FROM THE "FIRST VISION" TO
THE SALT LAKE VALLEY
On April 6, 1830 a small group of men under the leadership of Joseph Smith, Jr. organized the "Church of Christ" in a log cabin at Fayette, New York. The new faith was based on the conviction that the Book of Mormon was a newly discovered book of holy scripture, and that Smith was a prophet of God.
Joseph Smith, who was born in Sharon, Vermont, later moved westward to Palmyra, New York with his family. As a young man he claims to have been confused by religious revivals and rivaling churches. He said that James 1:5 gave him direction: "If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him."
Joseph Smith explained that on an early morning in the spring of 1820 he went into a grove of trees near his family's home to seek God's wisdom.
For more information regarding Joseph Smith's "First Vision,” please refer to Mormon Beliefs.
Smith claimed to have been given the direction he needed: God the Father & Christ appeared before him. He was told that there were no true churches--all were wrong--and that Smith needed to await further instruction.
According to Joseph Smith’s story, that instruction came three years later. In 1823 Smith was visited by an angel named Moroni who revealed that an ancient book engraved on gold plates was buried near the Smith farm. After four years of visitations and instruction by the angel, Smith retrieved the gold book, translated its "Reformed Egyptian" into English, and published the text as the Book of Mormon.
Concurrent with the publication of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith organized a new church, formally beginning a brand new religion known as Mormonism. Almost immediately the Mormons sent out missionaries to gain converts to their new church. Following great missionary success in Ohio, Joseph Smith moved his small body of followers—and the headquarters of the church—from New York to Kirtland, Ohio.
During the Kirtland years (1831-1838) the Mormon Church grew in numbers and influence. It was here in 1833 that Joseph Smith’s revelations were first compiled and published as the Book of Commandments. In 1835 many of these revelations were revised and reprinted in a new, expanded volume titled Doctrine and Covenants, one of Mormonism’s four books of scripture.
While in Ohio, Joseph Smith identified Jackson County, Missouri as the future and permanent place for the gathering of God’s people. Starting in 1831 and throughout the following years many Latter-day Saints relocated from various places east to western Missouri. Meanwhile, Joseph Smith encountered insurmountable financial and dissenting membership problems in Kirtland. Leaving Ohio under the cover of darkness, Smith arrived at the Mormon settlement of Far West, Missouri in March of 1838. Over 5,000 Latter-day Saints followed close behind, more than doubling the Mormon population in the state.
The rapid growth of Mormons in Missouri led to political and social conflict with non-Mormons in the area. In July 1838 a prominent LDS Church leader, Sidney Rigdon, delivered a public address wherein he warned of a coming “war of extermination” the Latter-day Saints would wage against the Mormon Church’s perceived enemies. A few months later the Governor of Missouri echoed Sidney Rigdon’s threat. In an effort to reign in what he understood to be rebellion and depredations committed by the Mormon community, Governor Boggs issued an Executive Order designating the Mormons as “enemies” and calling for their removal from the state “for the public peace.” Conflicts had escalated to armed skirmishes between the Missouri State Militia and the Mormon militia, reaching its unhappy culmination at a Mormon settlement named Haun’s Mill. Here Missouri troops attacked unsuspecting and unprepared villagers, killing 18 Mormon men and boys.
The so-called 1838 Mormon War came to an end when Joseph Smith and several of his compatriots surrendered to Missouri officials. While Smith awaited trial in Liberty Jail, the Mormon people left Missouri under extreme duress and migrated east en mass where they were welcomed and supported by sympathetic Illinois residents. A few months later Joseph Smith escaped from jail and joined the Saints, in due course changing the little town of Commerce, Illinois into a thriving Mormon city renamed Nauvoo.
Under Joseph Smith’s leadership Nauvoo grew to be one of the largest cities in Illinois. The granting of a powerful city charter created a fairly autonomous government for the Mormons, with Joseph Smith as the top governing official. This, coupled with the creation of the Nauvoo Legion state militia commanded by Smith, once again set the Mormons at odds with their non-Mormon neighbors. But it was not only the non-Mormons who were concerned.
Rumors of Joseph Smith engaging in the practice of polygamy were circulating. While Smith publicly denied having more wives than one, he was in fact married to at least 33 women. Some members of the Mormon Church began to believe Smith was a fallen prophet. Battling dissenters within and opponents without, Joseph Smith was facing a crisis in his leadership.
On June 7, 1844 dissidents published a newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor, in which Smith was exposed as a polygamist and his political theocratic aspirations were laid bare. Joseph Smith quickly held a city council meeting and, as mayor of Nauvoo, called for the destruction of the “nuisance” newspaper. On the evening of June 10, without prior notice, the press was destroyed--with the Nauvoo Legion providing military support.
This action caused a firestorm in the surrounding area. On June 25, after various legal maneuvers failed, Joseph Smith, along with other council members and Mormon Church leaders, surrendered at the county seat of Carthage, Illinois. While incarcerated at Carthage Jail, on June 27, 1844, a group of armed men stormed the jail. Joseph Smith, though himself armed with a smuggled six-shooter pistol, was unable to fend off so many attackers. Two non-Mormons were mortally wounded; Smith and his brother, Hyrum, were killed.
The death of Smith caused a crisis of succession in the Mormon Church. Amidst great disagreement within the church regarding who was to be the new prophet/leader, several significant schisms developed, each vying for control over Joseph Smith’s religion. In August the Mormon apostle Brigham Young gave an impassioned address to the Saints during which, it is said, he took on the form and voice of Joseph Smith. A majority of the Latter-day Saints understood this to be a sign from God and Brigham Young became the new de facto Mormon leader, though not officially sustained as the President of the Mormon Church until December, 1847.
Following the deaths of the Smith brothers, tensions between the Mormons and non-Mormons in and around Nauvoo continued to intensify. Brigham Young decided to move the church west. In the winter of 1846 the Mormons began their difficult exodus toward the Salt Lake Valley, leaving behind their beloved city.
Brigham Young and a small company of Mormon pioneers arrived at what is now Salt Lake City, Utah in July of 1847. Thus began a new era in Mormon Church history.