Joseph Smith, Jr.
“This Church will fill North and South America—it will fill the world. … It will fill the Rocky Mountains.”
Joseph Smith (Dec 23 1805 – June 27 1844) was the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. He grew up in the Burned-Over District of New York during the Second Great Awakening. He claimed to have seen multiple visions of God, Jesus, early religious figures, and angels who revealed the contents of The Book of Mormon to him, a religious text he published at age 24. Smith soon gained a following and lead the members of the church West, to escape persecution (and, according to Church history, lead them towards places revealed to him in further visions). He also penned Doctrines and Covenants and The Pearl of Great Price.
He had almost complete control over the church during its time in Independence, Missouri – where he claimed the original Garden of Eden had been – sending out missionaries, publishing more and more revelations and Church documents, and supervising the building of the first Temple. He then lead the Mormons to Nauvoo, Illinois, where he enjoyed an increasing level of political and social, as well as religious, control. He was murdered by a mob during his imprisonment for destroying a newspaper which had criticized him and polygamy.
Following his death, there was great dispute over who his rightful successor would be, with Brigham Young, Sidney Rigdon, Joseph Smith III and several others claiming rightful leadership. This lead to the first of a series of schisms in the Church, with Joseph Smith’s own (first) wife even establishing her own splinter group. It was Brigham Young, however, who gained the most support and lead the branch of the Church that is the largest today.
Brigham Young (June 1, 1801 – Aug 29 1877) became the 2nd, and longest-serving, President of the LDS Church and is commonly nicknamed the “American/Modern/Mormon Moses” for his part in leading the LDS Church out of Illinois, through the desert, and establishing their new “paradise” in Utah Territory.
Upon their arrival in the Salt Lake Valley Young exclaimed, “we are here, thank the Almighty God, for here is the place of beginning.”
Despite his many accomplishments, his leadership was also fraught with controversy, as he barred black individuals from the Priesthood, temple endowments, and sealings, something Smith had not forbidden. These prohibitions were in place until 1978 when they were rescinded by the Church. He also lead the fight to attempt to legalize slavery in Utah. Brigham also practiced polygamy to a much higher degree than Smith, being sealed to 55 women in his lifetime (though not all the relationships seem to have been conjugal). He also preached the Adam-God Doctrine, later dismissed by the LDS Church, that taught Adam was God come from another planet who became mortal by eating the fruit of Eden.
His Church reign was monumental in establishing and ensuring the LDS faith as a long-lasting religious movement and not simply one of the many failed restitution churches of the Second Great Awakening. He oversaw the construction of the Salt Lake City Temple, the largest and most significant religious building in the LDS faith, and organized much of Utah territory both as a religious leader and as Governor.
The Utah War took place after federal officials learned that Young’s leadership in the territory had become auto- and theocratic and President James Buchanan decided to install a non-Mormon governor. The war ended without any real battles taking place, and Young stepping down with an official pardon from the president, but tensions were still strong. He remained President of the Church, however, until his death from cholera. He was an asshole.
John Taylor (Nov 1, 1808 – July 25 1887) was the 3rd President of the LDS Church. It was during his Presidency that the Mormons faced the greatest trials since having emigrated to Utah Territory, due to the practice of plural marriage. Taylor continued the expansion of different faith communities through Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, Mexico, and Arizona, as had Young and founded a Central Board of Trade which managed trade and production between different stakes (collections of Mormon churches, or “wards”, in communities).
In 1882 Congress declared polygamy a felony act. Buckets of Mormons were arrested for practicing plural marriage. Taylor himself was a stalwart supporter of the practice, with nine wives and a believed 34 children. He was forced to manage the Church from hiding and exile in the 1880s, advocating for polygamy all the while. In a sermon in 1880 he said
“God is greater than the United States, and when the Government conflicts with heaven, we will be ranged under the banner of heaven against the Government. The United States says we cannot marry more than one wife. God says different”.
Congress’ actions against polygamists became more and more stringent, abolishing women’s suffrage in Utah territory, forcing wives to testify against their husbands, unincorporated the Church, abolished the Mormon Nauvoo legion, and demanding that an excess of $50,000 in Church property be forfeited to the United States. Nevertheless, Taylor and the Mormons continued to try and enact their faith, with Taylor possibly receiving yet another revelation confirming the practice in 1886 (though the authenticity of it is rejected by the larger Church and disputed by Mormons today). He died of congestive heart failure while still in exile. For two years following his death the Church did not have a president and was instead ruled by its Quorum of Twelve Apostles.
Wilford Woodruff Sr.
Wilford Woodruff (March 1, 1807 – Sept 2 1898) was the fourth President of the LDS Church and will be the last to be considered in this site’s history. It was under his leadership that the practice of polygamy was formally ended in the Mormon Church, allowing Utah Territory to achieve statehood and the LDS faith to achieve a level of legitimacy previously denied it.
Woodruff himself was a polygamist, married to anywhere from nine to twelve women. Before his ascendance to the presidency he was the head of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, during their time of hiding from US marshals. Church leader’s attempts to avoid the polygamy warrants against their name kept them in such exile that he missed his first wife’s funeral. He was ordained church president at 82 years old and began a series of legal battles with the United States over polygamy.
In 1890 he released the Woodruff Manifesto which disavowed polygamy within the bounds of United States territory. Some see this as the result of a new revelation from God on the practice, but Woodruff was simply doing what he needed in order to ensure that the Church continued to exist at all on Earth – to continue polygamy would be to face complete financial and physical annihilation at the hands of the U.S. government and its citizenry. In his diary he wrote
“I have arrived at the point in the history of my life as the president of the Church … where I am under the necessity of acting for the temporal salvation of the Church.”
The Church actually continued to practice plural marriages secretly in their settlements in Mexico and Canada, until the 1904 Manifesto of Joseph F. Smith. He died in San Francisco and was succeeded by his son-in-law Lorenzo Snow. The Church grew greatly during his presidency – partially due to the abandonment of polygamy.
- Bushman, Richard Lyman (2005), Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
- Roberts, B. H., ed. (1912), History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6, Salt Lake City: Deseret News.
- Hill, Marvin S. (1989), Quest for Refuge: The Mormon Flight from American Pluralism, Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books.
- Widmer, Kurt (2000), Mormonism and the Nature of God: A Theological Evolution, 1830–1915, Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland.
- Krakauer, Jon. Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith (Doubleday, New York, 2003).