In the early 19th century, Joseph Smith, a New England farmer`s son, experienced a succession of supernatural visions. Smith`s narrative of these events reports that God and Jesus Christ appeared to him in 1820 outside of Palmyra, New York. They told him to be ready for a significant project.
Smith further reported that, three years later, he encountered an angel named Moroni who revealed to him the existence of buried golden plates that bore engravings, in an archaic tongue, of the history of early peoples of North America. Smith discovered them in 1827 on Cumorah`s Hill, near Palmyra. His English rendering of the history, titled The Book of Mormon, was issued in 1830.
A new church
On April 6, 1830, Smith and some like-minded colleagues established the Church of Christ, soon to be known by today`s title, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The church expanded quickly, and by the first year boasted some 1,000 adherents.
The church`s organization is traditionally held to have occurred in Fayette, New York, in 1830. During the early 1830s, Mormons founded colonies at Independence, Missouri, and Kirtland, Ohio. In 1831, Smith relocated the church headquarters to Kirtland and over nearly 10 years, he formulated its essential polity and several of its present teachings. The original Mormon temple was opened in Kirtland in 1836.
The 1830s was a decade of expansion, but also significant difficulties cropped up in those years. The 1837 insolvency of a Mormon bank, squabbles among some church members, and strife with non-church neighbors, scattered the Kirtland faithful. Smith and his most loyal believers moved to Missouri in 1838, to regroup with other Mormons. However, distress rose again.
The Missouri Mormons had settled in a town called Far West in the northern part of the state, following their expulsion from Independence in 1834. Mobs assaulted the Mormons at several of their communities in the fall of 1838. Twenty Mormons, including several children, were slain in the "Massacre at Haun`s Mill." Smith and some of his associates were apprehended on accusations Mormons to this day maintain were groundless.
Expulsion from Missouri
Expelled from Missouri the same year, nearly 15,000 Mormons retreated to Illinois. A few months later, Smith eluded prison guards and rejoined his followers there, settling on the banks of the Mississippi River at the town of Commerce, which they renamed Nauvoo. Nauvoo rapidly became the state`s biggest city. Its swift expansion to more than 12,000 by 1845, and the impact of Mormons on state politics, induced non-Mormons to be wary and antagonistic again. Such antagonism towards Mormons appears to have been spurred in part by economic rivalry and a distaste for the Mormon tendency to vote en bloc. In addition, by the early 1840s, the resentment was exacerbated by Smithâ€™s king-like aspirations and by rumors that Mormons were starting to practice polygamy, the condition of having more than one spouse.
One element founded a newspaper to castigate Smith, who had become a presidential contender. The paper was demolished, and Smith caught the blame. He, his brother Hyrum, and other church leaders were arrested and incarcerated. Members of a mob fatally shot Smith and his brother in an assault on the lockup on June 27, 1844.
Mobs pushed the Mormons out of Illinois in 1846. Joseph Smith had planned to relocate his followers to the Great Basin in the Rocky Mountains. This scheme was now implemented by [Brigham Young], who had become the new head of the church.
Young led an intrepid party of immigrants into the Great Salt Lake valley in 1847. The population grew rapidly, and by 1849, the Mormons had forged a civil government. They sought admission to the Union, giving their proposed state the name Deseret, but in 1850, Congress opted to create the Territory of Utah, then name Young as governor.
The Utah War
Strife with Mormons erupted again. An untrue report reached Washington, D.C., that the Mormons were in revolt. Anti-Mormon public outcry persuaded President James Buchanan to replace Young with a non-Mormon governor and dispatch soldiers to occupy Utah in 1857. The trouble that followed was dubbed the Utah War, which nearly became a major conflagration. The conflict ended in 1858 when Young accepted the new governor and President Buchanan gave full pardon to all concerned.
The number of Utah settlements increased*, ultimately forcing the resident Indians, in particular the Utes, onto reservations. The territory`s population capped 140,000 in 1877. Congress continued to oppose the Mormon practice of polygamy, and the church finally condemned that family arrangement in 1890. A Mormon dream became reality in 1896 when Utah became the 45th state.
Another tenet of Mormonism that eventually succumbed was the attitude towards blacks, who were denied the chance to achieve the priesthood in the early Mormon church. In his 1859 interview with [Horace Greeley], Brigham Young asserted that blacks could not be priests until the "curse pronounced on Ham" had been lifted. This remained the policy of the church until 1978.
*At least 300 other localities were settled in a region extending from Colorado to California and Canada to Mexico. Most Mormons, however, resided in Utah .
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