The history of the Mormons began with Smith's claim that during the 1820s in Palmyra, N.Y., the angel Moroni revealed to him that golden tablets containing the Book of Mormon lay buried there. These tablets were translated into a Biblical-like English by Smith and a friend. Smith soon (1831) established a headquarters for his organization at Kirtland, Ohio. His following grew rapidly, particularly from the intensive missionary activity in which members engaged, both in the United States and abroad. Stakes of Zion, as the Mormons called their settlements, were started in W Missouri, and Smith prepared to make the region the permanent home of his people. However, the intolerance of gentile neighbors toward the Mormons's communal economy and unconventional belief system led to persecution and violence. Finally, in 1838–39, Gov. Lillburn W. Boggs ordered their expulsion (see also Doniphan, Alexander William).
The Mormons sought a new Zion in the Illinois town of Nauvoo. There, they received a charter giving them virtual autonomy, with the right to maintain their own militia, their own court, and the power to pass any laws not in conflict with the state or federal constitutions. The town expanded as converts poured in from abroad, and in 1842 it was the largest and most powerful town in Illinois. The growing wealth and strength of the Mormon community caused envy and fear among their neighbors.
At about that time, Joseph Smith, as mayor of Nauvoo, ordered the suppression of church dissidents. Violence resulted, and Smith called out the Nauvoo militia to protect the city. For this, he and his brother, Hyrum, were arrested by Illinois authorities (June 24, 1844), and charged with treason. They were jailed in Carthage, Ill., where three days later they were murdered by an angry mob.
After that many Mormons fled, dissension and suspicion were rife, and there was debate over the succession to Smith's leadership. Possible choices included another brother, William Smith, and several prominent leaders, notably Sidney Rigdon, James Jesse Strang, Lyman Wight, and Brigham Young, whom the church leaders ultimately chose.
Young proved a forceful and able leader who dominated and worked for the good of his people. Again, it became necessary for the Mormons to find a home. Under Young's guidance, a remote spot was chosen, the valley of the Great Salt Lake in what is now Utah. Those who rejected Young's leadership and claimed the succession for a son of Joseph Smith declined to accompany the main body to Utah; they ultimately constituted themselves into a separate church (see Community of Christ).
In July, 1847, the first settlers reached what is now Salt Lake City and began an agricultural community. The first few years were extremely difficult, but the organization of the Mormons for community welfare, their great industry, and the determined leadership of Young made for their success. Through extensive irrigation, farming prospered.
In 1849, the Mormons wished to have their communities admitted to the Union as the State of Deseret, but the area became Utah Territory instead. Brigham Young was appointed territorial governor and superintendent of Indian affairs, but Mormon isolation was destroyed. Non-Mormons filtered in, resented by the Mormons. Young's formal announcement in 1852 of the doctrine of plural marriage, based on a vision of Joseph Smith in 1843, set the Mormons further apart from their fellow Americans. Thereafter, polygamy was luridly discussed in newspapers across the country. The antagonism was very strong in the 1850s, and when President Buchanan sent out Col. Albert S. Johnston with an army force in 1857, Young prepared to defend the Mormon state. The Utah War did not rise to serious proportions, but the bitterness of feeling was shown after the massacre of the members of a wagon train at Mountain Meadows in 1857, for which Mormons have been held responsible.
The question of plural marriage was the important point in Utah's bid for statehood. Congress passed laws against polygamy aimed solely at Utah. Despite persecution, the Mormon community was a thoroughly established commonwealth by the time of Brigham Young's death in 1877. Statehood was finally granted after Mormon president Wilford Woodruff made a statement (1890) withdrawing church sanction of polygamy: Utah entered the Union as the 45th state in 1896. Since then, the church has spread beyond Utah, becoming truly international in the late 20th cent. when church membership roughly doubled. More than half of all Mormons now live outside the United States. The nomination in 2012 of Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and a Mormon, as the Republican presidential candidate marked a breakthrough for Mormon politicians, but many Mormons from both major parties had long been prominent in U.S. politics and government.
A number of Mormons, generally referred to as fundamentalists, continue to believe in plural marriage, either as members of a splinter church or quietly within the mainstream church, which excommunicates those who adhere to the practice. Some 10,000 people in North America belong to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the largest of the splinter faiths. Many of its members live in SW Utah and NW Arizona.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.