Ep 45 – Militant Seekers of Truth
On this episode, the duration of our discussion lands us in September and early October of 1838. We start with brief introductions to Generals Alexander Doniphan and David Atchison; two non-Mormon allies the Mormons desperately needed when it seemed everybody in Missouri wanted them dead or gone. Jo and Lyman Wight retained these generals for legal counsel prior to a ceremonial preliminary trial held to charge Jo and Wight with mob violence. Rumors were also circulating that the Mormons were trying to ally themselves with the Native Americans to attempt an overthrow of the Missourian Government. Rumors don’t need to be founded in reality to scare the shit out of the public. Diahmen comes under siege from Dr. W. W. Austin’s troops after the Mormons steal a convoy of arms and take three prisoners. After a buy-out of the non-Mormons in Daviess County is negotiated, these anti-Mormon vigilantes lay siege on DeWitt and force its surrender nearly 2 weeks later. Mormons are chased out of their homes with many dying from exposure and illness. Jo had to do something to keep his people from starving…
1830 1st edition BoM title page
Asahel Lathrop affidavit
My Book of Mormon D&C war section
BBC The Life of Muhammad
Aversions Crown Alien Metal video
Podunk Polymath guest spot
Outro music by Jason Comeau http://aloststateofmind.com/
Show Artwork http://weirdmormonshit.com/
Voicemail Line (864)Nake-dMo (625-3366)
Welcome to episode 45 of the NMPC, the serial Mormon history podcast. Today is January 5th, 2017, my name is Bryce Blankenagel and thank you for joining me.
We have a lot to get to today so let’s jump right in! In order to understand the focus of the timeline today we need to be introduced to a few very important people in the Missouri-Mormon conflict and understand where their allegiances lie. The first people for our introductions today are Generals Atchison and Doniphan. First General David R. Atchison. He was living in Liberty, Clay County, Missouri in 1830 when the Mormons began moving in to Jackson county. In 1833 when the Mormons were chased out of Jackson county, Atchison, being friendly to the Mormons, was chosen to represent them in the quasi-legal expulsion proceedings.
Next, we have General Alexander W. Doniphan. In 1833, during the Mormon expulsion from Jackson county, Doniphan moved into the same building as Atchison and began practicing law as well defending the Mormons. Keep these two guys in mind for the next little while as they will be very important people in our timeline throughout the rest of 1838. Generals Atchison and Doniphan were on the Mormon’s side for the 1838 conflict in Missouri. If not for these non-Mormon generals that sympathized with the Mormons, shit would have become exponentially worse, incomprehensibly faster than it did. Those are the two main dudes for our introductions today, we’ll be talking about these guys quite a lot.
Now that our introductions are out of the way, let’s jump into how these guys are relevant in the historical timeline. In response to the Danites surrounding Judge Adam Black’s home, Sherriff William Morgan issued writs of arrest for Joseph Smith and General Lyman Wight. Remember, peaceful assembly isn’t a crime, even if every person in that assembly is armed with all the guns in the country, but according to Missouri law, crossing county lines and surrounding an elected official’s home to force that official to sign a document under duress was considered a series of crimes, crimes for which General Lyman Wight and Jo were required to answer. On September 4th, Jo met with Generals Atchison and Doniphan and retained them as the Mormon’s legal counsel, and they gave Jo some good advice. They told him and Lyman Wight to appear voluntarily at the preliminary hearing to answer for the mob related crimes of crossing county lines and surrounding the homes of elected officials.
In an act of good faith and in hopes of de-escalation, Jo and Wight consented, with a caveat. The district judge that would preside over the hearing was Justice Adam Black, one of the people against whom the Mormons had committed the crimes. There can be no argument made that Black was an objective justice of the peace in this preliminary trial and everybody knew it. So, Jo requested that Black be replaced by another local justice who wasn’t an involved party with the mob crimes Jo and Wight had committed. Here enters Justice Austin A. King. Judge Black would be viciously opposed to the Mormons throughout the entire conflict. He would be one of the primary instigators of aggression against the Mormons during the final months of 1838, but Judge King, who was put in his place for this preliminary hearing, wasn’t exactly an unaffected observer.
Here is a description of Judge King from the 1838 Mormon War in Missouri, a book I’ve been relying heavily on to properly hash out this confusing time in Mormon history. I’ll just say right now, please read this book. It’s available digitally or paperback online or you can go to Benchmark Books in SLC and buy a copy like I did. I always recommend supporting a small business if at all possible. Please read this book to understand what we’re discussing right now. This is a description taken from page 81 quoting Peter H. Burnett, a local attorney. Judge Austin King was “a very serious, religious man, not generally given to joviality, but respected for his legal knowledge and conduct of court. Judge King was fully aware of the history of Mormon problems in Missouri: his brother-in-law had been killed five years previously in a skirmish with the Mormons in Jackson County. How this affected King’s view of the Mormons and his judgment at the hearing cannot be determined.”
Personally, I would go out on a limb and say he didn’t like the Mormons, as did most non-Mormon Missourians. But, at least his house hadn’t been surrounded by the armed Danites as had Judge Black, so Judge King was somewhat more objective than Judge Black, and was therefore appointed to preside over the hearing. The argument could be made that the Mormon’s legal counsel should have persisted in finding a judge who was further disconnected from the events dealing with the Mormons than Judge King, but given the nature of this preliminary hearing and the lack of legal infrastructure, King was about the best the Mormons could do.
This court hearing for Jo and Wight on September 7th 1838 was merely a preliminary trial. It was only held to determine if the prosecution had enough evidence to hold a real trial. This distinction of preliminary trials as opposed to actual criminal court proceedings is a very important detail to remember over the next few episodes as it will come in to play in November of 1838.
The preliminary hearing wasn’t held in any large courthouse as would be expected, rather, it was a little more ragtag of a hearing held in a grove of trees on a farm owned by a man named John Raglin. As would be expected with any high-tension case like this, mobs from both sides of the aisle showed up in force to express their stance on the perceived Mormon aggression. Perceived aggression is important because both sides felt as if they were operating on the defensive when both sides had been taking steps that were seen as aggressive by the other side.
This is another quote from the 1838 Mormon War in Missouri describing the situation at this Sept 7th preliminary trial overseen by Justice Austin A. King.
“A dozen Mormons, together with Atchison and Doniphan, accompanied Smith and Wight to the hearing. Despite Atchison’s assurances, the Prophet still feared for his safety. He stationed a company of armed men just inside the Caldwell border, with orders to ride swiftly to the rescue if violence occurred. The Far West militia also stood ready to give assistance, and, as one further precaution, Joseph and Hyrum Smith hid their weapons nearby in the woods…
As the time neared for the hearing to begin, a large and unfriendly crowd of Daviess settlers gathered at Raglin’s farm, cursing and threatening the Mormon defendants. Before trouble could begin, [General] David Atchison stepped forward and, fingering his gun, warned the men, “Hold on, boys, if you fire the first gun there will not be one of you left.”
General Atchison, being friends with the Mormons and a respected non-Mormon citizen, was heard and dually noted by the opposing mobs. No violence would ensue this evening and the court proceeded without incident.
William Peniston, the dickbag who stood on the barrel and incited the riot during Gallatin election day one month before this hearing, was the prosecutor on behalf of the state of Missouri for the hearing, with Justice Adam Black appearing as the prosecution’s only witness for this preliminary hearing.
The point of this hearing was more ceremonial than anything else. The entire reason for calling it in the first place was to determine whether or not Jo and General Wight were in the wrong for surrounding the homes of elected officials and to ascertain the motives of the Danites in taking such actions. Essentially, if Peniston and Black could prove that the Mormons had malicious intent and were going to kill Black if he didn’t sign the Mormon’s document, it would be treasonous and fitting for capital punishment for Jo and Wight, but it was still a great burden of proof to meet in order to legally call for capital punishment in a treason case.
Of course, Jo and his witnesses contended that the visit of the mob outside of Justice Black and Sherriff Morgan’s homes was merely a cordial visit with an armed mob. It was completely their decision to sign or reject the document, they only wanted it signed to allay the collective anxiety of the Mormons who feared they had no allies in elected office… They weren’t far from wrong at this point, and no violence happened to Black or Morgan so Jo and Wight had a pretty solid case.
Because this was only a preliminary trial, the only reason for holding it was to determine if the prosecution had enough evidence to move forward to a Grand Jury trial and bear further investigation. Justice King determined the prosecution’s case was solid enough to warrant a grand jury to investigate charges of misdemeanor conduct on the part of Jo and Wight.
This preliminary trial was seen as completely unfair by the Mormons and even some local newspapers. The general feeling was that King sided with the anti-Mormon mob and only came down with the verdict to hold a grand jury because he disliked the Mormons. Another justification for King’s decision was to hopefully cool off the tensions existing between the Mormons and Missourians. If he sided with the Mormons and found no fault, the anti-Mormon mob surrounding this tribunal on Raglin’s farm might just drag Jo and Wight out by the heels and have their own tribunal outside ending with the lynching of these largely innocent men. A small number of good arguments can be made that King took the right side of the conflict here. To lend credibility to such claims, Jo and General Wight submitted to the verdict without protest, probably as a sign of good faith that they would obey the legal proceedings regardless of Judge King’s biases.
It’s easy to look back on this half year from June to November of 1838 and say that nobody took any action to try and deescalate the situation. Well, that’s not entirely true. This was one moment we can point to Jo and the leadership and admire their resolve to submit to legal proceedings and obey the law. The simple act of Jo and Wight showing up voluntarily at this hearing is evidence that they were trying to do whatever was best for the Mormons and deescalate the situation, even if it was at the expense of their public persona, but they weren’t stupid.
They didn’t know what to expect that night. The anti-Mormon mob wanted Jo and Wight to answer for crimes of treason and the American frontier was often operating under Jacksonian majority-rule democracy which allowed for wiggle room in the lynching department. The Missourian vigilante mob knew that Jo and Wight surrounded Judge Black and Sherriff Morgan’s homes to force Mormon sympathy, which they despised. They wanted justice, or retribution, depending on how you look at it. If Judge King simply let Jo and Wight go, who knows how the mob would react. They may just throw a rope over a tree branch and take care of the whole Mormon problem right then and there. Fear of unjust vigilante violence is exactly why Jo had a band of Danites camped out a few miles away and a panic squad of a dozen Mormon men surrounding him. That’s why Jo and Hyrum hid their guns in the forest nearby. If shit went tits up they were prepared for the worst.
Let’s quickly go over some of the hidden variables that were adding fire to this conflict. We can trace most of the social pressures between the Mormons and anti-Mormons to land disputes. We’ve been over this before so I’ll be brief. The Mormons were buying up land all over Missouri because they believed that’s where Zion was and the U.S. government gave them great incentives to settle the untamed land. In many frontier states, if you moved to an area and improved it, that land was yours after a few years. That, or the government would offer stimulus packages that made the land absurdly cheap to get people to settle the areas.
Of course, there was the religious aspect which played no small part. Most of the people that were opposed to the Mormons were devoutly religious people that didn’t want to see a Mormon theocracy develop, much less in their own backyard. Picture how many religious people today are afraid of an Islamic caliphate rising on American soil, a truly hysterical phobia with no foundation in reality. The odds are so absurdly low that such a thing could happen, but fearmongering doesn’t work by actual numbers and statistics. These Missourians felt the same way about the Mormons, but they had a bit of Mormon history to substantiate those fears, making them far more rational than anything we can empathize with today.
Add in to the mix the fact that Mormons would vote in whatever way would best serve their interests, as is the greatest ideal of any democracy. That did mean, however, that they would unequivocally oppose the Missourian vote and we saw those tensions play out with the Gallatin Election day battle on August 6th.
One small piece of this puzzle was the fact that Mormons were, for the most part, abolitionists, or at least not friendly to slavery, while Missouri was the northernmost slave state in the Union in the 1830’s. The Mormons were passing out pamphlets and flyers to freed slaves with advertisements that they would teach them how to read… the Book of Mormon. All that was necessary for a real slave uprising was for some freed slaves to become literate and have one powerful charismatic leader to fall in line behind, like Jo. This was an intense fear that gripped the Missourians, even though there was little evidence that the Mormons collectively were abolitionists. From most of Jo’s writings it sounds like he was more of a state’s rights kind of guy which was what most of the Missourians liked, that Jacksonian frontier outlaw style democrat party.
Of course, the KSS company deserves a spot at the table and, thanks to Jackson’s Specie Circular, the Panic of 1837 had wrought the world’s greatest depression upon the new and old world alike. The Mormons had been using paper money that was made more valuable if used as kindling and now they were in dire straits trying to recoup their losses.
Now enters one more piece of the puzzle that adds to the pressure of Mormons vs. Missourians. The rumors that were spreading were damning at many levels. Rumors of hundreds killed at the Gallatin election battle and of the Danite Mormon mob surrounding the homes of public officials were proliferating and used as justification for anti-Mormon vigilantes to do whatever they pleased.
This extra piece I’m talking about was founded on nothing but rumors, from what the evidence tells us anyway. Missouri was the frontier bordering the land of the Lamanites, or as everybody but Mormons calls them, the Indians. The Indian Removal Act had pushed the Native population across the Missouri river and temporarily allowed them to settle in border towns. One of these border towns was Kaw, Missouri, where the Cowdery missionary troop first visited after settling in Independence back in late 1830. The Mormon missionaries were proselyting to the Natives and were kicked off the reservations because they didn’t have permits to preach Christianity over there. Jo even commanded his closest counsellors in 1831 to take the Native women as wives the way the prophets of old took multiple wives, that’s paraphrasing of course. The Mormons were fairly friendly to the Native Americans, but from all available evidence, the Natives couldn’t have given a shit about Jo and his magic gold bible.
This is taken from the title page of the 1830 BoM. I’m reading it from the Joseph Smith papers.org which has a pdf of a first edition BoM with its pedigree intact. This is why I love the jsp project, the information they do make available is rock solid scholarship produced by the church, you can trust the shit out of it.
“BOOK OF MORMON:
AN ACCOUNT WRITTEN BY THE HAND OF MORMON, UPON PLATES TAKEN FROM THE PLATES OF NEPHI.
Wherefore it is an abridgment of the Record of the People of Nephi; and also of the Lamanites; written to the Lamanites, which are a remnant of the House of Israel; and also to Jew and Gentile; written by way of commandment, and also by the spirit of Prophesy and of Revelation.”
You may wonder what that has to do with anything or why I prefaced reading that preface with talk of damaging rumors that were circulating throughout 1838. Rumors began circulating that the Mormons were trying to strike allegiances with the Native population which remained on the other side of the Missouri river; collusion for the purposes of overthrowing the Missouri government and establishing their own Mormon theocracy. There is apparently no historical foundation for these claims, but it’s not a hard conclusion to reach, especially if you hate the Mormons and are willing to join the vigilantes to fight the Mormon devils.
I mean, the fucking Book of Mormon, the foundational text of the religion states on its title page that it’s written to the Lamanites primarily, and Jew and Gentile secondarily. Join that with the fact that the missionaries had been proselyting to the Natives occasionally and were in the process of establishing their theocratic kingdom in Far West and Diahmen, not far from Native settlements; it’s easy to believe the Mormons would turn to the Natives for help in fighting the Missourian mobs, regardless of whether they were based on rumor or fact.
Unfortunately, it’s much easier to spread a rumor than it is to dispel one. Whether or not the Mormons were actually allied with the Natives, anti-Mormons were convinced they were, and that’s what matters. Remember back to the Grandison Newell lawsuit of 1836 where he claimed Jo commanded 2 Mormons to wait outside his house and kill him? Whether or not Jo actually commanded that to happen, it makes a greater impact that rumors were spreading claiming he did; the same was the case with the rumors concerning Mormon allegiances with the Native Americans. Facts didn’t seem to matter when the Mormons could be dehumanized by spreading rumors.
In order to dispel these cancerous rumors, Jo and Rigdon released a statement published in Nile’s National Register October 13 1838. The affidavit was signed on September 8.
“We hereby certify that we have learned that a Mr. Nathan Marsh has certified that the people some time called Mormons have ingratiated themselves with the Indians, for the purpose of getting the Indians to commit depredations upon the people of this state, which certificate of Marsh (as represented to us) is utterly false. We have never had any communication with the Indians on any subject; and we, and all the Mormon church, as we believe, entertain the same feelings and fears towards the Indians that are entertained by other citizens of this state. We are friendly to the constitution and laws of this state and of the United States, and wish to see them enforced”
A man named Colonel Price, who’d been spreading these rumors, considered this affidavit convincing enough and sought to dispel the rumors he’d been spreading for a month and a half before. He wrote a letter that’s currently in the U.S. archives dated September 8 stating “there was nothing thought about raising the Indians, about enlisting the Negroes or about abolitionism.” Taken from page 85 of the 1838 Mormon War in Missouri.
This is what the historical record shows us. There is simply no evidence existing that Jo or any Mormon representatives were attempting to ally themselves with freed slaves or the Native Americans to overcome the vigilante violence they were dealing with. That’s what the current record shows and barring some amazing document revelation, it seems reliable and every legitimate historian would agree with that perspective. Now I’m going to speculate on the record, and that’s all this is, my naked opinion, you decide for yourself what makes sense.
In my opinion, why the fuck wouldn’t Jo try everything in his power to overcome the mob violence? I see this whole time run by a two-faced Jo. There was the public Joseph Smith that submitted to arrest and the preliminary trial without violence on Sept 7th, and released these public statements with demonstrable falsehoods to try to reduce the mob violence or relinquish the rumors that were gripping the public mind. On the other hand, we have the Jo who was the Commander in Chief of the Danites and Army of Israel, who preaches from the pulpit that he refuses to be subject to depredations by the Missourians and won’t submit to mobocrats. Jo and Lyman Wight had been quoted many times saying they won’t agree to a law that refuses to protect the Mormons, a reasonable claim.
This is the two-faced Joseph I’m talking about here. This public statement said that “We have never had any communication with the Indians on any subject;” That’s simply a lie. The Mormons had plenty of contact with Native Americans trying to convert them to Mormonism. They weren’t very successful, despite the reports of Ollie claiming otherwise, but they were trying to bring the Natives into the Mormon fold. Given the strong wording of the affidavit signed by Jo and Rigdon, this perfectly illustrates the prophet and his closest counsellor saying one thing with the complete opposite being the truth.
My opinion, Jo and the Mormons were desperate. I think it’s absurd to claim that the idea of allying with the Natives wasn’t in the mind of Jo or Rigdon. What historical document would we expect to find if Jo were trying to strike up these diplomatic relations? None…. That’s the problem. If Jo himself or one of his minions went to the Natives asking for help in fighting the Missourians, there wouldn’t be any surviving documentation of it. There’s simply no way to prove it did or didn’t happen, we can just say that there is no evidence showing us for sure that they tried to strike a military or diplomatic tie with the Natives. We just have evidence of Jo and Rigdon unequivocally denying it in a public statement containing a blatant falsehood.
I personally believe that Jo, at very least, had the idea in his mind, and very possibly tried to combine forces for the sake of overthrowing the Missouri government. I also believe that Jo commanded Davis and that other guy to go kill Grandison Newell back in ’36, even though that was a lawsuit based on rumors.
I guess it’s a matter of how we interpret the historical record in this case. Often times powerful rumors that are acted upon by mobs have some foundation in reality, but are just blown out of proportion. That’s my Naked opinion. You consider the facts for yourself and come to your own conclusions, my opinions and biases are transparent and hopefully you aren’t too influenced by my limitations as a non-historian podcaster.
Unfortunately, any actions taken by Jo, Rigdon, or really any person in a position of authority to dispel these rumors didn’t much help. Violence continued to escalate. After the Sept 7th hearing, rumors spread that the Mormons were 1,500 to 2,000 strong, eminently expecting reinforcements from Canada, and in open rebellion affecting their will by Danite force. There were around 2,000 Mormons in Diahmen at this time, but only a small number of them were actually members of the Danites or Army of Israel, only a small percentage of that 2,000 people would actually fight, but with rumors circulating, facts like that simply didn’t matter.
Vigilante mobs began to swarm Mormons living on the outskirts of Mormon settlements in Daviess, Carroll and Caldwell counties. This is a quote from an affidavit by Asahel Lathrop, a faithful Mormon living in Missouri. The entire affidavit is available on Lathrop’s Wikipedia page, which is in the show notes.
“I settled in Missouri in the summer of 1838, in Caldwell county, where I purchased land and erected buildings. The said land I now have a deed of; and in the fall I purchased a claim on what is called the East Fork of Grand River, together with a large stock of cattle and horses, sheep and hogs; it being some sixty miles from the aforesaid county where I first located; and moved on to the latter place, supposing that I was at peace with all men; but I found by sad experience that I was surrounded by enemies; for in the fall of 1838, whilst at home with my family, I was notified by a man by the name of James Welden, that the people of Livingston county, had met at the house of one Doctor William P. Thompson, then living in the attached part of said county, for the purpose of entering into measures respecting the people called Mormons; and the same Welden was a member of the same, and also the aforesaid William P. Thompson was a justice of the peace; and they all jointly agreed to drive every Mormon from the state; and notified me that I must leave immediately, or I would be in danger of losing my life.
All this time some of my family were sick; but after listening to the entreaties of my wife to flee for safety, I committed them into the hands of God and left them, it being on Monday morning; and in a short time after I left, there came some ten or fifteen men to my house, and took possession of the same, and compelled my wife to cook for them, and also made free to take such things as they saw fit; and whilst in this situation, my child died, which I have no reason to doubt was for the want of care; which, owing to the abuse she received, and being deprived of rendering that care she would, had she been otherwise situated. My boy was buried by the mob, my wife not being able to pay the last respects to her child.
I went from my home into Daviess county and applied to Austin A. King and General Atchison for advice, as they were acting officers in the state of Missouri. There were men called out to go and liberate my family, which I had been absent from some ten or fifteen days; and on my return I found the remainder of my family confined to their beds, not being able the one to assist the other, and my house guarded by an armed force.
I was compelled to remove my family in this situation, on a bed to a place of safety. This, together with all the trouble, and for the want of care, was the cause of the death of the residue of my family, as I have no doubt; which consisted of a wife and two more children; as they died a few days after their arrival at my friend's. Such was my situation, that I was obliged to assist in making their coffins.”
This was by no means an isolated incident. Anti-Mormon vigilantes, without government sanction, harassed the Mormons and chased them from their homes just as they had Asahel Lathrop. This is approaching October in Missouri, there were some cold nights and some people died from exposure and starvation.
In response to this violence being perpetrated against the Mormons, Jo and his closest leaders ramped their shit up to 11. Jo and Rigdon’s rhetoric escalated at the same rate the violence against innocent Mormons living outside Far West and Diahmen had risen.
General Lyman Wight, somebody who’d been by Jo’s side during the 1834 march of Zion’s camp and long before, is an important piece to the Mormon puzzle. There’s a great description of him on page 86 of 1838 Mormon War in Missouri.
“Impetuous, bold, and fiercely loyal to Joseph Smith, Wight personified the growing militant spirit in Mormonism. He had no love for the Missouri people, who had driven him from his homes in Jackson and Clay counties, and he regularly denounced them from the pulpit. William Swartzell reported that Wight, in a sermon, referred to his Missouri neighbors as ‘hypocrites, long-faced dupes, devils, infernal hob-goblins, and ghosts… [who] ought to be damned, and sent to hell, where they properly belonged.’… ‘eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we fight’. Wight, who held the rank of colonel in the state militia, rode a large brown horse with a bear skin on the saddle, He wore a red scarf, tied around his head Indian-style, had his shirt open and sleeves rolled up, and carried a large cutlass and guns by his side, his rough demeanor and cool leadership infusing his troops with confidence.”
Wight significantly contributed to the problem. He was spouting Rigdon July 4th oration level rhetoric from the pulpit, effectively vilifying the Missourians and swaying the Mormon public opinion that they were alone and no Missourian could be relied upon for help.
The Mormons matched the Missourian vigilantes in all levels of escalation. In response to the anti-Mormon mobs chasing Mormons out of their homes in Caldwell, Daviess, Carroll, and the surrounding counties, the Mormons fortified Diahmen and Far West as the twin sanctuaries for the Mormons, and the Danites began running mobile patrols.
One of these patrols learned of a small convoy of arms which was being transported through Caldwell to the militia in Daviess county. Jo and Wight were scared of what might happen when these arms reached their intended destination, so they stopped it from happening.
On September 9th, the convoy made up of a couple wagons transported by 3 men William McHaney, Alan Miller, and John B. Comer was liberated/appropriated/stolen, whatever you want to call it, by a Mormon mob. Altogether 45 guns were taken by the Mormon mob and absorbed into the Army of Israel. Those were 45 guns that had been sanctioned for the militia in Daviess county, issued by the Richmond county government armory for the Daviess militia to defend itself. The Mormon mob overran them and took the 3 men prisoner.
This was terrible move. This act of seizing arms served to do a number of things and different people took it different ways; once again, rumors fucked everything up.
Try to picture yourself in each different social position given what just happened. If you’re a Mormon and you hear about this escalation in violence and the Army of Israel appropriating these arms, it may be perceived in a positive light. You may think for a moment, hey, we’re getting chased out of our homes, but at least the prophet and his closest advisors are taking care of the problem and securing the twin cities for safe living for all Mormons. Then, the thought may occur, what happens when the militia back in Richmond county hears about Mormons stealing their arms? What then? Will they march on Far West to take back those arms one way or another? This may have been a small victory for the Mormons, but it was a terrible move strategically speaking.
Now picture yourself as a Missourian living in Daviess county with a vehement hatred for those religious fanatics known as the Mormonites. These people who’ve been spewing war-like rhetoric from the pulpit for months, threatening a war of extermination; you’ve been hearing rumors of hundreds killed in various scuffles between the Mormons and your fellow Missourians, none of which you can verify as true, then you hear about the Mormons seizing a convoy of government weapons and taking prisoners. What happens now? Can you count on the Mormons not using those weapons to drive you out of your home the way the militias have been driving the Mormons out of theirs?
Now picture yourself as Generals Atchison or Doniphan. You’ve aligned yourself with the Mormons but are respected lawyers and citizens employed by the Missouri government to head up sanctioned militias to combat and deescalate violence with the Mormons. You hear of them taking these arms and men as prisoners, an act of treason, and what do you do in response? What if you’re governor Lilburn Boggs, tasked with quelling this Mormon rebellion and putting the unrest to rest; what do you do?
The argument can be made, and it was many times by many people, that the Mormons were only acting out of self-preservation, defensively, as they called it, and Generals Doniphan and Atchison knew it and agreed that was the case. All the while this was going on in Daviess county, an army of 150 men led by Dr. W.W. Austin was in the middle of marching to DeWitt in Carroll county to remove the Mormons one way or another.
DeWitt was a contentious town since the Mormon refugees began moving there in the previous spring. By early-September there were dozens of Mormon families living in DeWitt and the anti-Mormons didn’t want them there. The original settlers from decades before were afraid that it might become the next Far West as it was a strategic bottleneck north of Independence on the Missouri river. Such fears were founded as the Mormons were moving in to DeWitt nearly as fast as Diahmen and Far West, what else could the locals presume other than the worst?
Once the militia headed by Dr. W.W. Austin caught word that the Mormons had stolen the 45 guns and taken the 3 men as prisoner, they halted their path for DeWitt, turned around, and marched straight for Diahmen to flex their muscles. Mormons and Missourians both sent petitions to Judge King asking for militia intervention to protect both sides of the conflict. Judge King dispatched General Atchison to get his ass out to Diahmen and sort out all the confusion. This is the phrasing of the actual letter.
“[to] Dispel the forces in Daviess, and all the assembled armed forces in Caldwell, and while there, cause those Mormons who refuse to give up, to surrender and be recognized, for it will not do to compromise the law with them.”
In response, Atchison immediately called out 400 armed men as a sanctioned militia force to respond to the Mormons “defensiveness” and the active aggressiveness of Dr. W.W. Austin’s militia who were headed to Diahmen as well. Tension was building as multiple different militias began converging upon the focal point of Diahmen.
By September 14, Dr. W.W. Austin’s anti-Mormon mob had camped out less than 5 miles from Diahmen and the Mormons had fortified the town with timber and wagons all around. Every entrance and exit to the town was barricaded and under constant patrol by members of the Danites. There were about 400-500 armed Mormon troops camped at Diahmen prepared for a fight, including General Lyman Wight who was commanding officer of the Mormons.
General Doniphan and his small contingency of troops had just been in Far West where he negotiated directly with Jo the release of the 45 guns and the prisoners when he received word of Dr. W.W. Austin’s troops actively sieging Diahmen. He made an immediate 37-mile march with his men in one day to get to Diahmen, trying to calm everything down. Remember, Generals Atchison and Doniphan were friendly to the Mormons and had been Jo and Wight’s legal counsel during the preliminary trial the week previous. Both of these generals were marching with their troops to Diahmen while Dr. W.W. Austin’s troops were camped out and the Mormons were fortifying the shit out of Diahmen. Daviess county was a brewing perfect shitstorm.
Doniphan and his troops arrived late evening on Septemeber 14th literally just as the Mormons and Austin’s troops were preparing for battle the next day. General Doniphan, being the badass he was, literally camped with his troops in the middle ground between Austin’s vigilantes and the Mormons holding up inside Diahmen. This had a few profound effects.
The anti-Mormons couldn’t march on the Mormons in Diahmen if there was a state militia between them that wouldn’t allow the fighting, nor could the Mormons leave their fortification with superior numbers to brute force a victory over Austin’s troops. Doniphan effectively turned his militia into a flesh curtain between the viciously opposed armies. But another profound thing happened at this time, and it was a horrifying realization on everybody’s part, Doniphan’s troops were made up largely of people that hated the Mormons too. Even though they had orders to stop violence from happening by any means necessary, if fighting broke out, Doniphan’s troops wouldn’t side with the Mormons in the conflict, it would be perfectly expected for them to defect and join Austin’s anti-Mormon vigilante. The only difference between Austin’s and Doniphan’s armies was who they were led by, a sentiment not lost on Doniphan’s troops.
If a match struck the kindling built up with all these separate armies, there wouldn’t be anything stopping Doniphan’s troops from committing mutiny of their commander and siding with Austin’s troops in a full-blown assault of Diahmen. That was a constant problem with the people who comprised the state sanctioned miltias who usually hated the Mormons. They were expected to keep the peace and follow the orders of their commanding officers, but if a massive battle broke out and all order went out the window, most of Doniphan’s troops may very well just ignore a cease and desist order and continue firing until all the Mormons were dead.
On September 18 Boggs received word of the standoff between the multiple militias and organized a militia of 2800 troops in Richmond set to march out immediately upon gathering. Of course, militias were the only armed forces a governor or any elected official could call upon to fight Jo’s mob of armed zealots. There wasn’t a national guard or any full-time armed forces commissioned to handle these situations, that infrastructure wouldn’t exist for another half century at least, possibly longer.
What this meant in practical application is state sanctioned militias comprised of citizen soldiers who carry their personal biases and hatred into the fight. One of the main uses of the national guard today is to bring in soldiers who are disconnected from any given situation for the purpose of restoring order. Having a third-party military force to calm the situation down simply wasn’t a luxury Boggs, Atchison, or Doniphan had access to, they could only call out state sanctioned militias comprised of citizen soldiers.
The result of this lack of strategic coordination and existing infrastructure was a situation that made Governor Lilburn Boggs look like a damned fool. On September 18th, he called the 2800 men together to form the militia, working from information he’d received 1-2 days prior. Of course, it takes a few days to gather that many men into platoons, organize leadership, and arm every one of the nearly 3000 people. By the time the army was ready to march to Diahmen to assist Generals Atchison and Doniphan, Boggs received word that the tension had been dispelled by Doniphan, and he was forced to disband the gathering army in Richmond. This was not the first or last time this would happen during this conflict and each time it happened successively the media had more fun lampooning Boggs; effectively demolishing his political career in the process.
One report I read out of the 1838 Mormon War in Missouri said that calling and disbanding so many troops cost the state upward of $60,000 before the conflict was resolved. That’s over a million of today’s dollars spent on gathering and arming troops, only to blue ball everybody and send them all home a few days later. This was also in September, during harvest season. Most of the militia-men were Smiths, Tanners, shop owners, or Farmers, pulled away from their daily work to gather from surrounding counties to formulate the militia, losing many days’ worth of labor during harvest season in the process. That $60,000 number was only cost to the state, it says nothing of the larger economic impact of the tens of thousands of lost man hours by the 2800 people that couldn’t work their fields for days during this confusing militia time.
Of course, this only infuriated Boggs, making him want to disconnect himself from the whole Mormon situation. For many people like Boggs, dealing with anything Mormon in Missouri was nuclear radiation to their career. Generals Doniphan and Atchison, while friendly to the Mormons, by the end of the conflict they were calling the Mormons fanatics who needed to be dealt with, putting them in a more positive light for those who hated the Mormons. But Boggs couldn’t seem to get anything right, and his own apathy played a large role in the escalating conflict.
By the time early October rolls around, Doniphan and Atchison are both writing to Boggs informing him of escalating tensions and pleading with him to make an appearance in person to quell the conflict. Every petition for his presence was refused. Boggs wasn’t responsible for the conflict, but he was responsible for not doing everything in his power to stop it from getting worse. By late October he’d issued the infamous Mormon extermination order to hopefully deal with the situation once and for all, but that’s getting a bit ahead of ourselves.
Let’s get back to the end of September to see how things played in to the beginning of October.
An agreement was made between the Missourians and Mormons living in Daviess county. On September 26th, they had a meeting to appraise the value of the non-Mormons land and come to an agreement that the Mormons would buy out all the non-Mormon citizens living in Daviess county, essentially concentrating their numbers and opening up a bunch of property for the endless stream of refugees arriving from Ohio and Canada. It was generally understood by both parties that if an agreement couldn’t be made, the Mormons would be driven out by the militias with violent measures. Luckily for all, an agreement was struck, and the few remaining non-Mormons vacated Daviess county.
This was a double-edged sword. This agreement was perceived as a godsend by the Mormons, and the Missourians who’d been living in Daviess county for decades longer than any Mormons felt like their home turf had just been uprooted by the strike of a pen. But, given the escalating conflict, most non-Mormons had run from Daviess county like their hair was on fire by the end of September already, but the few remaining hold-outs weren’t so jovial about the agreement. And, of course, because so many people were selling property at the same time, it drove prices down to a fraction of what they should have been worth, so the non-Mormons really got shafted here.
Here’s an excerpt from page 99 of the 1838 Mormon War in Missouri quoting Albert P. Rockwood, a faithful follower of Jo and Rigdon.
“…the mob have now retired from Davies County with shame and disgrace, great, very great fear rests on the Missourians, in Davis Co. they were selling their property verry low to the Brethren, in many cases they sell their Real Estate with their houses and crops on the ground, for less than the crop is worth, Davis County is now in possession of the Brethren, Real Estate of the Brethren has risen while that of the Missourians has fallen ¾ in 3 months thus the Lord is preparing the way for his children.”
Not only were the Missourians selling their property at 1/4th the price it should be worth, Jo and Rigdon were buying it up with church funds and selling it to Mormon refugees that were moving in at an inflated cost above what they’d purchased it for. How deep can this fucking go?
Another massive problem this caused was setting a precedent. The Mormons agreed to buy the non-Mormons out of their property, thus making Daviess county an exclusive Mormon stronghold. Flip that equation around and now the Mormons are essentially obligated to agree to be bought out of their lands in counties where they DON’T hold the majority population. That’s exactly what happened in DeWitt, Carroll county.
Before the conflict arose back in September 10-18th in Diahmen, Dr. W.W. Austin’s militia was on march to Dewitt for the purpose of removing the Mormons from their settlement. When he received word of the Mormons stealing those 45 guns and taking 3 prisoners, he turned his army around and marched on Diahmen as quickly as an army of 150-200 men could logistically do so. Well, Generals Doniphan and Atchison had settled the disagreement with this buy-out in Daviess county and suddenly a couple of anti-Mormon militias didn’t have anything to do but resume their original task of marching on DeWitt back in Carroll County.
By the end of September there were about 200 Mormons living in Dewitt who’d constructed a jerry-rigged town of wagons and tents with a few small permanent buildings. The Missourians who’d been living in Dewitt, long before the Mormons began pouring in, became increasingly frustrated and hateful of the Mormons there. By September 20th, they were performing daily military drills in full view of the Mormons. October 1st marked the first day of the actual siege of Dewitt. I’m going to read a bit from the 1838 Mormon War in Missouri on this because Stephen LeSueur does a great job of describing what happened and I need to give full credit where it’s due.
“On 1 October a company of one hundred fifty armed men marched on DeWitt, burning the home of one Mormon family and driving out settlers along the way. Both sides began shooting when vigilante scouting parties riding near the town encountered Mormon defenders, with intermittent firing continuing for several days. During the attacks, the Mormons ranged their wagons for a breastwork and placed their women and children in a large house with a white flag flying over the roof so it would not be fired upon. The Missourians attempted a brief assault on Thursday, 4 October, but were easily repulsed by seventy to eighty Mormon soldiers. Only one person, a non-Mormon, was wounded during the skirmishing. The Missourians, reluctant to make a serious attack, sealed off the town and appealed to nearby counties for assistance. “This [is] one of the cases of emergency in which the people ought to take the execution of justice in their own hands…,” Carroll citizens informed their neighbors. “We…shall expect your co-operation and assistance in expelling the fanatics, who are mostly aliens by birth, and aliens in principle from the county. We must be enemies to the common enemies of our laws, religion[,] and country.”
Volunteers poured into the vigilante camp. The recent disturbances in Daviess County and the reports of continued Mormon lawlessness and rebellion had convinced many settlers that the Mormons were a criminal class of people. Some of those who had previously opposed the anti-Mormon violence now rushed to assist their neighbors. Reinforcements from Howard, Clay, Livingston, Ray, Saline, and Jackson counties swelled the force to four or five hundred men. The Jackson volunteers brought a cannon…
Companies of men cut down and hewed timber for a battery; others prepared cartridges; and some cut up log chains, rod iron, and heavy nails for grape and canister for their cannon. Carroll settlers living nearby provided food and supplies for the army.”
Sorry to read such a large excerpt from the book, but I think it perfectly captures the general tension prevailing in these counties at the time. That last line is important to focus on because it plays into the larger conflict more than we could reasonably quantify.
The citizens in Carroll county were providing these 500 men with food and supplies while they were drilling daily and effectively laying siege to DeWitt. The most important part of a proper siege is to cut off supply lines to the settlement which the army is sieging. So, these vigilantes, with no real government sanction, were being supplied by the outlying citizens of Dewitt and larger Carroll county, while the Mormons were ripping apart their wagons to set up defensive perimeters around the town, fortifying any useful structure they could, and keeping their wives and children in a small building in the center of town, meaning they weren’t doing much to help these 70-80 men that were actively defending against the siege. It wasn’t long before the Mormons in DeWitt were seriously starving and running low on all general supplies.
The Book of Mormon may have had a few times where the combating armies couldn’t figure out how to siege a settlement, but the Missouri vigilante leaders were actually schooled in military tactics and strategies, this is warfare 101 and it proved incredibly successful for the vigilante mobs.
The only thing sustaining the Mormons was an occasional cow or some chickens that would wander into town, which the Mormons happily butchered for sustenance. Unfortunately, adding to the tension, most of this livestock was owned by the Missourians who regarded such actions as stealing, they weren’t wrong, but they left the Mormons no other choice. They’d cut off Mormon supply lines to DeWitt and any time a Mormon would venture outside the boundaries of DeWitt they were detained and arrested, some for a week or longer.
Then, a huge mistake happened. Jo and Rigdon with a massive battery of reinforcements showed up in DeWitt to try and administrate and dispel the tensions. This only invigorated the excitement of the anti-Mormons to chase them out of DeWitt to a critical tipping point.
General parks showed up with two small brigades of soldiers comprising the Ray County militia. His entire focus was to reduce tensions, but upon arriving to DeWitt on October 6th, his troops immediately committed mutiny and joined the anti-Mormon vigilantes. Thus, we see the problem of no National Guard and citizen militias playing a larger role in escalating violence once again.
As soon as Jo and Rigdon arrived in DeWitt, they sent a friendly non-Mormon emissary to the office of Lilburn Boggs to plead with him in person to show up and dispel the fighting. General Parks, seeing that his troops had ignored his commands to restore order sent his own messenger to Boggs to petition the same request. This is a letter that General Parks sent to General Atchison asking for his help at the same time the messenger was on his way to ask Boggs for help. This is taken from the November court documents p. 37.
“Should these troops [from Doniphan’s brigade] arrive here in time, I hope to be able to prevent bloodshed. Nothing seems so much in demand here (to hear the Carroll county men talk,) as Mormon scalps—as yet they are scarce. I believe Hinkle [the Mormon military commander in DeWitt], with his present force and position, will beat Austin with five hundred of his troops. The Mormons say they will die before they will be driven out, &c. As yet they have acted on the defensive as far as I can learn. It is my settled opinion, the Mormons will have no rest until they leave—whether they will, or not, time only can tell.”
Maybe this enlightens us to the extent the outlook had become nothing but bleak. There was no simple solution or way out of this conflict and things had escalated to the point that the Mormons would rather die than be driven from their homes again. Can you really blame them though? The persecution narrative was a harsh reality, and it was sold as religious. These people had been forced to move or had been violently removed from their homes by people their leaders were branding as anti-Mormon mobocrats, they were fed up with it.
By 10 October, the standing militias outside DeWitt posed an unstoppable force against the Mormon’s solidarity to defend DeWitt or die as an immovable object. George Hinkle, the Mormon defense commander in DeWitt realized the situation couldn’t be resolved favorably for the Mormons without massive bloodshed. A decision was made among Rigdon, Jo, and Hinkle that the surrender of DeWitt was the only possible option or the siege would starve the town until the anti-Mormon militias were merely wagering battle upon walking corpses.
The 10th of October marked a turning point of desperation for the Mormons. The anti-Mormon militias camped out began to mobilize for an attack just as Hinkle sent word by way of messenger that the town of DeWitt surrendered. Most of the next day was spent negotiating terms but the long and short of it came to the Mormons forfeiting their weapons and property, and evacuating DeWitt. The two non-Mormons that had initially invited the Mormons to settle in DeWitt, Henry Root and David Thomas, were also required to leave because they were Mormon sympathizers and their hospitality contributed to this standoff arising in the first place.
Rigdon and Jo made their way back to Far West to continue commanding from their HQ stronghold as the Mormons from DeWitt flooded into the vacant homes the Mormons negotiated from the non-Mormons who’d been chased from Daviess county. There was still a drastic lack of resources which was really beginning to take its toll. This is how Stephen LeSueur puts it:
“The Mormons, still suffering from lack of adequate provisions and shelter, left DeWitt on Thursday afternoon, 11 October. During the first night[,] at least one Mormon, weakened by the two-week siege, died of exposure, and a woman named Jenson died while giving birth. Several young children would later succumb to illnesses contracted during the ordeal. Some DeWitt Saints moved to Caldwell County, others went to Daviess. Tired, weak, and discouraged, they marched wearily to their new homes. Although the Mormons later sold their town lots back to the Missourians, they were never paid for losses incurred during the siege.”
The Mormons were done. This was a final straw for the leadership. The rhetoric spoken by Mormon leaders after the surrender of DeWitt becomes incredible. The law had been used against the Mormons for so long and it poisoned any trust and destroyed every bridge that still existed between the Mormon and anti-Mormons. The next few days, Rigdon and Jo rally the troops and in front of a crowd of 500 Mormons saying things like this:
“Who is so big a fool as to cry the law! The law! When it is always administered against us and never in our favor?”
The rhetoric was responded to by the Mormon population who’d been crushed by these mobs for years by this point. My great great great grandfather wrote this in a letter to his brother and sister on June 26th, 1839, taken from the Sketch of the Life of Patience Delila Pierce Palmer.
“We have been smitten twice, yes, three times and had borne it, but we said, we would bear it no longer without resistance.”
That quote from this Mormon war book is the first quote I’ve seen in a Mormon history book from my Mormon forefather. That makes this whole thing so much more real in my mind. It was the everyday Mormon who was bearing the brunt of these larger socio-economic struggles between groups. The anti-Mormons were fighting the Mormons and the Mormons were fighting back and calling it defensive. Now, being the 15th of October, the Mormons were desperate, and Jo had to take offensive action out of preservation for his people.
“We will take our affairs into our own hands and manage for ourselves. We have applied to the Governor and he will do nothing for us, the militia of the county we have tried and they will do nothing, all are mob; the Governor is mob, the militia are mob, and the whole state is mob.
We have yielded to the mob in DeWitt and now they are preparing to strike a blow in Daviess, but I am determined that we will not give another foot and I care not how many come against us, ten or ten thousand. God will send his Angels to our deliverance and we can conquer ten thousand as easily as ten.”
First off, Jo, that’s not how military tactics work. If you have 500 armed men defending a makeshift city with no major walls and multiple ways in and out, they will never win a battle against ten thousand. That’s not how anything works. But, against ten, yes, 500 could win that battle. Second, the militias weren’t going to just fight against the Mormons at the walls of Far West or Diahmen and get shot, they were smart enough to lay siege to towns, just as they’d just done in DeWitt for the last two weeks. How long could Diahmen hold out against an army of ten thousand surrounding the city in a tactical siege? Two weeks? A month, tops? Winter was coming and thousands of Mormons were going to die from either not enough food, or too much exploded lead fuckin ripping through their bodies.
Jo decided to solve the first problem first, and deal with the second problem when it becomes inevitable. First, he had to keep the Mormons from starving, then he would deal with the injustices the Mormons had been subjected to for so long. Jo essentially commanded the Danites through Doctor Sampson Avard to ride through Daviess county and liberate the property of anybody opposed to militant Mormon action. Rigdon said any Mormon dissenters that didn’t want to support the Mormon militia, also known as “Oh, don’t men,” should be strapped to horses with bayonets and put on the front lines of the Mormon offensive force.
This is the command issued by Doctor Sampson Avard, taken from W.W. Double-Dub Phelps autobiographical “Reminiscences” pg. 4 read from the Mormon War.
“My Brethren, as you have been chosen to be our leading men, our captains to rule over this last kingdom of Jesus Christ, who have been organized after the ancient order, I have called you here today to teach you and instruct you in the things that pertain to your duty and to show you what your privileges are and what they soon will be.
Know ye not brethren that it soon will be your privilege to take your respective companies and go out on a Scout on the borders of the settlements, and take to yourselves spoils of the ungodly Gentiles, for it is written “The riches of the Gentiles shall be consecrated to my people, the House of Israel;” thus waste away the Gentiles by robbing and plundering them of their property and in this way we will build up the Kingdom of God and roll forth the little stone that Daniel saw cut out of the Mountain without hands, until it shall fill the whole earth. For this is the very way that God designs to build up His Kingdom in the last days.”
Let’s talk about this to finish out the historical discussion for today. Doctor Sampson Avard was one of Jo’s few trusted zealots with military training. Lyman Wight was another, while George Hinkle was commander of the Mormon mob in DeWitt before it fell. These men were capable and willing to carry out military orders under the direction of the prophet, his brother Hyrum, and Hingepin Rigdon. This order we just read, given by Sampson Avard said explicitly “take to yourselves spoils of the ungodly Gentiles, for it is written…” where was it written? Was that an Old Testament commandment by Yahweh to the Hebrews to kill and plunder the Amalikites, or the Midianites, or something written by the warlord Mohammed in the Koran or something? No. That was a revelation given by Joseph Smith or Sidney Rigdon to the Elders assembled in Kirtland in February of 1831, less than a year after the church had been organized. Let’s read the passage and see if it can be interpreted violently and used as justification for raiding and plundering non-Mormons as Avard had done here.
“30 And this I do for the salvation of my people.
31 And it shall come to pass , that he that sinneth and repenteth not shall be cast out, and shall not receive again that which he has consecrated unto me:
32 For it shall come to pass , that which I spake by the mouths of my prophets shall be fulfilled; for I will consecrate the riches of the Gentiles, unto my people which are of the house of Israel.”
If interpreted loosely and applying the term Gentiles to any non-believer, as was justifiably in the Missouri Mormon war situation, I think we have violence on American soil perpetrated at the hands of Mormons using scripture revealed 7 years previous to justify their actions. This is not a new phenomenon. People have been committing really heinous shit using religion to justify it since we’ve had religion. I guess why I’m so appalled is the fact that the gentle friendly Mormons you work with or are members of your family carry around this revelation in their holy books from their founding prophet, which was used to justify raiding, plundering, and eventually manslaughter against other Americans on American soil. This scripture, used to justify war against anti-Mormons, is still read today by Mormons without knowing how it was interpreted in October of 1838 to morally reconcile stealing and murder.
Well, it wouldn’t be Mormon scripture divinely revealed if it hasn’t been changed over the years, so Mormons today actually read this:
“And this I do for the salvation of my people.
37 And it shall come to pass , that he that sinneth and repenteth not shall be cast out of the church, and shall not receive again that which he has consecrated untothe poor and the needy of my church, or in other words, unto me-
38 For inasmuch as ye do it unto the least of these, ye do it unto me.
39 For it shall come to pass , that which I spake by the mouths of my prophets shall be fulfilled; for I will consecrate of the riches of those who embrace my gospel among the Gentiles unto the poor of my people who are of the house of Israel.”
49 words were added to a passage of 82 words originally to completely change the meaning and remove the conquest-like tone which Jo and Avard used to justify what they would do next; pillage and burn the homes and businesses of non-Mormons in Daviess county.
Marie and I took three episodes to get through this entire section on the My Book of Mormon podcast. If you want to find the passage we’re talking about right now, listen to the beginning of episode 122, we begin the episode with reading this very passage. I completely fucked it up both in reading the exact words and in pointing out the significance of the differences because I wasn’t aware this scripture was used to justify raiding and pillaging the Gentiles when Marie and I discussed it. We did talk briefly about how the 1833 version sounds militant in the sense that you must do what they’re commanding, while the 2013 Book of Covenants reads more like a gentle suggestion, but had I known at the time that this scripture was used by Avard for actual militant action, I feel like Marie and I would have focused on that aspect significantly longer. There will be a link for that episode in the show notes, I would recommend giving it a listen so you can hear us compare this huge section side by side, the differences are fucking astounding throughout the entire 93 verse section and it took us 3 one-hour episodes to burn through the whole thing.
I’ve been racking my brain about how to wrap this all together and draw some kind of lesson from it. I’ll start off with saying knowledge is power, power which can be wielded in so many ways. During this timeline in the history, it’s no secret that I’ve been heavily relying on Stephen LeSueur’s book the 1838 Mormon War in Missouri. During this episode alone I’ve read several passages and the majority of the deeper research I’ve done for it was spawned from things I read around what I didn’t quote. This book is one of the greatest available historiographies of this time and place in American history and so much of what is discussed here makes a great deal more sense upon reading this book alone.
One quote it contained actually blew my mind, and if you listened to episodes 201 and 202 of Scathing Atheist you’ll have heard this quote already, but Noah and I didn’t take the precious time to reflect on the larger implications of this quote, I’ll share a small excerpt as it comes from one week further ahead in the timeline from where we stopped. Next historical episode we’ll read the whole thing, but this is the important part.
From the testimony of Thomas B. Marsh reflecting on the week of October 24th, 1838:
“I have heard the prophet say that he should yet tread down his enemies and walk over their dead bodies; that if he was not let alone he would be a second Mahomet to this generation…”
Given the rhetoric erupting constantly from the pulpit, maybe Muhammad is an apt comparison to Joseph Smith, at least in intention, not necessarily practice. The more I reflect on this quote the more I shouldn’t be surprised, but it’s still baffling. With the current world view of Islam and the perceptions the blood of martyrs effectively paints an entire world religion, it’s hard to understand why somebody would willingly associate themselves with the warlord founder of Islam. People in the 1830’s didn’t necessarily vilify who they would call Muhamatans, but many were familiar with the history of the religion. Jo must have been in order to correctly metaphorize himself with Mo, right? Or else he never would have brought up such a despicable historical figure in the first place.
I decided to jump in to this analogy a little bit and it led me to a 3-part BBC documentary titled “The Life of Muhammad,” you can find the link in the show notes if it interests you. The documentary was done quite well with a fairly healthy mix of Muslim apologists, and non-Muslim historians, so it seemed good for some cursory knowledge on the historical Mo.
Within the first 13 minutes we learn that Mo was born into poverty and given to a tribe of merchants. Jo was born into poverty and spent the majority of his time with his father and fellow treasure diggers who were frequently taken with wild speculations on treasures and other commodities. Mo spent the first years of his life with this Nomadic tribe with no place to really call home. Jo spent the earliest years of his life moving around Vermont and New York with no real sense of permanent business or purpose to direct the Smith family.
Mo was born into a land of harsh life and consequences where simple survival was a bitter everyday struggle for the majority of people. Many groups believed in many different gods some monotheistic, most polytheistic. Muslims refer to the age before Mo’s revelations the Jahiliyyah, known as “ignorance of divine guidance”. Jo was born into an era of enlightenment in the burned-over district, where hundreds of people were claiming to have a divine connection, but the previous era is broadly referred to as the pre-enlightenment “dark-ages,” the medieval period. Needless to say, both men were exposed to the world of religious practices and were born in a time and place where religion was the dominant social norm, and often times the central focus.
The Kaaba in Mecca is known in most Islamic tradition as a sanctuary built by God in the days of Adam. Jo thought that Zion, the New Jerusalem, would be built on Independence, Missouri, which just so happens to be where the Garden of Eden was, and Adam-Ondi-Ahman, or Diahmen in Daviess county was where Adam and Eve were exiled to after eating the from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The Temple lot in Jackson County is still holy ground for Mormons today, currently owned by the Hedrickites and hotly contested for during multiple times since its consecration.
Mo’s mother died at the age of 6, leaving him an orphan to work with another trading company. During Mo’s travels as he matured into early adulthood, he was exposed to many new people and cultures completely foreign to his limited understanding. During Jo’s journey into adulthood, he was exposed to an exquisite number of preachers, pamphlets and religious zealots who were all too willing to share their views on religion, god, and reality. Thanks to the invention of the printing press, Jo had access to an immense amount more material than most of his forefather prophets were.
Once Muhammad was married and had lost two sons, he was racked with personal turmoil concerning humankind’s greatest mysteries. He began making spiritual journeys into the mountains above Mecca, searching for spiritual enlightenment and a quiet place to meditate. Likewise, Jo around the age of 17 frequently wandered into the wilderness on his own spiritual journeys, climbing nearby hill Cumorah, seeking a connection that so many religious leaders and treasure hunters alike spoke of.
According to Islamic tradition, one day in 610 C.E., Mo was meditating, tripping, whatever you want to call it, in his favorite cave. After dosing off, he woke up to his body shaking uncontrollably, we may call it a seizure today or a swooning in Rigdon and Jo’s days. Mo supposedly described it as being enwrapped by an angel who was squeezing him so tightly that he thought his life would exit his body. Just like Jo thought he would be overcome by the adversary in the Sacred Grove who seized his tongue and racked his body with torment.
The voice spoke to Muhammad and commanded with one word “Iqra!” which means read or dictate in some traditions. Mo replied that he is not learned and can’t read. The spirit returned again commanding the same thing, and Mo again said I am not one of those who read. For the third time in the night, the angel Gabriel returned to Muhammed and revealed this through him:
"Proclaim! (or read!) in the name of thy Lord and Cherisher, Who
Created man, out of a clot of congealed blood:
Proclaim! And thy Lord is Most Bountiful,–
Who taught by the pen–
According to his own earliest account, Jo was meditating and praying all night, only to be visited by an angel later reported as Nephi and changed to Moroni. Jo was visited three times that night with the promise that he would read and translate an ancient text written by prophets of old on the new continent.
From that point on, Muhammad would go on to be a politician and warlord, using his revelations as the proof that Allah had chosen him as the last true prophet, committing genocide, trading slaves, marrying multiple women, one of which was 9 years old.
From the time Jo revealed the Book of Mormon, he would go on to be a religious leader and local political powerhouse, commanding his will to be done claiming it is the wisdom or will of the one true Lord. Eventually, we see Jo waging war on the Missourians and being subsequently jailed for doing so, only to escape and end up running for president of the United States 5 years later.
While Jo and Mo may not exactly be two balls in a sack, it’s hard to ignore some underlying themes here. Jo called himself a second Mohamet, I doubt he realized just how deep those similarities ran, but I only care to focus on one. Both of these men were seekers for truth and used the tools at their disposal to strive for it. I don’t see what we do today to be any different, we just have different tools at our disposal.
Going down this rabbit hole of the historical Muhammad, I wandered over to the Islam subreddit, oddly one of the least popular subreddits I’ve ever seen. A link that was posted up took me to daily Hadith Online, where they post up random scriptures from the Qu’ran or Hadiths every day. The one that it showed when I navigated was amazing, and fit perfectly into a larger point I’m somehow wandering towards right now. This is the scripture from the Hadith Sahih al-Bukhari 3261:
“Do not exaggerate my praises as the Christians have done with the son of Mary. Verily, I am only a servant, so refer to me as the servant of Allah and his messenger.”
I love that line coming from somebody claiming to be the spokesperson for almighty God, ‘Do not exaggerate my praises.’
For all the time and effort we as humans collectively invest into people we think have some kind of divine connection, it’s so easy to lose sight of the fact that they’re all just people. That oneness and connection these people supposedly felt, or claimed to be evidence for the divine, can be easily attained by anyone through quiet alone time, exhaustion, entheogens, fasting, thirst, sleep deprivation, a really spiritual kama sutra experience or any number of common meditation techniques. I suppose I would just wonder, do these people living hundreds or thousands of years ago know more about reality than we do? Did they have better tools for understanding the world around them than we do today? A follow-up and possibly more important question, do these people that we call prophets have access to something you or I don’t?
When I look back on Jo and Mo, all I see were dudes trying to make sense of the world around them. Eventually they got in over their heads and one rose to prominence as a warlord, the other was jailed and lost a gunfight before he could actually wage war on American soil. These men went through crazy situations they often got themselves into, and they were just dudes dealing with the everyday insanity their previous decisions had led them to. These guys were never the bad guys in their own mind, they were the protagonists to their own stories. They heard/saw/felt/experienced things we can all experience, they just didn’t have the scientific method to reign in the bullshit they’d spew while high on spirits. Occam’s razor is far too precise of a tool to be properly wielded by a truth-seeking warlord born in the 6th century, or a truth-seeking treasure digger born at the dawn of the 19th century.
Given everything that happened with these men, there’s simply no way they were divinely inspired, they were so clearly just a couple of guys flying by the seat of their pants, making reactive decisions after coming up with their credibility establishing books, which were supposedly given to them after they had some kind of spiritual experience. This shit happens all over the world, every single day. We just have the internet now so we can see it happening on a much larger scale than these two men ever could have experienced.
One of my favorite metal bands is called Aversion’s Crown. The lyrics they generate are completely astonishing in their poetic acumen. From reading their lyrics, they sincerely believe that every world religion is all bullshit and that the human race was spawned from a super-race of aliens living on the 9th planet that will come back to harvest our biology and extract the contained energy. It’s a relentlessly stupid proposal but it comes from an entire subculture that exists online of people who believe the same thing; people who consider Ancient Aliens to be a documentary TV show. They’re all searching for a connection to something greater than human life itself. Arguably, Jo and Mo were doing the same thing.
Why should we listen to any of them? Fascination is a simple, yet incomplete answer. I love the music that band makes, and I love religious history, but just because I’m studying it doesn’t mean I buy any of this shit. I suppose the overall point is that these examples show us that people will always search for something greater than themselves, as if somehow the whole of their biology is made up from more than the sum of their parts.
On my way back to Seattle from the holidays I had a lovely in-flight discussion with a Muslim woman sitting next to me. I had just done this little bit of cursory searching to learn about the historical Muhammad and I’ve been listening to the last year of Scathing Atheist when they’ve been reading and lampooning the Qu’ran, so I felt a little more comfortable talking to her about her religion and world politics than I expected I would.
Our conversation continued off the flight and finally ended when we had to part ways at the exit from the airport. I doubt she’d had much exposure to atheism, she didn’t give off much of a Muslim apologist tone so the conversation wasn’t an argument, just a pleasant exchange of ideas. The one thing I left her with, and it’s a very typical atheist trope, I can’t even remember where I first heard it was saying that billions of people have believed in millions of gods as long as human have been tracking culture through written language. The earliest writings we have are land deeds and religious inscriptions on tablets or cave walls. You don’t worship any of those millions of gods, nor do I. That means you’re an atheist about 99.9% of all gods that ever existed, I’m just an atheist about one more god than you.
I think that got to the central point of our meandering discussion. It doesn’t matter what Jo, Mo, or Aversions Crown claim to be God, all that matters is we learn what they all have to say and judge the merits of their claims based on demonstrable evidence. A long way of saying, skepticize everything.
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