In 1823, a young New Yorker named Joseph Smith reported being told that his "name should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues, or that it should be both good and evil spoken of among all people." This proved to be true, not only of Joseph Smith, but also of the church he organized. Why were members of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints so persecuted?
A New Religion
The prejudice against the Church started even before its organization in 1830. Joseph recounts an experience that occurred shortly after his "first vision" in the year 1820,
Some few days after I had this vision, I happened to be in company with one of the Methodist preachers, who was very active in the before mentioned religious excitement; and, conversing with him on the subject of religion, I took occasion to give him an account of the vision which I had had. I was greatly surprised at his behavior; he treated my communication not only lightly, but with great contempt, saying it was all of the devil, that there were no such things as visions or revelations in these days; that all such things had ceased with the apostles, and that there would never be any more of them.
I soon found, however, that my telling the story had excited a great deal of prejudice against me among professors of religion, and was the cause of great persecution, which continued to increase; and though I was an obscure boy, only between fourteen and fifteen years of age, and my circumstances in life such as to make a boy of no consequence in the world, yet men of high standing would take notice sufficient to excite the public mind against me, and create a bitter persecution; and this was common among all the sectsall united to persecute me.1
While the LDS people did not proclaim abolitionism, they held no slaves. This was a cause of great concern to communities surrounding early Latter-day Saint settlements where slavery was still legal. On the 29th day of June, 1836, the leading citizens of Clay County, Missouri, expressed the following complaint against the Latter-day Saints that had settled there:
They were eastern men, whose manners, habits, customs, and even dialect, are essentially different from our own. They are non-slaveholders, and opposed to slavery, which in this peculiar period, when Abolitionism has reared its deformed and haggard visage in our land, is well calculated to excite deep and abiding prejudices in any community where slavery is tolerated and protected.2
None of the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints clashed so directly with the social order of the day or aroused such bitter resentment than the doctrine of plural marriage. Although this doctrine was not declared publicly until 1852, rumors spread in the early 1830s that the Mormons were polygamists. "Priestcraft, polygamy, and murder were thought to be the chief cornerstones of 'Mormonism.'"3
The agitation against the Church because of plural marriage grew more bitter as the years progressed, although it was never practiced by more than 2% of the male LDS population. In 1890, Church president Wilford Woodruff issued a "Manifesto" which declared an end to plural marriages.
Because of the rapid growth of the Church, it quickly gained political power that scared residents living in areas surrounding Latter-day Saint communities. "Many Americans feared close-knit groups, suspecting subversive plots to overthrow their free and pluralistic society."4
Unfortunately, many persecutions the Latter-day Saints faced were caused because of superstition, prejudice, and mis-understanding. However, not all harbored such feelings towards the Latter-day Saints, and there were many who sympathized with their plight. Shortly after Joseph Smith was declared innocent at one of the many trials in which he was a defendant, the Joliet Corrier printed this letter to the editor:
Before this reaches you, I have no doubt you will have heard of the trial of Joseph Smith, familiarly known as the Mormons Prophet. As some misrepresentations have already gone aboard in relation to Judge Douglas's decision, and the merits of the question decided by the judge, permit me to say, the only question decided, though many were debated, was the validity of the executive writ which had once been sent out, I think in Sept., 1840, and a return on it that Mr. Smith could not be found. The same writ was issued in June, 1841. There can really be no great difficulty about this matter, under this state of facts.
The judge acquitted himself handsomely, and silenced clamors that had been raised against the defendant.
Since the trial I have been at Nauvoo, on the Mississippi, in Hancock County, Illinois, and have seen the manner in which things are conducted among the Mormons. In the first place, I cannot help noticing the plain hospitality of the Prophet Smith to all strangers visiting the town, aided as he is in making the stranger comfortable by his excellent wife, a woman of superior ability. The people of the town appear to be honest and industrious, engaged in their usual avocations of building up a town and making all things around them comfortable. On Sunday I attended one of their meetings, in front of the temple now building and one of the largest buildings in the state. There could not have been less than 2,500 people present, and as well appearing as any number that could be found in this or any state. Mr. Smith preached in the morning, and one could have readily learned, then, the magic by which he has built up this society, because, as we say in Illinois, "they believe in him," and in his honesty. It has been a matter of astonishment to me, after seeing the Prophet, as he is a called, Elder Rigdon and many other gentlemanly men anyone may see at Nauvoo who will visit there, why it is that so many professing Christianity, and so many professing to reverence the sacred principles of our constitution (which gives free religious toleration to all), have slandered and persecuted this sect of Christians.5
- Joseph Smith History, Pearl of Great Price.
- Life of Joseph Smith the Prophet, p. 210
- Essentials in Church History p.431
- The Story of the Latter-day Saints, p.4
- Life of Joseph Smith the Prophet, p. 378