Why is this a Secession Movement?
When the Mormons ended up becoming an integrated part of the United States – to the degree that a Mormon candidate had a legitimate shot at the presidency only a few years ago – how can the LDS Migration from Missouri to Utah be considered a secession (or full withdrawal) from the U.S. and not simply a separatist movement (simply a group seeking greater political autonomy)?
The key is the status of the Utah Territory at the time of the movement – it was not a part of the USA. Originally, the Mormons were simply seeking a place within the U.S. in which they could practice their faith freely, enjoying the freedom of religion promised by the Constitution. But when it became clear that this was impossible (due to repeated suppression attempts at the hands of both other citizens and governing bodies) they recognized they had to leave the bounds of the United States entirely. Their purpose was not to settle the Utah Territory for the U.S., but rather establish a new, fully independent Utopia where they could live by their “own laws”.
Timing, and necessity, forced them to alter the goals of their movement, once the Territory was ceded to the U.S. after the Mexican-American war, and they found themselves once again at the whims of the federal government. At first, they tried to maintain the greatest autonomy possible (at this point, shifting to a separatist movement) but branched out and established colonies in non-U.S. lands (such as Mexico and Canada) still trying to achieve freedom from total federal control.
Eventually they realized that the best way for them to try and enshrine their religious freedoms was to become a formal state in the Union, counting on their sheer populous majority within the Utah Territory to protect their interests. But the practice of polygamy would be too abhorrent to the governing body of United States and, facing extreme financial and political crisis, were forced to relent the practice to maintain security.
The Mormon Migration, then, is a secession movement, which shifted to separatist, and eventually rejoined the larger community they had attempted to abandon entirely under extreme political (and some military) pressure.
The Movement Itself
Early members of the LDS Church migrated multiple times, first from city to city within the U.S., and then eventually into unclaimed territories beyond federal reach. This project is focusing on that last migration, which constituted their secession movement, but the struggles that the Mormons faced in some earlier settlements is necessary for context.
One of their main settlements was in Jackson County, Missouri, where Joseph Smith claimed the Garden of Eden had originally been located. This was supposed to be the center of their new City of Zion, a haven on earth for the Heavenly Father’s true followers. The Mormon population multiplied so quickly that non-Mormons became afraid they would lose all political say in the area and violence broke out. Mormons were forced out of the territory, banned by governor decree, and ended up fleeing to Illinois.
In the spring of 1839 the Mormons reached Nauvoo, Illinois, with Joseph Smith and other leaders who had been held hostage by Missourians joining them months later. They quickly started establishing a new Zion, building a temple, university, and establishing a militia.
The non-Mormons in the area soon turned against Smith’s emerging attempts at theocracy. It was here that Smith began to preach polygamy — when a local paper threatened to publish news of the practice, Smith ordered that the press be destroyed. For this act he and his older brother were arrested, and while in jail, murdered by an anti-Mormon mob. Brigham Young assumed leadership of the Church and would lead the Mormons on their greatest migration yet: beyond the boundaries of the United States into Utah territory.
“They knew only that they were to search out, probably beyond the Rocky Mountains, if not indeed amount them, some isolated spot, where, far away from the land of boasted freedom, the soil, the skies, and mind and manners were free. If they were offensive to the laws, if the laws of the land were offensive to them, they would go where they might have land and laws of their own.” -J Fish
Shortly after the Mormons’ arrival and settlement in Utah, the United States gained the territory through the Mexican Cession. The Mormons applied for statehood, an attempt to secure their rights in their new establishment. They were refused – due to practices of polygamy – but Brigham Young was made governor of the new lands. He quickly organized a series of settlements, each based around producing certain goods the Mormons required, essentially making the territory an extended commune. There was no private property and all worked towards the collective prosperity. Young even started removing federally appointed officials, such as judges. When word of Young’s theocratic reign reached Washington, the president became concerned. Buchanan decided to instill a non-Mormon governor and sent military units to help install him.
This lead to the Utah War – a war with no actual battles – in which the Mormons used interference tactics to cut off the U.S. army’s supply lines in an attempt to starve them out of Utah. The Mountain Meadows Massacre was associated with this War, though the motives for the attack are still unclear, as is the level of Brigham Young’s knowledge or involvement with the event. Young and the Mormons eventually surrendered, with Young stepping down as Governor in return for a full pardon from Buchanan.
The Mormons would continue to apply for statehood at this point, trying to secure their rights within the country that they felt, once again, was oppressing them. All attempts at statehood would be denied due to their practices of polygamy. In 1890 the fourth president of the Church 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.
Finally, the Mormon appeal for statehood was granted. The cost of their survival – after facing so much hardship to try and achieve true freedom of religion – had been to sacrifice a major tenant of their beliefs in order to ensure financial and physical security.