The history of Joseph Smith and the Mormons has long been of interest to me, ever since my parents and I visited Nauvoo and Carthage, Illinois in the late 60s. Theirs is a story of struggle and faith and violence and courage in the face of adversity. Who are these people? The question is again before us, now that the Republican presidential candidate is himself a prominent Mormon (See my February review of Matthew Bowman’s The Mormon People).
Now comes another contribution to the literature of the Mormon experience that focuses on the years the Mormons spent in Missouri, culminating in what is known as the Mormon War of 1838. The Mormon War – Zion and the Missouri Extermination Order of 1838 ( Westholme Publishing, 2011) was written by Brandon G. Kinney, a Springfield, Missouri attorney whose avocation is history.
Kinney does a couple of interesting things in this book. One, he points up how a lack of communication contributed to a mob mentality. When something occurred in one county, the actual events were mired in confusion as the stories circulated. An exchange of gunfire became a “massacre,” when in fact no one was harmed. Residents ran fearing for their lives. (I’ve often wondered if, had texting been available, people would have been better or worse informed in fear and panic situations!) When actual confrontations did occur, the participants were stoked and ready. Secondly, the newspapers clearly sided with the Mormons, based on similar misinformation. The Mormons were, if Kinney is to be believed, victims–but became victimizers as well, when pushed too far. This is not hard to accept: there were atrocities on both sides of this story. Life is seldom as one-sided as we would like to believe.
Like so many of the books about Mormon history, this reads at times like a Western novel. Kinney describes the battle of Crooked Creek, in which 60 mounted Mormon militia charged downhill into a fusillade from the state militia and eventually, after losing three men, routed the militia (not without committing an atrocity in the process). This ill-advised attack on the state militia unleashed an all-out-war, and added fuel to the fire and resulted in an unprecedented reaction by Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs. Outraged by reports of violence, based largely on misinformation, Boggs issued an executive order calling for the extermination and expulsion of the Mormons.
Kinney makes no bones about the prophet Joseph Smith, Jr., and his bias is evident if well documented. That is the mystery of Joseph Smith; the facts can substantiate a view towards his sainthood or towards his villainy. Smith comes across as a charlatan—or worse. Kinney clearly suggests that Smith may have, in fact, ordered the attempted assassination attempt on Boggs after the Mormons fled to Illinois. This controversy is not new: but Kinney makes it plain that Smith was capable of it.
All in all, this is a worthwhile read—although it has been done before. An allegedly (I have not read it) less biased study appeared in 1987 by Stephen C. LeSueur (The 1838 Mormon War, University of Missouri Press) that was heretofore called definitive. LeSueur is a Mormon, but that does not rule out his ability to provide an objective history. But definitive is as each generation calls it, and both are deserving of a read if we are to continue the great dialogue that history should be.
Copyright Isaac Morris 2012