Two ancestors of Michael Hutchings offered profoundly different narratives of Missouri as it concerns the treatment of Mormons in the 19th Century.
One was witness to the raw brutality of the Haun’s Mill Massacre, himself a bullet-ridden survivor of the violence. Another was rescued from a steamboat explosion by kindhearted Missouri settlers, some of whom had sought to drive Mormons from the state only 14 years prior.
So it was fitting that Hutchings should share a few words at the conference designed to provide a more complete picture of the notorious bloodshed — but also the unheralded compassion — that accompanied the Mormons’ early sojourn through the state.
Hutchings was among nearly 600 participants of the “Missouri Mormon Experience: A Conference of History and Commemoration.” The two-day event was held at the Missouri Capitol on Sept. 8-9, drawing top historians of Mormonism and statewide elected officials.
For Hutchings, the value of reopening the history books on the era is clear. He said both Missourians and Mormons have a duty to know the history, “to learn from it, and to allow ourselves to be healed by it.”
Honoring Senator Bond
The unprecedented event was the product of collaboration between the Missouri State Archives and the Columbia Missouri Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The weekend’s events included the presentation of 15 papers by historians from across the country.
Each presenter explored, at least indirectly, the so-called “Mormon War,” that pitted adherents of a new religion against frontier settlers. The strife escalated to open warfare in 1838, prompting Gov. Lilburn Boggs to issue an “Extermination Order,” forcing all Mormons from the state.
U.S. Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond joined a crowd of more than 400 on the steps of the Missouri Capitol on Sept. 8 to lament that such a document was ever penned.
“What makes it difficult to understand is that this barbarism was state sanctioned and even state ordered,” he said.
It was Bond who, while serving as governor 30 years ago, rescinded the Extermination Order, a decision he said was essential to healing the generations-old conflict.
“You bet I would do it again if I found something like that besmirching our honor,” Bond said.
Elder Maury Schooff, of the Seventy, a representative of the LDS Church, presented Bond with a framed copy of both the Extermination Order and Bond’s recision order.
Later, participants flocked to the Capitol Rotunda to view a display of the original documents. Friday’s event included a free concert by performers from Branson, featuring the Brett Family Singers and the Hughes Brothers.
A Positive Focus
The conference also paid homage to Lyman Edwards, a former stake president of the Community of Christ (formally RLDS Church), who played a key role in asking Bond to negate the Extermination Order.
Edwards said Bond’s gesture of 30 years ago was one directed to both the LDS and RLDS Church.
“The official action was for all the corners of Mormonism,” he said.
Bond and many other participants of the weekend’s event said they came not to reflect on the Extermination Order but on the “great path this state has made moving toward tolerance.”
That sentiment was shared by a lead organizer of the event, who said he hoped both Missouri and the more than 56,000 members of the LDS Church in the state will move beyond the divisions.
“We’re not emphasizing that today,” said Michael Reall, president of the Columbia Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “This conference is to be an opportunity to look at people as people.”
Joining Reall at the Friday ceremony was Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, whose office oversees the State Archives. Carnahan told the crowd that she hoped the event would increase understanding of a troubled episode in the state’s history.
“How we today decide to remember and learn from those experiences will shape our future,” said Carnahan, who was joined at the event by her mother, former U.S. Sen. Jean Carnahan.
A Call for Greater Understanding
Missouri State Archivist Kenneth Winn kicked off the event’s academic discourse with a keynote address at a Friday banquet at Lincoln University .
Winn reflected on the need to reach a greater understanding of the Mormon conflicts, ones that involves not only historians of Mormonism, but of Missouri . Unfortunately, he said, leading Missouri history textbooks contain little to no mention of episodes like the Haun’s Mill Massacre.
Winn described a kind of disconnect as the Mormon War is considered. Often, he said, historians of Mormonism have studied how the conflicts shaped the subsequent behavior of the Church. But far less often, he said, have Missouri historians recognized how the Mormon War changed the state.
Winn cited the fact that many of the lead players in driving the Mormons from the state were under the age of 40 at the time of the conflict. Those same players, he said, would re-emerge in subsequent violent conflicts in the state, such as the border war with Kansas.
“The Mormon War framed the thinking of an entire generation of young men and it framed it for violence,” he said.
But Winn also called for a reexamination of the Missouri settlers, particularly in light of comments made by some Mormons of the era who referred to their new neighbors as backward, uneducated and lazy.
Winn noted similar statements were made by Missourians of the immigrating Mormons. He said that while it was true that the frontier settlements were less refined than their Eastern peers, they aspired to economic prosperity.
“When the Church met them, they had barely set down the origins of community,” he said.
On Saturday, numerous presenters picked up on that theme, reflecting on how the conflict is best understood by studying the clashing worldviews that fed the discord. The discussions were held in the House Chambers of the Missouri Capitol before an audience of nearly 300 participants.
The Conflict in Context
Jan Shipps, of Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis, offered Saturday’s keynote address. Shipps, who is among the most published authors on Mormon history, said members of the faith came to the state with entrenched beliefs about their destiny to lay claim to the area.
She said the Mormons’ belief of a Zion in Jackson County ran much deeper than the beliefs that led prior religious communities to congregate in other regions of the nation.
“It didn’t permit people to move on to another Utopian community,” Shipps said. “This was the land of promise; there was nothing ambiguous about it.”
Steven Harper, assistant professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University, elaborated on that point.
Harper said Mormons and Missourians had starkly contrasting concepts of authority. Missourians honored the will of the people in their quest for a Jacksonian Democracy; Mormons were led by revelation.
The conflict, he said, rooted from a simple question: “Was ultimate authority in the people, or in the God of Joseph Smith?”
Other presenters, however, followed a different route, exploring how the thirst for land may have contributed to efforts to drive Mormons from the state.
Jeffrey Walker, of the Joseph Smith Papers Project of the LDS Church , said the timing of the Extermination Order needs to be considered in the context of land rights.
Only weeks after the document was signed, many Mormon settlers were to exercise preemptive rights to purchase land in Caldwell and Daviess Counties .
Walker said many Missourians feared those transactions would take place. He suggested that key leaders in the effort to expel the Mormons later purchased the same plots the Mormons left behind.
Winn, the state archivist, said he believes the strife of the era “reflects poorly on all the players at some point in the story.”
And yet, the conference repeatedly highlighted episodes of goodwill from Missourians toward Mormons, even soon after the Extermination Order was issued.
The Path toward Healing
Richard Bennett, professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University, said the process of attempting to move beyond the conflicts happened relatively quickly for many Mormons and Missourians.
“That healing process that this conference is dedicated to began very early in this Church and this State,” he said.
Several presenters offered episodes that suggested that Missouri was not universally hostile to Mormons, even at the height of the conflict.
One research paper focused on the relative kindness of Columbia residents, even after Parley P. Pratt and other Mormon leaders mounted an escape from prison. Another paper addressed the hospitality of St. Louis residents toward Mormons as they passed through the city on their trek to Utah .
But those accounts pale next to the kindness of the residents of Lexington, Mo., who rallied to rescue passengers of the Steamboat Saluda after it exploded on the Missouri River in 1852. Dozens of the passengers were Mormon, and yet the town spared no expense in nursing survivors back to health.
Fred Woods, a professor at Brigham Young University, screened a film on the incident during the conference. He said the Saluda explosion proves that even a few years after the Mormon War, Missourians sought redemption.
Reall , meanwhile, reflected even more broadly on that point.
In the years since the Mormon War, he said, the nation as a whole has moved toward a greater respect for the rights of all, regardless of their beliefs. The Bill of Rights was a largely unexercised document when Mormons reached Missouri; today it is a foundation for tolerance, he said.
Even so, he said, “it’s not a simple process to maintain religious freedom. It requires great vigilance.”
Matthew Franck is member of the LDS Columbia Missouri Stake. He works as a journalist who covers the Missouri state government.