JOSEPH SMITH, and Mormon History

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This is an extract of the article, with small photos. You will find the complete article with full-sized photos in my e-book View America: West Mountain - Part 2

In the travel series View America, West Mountain - Part 2 covers Idaho, Nevada and Utah. It is not a traditional travelogue, but a non-commercial and more or less objective chronicle of an in-depth exploration of these states. Each state is described with its own brief historical background and its main sights, tourist attractions and points of interest.

My book does not describe lodgings, restaurants or entertainment, except where these may interact with the narrative. It is illustrated with more than 100 full-sized photos.

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Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon

I realize that this subject may be somewhat touchy, but at least in the historical sense it is most interesting, as is the figure of Joseph Smith.

Joseph Smith was born in Vermont in 1805. At this time, the American movement of religious resurrection was very strong, and young Joseph was one of many who diligently searched for the true faith. Around 1820 he had a vision, during which he received the visit of God the Father and Jesus Christ, who informed him that their true Church no longer existed. In later years Smith had more visions and he was informed that he would receive more detailed instructions.

In 1827 an angel revealed to him the location of a book, buried in a nearby hill. Every year he was allowed to read and translate the text, that was written on golden leaves. By 1830 his translation was finished, and he wrote the Book of Mormon. According to Smith this book is the religious history of the ancient inhabitants of North America, which were direct descendants of the original people of God, and also had known divine apparitions. He spread his teachings and gradually acquired more followers.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

On 06 April 1830 he founded "The Church of Christ", which quickly became known as "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints". A year later the Smith family moved from Fayette in New York to Kirtland in northeastern Ohio, where another church, the Disciples of Christ, converted in mass and were baptized. Almost simultaneously, another Mormon community was founded in Independence, Missouri.

In 1839 the Mormons were expelled from both communities, and they fled to the city of Commerce in Illinois, which they renamed Nauvoo. Which means "to be beautiful" in Hebrew. However, even opposition and persecution could not interrupt their passionate missionary work, and they sent missionaries to England. This yielded a mass of English members, many of whom came over to the U.S.

Joseph Smith stained glass

the Book of Mormon
Joseph Smith

Military, economic and political Power

To avoid further persecution, Smith requested and received authorization from the government of Illinois to set up a private militia, the Legion of Nauvoo, which was in fact a private army. In 1845 the Mormon community counted more than 12,000 members, rivaling the size of Chicago at the time. Through its utterly authoritarian leadership it became a formidable economic competitor. And even more important, it became a political bloc of votes, that was not to be underestimated.

A further problem was that the Mormons practiced a hidden or even open polygamy. They interpreted the text from the Bible "Go and multiply" quite literally as a command, as indeed many other religions did before them. In 1830 people simply wished many children to one another, just as nowadays they wish each other a good health.

Joseph Smith for President !

Joseph Smith lynching 1844In February 1844, Joseph Smith announced his candidacy for the presidency, being one of the most famous figures in the West. Although his voter base was far too narrow for him to win this election, his political ambitions and popularity scared his opponents out of their wits.

A pretext for more drastic action was easily found, when Smith ordered the destruction of a newspaper that attacked his leadership. Somewhat later Joseph and his brother Hyrum Smith were imprisoned in Carthage, on the convenient and "elastic" charges of treason and conspiracy.

Their private militia was more than strong enough to have thwarted the arrest, but the governor of Illinois gave his personal assurance for their complete safety during this so-called "administrative procedure". But as it was, both brothers were almost immediately lynched by a hastily drummed up, "spontaneous" and masked mob...

Emigration over the Mormon Trail

Mormon Trail map

Most of the remaining Mormons were now led by the Twelve Apostles. In 1846 the Mormons decided to withdraw to Mexican territory in the west, because they were persecuted in Ohio, Missouri and Illinois.

They sought a very secluded area, far removed from the gentiles or non-Mormons, and found it near the Great Salt Lake.

The Mormon Trail extends from Nauvoo, Illinois, to Salt Lake City, Utah.

The trail was used for more than 20 years, until the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. Among the emigrants were the Mormon handcart pioneers of 1856–1860.

Mormon Trail Center, Omaha, NE Mormon Trail scene


In 1847 Utah was still a part of Mexico, but one year later, after the Mexican War, the territory went to the U.S. The Mormon convention wanted to create a new state of Deseret, which in the Book of Mormon means "honeybee". In the new "beehive", life was difficult, but through hard work and with a little luck the colony grew strongly. After the exodus Brigham Young, head of the Twelve Apostles, became the new Prophet.

In 1849 Brigham Young asked Congress for an enormous territory, that comprised no less than eight of the present states, and he also wanted an outlet to the sea through San Diego in California. In 1850 Congress befell of a Solomon's judgment, which gave a little something to everybody, and it founded the new Utah Territory. Though Brigham Young didn't obtain his own Mormon state, "his" Utah Territory included present Utah, almost all of Nevada, and major parts of Wyoming and Colorado. He also became its first governor.

Ten thousand Mormons moved to Utah, and soon the cities Salt Lake City, Ogden, Bountiful, Provo and Manti were founded. Ten years later they had increased to forty thousand people ! Eventually more than 300 Mormon communities were founded throughout the US, from California to Colorado and from Mexico to Canada, even though most Mormons still lived in Utah.

Brigham Young map of Deseret

Continuing problems

But still the problems weren't over. Their experiments with economic communities, and their successful cooperatives were seen as a major obstacle to THE American deity, which is business... Furthermore, all Mormons voted in bloc for the political party that was approved by their church.

In 1857 President James Buchanan fired Young as governor, despite his enormous voters potential. He sent troops to Utah to convince the Mormons to abide by federal laws, which promptly provoked the Utah War. After several political gaffes, a real war was only narrowly avoided...

Just before the presidential election, and considering the enormous number of votes that Young controlled, Buchanan changed his political tack again, and he renegotiated with Young. All offenses would be forgiven and forgotten, as long as someone else became governor...

Federal troops were stationed in Utah until after the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. Then Young sent a telegram with congratulations to the new president Abraham Lincoln. He assured him of his eternal loyalty (and at the same time of the votes of his constituents...), something which Lincoln could certainly use well. Things remained muddy, until in 1890 president Wilford Woodruff issued a proclamation that meant the end of polygamy. This led to the immediate integration of the Mormons in the American society.

Video : the Mormon Trail


** Read about Temple Square in Salt Lake City **