History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - Early History (c. 1820s To C. 1846)

Early History (c. 1820s To C. 1846)

The early history of the LDS Church is shared with other denominations of the Latter Day Saint movement, who all regard Joseph Smith, Jr. as the founder of their religious tradition. Smith gained a small following in the late 1820s as he was dictating the Book of Mormon, which he said was a translation of words found on a set of golden plates that had been buried near his home in western New York by an indigenous American prophet. Smith said he had been in contact with an angel Moroni, who showed him the plates' location and had been grooming him for a role as a religious leader.

On April 6, 1830, in western New York, Smith organized the religion's first legal church entity, the Church of Christ. The church rapidly gained a following, who viewed Smith as their prophet. In late 1830, Smith envisioned a "city of Zion", a Utopian city in Native American lands near Independence, Missouri. In October 1830, he sent his Assistant President, Oliver Cowdery, and others on a mission to the area. Passing through Kirtland, Ohio, the missionaries converted a congregation of Disciples of Christ led by Sidney Rigdon, and in 1831, Smith decided to temporarily move his followers to Kirtland until lands in the Missouri area could be purchased. In the meantime, the church's headquarters remained in Kirtland from 1831 to 1838; and there the church built its first temple and continued to grow in membership from 680 to 17,881.

While the main church body was in Kirtland, many of Smith's followers had attempted to establish settlements in Missouri, but had met with resistance from other Missourians who believed Mormons were abolitionists, or who distrusted their political ambitions. After Smith and other Mormons in Kirtland emigrated to Missouri in 1838, hostilities escalated into the 1838 Mormon War, culminating in adherents being expelled from the state under an Extermination Order signed by the governor of Missouri.

After Missouri, Smith built the city of Nauvoo, Illinois as the new church headquarters, and served as the city's mayor and leader of the militia. As church leader, Smith also instituted the then-secret practice of plural marriage, and taught a form of Millennialism which he called "theodemocracy", to be led by a Council of Fifty which had secretly and symbolically anointed him as king of this Millennial theodemocracy. Partly in response to these trends, on June 7, 1844, a newspaper called the Nauvoo Expositor, edited by dissident Mormon William Law, issued a scathing criticism of polygamy and Nauvoo theocratic government, including a call for church reform based on earlier Mormon principles. Considering the paper to be libellous, Smith and the Nauvoo city council voted to shut down the paper as a public nuisance. Relations between Mormons and residents of surrounding communities had been strained, and some of them instituted criminal charges against Smith for treason. Smith surrendered to police in the nearby Carthage, Illinois, and while in state custody, he and his brother Hyrum Smith, who was second in line to the church presidency, were killed in a firefight with an angry mob attacking the jail on June 27, 1844.

After Smith's death, a succession crisis ensued. In this crisis a number of church leaders campaigned to lead the church. Most adherents voted on August 8, 1844 to accept the argument of Brigham Young, the senior apostle, that there could be no true successor to Joseph Smith, but that the Twelve had all the required authority to lead the church, and were best suited to take on that role. Later, adherents bolstered their succession claims by referring to a March 1844 meeting in which Joseph committed the "keys of the kingdom" to a group of members within the Council of Fifty that included the apostles. In addition, by the end of the 1800s, several of Young's followers had published reminiscences recalling that during Young's August 8 speech, he looked or sounded similar to Joseph Smith, to which they attributed the power of God.

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