“Opposition to the Early Church,” Church History Topics
“Opposition to the Early Church”
In 1823, the angel Moroni warned Joseph Smith that his “name should be had for good and evil among all nations.”1 Joseph and his family experienced ridicule before he even began translating the Book of Mormon, and in the months following the meeting at which the Church was organized, opponents began to interrupt Mormon meetings. Antagonism intensified over the next several years and was sometimes accompanied by violence. Opponents of the Church also organized politically and mounted local, state, and national campaigns against the Latter-day Saints. These groups often took the name “anti-Mormon.”2
Opposition leaders criticized the Church on religious, political, and socioeconomic grounds. Established ministers often preached against new religious movements to protect their congregations against what they perceived to be radical beliefs. Critics branded the Saints—with their beliefs in new scripture and restored priesthood—as deluded, fanatical, or not worthy of consideration as a legitimate religion.3 Some claimed the Saints were lazy, idle, and poor and portrayed them as a burden on the community.4 Others criticized Mormon cooperative economic practices or complained that they would not participate in the free market. The Saints’ practice of gathering also led to political opposition: in the young United States, politicians often worried minority groups could swing an election by voting as a bloc, which the early Saints often did. Moreover, many Americans were suspicious with the way Joseph Smith and later Brigham Young combined political and religious authority.
Antagonists used legal harassment, mob violence, intimidation, and published attacks against the Church. In some cases, harassment came from people acting independently, but opponents of the Church often organized their anti-Mormon efforts. In Jackson County, Missouri, for example, a committee of citizens met and drafted documents as the basis for organized violence against the Saints. In Illinois, a short-lived political party called the “Anti-Mormon Party” was organized in 1841 to counter Mormon voters in the state. Members of the Anti-Mormon Party wrote newspaper editorials that accused Mormons of attempting to control local elections. In Great Britain, missionaries encountered organized opposition in the form of public lectures, books, pamphlets, and newspaper articles.
After the Saints publicly announced the practice of plural marriage in 1852, it quickly became the focal point of organized opposition to the Church. American Protestants considered polygamy barbaric and mounted a legal and political campaign to force Latter-day Saints to abandon the practice.5
Latter-day Saints responded to attacks from opposition movements in a variety of ways. Many practiced Christian patience, appealing to Jesus Christ’s teaching that patiently enduring persecution is a mark of a true disciple. Revelations instructed the Saints to also appeal to the law for redress when harmed, and Church leaders sought legal recourse when necessary. Sadly, in some instances, individuals or groups of Saints confronted perceived enemies with violence or lashed out against disaffected members of the Church.6 In the face of federal antipolygamy legislation, many Latter-day Saints engaged in civil disobedience, continuing to practice what they believed was a principle of their religion though it sometimes meant spending time in prison. In some instances—such as the persecutions the Saints faced in Missouri—opposition to the Church prompted powerful revelations that gave new direction to the Church or deeper meaning to the suffering Church members experienced.7