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The Bloody History Of Mormonism In Jackson County

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For nearly 200 years, Jackson County has been home to followers of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. Today, thousands of members visit the Community of Christ Temple in Independence, Mo., which is a sacred destination for the faithful.

But if you take a look back at the early days of Mormonism, peace and joy weren't in abundance, as militia forces, settlers and the state fought against the church for nearly a decade.

The beginnings of Mormonism

Joseph Smith Jr. was born in 1805 in Sharon, Vt. After moving with his family to New York in 1817, Smith became surrounded by the revivalist enthusiasm of the time period.

Community of Christ church historian Mark Scherer said that environment was a major factor in Joseph Smith's transformation into a religious figure.

"Joseph Smith was a really charismatic young man," Scherer said in conversation with Central Standard's Gina Kaufmann. "He was captivated by the [religious] folklore of the time, and it was a revivalistic time period."

In years afterward, Smith said that he began to experience visions from God in 1820 and was visited by an angel who revealed the location of buried golden plates that would become the basis for the Book of Mormon. 

The Book of Mormon, which lays out the core tenets of Mormonism, was first published in 1830. From that time until 1838, Smith would reside in Kirtland, Ohio, where he gathered a congregation that numbered in the hundreds.

The Church sent out missions to Native American tribes on the western edge of the United States, which at the time was Jackson County, Mo. Smith claims to have had a revelation in 1831 that this area was the New Jerusalem, the site of the Garden of Eden, the construction site of Noah's Ark and where the Second Coming of Christ will occur.

Scherer says this was another pivotal moment for the church and the faithful that followed Smith.

"A key part of that early religion was to guarantee salvation," Scherer said. "[Joseph Smith] had determined from his spiritual experiences that Jackson County, and specifically Independence, Mo., would be, not only the place where the Second Coming [of Christ] would happen, he knew how it was going to happen."

After Smith's revelation, Mormon settlers began to flock to the area from New England states to settle. By 1833, there were at least 1,200 Mormons living in Jackson County – about half the population.

Tensions build and break

The influx of Mormon settlers from New England wasn't taken kindly by the Missourians who already occupied the area. Historian Thomas Spencer says there was a fundamental cultural divide that contributed to building tensions.

"When these strange people showed up, [Missourians] said, 'Oh wow, you're different, we need to solve this problem,'" Spencer said. "The Mormons were saying that Jackson County will be the New Jerusalem and that God would provide them that land."

From 1833 to 1838, Mormons were persecuted by Missourians who were worried about them taking their land and voting for politicians that would not favor them. The Mormons were driven from Jackson County by a mob in 1833 and resettled in Clay County and other parts of northern Missouri. 

The tension culminated in the Missouri Mormon War of 1838. Joseph Smith had relocated to Missouri by that time, and resettled in Far West, Mo. Settlers in the area appealed to Missouri Gov. Lilburn Boggs to help them get rid of the Mormons, and Boggs responded by sending 2,500 militiamen to remove the Mormons from the area.

From August-November 1838, militia forces fought against Mormons in the state. Boggs even signed an executive order calling for the extermination of Mormons.

"That [Mormon] mob that comes on us to disturb us; it shall be between us and them a war of extermination," Boggs wrote. "We will follow them until the last drop of their blood is spilled, or else they will have to exterminate us."

By the end of the fighting, nearly 10,000 Mormons were forced to relocate to Illinois.

The aftermath

After the war, Boggs was the subject of a failed assassination attempt, largely seen as retribution for his executive order. Mormons began to return to Jackson County in the late 1800s, after the area saw more violence and fighting in the Civil War years. 

Joseph Smith would eventually become the mayor of Nauvoo, Ill., where he and many other Mormons settled following the war. A newspaper in the town claimed that Smith was a polygamist, and in retaliation, Smith ordered that the paper be shut down.

He was incarcerated for the order, but before a trial could be held, a mob stormed the jail and killed him.

After Smith's death, the Mormon church split into two main sects: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which followed Brigham Young to found Salt Lake City, Utah, and the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS), which remained largely in Independence, Mo. 

The RLDS eventually renamed itself as the Community of Christ, and is still headquartered in Independence today. 

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Cody Newill is part of KCUR's audience development team. Follow him on Twitter @CodyNewill or email him at cody@kcur.org.