The Mormons in 1840s America
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints began in 1830 with the publication of the Book of Mormon by a New York man named Joseph Smith. Americans in the mid-19th century were generally a pretty tolerant bunch when it came to religion. About three-fourths of them were regular churchgoers, and there were so many denominations that no one church dominated.
By 1860, almost every state had repealed laws against Jews or Catholics holding public office, and the question “What can you do?” was more prevalent than “How do you worship?”
Of course, try telling that to a Mormon in 1846. To escape persecutions, Smith moved his headquarters to Ohio, and then Missouri and then to Nauvoo, Illinois, on the banks of the Mississippi. Nauvoo became one of the most thriving cities in the state.
But the Mormons’ habits of working hard, sticking to themselves, and having more than one wife at a time seemed to irk outsiders, and the persecutions began again. This time Smith and his brother were killed by a mob, and Mormon leaders decided they needed some distance between themselves and the rest of America.
Led by a strong and capable lieutenant of Smith’s, Brigham Young, the Mormons moved west, many of them pushing two-wheeled carts for hundreds of miles. Finally, they settled in the Great Salt Lake Basin, a forbidding region in Utah that most other people thought of as uninhabitable.
Establishing a rather rigidly run society and economic system, the Mormons thrived. By 1848, there were 5,000 living in the area, many of them Europeans who had been converted by Mormon missionaries.
Many of the Mormons fought in the Mexican War as a way of “earning” what had been Mexican territory. In 1850, Utah became a territory. But its statehood was delayed for almost 50 years, in part because of the Mormons’ refusal until then to drop their practice of multiple wives, or polygamy.