History of the Latter Day Saint movement

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The Latter Day Saint movement is a religious movement within Christian Restorationism beginning in the early 19th century that led to the set of doctrines, practices, and cultures called Mormonism and to the existence of numerous Latter Day Saint churches. Its history has been characterized by intense controversy and persecution because of this religion's growth and in reaction to some of the movement's doctrines and practices, which are unique within Christianity (see Mormonism and Christianity).

The founder of the movement was Joseph Smith, Jr., who was raised in the Burned-over district of upstate New York, and claimed to have seen God the Father and Jesus Christ, as well as angels and other visions, eventually leading him to a restoration of Christian doctrine that, he claimed, was lost after the early Christian apostles were killed. In addition, several early leaders made marked doctrinal and leadership contributions to the movement, including Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon, and Brigham Young. Modern-day revelation from God continues to be a principle belief of the Mormon faith.


Background Context

The Second Great Awakening saw an enormous increase in religious adherence and a multiplication of Christian denominations in the United States. These ranged from radical groups to Universalists, Methodists and Presbyterians. The "Revivals" in the "Burned-over district" of New York produced several denominations including the Latter Day Saints.

By the 1820s, many ministers including Alexander Campbell believed that the division among Christian sects had been caused by a Great Apostasy (or falling away) from the original teachings of Jesus. Campbell and his associates founded the Restoration Movement, arguing that the correct principles of Christianity could be re-established by "restoring" practices described in the New Testament. The Restorationists also intended to eliminate sectarianism, arguing that there should be only one Christian church, which should be called the "Church of Christ."

Origins of the Movement

The early men and women who came together to form what became known as the Latter Day Saint movement, shared some beliefs in common with other Restorationists, but certain factors made them unique. Although the movements shared a belief in the need to "restore" the "true church" of Jesus Christ, the early Latter Day Saints also believed that direct authority from God was essential for such a restoration to be valid.

According to the Latter Day Saints, that divine authority was made manifest through direct revelation. On a spring day in 1820, Joseph Smith, Jr. reported a vision of God the Father and Jesus Christ. Shortly thereafter many early members, including Joseph Smith, Sr., Lucy Mack Smith, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, Martin Harris, Hiram Page, Mary Whitmer, reported visions of angels and other divine communications. Smith in particular became known as a "prophet" the restoration of a role held by the prophets of the Old Testament. Smith reported that he had been in possession of a set of Golden Plates that contained a record of the ancient inhabitants of the Americas, written by prophets similar to those who wrote the Bible. He said that he translated this record by the power of God, and he published it as the Book of Mormon. Latter Day Saints view the book as a sign of Smith's divine calling.

Smith's revelations authorized and commanded the organization of the "true church of Jesus Christ," and on April 6, 1830, six men came together traditionally at the home of Peter Whitmer, Sr. to found what was originally named the Church of Christ. The church soon established a lay ministry, with the priesthood offices of deacon, teacher, priest, and elder. Smith became the church's "First Elder," and Oliver Cowdery the "Second Elder." Church elders immediately were sent out on proselytizing missions to preach the "Restored gospel' and baptize new members. By the end of 1830, small "branches" or congregations of the church had been set up in Fayette, Palmyra, and Colesville.

The Movement in Ohio

The movement more than doubled in size with the conversion of Sidney Rigdon, a former Campbellite minister. Rigdon led several congregations of Restorationists in Ohio's Western Reserve area, and hundreds of his adherents followed him into Mormonism. A fiery orator, Rigdon was called to be Smith's spokesman and immediately became one of the movement's leaders. By 1831, the church's headquarters were established in Kirtland, Ohio and Smith urged the membership to gather there or to a second outpost of the church in Missouri (see below).

While based in Kirtland, the church changed its name to the "Church of the Latter Day Saints," and added a number of new doctrines and leadership offices. An attempt to establish a communitarian ecomony known as the "Law of Consecration" was established and abandoned. The Latter Day Saint understanding of the priesthood was elaborated by the separation of the higher or Melchizedek Priesthood offices from the lesser or Aaronic Priesthood offices and by the restoration of the Patriarchal Priesthood. Also established were the First Presidency, the High Council later elaborated as the High Council of Zion, the Travelling High Council (or Quorum of the Twelve) and Stake high councils Seventies, patriarchs, high priests, and bishops.

Kirtland also was the site of the construction of the movement's first temple. Latter Day Saints reported a great outpouring of spiritual experiences in connection with the Kirtland Temple's dedication. The temple was associated with the Kirtland-era "endowment," and with the ordinances of "foot washing," and "speaking in tongues." The movement also established the "School of the Prophets" which met in the temple. At Kirtland, Smith reported many revelations including the "Word of Wisdom" advocating temperance and dietary restrictions. He acquired Egyptian papyrus scrolls which he said contained the writings of the Biblical patriarchs Abraham and Joseph. By many reports, it was in Kirtland that Smith first began to practice the doctrine of plural marriage.

In 1837, the movement in Kirtland began to unravel. Smith and Rigdon founded a bank called the Kirtland Safety Society. When it failed, the bulk of the Kirtland membership became disillusioned. Heber C. Kimball recalled that "not twenty persons on earth" remained faithful to Smith. The result was the movement's first major schism. A new organization led by Smith's former secretary, Warren Parish, along with Martin Harris and others, vied for control of the church in Kirtland. Re-establishing the original "Church of Christ" name, these reformed Latter Day Saints took possession of the temple and excommunicated Smith and Rigdon. Smith and Rigdon relocated to Missouri and were followed there by hundreds of loyalists in a trek known as the "Kirtland Camp."

The Movement in Missouri

As the church was gathering to Kirtland, a second gathering place was established 900 miles distant, on the frontier in Jackson County, Missouri. Joseph Smith Jr. revealed to Latter Day Saints that the Second Coming of Christ was near at hand and that the "centerplace" of the City of Zion would be near the town of Independence in Jackson County. Latter Day Saints began to settle the area to "build up" the City of Zion in 1831. Settlement was rapid and non-Mormon residents became alarmed that they might lose political control of the county to the Latter Day Saints. In October 1833, non-Mormon vigilantes succeded in driving the Mormons from the county. Deprived of their homes and property, the Latter Day Saints temporarily settled in the area around Jackson County, especially in Clay County.

Years elapsed and the Mormon lawsuits and petitions failed to bring any justice: the non-Mormons in Jackson refused to allow the Mormons to return. Meanwhile, new converts to Mormonism continued to migrate to Missouri and settle in Clay County. In 1836, the Missouri legislature created Caldwell County specifically for Mormon settlement and Missouri branches of the church gathered there, centering on the town of Far West.

Church Headquarters Established in Far West

In 1838, Joseph Smith Jr., Sidney Rigdon and their loyalists abandoned the former church headquarters of Kirtland and relocated to Far West. A brief leadership struggle left the former heads of the Missouri portion of the church David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, W.W. Phelps and others excommunicated. Years later, many of this group of "dissenters" became part of the Whitmerite schism in the Latter Day Saint movement.

While the church was headquartered in Far West, Smith announced revelations that changed the name of the church to the "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints" and initiating the "Law of Tithing." Conflicts with non-Mormon settlers arose as the church began to plant colonies in the counties surrounding Caldwell. These escalated into what has been called the 1838 Mormon War. The perceived militant attitude adopted by the church caused some leaders, including Thomas B. Marsh, president of the Quorum of the Twelve, to break with Smith and Rigdon. This precipitated another schism which led to the foundation of the Church of Jesus Christ, the Bride, the Lamb's Wife by George M. Hinkle (who had been the Mormon commander of the Caldwell County militia).

As a result of the war, 2,500 Missouri militia troops were called out to put down the Mormon "rebellion." Smith and other church leaders were imprisoned and the majority of the Latter Day Saints were deprived of their property and expelled from the state.

The Movement in Illinois

With the help of sympathetic non-Mormons in Illinois, the Latter Day Saint refugees soon regrouped and established a new headquarters in Nauvoo. Smith and other leaders escaped Missourian custody and rejoined the main body of the movement in 1839. Construction began on a new temple, significantly more magnificient than the one left behind in Kirtland. The Nauvoo city charter authorized independent municipal courts, the foundation of a university and the establishment of a militia unit known as the "Nauvoo Legion." These and other institutions gave the Latter Day Saints a considerable degree of autonomy.

Nauvoo saw the final flowering of Joseph Smith's vision for the movement, including some of Mormonism's more controversial practices. It was here that Smith introduced Baptism for the dead, Rebaptism, the Nauvoo-era Endowment, and the ordinance of the Second Anointing. In addition, he created a new inner council of the church containing both men and women called the Anointed Quorum. Although Smith himself had been secretly practicing what he later called plural marriage for some time, in Nauvoo he began to teach other leaders the doctrine.

In March of 1844, Smith organized another secret council of the church, known as the "Council of the Kingdom" or the "Council of Fifty." This council acclaimed Smith as "Prophet, Priest and King" of the "Kingdom" a practice later imitated by Smith's competing successors Brigham Young and James J. Strang. The practice of plural marriage and developments in the theocratic kingdom led to a schism in the hierarchy. First Presidency counselor William Law broke with Smith over these issues and established a schismatic True Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. He also created a newspaper called the Nauvoo Expositor, which threatened to bring these secret teachings to light. Smith, acting in his capacity as mayor and head of the municipal court, responded by having the newspaper declared a "public nuissance" and by ordering the destruction of the press.

The Assassination of Joseph Smith

(main article: Joseph Smith, Jr.)

Whenever Latter Day Saints gathered in large numbers, they met with opposition from neighbors who feared that Mormon block-voting would lead to theocracy. By the mid-1840s, many non-Mormons in Hancock County felt threatened by growing Mormon political power. Smith's destruction of the Expositor exacerbated these fears and non-Mormons throughout Illinois began to clamor for his arrest. When Smith submitted to imprisonment in the county seat of Carthage, a mob attacked the jail and assassinated him.

Succession Crisis of 1844

(main article: Succession crisis (Mormonism))

In the months following Smith's murder, it was not immediately clear who would lead the church. His brothers, Hyrum and Samuel, who had reportedly been designated to succeed Smith, were also dead. Smith's eldest son, Joseph Smith III, was a boy of 11. Other men who (by some reports) were designated as successors, including Book of Mormon witnesses David Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery, had been excommunicated from the church.

As a result, the principal claimants on the scene were:

Smith's widow, Emma wanted Marks to become church president, but Marks believed that Rigdon had the superior claim.

In a general meeting of the church at Nauvoo on August 8, 1844, Rigdon and Young presented their respective cases. As the only surviving member of the First Presidency, Rigdon argued that he should be made "guardian" of the church. Young argued that no one could succeed the fallen prophet. Instead, he proposed that the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles be constituted as the new First Presidency of the Church. A vote of the congregation overwhelmingly supported Young's proposal. Soon after, Rigdon left Nauvoo and established his own church organization in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Further Schisms and the "Mormon War in Illinois"

With Rigdon's flight, Young and most of the Twelve Apostles assumed control of church headquarters in Nauvoo. A conflict with Joseph Smith's last surviving brother, William, was a factor that led the remaining members of the Smith family to break with the Twelve. Meanwhile, in the branches of the church in Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, and outstate Illinois, a serious challenge to the leadership of the Twelve arose in the person of James J. Strang. Declaring himself a prophet and Smith's successor, Strang established a rival organization of the church in Voree, Wisconsin.

Meanwhile at Nauvoo, the conflict between Mormons and non-Mormons escalated into what is sometimes called the "Mormon War in Illinois." Latter Day Saints in outlying areas were driven from their homes and gathered to Nauvoo for protection. The Illinois state legislature voted to revoke Nauvoo's charter and the city began to operate extra-legally. By the end of 1845 it became clear that no peace was possible, and Young and the Twelve negotiated a truce so that the Latter Day Saints could prepare to abandon the city. The winter of 1845-46 saw the enormous preparations for the Mormon Exodus across the Great Plains.

The Movement Divided

The largest group of Latter Day Saints followed nine of the Twelve Apostles west, establishing a way station at Winter Quarters, Nebraska in 1846, and entering Salt Lake Valley in 1847. Having planted this initial colony in the Great Basin, Young returned to Winter Quarters and in December of 1847 reorganized his faction of the church, establishing himself as the head of a new First Presidency. This reorganization led to additional schisms, including the break with Alpheus Cutler and what became the Church of Christ (Cutlerite) as well as Lyman Wight's group in Zodiac, Texas. Young's organization today is headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah and is known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (See History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.)

The bulk of Sidney Rigdon's church had dissolved by 1847, but some loyalists reconstituted a Rigdonite church organization under the leadership of William Bickerton in 1862. James J. Strang's church in Voree suffered a significant schism in 1849, led by former follower Aaron Smith. After Strang's 1856 assassination, much of the remaining membership fell away from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Strangite), but a small following remained loyal. Other leaders, including David Whitmer, James Collin Brewster, James Emmett, Gladden Bishop, William Smith, and Charles B. Thompson also established church organizations that had limited followings.

Joseph Smith's family his widow Emma Hale Smith and her children continued to live in Nauvoo after the departure of the majority of the Latter Day Saints. In 1860, the eldest of the Smith sons, Joseph Smith III, claimed to receive a revelation to take his place as Prophet/President of a "New Organization" of the Latter Day Saint church. Eventually this group gathered together many of the remnents of the various Midwestern Latter Day Saint groups into the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, now called the "Community of Christ."

Others remained unaffiliated, however, and in 1863 a group of Latter Day Saints from Illinois and Indiana united under the leadership of Granville Hedrick and reclaimed the name of the movement's original organization, the "Church of Christ." This group was the first group of Latter Day Saints to return to Independence, Missouri, to "redeem Zion." They are now headquartered on the original Temple Lot there and are known as the Church of Christ (Temple Lot).

The Movement Today

The Latter Day Saint movement has continued to grow and evolve. Today there are thousands of active organizations, as the various denominations have continued to give birth to new expressions of the movement. By far the largest denomination is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints which reports some 12 million members worldwide. The Community of Christ reports 250,000 members, and the Church of Jesus Christ (Bickertonite) reports around 10,000 members. The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints the largest polygamist Latter Day Saint group may also have as many as 10,000 members.

In addition to Latter Day Saint adherents, there are a large number of "cultural Mormons" persons either raised as Latter Day Saints or raised as so-called "Jack Mormons" in the Mormon cultural zone. Although they are not practicing the religion, they share cultural values and/or a common ancestry with practicing Latter Day Saints.


  • Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton, The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints, (Urbana: 1992).
  • Richard P. Howard, The Church Through the Years, (Herald House: 1992).

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