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. . .”