Judge Josiah Morin, a Democratic candidate for state senator, informed John D. Lee and Levi Stewart of a Whig plot to prevent Mormons—who voted Democrat en masse—from casting ballots in Daviess County on election day.
Shortly after polls opened on 6 August, William Peniston, a Whig candidate for the state legislature, mounted a barrel and began castigating Mormons. Calling church leaders “horse thieves, liars, counterfeiters,” the agitator asserted that “he did not consider [that] Mormons had any more right to vote than the niggers.” Goaded into action by Peniston’s rhetoric, several Missourians attempted to bully the eight or ten Mormons waiting to vote. A brawl quickly erupted. John L. Butler noted that when he saw what was happening he “hollowed out to the top of my voice…O yes, you Danites, here is a job for us.” He picked up a large oak bludgeon, and “When I got in reach of them, I commenced to call out loud for peace and at the same time making my stick to move to my own utter astonishment, tapping them as I thought light, but they fell as dead men.”14
In the brief skirmish the heavily outnumbered Mormons prevailed. Nearly thirty Missourians were wounded by Butler and others. Fearing vengeance by the regrouped ruffians, Mormons retreated to their cabins, gathered up their families, and hid as a group in a hazel thicket until morning. Word of the fray soon reached Far West. Judge Morin, passing through town, informed Smith and Rigdon that he had heard that “two or three of our brethren were killed by the Missourians, and left upon the ground, and not suffered to be interred…and [that] a majority of the inhabitants of Daviess county were determined to drive the Saints from that county.”15
The signal dram sounded and a Danite company, including the First Presidency, assembled in the town square. One observer said that Rigdon addressed the troops with sword in hand. “Now we as the people of God do declare and decree,” he shouted, brandishing the cutlass, “by the Great Jehovah, the eternal and omnipotent God, that sits upon his vast and everlasting throne, beyond that ethereal blue, we will bath our swords in the vital blood of the Missourians or die in the attempt!”16 Under the command of Danite regimental Colonel George W. Robinson, the well-armed company, which had grown to nearly one hundred men, reached Lyman Wight’s home at Diahman by nightfall. There the men listened to a more accurate report of the election day fight. Instead of returning home the next morning, however, they decided to visit prominent Daviess County men to assess their view of the incident at Gallatin.
Three Danite leaders, Lyman Wight, Sampson Avard, and Cornelius P. Lott, called on Judge Adam Black, a local justice of the peace whom George W. Robinson, the prophet’ s scribe, attested was “[manifestly] an en[e]my of ours.”17 The group demanded the judge sign a prepared statement renouncing his affiliation with vigilantes and pledging...