Pioneers migrated west for many reasons--some were driven by hope of economic betterment, others by an urge for adventure. The Mormons moved west for a different reason--to escape religious persecution.
In the history of religion, few stories are more dramatic than that of the Mormons. It is a story with the haunting Biblical overtones of divine revelations, of persecution and martyrdom, of an exodus two-thirds of the way across a continent, and of ultimate success in establishing a thriving religious society in a desert.
The Mormon church had its beginnings in upstate New York in 1823, when Joseph Smith (1805-1844), a farmer's son, said he received revelations about a set of buried golden plates containing a lost section from the Bible. Smith later published the text as the Book of Mormon.
Because Smith said that he had conversed with angels and received revelations from the Lord, local authorities threatened to indict him for blasphemy. He and his followers responded by moving to Ohio, then to Missouri. There, proslavery mobs attacked the Mormons, accusing them of inciting slave insurrection. Fifteen thousand Mormons fled Missouri after the governor proclaimed them enemies who "had to be exterminated, or driven from the state."
In 1839, the Mormons resettled along the east bank of the Mississippi River in Nauvoo, Illinois, which soon grew into the second largest city in the state. In exchange for Mormon votes, the state legislature awarded Nauvoo a special charter that made the town an autonomous city-state, complete with its own 2000-man militia.
But troubles arose again. In 1844, dissidents attacked Smith for trying to become "king or lawgiver to the church." On Smith's orders, city officials destroyed the dissidents' printing press. Under the protection of the Illinois governor, Smith and his brother were confined in a jail. A mob broke into Smith's cell, shot him and his brother, and threw their bodies out of a second-story window.
Why did the Mormons seem so menacing? Many frontier settlers felt threatened by the communalism of the Mormon church. By voting and controlling land as a bloc, the Mormons seemed to have an unfair advantage in the struggle for wealth and power. Mormonism was also denounced as a threat to fundamental values, since Mormons insisted that the Book of Mormon was Holy Scripture, equal in importance to the Bible. Rumors of polygamy also stirred opposition. While the Mormons did not publicly acknowledge their practice of polygamy until they had settled in Utah, they then contended that the Bible permitted the practice as a way to absorb single and widowed women into their communities and to restore the patriarchal Old Testament family.
After Smith's murder, a new leader emerged, who led them to a new Zion on the Great Salt Lake. Brigham Young (1801-1877) began his career as an carpenter, printer, and glazier. As governor of the Mormon state of Deseret and later of Utah, he oversaw the building of Salt Lake City and 186 other communities. He also supervised church-owned businesses and cooperative irrigation projects, which made large-scale agriculture possible in the arid Great Basin.
In this letter to a non-Mormon sympathizer, Young describes the Mormon Zion and comments on the deepening sectional crisis. Three years after Young wrote this letter, public outrage over polygamy and Washington's concern over Young's defiance of federal judges led President James Buchanan to send an army of 2500 to force the Mormons to obey federal law. This episode ended in 1858, when the Mormons accepted a new governor and Buchanan issued a general pardon.
In our Mountain home we feel not the withering sources of influence of political or even fashionable despotism. We breathe free air, drink from the cool mountain stream, and feel strong in the free exercise of outdoor life. I have traveled on several hundred miles this season among the native tribes, to conciliate their hostile feelings, and cause them to become friends. I have found the satisfaction of having been eminently successful, and peace again smiles upon all our settlements, and that too without a resort to arms.