“Vigilantism,” Church History Topics
Throughout the 1830s and 1840s in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois, the Latter-day Saints experienced significant persecution and harassment at the hands of mobs. The Saints were one of many groups to suffer such treatment. Communities often employed tactics like tarring and feathering and other forms of vigilante violence to enforce their own ideas of justice when they were dissatisfied by the actions of governments and courts. On the frontier especially, many early Americans considered these forms of violence to be acts of patriotism and self-preservation.
The most well-known instances of vigilante violence against early Latter-day Saints include the tarring and feathering of prominent Church leaders in Ohio and Missouri; the destruction of the Church printing press in Independence, Missouri, in 1833; the expulsion of Mormons from Jackson County in 1833, from the state of Missouri in 1838–39, and from the state of Illinois in 1846; and the murders of Joseph and Hyrum Smith in 1844.
The American tradition of extralegal vigilante action was rooted in the country’s struggle for independence. In 1773, for instance, Boston residents planned and carried out an attack on Stamp Tax officials, known as the Boston Tea Party. After the American Revolution, people continued to justify the violent enforcement of what they considered to be the will of the majority. Whether in cities or rural towns, many early American settlers claimed the right to take the law into their own hands, often against minorities, to preserve their way of life. Even government officials tended to accept these justifications. Daniel Dunklin, who served as Missouri governor from 1832 to 1836, at the time the Saints were driven from Jackson County, noted that “public sentiment may become paramount law; and … it is useless to run counter to it.”1
As with other vigilante violence in early America, crowd aggression against Mormons was more organized than the word mob may suggest to modern ears. The July 1833 attacks on Latter-day Saint targets in Independence, Missouri, for example, were coordinated by a committee of the county’s most reputable citizens—a committee complete with chairman and secretaries. Before destroying W. W. Phelps’s printing office and tarring and feathering Bishop Edward Partridge and another Church member, these community leaders met at a courthouse, drafted a manifesto demanding that the Saints evacuate the county, and pledged, in direct imitation of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honors” in support of the resolution.2
In many cases, a substantial overlap existed between the mob and the local militia, making it difficult for Latter-day Saints to receive fair treatment under the law.3 In fact, Jackson County militia colonels were the ones who disarmed Church members in 1833 and then stood by while vigilantes vandalized the Saints’ homes and property. In 1838 some Church members themselves resorted to vigilantism to protect their homes and retaliate against those who threatened them.4 Throughout the conflict in Missouri and for several years afterward, Joseph Smith and other leaders encouraged Church members to seek compensation from the national government for their losses.5