Editing Gentry: a Memoir

Todd Compton is a prolific author and historian, with published interests spanning classical literature and Mormon History. We are pleased to welcome him, and his reflections on editing Fire and Sword: A History of the Latter-day Saints in Northern Missouri, 1836-39, published by Kofford Books.

A few years ago, I agreed to edit and update Leland Gentry’s pathbreaking 1958 Ph.D. thesis on the 1838 Mormon war in Missouri, little knowing the long path I was starting on. Gentry had contracted with Greg Kofford to publish his thesis, but health problems prevented him from updating it, as he had originally hoped. So he agreed that Greg could get someone to work on it, and for various reasons, I ended up being that person. To my regret, I never met Gentry. He died on August 6, 2007.

Early on, I decided to leave Gentry’s text substantially as it was, aside from minor editing. I have seen cases of authors who updated another author’s book, and entirely changed the thesis of the book, which I wanted to avoid as much as possible. So I made it clear when I was writing in my own voice; in my updating, I added footnotes, marked as coming from me, and addenda at the end of chapters. In the addenda I sometimes summarized scholarly debates that took place in the wake of Gentry’s thesis (and I was greatly helped by two excellent books on the 1838 war, Stephen C. LeSueur’s The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri (1987) and Alexander L. Baugh’s A Call to Arms: The 1838 Mormon Defense of Northern Missouri (2000)); sometimes I examined issues, did research, and wrote from my own point of view.

I came to have a lot of respect for Gentry’s exhaustive survey of the Mormon war, which dealt with many difficult issues in a skillful, scholarly way for the first time. His balance is remarkable. He was a committed Latter-day Saint, worked in the Church Educational System throughout his lifetime, and obviously, looked at the Mormons in Missouri sympathetically, but it was important to him to also look at the 1838 conflict from the point of view of non-LDS “old settlers” also. He critiqued B. H. Roberts and Andrew Jenson because their treatments of the 1838 Mormon war failed “to present the non-Mormon point of view to any significant extent.” [Fire and Sword, xix] This kind of complexity in viewpoint is one of the characteristics of good history, which goes beyond portraying people as perfect heroes in white hats and absolute villains in black hats.

What was involved in the minor editing of the text? Once or twice there were dates that were wrong and I corrected them. In addition, I simplified some of the language occasionally, to make it less formal. Then the entire manuscript was edited by Lavina Fielding Anderson. Sometimes she suggested style changes (again, usually to make the language less formal, so it would read more smoothly), and other times she asked that I research specific points. For example, often a non-Mormon in Gentry’s text was identified only by his last name; Lavina asked me to find the full name, when possible. I found that usually, the primary source that Gentry had quoted only had the last name. With a little digging, sometimes I was able to find the full name, and often when I did this, I found the man’s life history, which gave me greater insight into the role he played before, during and after the 1838 war. So this was a very useful exercise, and those full names will help other researchers, hopefully.

In addition, Gentry often makes long quotations from primary texts. I like this kind of documentary approach, but since 1958, new, better, more exact publications of primary texts have been made—such as Dean Jessee’s books of Joseph Smith texts, Cannon and Cook’s Far West Record, or Clark V. Johnson’s Mormon Redress Petitions. When I was finishing, as I thought, final corrections on the book, I found “Mormon War Papers, 1837–41” an online source at the Missouri State Archives. This included numerous documents from the 1838 war, in holograph form, with both images and transcriptions. This allowed me to correct the text of many documents Gentry had quoted at length (in a number of complex last-minute corrections that Loyd Ericson good-naturedly worked into the text). [When I checked this recently, many documents that I used have apparently been taken offline.]

Another online treasure I found from the Missouri state archives was “Soldiers’ Database: War of 1812–World War I,” which included a section on the Mormon War. With this database, you can look up rank and file non-Mormon soldiers in the 1838 war, which was occasionally invaluable in identifying otherwise obscure participants in the conflict.

As I worked through this process of editing, updating, summarizing scholarly work on Missouri, a number of themes struck me. Among the major ones:

I examined the background of the language “nits make lice,” (famous among Mormons for its use in the Haun’s Mill Massacre), in early America, and found that it was used prominently in Indian massacres, to justify killing children or babies of Indians. This shows how minorities were often demonized in early America. For example, Tom Quick, the “Indian-Slayer,” who died in 1796, when asked why he killed Indian children, “his invariable reply was, ‘Nits make lice!’” [Fire and Sword, 339.] “Extermination” language, used by Boggs in his infamous “Extermination Order,” and by Sidney Rigdon in his 4th of July speech, was also frequently used by whites to described desired warfare against Indians. After I’d made my last corrections to Fire and the Sword, I exchanged some emails with Paul Reeve, and found that he’d been researching along similar lines, and his forthcoming book will go into this subject in much greater depth.

In the addendum to the Danite chapter, I examine whether Joseph Smith knew Danite passwords, and had been formally initiated as a Danite. I conclude that it was not absolutely certain that he knew Danite passwords, because the Luman Shurtliff account of his using passwords might refer to military camp passwords. However, the research of Gentry, Baugh and Quinn shows that Joseph Smith attended Danite meetings in Far West and Adam-ondi-Ahman and actively supported the organization. And on the other hand, we can’t assume that Smith knew about all the excesses that Danites taught and practiced. I also look at whether Smith was a military leader during this period—something which some Mormons later denied—and conclude that he was, acting as a sort of general.

When Richard Bushman’s superb biography of Joseph Smith appeared, I was surprised to find that he had treated Smith as a sort of passive onlooker during this period. [Rough Stone Rolling, 356.] Possibly because he argues that Smith was not an important participant, he did not treat Smith in Missouri in much detail. However, Gentry and Stephen LeSueur both portray Smith as a dominant, active figure in Missouri. [Fire and Sword, 538; LeSueur, The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri, 250.] I hope Bushman can return to Smith in 1838 Missouri sometime and deal with the subject at greater length.

It is significant that secular politics was a major cause of the 1838 Mormon war in Missouri. For example, the first Mormon/non-Mormon violence in the conflict took place at a polling place in Gallatin as Mormons attempted to vote. In other words, Mormons were tolerated as a religious group; but as a religious group with political power, they were feared. This situation was exacerbated by many factors: a sudden influx of Mormons, largely from Yankee states, but also from Canada, into Missouri; the fact that pre-Mormon Missouri had a largely “southern” population; the fact that the non-Mormons expected (probably correctly) that Mormons would vote en bloc, as guided by a charismatic religious leader (who was not trusted by non-Mormons). (One moral for modern Mormonism: if Mormons tend to be 90% Republicans, this will not serve the church well in the long run. Of course, Republicans may answer, if the Republican party is right, why shouldn’t the church be overwhelmingly Republican?)

Finally, 1838 Missouri saw Smith and other leading Mormons become increasingly disillusioned with secular law and politics. Partially as a result, in Missouri, Mormons began to follow what historian D. Michael Quinn calls “theocratic ethics,” in which church members accepted that the laws of God’s kingdom should take precedence over the laws of the land. In addition, Mormon belief in a literal, political kingdom of God that would supplant earthly kingdoms also contributed to this perspective. In Missouri, Danitism exemplifies this; it took its name from the prophecy in Dan in which the kingdom of God breaks down all other kingdoms (Daniel ch. 2).

Many of the problems church leaders faced in Missouri were direct outgrowths of conflicts that had arisen in Kirtland. In Kirtland many circumstances, including the failure of the Kirtland Safety Society Anti-Banking Company, had caused widespread opposition to Smith and Rigdon, even among church leaders such as Oliver Cowdery and some apostles. Joseph Smith was faced with a number of frivolous lawsuits, which helped create his intense disillusionment with the law system. Mormon leaders became so skeptical of the legal process that the practice of law—becoming an attorney—nearly became grounds for excommunication, in Missouri. For example the seventh formal charge against Oliver Cowdery in his excommunication trial on April 12, 1838 in Far West was “For leaving the calling, in which God had appointed him, by Revelation, for the sake of filthy lucre, and turning to the practice of the Law.” Just for context, Mormon leaders often had other professions, such as farming and printing, so we see how the legal profession is being singled out here. As historians Donald Q. Cannon and Lyndon W. Cook write, “Early Church leaders were suspicious of lawyers.” [Cannon and Cook, Far West Record, 163, 178.] Apologies to my sister and Kevin Barney (and the people I work for) for bringing this up…

While I was working on these issues, Lavina recommended an article that I had never read: Dale W. Adams, “Grandison Newell’s Obsession,” Journal of Mormon History 30 (Spring 2004): 159–88. This article became absolutely crucial for me in my understanding of Joseph Smith’s attitudes toward the legal system. Adams agreed that Joseph Smith indeed was attacked by frivolous, groundless lawsuits in Kirtland. However, he argued that Smith had a good case for winning these lawsuits, and that his accusers might have been liable under barratry laws that penalize groundless legal harassment. But instead of staying in Kirtland, hiring a good lawyer, and fighting these cases in the law court, Smith and Sidney Rigdon fled Ohio for Missouri in March 1838. Thoroughly disenchanted with the legal system, Smith was reported as saying, in a speech on October 15, 1838, “The law we have tried long enough, who is so big a fool as to cry the law! the law! when it is always administered against us and never in our favor I do not intend to regard the law hereafter as we are made a set of outlaws by having no protection from it. We will take our affairs into our own hands and manage for ourselves.” [Reed Peck, “Sketch of Mormon History,” 78–79; Fire and Sword, 543.] Outrageously extra-legal occurrences, such as the Haun’s Mill Massacre, and the expulsion of Mormons from Missouri in early 1839, show that Smith’s attack on the justice of Missouri law was somewhat based on fact. (Of course, Mormons arguably inflamed the 1838 conflict with some actions that were also extra-legal, such as the Battle of Crooked River.)

One of the realities of the frontier in America was that the further west you went, the weaker the legal system became, which is why vigilante justice was often practiced in the west rather than costly, time-consuming, incarceration and trials. In addition, in Missouri, the majority of the residents were non-Mormon and southern in their sympathies and culture, and often minorities were awarded less than full justice in frontier legal systems. Thus, in one sense, Joseph Smith and the Mormons would have been better off in the northeast rather than in “Far West.”

The Mormon disillusionment with secular law and politics lead to further occasional rejections of and struggles with secular and political law in Nauvoo and Utah, including the Council of Fifty in Nauvoo and Utah, the practice of polygamy, and Brigham Young’s defiance of a U.S. president and the U.S. army during the Utah War. I believe if you want to understand these important historical events and institutions in Utah and Mormon history, the 1838 Mormon War in Missouri provides absolutely essential background. But it’s a tremendous story in its own right. As I wrote, on p. xvi, “The Mormon experience in Missouri was a fascinating, tragic, gripping, sometimes violent story, providing important background for much of subsequent Mormon history. It shows both Mormons and non-Mormons at their heroic best and at their violent, militaristic worst. In the case of non-Mormons, for instance, we find both Doniphan’s courageous stand against the illegal execution of Mormon leaders and also the brutal Extermination Order and Haun’s Mill Massacre. In the case of the Mormons, we find both their communitarian idealism and industry, their heroism in the face of an ‘Extermination Order’ as they left Missouri, and their excesses when ‘raiding’ Daviess County as Danites. This story shows many Mormons as innocent victims and others acting with misguided rashness. It is a story of the American frontier, where legal niceties were often ignored. . .”


  1. This was a fascinating read, thank you! I’m off to find Dale W. Adams, “Grandison Newell’s Obsession,” Journal of Mormon History 30.

    “It is a story of the American frontier, where legal niceties were often ignored. . .”
    This sums up early church history for me. I think we often forget that our ancestors were part of a tumultuous culture, wild, rough and raw. I look forward to reading the edited text.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Apology accepted. (Ha!) I found your suggestion that the Saints might have been better off if they had stayed in Kirtland fascinating; I had never considered such a possibility.

  3. Fascinating stuff, Todd. I especially enjoyed your researching and engaging how language surrounding the Mormon conflict had interpretive ties with general violence toward despised minorities—the American formation of “otherness” is indeed fascinating.

    I look forward to reading the book.

  4. Craig M. says:

    Todd, is Gentry’s research sometimes out of date and left to be corrected in the addenda, or do the addenda merely serve to engage other works (including your own research) where Gentry was not able?

  5. Thank you, Todd. The context truly is vital to understanding what happened, and this is an excellent summary of important highlights.

  6. Todd Compton says:

    Thanks for the generous comments, everyone.

    Craig: I don’t think of my addenda as “correcting” as you express it. Sometimes, as in the case of the Danites, two main avenues of interpretation have emerged, and Gentry’s original interpretation is closer to one than the other. The opposing line of interpretation may take a position that differs from Gentry’s, but it isn’t a simple case of his interpretation being flatly wrong. On the other hand, sometimes new documents have appeared that Gentry hadn’t seen in 1958, and so his interpretation was incomplete. Of course, a week after any book of history is published, a new document may be found that may cause the book’s perspective to be incomplete.

    I did correct some minor stuff, such as a few dates. And sometimes, I guess I did disagree with Gentry on some issues, but not that often.

    Ben: Paul will go into that issue in great depth, and it should be a remarkable book.

  7. Joe Geisner says:

    Todd’s write-up confirms my feelings that he is currently at the pinnacle as a Mormon historian.

    This is a well balanced and well thought out overview and I continue to learn from your writing. After reading Milt Backman’s very faithful and very informative “Heaven’s Resound” I came to the conclusion that having the church bifurcated in Kirtland and Missouri was a major mistake on Smith’s part. It would have allowed the church to have money to have paid its debts and confront their legal issues in a well established system. I also think you are correct that western Missouri was much more prone to extra-legal activity and vigilantism.

    I personally wish there had been less Gentry and more Compton in “Fire and Sword”, I think Leland Gentry’s writing is dated and Todd’s research highlights this problem. An example of this is when Gentry refers to the non-Mormon settlers as “old settlers.” In Kenneth Winn’s chapter in the well done volume “The Missouri Mormon Experience”, he stresses the youthfulness of western Missouri’s leading men in the 1830s. Lilburn Boggs was the “old man of the group at forty-one when he first encountered” Mormons. Alexander Doniphan and David Atchison were twenty-five and twenty-six years old respectively. Austin King was thirty-six when he presided over Joseph Smith’s trial for treason. These were not “old settlers” by any means.

  8. Todd, great insights and ideas here. This book has been on my list to acquire and read, and now I am even more interested.

    Your brief discussion here of Joseph Smith’s changing attitude towards the legal system is very interesting. I suspect that there is the potential for some research into a legal history of Smith, and examining these ideas more fully.

    I’m amazed by the volume of work you are doing in Mormon history, while still maintaining a full time career outside of academia. Do you have a publication date yet for your Hamblin biography? Keep up the excellent work.

  9. Polly Aird says:

    Todd says: “The Mormon disillusionment with secular law and politics lead to further occasional rejections of and struggles with secular and political law in Nauvoo and Utah, including the Council of Fifty in Nauvoo and Utah, the practice of polygamy, and Brigham Young’s defiance of a U.S. president and the U.S. army during the Utah War. I believe if you want to understand these important historical events and institutions in Utah and Mormon history, the 1838 Mormon War in Missouri provides absolutely essential background.”

    This meshes perfectly with Bigler and Bagley’s “The Mormon Rebellion,” which discusses precisely these issues–BY’s defiance, his expectation that the Last Days were upon them, that God’s people were not subject to secular law, etc.

    This is superb, Todd. I was on the MHA post-conference tour to these sites in Missouri last year, and although I learned a lot, it was not in the kind of context you’ve given us here. Makes tremendous sense. Can’t wait for the book!

  10. “This meshes perfectly with Bigler and Bagley’s “The Mormon Rebellion,””

    Polly, not ot beat a dead horse, but this post says quite clearly that there is lots of background “blame” for what happened during the Utah War on both sides – and that seems to be in opposition to your review of “The Mormon Rebellion”, which appears to place the blame almost solely on Pres. Young and the Mormons.

  11. Polly Aird says:

    Ray, I think you misunderstand me. I’m just saying that this context–the Missouri troubles–helps in understanding the Mormon side of the Utah War. The government made plenty of mistakes and has its share of blame.

  12. Thanks for the clarification, Polly. I agree, obviously.

  13. Todd Compton says:

    Thanks, Joe, Kevin and Polly! Joe, the question of when a book becomes out of date is an interesting one — for example, in one sense Juanita Brooks’s Mountain Meadows Massacre is woefully out of date — there has been a lot of publication since her book was published, and many new documents (and archaeological evidence) found. But in many ways it is still relevant. For me, she kind of serves as a midpoint between Bagley and Walker/Turley/Leonard. And I think Gentry is also still relevant.

    On the “old settlers” question, I have to confess that I’ve used the phrase – but I think that Gentry and I meant it more in the sense of people who were already in Missouri when the Mormons came. But your and Winn’s insights into the comparative youth of the non-Mormon leaders are very interesting. These were not older, seasoned, experienced men.

    Kevin, I’m hoping that the Hamblin bio will be out next year.

  14. Ron Madson says:

    Appreciate your work. Ordered the “Fire and the Sword” yesterday and look forward to reading it. Early this year I read Stephen LeSueur’s “The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri” and incorporated some of it into my paper at the Claremont Peace/War conference this past March. It was my thesis that the Saints then as now have largely ignored in word and deed Section 98 when it came to conflicts. I am neither a historian, nor a scholar but have been writing on anti-war themes these past few years. I could not find in any of my readings on the 1838 Mormon Missouri wars any evidence that the saints, and in particular their leaders. sought to preach, teach and apply the principles of Section 98 when it came to their conflicts with the non-Mormons. Are you aware of any evidence that Section 98 was taught, preached, and/or applied in that conflict? I know that there were voices that protested the acts of the Danites such as Corrill, Marsh and others, but did they even reference Section 98 as the basis of their protest? And finally did JS or any other prominent leaders ever suggest that they had complied or were complying with principles/doctrine found in Section 98 that justified their words or deeds in the 1838 conflict? I will carefully read the Fire and the Sword for any such evidence, but for now my conclusion is that in 1838 “they” rejected in both word and deed the principles of Section 98— as I contend we have in our generation. What is your take on whether the saints did or did not heed Section 98 during the 1838 Missouri conflict? Any insight would be appreciated.

  15. It is easy to forget that the United States was once a third world or second world country for a long time.

  16. Ron Madson — great question. I really think that is one of the things our generation has been blind to.

  17. #14 – I agree with Stephen. That is a great question.

  18. Todd Compton says:

    Ron: Great topic for research. Gentry quotes D&C 98 on p. 140, and quotes a little more in the footnote, as he gives context for Sidney Rigdon’s 4th of July speech. You can use D&C 98 as a justification for militarism, of course. Gentry mentions D&C 98 again on pp. 233 (n. 64) and 259 (nn 64 and 73), in the Danites section. However, in both cases, he just assumes that the Saints knew D&C 98 and acted in accordance with it. He doesn’t mention specifically that they actually cited it or quoted it in their deliberations.

    I’m sure you’ve studied Zion’s Camp, which I guess was the first overt militarism in Mormon history. According to a number of sources, Joseph Smith made some very militaristic statements in Missouri–probably looking back to Old Testament holy war rather than New Testament pacifism. See footnotes 68 and 80 in the Danite chapter.

  19. Ron Madson says:

    Todd: Thank you very much. Should have the book any day now. Not to “pre-emptively” disagree with Gentry before reading his work, but I do not see how Gentry could reach the conclusion that the saints “acted in accordance” with Section 98 during the Missouri conflict not only because they also began to mimic the acts of aggression of their “enemies” but also the words of D&C 98 provide, imo, an irrefutable answer: “If” the saints follow the invitation given in D&C 98 then the Lord will “have delivered thine enemy into thine hands” (D&C 98:29), but “if ye bear it not patiently, it shall be accounted unto you as being meted out as just measure unto you.” (D&C 98:24). In the end the saints did not prevail against their enemies as their zion was lost, Joseph and others were carted off to prison for further tutoring as to how to exercise one’s priesthood without compulsion, etc.–not only as to fellow saints that they had, imo, wrongfully exiled and persecuted for opposing their acts of aggression, but also as to all of God’s children–including those whose homes were burned and robbed in Davies county.

    Of course, one can use DC 98 for military justification but my reading of the text did not, imo, condone any acts of aggression of the saints in 1838 anymore then it allowed us to invade Viet Nam, Iraq and Afghanistan in our generation. But, I should not thread jack this post by a discussion/debate as to our current wars. I do appreciate the academic efforts of yourself and others in studying the past because hopefully we can draw parallels to our time and not repeat the same mistakes. However, as a faith community I am personally convinced we have and continue to repeat the same mistakes that we did in 1838 (the RLDS did not). Whether we sit in the chief seats or in a patriotic frenzy sign up to fight the “war on terror” we have, imo, in word and deed rejected the “immutable” covenant found in Section 98 to the extent that we have endorsed allegiance to our present conflicts. That’s how I see it. But I am puzzled as to how others can use the text of DC 98 to reach another conclusion. I am open to counter-points.